Socialism remains a reviled word in American politics. In the Obama era, political debate amounts to Republicans accusing Democrats of being socialists and Democrats fleeing that accusation.
Both big parties in the U.S. reject socialism, but the best aspects of American society are socialist. Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance are socialism. So are free public schools (as opposed to sweatshops) for children, as well as the five-day workweek (or what’s left of it). America is advertised—I believe that’s the right word—as a “free enterprise” country. But to the extent that the country is worth living in by people who aren’t rich, that is due to socialism.
For about the last three and a half decades, western societies have been removing all the economic improvements brought by socialism. The consequences are easy to see. I wrote about them here, here, and here.
When socialism runs into trouble, it is due to a problem common to many political and philosophical systems: utopianism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels produced insightful criticisms of capitalism. Their works are well worth reading today, particularly on the subject of economic crises. The financial crash of 2008 is exactly the sort of crisis Marx and Engels predicted.
But they also believed that if class difference and economic exploitation were eliminated, greed would disappear, and so would the state. It was an odd view to take, in light of their well-placed skepticism for the schemes of earlier writers whom they called “utopian socialists.” Class difference and economic exploitation did not create evil. They merely supersized it.
The communist desire for a society with no inequality at all is a destructive fantasy. But so is the capitalist desire for a society with no limits on the wealth and power of the rich. Throughout the twentieth century, and with renewed vigor now, socialists have sought to use egalitarian economic programs to strengthen the hand of those who work, as opposed to those who merely own (and, in many cases, are born owning). Economic competition is vital to a productive society, but our current system actually eliminates competition. Those who already have the most money are automatically declared the winners of the competition. They are allowed to seize the proceeds of everyone else’s work. It’s more of an extortion economy than anything else.
I’ll soon have more to say about the search for a better economic system. But the outlines are evident: workplace democracy, steep inheritance taxes for the wealthy, strong social services, egalitarian systems of education and training. Economic differences will always exist, but as philosophers such as John Rawls have argued, they should be limited and should serve the overall good of the people. Also, such differences must never become hereditary.
We need to think systematically about the world’s problems. That means acknowledging the role socialism has played—and must play again—in creating a better life for the people who do the work.