The moment we are in, whether we are rising to meet it or not, is demanding a complete re-envisioning of the social contract in the United States — especially as it relates to low-income Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities. We can’t even have an honest conversation about what needs to happen, though, without a White conservative (from either party) shouting it down with one word: Socialism.
Do you want to make sure people have healthcare during a pandemic? Socialism! Do you want low-income people to have shelter? Socialism! Do you think humans should eat even if they are unable to work? Socialism! And then the conversation devolved into an abstract debate about Denmark and Venezuela while millions go hungry and sleep on sidewalks in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
We need to stop the weaponized misapplication of the term “socialism” and take away the power it has had over us for the past 4 years (and beyond). And to do that, we need to understand the words we are using at the most basic levels.
Money isn’t Power. Power is Power. There are differences between a system of government and a political or economic theory.
Systems of government are about power.
Imagine a spectrum of state authority. At one end we have a complete elimination of individual liberties in exchange for the concentration of power into one person or political entity. We can call this Totalitarianism. Monarchies and dictatorships are two examples. At the other end, we have an elimination of government and centralized authority in exchange for unabridged individual liberties. We can call this Anarchy. In the middle, we have rule by group and rule by the people, or Oligarchy and Democracy.
Economic theories are not about power directly. They describe the relationship between resources, power, and people.
They are expressed on a spectrum that is bookended by public (state\government) and private (non-state) ownership. Capitalism, in its purest form, argues for private ownership of resources and their distribution processes. Communism, on the other end of the spectrum, argues for state ownership and operations. Socialism, in this manifestation of economic thought experiments, is a blend of both public and private ownership.
Private, public, and private-public ownership models have existed as long as power, things, and people have existed. Their translation into Capitalist, Socialist, and Communist theories are relatively new. Communism, for example, was a theory developed by 2 prominent white males in the mid-19th Century. Like any other theory, it is still evolving in both theory and application.
China provides a strong example of this evolution. When Mao Zedong led the Communists Party to power after World War II, both theory and practice demanded full state control of resources. The nation had yet to industrialize, though, and failures of famine and poverty under the iron fist of Mao and led to the deaths of tens of millions.
After the death of the Chairman, the Communist Party was faced with a decision. They could either continue on the path of economic and political collapse or embrace the idea that non-state actors would be able to build an economy powerful enough to hold the needs of the population and buttress the authority of the Communist Party. For China, Socialism wasn’t a step towards Communism, it was a step towards the Communists’ stated foe — Capitalism.
As Kerry Brown explains in the book “CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping”:
Ideology…underpins and underlines the fundamental claims of the Party. Trying to bridge the divide…between Maoist radical ideology and the embracing of Chinese-style capitalism afterwards, has taken immense thought and ingenuity. Their argument…is simply that however unpleasant the social and human impacts of class struggle and mass campaigns during the Maoist era, the price was worth paying for the second phase of building ‘socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ — the era from 1978 onwards when China was unified enough, stable enough and industrialized enough to open itself to foreign capital, free enterprise and a guided domestic market system….under Jiang Zemin, the non-state sector, which had blossomed and become an increasingly important source of growth, was finally given recognition by the Party….”
And so, in order to balance and strengthen their economy, China recognized it had to invite non-state actors into their economic system. This decision marked a departure from orthodox Maoist communism and a step towards a specifically Chinese developed form of state (public) and non-state interaction (private), or Socialism.
Brown goes on to describe:
“Mao was interest in many things as a source of authority and power, but money was not one of them. Business people were persecuted, and the private sector closed down from the 1950s. Even those who tried to sell a few eggs from a chicken they owned, or some grain from a patch of land on something resembling a free market, were playing with fire.
The ideological impediment to entrepreneurial behaviour was lifted from the late 1970s. From this point onwards, the phenomenon of wealthy Chinese involved in business returned. Very quickly, a small but growing group became rich, and could enjoy the fruits of their labour. By the 2000s this subset had become larger, and more important — important enough to gain membership of the Party.”
And so, Socialism, in function, does nothing more than describe an economic system that blends both private and public ownership. In the minds of theorists like Marx, though, this system was envisioned as a midpoint between Capitalism and Communism. It doesn’t have to be. It usually isn’t. But it was an idea some white guy had once, so a lot of people mistake it as truth.
Socialism isn’t a threat to Democracy. Totalitarianism is. Oligarchy is. Even Anarchy is. Socialism isn’t a system of government, though, so it competes with other theories of economics, but it does not compete with systems of government. That is because money isn’t power. Power is power. Money and power can overlap and intertwine, but there are very specific boundaries between the two.
America is a Socialist Country
The preamble of the Constitution reads, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I repeat, “promote the general Welfare”. Clearly, the founding fathers were Socialists. Or maybe they just understood the responsibilities carried with nation-building and social contracts. But they were less respectful of the lines between Democracy and Oligarchy.
There are many types of Democracy. Direct Democracy, for example, allows for all citizens to participate in political decisions. In a Constitutional Democracy, a Constitution provides a framework for the powers and limitations of governmental agents and entities. In a Representative Democracy, officials are elected to represent the electorate. There are ongoing arguments as to what kind of Democracy the Untied States deploys, but the question at the heart of this discussion is whether or not the United States is an Oligarchy.
Oligarchies threaten Democracies. Not Socialism.
This idea has been discussed in many circles, but most frequently these debates center on the idea that it is the wealthy that have formed a class of oligarchs. Again, Capitalism is being framed as a threat to Democracy because of a confusion between systems of government and theories of economy. If we untangle this and return to the definition of Oligarchy as a system of government, we see that oligarchy woven into the American Constitution — more than one time.
The Oligarchs of the Constitution as originally written were wealthy, property owning, white men. While often presented as a Representative or Constitutional Democracy, the form of government experienced by those outside of the White Landowning Male Party, so to speak, were living under Oligarchical (if they were white) or Totalitarian (if they were Black or Indigenous) authority.
The White Oligarchs took a step towards Party Oligarchy in the early 19th Century, though. As I have written previously:
“For the 1800 Presidential race, The Democratic-Republicans ran Thomas Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President. They wound up tying with 73 electoral votes each. As dictated by the Constitution, it fell to the House of Representatives to decide who would be President and who would be Vice President. A political power-play ensued which led the House to vote over twenty times before it was decided that Jefferson would go on to become President and Burr would serve as Vice President.
After two contentious elections in a row, it was agreed by Congress that reform of the electoral process was absolutely necessary. As a result, an Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and passed.
The 12th Amendment establishes that one candidate for President and one separate candidate for Vice President be designated by each party. For the first time, elections in the United States would be openly partisan.”
A better way to say this might be that elections became more openly Oligarchical. No longer world American voters be voting for a representative, but they would be voting for a Party.
Party politics has dominated the landscape since. It drove the nation to a Civil War once, and it seems that there are many in the nation that are trying to strategically deploy these Party politics to incite similar conflicts today. And that is because Oligarchy threatens Democracy. Not Socialism. Oligarchy.
Just as Socialism has been conflated with Oligarchy (and even Totalitarian rule), it has also been conflated with the idea that it’s OK to serve citizens in need, or citizens that economic and political theories have failed.
Again, it is the Constitutional duty of the American government to “promote the general Welfare,” but this conflation also stems from a misunderstanding of meaning. Socialism allows for state (public) and non-state (private) actors to participate in the economy. There is nothing that prescribes that Socialists take care of all of their people in the process of economy building. Ask China. In this way, America’s Constitution provides opportunities for the people to serve as stakeholders in Democracy, if they can overcome Oligarchical barriers.
Nevertheless, Socialism can be a stepping-stone towards Capitalism, especially in the United States. For example, Capitalism’s core pillar is private ownership. According to the Census Bureau, only 39% of low-income people own property, as compared to 64% of all households. The lower class is closer to Communism than Capitalism by that metric. 38.1 million people live under the poverty line. One in seven Americans is dependent on food banks. 12% of the population depends on food stamps. And 21% of the population depends on government assistance programs.
Over one-fifth of the population is being deprived or private ownership and has their purchasing behaviors directly monitored and regulated by the state. The state tells people what kind of peanut-butter and what size a person can buy. They tell you that you can have low fat milk, but not full fat milk. They tell you where you can and cannot live. The state controls the capital and means of production for poor individuals and communities. The theories of economy being applied to poor people (that don’t own property) are inherently Communist.
The Republican Party doesn’t hate giving people money because Socialism is a step towards Communism. They hate it because it is a step towards Capitalism.
White wealthy property owners are managed through Capitalism. Middle Class Americans largely live under a Socialist economy. And poor people — especially poor Black, Indigenous, Brown and otherwise intersected people — live under Communism. Some communities live under less authoritarian forms of control than others, but the overwhelming control that the state has over the private interests of poor people lies closer on the spectrum towards Communism than it does Capitalism.
Wealthy white property owners are, for the most part, able to own and manage their own resources. Their movements are the least scrutinized or restricted by the state. The Middle Class enjoys less private ownership, more dependence on the state, and increased scrutiny and restrictions. The Lower Classes exercise limited to no private ownership, have their purchases and behaviors highly scrutinized and restricted, and are additionally subject to the most frequent and severe punishments for behaviors that go unscrutinized by members of the Middle and Upper Classes.
It’s not about Socialism. It’s about social mobility.
People fighting for increased wages, universal basic income, housing rights, education reform and healthcare aren’t fighting for socialism, they are fighting for social mobility. These groups are arguing for increased participation in the private sector (Capitalism) by decreasing state’s stronghold on their economic mobility (Communism). The people are fighting, intentionally or otherwise, to become Capitalists. Giving poor people money instead of letting it concentrate in the hands of the state and its Oligarchs is arguably one of the most Capitalist things a nation can do. Oligarchs in the US are fighting to maintain control of these individuals and communities by using Party politics to concentrate resources and capital into other state enterprises (Communism.) That is not only an affront to Capitalism, but it further corrupts a true Democracy.
In very strange way, today’s Republican Party is using deception to conceal the fact that their openly Oligarchical and less-openly Communist model of governance, which has taken steps even further into Totalitarianism under the Trump Administration, is the true threat to Democracy. We are already a Socialist nation. The United States is a blend of public and private enterprise. The United States is already responsible for the general welfare of the population. The Constitution decided that. We don’t need to replay that debate.
What we DO need to do is completely re-envision how we take care of the economy and each other. These discussions need to be centered on the most vulnerable and disenfranchised communities, but they are often silenced immediately by the term “Socialism.” We cannot let out friends, family, and nation suffer because of the disinformation surrounding one word. Ending poverty, creating systems of health and wealth, and living up to the social contract outlined in the Constitution demands that we take care of each other. We are fighting for our Constitutional Democracy. We are fighting to participate in the Capitalist economy, or at least not be crushed by it. And we are fighting against Oligarchs pulling this nation into a distinctly American form of Communism.
We can’t let them win because of one word.
We have the resources. We have the demand. And we have the truth. So this year, all I want for Christmas is Socialism.