Friday, September 19, 2008

Socialism 101

A lot of folks this week seem to be throwing around the big scary "S" word as a reaction to all of these government bailouts, thinking that anytime anyone nationalizes something, that's the same thing as socialism.

First of all, if this is indeed socialism, then it's a twisted, through-the-looking glass version of socialism in which the only thing that is socialized is the risk, while profit remains privatized. In simple terms, companies get to keep the money they make in the good times, but they are assured that if anything goes wrong, we the taxpayer will pick up the tab.

That's not socialism.

In fact, if you think about it, what's happening now can be seen as a merger of government and corporate power. If you're going to put a label on that, it's fascism. But I think that's as ridiculous a label to put on the situation as calling it socialism.

Socialism is a concept that, broadly, calls for a total reinvention of economics. Socialism says that products and services should be provided for the benefit of all, not for the private profit of a few, and that we should all share in both the profits and the pitfalls of the production system.

Socialism doesn't mean nationalizing all of the country's businesses and continuing to run them as economic dictatorships, in which the public only gets input when we have to bail out a company due to bad decisions. Socialism calls for extending democracy into the economic sphere. Workers would run companies as cooperative enterprises. The concept of "profit," which is the excess money gained from paying workers less than the value of their labor, would be eliminated.

It's obviously a lot more complicated than that, but as you can plainly see, there is no socialism happening anywhere in America right now. To institute socialism in America, the working class would have to be actively organized into a revolutionary movement ready to take over the reins of the economy at a moment's notice. With a labor force currently at about 14% unionization, that isn't going to happen.

If indeed we do go into another Great Depression, as some pundits are predicting, then we may see some movement toward a new radicalization of the working class. FDR may have saved us from a socialist revolution in the '30s, by shoring up capitalism with his New Deal programs. The thing that I really fear is that instead of banding together and hoisting the red flag, the working class will instead gravitate toward a radicalization of a different sort - the kind that happened in Germany when the economy crashed in the 1930s. In times of economic crisis, people gravitate toward strong leaders and simple messages, lashing out and looking for someone to blame. If the fascist right, which is already quite well organized in this country, becomes even more organized and even more fascist as the result of a real economic catastrophe, then we could be in for a heap of trouble.