Sit and listen to the radical right foment about “Obama-nomics,” about the president’s alleged desire to create some kind of nightmarish totalitarian state, and it grows clear these folks have no idea what they are talking about. The comparisons to Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler say more about those who make the comparison. It would be a little easier to entertain these comparisons if Obama began starving Ohio to death or started rounding up Texas Republicans and sending them to “work camps”—Arbeit Macht Frei! At this point it is hyperbole, the only purpose of which is to rile up the less cognitively endowed to the mob-like action of voting for Republicans in November.
To rationally consider the extent of our socialism, we should first define what we mean by socialism, then see how our society fares in comparison. It should be noted that Karl Marx opposed all socialist measures. He saw them as half measures—a truth accepted by modern communists throughout the world, ever since Vladimir Ilyich Lenin recommended an interim “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This dictatorship would precede the introduction of a full-fledged communist state. Remember it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, not the Union of Soviet Communist Republics.
Karl Marx believed—and probably rightly so—that socialism would only lead to making capitalism more palatable to workers, thus robbing them of any revolutionary fervor. Any reading of economic history makes him a very prescient fellow. Karl Marx suggested that communism and socialism differed in that communists desired the following:
- The complete abolition of private landholding and application of all rents of land to public purposes
- A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
- The abolition of all right of inheritance
- Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
- Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
- Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State
- Ownership of all factories and instruments of production by the State
- The expectation that all would labor, and the establishment of industrial and agricultural armies
- Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries, and the gradual elimination of any distinctions between town and country
- Free education for all children in public schools, and the outlaw of children’s factory labor
Looking at this list I think most people would be hard pressed not to think we are not already halfway toward a communism in the United States. In fact, we seem to be moving closer toward Karl Marx’s vision every day. However, will we ever get there? Probably not, because, put simply, we are too pragmatic a people to ever get to Karl Marx’s utopian vision. That is why we are all primarily socialists in our outlook. We may disagree about how close we have gotten to a communist state but it is almost impossible to argue that we are not all socialists.
We in the United States—with the exception of some members of the Libertarian Party, and a few anarchists—are what Marx called “conservative, or bourgeois,” socialists. This is taken from a section of his little book entitled The Communist Manifesto (1848). He writes, “A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.”
Why do they want to do this? They want to do it because the way they live requires the continued existence of capitalism; but, they cannot live with the moral guilt of “pure” capitalism, a capitalism that mindlessly exploits the worker and natural resources. So, these conservative bourgeois socialists—you and me—look for ways to make capitalism “kinder and gentler.” For example, we create charities, pass laws against cruelty to animals, they try to deprive the poor man of his drink, or improve the general working conditions of those in the factories. We might also support free trade, or protectionism, with the assumption that it somehow helps the working class. In other words, a conservative bourgeois socialist government claims to support the working man in his endeavors through social and government action.
Again, Karl Marx opposed this type of socialism because it sapped the revolutionary fervor of the working man, making it less likely that “true” communism would be implemented through the complete overthrow of capitalism. So, how do we fare as a nation when it comes to Karl Marx’s communist agenda?
Well, we have not gotten rid of private landholding and likely never will, but we are placing more restrictions on the use of land. The EPA tells us what we can build and where, cities decide the fate of businesses every day with the permitting process, and building codes try to reduce the possibility of families burning to death in their sleep. Socialist?
Technically we have a progressive tax system; but, we also have a lot of regressive taxes like gasoline taxes, sales taxes, and payroll taxes. Also, the effective rate of taxation for the wealthy, even though they pay the bulk of income taxes, is far less than the marginal rates the wealthy are constantly complaining about. For an interesting look at the statistics of this see Donald Bartlett and James Steele’s America: Who Really Pays the Taxes? (1994) Again, we do not seem even close to the confiscatory rates suggested by Marx; however, we are well in-line with the socialists.
Well, I think we can pretty much skip this one. In fact, if things keep trending the way they have the last twenty-five years, we may have no inheritance tax at all within the next ten years. Again, it should be pointed out that the present estate tax law only applies to a tiny fraction of the population, but they are a wealthy fraction with the means to get their way when it comes to the tax code.
Confiscation for Emigrants and Rebels
I suspect this point was mentioned to keep the rich from immigrating to a country where their wealth would be safe. Taking wealth away from rebels, of course, applies to anyone who did not go along with the communist project. I think all those accounts in the Cayman Islands are safe for now.
Just turn on CNBC and listen for five minutes. If you do not hear the words “Federal Reserve” mentioned at least once I would be very surprised. Of course, the recent financial debacle created by sub-prime mortgages and derivatives has shown us that the government will not let the credit markets implode as they did in times past. It is interesting that in respect to credit we have largely implemented Marx’s vision, although we still allow private banks to operate—sometimes without Federal Reserve oversight or FDIC insurance. This seems to again put us in the socialist camp.
State Control of Communications and Transport
Again, the state is not completely in control of these things, but with the amount of money put out by the state in the building and repair of roads and bridges it seems clear we have opted for socialism here. Just recently the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) said they would auction off more of the public airwaves to increase the amount of bandwidth available to cellular service providers. They are also trying to gain more control over broadband (Internet, to you non-geeks) under the guise of improving service and lowering cost—two things it is hard to believe can ever go hand-in-hand.
All Production in the Hands of the State
It would be difficult to argue that this is the case, even though the federal government presently owns large chunks of CitiBank, AIG, and GM. Business is still largely a private affair; however, our federal, state, and local governments have a lot to say about how we run those businesses. This usually means worker rules, taxation, and environmental issues. Some would argue that the regulations that government imposes on business are too onerous. It is hard to accept this argument if it means siding with someone who wants to dump industrial waste into a pond on their land, especially when that waste will seep into everyone’s water supply. It is also difficult to see why a government would refuse the use of oil skimmers because it might infringe on the union rights of a few maritime workers—if that actually was the case during the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
All Hands on Deck
Hey, even St. Paul said, “…if any would not work, neither should he eat.” Of course, it’s clear from other passages that Paul was referring to the able-bodied and those able to get work. In our country we have chosen to give workers six months to find another job when they lose the one they have. The benefits are not generous, usually a third of what you made at your previous job; and, after the first six months, it is made increasingly more difficult to collect unemployment insurance. We also allow many idle people in our society, as long as they are not too much of a drain on the whole. In some respects we could argue that Marx’s slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to his need” has become a partial reality. Again, though, we cannot say this is full-blown communism or totalitarian socialism since the state workers’ compensation office does not drag you from your house every morning to clean the streets.
No Distinction between Agriculture and Industry
Marx’s goal here was to eliminate disparities between the living and working conditions found among agricultural and industrial workers. It’s hard to know where we stand on this issue since it is wrapped up in the issue of illegal immigration and migrant workers. We do know that the state, here in the good old U.S. of A., provides generous benefits to those who own and operate farms and factories. There does not seem to be much support for those who actually work on the farms or in factories. If immigration reform is ever passed and “illegal aliens” are able to come out of the shadows then we will probably see their lives improve dramatically, along with a modest rise in our food prices.
I think free education is pretty much a given in the United States, at least through high school. After that education, when it is probably at its most expensive and most needed for personal advancement, has become largely financed by individuals, especially those whose parents are above a certain income. Under a Marxian communist government (yes, I know, an oxymoron) no one would pay for education out of their own pocket, regardless of income—primarily because most income would be confiscated beyond a certain point. Of course, the state would also probably decide what you were going to major in and whether you went to college at all.
I think it is clear that all the hand-wringing about Obama being a socialist is just fear-mongering—and quite possibly racially motivated on the part of some. Yes, he is a socialist; but, aren’t we all? As long as we continue to support bailouts for banks, investment firms, and car companies, aren’t we socialists? When we pay people not to grow things or buy milk from dairy farmers because they do not want to be subject to market forces, are we not socialists? When we take money from those who earn it and then use it to build roads, schools, and tanks aren’t we socialists?
We can’t get away from it. As long as we believe the government has a role in our lives we must accept the good with the bad. If you want your government to protect your shoreline from millions of gallons of oil then you have to give them the power to protect you. You cannot on one hand claim that an oil company has an absolute right to do whatever it wants in the name of the market and still have a government that can effectively fight for your interests.
And, isn’t that what it’s all about when it comes down to it? That is, which interest will be served by the government?
There is no easy answer since no one, not a business, not the worker, not even the most altruistic organization, can always be in the right. Which is why the government, as much as possible, should stand as a bulwark against arbitrary power—even its own. Good thing we have that Constitution. Right!
What is the real challenge today? It is too much political and economic power concentrated in too few hands. It is not whether we will be pure capitalists or socialists. We have already decided that. We are all socialists.
The real challenge our society faces is how we can return political and economic power to local communities and governments, which are now largely exploited by a collection of single-minded entities called “corporations.” Do you want to solve the crisis in your community? Well then, run for the local school board and eat at a local restaurant rather than a national chain. This is the best way to avoid more socialism, or even the specter of communism.