The New Deal of the 1930s can be seen as a response to the reality of socialism born in 1917, when the Russian Revolution thrust on the world’s action agenda the vision of a society based on collective ownership and working class empowerment to meet human needs. Seventy years later, the Bush/Republican far-right advocacy of an “ownership society” can be seen as an effort to turn the clock back to the world before socialism came on the scene — a world of untrammeled power for a few “captains of society,” and crumbs for those who do the work.
Fraudulently confusing nominal ownership and real control, Bush’s “ownership society” slogan conceals who really “owns” our society. It attacks collective solutions, celebrating private appropriation of wealth over social ownership for the public good.
First of all, is ownership the same as control? What is real control?
If you “own” a few thousand dollars in stocks in a 401(k), do you have any control whatsoever over the decisions that affect the value of those stocks?
If you “own” your home, even assuming you’ve paid off the mortgage, do you have any control over the cost of the oil or gas you need to heat it, or the big employer that moves out and leaves your community without jobs or a financial base?
If you “own” vouchers to send your child to private schools, do you have control over the opportunities your child will have for meaningful employment and a safe, healthy environment?
The answer to these questions is “no.” Here is where Bush’s “ownership society” is a vicious fraud for most of us.
It is really a slogan for divesting, defrauding and dividing the working class, along with self-employed, professionals, small business people or family farmers, rendering this majority of the U.S. population powerless.
It’s relevant to clarify just what “working class” means. Working class is not based on how much you earn. It’s based on your lack of “ownership” of the means of production and distribution — the big factories that produce steel, chemicals, autos, and food; the giant transport and retail networks; and the Wall Street banks that finance it all.
It’s based on your need to sell your brain and muscle power to those who do have that “ownership,” or to businesses and institutions that depend on them or keep the system going. Most Americans fall into this class. And increasingly, those in the middle find that they are at the mercy of the same “ownership” giants.
Bush’s “ownership society” really applies to the very tiny class of people, the capitalists, who own the financial/industrial “capital” described above and largely control our government.
The only way for the working class, and the self-employed, professional, small businessperson or family farmer to gain real control is to change who owns the forces that run our society. And that can only be done by working together.
This is where Bush’s slogan is a challenge to Communists to raise the issue of real ownership “of the people, by the people and for the people” — socialism.
It is an opportunity to debate who really owns and controls our society. This debate essentially is about the battle over what happens to the surplus created by human labor — should it be privately appropriated for the profit of a few, or socially appropriated for the good of many. It is at the heart of struggle over where we are going as a society.
It is an opportunity to discuss how socialism could work in our country, and to rebut the myth that socialism and collective action mean giving up individual control. And it is an opportunity to counter the idea that individualism is the motor force of human progress.
There have always been two intertwined progressive strands in our country’s history. On one hand, the vision of individual liberty and initiative — symbolized by the pioneer, the immigrant, the runaway slave, the inventor and innovator. On the other, the vision of banding together for the common good — embodied in the town hall meeting, the American Indian tribe, the Underground Railroad, the farmers’ cooperatives, the Black church, the immigrants’ fraternal aid societies, the trade unions, the civil rights movement, and so many others.
The “ownership society” seeks to play on the first vision to cover up the second. It replaces the “we” — we the people — with the “me.” It falsely pits individual initiative against collective good.
Some have dubbed Bush’s concept a “‘you’re on your own-ership’ society.” In fact, human survival and progress has always involved an interplay of individual initiative, cooperation and collective action. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
Susan Webb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is opinion page editor of the People’s Weekly World.