People’s World Series on Socialism
Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here.
The phenomenal success of the Bernie Sanders campaign has put his self-styled democratic socialist agenda into the mainstream political conversation. Reading Bernie’s proposals and listening to his critics have stimulated thinking about what exactly capitalism and socialism are all about. To me, the single slogan that best captures Bernie’s socialist ideal is, “capitalism with a moral center,” with “moral” standing for equality, compassion, empathy, and sharing earth’s and humankind’s bounty.
The anthropologists remind us that the human race is descended from primates. Apes, chimps, and so on. Apes are capable of great tenderness and loyalty, as you see in a mother nurturing and protecting her offspring. At the same time, apes have no hesitation to rip into an adversary with teeth and claws, chewing its flesh. Tenderness and cruelty coexist in the ape’s personality.
Human beings deep down are no different. We can engage in the most vicious, heartless acts, from rape to murder. And we can weep at a poor child’s death or an animal’s suffering. We can be kind and we can be cruel in equal measure.
Capitalism in its bare, modern form exploits the human ability to take without pity; to destroy without shame. A “gentle” capitalism might simply try to make a little profit out of an enterprise. But the force of competition in modern-day capitalism pushes the capitalist to pay the lowest wage possible, and to take shortcuts in safety and environmental impact, lest a more cutthroat competitor put him out of business. The system, left to operate on the maximum profit principle, is heartless and cruel.
But capitalism has its positive aspects. It is a powerful engine of innovation. The greed that drives the capitalist to maximize profit also pushes the company to innovate and develop more productive methods, whether it’s increasing yield in a farmer’s harvest or lowering the cost in labor hours per car in mass production. An increased productivity could make everyone richer: consumers would pay less if the cost savings are passed on in lower prices; workers could take home a higher pay since they are producing more wealth per hour worked.
Alas, the capitalist in his greed prefers to keep the lion’s share of the increased profits, if not all of it. The only hope of sharing the wealth is a countervailing force of organized workers, consumers, community members and others. That counter-force, to me, is the socialist agenda.
With the kind of democratic socialism that Bernie proposes, capitalists still own the factories and the farms. But under a socialist president – and a socialist congress, state legislature, etc. – profits would be taxed highly, the money going to pay for social good, like free college, maternity leave, improved libraries and parks, and so on.
Federal and state socialist parties would mandate that banks invest a significant portion of their portfolio in socially beneficial enterprises, such as renewable energy, organic farming, and medical research. More money would be put into public health, water and land reclamation, and other such programs.
Socialism is also an international approach to life. People in other countries practicing other religions and speaking other languages are friends and colleagues unless they prove hostile. Socialists see the unity of all working people and of the planet as a whole, rather than as competing markets fighting to exploit someone else’s natural or human resources.
So far, Bernie’s form of socialism sounds pretty good, but it’s not enough for me. Consider your local bank. Once you deposit your money, you lose any control on how it will be invested. The capitalist who borrows your money has no upper limit on the profit he might extract from his investment, but the depositor is limited to a paltry percent that doesn’t even match inflation. Who made the rules governing deposits and loans? The capitalist.
A socialist agenda would place all banks under the control of the depositors and the community in which they operate. Loans would be made simply to make a modest profit, which they need to pay their staff’s wages and the costs of doing business. Beyond that necessary profit, decisions on where and what to invest in would be determined by an elected board of depositors and community members, not by shareholders demanding maximum profit.
The bottom line for me is that socialism tries to bring some form of compromise and working relationship between our greedy nature and our sublime, generous self. As opposites, they will always be antagonistic, each side trying to dominate the other. Class conflict will never disappear. But if we can manage the greed of the capitalist class while allowing for the innovation and adventure of the entrepreneur, it may turn out to be a deal with the devil, but I think it’s about the best bargain we can reach.
Tim Sheard is a veteran nurse, novelist, and union organizer with the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. He is also the founder of Hard Ball Press, a publisher dedicated to helping working class people write and publish their own stories.