With primaries over, shall we pack socialism away once more?

Earlier this spring, as the Illinois primary elections neared, my nine-year-old son Elijah asked me if I would be voting for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. When I let him know I’d be voting for Bernie, he asked, in typical nine-year-old spirit, “Why?” I gave him a quick answer: “I have faith he will work hard to do things to help the majority of people in America.”

He then posed a more challenging question to me: “What if Obama were running again? Would you still vote for Bernie Sanders?” I answered that I would still vote for Sanders, but this question pushed me to think more deeply and precisely about the source of my faith in Sanders. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to engage and feed the young and growing political imagination of this child of curious mind and well-intentioned heart.

Clinton, to my mind, has too often supported policies that served the rich and favored the corporate world against the interests and welfare of workers. While obviously the only viable progressive alternative, to be sure, she still lacked the ambitious progressive agenda I believe the majority of struggling, fed-up, and under-fed Americans are hungry for, as Sanders’ campaign suggests. Obama, though, for the most part, really has tried to improve the lives of ordinary working people, seeming to really understand how most of us live in the United States and the daily challenges we face.

Why Sanders? Because socialism

So why this preference for Sanders? Well, it’s really my preference for any candidate who defines himself with-and is not afraid to utter the word-socialism. I had my own frustrations and issues with Sanders, but now that his campaign is pretty much over, my biggest lament is that the term “socialism” will once again face extinction, other than as a pejorative, from the political conversation hurtling us toward the November election.

What is my faith in and preference for a candidate who aligns with socialism? Well, in my view, the socialist imagination, when brought to bear on our social problems, opens us up to a wider array of possibilities for collective problem-solving that puts the immediate needs and welfare of people before the exigencies of the economic system itself.

This is not to say that a socialist president would be able to transform the U.S. capitalist culture and economy into socialism, but what I think and hope it would mean is that such a leader would not prioritize fixing and propping up an economic system that has proven ineffective in distributing resources to meet people’s basic needs. Instead, they would give primacy to finding mechanisms that allocate social resources to meet people’s needs (in terms of nutrition, housing, healthcare, education, and so forth). 

Indeed, not only has capitalism proven ineffective in distributing resources to meet human need, it has failed precisely because it is not an economic system designed first and foremost to meet need. It is designed first and foremost to produce profit, and the meeting of need, sadly enough, is subsidiary to this primary objective.

To explain more precisely my preference for socialism as a political and problem-solving imagination that puts people’s needs and well-being first, let me illustrate how I see the limitations of capitalism in this regard. Take the Great Depression as a stark example of what I’m talking about.

First, let’s recognize that what caused this economic crisis was overproduction. We didn’t have too little as a country; we had too much! Thus, with markets glutted with more products than people needed or could afford to buy beyond need, prices plummeted in accordance with the capitalist laws of supply and demand, and factories and industries laid people off. Consequently, people didn’t have money to buy the basic necessities. Hence, the masses, starving as they were, hit the breadlines, as we all know from the familiar images of the Depression passed down to us. So, to put the absurdity of this situation into relief, at this moment in history, the logic of the capitalist system created a scenario in which the mass of American citizens was starving and in need amidst conditions of material abundance.

The sane mind might find this description of a crisis a bit off kilter. Should having abundant resources available to us really constitute a crisis? It seems we need to question the efficacy of a system that transforms conditions of material abundance into human want and misery.

How did the capitalist imagination seek to resolve the crisis? Well, in order to restore pricing and create conditions to make more production necessary, the task was to eliminate abundance by burning crops, pouring milk down sewers, slaughtering livestock, and so forth. In short, the answer was to get the capitalist economy-whose internal dynamics inevitably generated the crisis to begin with-up and running again, leaving us to wait for the next inevitable cyclical crisis, such as our most recent Great Recession.

People or markets?

How might a socialist imagination respond differently in addressing economic crisis and human suffering? First of all, it might define the problem to be addressed as one of human suffering and need rather than economic crisis. Thus, the most urgent objective is not fix the economy in the abstract but to relieve human suffering and meet human need with the abundant material, intellectual, and spiritual resources we have at our disposal. This tact might-and likely would-lead us to develop different economic structures as opposed to just restoring conventional capitalist forms, which are clearly dysfunctional.

As an example of what I’m talking about, take the foreclosure crisis that largely caused our latest Great Recession. Our leaders, our great minds, imprisoned by the limitations of the capitalist imagination, sought to solve the problem and save the system from total collapse by bailing out the banks from the toxic mortgages they issued which were leaving them high and dry because borrowers could not repay them. 

But while the banks were bailed out, the “homeowners” were still foreclosed upon and evicted. Homes were left empty. An abundance of houses flooded the market, driving down property values for those still in their home. Millions more Americans thus found themselves underwater in their mortgages, witnessing their chief investment and wealth asset disappear. Gazillions in wealth were lost, destroying the housing market and eroding the financial wherewithal of the consumer (whose prowess accounts for more than 2/3 of the economy). But the banks were saved. The system was saved.

How might a socialist imagination have approached the problem differently-even within the context of capitalist framework and perhaps even while saving the system? Putting human need first, a socialist approach-prioritizing an economic approach that serves people (a humanomics?) as opposed to one in which people serve the economy-would have sought first to keep people housed.

Imagine if instead of prioritizing the banks, our leaders had sought to save the system by bailing out homeowners? If the trillions of dollars had been dispensed to those with unpaid mortgages instead of the banks? To those people could have paid off their mortgages, made good on the “toxic loans,” and arguably have bailed out the banks while staying in their homes? It would have prevented the destruction of the housing market and the death spiral of the overall economy.

In the end, even in this scenario, the capitalist system is perhaps restored. The socialist outlook, however, would approach governing and the crafting of economic policy with a clearer vision of what the objective of a government and a political economy should be. And that is to serve the people and organize the production and distribution of resources to most efficiently serve human need, first and foremost.

Socialism leaving the stage

Thus, in the end, when I lament the end of Sanders’ campaign, flawed and frustrating as it was, I am lamenting the loss of socialism in our political discourse. As a political imagination, socialism, when brought to bear on our most pressing problems, could open up new vistas for our country. It could present us with more fruitful ways of solving our problems and creating the Great Society, a term that is not obsolete, even if it has fallen into disuse in our impoverished political discourse.

Indeed, sadly, Sanders was mercilessly attacked, even by purportedly progressive economists like Paul Krugman, for suggesting we look to countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway as models of societies that provide “free” (meaning the cost is shared by all in taxation) higher education and healthcare.

During the first Democratic primary debate, Anderson Cooper asked if anyone other than Bernie Sanders opposed capitalism. Hillary Clinton eschewed socialism and declared her allegiance to capitalism because of the opportunities it allowed for small businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit, which she argued drove our economy and innovation. Never mind the fact that, as I wrote previously in People’s World, there is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark. Never mind the fact Forbes magazine, hardly a socialist rag, declared Denmark the most fertile economy for small business development.

A socialist mentality would counter this ignorance and premature foreclosure on our imagination which prevent us from entertaining other actually-realized options that just might help us take care of each other a little better and value each other a little more. Options which would actually be in the service of creating a more humane world, as well as a more productive and efficient economy.

Photo: Senator Bernie Sanders salutes supporters at a rally in Summit, IL on March 11, 2016.   |   AP 


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.