The US fear of socialism

When someone says they are not for socialism but for freedom, I can’t help but think it’s just a misunderstanding. Stripped of all the emotional attachments, “socialism” is just another word for government services. What is the ratio of government spending to GDP? By that metric, the US economy is about 38% socialist and Western European countries range from 41% (UK) to 56% (France) socialist. You might think we should slide a bit to the right or to the left, but no serious person thinks that existence of Medicare or state universities or the Center for Disease Prevention deprives them of their freedom and should be abolished.

But, those who fear socialism say, what about Russia and Venezuela? Why do you want us to become like them? This is a straw man argument. I have never heard a democratic socialist say that they would prefer a Russian or Venezuelan system. What they say is that they would like to adopt some of Western Europe’s more socialist policies per health care, education, etc.

Venezuela, anyway, is only about 40% socialist (based on the ratio of government spending to GDP), so the main problem there is not due to a higher measure of socialism. Yes, they did nationalize the oil, the cardinal “socialist” sin that always brings the US hammer down (cp. Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, etc.), but the biggest problem is internal (government corruption) and external (economic and political constraints imposed by the far more powerful US) pressures extraneous to socialism.

So we can argue about easing up or down on the socialist (government services) side rationally, or we can talk about people wanting to turn the US into Venezuela, which is just another way of saying we do not want to have a rational discussion. Politicians will endlessly try to foster the second option. They know that much of the US public can only grasp historical conditions in terms of football metaphors (good team/bad team), and they know very well how to exploit that weakness. But we need to step outside of that model, and start ignoring the politicians who deploy it, if we want seriously to better a system that is and will necessarily be a hybrid of capitalist and socialist formations.


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Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

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As I look to another visit to Germany and France, I recall a long talk with German friends over Spargel and Spätburgunder about our different (but overlapping) cultures, in which it occurred to me that the things I most appreciate and most lament about American culture come down to the same thing: individualism. Americans are obsessed with it, and therein lies their greatest weakness. And their greatest strength.

Individualism will always be part mirage. We are not “thrown” into the world as the existentialists would have it. We emerge organically as part of our parents’ bodies, part of a larger organic chain of parents and children and extended families. Really, it makes more sense to see the species as a single organism, a tree perennially producing new leaves.

This doesn’t mean I am against self-reliance. I believe in the virtue of self-reliance, and believe, probably more overtly than many of my liberal comrades, that this virtue should be an informing principle of any social welfare system. But an obsession with self-reliance can become pathological. Like it or not, we do not live in a state of nature. Like it or not, the world we live in is not just populated by individuals but by very large political and institutional and corporate formations – “collective formations” if you will. We can try to set policies that harness that collective energy for the collective well-being (the tendency of democratic socialism), or we can cling the individualist credo of “every man for himself” and ignore those gigantic formations at our peril. America tends toward the second extreme. The result is the greatest economic disparity of any post-industrial nation. Those at the top of the corporate (“collective”) macro-formations enjoy the profits of middle-class productivity, while middle-class families go bankrupt over health care and education costs at a rate that must be astounding to our more socialized friends across the pond. Our insistence on unlimited individual gun rights is coupled with 11,000 gun homicides a year, compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK. That is individualism in practice.

But naturally my German friends, now imbibing into the night at full throttle, wanted to push the other side, asking what I think GOOD about American individualism. First of all, self-reliance in itself is a virtue, and only becomes pathological when it ignores the actual formations in the cultural landscape. And socialist policies can take a toll on self-reliance if not implemented with care. But more importantly, I do get a sense of freedom in America that is linked to individualism. Not that I share the absurd belief of some of my conservative friends that we are objectively more free than our European neighbors. But there is a subjective tonality that profits from the hyperindividualist ideology of America. In my many hitchhiking romps coast-to-coast in America, and in a lifestyle that has exposed me to a broad demographic spectrum, there is a sense that Americans wake up every day ready to go out and make their own rules. This feeds a kind of creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit, a continual willingness to reboot without looking back, and it does give America a special dynamism. (I suspect it also makes quicker soil for the growth of things like fashion anarchy, although as I have shown in my other excellent blog entries, fashion anarchy must work its way back through German socialism if it ever hopes to arrive at the decentralized freedom that individualists seek.)

So, yes, I love Europe, and I especially love the richness of its cultural history and the way it has harnessed collectivist formations to enhance the commonwealth. But the social and cultural traditions that make Europe fascinating, and make it in my mind capable of dealing in a more mature way with the collective formations of late capitalism, may benefit from the occasional prompt of America’s naïvely free-spirited individualism. I guess that’s why I need to bounce around Europe from time to time and why I need to entertain my European friends back home in New Orleans. I’d like to think that we’re participating in the kind of cross-pollination that keeps the species moving. Now for that German beer.

From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism

A friend who read my “Letter from a Fashion Anarchist” recommended that I read Chapter 37 of Jeffrey Tucker’s Bourbon for Breakfast, which addresses workplace attire. I was happy to comply and my response led me into the curious byways documented below. (I haven’t read Tucker’s full book so sorry if I haven’t got him altogether right.)

Tucker and I actually see the role of clothing in the workplace similarly, the only difference being that he seems to be a realist all too happy to buy into a system that believes in wearing a “suit” to “show off your character”(p. 175), and I am an idealist (perhaps a naïve idealist) working to change the sensibility that props that system up.

Since the book as a whole seems to be libertarian anti-statist tract, this requires some explanation. Aren’t Tucker and I both against the status quo? Yes and no.

He seems to be an anti-government libertarian and I am an anti-Establishment hippie in ideology.

In his clothing chapter, any power he takes from the government he vests in a kind of pro-Establishment sensibility. He sees the fashion conventions of old being supported by a kind of self-censoring sensibility. Certainly his view of “work” and “workplace” are in line with what I would call the world view of the Corporate State, whereas the Age of Aquarius hippies envision a whole new social order beyond the horizon line of the Corporate State, with a radically different view of what “work” and “workplace” would mean.

It turns out that “anti-government” and “anti-Establishment” may be two very different beasts. Tucker would do away with the government but would, despite his subtitle (“Living Outside the Status Quo”) hold in place the status quo (e.g., fashion rules) with a normative sensibility. It reminds me a little of Michel Foucault’s reading of history, where establishment hierarchies update their ideological support system (circa the 18th century I believe in Foucault) from technologies of coercion to technologies of consent. The formations of absolute monarchies yield to more subjective strategies of subjection. But these new strategies, far from being liberating, turn out to be even more effective at and by controlling the sensibilities of the subjects.

My anti-Establishment views are quite different. I see government per se as neither good nor bad, but only as good or bad as those who control it. In the 60s, e.g., it seemed to the hippies that the government was the enforcement wing of Establishment thinking – old white guys sending young men to die in Vietnam in support of the Corporate State, with its vested interest in a culture of war, money and machines. Thus there was indeed an anti-government angle in the hippie movement, but the real villain was not the government but the Establishment that was pulling the puppet strings of government. The government was just a mediator between the Establishment world view and the individual. Fixing things required not a change of government, not merely a Marxist-type revolution in the control over resources, but a change in the sensibility of individuals en masse.  (See my Taxes, Private Property and the Age of Aquarius.)

To sum up the point of dispute, Tucker would lock in the chains of conventional fashion/thinking so deeply that we would all toe the line (e.g., dress appropriately at work) without the need for government. I would rather obliterate the chains of conventional thinking entirely.

In terms of the full implications, I’m guessing that Tucker is consistently anti-government but ambivalent about Establishment conventions and mores. I am consistent in my rejection of Establishment conventions and mores, but I have a hippie ambivalence about the government. I have a libertarian distrust of government restrictons on individual freedom (going back perhaps archivally to the issue of the Vietnam draft). But wherever people gather in groups there needs to be governance. If that government takes the form of enforcing the chains of convention, it is bad. But if the government is a guarantor of liberty and collective well-being, it can be very good indeed. And although I agree with my libertarian friends (to the dismay of some of my liberal comrades) that the government can overregulate behavior, the government has in fact often been a guarantor of liberty. The Civil Rights Act is an obvious case. But also through workplace and environmental legislation, the government has often acted to protect the individual’s right to life, liberty and happiness, and the collective right to clean resources, where powerful individuals and corporations would just as soon crush individuals and the environment to enhance the profits of the elite. And per Tucker’s libertarian idea that the government messes up everything it touches, I dispute this as an a priori. It has messed up some of its ventures. But it is hard to argue that the U.S. achieved its greatness without any provision from the government.

Imagine back for a minute to the antebellum days of the Southern aristocracy, which Tucker only half tongue-in-cheek idolizes in his introduction, take government off the table, and re-envision history from there. No government interest in public education, or postal service, or highways, air traffic control, no child labor laws or Civil Rights laws. Would the trajectory of history have been better?

Don’t get me wrong. Like any self-respecting hippie or fashion anarchist, I have some sympathy for a vision of society governed by smaller, decentralized nodes of power. But Tucker’s small-government vision takes a conservative turn where mine takes a radical turn toward a new age. His libertarianism is rooted in the rugged individualism of the 19th century. But the libertarian retreat to rugged individualism is no longer an available option. We can’t just work in our own cottage industries, we can’t just pay-as-you-go at the neighborhood doctor’s office. Even if we wanted to, the infrastructure just isn’t there any more. If we just pretend that the gigantic corporate formations of late capitalism, which exert economic control over health care and other trillion-dollar industries, are not there, if we just rely on our Davy Crockett individualism at this moment in history, the vast majority of us will be crushed by those very formations whose existence we deny.

I am not saying that the corporate giants of capitalism are intrinsically malicious; they are merely indifferent to the fate of individual human beings or the environment. They focus myopically on profit – and who can blame them. They evolved within a system where they are expected to generate profit and the government is expected to protect consumers, workers, the environment. Everything evolves together, as part of a system, and the moral mechanism has evolved external to the engines of corporate profit. To be sure, the government doesn’t always function well as a “moral mechanism,” but simply to do away with that external mechanism and expect the corporate giants and power brokers of profit to refrain from exploitation is to expect something all out of scope with what they have evolved to do.

So if the libertarian approach to small government is anachronistic, how does the anti-Establishment hippie move us toward the happy valley of small, decentralized government? We have to start with small steps. If I look at the current situation and say that a bad government binds people to the chains of convention, or to the status quo as Tucker says, and a good government smoothes the path for individuals to flourish in freedom, where do we go from here? Germany, for me, exemplifies a good blend of capitalism and socialism for today’s state of social evolution. The government takes into account the massive health care formations that exist today and works the system to the benefit of the people. All statistics show that they spend half per capita on health care than we do in the U.S.and have significantly better outcomes. Every American worries about health care costs if they get sick, and about 1.5 million Americans per year go bankrupt over health issues. Germans are free to pursue their dreams without any of this anxiety.

I recall how startled a German visitor to New Orleans was when he saw a benefit show for someone with cancer. “This is what you have to do when you get sick?” he asked. No one in Germany has that anxiety. Or when I was talking to my young German friends at the university in Karlsruhe. They were stunned to learn that American banks now make more money from student loans than from all credit cards combined, that American students routinely go through decades of adult life with massive student debt. Germans are free to pursue their dreams without any of this anxiety about carrying crippling student debts into their search for work and family stability. Or gun control. We have 10,000 gun-related homicides per year (compared to 200 in Germany), and 30,000 gun-related deaths overall. We have 300 murders a year in New Orleans alone, a city with less than half a million people.  So we in America have widespread crippling student debt, widespread anxiety about health costs, have to plan where we can and can’t walk without being shot, and we do it all in the name of “freedom.”  Germans, on the other hand, give a little more to the government, and in return, are free from anxiety about things like student loans, health care costs, and safety. Who is the freer people? One can’t deny a free-spirited element in America at the grass roots level, but one also must be suspicious when certain Americans use the word “freedom” to justify policies that generate big business profits while shifting burdens downward toward those grass roots.

So the droll truth is that the path to libertarian freedom runs through German socialism. To forego that evolutionary process and merely disempower the government as today’s libertarians might wish to do is to throw ourselves on the mercy of some very powerful formations that are expressly indifferent to our well-being (since they evolved to have the single “moral” obligation of turning a profit for investors). Sure, German socialism is still a long way from utopia, and the vision will have to be adjusted as we go along, but this is the direction we need to move in if we want to get beyond the dreams force-fed to us by a profit-driven Establishment, if we want to recast for ourselves what it means to be fully human, what it means to be bonded in society to fellow humans, what it means to attain a level of self-fulfillment that goes beyond the anemic forms of fulfillment offered by our current consumer culture.

. . .

So anytime Jeffrey Tucker comes my way, I’ll make a pot of sangria (can’t really do the bourbon for breakfast) and engage in a good-natured debate over the bowl with him, but I’m a little reluctant to enlist, based on Chapter 37, in his version of “living outside the status quo.”