By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.
Is President Obama a socialist?
Probably not. But dare I ask: Would it be such a bad thing if he were?
“Socialist” is the latest epithet to be flung at President Obama by the Republican establishment that controlled Washington for the last eight years. Falsely calling themselves “conservatives,” these apostles of fiscal prudence gave America record budget deficits and economic depression. In their role as guardians of the Constitution, they gave America torture and illegal wiretapping, abrogated the first, fourth, and fifth amendments, and eliminated the centuries-old right of habeas corpus. In their role as patriots, they lied America into aggressive wars and invented the unitary-executive doctrine, a thinly-veiled update of “the divine right of kings” that purported to grant the Bush-Cheney regime arbitrary power beyond the wildest fantasies of of Britain’s King George III, against whom the American colonists revolted in 1776.
But what is a socialist, anyway? The president’s critics take care to avoid defining the concept. They’re counting on the fact that most people don’t know what a socialist is, except that they’ve been told it’s something bad. And if President Obama is a socialist, then that’s something bad. Right?
Several points are worth noting. First, calling people and policies “socialist” has been a standard scare tactic of the corporate state and its media shills for most of the last century. They called Social Security “socialist.” They called Medicare “socialist.” They went even further in attacking Martin Luther King and called him a “communist.” It’s a measure of their desperation that they’ve pulled out the same old smears yet again.
Second, in America, only one national politician identifies himself as a socialist. That’s Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who is, by the way, one of the best friends that working people have in the American government.
Third, President Obama does not claim to be a socialist. Indeed, even the Republican weekly tabloid Human Events reported that officials of various American socialist parties have denounced President Obama as a middle-of-the-roader.
What Socialism Means
Fourth, socialism means different things to different people. George Orwell, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, said that “the underlying ideal of socialism is justice and liberty.” Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of the 20th century, said that it was a way to “overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.” To the Mexican Zapatistas who fought against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that impoverished both Mexicans and Americans, socialism is “education, housing, health, food, land, good pay for our work, democracy, and liberty. Some people may call this socialism. But it doesn’t matter what name you give it.” Some socialists have supported significant government control of the economy; others have called for abolishing government altogether.
What ties all socialists together is a belief in the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings. They think that at the very least, government should not promote vast inequalities of wealth and condition by handing out special privileges, tax breaks, and legal preferences to the rich and the politically connected. At best, government should provide a legal framework that limits economic, social, and legal inequality, while recognizing that some inequalities are inevitable and even desirable in any society. To the extent possible, government should guarantee basic human rights and a minimum level of economic security to all citizens.
Fifth, a lot depends on the execution. In the movies, there are only a few basic stories that appear over and over. The difference between a classic film and a clunker is often not the story itself, but how well it is told.
Likewise, in political economy, there are only a few basic approaches. One approach is a “free market” system based on private ownership and control of economic resources. The main problem of the last eight years under the Bush-Cheney regime was not that free markets can’t work in principle, but that they were run in such a corrupt and incompetent fashion under a flawed legal framework. An alternative approach is socialism. The Soviet Union and China showed us how not to do it; Britain’s experience has been imperfect but mostly positive; and other places, it’s been extremely successful in providing a decent, secure, fulfilling life for the majority of people.
Capitalism and Socialism
It’s just as unrealistic to condemn socialism because of Soviet oppression as it is to condemn free enterprise because of the Bush-Cheney regime’s corrupt “crony capitalism.” Socialism can work, and so can free-market capitalism, though each aims for a different type of society.
Socialism aims for a society in which everyone is guaranteed a basic standard of living and human dignity. It lacks both the highs and the lows of free-market capitalism. Free-market capitalism aims for a society in which anyone can become very rich — though it also allows anyone to be struck down by poverty and desperation. In theory, a person can get richer in a free-market capitalist society than under socialism. But the vast majority of people won’t, and many people will be far worse off than they would be under a socialist system.
Let’s be frank. Socialism is indeed “un-American,” if that means it’s different from what the American founders envisioned. But so is the corporate state under which Americans now live: if anything, rule by giant multi-national corporations is even more “un-American” than socialism. Therefore, what’s at issue is not a choice between one system that’s consistent with American political traditions, and another system that isn’t. It’s a choice between two systems that both depart from how America’s founders understood their country.
The Real Question
The real question is not “what’s traditionally American,” but “What is the best system for the majority of Americans?” And the answer to that is certainly closer to socialism than to the corporate capitalism under which they currently live.
So far, however, President Obama appears determined not to rock the boat. He’s a definite improvement on the psychopathic savagery of his predecessor, but he seems reluctant to take the radical steps necessary to make the American economy serve the American people in general instead of a small, stupendously wealthy minority.
Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as copyright notice and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.