Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reds in the House? So Much the Better

Allen West, the Florida GOP’s radical-in-chief, attacked members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus by saying that they “are members of the Communist Party”.  The representatives in question, according to West’s campaign manager “[advocate] for state control over industries, redistribution of wealth, reduced individual economic freedom and the destruction of free markets”. 

The Democrats in question responded by saying that “calling fellow Members of Congress ‘communists’ is reminiscent of the days when Joe McCarthy divided Americans with name-calling”. 

I say, ‘What if there are ‘communists’ in the House?’  We’re probably better off for it, and if indeed some Democrats do support social democracy or even socialism (I suspect, West’s diatribe aside, that there are some who support the former and very few who support the latter), they should be a little more outspoken, because as it is it’s sometimes hard to tell members of the two main parties apart.

What’s wrong with democratic management of industries?  We’ve tried out letting industries (financial, insurance, energy, weapons) manage the state, and that hasn’t worked so well.  In principle, I’d very much like to see democratic institutions run more aspects of our society.  Why would longer-term economic planning along democratic lines such a bad thing?  Why do we have this obsession with leaving our lives so vulnerable to chance, or to the whims of people with enough money to influence the direction of our economy but without the moral fibre to do so ethically?

What’s wrong with redistributing wealth?  Teachers, loggers, construction workers, assembly-line workers, electricians, etc, do work every bit as essential to most of our day-to-day lives as do the titans of the financial world who swap money from one account to another, and the work of the former tends to be more socially positive and productive than that of the latter.  Why should they be paid a small fraction of the wages of CEOs and financiers?  What would be wrong with a fair system that gave people the opportunity to live a decent life based on their status as citizens of a free society instead of letting something as arbitrary as the market set their wages?

And what’s wrong with reining in this thing called the “free market”, which is probably the biggest faith-based initiative in human history?  “Believing” in the free market (and “belief” is all it is) is the wilful suspension of our critical faculties, of our ability to analyse.  It is a pure pretence that it would be impossible to bring order to our economic and social lives.  It is a blind faith which has brought us depressions and recessions and historic levels of inequality in our own era.

And when West’s spokesman talks about “reduced economic freedom”, he’s being a bit dishonest.  Who, at the end of the day, has more freedom?  Someone in the U.S. who—in the “free market” dictated by the insurance industries—can’t afford proper healthcare?  Someone who through quirks of fate or accidents of birth—if the Republicans had their way—would have only the most tattered safety net, holed by corrupt political allies of irresponsible industries shorn of any social ethic, to fall back on in the event of unemployment?  Someone who can’t afford to attend even a public university because we’re told that the university should look like a “free market” and not shrink at pricing people out?  Someone who is unable to influence their working conditions or pay because he or she doesn’t have a union?   

Or someone in a social democracy who pays higher taxes but who will never have to worry about medical care, will never lack for some measure of social support, who could attend university for free, or is able to create safe and fair working conditions and a fair pay scale?  The former individual is free in that he or she lives in a society that does not self-police, which has no qualms about letting “chance” invest the affluent with political and economic power over the poor, and which eschews planning and foresight, choosing instead to let weighted dice determine people’s futures.  The latter individual is free in the sense that he or she has the capacity to live a comfortable and enjoyable life and because of this, is able to take an active part in the associational life of a democracy. I know plenty of Europeans, most of whom live in countries that have until recently been firmly committed to social democracy—none of them, needless to say, are the mindless automatons that acerebral commentators like West make them out to be, and their systems of government are often more democratic in many respects than our own.

Reactionaries like West tend to pick up on a deliberate misinterpretation of Marxism, and conflate social democracy with the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.  Marx himself was not anti- the individual.  Indeed, he hoped that through a collective endeavour that rewarded people for their labour rather than the social standing they were bequeathed at birth, individuals could enjoy their lives in a much more meaningful way.  He envisioned (in his 19th century bourgeois way) societies in which people had time for work and play (in his case, doing a spot of fishing or hunting or thinking).  It’s not, when you get right down to it, all that radical.  To me it seems much less so than a political ideology which calculatedly rigs the system such that some must fail for others to succeed.

It seems ridiculous to have to state the obvious, but social democracy is about harnessing collective efforts to empower individuals in meaningful ways.  Social democracies work according to this principle, making the case (and the evidence is persuasive) that individuals live more secure and happy lives when society as a whole works towards a common good that is defined by the welfare and comparative equality of all people.  The work of the state is the means rather than the end.

Take Britain, for example.  In the wake of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the country designed a social welfare system designed to create secure livelihoods for all of its people.  This system included nationalised industries, access to free healthcare, a commitment to full employment, etc.  It was sustainable for some years before the commitment to a harebrained nuclear weapons program, the waging of wars in Korea and its colonies, the administration of a cruel overseas empire, and a Cold War military industrial complex, together with the failure of unions, the private sector, and government to cooperate successfully, began to tear at the fabric of the system. 

The 1980s saw widespread privatisation in Britain, with mixed results.  British Airways appears to be flourishing, although it has an annoying habit of shipping your bags halfway across the world from your destination.  The rail system, on the other hand, has been completely wrecked by privatisation, and travellers are unable, for example, to travel between Oxford and Cambridge, the two preeminent centres of learning in the nation, and also two fair-sized cities.  Prices have skyrocketed, threatening to make train travel increasingly a rich man’s indulgence, which would be dangerous in a small, congested country where fuel prices make travel by road (and indeed, owning a car) costly.  The decision by the Thatcher government to privilege the financial sector meant that a fortunate few in the southeast did spectacularly well, doubly boosted as they were by access to heavily-subsidised education and healthcare.  The same government turned its back on the manufacturing and mining sectors, simultaneously reducing the power of organised labour and thereby destroying entire communities across great swathes of Scotland, Wales and the north of England.

Any industry can do well in either the public or private sector.  But that’s not the point.  The point is what good the industry does towards the collective good.  Take the arms industry.  It flourishes in the sense that vast wealth accrues to the private individuals who have invested therein.  It receives massive subsidies from our government thanks to our commitment to a highly aggressive and militaristic policy.  But it does no social good.  It commits our government to a foreign policy which is constantly backfiring in our faces and costing us lives and money.  And worldwide, the weapons industry fuels conflicts and has been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, particularly outside of Europe and the United States. 

It is, in market terms, a ‘successful’ industry.  But socially, it is immoral, destructive, and well nigh indefensible.  This is the kind of dilemma that our blinkered commitment to the “free market” engenders.  We have all the wrong arguments, we feel bound to endorse inequality and uncertainty because of the historic stigma attached to planning and redistribution, and we devise our policies based on faith rather than on reason.  History, as such, doesn’t repeat itself, but people have a frustrating habit of doing the same thing over and over and over again in certain social contexts, failing to identify where they’re going wrong and failing to anticipate the consequences.

So if there are Reds in the House, let them stand up, be counted, and get to work.

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