Not Socialism, Just a Jump Start

Maybe it’s a matter of being overly sensitive, but sometimes you do get tired of being called a socialist. President Obama seems to react with bemused calmness – he knows what he is attempting and doesn’t think it’s socialism at all, as no one is talking about public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The idea is to give free-market capitalism a jump-start, like you would when the quite serviceable old Chevy simply has a dead battery. The starter motor needs juice, to turn the flywheel to turn the crankshaft and get things spinning – and the engine will sputter a bit, but it will start. The old girl will run just fine. You don’t toss out a perfectly good car because of a dead battery. That’s stupid. And no one is talking about abandoning free-market capitalism. That old girl will run fine too.

 

The juice in this case is public money – and yes, spending a lot of public money makes folks suspicious, particularly when we don’t have any at hand and must resort to deficit spending for the juice we need. But you have to get people spending again, which means they must have jobs, and we need a banking system where credit is available, and at a reasonable rate, for folks to buy big-ticket items like cars and houses, and for businesses to fund plants and equipment and inventories, so the banks will have to be recapitalized and given some deal on managing all the crappy debt they’ve accumulated, most of which was never going to be repaid to them anyway. Get that all going, spending a lot public money, unfortunately, and we will be back in business, and the government can stand down – just like you unhook the jumper cables and toss them in the trunk and forget about them. None of this was ever about destroying capitalism – or really about saving capitalism. It was never in danger. This is just a jump start, to get it running again.

 

What the Republicans are proposing – the government spending freeze on absolutely everything until October 2010 proposed by John Boehner, or eliminating capital gains taxes, or letting GM and the major banks fail, because they deserve to fail – seems kind of odd. Those are interesting ideas, but the battery is dead and you want to get the old gal running again, and you have these jumper cables, after all. There is a bit of confusion about the concept here.

 

But people do scream about this being socialism – Jim Cramer on CNBC shouting at the top of his lungs that “we’ve elected a Leninist” whose “agenda is destroying the life savings of millions of Americans.” You hear variations on that a lot, as the Republicans figure they have the pulse of the American people – everyone sees what Obama is doing and they hate it, and are rising up in protest – and they will ride that wave back to power, and save capitalism as they do, and be the heroes here. Handing out money is wrong – and handing out our money is treason, or something. The free market will take care of things.

 

Some people think the Republicans have misjudged the situation with the dead car in the driveway. There’s the Republican theorist, Ross Douthat, the author of Grand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, saying that American public opinion has moved leftward since the time of Bill Clinton, and it’s just a matter of the trends and events:

 

…from the mounting health-care crisis to the post-Clinton return of wage stagnation to the current financial debacle. And this is what’s missing from the conservative attacks on Obama’s radicalism – a recognition that the political landscape has shifted dramatically since the days when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were struggling over the American center, and that in the absence of a conservatism that’s responsive to the changing situation, yesterday’s radicalism can start to look a lot like today’s common sense.

 

That is the problem – you need to respond to change, and find yourself arguing against what everyone else sees as common sense – against using the jumper cables, as it were.

 

Douthat says the good old days are gone, and they got fooled by all the Clinton folks that Obama put in key positions:

 

There was a brief period during the Presidential transition when conservatives became – well, excited isn’t quite the right word, but certainly encouraged by the names associated with the new administration. From Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates to the Rubinites charged with matters economic, there seemed to be good reason to think that personnel might be policy, and Obama’s administration would prove more Clintonite and centrist that most people on the Right had dared to hope.

 

You don’t hear that theme much among conservatives much nowadays. Instead, we’re back to the Obama-as-radical chatter that predominated among right-wingers in the waning days of the Presidential election. As with the Ayers-mania of that unhappy period, some of this talk is miles over-the-top – for instance, the absurdist speculation about the President’s “Leninist” plans to bring the U.S. economy to its knees, the better to advance the power of Leviathan.

 

But some of it is justified: Obama is proposing the most thoroughgoing transformation of domestic policy offered by any President since Reagan, and possibly since LBJ. Which raises the question – what happened to the cautious Clintonism that Obama’s appointments seemed to promise?

 

Maybe it was never there, and beside the point.

 

Douthat cites Charles Krauthammer here suggesting that Obama is a foreign-policy pragmatist and a domestic-policy “transformationist” – a guy who “wants experts and veterans to manage and pacify universes in which he has little experience and less personal commitment.” The thought is Obama would then get to do what he likes best – health care summits and green-energy programs.

 

Douthat adds that it is also possible the Obama “was always centrist more out of necessity than conviction, and thus the Obama Administration is offering, to some extent at least, the kind of agenda that Clinton would have offered (and did offer, in 1993 and 1994) had Nancy Pelosi, rather than Newt Gingrich, been running Congress in the Nineties.”

 

But Douthat thinks the real answer is that everyone has pretty much moved leftward, everywhere, a sort of Larry Summers smart center-left. And he notes the pre-election Pew polling data:

 

Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets underway.

 

At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew’s longitudinal measures of the public’s basic political, social and economic values. The proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, while the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment also has declined modestly.

 

The country changed:

 

More Americans believe that the government has a responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, and that it should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt.

 

These attitudes have undergone a major change since 1994, when the Republicans won control of Congress. In particular, 54% say the government should help more needy people, even if it adds to the nation’s debt, up from just 41% in 1994. All party groups are now more supportive of government aid to the poor, though Republicans remain much less supportive than Democrats or independents if it means adding to the deficit.

 

And even then people knew something was wrong:

 

The public is losing confidence in itself. A dwindling majority (57%) say they have a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions. Similarly, the proportion who agrees that Americans “can always find a way to solve our problems” has dropped 16 points in the past five years.

 

The ground shifted out from under the Republicans. They’re shouting about socialism. Everyone else is saying, yep, the battery is dead – get the jumper cables.

 

The odd thing is that those who consider themselves socialists, or socialists of the European Democratic Socialist ilk, are rethinking things too. They do so in the Nation, the March 23 issue, with a cover package where Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. decide it’s time to rethink socialism. It may not work that well, just as free-market capitalism hasn’t worked out that well:

 

If you haven’t heard socialists doing much crowing over the fall of capitalism, it isn’t just because there aren’t enough of us to make an audible crowing sound. We, as much as anyone on Wall Street in, say, 2006, appreciate the resilience of American capitalism – its ability to regroup and find fresh avenues for growth, as it did after the depressions of 1877, 1893 and the 1930s. In fact, The Communist Manifesto can be read not only as an indictment of capitalism but as a breathless paean to its dynamism. …

 

But this time the patient may not get up from the table – no matter how many times the electroshock paddles of “stimulus” are applied. We seem to have entered the death spiral where rising unemployment leads to reduced consumption and hence to greater unemployment. Any schadenfreude we might be tempted to feel as executives lose their corporate jets and the erstwhile Masters of the Universe wipe egg from their faces is quickly dashed by the ever more vivid suffering around us. Food pantries and shelters can no longer keep up with the demand; millions face old age without pensions and with their savings gutted; we personally are consumed with anxiety about the future that awaits our children and grandchildren.

 

Besides, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. There was supposed to be a revolution, remember?

 

For a socialist, this is most unsatisfactory:

 

The socialist idea, prediction, faith or whatever was that capitalism would fall when people got tired of trying to live on the crumbs that fall from the chins of the rich and rose up in some fashion – preferably inclusively, democratically and nonviolently – and seized the wealth for themselves. Such a seizure would have looked nothing like “nationalization” as currently discussed, in which public wealth flows into the private sector with little or no change in the elites that control it or in the way the control is exercised. Our expectation as socialists was that the huge amount of organizing required for revolutionary change would create an infrastructure for governance, built out of – among other puzzle pieces – unions, community organizations, advocacy groups and new organizations of the unemployed and nouveau poor.

 

It was also supposed to be a simple matter for the masses to take over or “seize” the physical infrastructure of industrial capitalism – the “means of production” – and start putting it to work for the common good.

 

But things just didn’t work out – “much of the means of production has fled overseas – to China, for example, that bastion of authoritarian capitalism.” And what’s left – the banks, realty and mortgage companies, title companies, insurance companies, credit-rating agencies and call centers – doesn’t make anything. Those are not means of production – they’re just ways of playing with imaginary money:

 

Outside manufacturing and the service sector, fewer and fewer people could explain to their children what they did for a living. The brightest students went into finance, not physics. The biggest urban buildings housed cubicles and computer screens, not assembly lines, laboratories, studios or classrooms. Even our flagship industry, manufacturing autos, would require major retooling to make something we could use – not more cars, let alone more SUVs, but more windmills, buses and trains.

 

But they take this one step further:

 

What is most galling, from a socialist perspective, is the dawning notion that capitalism may be leaving us with less than it found on this planet, about 400 years ago, when the capitalist mode of production began to take off. Marx imagined that industrial capitalism had potentially solved the age-old problem of scarcity and that there was plenty to go around if only it was equitably distributed. But industrial capitalism – with some help from industrial communism – has brought about a level of environmental destruction that threatens our species along with countless others. The climate is warming, the oil supply is peaking, the deserts are advancing and the seas are rising and contain fewer and fewer fish for us to eat. You don’t have to be a freaky doomster to see that extinction may be what’s next on the agenda.

 

That might mean there is no point in advocating pure socialism. There’s nothing there anyone wants. There’s not a lot a lot worth owning and distributing.

 

So they admit, much to the disappointment of Jim Cramer, that they have no plan, although that might not be a problem:

 

But we do understand – and this is one of the things that make us “socialists” – that the absence of a plan, or at least some sort of deliberative process for figuring out what to do, is no longer an option. The great promise of capitalism, as first suggested by Adam Smith and recently enshrined in “market fundamentalism,” was that we didn’t have to figure anything out, because the market would take care of everything for us. Instead of promoting self-reliance, this version of free enterprise fostered passivity in the face of that inscrutable deity, the Market. Deregulate, let wages fall to their “natural” level, turn what remains of government into an endless source of bounty for contractors–whee! Well, that hasn’t worked, and the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we – not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planner – have to control our own destiny.

 

So they call for solidarity, and think Obama at least has that part right:

 

Even Obama’s relatively anodyne calls for a new commitment to volunteerism and community service seem to have inspired a spirit of “giving back.” If the idea of democratic planning, of controlling our destiny, is the intellectual content of socialism, then solidarity is its emotional energy source – the moral understanding and the searing conviction that, however overwhelming the challenges, we are in this together.

 

They just don’t understand Obama has embarked on a project to get free-market capitalism up and running again.

 

In the same package in the nation, Tariq Ali offers Capitalism’s Deadly Logic:

 

The social movements in South America challenged deregulation and privatization more effectively than organized labor has done in North America or Western Europe. If adopted in the United States, this model could build popular pressure for a nationalized health service, massive investment in education and reduced military spending, and against bailouts for the car industry and sinking airlines. Let them fall, so that a public transportation infrastructure can be built based on an ecologically sound and more efficient train service that serves the needs of all. Without action from below, there will be no change from above.

 

But that’s not socialism – none of it.

 

Elsewhere, Robert Pollin offers Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic:

 

Neoliberal capitalism – whose defining features were Wall Street greed and big business domination of government policy-making – is dead. But what comes next?

 

Solidarity, equality and freedom have always been the fundamental principles animating the left. It is from these principles that the left has constructed its various visions of a truly democratic, egalitarian social order- – i.e., the only type of society that deserves to be called “socialist.” Given the collapse of neoliberalism, shouldn’t the left now advance a case for full-throttle socialism?

 

His answer is, well, maybe no – now’s not the time:

 

This becomes clear in considering the collapsed financial system. In the short term, there are no longer any viable alternatives to government takeovers of failing banks. But nationalizing the banks, by itself, is neither a panacea nor an advance toward socialism. The fact that former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan now supports nationalization should at least give pause to its enthusiasts on the left. Over the longer term, a nationalized financial system presents daunting problems.

 

Realistically, such a system will inevitably produce failures and scandals tied to “crony capitalism” – privileged back-dealings with well-connected nonfinancial businesses. In addition, individual financial enterprises, as with all business entities, require micro-management. The government would have to create an incentive system for the managers of the publicly owned banks that would substitute for the very straightforward profit motive that guides managers of private banks. If the nationalized bank managers are not committed to maximizing profits, how should their performance be evaluated?

 

Resolving such questions would require years of experimentation and fine tuning. In the meantime, taxpayers would pay for the inevitable breakdowns. This, in turn, could be the very thing – perhaps the only thing – that could shift the target of public outrage over the collapse of the financial system off Wall Street and onto the government. At this historical juncture, it is therefore preferable to fight for a new financial regulatory regime with primarily private bank ownership as the means of promoting financial stability and channeling credit to priority areas such as affordable housing and the green economy.

 

But building the green economy has its problems too:

 

This is a massive project, and it will not succeed by relying entirely on the public sector or community-based nonprofit organizations, however worthy. Rather, its primary propulsive forces will be large government incentives for private businesses to profit from clean energy investments, and for these same business interests to face significant costs through producing and selling fossil fuels. The Obama stimulus program is a first major step in the right direction, by mixing large-scale public investments – in the range of $80 billion over two years – with even larger incentives for private firms.

 

So, not to disappoint Jim Cramer and Michelle Malkin and all the rest, even the socialists are not pushing socialism:

 

One of the most bracing slogans to emerge from the 1968 uprising in France was “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible.” I am more inclined to embrace its mirror image as a guide for moving forward today. That is, “Be Utopian, Demand the Realistic.”

 

Could it be that there is no problem here at all?

 

But at least we’re making progress in Iraq. US Embassy Spokesman Adam Ereli says so:

 

Beyond education and culture, in the field of economy and services, it’s worth noting that representatives of U.S. banks, JP Morgan and Citibank and others came to Baghdad on January 28th, participated in an international banking conference that explored correspondent banking relations that would deepen commercial ties between Iraq and the international community, business community.

 

God help us all. Where are those jumper cables?

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Socialism, Not Socialism, Obama the Socialist, Political Manipulation of National Anxiety, Political Pragmatism, Pragmatism versus Passion. Bookmark the permalink.

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