What socialism means to me

Socialism is a political term that the right wing in America has disparaged for decades as a legacy of the Cold War and out of a love of the anarchy for the rich and entrapment of the rest that libertarian economics represents. The word has been pulled into vogue, especially on social media, this century as we have leapt into two ill-conceived and ill-executed wars, while our leaders continue to feel free to devote our wealth to the benefit of the few. To the right, at least according to their public statements, socialism is both whatever they believe was the Marxist-Leninist system of the Soviet Union and whatever is going on in this country that they do not like, be that anything grabbed out of the bag of topics that include abortion, public education, discussions about pronouns, or guaranteeing healthcare to all. This is the result of an incoherent blend of Ayn Rand and Billy Graham, but I have yet to be shown that politics generates consistency all that often.

I must admit that the left has its own share of the process of gathering together a curio shop of policies, taking among other things the same list that I gave above and standing in opposition to the right as a matter of a team sport. We get mocked as wanting the blessings of a wealthy society to be given to us for free. College students are cited as a prime illustration of this, since canceling educational debt supposedly competes in popularity with legalizing marijuana among that group. This is, of course, a straw man. It looks at one article of the argument’s clothing and misses the core — a fault that I am sure the right will accuse me of doing to them.

But I will mostly leave the right to define themselves. My concern here is to explain what socialism means to me. As I said in a recent tweet, socialism recognizes that wealth is far more often the product of collective effort, and it asserts the justice of distributing wealth in a manner that is reflective of the contributions of all involved. The analysis of this and the proposed solutions to constructing a society’s economics take many forms in socialism. Marx and Engels offered a historical dialectic to explain how the world got to its state of affairs in their day and recommended a revolution of the proletariat as the final cycle, and to many on the right and the left, this is treated as the only formulation that socialism takes. Even a cursory reading of the topic, such as what Wikipedia gives, will show that socialism is a large field in which a great deal of activity and thought take place. What I mean to do here is to pitch my tent in that field.

The primary unit of a society is the individual. This will sound strange to many, right or left, coming from a self-identified socialist, but any sensible system of people has to recognize that each person involved is a unique actor. At the same time, much of each person’s potential comes from the fact of collective effort. My goal is to maximize both elements here.

A society that wishes to achieve as much as it can will work to provide opportunity to all, so as to allow the diversity of members to explore what their particular skills let them do. This means guaranteeing education to everyone from early childhood through to the highest certification — degree, diploma, etc. — possible in one’s chosen field. Yes, I include underwater basket weaving, or whatever the trolls wish to mock as a liberal arts degree, since we never know what course of study will prove valuable in the future. Those who regret the money that will go into funding majors that do not appear to be immediately lucrative show a failure of imagination, as the development of computers shows. In the early days, they were seen as something that only governments or large corporations could use. Various experiments in science are derided as wastes of money, but the work on vaccines for SARS-COV-2 is as rapid as it is, thanks in part to the willingness of researchers decades ago to model the gene molecule. And those baskets provide utility for anyone needing to store things. Letting the few who wish to learn how to make them in the best and most pleasing manner possible may find some more efficient process or some cheaper and less environmentally exploitative material to supply the need.

Another thing we should guarantee is access to healthcare. Sick people are less productive. I am told routinely by right wingers that they have no responsibility to aid the health of others, but they should consider the lost opportunities created by needless illness. Employees do less work, inventors come up with fewer machines and processes, and customers engage in less economic activity when they are suffering disease.

The latter deficiency, namely a reduction in economic activity, is also true as personal wealth declines, suggesting to me that universal basic income would be a good policy choice, especially as it would provide a means through taxation of the rich to reduce income inequality — along with seeing the proper use of the federal budget as being to raise the standard of living of the people first.

The world was told by Enlightenment philosophers that government’s proper job is to protect the rights of us all, and like right wingers, I agree. However, I carry this a step further in that I want this to be a practical action, not merely a theoretical wish. To the Republicans and their fellow travelers, property is the only right, one that is properly exercised by whoever got to it first-ish, which is to say, whoever can claim to have used sufficient force to deny that property to anyone else — one chief example being the United States, a nation that is praised by the right despite, or because, we filled a land that Europeans regarded as empty. But the reality is that we possess the world in common, and we create wealth above its natural resources together. To say that only one sector of the economy, the capitalist or the managerial class, depending on the moment, is the cause of all that we produce is convenient to the favored group and works desperately to ignore the contributions of much of the effort involved.

Do I then want collective ownership of the means of production, as Marx and company proposed? Yes and no. I do not wish to see the government take possession of all industry. Corporations should be able to earn a profit, and entrepreneurs should be able to form businesses for the same purpose. What I would like to see here is to aid workers in owning the companies for which they work, but at a minimum, those companies should be regulated with regard to product safety, environmental soundness, and worker wages. A company needs someone in charge, and it needs people who do the labor. The latter contribute as much as the former, and as executive compensation grows exponentially over what the line worker earns, we are once again failing to be honest about the creation of value. But the number of dollars that each person accumulates per hour or per year is secondary to the question of the power of each interest bloc in the company. One goal of socialism to me is to level the scales, to make the economy as democratic as the political sphere is supposed to be.

And that is a point that I will emphasize. The principle of democracy is that if we are to live according to the rules, we must have a say in the making of those rules. A liberal democracy further asserts that there are limits to how far those rules may reach. I thus support liberal democracy in all sectors of life. I will go one more: I support using our collective effort for the benefit of each participant.

To me, this is socialism. The mechanisms are subjects for vigorous debate, but the principle is clear. We have worked together to create riches and achievements, and it is wrong to lock those off for the benefit of the few, no matter how loudly they wrongly assert that they were the only ones responsible. I am a socialist because the participants of the world have united to produce, and the only right reward is an equitable distribution of the proceeds.

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