A spectre is haunting America,
the spectre of socialism…
With the latest political development in America many are scared of socialism. Just like any “ism”, it is not more than a word and a concept, widely open for interpretations. As usual, people are afraid of the unknown. If the Martians conquer the world as per Jules Verne science fiction story, what would happen to taxes and health insurance premiums?
I don’t care much about the official or canonical definitions of “isms”. Contrary to popular belief, to me socialism is not orthogonal (opposite) to capitalism. The opposite of socialism is individualism.
- Pure socialism is a completely flat egalitarian society with no rulers, hierarchy, government, police, etc. and not even the need for such institutions. Everybody is a friend to everybody else, willing to cooperate and sacrifice for common goals to the extent possible, shall the opportunity arise. A “natural man’s world” described by Jean Jacques Rousseau ages ago.
- Pure individualism is a completely ego-centric society where everybody is the enemy of everybody else, pursuing exclusively own goals, competing for resources with the likes, relying exclusively on force to kill the neighbors, shall the opportunity arise. A world described by Thomas Hobbes about the same time.
Indeed, both are utopias, and neither has ever existed in human history unless we go back to prehistoric times and nomadic bands of early hunter-gatherers – a subject of anthropological discovery at the very best.
The question is not so much whether or not we socialize – this is pretty much a “Yes”. There may be confusion in semantics here, but in my terms socialism defines how much we socialize. How much of it is acceptable, optimal or simply how much a society can handle. Some say how much of socialism the society has grown up to. In fact, the very words “society” and “socialism” derive from the same latin word “societas”, which in turn was derived from the noun “socius” (“comrade, friend, ally”; adjectival form socialis) used to describe a bond or interaction between parties that are friendly, or at least civil.
At the same time, we are all individual beings as much as we are social beings. Other than in hard-core science-fiction dystopias, say, in the book named “WE” by Evgeny Zamiatin, people live individual lives with their personal thinking, choices, preferences and free will (some argue the latter “does not exist” but let’s leave this branch of philosophy for another time)
In reality, any modern society is a blend, a fusion of both socialism and individualism with a certain ratio between them. We, humans, are social animals. Evolution shaped us this way. The same evolution gave us individual thinking and the sense of identity, individuality, personality, uniqueness, self. We need all of these traits to survive and pass our genes, to say nothing about collective memory and knowledge, to the next generations.
No matter what “ism” we label the society with, the more important question is how social such a society is. In other words, how well does it serve most of its members (let’s stick with utilitarian ethical principle for now). How well does it blend the socialism and individualism, and in which proportion. How much of this is real and how much is due to local propaganda, brainwashing, indoctrination, etc..
Culture, traditions, environment that have shaped us over centuries all play a role in the socialist-individualist divide. But as often happens, ideology and religion (to me this is more or less the same thing) hijack the societal order. Usually this results in a tiny minority of adepts controlling the fabrics of society, creating the perceived rather than real social-individual divide. I call this social hijacking.
If we look closer to the one of the most “unsociaistic” societies of today – the modern United States of America, we’ll notice many social elements here and there. In fact, they are all over. You may be surprised to know about the collective ownership of large businesses through publicly traded stocks. Many of such companies are regulated so heavily you can hardly differentiate them from government-owned enterprises. One cannot make his own electricity (to power a computer to read this), water, shelter, food, medicine, etc.. One cannot conduct his own scientific research and farm the land at the same time. One cannot protect himself against uncertainties – medical, environmental, accidental – that’s why we have insurance for. These are all socialist activities (considering my definition above).
If we look closer to the one of the most “socialist” societies of today – the modern People’s Republic of China (I’ll leave North Korea aside for I have not been there, and second-hand speculations are of no use), we’ll notice that people there have individual cars, phones, apartments, emails, bank accounts, etc.. There are many large companies with private ownership too. These are all individual properties (considering my definition above).
I am not trying to weigh the two on the “better” or “worse” scale for there’s no universal scale I know of. Both societies are somewhat stable. People do live, love, smile, eat, drink, reproduce in both countries. Indeed, the degree of individualism is much higher in the US, but this is largely perceived individualism – people in the US are taught to think that way. Chinese culture is a bit different and people perceive their socialism much easier than people in the West see it through the media channels. Again, neither one is right or wrong.
At the same time, but both have a great deal of social hijacking. And this is not so much about formal wealth distribution, but the position of real power. In China this is obviously the higher ranks in the Communist Party. In the US, this is the so-called 1%, which in my view is much smaller and lately has been reduced to 1% of that 1%, if not further – the “Central Committee of United States Kapitalist Party”. The two groups play very similar roles in the corresponding societies, and differ mainly in the ideological myths.
Another [failed] example is Soviet Union (R.I.P.) – the country and the regime I am intimately familiar with. I have no slightest doubt about the “failed” part. Latter days USSR could not maintain its economy, and couldn’t even push its ideology clever enough to the citizens. They tried hard, but “hard” does not work well when it comes to ideas. However, I would not necessarily describe the Soviet regime as the only socialism possible. Moreover, not as a socialism at all. To me its social order looks more like another “ism”, starting with the F.
Although people were required to call themselves “comrades”, although there were many benefits from the central government, presented as coming from the “society” (i.e. a month of paid vacation, free medical care and education, pensions for elderly, etc.), the feeling of “us”, the community, was very weak. Indeed, the ideology was trying to prove otherwise, but that’s not more than “democratic” noise in the United States today trying to prove that everyone is involved in the decision making process and with equal voice.
To me, the latter days USSR was an example of “failed individualism”, where everyone was trying to work as little as possible, and to get as much as possible. Older generations said it was different, and there was indeed that sense of “we”. While I trust their feelings, I think this was largely the works of the ideology at the time (and GULAG system) rather than real social ties.
In the USSR the social hijacking took place on a large scale. We know well the Soviet communist leaders and upper apparatus did not enjoy lavish lifestyles, at least not officially for it was against their own doctrine. At same time they possessed the power comparable to or sometimes exceeding the power of major investors of major US corporations, the true ruling “party” in the US nowadays.
Russian Federation inherited all this mess and converted it to a modern ugly form without changing much in principle. They don’t call it “socialism” anymore. Their ideology is struggling to find the right words and is left with something like “Special role of our nation”, “Get up from our knees” (analogous to “Make America Great Again”) and other ideological crap. Social? No. Not at all. Individual? Largely yes, with the focus of the individualism shifted to the newly emerged upper class. People from the lower classes simply want to go up by all means possible (sometimes criminal).
I like the idea of classical capitalism where individuals do their best to succeed, and by doing so contribute to society, willingly or not. I equally like the idea of classical socialism where everyone consciously does their best to contribute to society, and sees this as the main success factor. But in reality both of these “isms” in the pure form exist only in books and people’s imagination.
In the US many people are traditionally scared of socialism. More so in the rural communities and cities in the middle of the country. My beloved Kansas City would be worth mentioning here. Any politician labeled as a socialist is 101% guaranteed a lose-lose ticket. In the minds of many, he/she and the socialism itself (the word, the term, the concept) are immediately associated with the Soviet Union for those old enough to know about it, or Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea for those watching Fox News today.
In their eyes such “socialists” would build GULAG’s (FYI: the acronym for the Soviet prison system setup by Vladimir Lenin in 20’s, then reached its peak under Josef Stalin in 30’s all the way through 50’s), take away all the personal property (including guns) from everyone, deprive people of access to the information, ruin the independence of judiciary, hike taxes to the roof, redistribute wealth and level the society, make the entire economy state-owned creating huge inefficient government triggering scarcity, perhaps do other horrible things too – soon after taking the reins.
Why would the socialists and their supporters – liberals, progressives, etc. – do it? Indeed, they are all just impossible to understand lunatics, crazy self-absorbed folk pursuing hidden personal goals and agenda. Right? Wrong! Most of them simply want to move the social-individual “slider” slightly to the left. That’s it? Pretty much so. Extreme views are relatively rare, just like crazy people in the clinical sense.
The “slider” has already been that way for a while in, say, Northern Europe – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Luxemburg, you name it. I don’t want to idealize these countries, or use them as a solution for everyone on the planet. They have their own problems too. I am just making the argument that this model works and is nothing to be afraid of.
On the other hand, social hijacking is rooted primarily in individualism. Often the leaders make it look like their interests are pure, and the main goals are the good of everyone in the nation, county or empire, often a win-win ticket.
In reality, the primary goal for the hijackers is to keep hijacking (i.e. stay in power) for as long as they possibly can. Lifetime tenure is the “best”. Indeed, many kings, presidents and party leaders (Nazi and Commnist alike) initiated great projects and made changes that benefited large groups. Yet, their motivations seem to be ego-centric and individualist at the core. They initiated so many horrible things too – started wars, genocides, etc. that benefitted no one, often not even the leaders and the elite itself.
It may seem that moving the social-individual “slider” to the right just reflects the attitudes of the majority, and by itself is a sign of collective decision making, sometimes called “democracy”. But what comes first? It could be that separating people from each other, the emphasis on individualism and the fear of socialism (usually pointing to the examples above) is the cause, and such attitudes are the effect. To me this is largely the means of social hijacking.
For centuries and millennia people were not capable of living in egalitarian societies. Hierarchies of control were necessary, and so was the social hijacking – somebody has to get to the top and be there for as long as possible. Individualism was the perfect tool to control the masses. Separating people by individual “wants” did its magic. “Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” – wrote Roger Waters in the iconic Pink Floyd song “Money”.
But have we grown out of it? Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe not all of us have. The forced socialism does not work. We know that. I don’t think this is even a real socialism (see above) but rather a social hijacking. But what if the attitudes shift and many simply don’t want to grab that cash with both hands? Wouldn’t be such a society more capable of dealing with real problems ranging from health, quality of food, environment, and living in general? Wouldn’t it be a way to live in harmony with the nature outside and the peace of mind inside? The utopian version of this was shown in the French movie 1996 “La belle verte” (“Beautiful Green”). After all, movies are always fantasies. But can it be for real? If not, can we at least start moving into this direction, and not the opposite?
Why do so many of us feel like the social slider should be moving to the left? What’s changed? One thing no one in his right mind would deny – the world has become global. The levels of cooperation and competition (there’s nothing wrong with it!) among people living on the opposite sides of the globe are unprecedented. And with it, the problems we’re facing are global too.
Another “new” thing is – the levels of kindness in people toward each other increased, and the levels of violence decreased overall. I know it’s tough to swallow for many, but there’s growing scientific evidence to support this claim even considering all the conflicts and wars of late (if you like to broaden your horizon on the subject, please refer to the book by Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” as a starting point).
What if many people don’t mind sharing their gains and profits with others rather than seeing homeless on the streets? What if they don’t ask for equal contribution for those who are incapable to contribute as much, if at all?
Traditionally the social behavior was encouraged by religion of the particular space-time, and later by various ideologies. But what if such behavior and attitudes become “organically grown”, natural so to say? And maybe it’s already so, just not everywhere. People with higher IQ, often labeled as “progressives” (there are many other labels) typically lean to social living, and people on the other side of the spectrum typically insist on individualism and isolation. I see this as a reflection of the ages-old question about human nature, Rousseau vs. Hobbes, with this “slider” going to the left slowly but steadily.
So, the social living, the socialism in my definition, is nothing to be afraid of. What many, including my educated and knowledgeable friends, are afraid of is social hijacking in the name of socialism, another flavor of the Communist Party, huge government and total control of all aspects of life. But this is not social, but rather antisocial to me. And so is the order where the elite, Communist Party or Major iInvestors of mMajor Corporations, control the world.
I am optimistic. After all, on the long run the social order is not shaped so much by revolutions, populist elections and narrow interests of the hijackers. Friedrich Nietzsche made it a poetry:
“The greatest events – they are not noisiest but our stillest hours. The world revolves, not around the inventors of new noises, but around the inventors of new values; inaudibly it revolves”