To call oneself a socialist seems eccentric in twenty-first century America, and indeed, it is even these days somewhat odder in the world as a whole (though left advocacy remains much more mainstream everywhere else, rich countries and poor alike). When I was young, history’s trend seemed to many unmistakable. Socialist (or anarchist) politics were virtually universal among my circle of friends, and armed Third World insurgents were gaining ground everywhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here I mean, not to recall or analyze those days, but to set out, in simple, non-poetic terms, as a citizen, some part of the case for socialism.
Far more difficult, I think, would be to defend the organization of all social production to return private profits to a few. If we want automobiles, surely the goal should be to produce the cheapest, most efficient, least polluting models possible. The recent surge of SUV production, finally brought low by gasoline prices, illustrates how the American system cultivates the opposite. Vehicles that pollute badly (with the looser regulation of “trucks”), use fuel profligately, and threaten the safety of smaller cars became America’s darlings (after appropriate advertising doses). I recall the damning analysis, albeit now out-of-date, of Baran and Sweezy demonstrating that over ninety percent of the price of an automobile under capitalism went to costs other than necessary design and production: advertising, dealers’ commissions (and with many times more dealerships than are needed), nonfunctional design changes (to indicate to the observer that the car is this year’s model and not last year’s), on and on. Given a choice, who would choose to be so wasteful?
The goal, after all, of capitalism is to maximize not value but profit. That can only mean charging more or giving the customer less. People are rewarded within the corporate system for figuring out ways to do these two things in spite of the fact that both are directly opposed to the interests of most of us.
Another particularly egregious (and typical) product of capitalism is the American breakfast cereal, a food ironically descended from “health” foods of the nineteenth century (as soda is descended from old nostrums). In the cereal business, companies compete to see who could offer customers the least. Some basic grain is refined until it is little more than pure starch, then given odd and inappropriate forms, puffed up to as large a shape as possible, and coated with sugar. These strategies are reinforced by the bright advertising which helps to develop our children into consumers, so delighted are they to see a food made specifically for the lowest common denominator of kids’ taste and decked out in such alluring packaging, almost as seductive as television. Should the box’s appeal be insufficient still, the manufacturer puts a toy inside. It is clear that the cereal is not what is sold; some self-image dependent on products is what the purchaser receives. The buyer in search of breakfast cereal should be able to select from foods, not from cartoon characters.
We are, of course, indulgent of our children; the tragedy is that the same system works equally well for consumption-oriented adults. The Hummer, whose demise is noted is today’s paper, is a caricature, but of an everyday reality. Cars and cereals are only dramatic examples of what is true of all production under capitalism. The profit motive creates directly opposing interests between producers and consumers who are forced to ignore their genuine shared interest in high quality goods at a low price. And demand is driven by the devious psychology of advertising, teaching us that our identities, our self-worth are based on consumerism, in spite of the fact that pursuit of merchandise (as the Dalai Lama and the Rolling Stones can agree) brings no satisfaction.
In terms of labor and the environment, the contrast is clear: capitalist employers will try to pay as little as possible and pollute as much as possible because both practices increase profit. Under socialism, the worker would receive as much reward as possible and the earth would be protected, because the economy would be managed for everyone’s benefit instead of for a few fat cats.
Right-wing apologists may point to the sad examples of Soviet repression, Maoist fanaticism, and Khmer Rouge genocide, but the examples are not to the point. As one ought to have learned by high school, capitalism and socialism are economic systems defined by ownership of the means of production; tyranny and democracy are political systems describing who makes social decisions. There is no linkage. If despots condemn an economic system, there have been far more right-wing dictators than left, but the examples of Hitler, Pinochet, or Syngman Rhee are no more relevant than those of Stalin, Castro, or Mao Zedong.
In fact, history unequivocally teaches the liberating potential of the progressive movement. No social step forward has ever come at the urging of business or of conservatives. On the contrary, people once perceived as wild radicals have again and again proved to be the sanest citizens. Even Lincoln thought that abolitionists were extremists, though who today would support slavery? The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers fought fiercely to retain child labor to the very end, while an advocate for children such as Scott Nearing was fired as a dangerous radical for opposing it. Would women ever have received the right to vote were it not for their agitation, demonstrations, hunger strikes, picketing the White House? Labor unions had to struggle against violent opposition (including state violence from police, national guard, the army, and hired thugs) before they could end starvation wages, twelve hour days, and deadly dangers in the workplace. Socialist activists were, in fact, the spearhead of CIO organizing which resulted in the great American middle class’s enjoyment of private homes and health insurance. Unfortunately, the suburbanites have forgotten the historical process that brought them their comfort.
Such profound social benefits of left-wing agitation should be no surprise since its goal is to raise the living conditions of all people. When individuals seek only to enrich themselves, in fact, they are all but certain to harm others. How could it be otherwise? Goods are already socially produced – it must have taken the collective effort of thousands to produce the computer at which I sit – it is manifestly absurd for a few to be allowed to hoard profits from the sale of products actually made by others.
In my opinion the tendency of homo sapiens to share, to take care of the helpless, and to cooperate in projects for the common good is as significant a factor in the species’ success as opposable thumbs or swollen prefrontal lobes. In American culture we have been led to believe that people are by nature obsessed with wealth and ego. The fact is that such inevitably frustrating goals are culturally constructed. In the end, the human mind is moved by love and aggression – both will always exist in the psyche and in life, but the question is on which to put your chips for a better future. Surely only one answer is possible. I not only don’t hesitate myself; I honestly have difficulty understanding how anyone could consciously prefer the alternative.