Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, amid a complete shift in the political prospects and approaches in Eastern and Central Europe, it became fashionable to proclaim the death of socialism.
The command economies of the Eastern bloc failed, the argument went, discrediting the socialist ideal and making it clear that markets were sacrosanct. It was the end of history, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, the end of the mankind’s “ideological evolution” and the acceptance of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.
What the events of the last 20 years have shown, however, is that this fundamentalist belief in markets has functioned to obscure the fact that we continue to live in a world that balances markets and socialism. Most members of the public support free public schools and libraries and see the need for police departments and other publicly funded emergency personnel.
While most people don’t like is paying taxes — mostly, I would argue, because the tax argument has been framed badly — we accept the need to socialize some level of risk and benefit. We believe in a larger public good.
The right-wing assault on the public sector has distorted the balance. We must lift all regulations, they argue, to allow businesses to prosper. But when things go south, we need to step in and help the business owner — but not the displaced worker, who is not entitled to form unions or ask for unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare, an pension or universal health care.
When the American banking and finance systems were collapsing, the free-marketeers who ran the system and who pushed for its deregulation — to remove the last vestiges of socialism from it — lined up at the federal treasury with their hands out. They were only too willing to accept the government’s help — to, in effect, agree to socialize their losses by having the taxpayer make them whole.
If the bank bailout was not “actually existing socialism,” then the phrase has no meaning.
If the research and exploration tax breaks for the oil companies is not “actually existing socialism,” then what is? After all, these breaks are based on the idea that we need to socialize the cost of exploration because it will generate more petroleum and help lead us down the road to energy independence.
If it wasn’t for “actually existing socialism,” we would not have the nuclear sector. Not one plant could have been built without public backing.
One might even argue that Major League Baseball — and all of the major professional and college sports programs — owes much of its success to “actually existing socialism,” because most ball parks and stadiums were built with public money, or at the very least public loan guarantees.
I’m not arguing to continue these policies. Taken as a whole, they represent the worst of the socialist impulse and probably are best called “crony socialism,” which is a close cousin of the crony capitalism that has infected much of the business establishment.
What I am arguing is that there is such a thing as the social good. Health care should not be left to the market, not only because it is inefficient but because the incentives driven by the market-based approach (through profits) are in conflict with the provision of quality care and humane values.
The Affordable Care Act is a small step toward the change we need, but it leaves profit as the single-most important determining factor. The hope is that, once Americans come to view health care as a right, we will be able to change the way it is provided.
In my vision of a socialized American, we would be greatly expanding Social Security and we would make college free for all while extending mandatory schooling to at least two years of community college.
We would build enough housing to end the scourge of homelessness, distribute food to people who need it and pass the costs along to the corporate masters who currently create the conditions in which these social ills flourish. The existing safety net acts as a subsidy to big business by passing along these costs (and the cost of pollution and other byproducts of business) to society as a whole. And despite this — or maybe because of it — the safety net is inadequate to the task.
Make business account for all of its costs and maybe it will function in a more efficient manner. If it won’t do it on its own, then society has a responsibility to provide these needed services, but we also have the right to make corporations pay.
Hank Kalet is a poet and reporter in New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012
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