Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Since Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has brought the whole issue up again, we really should put this old squabble to rest.
The dictionary defines "socialism" as: "A theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of land, capital, etc., in the community as a whole." When the idea began, back in the early 19th century, that really did mean "community": the local town or village; by the turn of the century, Britain at least was studded with towns that boasted municipal water-systems, municipal garbage-collectors, municipal bus systems, municipal farmers' granges, and so on. Often these community organizations -- like guilds and labor unions -- were entirely self-grown, with no government connection whatever. 'Twas the Russian Revolution which brought about the system of national socialism, with its concept of government-managed economy, and we've all seen how well that worked out. Government-managed economies, like corporate-managed economies or aristocracy-managed economies, have reliably ended in disaster.
On the other paw, this doesn't mean that group-owned or group-managed property doesn't work. In fact, there has never been a human society which didn't have both both group-owned and individually-owned, both "public" and "private" property. Among even Stone-Age societies, the individual might own and control his/her own spears, club, baskets, furs, and so on, but the whole tribe owned the hunting territory. In that sense, we've always been at least partially socialist. It doesn't help to try to draw divisions according to "the means of production", because almost anything can become a "means of production"; a simple length of string can be made into a hunting-snare or a fishnet, and nowadays a single 3D printer can become a whole factory. And never mind how an individual -- or a group -- can create services. No, group or individual ownership of property isn't the problem, and never has been.
What causes the trouble, and what created the very concept of "socialism" in the first place, is control of property, and the economy -- backed up by force. Whenever one person (king, high priest, company boss) or even small group (aristocracy, priesthood, corporation) claims control over a whole industry, or economy, or all the productive land in a community -- and backs up that claim with an army (soldiers, cops, private guards, or whatever) -- the result is oppression under any name.
See how this worked out in modern history. In the early 19th century the beginnings of modern industry, based on steam-power, made the existing urban middle-class amazingly rich. This had two effects: 1) the landed aristocracy noticed, and despite its horreur of being "in trade" (and thereby possibly doing, yuck, physical labor) wanted to get in on the act; 2) the working-class and poor now had choices; they could stay in the country and work on the aristocracy's farms, or they could move into the big cities and work for wages in the burgeoning factories -- it was just a question of which paid better. The aristocracy, which used to make its money from tenant farmers on its land, began using that land for mines (particularly iron and coal) wherever possible, and for factories (and never mind how this spoiled the land for farming), both of which required increased labor, so that now the aristocracy was in competition with the middle-class for labor -- and that meant increasing pay. The working-class and poor benefited from this situation, but neither the middle-class nor the aristocracy liked it. The next major change was the invention of mechanized -- therefore more efficient -- farming methods. This meant that the aristocracy could work the same land more efficiently, with much less labor. That was a blessing for the upper two classes, because now the farming aristocracy could get rid of their ancient armies of tenant farmers with the Enclosure Acts -- dismissing the tenant-farmers and closing off the open lands which the peasants had used in common -- and those former peasants now had nowhere to go except into household "service" or to the mines and factories. With the stroke of a pen, the labor shortage was gone; now there were more poor seeking jobs than there were jobs to accommodate them. Wages plummeted accordingly, and don't even ask about working conditions.
Now there had been rebels against the excesses of the aristocracy clean back into Roman times, and the working-class and even the poor were aware of the medieval Diggers, and Ranters, and the legends of Robin Hood. And, contrary to what the aristocracy liked to believe, the working-class were not stupid. They knew very well that one power they had was numbers, and with it the threat of withholding their labor. What they lacked in theory was supplied by sympathetic idealists from the middle-class. There had been guilds and less permanent labor unions and strikes before, and the working-class began expanding on these. Out of this stew of ideas and need grew the first concepts of socialism, particularly from the memories of those lost common lands and the observed power of the organized and unified working-class. In that sense, it was the 19th-century British aristocracy who invented Socialism, or at least brought it on themselves.
In America the situation was a bit different, since there was abundant land -- and, thanks to Thomas Jefferson's Homesteading Act, it was available to anyone willing to work for it. All through the first half of the 19th century, American lands were steadily filled with small ranchers, trappers, hunters, miners, and especially farmers -- plus small towns filled with small shopkeepers who catered to those small-holders. An individual didn't need to unite with fellow-workers to survive, or succeed; s/he did need to be minimally competent at his/her particular trade, and at his/her own maintenance and defense. Besides, the Constitution guaranteed the individual a certain amount of political power without need to organize into guilds or unions. Nonetheless, a certain amount of group effort was necessary for survival -- against natural disasters, bandits, angry Indians or, increasingly, political raiders as the Civil War approached. Besides, labor unions weren't unknown. Printers, cabinet makers, carpenters and cordwainers were organized enough to go on strike in the 1790s, various unions along the east coast began uniting to demand a 10-hour (rather than 12-hour) work-day in the 1820s, and when the steam-powered factory system began growing in the 1830s the early unions began forming city-wide federations. The National Labor Union, formed the year after the Civil War ended, managed to persuade Congress to give federal government workers an 8-hour day. In this fashion, American Socialism developed from the concept of group action rather than common ownership.
Ironically, the concept of group ownership was developed in America primarily by the upper-class and the government, rather than the working-class.
Before the Revolution corporations had been allowed only by royal charter, and after the Constitution was ratified corporations were still distrusted -- because they were seen as playing with "other people's money" and suspected of trying to override states' rights. Throughout the 19th century, especially after the Civil War, corporations gained more rights and powers until the federal government felt obliged to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Various laws passed since then have not reduced the power of corporations, leading to the old labor-organizers' description of the American economy as "Socialism for the rich, and Free Enterprise for the poor".
The federal government began by claiming ownership (which various Indian tribes contested) to the land all across the continent to the west coast, and the surrounding waters, and throughout the 19th century it used the lands for military bases and otherwise to sell or grant to settlers. In the 20th century the government did an about-face, keeping large tracts of the lands for parks, restricting the means by which citizens could buy or claim the non-park lands, and managing the lands' resources with varying policies. By calling these commons "public lands" the government pushes the idea that all of the American people own the lands and the government only "manages" them for us. The nature and quality of that management has come under considerable criticism in recent years, especially since the Bundy case.
Small and low-level group property experiments have cropped up repeatedly through American history -- business co-ops, church communes, trusts and partnerships of various sizes -- without annoying the neighbors, but in general the large-group property concept of Socialism has never been popular in the United States.
The concept of national Socialism, the idea that the federal government should regulate and control all aspects of the economy, is even less popular -- and has been ever since the end of the Revolution, when the assorted new states began arguing over the Constitution and the amount of control the federal government would have over the states. Eventually this tension would lead to no less than the Civil War, whose scars haven't yet faded, more than a century later. This is why socio-economic experiments -- like legalized marijuana, legal gambling, different forms of Welfare and public health-insurance -- are usually tried in individual states first. Even those which succeed in becoming federal law remain subject to constant scrutiny, and may be repealed years or even decades later.
Altogether, the assorted components of Socialism have always had only limited popularity in the US. As a unified system, it'll never catch on. We can stop using it for a political scarecrow and deal with elements of its components rationally, one by one, as individual reform experiments, as they come up.