Let’s Talk About Socialism, Baby

Originally published on 21 Century Nomad on November 8, 2011

Though it is a taboo topic in the United States, socialism is everywhere in Paris. At least, aspirations toward it abound. The city as I see it is awash in advertisements for socialist party candidates and those of “Front de Gauche,” a coalition of leftist and workers parties in France. Not limited to contemporary politics, the city wears its socialist history on its sleeve. Historical markers that explain the relevance of places to the revolution of 1789-99, and to the events of the Paris Commune of 1871 remind Parisians and visitors that the history of France is one of cyclical struggle for radical social, economic, and political change. Far from the derogatory intonation “socialist” has in the U.S., its ideals are infused into everyday life, and are mainstream influences in the political terrain of France. Though the word is hurled about rather liberally in the U.S., many do not know what it actually means. This post addresses one simple question: What is socialism?

In basic terms, socialism, as an economic system, features common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, like with a worker owned and controlled factory, farm, or cooperative coffee milling station. Socialist workplaces and governments are managed by consensus decision-making models as opposed to those that feature a power hierarchy, and privilege the views of the few over the many. They are, or strive to be, egalitarian models of management which foster equality by making sure that wealth is distributed on the basis of contribution to society. Production for use, as opposed to for profit, à la capitalism, is the norm. With these ideals socialism privileges and protects the common good. This is the model in the simplest of terms. Throughout history though, the concept has taken on a variety of permutations in both economic and political spheres.

The term socialisme is said to have been coined by a Frenchman by the name of Claude Henri de Rouvroy (1760-1825), who is more commonly known as le comte de Saint-Simon. Ironically, given the difference in political tenor today between France and the U.S., Saint-Simon came up with the term and its underlying ideas after observing early U.S. society, which he found to be influenced far less by social status than that of France. His writing on socialism shaped the thought of significant social theorists including Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, Émile Durkheim, and Karl Marx. Far from a radical revisionist, there were many inconsistencies in Saint-Simon’s writing, but he laid the foundation for more refined social, political, and economic theory to come.

While evidence of socialist ideals are found as far back as antiquity, and are common in the indigenous traditions of many cultures, it was during and immediately after the Industrial Revolution, when popular opposition to growing wealth inequality arose, that the development of theories of socialism took root and grew. It was the great social and economic changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution that spurred Marx and Engels to develop their theories of communism during the mid-nineteenth century. The call by Marx and Engels for a worker lead revolution in “The Communist Manifesto” was considered overly radical by some socialists of the time, and though the two camps share very similar philosophies, this distinction stuck and set the stage for two divergent paths of political and economic development.

To most Americans, communism is a dirty word. This legacy is owed to the vast amounts of anti-communist propaganda and state persecution of presumed communists that colored the second half of the twentieth century in the U.S.. In part because of power abuses and corruption that existed under Soviet Communist rule, and in part because leaders of the U.S. viewed communism as an economic and ideological threat to capitalism and democracy, communism was vehemently opposed throughout the Cold War period. Because communism is based on socialist principles, socialism became guilty by association in the American popular consciousness. “Charges” of socialism were repeatedly leveled at now President Barack Obama by the McCain/Palin camp and by mainstream media outlets during the 2008 presidential race as an attempt to discredit his candidacy.

More common than communism, yet less well-known in the U.S., is the practice of combining a capitalist market economy with socialist governance, and government ownership of some industries and services. Under the Labour party in Britain industries including gas, coal, electricity, rail, iron, steel, petroleum, automobiles, aircraft and shipbuilding were nationalized between the 1950s and 1980s, though capitalist logic has chipped away at this model as government contracts are paid to private companies to run many of these industries.

Many Nordic countries, including DenmarkIcelandNorwaySweden, and Finland, apply socialist principles in government, and as social welfare checks on the capitalist economy. Though their policies are not uniform, they all promote high employment rates, gender equality, progressive work related benefits, and wealth redistribution. Because of these policies these countries do not have the extreme wealth inequality and poverty found in the U.S.. In the post-colonial context, many countries throughout the Asian and African continents implemented socialist principles in their governance and economies, though many of these efforts have struggled with or been defeated by neoliberal policies of global trade and finance.

In recent years many countries in Latin America have turned to socialism to correct the damage caused by neoliberal trade policies during the second half of the twentieth century, and as protection from further harm inflicted by the global north. Populist leaders Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Luis Ignácio “Lula” da Silva (Brazil), and Manuel Zelaya (Honduras) have implemented varying degrees of socialist policies during their periods of rule. Because some of their socialist policies conflict with the goals of global capitalism, they have been unpopular in the eyes of U.S. leaders. In fact, it has been documented by many that the coup that overthrew Zelaya in 2009 was in part orchestrated by the CIA and the U.S. military. Echoing the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, some refer to the leftist turn in Latin America as the “pink tide.”

The economy of France, like these other nations, is organized by a mixture of socialism and capitalism. The state controls rail, electricity, aircraft, nuclear power, and telecommunications. But, like the U.S., the conservative government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is now in the process of divesting itself of ownership, and cutting public services in an effort to skirt the crisis of global capitalism. As I write from Paris, public denouncement of the severity of cuts to nationally funded services are rampant. The calls from Occupy Paris are in line with those from Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations.

An important difference though about resistance here is that it has real political purchase within the system itself. While the Democrat and Republican parties in the U.S. are increasingly similar in rhetoric and practice, particularly as judged by the actions of the Obama administration, French politics features real party distinction and debate. Representatives from both the Front de Gauche and the Parti Socialiste are distributing flyers on the streets of Paris objecting to proposed cuts to salaries, pensions, and public services on the basis that these will engender inequality, particularly along gender lines. Here, the left is not on the fringe, but is a major player in politics. In 2007 Ségolène Royal, a member of the Parti Socialiste, narrowly lost the race for president to Sarkozy. In 2012 François Hollande will represent the socialists and contend with Sarkozy for the position.

While many Americans think of socialism as a contradiction to the free market system of capitalism, which up until recently has been popularly revered, in truth, the market in the U.S. has never been “free.” Regulations of corporate behavior have existed for centuries, as has government assistance to them. In the aftermath of some calling the initial Wall Street bailout of 2008 a socialist response, philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote, “Is the bailout then really a ‘socialist’ measure? If it is, it takes a peculiar form: a ‘socialist’ measure whose primary aim is to help not the poor but the rich, not those who borrow but those who lend.” During an interview on Democracy Nowhe explained that his central intellectual thesis is that “capitalism always was socialism for those who were on the top.” What he means is that under the logic of capitalism, nations funnel public resources into the pockets of the wealthy, who we now call the “one percent.”

Whether or not we are comfortable with the word, the Occupy movement that so many of us now feel aligned with as members of the “ninety-nine percent” is premised on socialist ideals. Participatory democracy, equalization of hierarchies and power differentials, redistribution of wealth, breaking the corporate grip on governance, funding social welfare programs and public services, and thereby ensuring human rights, are all tenants of a socialist system. The Declaration of Principles of Socialist International offers an extensive discussion of socialist goals and methods of achieving them, including those cited by the Occupy movement. This agenda is not to give power to any one political party, but rather, to the people of the world, who through real democracy can control political, social, and economic conditions. This is not a movement against trade and technology, but a movement for making these facets of global society work for people, not corporations and the wealthy.

A necessary precondition for achieving these goals is the decentralization of global trade, finance, and governance. This does not mean the end of international trade, but as I wrote in a recent post, the snatching of control out of the hands of the power elite, and bringing it down to a grass-roots level. This work requires an open, active, and engaged public sphere. In contrast with the feared uniformity of communist rule, democratic socialism allows for local, regional, and national variation. It is not a one-size-fits-all model. With dedication to freedom, justice, solidarity, democracy, human rights, equality, peace, and environmental sustainability, what’s not to like about contemporary socialism? It is time we let go of the long enforced taboo on the topic, and have an honest conversation about what a democratic, egalitarian society looks like.