Monday, 21 July 2014

Why is socialism a dirty word?

'Socialism' in every day parlance draws strong reactions. Indeed, it singles a person out as radical and different. Any political commentator who calls himself a 'socialist' clearly will not be considered 'mainstream.' It is unusual to think of a socialist as 'moderate.' It is even harder to think of socialism in practice as being democratic. The fortress of the Soviet Union and the only remaining totalitarian society right now, North Korea, say it all: coercion, repression and intimidation. Any project with the aims of collectivism is doomed to fail. Any project which stresses individuality and freedom is guaranteed to succeed. That's all people want: freedom of the individual.

The objectives of socialism can be summarsied thus: egalitarianism, organisation and equality. There is no reason why a socialist society should carry any of the aforementioned semantic categories. Winston Churchill was opposed to the nationalisation of health, education, coal and mining industries because he thought that the UK would result in an authoritarian society like the Soviet Union. In fact, the mixed economy and the welfare state resulted in the best distributions of wealth in the history of the United Kingdom. Socialism has a rich history in countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, New Zealand, etc. It is a mistake to equate it solely with the fully-nationalised behemoths like the Soviet Union and North Korea. It is even a mistake to associate it with mixed economies like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador which have these characteristics but are authoritarian and repressive in equal measure.

The charge brought against socialism is that those in power abuse it. A charge brought against social democracy is that public spending in welfare and other types of state intervention are not sustainable. With regard to the first charge: reformist socialism is intent on co-operating with other ideological creeds in parliament. Even the British Labour party is composed of a variety of schools of thought - from socialist, to Keynesian, to liberal and, recently, free market. It is a mistake to think that socialism cannot compete in parliamentary politics. That presidents like Chavez in Venezuela have been corrupt and abused their power is characteristic of socialism. This is why one ought to divorce it from demagoguery and apply it to parliamentary politics (the way German, British and Scandinavian social democratic parties have). It is not true that Keynesianism and the like is not sustainable. The type of austerity we see now is self-defeating: contracting economies simply continue to contract. The reason why states like Britain crumbled in the late seventies is because they decided to needlessly intervene in the markets. Likewise, the most recent market crash was an aftermath of the reckless deregulation in the housing markets in the USA and Wall Street. It had nothing to do with Keynesianism.

So, the free market evangelists say: relinquish the power of the state and the individual will flower. What this instead creates is pockets of wealth in a select few and vast inequality elsewhere. Indeed, what free market advocates claim is that socialism and Keynesianism do not create wealth. What it does create instead, however, is wealth that is more equally distributed. It is fairer and more egalitarian. Free market evangelists centre their arguments on the spurious notion of 'meritocracy' (this really gets under my skin!). Those who are more skilled will get further than those less skilled. What invariably happens in societies like UK is that only those in the upper crust will prosper. Those who graduate from Eton are more like to go to the the top universities and later grab the top notch jobs. It is also ludicrous to gauge 'skill.' There is far more ambiguity: there are intelligent people out there who are unable to find jobs. In fact, the more likely outcome is that companies hire boring, unassuming, conformist people because they are more compliant and will get the job done. To assume that those who sign on benefits are so because they are less skilled is barking lunacy. Often intelligent and creative people take refuge in academia. Often, they find their formal education so boring that they defect and, indeed, sign onto the dole and continue to live with their mothers. Free market capitalism is based on the following tenets: 1) you will prosper if you exploit others, 2) you will be fine as soon as set up your own business and 3) 'business' should trickle down to areas to which it is incompatible such as education and health.

Still, the notion remains that free markets are the only way forward. It is lamentable, these people say, but it's the only way. These people claim that the alternatives people like me offer lead to recessions. Mention the word socialism and it summons up the image of tyrants like Lenin and Stalin. George Orwell, a socialist, knew all this and characterised the soviet fortress as it was - a repressive, dictatorial and an intrusion on privacy. These chracteristics are of course also compatible with free markets - as we see in China and the Snowden leaks.    

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