Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., George Orwell, Hellen Keller, Oscar Wilde, W.E.B Du Bois, Malcolm X, and more. Each of these figures are iconic shapers of history in their own right, but what unites them is a belief in socialism.
This is no appeal to authority fallacy where I just throw a bunch of noteworthy socialists on the page and pretend this alone justifies socialist theory. In fact, socialist theory is highly nuanced and hotly debated. There are a plethora of disagreements in the schools of thought between the individuals I have listed above, just like the dissent within our current capitalist society, namely between Democrats and Republicans.
But what is the fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism?
The simplest answer is that in capitalism, humanity works for the economy, whereas in socialism, the economy works to better humanity. Oftentimes, members of modern society will equate more government as intrinsic to socialism, the aftermath of Cold War propaganda. But the truth is, there is never any mention of the state in socialist theory, and there are factions of socialists which advocate for the abolition of the state entirely, while others view it as a vehicle for enacting humanitarian and socialist policy, but not as a central tenet of socialism. It is worth noting that policies such as worker-coops and universal healthcare are socialist because they work for the people, while the government is just the most efficient way to enact these policies.
The idea that socialism is just when the government does things has been widely amplified, making it unbelievably easy to look at any overstep or authoritarian measure of any government, and call it socialism. This is what Rand Paul, among others, defines as socialism in his book The Case Against Socialism; however, Paul also cites a survey of millennials by Reason Foundation, which claims that “only 16 percent could identify socialism as government ownership of the means of production.” Paul believes that this means that kids don’t understand the perils of socialism, but in actuality, he is the one who doesn’t understand it in a contemporary context. Socialists and communists are who gave us the weekend, unions, the forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, just to name a few fundamental elements of our modern socioeconomics. Between 1900 and 1912, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs in 1912, 160 councilmen, 145 aldermen, one congressman, and 56 mayors, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Berkeley, California, and Schenectady, New York, were elected as Socialists. In Coming to Consciousness: Eugene Debs, American Socialism and the "Negro Question," Josh Honn writes, “One of the more astounding ways in which Debs openly confronted and defied the racial climate of the time was by refusing to speak to segregated audiences. This "progressive" stance caused near riots during his tours of the South as Debs often relayed to his reading audience. In his Indianapolis World article Debs spoke of a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama where ‘a riot was almost precipitated’ because of his demand that the proprietor of the hall admits [blacks].” Debs was miles ahead of the curve in the 1920s, an integrationist challenging status quo American racial views.
But that’s enough theory, hypotheticals, and American history. For now, let’s discuss concrete, tangible problems and solutions. Personally, I like to ascribe my positions and let the labels fall as they may, from heretic to satanist to post-modern neo-Marxist (an ironically fear-inducing oxymoron for another time), many on the left are called a lot of things, so I’ll leave the labeling up to you.
First, we can start with our healthcare system.
Our American healthcare system is one of the most dysfunctional on the planet and is the only one that puts citizens under medical debt. I contend that a single-payer healthcare system, which is free at the point of service, is not only more efficient, but also less expensive, and leads to higher happiness, which is the ideal goal in socialist philosophy, to maximize human happiness.
This seems like a relatively straightforward goal, so when the UN releases the World Happiness Report, ranking Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway as the top five, why are we not taking inspiration from their policies?
It’s no surprise that all of these countries have universal healthcare, a few with public and private sectors, like Switzerland, and a few that are single-payer, such as Norway and Denmark. Echoing that sentiment, the best healthcare systems in the world are ranked as follows: Canada (single-payer), Denmark (single-payer), Sweden (universal), Norway (single-payer), Germany (universal), the United Kingdom (single-payer), Japan (universal)... sense a trend?
Whenever I bring these up, critics of socialism may say that Denmark has a private sector, and they aren’t socialist. Sure but if that system isn’t socialist, then why aren’t we implementing it in America? Funded entirely through taxes, the Danish healthcare system is universal and based on the principles of free and equal access to healthcare for all citizens at point of service, as well as supplementary private plans in the Danish system. Label it whatever you’d like- it doesn’t change the fact that their system is superior by every metric and worth taking inspiration from.
If our goal for society is the pursuit of happiness for all, why should we leave 84.2 million of our citizens underinsured for something as basic as healthcare? Why do ambulance rides cost $164 per mile? Why is the average cost of giving birth $32,093 when 40% of Americans can’t afford a $400 medical expense? The costs exponentiate in immorality in fringe cases like Apo Osae-Twum, a mother to premature triplets, who racked up $877,000 in medical expenses while taking care of three premature babies.
Additionally, one-third of GoFundMe fundraisers are for medical bills. What kind of system must be in place for citizens to resort to hoping for the generosity of others just to stay alive? Where is the concern for the pursuit of happiness there?
This is why I believe that the measure of an economy needs to be based on those that live under it. If our measures of the economy are the GDP, stock market (which the top 10% own 84% of), and unemployment, then China would have a much more appealing political system based on these numbers alone.
Something often touted in America is the ability for anybody to become rich. I’m the son of two immigrants who worked insanely hard to get where we are today. To that end, I am eternally grateful, but the sad truth is that there are other places where the ‘American Dream’ is more possible than in America. Luckily, instead of collecting anecdotes, we can use studies and statistics, most prominently on the metric of social mobility, or the ability to move up in classes of income and wealth. And to no surprise- Denmark ranks first on the Social Mobility Index (SMI), followed by Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Slovenia, Canada… South Korea (25), Lithuania (26), and eventually the United States of America placing at 27th place out of the 82 countries ranked by the World Economic Forum. This is not to say that America is bad, but for our wealth and position as a global superpower, it has the potential to be so much better by using tried and true policies for our citizens.
Education shows a similar result, and while private higher education in America is undeniably among the best on the planet, let’s look at public education instead. The OECD compiled samples of tests of 15-year-olds between countries, and lo and behold South Korea ranks first in reading and math while placing third in science. Finland gets the silver on reading and math but finishes with gold in the sciences. Canada (third, fifth and fifth), New Zealand (fourth, seventh, and fourth), and Japan, Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland all placing higher than America, who finished fourteenth, twenty-fifth, and seventeenth. Again not bad, but far from the greatest on Earth.
Some proponents of capitalism argue that we must further privatize things like healthcare and education, and deregulate business as a whole. Unfortunately, this kind of deregulation leads directly to monopoly and predation, as evident by robber baron business plans such as John D. Rockefeller, who simply undercut and bought out his competitors to create a monopoly. This deregulation is extremely relevant even now, as the 2008 financial crash was a direct result of the lack of continuation of the Glass Stegall Act, signed into legislation by Franklin D. Roosevelt 70 years earlier in order to prevent, you guessed it, another depression due to predatory banking. Another extreme consequence of deregulation is climate change. When 100 companies on the planet create 71% of carbon emissions, how will letting them run unburdened by regulations slow down these emissions? Time and time again, businesses have demonstrated that they will put short term profits over long-term global sustainability. Current scientific models predict that we are on pace to be three degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average by the end of the century. Currently, we are sitting at roughly one degree Celsius above that average. This may not sound like much, but to get a sense of scale, consider that the last Ice Age was 4.5 degrees Celsius cooler than the twentieth-century norm. This three-degree prediction implies that Miami and Shanghai will be underwater, millions displaced, huge famines, and severe storms on the planet. Even just a two-degree increase would result in iceless arctic summers at least once per decade, the destruction of virtually every coral reef, and a heightened frequency of cyclones, droughts, and famines. The IPCC report also recommends that we keep warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, which requires drastic change by 2030, and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Corporate anti-environmentalism was especially obvious in the 1990s, when in 1991, for example, a group of coal utilities devised an advertising and public relations campaign that would also recruit scientists to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”. Republican pollster Frank Luntz produced a memo on behalf of oil companies that wrote, “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”. This is literally short term profits over humanity while companies, the entire Western Fuel Association which Luntz strategized for, fully understood the repercussions of their actions. This denialism has even seeped its way into our legislature, most prominently in Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose top industries was “Oil & Gas” at the tune of $377,689, and whose top contributors were Murray Energy and Exxon Mobil, both of which donated over twenty grand. His most famous argument was tossing a snowball at the president, pictured below. The way to solve this gross corruption and lobbying? Publicly funded elections through credits, which would be considered a socialist policy as it is for the people.
Another egregious failure of capitalist America comes in the form of our prison industrial complex. When the thirteenth amendment was added, one group of people was excluded from the abolition of slavery, criminals. So, when private prison companies and other corporations sign deals with the state to get easy labor at the whopping salary of $0.90 per hour, they immediately place the short term punishment and their own profits over the rehabilitation of criminals. It really is no wonder then that the U.S has the highest incarceration rate per capita, and a recidivism, or re-arrest, rate of state prisoners at 83%. Norway used to have a similar recidivism rate (91%) while being concerned about punishment and profit, but once they switched over to rehabilitation treatment, things changed for the imprisoned. Once the Norwegian Association for Criminal Reform (KROM) was formed, they began to act. In 1970 they abolished prison labor, and by 1975 they had abolished juvenile delinquency jails. There are currently 43 prisons in Norway, and all prisons are driven by the “import model”, the import model means services are given to inmates just as they are given to those not incarcerated i.e., health services, education, access to a library, etc. The longest sentence allowed in a Norwegian prison is 21 years, with no death penalty or life sentencing, although the new penal code allows for a 30-year maximum sentence for crimes related to genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. Additionally, inmates don’t lose the right to vote or study. These measures have led to a less than 20% recidivism rate, an over 400% decrease, and one of the world’s lowest crime rates. Socialism or not, it seems like rehabilitating criminals instead of exploiting them seems to further humanity a lot more.
But what about innovation and invention? This is a point many make that makes sense on the surface, what about the profit motive? Some may ask, why would someone go on to be an innovator and inventor if they could make the same money as a janitor? Well not only would I contend that janitorial work is essential to our society and should be compensated through a living wage, but also most people that delve into fields like STEM don’t often do it for the profit motive. They have a personality that leads them to discover and want to help humanity. The most famous example was Jonas Salk, who refused to patent the polio vaccine because he simply wanted to benefit humanity. Additionally, NASA astrophysicists barely crack six figures but make breakthroughs on the new frontier almost daily. The government invented the internet, the very medium which allows us to communicate across oceans. Even the Soviet Union beat America to space, and on many different facets of the Space Race without the profit motive. In fact, most scientists in history were relatively wealthy people that pursued curiosity on their own volitions, demonstrating that a for-profit motive isn’t even partially necessary provided that those scientists have a stable infrastructure. Furthermore, a Gallup poll shows that happiness and satisfaction on a purely monetary basis plateau at a salary at roughly $75,000 per year. Presumably, this is because that $75,000 goes towards substantive needs in personal infrastructure, like rent, food, internet, and more, with a little space left for personal spending and saving. It is also worth noting that while the 2018 nominal median income per capita was $33,706, the mean income per capita was $50,431, demonstrating how the ultra-rich skew statistics like average income, as seen below.
Is a profit motive part of invention and innovation? Perhaps, but it is certainly not the only or most predominant factor.
Another criticism levied at those that criticize capitalism, who now tend to be younger, is that they’re poor and jealous, which is no surprise as most of the millennial history was made up of 9/11 and the Patriot Act during childhood, the 2008 recession while entering the job market, and the 2020 pandemic into parenthood, all while never experiencing the luxury of a great economy for the people. The same argument levied at richer socialists like Bernie Sanders is that he’s a hypocrite. I could state that poor capitalists are gullible and rich ones are greedy, but the reality is that none of that really matters when discussing an economic philosophy.
One interesting point many make is that although capitalism isn’t perfect, it’s infinitely more preferable to Maoist China or the Soviet Union, to which I would agree. However, this would be a mischaracterization of the current approach to post-capitalist philosophy. My approach to addressing the modern economic situation is not the magical resurrection of Soviet Russia or other authoritarian and communist regimes, but rather to identify issues in the current system which seem to cause unhappiness and instability, and find solutions. Additionally, systems like monarchism and feudalism stood in those same positions in history and had the same rebuttals. We have had kings and peasants, slaves and owners, landlords and serfs, and now employers and employees, a historical cycle of hierarchy that needs to be substantially reduced, if not broken, in order to maximize happiness and minimize inequality.
An instinctive reaction among many when hearing about socialism or communism is that if capitalism goes, so does everything we hold dear. When I think of communism in a historical context, I tend to think of austerity, conformity, hunger, scarcity, and rampant propaganda. These are not irrational fears, as Russia and China have so elegantly demonstrated, but the reality is that there were commodities well before both capitalism and communism that we enjoy, like booze or wine, and there will still continue to be things like video games after capitalism, even Tetris was a Soviet game. In fact, America wastes billions of pounds of food while we have 37 million people suffering from food insecurity, 11 million of whom are children as between 30 and 40% of the food in America becomes food waste. We have more than enough resources to help stop the problems that plague our contemporary society, we just need to put our minds to it, and commit to helping people. On a lesser note concerning quality of art, just look at what capitalistic pressure has done to movies and books that have a need to sell instead of being appreciated.
Another instinctive reaction to words like communism from most Americans is death. Millions upon millions of deaths caused by things like famines. But this type of death by famine, or even intentional deprivation, isn’t restricted to one form of economic philosophy whatsoever. British capitalists and imperialists caused the deaths of 1.8 billion, yes billion with a capital B, Indians during their reign, as well as robbed it of $45 trillion, yes with a capital T, according to Indian Professor, Utsa Patnaik. Capitalism and imperialism are also inextricably linked to the Native American genocide in America (estimated at around eight million deaths), slavery (even modern slavery in prisons), and other atrocities in history. To imply that mass genocide and crimes against humanity are reasons to count communism out would also classify capitalism as beyond the pale, instead of the true culprit, violent authoritarianism, which manifests itself in most societies regardless of economic policy. In fact, imperialism and capitalism have been the direct motivation for instating literal dictators and crushing fair elections. There have been over fifty-six coups in Latin America that we know of, the most damaging being the Nixon-led militant overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende, who promised to nationalize industry for the people. The CIA then rolled out the red carpet for dictator Augusto Pinochet to waltz in and end free elections during his reign. To truly paint the picture of the destabilization that America backed, here is a recollection of the coup, “Just before the capture of La Moneda (the Presidential Palace), with gunfire and explosions clearly audible in the background, Allende gave his farewell speech to Chileans on live radio, speaking of himself in the past tense, of his love for Chile and of his deep faith in its future. He stated that his commitment to Chile did not allow him to take an easy way out, and he would not be used as a propaganda tool by those he called ‘traitors’ (he refused an offer of safe passage), clearly implying he intended to fight to the end.” Allende committed suicide during the coup. A similar story rings true for the 1953 coup of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh when he attempted to nationalize Iran’s own oil industry for themselves instead of involuntarily exporting it to America and Britain. Another opposition to democracy happened with Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, a democratically elected communist, where the United States backed Ngô Đình Diệm of South Vietnam, who decided to cancel elections during the Vietnam War. Even now, the war on Iraq has continued through multiple decades despite the fact that the original onus for the war, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, was a lie fabricated by the Bush and Cheney administration. During the war, the company Haliburton received federal arms contracts worth $39.5 billion, the first of which was a bidding war on a $7 billion contract that only Haliburton was allowed to bid on, pre-Iraq war. And wouldn’t you know it, the CEO and Chairman of Haliburton until 2000, when he assumed public office and received stock options, was none other than Dick Cheney. Even a term as seemingly benign as the Banana Republic is a reference to politically unstable countries that exported bananas, which the United States took advantage of while sewing even more instability in these nations. But that’s enough imperialist history for now.
To sum up my main polemic, capitalism as we know it is a defective economic system because, although it’s great at creating large amounts of wealth, it distributes that wealth incredibly inefficiently, where efficiency is defined not as the capacity to maximize total wealth, but as the capacity to maximize total human happiness.
In the wise words of Noam Chomsky: “Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.”
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*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.