By Chris Trotter*
“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” With those words, spoken during his 2019 State of the Union Address to Congress, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signalled to the American people that “socialism” would be a central issue of the 2020 elections.
It has been a very long time since either the word, or the ideology, was deemed sufficiently important to warrant such intense political scrutiny. Of one thing, however, the rest of the world can be certain: if “socialism” has begun to matter in the USA, then it will very soon matter everywhere else. Those who doubt the truth of this are simply invited to watch what’s happening in Venezuela.
If, however, socialism is about to become a live political issue in the United States and around the world, then it is vital that voters be given a clear understanding of its meaning. What, exactly, is meant by “socialism”?
The clue, as they say, is in the name. Socialism arose out of the conviction that it was not sufficient to construct a political system around the rights of individuals and their property. Human-beings were social animals, they lived in societies, and their welfare depended on how well those societies functioned. In political terms, therefore, the “social” has as much claim to our attention as the individual. Indeed, the health of the latter is bound up inextricably with the health of the former.
One does not have to be a Marxist to grasp the contradictory nature of these competing claims. What becomes of individual liberty if the claims of society as a whole are accorded primacy? Or of society, if the claims of individuals and their property are permitted to take precedence over the welfare of multitudes?
History supplies ready answers to both of these questions. Capitalism was born out of the obscenity of the Atlantic slave trade. The Russian and Chinese iterations of socialism were constructed on the graves of millions of innocent human-beings. What History also reveals, however, are the immense blessings bestowed upon those human-beings fortunate enough to live under political systems capable of reconciling the competing claims of the individual and the social.
It is scarcely an exaggeration to aver that those nations generally considered to be the most “advanced” are precisely those which protect the civil rights of their citizens and accord fulsome legal protection to their personal property, while, at the same time, securing the collective welfare of their societies through the public provision of health, education, housing and welfare services funded by an elaborate system of wealth redistribution. The Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, Italy, the Benelux states, Canada, and, of course, Australia and New Zealand, all fall into this fortunate category.
So, too, though much less emphatically, does the United States. In fact, until relatively recently, the United States boasted a greater level of public ownership than the United Kingdom. Many of these collectively owned facilities went unnoticed by the casual observer on account of their municipal and state (as opposed to federal) provenance. The destruction of New York’s iconic World Trade Centre – the Twin Towers – may have looked like an attack on capitalist usury and greed. What fell on 9/11, however, were properties constructed by and, up until 1998, controlled by the municipally-owned New York Port Authority.
Which should not be construed to mean that the US federal government has not played a central role in fostering the growth of American capitalism. The procurement policies of the United States armoury contributed hugely to the development of America’s iron and steel industries. Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act transferred millions of acres of federal land to tens-of-thousands of pioneer families at giveaway prices. The development of the US railway network would have taken decades longer without similar public lands grants. The US Army Corps of Engineers built a surprisingly large percentage of America’s critical infrastructure. The Internet – without which global capitalism would still have a decidedly nineteenth century appearance – was gifted to the American people by DARPA: the publicly-owned Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.
That American socialism continues to have a disturbingly close relationship with its military is hardly an original observation. It was that diehard Republican “socialist”, President Dwight Eisenhower, way back in 1960, who warned Americans about the growth of what he dubbed the “Military-Industrial Complex”. Eisenhower, it should be remembered was President when the tax on America’s top income-earners was a confiscatory 70%! (It’s enough to make you wonder whether the newly-elected New York congresswoman and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist”, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, who has won considerable notoriety recently by promoting a similar top rate of income tax, is a Democrat or a Republican!)
Many on the American Right despise what they consider to be the “socialist” economic policies of the English economist, John Maynard Keynes. Indeed, the discrediting of “Keynesianism” played a crucial role in the ideological victory of what is now called “Neoliberalism”. Of less interest to the Right, however, is the role played by “Military Keynesianism” in underpinning the “golden years” of post-war economic growth and prosperity. In many respects, the Cold War made socialism in America possible – even as the US government denounced it in the Soviet Union.
It is an historical commonplace to observe that the Great Depression was only ended by World War II. Without the preparatory reforms of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, however, the colossal American war effort would have been much less effective. It was Roosevelt who brought American capitalists to the all-important realisation that individual liberty, and the sanctity of private property, faced imminent extinction amidst the cascading social wreckage of the Great Depression. In a very real sense, it was New Deal “socialism” which civilised America’s infamous “red-in-tooth-and-claw” capitalism, and made “The American Century” possible.
The resurgence of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist thinking which has dominated the economics and politics of the last 40 years has obscured the historically critical role played by public ownership and public investment in America’s extraordinary success. In statistical terms the distribution of wealth in American society has returned to the socially (and therefore politically) unsustainable disequilibrium of the “Gilded Age” – when such capitalist “robber barons” as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Frick held sway.
The victory of Neoliberalism, however, proved remarkably fragile. When the Global Financial Crisis struck, at the end of 2008, and the entire American economy teetered on the brink of another Great Depression, there was just enough usable historical memory in the United States’ fried political system for the necessary compromises to be made. It was the collective wealth of the American people, marshalled by Barack Obama and his advisers, that pulled Wall Street back from the abyss into which it was staring – and which was staring so balefully back at them. Newsweek magazine caught the moment best; proclaiming from its front cover: “We are all socialists now.”
Who will break the news to President Trump?
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.