Chris Trotter suggests that given socialism has begun to matter in the USA, it will very soon matter everywhere else too

Chris Trotter suggests that given socialism has begun to matter in the USA, it will very soon matter everywhere else too
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, foreground, one of a new generation of Democrats. Photo AP.

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 He writes a fortnightly column for

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Good article, CT shows his true value to journalism here with the analysis of the US political scene. It is interesting though that he did not raise the underlying issues behind the Paris riots, that might give the yanks pause in their rush to a love affair with capitalism. Venezuela though should give any country pause and cause them to avoid going too far to the left. Again a lesson in what the purpose of Government should be all about.

The Americans do seem to be well skilled in making their population feel like they have the ultimate freedom while their politicians quietly screw with them.

Venezuela's problems are largely due to failing to diversify their economy from oil fast enough - before crude oil prices crashed during the GFC.

Hugo Chávez rolled out a lot of social programs and was starting to diversify the economy, it just didn't happen fast enough.

The current incumbent, Nicolás Maduro seems to be rather incompetent, which doesn't help matters. There are many forms of socialism, Karl Marx for example wasn't necessarily bagging capitalism, he was critiquing it.

Anybody who says; "socialism is bad" and/or uses Venezuela as an example of failed socialism .. well, they show themselves to be very ignorant concerning 'socialism's' meaning and the geo-politics of Venezuela.

I give you .. Simon No Bridges .. LMFAO

Interesting interview re Venezuela:

Saker Interview with Michael Hudson on Venezuela

Introduction: There is a great deal of controversy about the true shape of the Venezuelan economy and whether Hugo Chavez’ and Nicholas Maduro’s reform and policies were crucial for the people of Venezuela or whether they were completely misguided and precipitated the current crises. Anybody and everybody seems to have very strong held views about this. But I don’t simply because I lack the expertise to have any such opinions. So I decided to ask one of the most respected independent economists out there, Michael Hudson, for whom I have immense respect and whose analyses (including those he co-authored with Paul Craig Roberts) seem to be the most credible and honest ones you can find. In fact, Paul Craig Roberts considers Hudson the “best economist in the world“!

I am deeply grateful to Michael for his replies which, I hope, will contribute to a honest and objective understanding of what really is taking place in Venezuela.

Kleptocracy and a narco-military power base seems to be Venezuela's downfall.
This is a fair summary as any:

Zack the problem is that virtually all politicians and people who follow them are too wed to an ideology that provides a bias to any policies they implement or accept. The middle ground requires a mix of both socialist and capitalist policies. It doesn't take too many clues to realise for all of society to thrive and prosper, this is what is required. Imbalance causes injustice and inequity. One cannot live without the other.

I believe strongly in a hand up not a hand out. So more policies to get people into home ownership etc etc.
The govt has a strong role in the hand up approach. Eg. what the govt used to do in the 60s and 70s to help people into home ownership

Agreed Fritz. the aim is to create an environment where business can thrive and pay a good level of wages. Difficult balancing act for NZ with a high level of reliance on exports.

Recent history has seen business success at the expense of their workers, who have had their living standards decline. The 'free market' economy and resulting globalisation has seen large corporations run rough shod over workers and countries, avoiding taxes while making huge profits. this is to the benefit of a small minority, not societies or people. But make no mistake, they would be very good at convincing you otherwise. Market manipulation has led to house prices increase at rates way out of step to the rest of society, and those who claim "that is the market" are simply justifying the manipulation to benefit a few at the expense of the majority. It all needs to change.

People should not have to have a hand out to survive, BUT there must be the jobs for them to go to at decent wages. Kids should be able to have an expectation to get into a job when leaving school at a reasonable wage. Even the average, 'unskilled', limited educational achiever should be able to find work. There should be no expectation that the dole will be waiting, or that by getting pregnant a benefit will support them. Choices only come with responsibility.

Interesting same day this is published the latest poll shows National heading lower. Are people finally waking up to the fact that re-distributive polices are in their own economic best interests?

Maybe even rural people will finally vote for themselves instead of their wealthy bankers. Nah... too much thought involved for that.

Obama kicked the can down the road. It's now clattering into the gutter.

I have yet to learn whether Trotter gets the global Limits to Growth paradigm, or the extent of global population overshoot, or the problem of entropy. But the problem is one not of left/right or socialist/capitalist, it is one of sustainability.

And right now we arent even close.

Although I'll grant him that an altruistic society is the only format which fits long-term-sustainable living.

"But the problem is one not of left/right or socialist/capitalist, it is one of sustainability." Disagree PDK. sustainability is ultimately affected by both groups. The problem is that people see the problem as red or blue and don't, can't or won't see that it is in the middle that they need to be. It is only then that sustainability can be truly addressed. Too far either side of centre and then those that hold the power believe the rules don't apply to them and only others need to follow them. sustainability only works when EVERYONE works together to exist in a finite system/ecology.

Just a thought - have we already gone too far, and the system/ecology is beginning to collapse?

I think we're on the same page.

And yes, I think the system is beginning to collapse, and it would be surprising if our PM didn't know this. Pity no reporter is brave enough to ask the question - they'd have to have done the homework first and I see no evidence of that.

Timeline? From my POV, it's already overdue but - herd-mentality being what it is - the end may come quite rapidly. Financial collapse first (via lack of faith in debt repayment possibilities) then very local very fast. Maybe to the drumbeat of war(s) over what's left. It's too late for a gentle descent........ The ecology (without which we're dead) is already decimted by our displacing of biodiversity, which is accelerating.

Interesting times - I just wonder at the mass who don't 'get it'.

Niall breaks the news to Trotter. "There are a great many reasons why Trump ought to be a one-term president. Yet the further the Democratic Party lurches to the left under the influence of AOC and her fellow social justice warriors, the higher the probability of his re-election. In American politics, unlike in Europe, those who live by the s-word die by the s-word.

...The measures proposed in the Green New Deal to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” are breathtaking. More nuclear power stations? Er, no. Comrades, we’re talking about a “10-year national mobilisation” on the scale of the Great Patriotic War . . . sorry, I meant the Second World War. By the end of the Green Leap Forward, 100% of US power demand will be met from “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources”, which means geothermal, hydro, solar and wind. Nukes are out, according to the FAQ sheet on the “10-Year Plan” released by AOC’s office.

“All existing buildings in the United States” are going to be upgraded “to achieve maximum energy efficiency”. And there is going to be investment in high-speed rail “at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary”. All this is going to be financed “the same way we paid for the original New Deal, World War II, the bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich and decades of war — with public money appropriated by Congress”.

While they are at it, the people’s commissars are also going to “guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security to all people of the United States”, not to mention “(i) high-quality healthcare; (ii) affordable, safe and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and nature”.

The highlight of AOC’s FAQ sheet was the pledge of “economic security” for people “unable or unwilling to work”.

This is what you get when you recruit your legislators more or less directly from college."

""Capitalism was born out of the obscenity of the Atlantic slave trade."" Slavery was not an abberation - it was universal practice (Greece, China, Incas, Mayans, Ottomans, etc). Every empire had slaves even the now dominant empire: USA.
The exception was the UK that established by law that slavery "was and always had been illegal in England' - while hypocritically financing and shipping African slaves to the Americas and supporting UK colonies in the Caribbean. Most histories of modern finance have capitalism originating in northern Italy, Holland and then the UK. Once the industrial age arrived machines took the place of slaves - working on those machines was only slightly better than being slaves but they couldn't sell your children, etc.
Surely it has been capitalism along with technology that killed slavery. happy to discuss whether socialism is better than capitalism but no need to put blame in the wrong place.

Forgot to mention a good article full of interest.

And the Atlantic slave trade was only small beer compared to the Arab slave trade. " In total, this trade moved 12 to 18 million people and enslaved entire families, including children.[ii] The Arab slave trade is not nearly as eminent as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and deserves far more attention than the topic currently receives as it was an integral part of Islamic life during the time period, involved more people, had similarly brutal practices, and happened for a much longer period of time than the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Arab slave trade operated from the 8th century and lasted until the 20th century, with the main focus being Africans but some Europeans as well.

The well known socialist Chris Trotter gives a history lesson showing socialism is all about giving money to the ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else. Is that news? I honestly thought everyone knew that and has known for about a century. Pretty sure Trump already knows it, he as a rich NY businessman has benefited from the largess. However Trump also knows that socialism (giving money to the ultra-rich) is unpopular.

Who is going to break it to the socialist Chris Trotter that giving lots of money to the ultra-rich is not popular? Just last week Chris Trotter (on another venue) was congratulating Venezuela for gifting money to the ultra-rich associates of Maduro and Chavez. Chris Trotter was shocked that this was not being widely supported.

To paraphrase George Orwell from The Road to Wigan Pier - socialist's don't love the poor, they just hate the rich.

Orwell was a socialist, and he was actually rather pioneering in understanding the lot of people at the bottom through his own experience (e.g. Down and Out in Paris and London). He just wasn't afraid to criticise bad ideas anywhere on the spectrum.

Don't underestimate the power of the Market.

The USA became a socialist country after the GFC when they socialised the losses of the "too big to fail companies" that went bust

They actually socialised a debt which they cannot repay (reminds one of Mack and the Boys in Cannery Row, and their IOU), something to do with entropy - wonder how many have heard of it?

James Shaw was the first I heard who said it - "Socialising debt while privatising profits". It can also be said for risks (Socialising the risks, while privatising the gains). This seems to be the scourge of capitalism and greed. It is bad enough when done overtly, as in the post GFC, but it is also done covertly. NZs OBR does it for the banks, and should not be allowed.

The modern left, when rejected by the electoral centre decide that what they really need to do is go harder left... Like all those failed and failing left wing parties of NZ past (Alliance, Greens) and Labour under union man Little who were edging towards electoral oblivion. Or UK Labour under Corbyn. I would say long may it continue, but our democracy needs a strong viable opposition dominated by the politics of the centre not the extremes

Only way it is possible to believe in going hard left, something proven wrong so many times, is by excluding all dissenting voices from their echo chambers. But all the noise made by those mobs of left wing radicals doesn't translate into popular support in fact it probably alienates more than it recruits. And as always the vaunted left youth votes migrates to the right with age as they get jobs and grow out of their ignorance and naivety.

Don't think Mr Trotter's analysis is as tight as it appears.

First of all the 70% Federal Tax that "Ike" had to accept during his 8 year tenure was imposed by the Democratic Congress during the Roosevelt & Truman years. Eisenhower like Trump never had a "Filibusterer" proof Congress. Even Reagan had to "negotiate" everything with the Democrats under Tip O'Neil. Kennedy in the early 60's like Trump in 2016 fired up the economy by severely dropping the Indiviual Tax Rate.

In terms of Neo Liberalism and the economy the American economy like the NZ economy of the 60's & 70's was totally reliant on employing the lower educated to produce goods and services. 3rd World "cents of the hour" workers like the Chinese were locked out of the Western economies and contained behind the "Bamboo Curtain". The brains (Financial Elites) in both countries who brought in Globalism sacrificed the lowly educated middle class workers on the altar of "Free Trade", which has allowed tens of millions of Asian poor to leave the farms and decent upon gravely polluted Asian cities in the process but at a terrific cost to western workers.
Remember PM Helen Clark was going to fix that with her "Knowledge Economy" which would lift up the lowly educated Kiwi's to seize the new economy jobs. Instead of we have had 10 years of immigrant workers coming in to take those jobs-and force the Kiwi workers in the bottom half to accept a life time of renting in the process.
Thus the spoils of Neo Liberalism have been very selective across the social classes - quite unlike the period after WWII when a rising tide lifted all boats, as JFK proclaimed.

Hopefully Trump can deliver a save for the American Middle Class worker who is now a "Republican" voter. The party of Roosevelt which claimed and retained the American worker up to and including Obama's election has lost the plot and dissolved into what in New Zealand would be the equivalent of the Green Party. Warren,Harris, and others running under the Democratic banner plus Pelosi and her young turks carry little favour with the American working class these days
The 2020 Presidential race is on its way to being just as memorable as 2016.

I doubt America would be better off in your ideal world of closed borders. American made technology would be expensive and exclusive, people would have less incentive to be educated or move to cities, and the country would end up well behind on technology. America would end up something like Russia.

Only a few weeks ago on this site John Garnault opined on what has emerged from "Behind the Bamboo Curtain" and while it may be a modern version of Free Trade it certainly has not been Fair Trade. Prior to this Globalism period Western Country's would have collectively safe guarded their populace from unfair trade- rather than embrace it. Trump was elected to sort it and History will judge one day but this year even the economists are awakening to the truth:

contained behind the "Bamboo Curtain".

Felt a pang of nostalgia when reading that. Bamboo Curtain, Iron Curtain, Dark Continent...kind of miss those times.

It's touching to see Chris Totter portraying himself here as a sensible moderate. But we haven't forgotten the time he called for a Venezuelan style coup in New Zealand:

Chris Trotter, clearly an admirer of “El Presidente”, mused wistfully about what the Kiwi analogue of Chavez would look like. “Imagine Hone Harawira blended into Willie Apiata, with the ideological fervour of Jane Kelsey and Annette Sykes,” he suggested. He dreamed of such a composite being sent “into South and west Auckland on a mission to build a movement capable of smashing the neoliberal order in New Zealand”, and spreading “his revolutionary Aotearoan socialist ‘circles’ across the entire country”.

And on the list of "accomplishments" of huge government programs: if we colonise the galaxy, Chris Totter will no doubt proclaim it was the government who did it, as they shot a man in a tin can into space first. The rest was just details.

All good stuff people. Nice job. Whoever said we needed both (left & right) for balance and that political longevity reigned in the centre was spot on. Even Hell'in Clarke did that. In extreme times we need balance more than ever but that pitch is lost in the noise from either extreme, sadly. What our left need to understand is that their tertiary theoretical lifestyles are only created when the capitalists succeed. To give away our wealth, first you need to create it, & I think democracy still functions quite well in this space, if you can remove yourself from the left-right thing. In that sense, Winston was right when he went left. We did need a break from the Nats, even though I am & will always be a Nat. What will take us down is the greed in the big institutions like the banks, insurance companies & the like, which has been found wanting a bit lately. You may be right Kate, it might already be too late, & from what I'm seeing & hearing & reading, there doesn't look to be a way out of the extreme debt we all find ourselves in these days. NB: Even if you have no debt, you live in a culture that's up to its drone in debt, & sooner or later that implodes as we saw 11-12 years ago now.
We'll get through it, somehow, we always do, but it's always a little bit different on the other side, that's all.

Socialist countries are flourishing, while capitalist countries languish. It is simple really, if you want to flourish like Venezuela where citizens have lost 15kg on average, thanks to the Chavez diet and the worlds largest oil reserves (next to the worlds largest oil consumer), then we need socialism. If you want people to struggle like the Aussies then keep the evil capitalism going.

One of your best articles Chris Trotter, thank you.

If you want a vivid example of how good socialism is vs capitalism go live in France for a year then nasty old Britain or the USA for a year and tell me which one you think has a better society.

The democrats in the US should not be promoting the likes of Warren or Cortez or they will self destruct the party. Trump will get back in. Socialism has proven time and again to destruct a country because there is little incentive for entrepreneurs or hard workers to get ahead...only cronies of the corrupt. The likes of 70% tax on second jobs that NZ had in the 1970s saw massive emigration of Kiwis to Australia where they were not punished for wanting to work hard and better their lives. That experiment is done with hopefully.
Nothing wrong with leaning a little to the left or right...going too far on either causes massive social disruption....the trick is getting the right mix ….which will continue in perpetuity. You will never make everyone content but the more socialism is used the more a country will be relegated to boonies of success.
All the talk of capital gains does not seem to mention anything about the already high tax rates of NZ. I also notice when comparing countries tax rates that NZ GST is never mentioned (probably the highest in the world) extra huge tax on everything in NZ including all healthy foods...just a small example of socialist tax giving an obese nation no incentive to buy healthy foods. NZ even taxes taxes ie rates are just property taxes and these are even taxed GST..and even on the main family home....incredibly naïve.
In the capital gains arena I see no talk of reducing other taxes..just tax,tax,tax.
People can choose to destroy their own country or not......Good luck on socialism

"We Have A New Kind Of Mass Squalor In America" But Kunstler Warns, Socialism's Not The Answer