Sunday, March 1, 2009

Socialism, red-baiting, and political discourse: a trip I really didn't want to make

Dana calls it the return of red-baiting:

USA politics is rediscovering what has occurred on the Delaware conservative blogosphere for years: viz., if you want to nuke progressives instead of dealing with their arguments, then red-bait them....

Given that the USA requires New Deal like solutions to its quasi-Great Depression like problems, it's not particularly surprising to see the use of the S-word [socialism] by contemporary Hooverites....

In short, it's an old ploy used by a party and political ideology that has even run out of new material for attacking its opponents. It's a cliché used by hackneyed thinkers. The ad hominem is what is being conserved by conservatism. Let them have at it if that is the best they can do.

From long blogosphere acquaintance, I take Dana at his word that he does not equate differing on arguments and policies in and of itself as red-baiting.

But, part of the problem, I think, is that (a) some thoughtful people are asking whether current policies will carry us over from managerial capitalism into a more socialist state, and that (b) some of those on the left--giddy with the first control of both the executive and legislative branches they've had since the mid-1970s--are unleashing their imaginations on redistributive fantasies that are, well, about as far from capitalist as you can find.

Exhibit A: from Coyote, who is a thoughtful economic critic from a libertarian/capitalist perspective:

I am starting to wonder if Barack Obama crossed the thin red line between traditional American liberalism and socialism yesterday. Traditionally, liberals in the US have taken pains to generally argue that the rich need to pay for their programs because they are most able to pay. This differs a bit from socialists, who would argue that the rich should pay because they are guilty. For a libertarian like myself, it tends to be a pretty subtle difference, but I think it is important — are taxes on the rich enforced charity, or are they reparations?

I woke up this morning profoundly depressed, which is unusual for me. I have a good friend who is having some personal problems, so it is hard for me to separate effects in my mind, but I really feel like Obama stepped over a line yesterday. TARP pissed me off, but we have bailed out companies before (though not for this much). The stimulus bill absolutely offended me, but we have seen stupid pork spending insanities before (though not for this much). But Obama’s plan to remake tax law and the budget began with this paragraph:

This crisis is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle nor an accident of history, we arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility that engulfed both private and public institutions from some of our largest companies’ executive suites to the seats of power in Washington, D.C.

From the rest of the rhetoric in this document, and that of Obama and his supporters, the overriding message is that “the rich are being taxed more because they have sinned. This is pennance.” This is all the more amazing to me because Obama (and to be fair, his predecesors in the Bush administration) have gone out of their way to interrupt the normal market processes that punish failed behavior. Normally, if you take out a mortgage you can’t afford, you default and lose your home, and are hopefully wiser the next time. If you lend to someone who can’t pay, you lose your principal. If you make products no one wants to buy, you go bankrupt.

Is this red-baiting? I don't think so. You may not agree with him, but what Coyote is doing is raising a philosophical argument about policy.

Exhibit B: A recent series of comments over at Delawareliberal:

Geezer: We’re not talking politics here, Art Downs. We’re going to actually take their money from them. T’ain’t envy, it’s economy. Taking money from rich people has never brought economic ruin to a nation.

jason: If history tells us anything it is that when the wealthy are allowed to keep too much of their wealth out of circulation - it is a sure fire way to bring on economic calamity. Art - think Csarists Russia, France in the 1780’s or Hati under any one of their bloated strongmen.

Unstable Isotope: We definitely need more economic justice, that is clear but trouble can also ensue from radical redistribution. I think of the Chinese cultural revolution, Pol Pot in Cambodia and Mugabe in Zimbabwe. To me, what these all have in common is anti-intellectualism. So I think we need to have a more just economic system while still encouraging education, science and the arts.

Now let's stop and think about what's occurring in this set of comments:

We've going to actually take their money from them....

Comparing the social and wealth structure of the United States today to (a) Czarist Russia wherein the serfs were sold as part of the deed to the property and redistribution led to one of the most genocidal totalitarian states in world history; (b) to pre-Revolutionary France wherein the Church was the largest landowner and the Revolution produced a Reign of Terror that not only confiscated wealth, but killed the wealthy and led to a Bonapartist counter-revolution that embroiled Europe in continental war for two decades; and (c) Haiti wherein no democratic process existed because a single dictatorial family murdered the political opposition for decades, and which required an external military invasion to overthrow....

These are the best comparative examples to the current situation in the United States?

And what about the idea that what was wrong with the Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot's killing fields, and Mugabe's genocidal rule was not radical redistribution per se, but the fact that the leaders of said redistribution were anti-intellectual. Yeah: trouble can also ensue from radical redistribution....

The sheer intellectual, historical, and economic vacuity of this sort of pseudo-intellectual fantasizing about remaking society is, I think, exactly what fuels not only the propensity for red-baiting but also serves to give it credibility in the eyes of many middle-class Americans.

Lord Acton's principle applies here.

And, strangely enough, I do blame the GOP of the last eight years for the excesses of the new administration, not just for squandering prosperty, but for damaging the political process to the point that there no longer seems to be any middle ground left. That was not true under Reagan, not true under Bush 41, and not true under Clinton. All three of those administrations had to deal with people from the other parties and make meaningful compromises with them. We didn't get into real trouble until we had a prolonged period of one-party rule in both the executive and legislative.

There is now a conservative definition and a liberal definition of what America means, or of what being a good American means, or what American values mean, or what being un-American means, and the parties are doing their dead-level best to draw those definitions with such ideological purity that nobody from the other camp can find anything with which to agree. That certainly serves narrow political ends on both sides of the spectrum, but does it serve American interests?


Nancy Willing said...

heh, I forgot how a huge battle rose up out of Dave Burris' marking Dana Garrett as a socialist and Dana's furious demand for retraction.
I don't remember anyone calling anyone a communist.
Now to go and read the post.

Steve Newton said...

I think the C-word Dana is referring to here is "conservative" not "communist" but I could be wrong.

Tyler Nixon said...

Damn well said, Steve.

I just can't get over the arrogant hubris in human nature that never ceases to believe human nature can be remade or engineered, against...well...human nature.

Generation after generation continues producing those who believe in collective forced prescriptions for all "ills", or whatever fancies their ideology. The comments you listed above are nothing short of totalitarian in mindset, and damn scary considering they are coming from nominally-intelligent people.

Honestly even in my most hyperbolic thinking about Obama during the campaign never did I believe he would go so far so fast down the road to socialism.

To me Obama was absolutely a stealth socialist who pulled a truly breathtaking bait and switch on this country that eclipses George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" hoeey and his "uniter not a divider" bullshit, along with the rest of his phony rhetoric.

Sorry, Dana, but as Donald Duck Dunn of The Blues Brothers once said : "If the shit fits, wear it."

Delaware Watch said...

This is a rather simple matter, one you merely tried to evade, Steve, by obfuscation.

A socialist state is one that permanently owns the means of production. No one, except real socialists, is advocating that.

At the most, people are advocating the government to TEMPORARILY nationalize failing banks in order to save them and our national economy. So until you find any groundswell among progressives and liberals calling for the state to permanently own the means of production, you are just blowing smoke and trying to justify the use of the red-baiting slur.

Tyler Nixon said...

Sounds like a plan to socialize failure to me.

But really, Dana. Temporary versus permanent?? Who cares what prospective longevity you seem to assign it??

The cost of all these 'temporary' measures will stretch across so many lifetimes that your point is just an absurd reduction.

Yeah, we have quite a rich history of "just temporary" government expansionism here in the U.S. of A.

Get real.

Kn@ppster said...

"A socialist state is one that permanently owns the means of production."

A socialist state is one in which the workers permanently own the means of production.

Some socialist schools of thought contemplate the state acting as either a temporary or permanent custodian acting on behalf of the proletariat -- exercising ownership-type authority during a transition period -- but as a number of early Bolsheviks noticed before Stalin disappeared them, "substitutism" isn't socialism and is in fact likely (100% likely, historically speaking) to prevent the institution of socialism as the substitutes acquire their own interests.

Delaware Watch said...

"Get real."

Get real, you say. Tell it to Steve who left the nasty implication that if there is a little more progressive taxation in the USA today, then we could end up w/ Pol Pot like killing fields in the USA tomorrow. (What a leap!) Talk about getting real! Talk about a disgusting low blow and cheap shot (good ol' red baiting pure and simple)!

Brian Miller said...

Socialism: government ownership and operation of the principle economic assets and means of production.

Who runs the largest manufacturers -- the automakers -- now? 2 of the three are now run by a government-appointed "auto task force."

Who runs the major banks now? All the top 10 have "investment" from the government and are operated under the auspices of a government "banking panel" that determines compensation, expenditures, and has a veto on every major corporate decision that any of them make. The same government panel is compelling the state-operated banks like B of A to serve as bailout hubs for failed institutions like Merrill Lynch.

The new budget includes a significant tax increase on middle class two-income families to create a new "government fund" that will be used to administer health care. It also creates a new panel to "invest in" and "make decisions" about health insurers and health practitioners.

Those are three MAJOR hubs of economic activity that are already effectively nationalized and operating under government control.

Government publicly annexing, funding and managing once-private organizations is socialism. There's no getting around it.

Federal government will consume roughly 40% of GDP in the next Obama budget, with state and local taking up another 20%. SIXTY percent of the US GDP is government. Socialism.

Rather than complain about "red baiting," socialists like Dana should embrace the accurate label and argue on the basis of their policies rather than the historically-accurate language used to describe it. He should engage in good faith with his critics rather than playing word games.

Hube said...

Tell it to Steve who left the nasty implication that if there is a little more progressive taxation in the USA today, then we could end up w/ Pol Pot like killing fields in the USA tomorrow.

Dana: I don't think that's fair to Steve. He was addressing those at DE Liberal who raised the Pol Pot et. al. spectre.

Steve Newton said...

If you seriously believe I was suggesting that just a little more taxation would lead to the killing fields, you must be having a bad day.

Read it again: I was responding there to an observation made by Unstable Isotope that drew the parallel, and I was commenting on the intellectual, historical, and economic vacuity of those who made the comparison.

As for the rest, I didn't obfuscate a damn thing, and you know it.

Just like there is no pure free-market capitalism on Earth, there is no pure socialism, either. There are trajectories moving in either of those directions.

The whole point of my post, ironically, was that I agreed with you that the red-baiting charge is being used by the GOP to avoid serious policy debate, but that it is also being used in reverse (nobody has come up with a good term, yet, like capitalist-baiting) to stifle serious discourse from the other end.

Moreover, Tom Knapp accurately corrects you that socialism is worker control, not state control unless as a proxy for the workers.

Brian said...

Tom Knapp accurately corrects you that socialism is worker control, not state control unless as a proxy for the workers.

That's the classical definition, but the realpolitic definition is state control "on behalf of the workers" by a benevolent, all-wise and all-powerful bureaucracy.

Anonymous said...

The problem/crisis that has developed in this country is what I would call the obverse of "realpolitic" socialism, that is, state control on behalf of corporations by a quasi-benevolent, faux-wise and all-powerful bureaucracy.

Perry Hood

Brian Miller said...

state control on behalf of corporations by a quasi-benevolent, faux-wise and all-powerful bureaucracy

I guess I don't see the difference. Corporations are a creation of government that socializes risk while privatizing profit -- as such, I'm not too keen on them and view "control on behalf of corporations" to be basically "control on behalf of government."