Socialism, American style: “What’s Left?” September 2012, MRR #352

American socialism.

Now there’s an oxymoron, if there ever was one. So, would it come as a surprise to learn that socialism is alive and well in this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where individualism and competition are valued above all else? I’m not talking here about the US labor movement, the struggle for the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week, the IWW and the CIO, the Grange and Populist movements, the extensive agricultural cooperatives, the popular unrest of the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1960s, and the like. That’s the past. What I’m talking about is real, existing socialism, in the here and now, some of it among the most cherished and honored institutions this country has to offer.

Let’s begin with American capitalism, of the corporate variety. Starting with William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man, published in 1956, there have been numerous exposés—nonfiction and fiction—contending that the American ethic of rugged individualism has been supplanted by a collectivist ethic that values teamwork, commitment, loyalty, risk aversion, and conformity. Amplify this with corporate hierarchies and the complete lack of civil liberties in the workplace. Then, combine this with a phrase that has become common since the 2007 financial meltdown, that American capitalism “privatizes profits and socializes losses” where banks and large corporations benefit from runaway profits but manage to fob off their losses onto the US taxpayer and society at large via government subsidies and bailouts, and you get a condition of state socialism for the rich and cutthroat capitalism for the rest of the population.

Of course, this description is also synonymous with corporatism, which is a polite term for fascism. Even if Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell’s assertion that fascism amounts to a combination of ultra-nationalism with non-Marxist socialism is accepted, the notion that America’s system of capitalism represents some type of socialism is a stretch. And thanks to Occupy Wall Street, a growing number of people disdain corporate capitalism altogether. There is a couple of examples of American socialism that are much more positive and far more popular.

Football, for instance. No, not soccer, which is played by most of the world. American football, which nobody else on the planet plays. Football, the quintessential American sport. The National Football League has 32 member football teams, and guarantees a rigorous profit sharing, an equal division of revenues from TV, ticket sales, merchandising, etc. Comedian Bill Maher argues that the NFL “put[s] all of it in a big commie pot and split[s] it 32 ways,” and contends that the NFL “literally shares the wealth.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admits that the League “combines socialism and capitalism” in a system “that has worked quite well for us.” Then you have the Green Bay Packers, a football team owned by the community of Green Bay, Wisconsin. A publicly-owned non-profit, the Packers are literally owned by their fans. Their bylaws state that the Packers are “a community project, intended to promote community welfare.” It’s the epitome of communitarian socialism in the quasi-socialist National Football League which, by the way, has legally banned any more Green Bay Packers-type ownership structures. But this community ownership scheme guarantees low ticket prices, sold-out games, fierce fan loyalty, and the Packers’ permanent residence in Green Bay.

For yet another example of good ole American socialism, we go big. Imagine an institution with 1.5 million members, with both the individual participants and the institution as a whole under strict government control. A combination of training, discipline and education creates an institutional culture that has a clear sense of both rigorous hierarchy and spirited camaraderie, a collectivist society in which cooperation, teamwork, conformity, obedience and loyalty are emphasized, and where the social unit takes care of its own. It is a thoroughly racially integrated institution that prides itself on providing equal opportunity and social mobility for all its members. Education and training are available at virtually every stage and age, with career education available for constant improvement, and a system of colleges and universities that are top notch. Housing is socialized, with the lowest ranks living and eating communally. Transport is socialized, as is medicine. Cheap, single-payer health insurance is available for all, and there is lifelong coverage for retirees. Excellent childcare is provided for working parents. And the difference in pay between the lowest and highest ranking members of this institution is only 10 times, quite a contrast to the 300-plus gap between CEO and lowest paid worker in the private sector.

What is this stunning example of socialism in practice right here and now in these United States of America? Why, the US military, of course. Retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, Wesley Clark, once said: “It’s the purest application of socialism there is … It’s a really fair system, and a lot of thought has been put into it, and people respond to it really well.” He also said that the country could learn from the military’s sense of mission, and from its emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.

Be all you can be. It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure! The Few. The Proud. Indeed! The irony here is that this quintessential embodiment of state based socialism is, simultaneously, a conservative bastion of anti-socialism.

I had a junior professor in sociology when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Wally Goldfrank, who told me that being drafted into the US Army was the best thing that ever happened to him. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when the US military was considered a horror and an abomination, an institution that killed babies, perpetrated genocide, and promoted imperialism. Yet, for an upper middle class Jewish boy from Brooklyn, it was Wally’s first encounter with people of different races, in particular, black and brown folks. He considered the Army a profoundly democratic and democratizing experience. Now, at the time I attended UCSC, Wally was a full-on Maoist, an admirer of Red China, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the People’s Liberation Army. So, there was some affinity between his politics and his evaluation of his military service.

There you have it. Three examples of American socialism. First, a dubious, quasi-fascist, corporatist socialism (Wall Street’s corporate capitalism). Then, a communitarian socialism (the NFL’s community-owned Green Bay Packers). And finally, a state socialism (the US government run military). No need to disingenuously excoriate President Obama or the Democratic Party as evil socialists. There is plenty of American socialism to go around.

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