American socialism revisited: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, October 2021

Socialism for the rich; capitalism for the poor.

It’s an oft-repeated Leftist cliché that encapsulates an entire socio-political-economic analysis in a single sentence. It was first promulgated by Michael Harrington and frequently repeated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich. The gist of this argument is that capitalist corporations receive government largess in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and favorable legislation while the general population is left to fend for itself. Big business regularly receives favorable treatment and corporate welfare from the government which allows corporations to “privatize profits and socialize losses.” The rest of us are shit-out-of-luck.(1)

This isn’t actually socialism as in some form of collective ownership of the means of production. Rather, it’s old-school corporatism which is the essence of classic Fascism. The American corporate-state has its origins in the self-reliant, ruggedly independent, arch-individualism of the initial Anglo-Saxon/Scotch-Irish settlers of North America, but even they practiced collective action and communal work in their rural colonial and pioneer communities as typified by the custom of barn raising. Cooperative, collective, and communal traditions were the basis for an American socialism that arose first from the native American peoples who were conquered and nearly wiped out by the settler-colonialism which gave rise to the United States (as exemplified by the Cherokee practice of “cooperative work” known as gadugi). Early immigration from places other than the British Isles was also a significant source, starting with the “forced migration” of African peoples transported to the Americas for slave labor. The plantation working bees of Black slaves were the basis for the consumer, producer and worker cooperatives, mutual aid societies, and occasional communes organized by newly emancipated Black people. Finally, the waves of Scandinavian, German, Italian, and Jewish migrants from Europe to the US in the 19th century proved crucial to everything from organizing midwestern rural Cooperative Movements to the eight-hour-day urban labor movement championed by the American Federation of Labor and then the Industrial Workers of the World. The 1886 Haymarket Square riot highlighted this socialist moment.

The over-the-top Robber Baron capitalism of the Roaring Twenties briefly eclipsed this American socialism, which returned with a vengeance during the 1929-41 Great Depression. The militant labor organizing of the Communist Party-led Committee for Industrial Organization and the Socialist Workers Party-based Teamsters produced worker protests, strikes, sit-ins, riots, massacres, and insurrections. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to coopt this with his New Deal to prevent a sovietization of the US. Similarly, the John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Baines Johnson Great Society programs hoped to curtail the social unrest of the 1960s.(2) The Civil Rights Movement revived Black cooperatives and mutual aid societies, the hippie counterculture was known for its urban cooperatives and back-to-the-land communes, and the New Left exploded with cooperatives, collectives, and a militant wave of labor organizing. In particular, the wildcat Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement led to the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Black Panther Party practiced armed self-defense and communitarian socialism like the Free Breakfast Program. The Palmer and McCarthy Red Scares as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO were instrumental to the government’s suppression of this vibrant socialist history.

Today, the American Left is being revived by a new surge of labor militancy, the growth of Democratic Socialists of America’s conventional social democracy, and the spread of decentralized, anti-authoritarian, antifascist movements. In part this is in response to the general, historical drift rightward of US politics, not to mention the rise specifically of American neo-fascism and neo-Nazism. Given my thumbnail survey of socialism in this country, it would be both counter-historical and counter-factual for me to argue that socialism in America is thriving, imminent, or inevitable.(3) That’s due to everything from the aforementioned frontier individualism and settler-colonial origins of this country to America’s center of world empire and the deformed class structure brought about by rapid capitalist deindustrialization. There are a couple of American institutions—one big, the other small—that might be considered quasi-socialist depending on one’s perspective.

Picture a large 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 surprising example of socialism in practice here and now in these United States of America? The US military. 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.” (NYT, 6-15-2011) He also said that the country could learn from the military’s sense of mission, and from its emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.

I’ve known several friends who served in the US military during the Vietnam War. One in particular was drafted into the US Army and told me it was the best thing that ever happened to him. At the time the US military was considered by much of my generation to be a horror and an abomination, an institution that killed babies, perpetrated genocide, and promoted imperialism. Yet, for an upper middle class Jewish kid from Brooklyn, it was my friend’s first encounter with people of different races, in particular, black and brown folks. He considered the Army a profoundly democratic and democratizing experience. The irony here is that this quintessential embodiment of what some might consider state-based socialism is, simultaneously, a conservative bastion of anti-socialism. Conscription was replaced by an all-volunteer military—long favored by members of my generation—which actually accelerated the US military’s downturn into murderous unaccountability, Special Forces professionalism, and antidemocratic elitism.

Now consider something a little smaller. American football, which no other country in the world plays. Football is 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.” (Politically Incorrect, 1-29-2011) NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admits that the League “combines socialism and capitalism” in a system “that has worked quite well for us.” (60 Minutes, 1-30-2012) 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 banned any more Green Bay Packers-type ownership structures. This community ownership scheme guarantees low ticket prices, sold-out games, fierce fan loyalty, and the Packers’ permanent residence in Green Bay. But it’s hard to imagine typical Packers fans ever considering themselves socialists.

Somewhere in between the US military and the Green Bay Packers in size and scope is an economic institution like the Alaska Permanent Fund, where the state of Alaska owns the oil and natural resources in its territory and each citizen—as part owner of these collective resources—receives a monthly portion of the net income. The fund is financed by royalties on the use and extraction of these resources by private companies. A similar setup exists in Texas with the Permanent University Fund, a sovereign wealth fund based on oil revenue that helps finance Texas colleges and universities. This is a gray area depending on one’s definition of socialism and indeed of capitalism. It might be better to argue that American capitalism is a mixed economy that idealizes laissez-faire competition but which relies on mixed public/private economic partnerships at their best and on soft-core fascist corporatism for its day-to-day operations. I’m simultaneously a die-hard commie for which this isn’t socialism and an ecumenical Leftist willing to entertain the promise of socialism this might embody.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections and a liberally appropriated September 2012, MRR #352 “Lefty” Hooligan column. This is a redo, a remake, a rewrite, a version 2.0 of the same subject.
The Other America: Poverty in the United States and Socialism: Past and Future by Michael Harrington
Socialism and America by Irving Howe
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
History of the Labor Movement in the United States, 10 volumes, by Philip S. Foner
Marxism in the United States: A History of the American Left by Paul Buhle
The Meaning of Freedom and Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis
Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard
“What Is Socialism? A History of the Word Used as a Scare Tactic in American Politics” by Jeremy Hobson and Serena McMahon (WBUR, 3-7-2019)
“How Socialism Made America Great” by Jack Schwartz (Daily Beast, 7-1-2019)

FOOTNOTE #1:
American capitalism has resulted in the top 1% owning more wealth (a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion, or 30.4% of all US wealth) than the bottom 50% of Americans combined ($2.1 trillion, or 1.9%). This wealth disparity is not due to billionaires working harder than those earning minimum wage. Instead, wealthy Americans have more access and exposure to the stock market, and Americans owning the top 10% of wealth hold over 88% of all available equity in corporations and mutual fund shares. Indeed, the top 1% own more than twice as much equity than the bottom 50% of Americans combined. Nationwide crises like the COVID-19 pandemic only increase these disparities.

FOOTNOTE #2:
The New Deal and Great Society instituted a number of quasi-socialist government policies—among them medicare, social security, the minimum wage, and child labor laws—that few Americans today consider socialist. Or as Jack Schwartz, the late Newsday editor and author, once wrote: “Illustrative of [American socialism’s] far-reaching influence is the Socialist Party platform of 1912 which, among other things endorsed: An eight-hour workday at a decent wage, a public-works program for the jobless (realized later in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration), safety regulations for workers in the mines and factories, a child-labor law, an old-age pension, unemployment and accident insurance, a graduated income tax, an inheritance tax, suffrage for women, a direct vote in national elections doing away with the electoral college, the creation of separate departments of health, education and labor, and a convention to revise the Constitution. The first of their political demands was absolute freedom of the press, speech and assembly.”

FOOTNOTE #3:
That said, the American public generally supports greater state economic intervention and more government socialist policies. Sixty-nine percent support medicare-for-all. Sixty-three percent support free public college tuition. Fifty-nine percent support raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. Eighty-five percent support paid work leave for illness. Eighty-two percent support paid maternity leave. Sixty-nine percent support paid paternity leave. Sixty-seven percent support paid leave to care for a sick family member. Seventy-four percent support continued social security benefits without further cuts. Sixty-six percent support government-led environmental protections. Sixty-four percent support a wealth tax.

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