dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Micro-socialism: unpacking and analyzing an error

It might seem like flogging a dead horse, but there’s an important conceptual point that I failed to make in my last post. Or rather, I ran out of time and space, and it didn’t seem central to my thesis there. I want to make it my central point here. Look again at this passage from Sirico’s article in Crisis:

What about the Soviet Union? We are told that this wasn’t really socialism. And what about Nazism–the German word for national socialism? Oh, that’s not socialism either. What about the growing impoverishment in once-rich countries with social democratic governments? The failure of micro-socialism in the United States, where entire communities have lived on government subsidies and are plagued with frightening levels of social pathology? They say that this is not socialism either.

Focus on the last claim. Sirico’s point here feels tossed-off, but it is worth unpacking and examining in detail. What does he mean by the neologism “micro-socialism”?

Let’s start with the positive. It could be said that the term implicitly undercuts one apparently widespread assumption on the right, namely that the current administration represents the final triumph of some contemporary socialist fifth column. In other words, we’re not talking about “macro-socialism” in the United States (whatever that might look like), which in this context feels like a refreshing nod to reality.

So far so good.

From there, however, things get a bit strange. For if we don’t live in a comprehensively socialist state, the implicit point is that we do live in a state which engages in small-scale applications of socialist principles. We’re told moreover that there’s a causal connection between that application and what Sirico calls “frightening levels of social pathology.”

Here, a reality check is in order: social programs are established to address the basic needs of dislocated workers, students, single mothers, veterans, the elderly, and so on. There is no unified community or communities to speak of. What we have is a spectrum of various and variegated experiences. Since there’s no single community, neither is there a unitary mode of living “on government subsidies.” This is nothing more than a vile and divisive political trope. Similarly, reducing the struggles of middle-class and working-class Americans to an expression like “social pathology” is both risible and insulting. In the end, despite its almost-legitimate ring of social scientific authenticity, Sirico’s point is nothing more than another expression of the disastrous 47% thesis that essentially caused the Romney/Ryan campaign to derail and implode.

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

It's pretty clear that "socialism" needs to be defined.  As Sirico uses the term in the passage you've quoted, I assume he's using it to mean something like, "as Detroit has been governed for the last 30 years", i.e. Detroit would be an example of micro-socialism.  (I'm just guessing that is the kind of thing he has in mind.)  

I don't disagree that Detroit has serious problems, but is Detroit socialist?   Detroit, as far as I know, is still home to some of the world's exemplary capitalist institutions.  Perhaps one could argue that the auto bailout, which preserved a lot of GM jobs for at least a few more years, is a socialist intervention in that it was a government intervention.   But by that criterion, Wall Street is socialist, as a number of large financial institutions were bailed out by the federal government during the same time period.  And while I suppose that one could argue that social pathologies are prevalent on Wall Street and even that they are frightening, they are different pathologies than prevail in the poor areas of Detroit, and I don't think they are caused by government bailouts.  I rather suspect that less government regulation of financial markets might exacerbate the pathologies one encounters on Wall Street. :-)

 

So, can I assume that Sirico ignores other micro-socialist attempts - for example, the US oil & gas industries receive upwards of $10 billion in tax breaks.  Isn't this a form of socialism?   You could go on and on with the examples of micro-socialism in which business/industry get favored status in our nationa/society via tax breaks; lobbying activity; laws that favor big business; etc.  And yet, because these are in the arena of big business, no one draws attention to them and they would never be called *micro-socialism*.

The mantra of socialism in the past (at least the Marxist variety) has been:  from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.

The examples Bill cites are a variety that says:  From each according to his ability to lobby and bribe to each according to whatever he wants.  But we cover it with all kinds of euphemisms.  It's simply corporate welfare, no matter how you couch it.

Here's a good old definition of "socialism" from the Encylopedia Britannica of 1911:

"As a theory, it begins whenever the state is perceived to have a distinct office from other factors in the order of society, and that office is so magnified that the whole or main charge of the economic resources of the people is assigned to the state, whether for production or for distribution."

In other words, it's a governmental system in which the government of the whole has charge of both the production and distribution of material goods.

While the U. S. at its beginning didn't have charge of producing and distributing all material goods, it did produce, own and make available to everyone the country's public national highways, which, it seems to me, qualifies as a not so small form of socialistic action.  Do the libertarians want to do away with Rte. 1?

Further, at its beginnin the U. S. had functions (at least on a state level) which made the production of other sorts of goods possible, viz., public schools, police departments, the post office, the banking system including the issuing of money, as well as the military.  Given that such common action for the common good has been part of our government from the beginning I don't see how a charge of "socialism" can be considered unAmerican.  The only question should be:  is socialistic action ever wise?

Note:  The words "socialistic" and "socialist" have taken on such negative connotations that I doubt we'll ever get a rational discusion of such matters until we invent some less weighted words to express the ideas.     

I was wrong above about an early national highway system.  Best I can find in Wikipedia is that there was none. I apologize for the mistake.

Since you focussed on the last claim, I'll focus on the first claim.  There is a strange logical error here- that because the same word ("socialism") was used to describe Nazism, Soviet Communism, and Scandinavian-style welfare states, they all do the same thing and are all morally equivalent.  That's simply not true.  No rational person, faced with the choice of living in Denmark or in the Soviet Union, would hesitate for a minute.  (A very similar logical error, and one which really bothers me, is made by school districts whose "zero tolerance for drugs" crusades extend to little or no tolerance for legitimate medical drugs such as ibuprofen and asthma medication- because we use the word "drugs" for all of them, right?)

If Fr. Sirico means "entire communities that lived entirely on government subsidies" then he's behind the times- that hasn't been possible since welfare reform in the 1990s.  If he means "entire communities that can't survive without some government subsidies such as food stamps" then he needs to look at the fact that in many areas, the minimum wage is low enough relative to even the cheapest rents that people with minimum wage jobs need food stamps to eat because rent absorbs most of their wages.  And that's because market capitalism inherently includes a relentless drive to reduce wages.