Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Socialism is a 4 . . . 9 Letter Word

If you are going to have a discussion involving different political philosophies it is important to be on the same page regarding the meaning about these terms, which is the purpose of our inquiry. Please note that I am not arguing whose policies are better. That is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT line of inquiry. I am just saying that before you call some a “name” then you should know what that name means.

Yesterday we took a look at Liberalism. Let us turn our eyes to Socialism for a moment. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Socialism as:

Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy. The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved.

The first reference to “Socialists” appeared in the 1800s.

1827, from Fr. socialiste, in reference to the teachings of Comte de Saint-Simon, founder of Fr. socialism. Socialism is attested from 1837, apparently first in reference to Robert Owen's communes. "Pierre Leroux (1797-1871), idealistic social reformer and Saint-Simonian publicist, expressly claims to be the originator of the word socialisme" [Klein]. The word begins to be used in Fr. in the modern sense c.1835. Socialista, with a different sense, was applied 18c. to followers and pupils of Du. jurist Grotius (1583-1645).

In contrast to Liberalism, which focuses on the importance of the individual, Socialism emphasizes the importance of society as a whole. Individual interests come second to the interests of everyone within the society. Although, socialists also want individuals to be free, they define freedom in a radically different way. That is, an individual can only be free when everyone in society is equal.

The philosophical origins of Socialism can be found in Robert Owen (1771 – 1858) and Saint-Simon (1760 – 1825). As manager and part owner of a mill in New Lanark, Owen was disturbed by the living conditions of the workers and especially of the children. In 1817 Owen began to advocate a form of socialism as a way to alliviate poverty. His reforms at his mill in New Lanark actually increased productivity and profit. In 1825 he even purchased land in New Harmony, Indiana in hopes of implementing his reformist principles, but his experiment failed miserably.

Saint-Simon shared the same negative view of human nature as Hobbes. The “hand of greed” drove men and created inequality. He was not convinced that the liberal view could save society and therefore societ had to be reorganized. Saint-Simon was a strong influence on Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), perhaps the most well known socialist philosopher.

Karl Marx argued that only an overthrow of the government via the proletariat in which all power and capital became centralized in a central authority would create a just and equal society. Socialism, however, was only a transistion phase to the communist utopia.

Essential to all of these theories is the absence of the free market and government control of the means of production.

So, now that we know what socialism means, we can look at the newest allegations in the campaign and decide if Obama is indeed a socialist.

To make a convincing argument, you need evidence, and I am not talking about rehtoric. There are several things that we can look at: voting records, speeches, writings, and proposals. I went to the Obama website, downloaded and read his “Plan for America.”

In those 43 pages, I read nothing about the nationalization of industry. I also did not read anything about the abolition of free speech. I did read, however, about his proposed tax cuts. Obama proposes to cut taxes for households making less than $250,000.

It is this proposal that lies at the heart of these accussations. You can look at it two ways. On the one hand, Obama is trying to take a burden off the middle class in order to promote the economy. Or, he is redistributing wealth. I have to admit that this is the first time that I have heard a tax cut referred to as socialist. Although the idea of no taxes is very appealing, they are, in a way, a necessary evil. Goverments do things like build roads, clean water, provide schools and health care to those who need it.

In the end, I do not think that you can label Obama a socialist. He does not want to do away with the market economy, which is essential to socialism. Now, if you would like to refute my argument, please present me with evidence to the contrary, and I do not mean taxes, as that is obviously in the eyes of the beholder.

Finally, I want to comment on something that McCain made regarding politics in Europe.
"At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Senator Obama."

Germany, contrary to what many seem to believe, is NOT a socialist country. I have no idea why this myth continues to exist. The German pointed out that he lived next to a real socialist country for many years, i.e. the former East Germany. He snorts loudly when making comparisons. East Germany turned out to be a broke country with a crumbling infastructure. Nobody I know wants socialism to take root here. In short:

1. There is no universial health care in Germany. The government requires health insurance but does not pay it. The government does not pay for my health insurance, or that of my father-in-law, friends, etc. Rather, I pay 50% of my health care and my employer pays the other 50%. I can provide my paystub as evidence. The government only pays for the health insurance of the unemployed.

2. The government does not own the means of production in Germany. Germany is a free market economy.

3. There are certain regulations, such as on banks and energy. This is to ensure that consumers do not get ripped off.

4. Freedom of speech and press are protected with in the German constitution.

Tomorrow, we will turn to the last part of our analysis, including social democrats vs. social liberals. Why the confusion? Are these labels even helpful? Or, put another way, who the hell cares?


G in Berlin said...

It continues to amaze me how many non Germans think healthcare is free here. It amazes me that even some Germans think so (those would be the ones not actually paying for it). Those are the same types who think that getting a refund on one's US taxes is a good thing, rather than an interest free loan to the government (whi clearly now needs it). There is an awful lot of political and economic illiteracy out there. I'm enjoying your attempts to educate.

Rabble Rouser said...

Brace yourself but I agree with you about definitions!

But I think there is something larger to consider. I have this theory that branding is the key to politics. If you can control how an issue/person is branded, you control the perception of that issue/person. Consider Pro-Life, The Patriot Act and Family Values just to name a few. It's one of the reasons I think Obama is so successful. He branded himself with hope and that is the perception that resonates. He also has branded McCain as Bush Part 2. Whether there is truth behind the claim is really secondary-at least when it comes to how people have traditionally voted.

The terms you are discussing are separate philosophies to be sure. But they have been branded as being one and the same. It is now less about the denotative meaning and more about the connotative meaning. Consider also how conservatism has been branded to mean religious intolerance.

What I think is sadly ironic is that both parties have spent so much time branding the other that they have lost sight of their own values. This leads to confusion over aims which inevitably allows for the opposition to brand. It's a cycle.

The German said...

Dear Rabble Rouser!
Like I said, I do not want to leave comments on this blog before the election, I leave a comment on your comment.
Yes, to brand something keeps people away to use the right name. Everytime I watch a speech of a politican, who uses the wrong name, or calls somebody liberal or socialist, I get angry. Because he or she, doesn´t know what the word mean. Instead of these words, they could use words like thief, as... idiot or whatever.
And calling Germany a socialist country---the GDR was socialism, not pure, but close to.
I think if somebody calls Germany a socialist country, please get a passport and come over here. I just got something in my mind. It is good to have 9 borders to complete different countries, that keeps you thinking of your policy, because our policy infect the policy of our neighbors. They will remind you if you use a term wrong.

Rabble Rouser said...

Hey I actually agree with the German! :-)

Honestly I think they know perfectly well that they are misusing words but accuracy can't be explained in a sound byte. redefine a word, create a catch phrase around it and then use it in every sound byte possible. Both parties are guilty and we the public are even more culpable for letting it continue.