Straw Man Socialism

Ileana Johnsongrew up in Romania under the Nicolae Ceaușescuregime and immigrated to the US in 1978.  By 1982 she had become a citizen and went on to earn two advanced degrees.  Johnson has written several books, including one on her experiences under Communism in Romaniaand anotheron the United Nations sustainable development plan known as Agenda 21.

On Monday she posted “We are Serving the Working People” at The Bull Elephant.  This essay amounted to a fascinating strawman definition of “socialism.”  A sample: 

Do they understand that socialism suppresses individuality, forces collectivism, causes mass starvation, imprisons people with divergent ideas in labor camps, herds them off their properties into high rise cinder block apartments, nationalizes all industries, and confiscates all private property and wealth?

This accurately describes East European and Russian political economies up to the end of the Cold War, so in a way Johnson comes by this view honestly.  She experienced it this way.  And because everyone called this kind of political and economic system “socialism” or “communism” back in the day, this is pretty standard-issue conservative rhetoric about the dangers of making sure the economy and political system work for everyone.  I wonder though how much this has to do with protecting corporations and the wealthy from calls for a more equitable distribution of economic productivity than it does with any real concern over liberty.  It’s not as if our system protects citizens from voter suppression and gerrymandering in a way that restricts elite power.  In the end the conservative project looks a lot like a defense of corporate rights to profits while showing little concern for what liberty looks like to people who have to work two jobs so they can pay the rent and keep dinner on the table.  

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Trump, Sanders, Populism, and the 2016 Election

I’m glad I ran across this Salon article challenging the notion that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders appeal to similar populist constituencies.  Don’t both Trump and Sanders “confront ‘establishment’ hegemony and voice small-fry ‘populism,’ plus condemn bad trade agreements, job losses, and Washington insiders?”  No, Becker says:

Sanders is not like Trump or vice versa: despite surface parallels, they are at heart more like polar opposites. In the end this measure emerges: the unassuming Sanders presents people-oriented messages that widen debate and insight. Trump’s proto-fascist, wealth-driven demagoguery kills debate with deceptive, irresponsible war cries that deter thinking and enlightenment.

I guess I agree as far as it goes: the contrast between Sanders’ intellectual and Trump’s demagogic arguments are…wait for it…yuuuuge.  But I see a much more important difference: Donald Trump sells himself as the best player of the Capitalism game.  Bernie Sanders makes a case that the game itself is rigged, and the rules need to change. Continue reading

Bernie Sanders and the Art of the Possible

Ta-Nehisi Coates hit Bernie Sanders pretty hard this week for rejecting the idea of paying “reparations for slavery.”  He didn’t like Sanders’ response – that Congress would never agree to such payments, the discussion would prove divisive, and we should instead invest in rebuilding cities and creating new jobs.  I’m sympathetic to the reparations argument – given that much American wealth and capitalism depends in no small measure on slavery it makes sense to compensate those who worked in slave labor camps to help build it.  But as a practical matter the chances of developing an effective reparations policy and getting it through Congress do in fact look pretty dim.

Sanders also took a hit from the Clintons, who sent daughter Chelsea out to make the somewhat misleading claim that he would “dismantle ObamaCare,” not to mention Medicare and private health insurance.  To be sure, Sanders’ idea for an American Health Security Trust Fund (AHSTF), or single-payer universal health care, would replace the Affordable Care Act eventually.  It would do so by expanding Medicare to every American, so I’m not sure how this “dismantles” that program.  And it’s also not clear that this would mean the end of private health insurance firms.  Even a universal health care system would have room for private sector supplements to whatever benefits the public sector provided.  But part of the critique is that AHSTF is a political pipe dream that could never pass in the existing political climate.  “I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in real life,” Clinton said.

Finally, Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money fires a similar shot across Sanders’ bow.  Asking “So What Would Happen if Bernie Sanders Won,” Loomis expresses two concerns: that Sanders would not be prepared to quickly appoint judges and executive officers, and that his base would abandon him within a year, dooming his presidency. Continue reading