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.  

In any event, I can’t think of a reason why an American version of Democratic Socialism has to do any of these things.  No Democratic politician I’m aware of has actually called for nationalization of every American industry so accusing them of pushing all this is a bit like charging them with wanting to confiscate all guns.  Even those who would like to do this know it could never happen, and not just because it would never get them elected.  

Further, the authoritarian government in 1976 Romania bears no resemblance of any kind to the US Constitutional System.  We should have no trouble coming up with a democratic economic system that protects free markets while reducing the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. In fact, this already happened when Congress created programs that saved our economy from the Great Depression, ensured retirement benefits for workers, and provided medical care for seniors without interfering with individual freedom unless you count the minorities and women who had only limited access to the economic and political system.

I’d also like to address this comment by someone calling himself Warmac9999who frequently weighs in on conservative blogs: 

The socialist regimes treat people as units of work not as distinct human beings. Thus always the history of socialist nations. By the way, the Swedes and Western European natives are suppressed if they try to defend themselves or speak out against the abuses of government, particularly the Hijra from the mid-east and Africa.

I posted this reply to Warmac’s comment, but it seems to have vanished from the site: 

Actually, it’s the free market that treats “people as units of work not as distinct human beings.”  Capitalism commodifies labor and measures our value in terms of time as hourly or annual units of labor. This is why employers so callously discard workers whose “units of work” they no longer need, and anyone who’s lost a job right before Christmas knows this.

I’m not a socialist, but I know Johnson’s version is a straw man.  Socialism depends on the idea that people have value beyond what employers willingly pay for an hour of their time and expertise.  No socialist believes we all should get the exact same share of economic wealth without regard to what we contribute.  Only that everyone who follows the rules and tries to contribute deserves sustenance. 

Johnson uses words like “communism” and “socialism” to describe an authoritarian oligarchy whose leaders loved “from each according to his abilities” exploitation that filled their foreign bank accounts but had no time for the “to each according to his needs” part that put bread on labor’s table.  Putin expanded on this idea after the fall of the Soviet Union by privatizing the means of production into the hands of his cronies whose wealth he then protected.  I’m not surprised Johnson despised this regime, but it was no kind of “socialism.”  

Real Socialism requires democratic institutions because conservatives have one thing right: no organization or small group of people will act against its own interests in favor of the general population. Conservatives forget that this applies to corporations as well as it does government, and I see no evidence that the cable company really cares more about me or allocates resources more efficiently than the DMV.  In any event, people can hold government more accountable than they can corporations.  We choose Senators and Presidents but not CEOs.

Real capitalism also requires democratic institutions, and liberals also have one thing right: no free market can work without generally accepted and understood rules that maximize competition and include fair and transparent systems for adjudicating disputes.  Here conservatives forget something else: without such a framework capitalism begins to resemble the brand of “socialism” Johnson encountered in Romania. In both the powerful create an oligarchy that captures the gains that come from worker abilities and use them to meet their own needs.  

I wonder if the “capitalist” oligarchy Johnson supports will look any better to her than the “socialist” version she knew in Romania.

I’ll try again.  In the meantime be assured: if Johnson, Warmac, or anyone else comments here I promise not to delete it as long as it meets the FBL Terms of Service and Comment Policy.

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