It’s important to me to attempt to keep my writing politically ambivalent, but I obviously skew to the left. Can I call myself a moderate Leftist? Not to be cute or tricky, but as a statement of a social and economic ambiguity that we should all examine? I acknowledge my conservative upbringing, and I’m glad to understand that perspective so intimately, but I have found more inclusive ideas across the political and economic spectrum.

A city skyline over a river at dusk

I’ve thought of myself as a socialist for some time, and have gotten pushback, for good reasons; there have been egregious failures among humanity’s economic social experiments. But I don’t believe in social experiments, and I don’t believe in sudden bloody revolution, whatever my sympathies to Marxist writing. I believe in slow revolutions, in the gradual tendency of society toward certain positions, in an implicit democracy of ideas. Of course sometimes the distribution of ideas is grossly unequal, and sometimes the corrections are not so gradual, even violent. I can’t say whether these reactive changes are necessary, but it’s easy to see that they then produce their own reactions, often resulting in oscillation in the short term. Much like market dynamics, when viewed on a larger time scale those oscillations are seen as only incremental changes on a more gradual trend line.

There’s one aspect of socialism I want to focus on, so I don’t want to get too far into a general defense, but I’ll offer a summary for my purposes here: Socialism ≠ Leninism.1 Socialism ≠ Marx’s socialist mode of production.2 Both are examples of socialist ideas, but socialism is broader than either.3 There are many4 examples of successful socialist programs. We depend on them. Debate that as you will, but I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the debt modern society owes to these ideas, just as it’s irresponsible to ignore the benefits we’ve gained from market economics.

The one aspect I want to focus on, then, is this tendency to equate all types of socialism with the historical failures of particular socialist enterprises. It’s more than a tendency; it’s a tactic of big business proponents and big government opponents to throw pink sheets over socially progressive figures and call them ghosts, a la McCarthy. I most recently saw it in a social media post that linked Bernie Sanders with Soviet failures, by quoting a Sanders interview where he questions the necessity of “23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers”. The implication, of course, being that any lull in our orgy5 of competitive marketing will lead us to Soviet-level dearth.

Context is important. In the interview leading up to the statement, Sanders was asked

If the changes that you envision in tax policy, in finance, breaking up the banks, were to result in a more equitable distribution of income, but less economic growth, is that trade-off worth making?

And his full reply:

Yes. If 99 percent of all the new income goes to the top 1 percent, you could triple it, it wouldn’t matter much to the average middle class person. The whole size of the economy and the GDP doesn’t matter if people continue to work longer hours for low wages and you have 45 million people living in poverty. You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems. All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on. People scared to death about what happens tomorrow. Half the people in America have less than $10,000 in savings. How do you like that? That means you have an automobile accident, you have an illness, you’re broke. How do you retire if you have less than $10,000, and you don’t have much in the way of Social Security?6

I haven’t vetted any of those numbers, which might be an essay for someone else. Indeed, I think socialism still has a lot to prove, but I do think it’s proving it. This also isn’t an unqualified endorsement of Sanders or his policies, or lack thereof, especially on non-economic social issues such as racial inequality. Again, though, I want to address this specific argument, because I think it’s bigger than the current election cycle.

Sanders was obviously being facetious about the deodorant and sneakers. His point wasn’t that we have too much selection. He wasn’t saying that the market, or competition within the market, is bad. He was saying that things like the legal requirement to maximize profit7 is bad. He’s saying that the free market, left completely free, makes bad social choices. Companies do clever things with zero (or negative) social value, as long as it results in good quarterly reports.

Let’s mix Smith and Levinas: while the invisible hand implies invisible faces, Sanders wants to restore the face-to-face encounter,8 to factor people more heavily into the equation. There are entrepreneurs who do this, but it’s not the default position of our economy. Indeed, as Shkreli9 has been fond of pointing out, sometimes it’s illegal.

Some people put an emphasis on individualism at all costs, but then defend an economics that completely removes the individual. Socialists like Sanders want it the other way around. To see humanity as a social group with complex dynamics that ought not be ignored or isolated, but to be negotiated simultaneously. To then make visible, and account for, the material needs of each individual within the group.

This is where society’s economic sensibility is trending. It’s socialism, and it isn’t scary.

  1. Often equated with State socialism ↩︎

  2. Similar to the above; that is, Lenin’s state socialism was a poor (and incomplete) implementation of this: Socialist mode of production ↩︎

  3. Types of socialism ↩︎

  4. Many is a terrible word to use in a persuasive essay, but this particular “many” is standing in for a large amount of side research that can be done. I cringe to link you to a Daily Kos article because I have to provide so many caveats (this article is self-righteous, condescending, hyperbolic toward the end of the list, etc.) that it almost defeats the purpose of using it, but it’s the most comprehensive list I could find in a single place, and might serve as a starting point for further research (and/or rebuttal). It also depends on the broader view of socialism introduced above, so that can be left out of the rebuttals. The best rebuttals to this are probably the libertarian zero-government private-market solution arguments, although I disagree with most of those arguments. Although, to rebut my rebuttal rebuttal, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these programs trimmed, especially the first one. And of course many of them are guilty of inefficiency that wouldn’t fly in the free market. Nevertheless, here is a summary of the “many”, many of which you undoubtedly benefit from in one way or another: 75 Ways Socialism Has Improved America ↩︎

  5. A sensationalist choice of words that I’ll blame it on reading that Daily Kos article. And it makes for good marketing. ↩︎

  6. 10 questions with Bernie Sanders ↩︎

  7. “…the law requires corporate directors and managers to pursue long-term, sustainable shareholder wealth maximization in preference to the interests of other stakeholders or society at large…” A Duty to Shareholder Value ↩︎

  8. Face-to-face (philosophy) ↩︎

  9. A take that skews to the left: ‘Pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli and the very American debate over maximizing profit

    And to the right: Solving Pharma’s Shkreli Problem ↩︎