Ah Socialism. Depending on where you live, that single word is going to have massively different meanings. For many in the USA and for anyone unfortunate enough to have been stuck in the USSR, Socialism is a terrifying boogieman waiting for you to drop your guard before stealing all your freedoms and sending you to a gulag. If you’re a western European, or Scandinavian in particular, it’s the standard mode of business. If you’re from certain Asian nations such as Indonesia, it might bring up nasty memories of instability and political violence. And if you’re an Australian? Well it’s an idea that we sort of embrace, but probably wouldn’t like to admit to.
Much the same way Bernie Sander’s supporters desperately avoid the word, while his opponents hurl it at him like it was on par with eating babies.
Why the huge variety of reactions? Probably because trying to define what Socialism actually stands for is an exercise in frustrated futility – the ideology is so wrapped up in the politics and upheaval of the 20th Century that finding a clear-cut definition is virtually impossible. Normally I’d refer back to a strict definition of the idea at this point, but even people who identify as Socialists can’t decide what the movement is all about. Seriously, you’ve got Anarchic Socialism, Democratic Socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Religious Socialism, Liberal Socialism, Progressive Socialism and even Libertarian Socialism – there’s a brand of Socialism for every other political ideal under the sun, every single one of which is at odds with all the others.
In a modern context, Socialism usually means taxes to provide common services that everyone uses; roads, public transport, water and electricity supply, police and military support, and education to varying degrees. Socialist governments also provide safety nets to ensure no one of the collective falls too far behind – think welfare, employment assistance, healthcare and support for minorities and the disabled.
Of course all governments supply these services to some degree, but the important point is that Socialist nations fund them from taxes and other funds taken from the labour of their people;
Governments that reject Socialism tend to avoid these sort of taxes, either finding money from private investment or else reducing the services they provide and letting individuals figure things out themselves – that whole ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ thing you hear occasionally. Socialist governments also tend to be pretty heavy on the regulation as well, limiting what people and businesses can and cannot do, in order to ensure that the rest of the people are protected. Contrast this with economically and socially liberal states which tend to minimise restrictions and let everyone its citizens decide what sort of behaviour they will or won’t tolerate.
But these are just characteristics; what is the ideology of Socialism actually about? Well peel back all this detail and you find a core idea that is really quite simple: cooperation.
More specifically, Socialism generally involves groups of people working together for collective benefit. This usually involves common ownership of property and the setting of limitations both on individual freedoms and individual losses – basically the idea that the group should sacrifice part of its resources to ensure that everyone has a minimum standard of living.
Simplified like this, Socialism might seem pretty damn uncontroversial, and in truth it is. Hell we just described the basic ‘village model’ that human beings have been using for the vast majority of our existence – groups of people working together and making individual sacrifices to ensure that the community as a whole thrives. It’s a practice so basic that it’s integrated into ever part of our various cultures, from laws to religion, to the psychological social contract and even children’s proverbs: ‘Share and share alike’, ‘Sharing is caring’, ‘Treat others as you would like them to treat you’, and so on. So how was it that a practice so intrinsic to human nature – and so crucial to human survival – mutate into a political force that dominated one half of the world and continues to terrify the other?
Call it what you want, but Communism/Marxism/Stalinism was both an offshoot of Socialism and a bloody terror of an ideology that carved a dark and horrible path through the 20th Century. The government of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) may have had pretentions to being a nation for ‘the people’, but when that government subjected those same people to political, economic, intellectual and social repression for nearly 50 years, their actions speak louder than words – and that’s not even mentioning what they felt happy to do to those they didn’t consider their citizens.
How does the simple and historically wonderful notion of cooperation end up creating such a juggernaut? The same way that pretty much any ideology goes wrong – corruption.
Remember before when I said that Socialism is all about the needs of the group, even if that comes at the expense of individuals within the group? That may all sound fine, but it raises a pretty massive ethical problem: where do we draw the line with that? And even more importantly, who gets to make that decision?
Most of us would probably agree that it’s reasonable for the government to tax millionaires 10% of their income in order to prevent and manage serious poverty. The ethical math is pretty clear – keeping people alive is a significantly greater good than a small loss of income for the extremely wealthy.
But if we accept that principle then why not take it further? Extreme poverty is after all, just a symptom of larger social problems – lack of education, social isolation, lack of employment opportunities, poor infrastructure, socio-economic and cultural factors; all of these contribute to the poverty we want to prevent, so surely the government needs to do something about those too, right? So we’ll put some regulations in place and bump up the tax rate to pay for all these new programs. People might not like it, but once again the facts are clear and the decision is clearly justified.
But hold up a second, doesn’t it seem kind of backwards that we’re addressing the causes of social problems without stopping some of the most harmful activities directly? Cigarettes and alcohol cause colossal harm to poor communities and are extremely poor spending decisions given the situation they are in. Yeah education is a great approach to decreasing their use, but why arse about when we could just ban them entirely? Not only do we help the communities abusing them, we punish all those bastards who were profiting off such abusive practices in the first place.
Speaking of abusive businesses, how exactly is it fair that the CEO of a company makes several million dollars of (declared) income each year, while the people that actually do the work under her take home peanuts? How is that just? The business absolutely couldn’t run without those workers, so shouldn’t income be based on how hard you work, rather than having kissed enough arse to climb to the top of the ladder? Surely a far heavier tax is due for the top end of town, or maybe we just go whole hog and set a law up determining how much everyone makes to make it fairer. There will be plenty of kicking and screaming from the fat cats over this one, but screw ‘em! This is clearly a fairer system.
Sure enough our new system is attracting quite a bit of criticism, despite it’s obvious justice. Agitators are stirring up the ignorant and the fat cats are threatening to take all their money and leave the country, with pretty serious consequences for our economy. Such threats are pure extortion and endanger the safety and security of our nation and its people! We must squelch these protesters before they gain too much traction, and if the millionaires try to run, we’ll seize their assets to protect the economy. Such measures are indeed terrible, but how can such individual injustices compare against the great need of our collective people?
“For the glorious motherlan… heeey, wait a minute…”
Obviously that was a bit of a slippery slope fallacy there – just because a government decides to regulate and/or tax to some degree doesn’t mean they are inevitably going to fly into a full-blown pogrom. But what this narrative does show is how easy it can become to justify just about anything when it’s done in the name of ‘The People’, or ‘The Greater Good’. Compared to the safety and prosperity of several million citizens, how can even the rankest of injustices against a few individuals compare?
From an ethical point of view this is a perfect example of utilitarianism gone bad – sure the collective benefits of such brutal policy may (and I stress may) outweigh the costs to individuals, but such maths ignores the extremely important qualification that every utilitarian absolutely MUST ask: ‘is there a superior alternative?’ It’s not enough that your position has a net positive, if there is an alternative available with a greater benefits or a lesser cost then that option is ethically superior and ignoring it is a clear ethical failure on your part – at best you’re making a stupid mistake. At worst, you’re willingly harming others for no reason.
So if Socialism is so vulnerable to corruption of this sort, then all the paranoid right-wingers in the USA must be right, yeah? Bernie Sanders may sound like a great guy, but the system he proposes must be far far too dangerous to ever risk, right? But if Socialism is so prone to corruption then why haven’t all the other nations that practice it gone to hell? Scandinavia’s economic, social and employment conditions are so absurdly good that the countries are almost kinda boring. Shouldn’t they have descended into totalitarian hellholes by now? Well that comes back to those questions I asked before: where do we draw the line between state intervention and individual freedoms, and who gets to make that decision?
Without exception the Scandinavian nations are founded on rock-solid democratic parliaments, meaning that it is the people themselves that get to decide where that line gets drawn. If they don’t like how things are going, they can simply move the line. The USSR on the other hand? Much like Communist China, Venezuela, Cuba and Vietnam, it was forged in the nightmarish fires of war and uprising, hacked from the corpse of a decaying and utterly corrupt monarchy. The governments ruling these nations were not elected, nor selected for their ability to manage a nation, but were simply those who were ruthless enough to seize and hold power of the new revolutionary state. And having come to power through force, they had very little reason to respect those who did not: the brutal logic of the ‘Might makes Right’ philosophy in a nutshell. Frankly in circumstances like these, it wouldn’t matter what ideology they had chosen to promote; without accountability for the power they wielded, totalitarianism became inevitable (Fascism if they were lucky).
While deciding whether Socialism is an ethical ideology or not is nearly impossible in the face of its endless variations, when we cut the idea down to its solid core the question becomes quite simple: cooperation has formed the foundation of human civilization and prosperity. While celebration of the individual and maximising freedoms may lead to good outcomes, protecting the essential needs of the collective and promoting a good minimum quality of life are extremely ethical goals that easily trump any individual’s desires. But in practice, by offering our leaders the chance to justify their decisions as for ‘The People’ or ‘the Greater Good’, Socialism gives them a massive opportunity for corruption – just make sure the overall benefits outweigh the costs and you’re golden.
Fortunately for most of us, Democracy is (usually) pretty much designed to prevent exactly this sort of abuse of power – don’t like where the country is going? Just change over the government at the next election and try something else. Palm responsibility for those common needs off onto business, the market or individuals to look after and suddenly that sort of accountability becomes significantly harder. I dunno if you’ve ever tried to demand a word with a CEO before, but it rarely ends well.
Ultimately Socialism is the simple idea that we should protect the needs of everyone, even if they have no power, and that is a very justifiable position – provided of course, that we make sure that it isn’t used as an excuse to abuse the individuals that make up the system in defence of that system.