On the 'socialist' alternative

Thomas Hobbes, no puny thinker, reminds us that "Words are wise men's counters: they do but reckon with them. But words are the money to fools, that take them at face value and on somebody else's authority." So, as we talk and debate we must be careful even as, or especially when, we believe we know what particular words really mean.

So it is with that dreaded word or concept: "socialism." Harry Cook, being a wise man, does not recoil with horror at the word; he merely asks for clarification concerning what it entails and how such a political-economic system may be installed and managed for the public good (see April 2 letter at length "Failure to control capitalism is the problem"). That is no small thing, especially in America.

For more than 70 years, Americans have undergone a deep and extensive indoctrination against anything remotely identified with "socialism" — you know, like Social Security or publicly funded health care for needy children.

With Stalin and Mao as handy villains, "socialism" was branded as repressive and identified as a "command, topdown system" that enclosed citizens in a stultifying conformity within a nonproductive political economy. But of course, neither Stalinist Russia nor Maoist China were socialist or communist states; they both started out as war-ravaged, economically backward, overwhelmingly peasant societies with absolutely no experience of either democracy or civil liberties or modern administration. It is hardly surprising that such countries remained authoritarian and economically retrograde for so long — but they were not "socialist."

Today, Americans are in shock over the rather sudden (once again!) collapse of our "capitalist" political-economy. As Harry notes, it is a wrenching time of the "Twilight of the Gods." "The assumptions and presumptions, the paradigm and prognosis of indefinite progress under free market capitalism have failed. We are living at the end of an entire epoch." (James Petras)

The challenge to Americans (and other peoples around the world) is how to erect and to evolve an ecologically sound political economy that maintains our civil liberties and our democracy while also making effective and equitable use of our modern technological and productive powers, such powers, let me emphasize, always being in the first and final analysis, democratically regulated, supervised and directed.

"Ay," some will say, "There's the rub!"

To which I reply, "'The Captains of Industry, The Masters of the Universe,' have all failed, miserably, catastrophically, and have brought us to the point of ecological collapse. I think a democratically supervised and rational political-economy can do better."

Those who may recall the domestic experience of World War II know what a huge transformation of the economy was brought off, democratically and efficiently, unleashing a massive and well-directed economic productivity. Especially — and probably only — if we rid ourselves of our addiction to our grossly bloated military spending, I see no economic reason why the nation, employing qualified civil servants under careful supervision, should not direct the equitable provision of the basics: food, clothing, shelter, education, health care and access to parks and recreation areas. Any "needs" beyond that may be provided by "markets" — or otherwise.

Let us remember: We face ecological collapse if we continue on the path of exponential economic growth. Regardless of the system, we must accept a "steady-state" economy. That means the end of "capitalism" as we have known it — and not a moment too soon.

Gerry Cavanaugh is a retired professor of history and social theory who has lived in Ashland for 15 years.

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