Monday, October 27, 2008

"Socialism": can we have a definition, please?

Tankwoman in her post Going Commie raises a very valid point. If we're going to be investing bizillions of public dollars in nationalizing and partially nationalizing banks (and auto companies?), then the government should make sure legitimate public purposes are served by doing so.

But this is the Cheney-Bush administration. So, we're getting articles like, So When Will Banks Give Loans? by Joe Nocera New York Times 10/24/08, raising questions as to whether the banks now on welfare receiving public assistance will actually start lending more money now. After all, the reason that the financial crisis has created a crisis in the "real economy" is that credit has frozen up.

Wells Fargo's CEO Wells Fargo's Dick Kovacevich tells Maria Bartiromo in the current (11/03/08) Business Week that the value of the partial nationalizations of financial institutions it involves "putting in capital instead of just buying loans", which means that "institutions get to lever that 10 to 20 times in terms of the loans they can make." That is, it enable financial institutions to lend more.

But the same issues carries these stories: U.S. Banks Still Aren't Lending by Dean Foust and The Insiders on Treasury's Team by Theo Francis. The latter story suggests that the administration may have been less than adequately scrupulous about conflicts of interests on the part of law firms, accounting firms and others to whom have major responsibilities in implementing the financial rescue package. You didn't really think a government run by Dick Cheney and George Bush could do this without massive corruption, did you?

But the warnings from respectable Establishment types, Republican politicians and conservative ideologues about the dangers of "socialism" are already coming. The insufferable Tom Friedman - whose wife may no longer be a billionaire due to the stock crash, I don't know - warns us in his most authoritative tone, "Bottom line: We must not overshoot in regulating the markets just because they overshot in their risk-taking. That’s what markets do. We need to fix capitalism, not install socialism." (If Larry and Sergey Asked for a Loan ... New York Times 10/26/08)

But do we know what they are talking about when they warn us of the dangers of "socialism"? Do they know? The word, along with "Communism", has been used in many ways over the years:

German Social Democratic leader August Bebel (1840-1913): he called himself a socialist

Joe McCarthy (1908-1957): he called everybody a Communist

John McCain: he calls the Democrats socialists. His Dear Leader Bush just undertook the largest nationalizations of private companies ever done outside the Communist world.

White Princess Sarah Palin: she wouldn't know a socialist if one came up and bit her on the leg

I have to keep reminding myself that the Christian Right has become so dominant in the Republican Party that we often need some kind of specialists in conservative American Protestantism to tell us what the current definitions of words are in ChristianistSpeak. The invaluable Sarah Posner reminds us that "socialism" has particular meanings for Christianists that don't have much to do with the government buying bank stocks (The Fundamentalist The American Prospect Online 10/22/08):

Michele Bachmann's call for witch hunts and Sarah Palin's accusations of socialism may be anachronistic, but if you are familiar with the ideological underpinnings of the religious right, you recognize them as carefully calibrated to appeal to loyalists who have been schooled in the evils of "statism" - the elevation of government over God. When Bachmann talks about Obama or other Democrats being "anti-American," it's a dog whistle to the base: It must be Satan trying to bring down America. When Palin calls Obama a socialist, she's really calling him godless, and therefore a danger to God's plan for America.
And she provides this example from Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series of Christianist Apocalyptic fiction:

All thinking people in America realize an anti-Christian, anti-moral, and anti-American philosophy permeates this country and the world. . This alien philosophy does not come from the Bible, but is antithetical to it. In this country it flies under the banner of "liberalism," but in reality it is atheistic socialism at best and Marxism at worst. If those who hold this philosophy were honest and admitted publicly they were hostile to God, His Son Jesus Christ, moral values and true freedom for all individuals, they would be voted out of office in three quarters of the congressional districts and states in our country. Instead, they use the title "liberal" to define themselves. ... [and intend] to destroy the Biblical principles this country was founded on and replace them with freedom from responsibility. [my emphasis]
Then you've got Libertarian Party types who think public schools and state-owned highways are "socialism" and are strangling our freedom. The only common meaning of the word "socialism" in American politics is as a synonym for "bad".

You do have the occasional politician who describes themselves as socialist at some point or other in their careers. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for example. Or Ron Dellums, former Congressman and current Mayor of Oakland CA.

We could look overseas for examples. I wonder how many Americans realize that Tony Blair was the head of Britain's socialist party. His Labour Party is a member of the Socialist International.

The Mayor of Berlin today is Klaus Wowereit, who's a Social Democrat (SPD) and openly gay. He heads what is known as a "red-red coalition", meaning the government is a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Left Party, the latter being the "postcommunist" party that is the direct descendant of the East German Communist Party. Karl Marx was a member of the SPD in the 19th century. And both today's SPD and the Left Party can both claim a political tradition going back to the SPD of Karl Marx.

So what does the "red-red" variety of socialism look like? Joschka Fischer writes in Die neuen Regeln Die Zeit 02.03.08:

It has been shown in the Federal State of Berlin, which has been governed by a red-red senate for several years, that all fears of a return to socialism are sheer nonsense. Very much the opposite; the red-red senate in Berlin stands for a policy of budget streamlining, the reduction of government jobs, the implementation of the Hartz-IV reforms ["pro-business reforms" which reduce some of the powers of unions] and a friendliness to business that one can with full justification characterize as to the right of red-green. Of socialism, there is not a trace to be found. [my translation]
"Red-green" refers to a coalition of the SPD and the Greens.

Even though "nationalization" has now become a respectable word in the American vocabulary again, at least momentarily, I'll be surprised if "socialism" gets a more-or-less reality-based definition in US politics. But it would be nice if some journalists would actually ask some of these politicians and fellow pundits what they mean when they use the epithet "socialism".

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