First published in Enheduanna: A Pagan Literary Journal, Volume 5, p. 68-99.
It may have been building for decades now, but the striking turn has been made in America among the younger generation from pure laze faire capitalism to a more socialist oriented outlook.
Socialism, as defined by Richard Dagger and Terence Ball (Emeritus), professors of Political Science at Arizona State University, writing for Britannica, “Socialism, social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another.”
Taking this definition then, the idea of the public ownership of social and economic goods has its appeal, as the entire public would be involved and invested in the owning, operating, and returns on the products and services. More often is the case though that this baseline definition is overlayed with more complicated political dogma, such as claims that socialism is communism, and that they are identical. If this is the case, then why would there be two terms for the same thing, when the terms are not synonyms of one another?
Those who fearmonger the “socialism=communism” idea fail to understand that socialist ideas and structures have been with the United States since its foundation.
A brief historical overview is required in this essay to place socialism and social tendencies in context of U.S. History. Socialism, as a practice, has existed since the arrival of the Pilgrims,
In the New World, they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. Their goal was the communism of Plato’s Republic, in which all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness…Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.
Private Property as Incentive to Industry
Realizing that another season like those that had just passed would mean the extinction of the entire community, the elders of the colony decided to try something radically different: the introduction of private property rights and the right of the individual families to keep the fruits of their own labor (Ebeling).
We as readers can look back four hundred years and apply terms coined after the end of the Pilgrim era. As such, historical context and bias should be acknowledged that the term communism is used as a lens by which to view these settlers, and the word would not be used in English till around 1840 with the writings of John Barmby (Online Etymology Dictionary). In no way is there any textual evidence to assume that these Pilgrims would have considered communist ideas intrinsic to the new world—they were certainly not pleased by the practice of communality.
Some historical scholars disagree that the Pilgrims, and the later Puritans, were actually practitioners of communal aspects in Plato’s Republic as put forth by Ebeling. It was an agreement that many begrudged, which later forced the failure of the communities as individuals sought to move away from the collectivist style and into individualism:
The truth is that although the Pilgrims did accept economic communism for the first two and a half years of their plantation at Plymouth, they did so unwillingly, not ever considering it an idealistic experiment in social betterment. For them all-for all the others as well as for Bradford-it was an economic expediency, forced upon them by the English investors, or “adventurers,” who insisted that for the first seven years of the settlement all goods and all profits should be shared in common. Far from sanctioning such a program, the Pilgrims resented it from the beginning, and they continued to resent it as long as it endured (Glazier 72-73).
What is historically recorded is that collectivism was practiced, even if it lasted only a few years.
The Puritans also tried their hand at it,
Naturally, as the Puritan movement came to its own, these two elements flew apart. The collectivist, half-communistic aspect, which had never been acclimatized in England, quietly dropped out of notice, to crop up once more, and for the last time, to the disgust and terror of merchant and landowner, in the popular agitation under the Commonwealth (Tawney).
This examination of the historical trend establishes the rhetoric of America as the potential be to be the first utopia (religious in orientation) of the world, as these two groups, Pilgrims and Puritans, sought such a place when they fled Europe to seek religious and societal refuge away from the persecution faced in the old countries (History “Mayflower…”, “The Puritans”).
No consideration at the time was given to native populations, and as such, this essay is a discussion on the western colonists and their utopias. No essay would be complete without acknowledging the hand the first nations had in helping those colonists establish themselves, teaching them the ways of the new world. Further reading on this can be found in any history textbook about the era.
Native history aside, the colonists arriving to the new world came with the idealistic approach to utopia, which certainly can be seen to be influenced by the utopian ideals found in Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia.
Monarchs, he argues, would do well to swear at their inauguration never to have more than 1,000lbs of gold in their coffers. Perhaps this is one reason why Utopia is not bedside reading in Buckingham Palace. Instead of being worshipped, gold and silver should, he suggests, be used to make chamber pots. War is fit only for beasts, and standing armies should be disbanded. Labuor should be
reduced to a minimum (Eagleton).
Moving forward a century comes the foundation and formalization of the United States of America as a nation in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (United States, “A Declaration…”). So, it would seem that from the very beginning of the government that the goal of the society in its pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is to create a society in which its citizens are equals, which is another incarnation of the communal equality shared by Puritans and Pilgrims.
Much is known of the history of the United States, that its citizens still strive for that equality. While not the idealistic approach by Ebeling, America developed much further down the path of the individual as put forth by Grazier, giving rise to the barons of the 19th century capitalism. “The most powerful people during this period would later be called robber barons—a term which means exactly what it sounds like. These capitalist titans held great industrial monopolies and unprecedented wealth” (Kelly et al). The new system that evolved in the 19th century was already on a run-away effect with the rich becoming exceeding wealthy and leaving the poor and suffering to their own devices, also rhetoricated as individualism and the pursuit of “happiness” in whatever way that is subjectively defined by an individual.
The development of the American version of capitalism dates back to the complex systems involved in immigration, slavery, and race (Bois; Clegg; Desmond; Truth). It needs no stating that for much of U.S. history up to the 20th, the dream of financial success was applicable to white male property owners—those who could vote (Al Jazeera). Tracing such a system would require an extended essay, but there are various writers and scholars who have done such and is not necessary here. However, it is important to note the change in racial systems in the U.S.—with abolition of slavery—is what led to the Reconstruction Period of the South as the primary labor source vanished (History, “Reconstruction.”).
American capitalism was supposed to be the ultimate exercise in equality, at least according to some economists such as Matt Stoller.
American capitalism used to mean economic equality and security. When I mention this in speeches or talks today, this observation prompts laughter, or outright disbelief. But it’s true. Americans used to believe economic equality was foundational to our political system.
Implied in the idea is that each individual would acquire wealthy and liberty and that generally there would be an absence of the poor and needy. From the very start, this notion was flawed as a system in such a way that when there is freedom to acquire wealth without limit, some will have more, and some will have less.
Already, some eighty years after the foundation of the American Republic, writers such as Henry David Thoreau began to critique the system of inequality and inequal wealth distribution that had developed. The idealism found in Utopia would certainly be appealing to most of the laboring masses, who, like in Walden, spend most of their time laboring for the grave,
Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clear eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born… The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. (5)
In the opening chapter “Economy” of Walden, Thoreau takes up the plight of the poor. As no social system was in place during Thoreau’s lifetime, Walden (published in 1854) serves as one of the many texts in which writers of the day are examining and cataloging the societal issues. Walden clearly initiates an analyses of the structural inequality mechanisms that ensure the poor stay trapped, but fails to put forth realistic economic solutions for those trapped at the lower levels who do not have access to the same resources Henry David Thoreau did when writing the novel.
While the work of philanthropists did make an impact in some areas (Such as George Peabody and Andrew Carnegie), the poor and elderly were on their own. This included the working children, which can historically be seen through the factories and industries of 19th century America. It was through the work of activists, like photographer Lewis Hine, who brought the image of child labor to the front of America’s consciousness to enact real change (Contrera), enabling the passage of the Keating-Own Child Labor Act of 1916 (United States, “Keating-…”).
The horrors of child labor, poverty, and the extreme conditions has been well captured in literature and film with such works as Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Iqbal (1998), and Horses of God (2013). While child labor was abolished over a century ago in the U.S., it is still a systemic problem in many parts of the world (Gettleman and Raj; Reid).
Socialism Enters the 20th Century
Improvements in socio-economic conditions gained considerable steam with the progression of civil liberties. With the ability of more of the population to vote, power and control was redistributed to those who were marginalized. The passing of the 19th amendment of the U.S. Constitution (United States “19th Amendment…”) was the beginning of social and economic change in the U.S. away from the majority of white men who ruled, to an inclusive society of the other part of the white majority. This step of inclusion was the first towards actualizing the statement of equality in the Declaration of Independence.
Just a few years after the 19th amendment, The Great Depression led to a series of state and federal benefits to ensure the wealth and support of their citizens (Social Security Administration “Chronology-1930s”). Following course, Franklin Roosevelt created a series of reforms to give relief during the Great Depression—The New Deal (Works Progress Administration) (Berkin, 629). In 1935 came the first true social program to benefit the nation, one intended to take care of the aging and elderly, who had given a life of work to the system. This was Social Security. While the New Deal put people back to work, the leaders of the time recognized that a more complete system of care was needed for those hit by the depression, but who were not able to work.
The creation of the New Deal and the following social reforms started to fulfill this utopian dynamism, defined as equality, for all peoples (who at first were white, then women, and later First Nation, African America, and then everyone). Prior to this, the pursuit of capitalist goals and the ideology to pull oneself up by the boot straps (if one had a boot and a strap), as argued by Stoller, comes to end. The preceding centuries demonstrated that, in the wake of such great economic collapse, not even the richest were safe from the affects, much less the poorest (without any boot or strap).
Here marks the turning point of the U.S. towards full socialism. The impetus being the Great Depression and other economics impacts (such as the Dust Bowl) of the 1920s and 30s. Purely from the financial point of view, the U.S. needed to float its economy, and thus its people with it. The nation did not have to pursue a course of legislation for its citizens, but the amount of suffering, loss, and primary economic collapse, led the government administrators and law makers to realize that the lack of the social safety nets would implode the economy and the country in the long term.
This form of socialism might also be considered utilitarian. What is meant here by “utilitarian” in this essay is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as
Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone’s happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else’s good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to, so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me (Driver).
This utilitarianism pairs with the working definition of socialism in this essay, “economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources” (Ball and Dagger). In the interest of utilitarianism (The New Deal), Labor became public, and so too did the resources protected in the New Deal’s social reforms. Suddenly the elderly, theaters, roads, bridges, murals, parks, and other resources were guaranteed as public common good, open to public inspection, built by public tax dollars—ending the reign of private sector dominance since the Pilgrim era.
After the Great Depression, merging Ball and Daggers’ socialism and Driver’s utilitarianism, the republic of the United States emerged from the watery grave that was The Depression as a democratic socialist utilitarian society.
This socialist utilitarianism advances the utopian narrative further by materializing the utopia from (Thomas) Morian’s paradisical theoretical notions, to a defined pragmatic framework, intersecting social-political dichotomies pushing for equality. The unspoken push towards socialism in the U.S. superannuated the previous baron capitalist economics, ameliorating the lives of it citizens, rather than leaving them to their own devices.
But already before the 20th century, modern versions of a utopia were being dreamed up a century earlier by poet Walt Whitman—“the poet of democracy”. Octavio Paz discusses Whitman’s work as the dreamer, dreaming the American utopian into reality.
If America is a creation of the European spirit, it begins to emerge from the sea-mists centuries before the expeditions of Columbus. And what the Europeans discover when they reach these lands is their own historic dream. Reyes has devoted some lucid pages to this subject: America is a sudden embodiment of a European utopia (554).
Writing his essay on Walt Whitman in 1956, Paz recognized earlier what the entire experiment, The American Experiment (Dale; Jefferson), was trying to do: achieve utopia. Jefferson, Whitman, and Paz’s understanding of such a dream being reality comes from the understanding of not just what constitutes a nation (peoples, rivers, culture, dreams), but also the necessity of such a place in a world reliant on traditional feudal, despotic, tyrannical, and oppressive systems.
Socialist utilitarianism, or contemporary utopia, is most apropos to this journey of the United States. The contemporary utopia narrative can be pushed further, as found in texts and talks by science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson. “Food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education for everyone on the planet by whatever means that gets us that. Or the work towards that state” (Ford). The critical method is the “work”, or progress in any form, towards that utopian state. It does not appear over night, but is a system which is developed over the long term with the consistent push towards the benefits described by Robinson, through the people’s actions, which then shift the structures in which the people exist towards the utopian state.
Robinson, discussing his Mars Trilogy, believes that discord, dialogue, and dynamics are necessary to establishing a utopian world: “Utopia will always be under threat and dynamic. It will never be completely established. If it is then you almost have a dystopia of permanence and rigidity” (Ford). Not unlike Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, where a communist Bolshevik utopia exists, the applicability of the ideas of this contemporary (Martian) utopia can be delineated back to the socialist ideas of pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness—goals of the socialist utilitarian utopian republic, the United States.
Robinson also concurs with Paz and Whitman that America is the greatest utopian dream ever to exist,
The government of the people by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth. Shall not makes it a future tense and an imperative. It’s a science fiction story. It’s a utopian story. What Lincoln was saying to us was an injunction and even a command. Democracy only exist when people go out and make it happen, especially when there are very powerful forces with a lot of money trying to buy up that very same government that we call democratic (Bioneers).
Though mostly unrealized through American history, the emergence of the utopian state differs vastly from the early Pilgrims and Puritans Morian utopias, which left out the dynamism. When these strict utopian structures met the unpredictable human nature, they failed in the face of human’s desire for individual private capital.
Modern Notions of Utopian Evolution
The dynamism towards providing basic assistance, food, shelter, and etc., happened when the U.S. moved from the static dystopia of the Robber Baron era, to the dynamic utopia of the 20th century.
More legislative changes promoted further dynamism in the following decades as outgrowths of the initial economic disasters. The First Food Stamps program appears in 1939 (U.S. Department of Agriculture), the judgement in Brown v Board of Education (Supreme Court, “Judgement, Brown…”), and the enaction of Medicare and Medicaid Act in 1965 (Social Security Administration” Medicare…”). These three pieces of legislation and court appeals put into place the requirements of the society at large to meet the needs of an equal education, basics food, and basic health care.
And the list continues on with more equity and equality that unfolded during the Civil Rights movement. Native American voting rights (Little), end of Jim Crow laws with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (United States, “The Civil…”), Equal Pay Act (United States, “Act of...”), Education Amendments of 1972 (United States, “Education Amendments…”), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in 1972 (National WIC Association), and Roe v Wade of 1973 (Supreme Court, “Affidavit of…”).
The legislation does not stop there. Along with the new rights obtained, more follow in the decades under different U.S. presidents. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (United States, “Americans with…”). Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (United States, “H.R. 4173”), The Patient Protection and Affordable Care of 2010 (United States, “H.R. 3590”) and the Supreme court ruling in favor of LGBTQ marriage in the Obergefell v Hodges case of 2015 (Supreme Court, “Obergefell…”).
Entering into the cotemporary era, it would appear that the new American (socialist) utopia is in full swing. Being built on a steady march of social and equitable progress forward from the 1930s to the 2010s, there still persists questions about fixing additional social and economic issues, coupled with their expense, contrasting with the need to privatize—taking away public interests.
Private enterprises always, or should always do better because fewer regulations and controls exist with private enterprises than having to answer to public inquiry.
As a process, privatization denotes reducing the roles of government, while increasing those of the private sector, in activities or asset ownership. In practice, privatization may include ‘‘load shedding’’ or divestiture, the re-placement of budgeted public activity by private market mechanisms such as consumer cooperatives, coproduction, variously structured public/private-sector partnerships, state management contracts such as monopoly franchises for the private supply of public services, user charges, lease-purchase arrangements, and even tax reduction, intended to stimulate private-sector investment (Gayle and Goodrich 465).
Such reductions in the size and scope of government could be seen as a safety measure, to prevent overreach and too much authority at the federal level. The system of checks and balances born into the U.S. system helps to curb some of that overreach. The authors Gayle and Goodrich do state that “Such an interest is probably best defined by adopting a rather utilitarian orientation, operationalized by changing the balance of political advantage within pluralistic democracies” (464).
Recent moves in tax reeducation and legal documents appear to favor such reeducation for corporate interest. The propaganda machine of the Trump administration would have the public believe that cutting taxes for major corporations promotes economic benefits for those at the bottom the machine (Mnuchin). The actuality of the situation is that the best savings went to the top,
First, many people will technically have lower taxes, but the cuts are so tiny as to be hardly noticeable. The Tax Policy Center estimates the 60% of Americans at the lower end of the income distribution will have federal tax savings of less than $1,000. Also, most people believe the tax cuts didn’t benefit people like them but only the very wealthy. They are right. Those in the top 1% save $51,000 (Ghilarducci).
This pairs with the notion that Trickle-Down Economics had any affect at all for the poorest citizens, much less the middle American. It does exactly as it says it would, trickle down a few drops for the entire masses. Not an appealing system (Pearl). And this was again seen in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, where most got a little, but the top gainers received the most share.
The Problems with Privatization of Public Commodities
The Citizens’ Untied ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that corporations, in America, are people (Supreme Court, “Citizens United…”). The corporate interest prefers the private (non-socialist, libertarian) over the public since they wield power to exempt themselves from paying their share of taxes, obeying laws, and pooling their funds to lobby for changes in congress. While unfair, this is the real structural power that a billion-dollar corporation has versus the common person—such is the evolution of the private section for American capitalism. Even so, the argument for privatization persists
Generally, some the argument is to reduce the size of government but most important, Butler contends, is that privatization can simply reduce the size of government. Fewer government workers and fewer people supporting a larger role for government means less of a drain on the nation’s budget and overall economic efficiency… “If your city is not taking full advantage of privatization, your cost of local government may be 30% to 50% higher than it need be. The costs of state and federal government are also greater without privatization” (Goodman and Loveman).
The ontological differences between the push for private, and the openness of the public interest as seen in the 20th century, differs in its end goal. One being for ultimate pursuit of profit and efficiency, and the other for the protection and enrichment of the public at large (which also would include corporations). This is also true when the two political sides of American politics, Conservatives and Liberals, is boiled down to the philosophical differences: Conservatives put personal work and gain first, and liberals put community gain first.
It is true with what the Goodman and Loveman state about the promises of privatization vastly exceeding the results,
In addition to the problems of insufficient competition and monitoring, there are broader objections to the no-holds-barred advocacy of privatization. While acknowledging that privatization may make sense on economic grounds, Paul Starr argues in his paper, “The Limits of Privatization,” that privatization will not always work best. “‘Best’ cannot mean only the cheapest or most efficient,” he writes, “for a reasonable appraisal of alternatives needs to weigh concerns of justice, security, and citizenship” (Goodman and Loveman).
Taking into consideration then the discussion by Goodman and Loveman, Gayle and Goodrich, the basics of privatization are the “cheapest product for the most efficient process.” Often, this has not been the case, with subpar performances and results. This has been seen especially in America’s for-profit education system, where outcomes and job placement of student rank in low percentiles, “Unreliable and misleading job placement claims, particularly but not exclusively at for-profit colleges, has been a repeating theme of scandals in the federal student aid programs for decades” (Shireman).
In another industry, the private prisons failed to meet basic standards for staffing, training, and living conditions as the companies that run them stuff bodies into the buildings in order to acquire more funding. “The corporations running private prisons inevitably claim that they are saving the government money, but their true focus is on protecting their own bottom lines. In order to lower operating costs, these facilities cut corners, hiring fewer employees and paying and training them less” (Joy).
The same uncertainty and underdevelopment exists for the privatization of any public commodity and resource. The same unanswered questions abide. Even public libraries, which historically opened from private ones to be the “Free Public Library” of a city or town (American Library Association), face privatization or have been full privatized in some areas. “On Wednesday, August 23, the city council of Escondido, California voted, 3 to 2, to move forward with plans to hand their public library over to the private, for-profit company Library Systems and Services.” (Diegelman).
But the question that resonates—not just for libraries, but for so many cities grappling with privatizing public services to cut costs—is one of community control. When a city lets a private company run the show, who controls the resource, and how much say does the public?
The answer to the problem with privatization is found in Erickson’s article “And, of course, there is a less tangible problem with library privatization: it makes many people very uncomfortable, even if they can’t quite explain why.” According to Patricia Tumulty, of the American Library Association, it comes down to questions of access. “With privatization, the public loses some direct control,” she says. “You’re having the chief operating officer answerable to a third party rather than answerable directly to the public or the county commission”
Continuing the Socialist Dream into the 21st Century
The roll and purpose of socialism is as a structural component to a healthy and prosperous society. Karl Marx’s social theory aims for the equality and equal measurement of resources among all citizens. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Engels and Marx). While Marx has good working theories, the ontology of the 19th century is far past and does not fit with the concerns of 21st century societies.
The socialist utilitarian America utopia continues today through programs and legislation. The bailouts in the 2008 Great Recession (National Archives) where banks and the auto industry took billions, or the stimulus checks to the people and businesses during 2020’s COVID-19 (U.S. Department of the Treasury)—purely socialist in nature—helped float the economy, save people, and stabilize the U.S. and greater world community till the events of the time pass. In this manner, the United States continues to push forward as a democratic socialist utilitarian society. Though voices also push back against these types of bailouts and benefits, there are groups of people more interested in helping Americans, than saving money.
In order to keep that socialist outlook alive, America has to stand up against outdated notions of economics, slave wage labor, colonial rhetoric, and corporate rights over the individual. As Q from Star Trek: Voyager said “...that the individual’s rights will be protected only so long as they don’t conflict with the state. Nothing is so dangerous to a society” (Landuaer).
Democracy, socialism, and the continued sustainment of a utopian society where everyone has their needs met, equally contributing to the structure, means each person has to work daily towards the goals of such a society. While there are bad apples in every system, these negatives do not go so far to outweigh the greater benefits to society as a whole (Rousseau).
Democracy is dynamic; so are the human lives. Protest. Be active. Speak out; and always stand up for injustice in the world. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (2). Only through bridging party lines, setting aside differences, and working together in our communities, locally and globally, can the socialist outlook be achieved.
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16x20 in. mixed media on canvas by Daniel Cureton.
July 4, 2020.
Here are samples of my writing out in the world in print in publications and journals.