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Frances Moore Lappe: socialism, capitalism, and confusion

with 4 comments

Why are People Afraid of Saying “Socialism”?

Knee-jerk reactions to words like “socialism” and “capitalism” get us nowhere. We need to first define the terms.

March 30, 2010  by Frances Moore Lappe   AlterNet

‘Socialist’ has become the new favorite term of derision–working its fear-making magic because, for many Americans, socialism equals the great’government takeover.’ It’s assumed to be not just un-American but downright anti-American. Tea Partiers at their round up in Searchlight, Nevada, told us that’socialist’ Harry Reid’hates America.’ Our national aversion to the S-word isn’t necessarily a problem. But the term’s rapid rise as a political pot-shot, points to a huge problem: our culture’s lack of a common civic language, words on whose meaning we at least vaguely agree. Without it, we can’t hope to talk to one another about what matters most. ‘We have a language of capitalism. We have a language of Marxism. But we have no language of democracy,’ historian Lawrence Goodwyn once remarked. And we need one. Capitalism and socialism. Imagine if we just got some clarity on these basic terms alone. First, capitalism. To most of us, it’s quintessentially American. Many of us assume it’s democracy’s essential partner. But what is it? Capitalism is an economic system in which the person or body owning capital productive resources like raw material and labor—has the power to make decisions as to the use of these resources and who benefits from them. The capitalist is in control, not the workers, not the community members, not the government. It is a system in which capitalists seek to gain for themselves the highest possible return on their investment.

Reduced to these elements, it’s no surprise that capitalism returns wealth to wealth, leading to a jaw-dropping chasm between rich and poor: In our country meaning that one percent of households now have as much net wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Given this common definition of capitalism–with no built-in civic accountability–it’s no surprise that subsidiaries of U.S. companies, for example, sign contracts to build up Iran’s energy industry, even while the U.S. government sees our national interest as putting the squeeze on that very same economy.

It is paradoxical, then, that we see capitalism and democracy as best buddies when in reality they are driven by opposing principles: Democracy is about the wide dispersion of power so that everyone has a voice. But capitalism, merely left to its own devices, inevitably concentrates wealth and therefore power, so’capital’s’ voice carries vastly more weight than citizens’.

Little wonder that capitalism is losing friends around the world. A recent BBC poll in twenty-seven countries found that on average only 11 percent believe it works well. In just two countries did more than a fifth of respondents believe that it works well’as it stands.’ One was the U.S.; the other — Pakistan.

Even more dramatic, almost a quarter of all respondents see capitalism as’fatally flawed, and feel a new economic system is needed.’ In France 43 percent hold that view, in Brazil, 35 percent.

And now to socialism. What is it? Maybe it’s harder to define. Hitler used the term’national socialism’ for his brand of fascism in Germany, which explains a lot about its bad name today.

But’democratic socialism’ or’social democracy’ is commonly used to describe the Scandinavian countries, France, or the Germany of today in which government plays an essential role in making sure that all citizens have the essentials to thrive: Unemployment benefits in Germany, to take but one example, offer about two-thirds of previous pay, compared to less than half in the U.S.; and they last much longer.

Americans see anything labeled socialism as restricting citizens’ freedoms.

So, let’s add’freedom’ to our list of terms that need our immediate attention.

For, if freedom means in part enjoying power over one’s destiny, workers in Germany arguably have much more freedom than U.S. workers.

How’s that?’German workers are at the table when the big decisions are made, and elect people who still watch and sometimes check the businessmen, they have been able to hang on to their manufacturing sector,’ unlike in the U.S., observes lawyer Thomas Geoghegan in the March issue of Harper’s.

They get to the table via widespread ‘works councils,’ giving clerks and other low-level employees a voice in management — deciding, for example, on store hours and who takes which shift, as well as on layoffs, and more.’Co-determined boards’ are another feature of German social democracy. Mainly in firms with more than 2,000 employees, clerks elect half of the members on these governing boards.’Clerks have all this power without owning any shares!’ notes Geoghegan.’In this stakeholder [rather than shareholder] model, they need only act on their interests as ‘the workers.’’ Unions also provide workers a greater say over their lives and almost half of Germany’s workforce are union members.

In all these ways, German workers arguably have more control over their work lives than any country in the world. At the same time, since 2003, and with less than a third of our population, Germany has held first or second place in world export sales.

What if, from now on, every time we read or hear someone use the terms capitalism or socialism, we simply ask: How do you define it? At least, we’d be igniting conversation that takes us beyond slogans. And, in the process, hopefully, we’d become better prepared to explore public policies that really could expand our freedom.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet.

see also:

Orwell Watch: Democracy Being Linked to Socialism


4 Responses

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  1. Best replaced by a meritocracy guaranteeing the same necessities (life, food, home, health, clothing, transportation, etc.) to trashman and president alike; but, with luxuries (“bass-boat” or presidential “yacht”) contingent upon the excellence demonstrated in their respective area of employment. In this way ANY superlative trashman could have greater luxuries than Obummer at his present abysmal level of precedential BS (Bush Shadowing).

    Vic Anderson

    April 4, 2010 at 5:36 am

  2. Capitalism is evil! Its primary effect is extremely inequitable distribution of resources. The average net financial worth of white men in America is somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000 dollars. For a single black woman the average is $5; not 5,000, not 500 but 5 dollars. Black men in America make about 56 cents for ever dollar made by white men. Women make only about 78 cents to the white male dollar. I get sick of my white male friends (including my Gay Male friends who fly below the general public’s gaydar and therefore suffer nothing for their minority status) telling me how wonderful capitalism is and how great the American police state/empire is because it has provided for their needs well without giving thought or giving a d*mn how it treats the rest of the world.
    I also get sick of people who cannot see what is wrong with having hoards of people living under overpasses while 25 million homes sit vacant, owned only by banks who would rather see them rot than make them available for humane shelter. I also get tired of people who do not see what is wrong with smothering themselves with more resources than they can use in ten lifetimes while multitudes die for the lack of the barest subsistance. I believe that God will wreak vengence on this nation for its materialism and selfishness and I will be glad to lend a hand.

    Danielle E. (Beth) Lyles M.S.

    April 4, 2010 at 7:25 am

  3. Vic: I like your thinking on the subject. The problem however, with so called meritocracies is that someone has to decide what is meritorious. Old white men tend to see the merit in the ideas and actions of other old white men; thus power tends to acrue inequitably to one group over another just the way it already does. How would you determine merit; with fill in the bubble tests? These things always wind up measuring the wrong things and already cause great harm in our society.

    Danielle E. (Beth) Lyles M.S.

    April 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm

  4. Since most of the goodies sloshing around in this country have resulted from rape and pillage elsewhere, the justice we seek needs to be planetary. It’s a tried and effective tactic to share a bit of the spoils in order to defuse rebellion, and that was done with the middle class- an era now coming to an end. Globalism has been carefully crafted by neo-liberals so we have become the primary prey of the 1% who think we’re just here for their comfort and amusement.

    I stongly recommend: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=18386

    Western Civilization and the Economic Crisis: The Impoverishment of the Middle Class- When Empire Hits Home, Part 2 By Andrew Gavin Marshall

    I’m probably as sick of OWM and class pretensions as you folks are, but this game now depends on those of us who are awake and not content to be drones in a rich hive-empire.


    April 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm

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