The return of socialism?

March 11, 2009

Republican hype notwithstanding, the scale of the economic crisis and the Obama administration's break from past policies are reshaping U.S. politics--not only at the top, but throughout society.

TO HEAR the Republicans tell it, President Barack Obama is proceeding, as the Russian revolutionary Lenin once put it, to "construct the socialist order."

"The stimulus, the omnibus, the budget--it's all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment," House Minority Leader John Boehner told the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. "They're laying the groundwork for everything in these bills--expanded welfare, government-run health care, green jobs, the works. They even want to pay irresponsible neighbors' mortgages off for them."

Boehner's rant shows--if more proof was needed--just how out of touch the Republicans are.

Expanding welfare? Only a traitorous Red could be in favor of such a measure as unemployment soars to its highest level since 1982. A government-led expansion of health care? Every patriotic American knows that if 50 million people in the U.S. lack health insurance, it's because they don't appreciate how the free-market system works. Green jobs? That's an anti-capitalist scheme cooked up by '60s radicals.

And only a communist revolutionary could be in favor of helping homeowners in danger of losing everything because they got stuck with one of the extortionate sub-prime mortgages pushed on them by outfits like Countrywide--which, after all, were only out to make a profit, and isn't that the American way?

But if you're a member of the Republican Party right now, you're duty-bound--in addition to pledging allegiance to Rush Limbaugh--to regard the Obama administration's proposals as tantamount to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The corporate media haven't been much help in separating fact from fantasy. They've had a hard time comprehending the new era in U.S. politics, where the dogmas of the past that they repeated for years--about big government being bad and tax cuts as the solution to every problem--don't fit anymore.

Their bewilderment was encapsulated in the empty-headed cover story in a recent issue of the far-from-radical Newsweek, titled "We're all socialists now."

Obama, for one, doesn't think so. When a reporter aboard Air Force One asked him if his policies amounted to "socialism," the president laughed it off. But with the S-word being bandied about so frequently, he apparently thought he better take the question more seriously--so he called the New York Times personally to defend himself:

It wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement, the prescription drug plan, without a source of funding. We've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles, and some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can't say the same.

SO MUCH for socialism, Obama-style.

Still, what's actually taking place in Washington needs to be recognized as a break from the period of conservative dominance in U.S. politics that began under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and ran through the Bush presidency.

In the face of a severe economic crisis, the Obama administration is seeking to reverse many of the tenets of the previous era. The budget outline proposed by the White House would raise taxes on the rich, place greater restrictions on corporate power, increase spending on social programs and set a goal of "universal" health care coverage.

"The notion that taxes can go up as well as down, that the government has the ability and duty to do good, and that tackling inequality has moral values challenge the core assumptions that have dominated political culture in London and Washington for almost three decades," wrote Guardian columnist Gary Younge.

For anyone who hated 30 years of Republican ascendance in Washington--and the retreat of liberalism at every turn--this is a breath of fresh air.

But with the government's own statistics showing the economy lurching deeper into crisis by the week, the question isn't whether Obama is too radical, but not radical enough. Is the new administration's ties to the policies of the past stopping it from taking the kind of aggressive action that desperately needed?

For one, despite the $787 billion price tag, the administration's stimulus package, signed into law last month, is already looking inadequate. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:

Mr. Obama's promise that his plan will create or save 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 looks underwhelming, to say the least. It's a credible promise...But 3.5 million jobs almost two years from now isn't enough in the face of an economy that has already lost 4.4 million jobs, and is losing 600,000 more each month...

[E]conomic policy is falling behind the curve, and there's a real, growing danger that it will never catch up.

What's more, even Obama's most dramatic proposals are marked by concessions to past doctrines that enshrine the role of the free market. As former Republican-turned-critic of the right Michael Lind wrote of Obama's proposals to open up access to higher education:

The problem with higher education is that it costs way too much. Tuition costs at private universities and some state universities have been growing far more rapidly than inflation.

A crude, old-fashioned, old-thinking New Deal liberal would see the problem as one of excessive prices demanded by universities, not insufficient funds on the part of the students whom the universities gouge. The hypothetical New Deal liberal would threaten to deny universities their privileged tax-exempt status unless they spend more of their endowments on tuition and keep their prices affordable.

The neoliberal alternative is to avoid impolite and divisive inquiries into the reasons for skyrocketing tuition costs...Instead, the taxpayer will be forced to cough up money to help students meet the exorbitant fees.

Thus, Obama's first budget calls for maintaining the $2,500 New American Opportunity Tax Credit for middle-class students, while converting Pell Grants up to $5,550 into a permanent government entitlement. If I were a university, I'd raise my tuition by...oh...let's say, $5,550 a year.

The same problem can be seen on other issues. Like health care--where the administration explicitly rejects government controls on rapidly rising health care costs or putting the parasitical insurance companies out of business.

At a March 5 White House summit to discuss health care policy, advocates of a single-payer system to eliminate private insurers in favor of the government covering everyone only got an invitation at the last minute--and their ideas didn't even get a hearing.

The administration's proposal to devote $636 billion to reforming health care may open up access somewhat. But most of the money will likely go to massive subsidies for employers and private insurers--which is why big business and the health care industry are reportedly supportive of Obama's "reform."

THE REPUBLICAN hyperventilating about socialists in the White House is nonsense. But the depths of the economic crisis and the Obama administration's break with the past, however timid, are opening up the debate about alternatives to a capitalist system that is inflicting so much misery and suffering.

Certainly, the recession-headed-for-depression has vindicated Karl Marx's critique of capitalism. As he argued, the blind, anarchic struggle for profit comes at the expense of human needs for the vast majority.

In his day, Marx described how capitalism gave rise to "a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and simply nominal directors; a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation promotion, stock issuance and stock speculation."

Sounds a lot like the defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers--a firm that was, in fact, around back when Marx was writing his book Capital.

Marx also explained how financial panics can often magnify the periodic recessions that are endemic to capitalism. As Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism is "a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange [that it] is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." That's a pretty good description of the current financial panic and recession.

Even mainstream journalists and economists have started to admit that Marx was onto something on this score. But they want nothing to do with the alternative he put forward: democratic workers' control of production, distribution and exchange.

Marx's vision of a new society has been smugly dismissed by capitalism's ideologues ever since. But the system's inevitable lurches into crisis have kept the authentic socialist tradition alive, despite the perversion of its ideas by Stalin's dictatorship in Russia and by pro-business social democratic parties like the British Labour Party.

The time has come to revive genuine socialism--not simply as a critique of the system, but as an organized force that can link today's struggles for jobs, affordable housing and health care to a different kind of society based on human need.

Certainly, activists need to be fighting for reforms in the here and now--opposing racist police violence, organizing unions, demanding that LGBT people have the right to marry and more.

But unless we ultimately uproot an exploitative system that gave us crazed financial speculation, enormous inequality, a gravely damaged environment and endless imperial wars, we will have to fight the same battles over and over again.

The socialist transformation of U.S. society won't come through a vote in Congress, Republican hype notwithstanding. It will be the product of countless struggles taking place now and in the future, which give rise to a militant, working-class left in the U.S. and internationally that can organize a fight to turn the very structure of society upside down.

Such a perspective may seem distant from today. But as the economic slump continues and the U.S. government rushes to take previously unthinkable measures to bail out the financial system, there's an increasingly urgent debate over what to do next. It's time to put socialism--the real thing--into the mix.

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