Looking for an alternative to capitalism

Socialism is back in the news with new evidence of its popularity, writes Alan Maass.

Students march against cuts spurred by the financial crisis

A SPECTER is haunting Glenn Beck.

"Socialism," Beck declared on his radio show last year, with that trademark teary quaver in his voice, "doesn't seem to be a bad thing in America anymore. Most people are like, 'Yeah, socialism isn't so bad.'"

Hard as it may be to believe, Glenn Beck was right about something. Like a blind pig that eventually finds an acorn if it roots around long enough, he has stumbled across a fact--that more and more people are open to the idea that there could be an alternative to capitalism and all the misery it has produced lately.

That was confirmed again in May in an opinion poll released by the Pew Research Center. The survey found that in spite of the vilification the idea of socialism has suffered over many decades, three in 10 people in the U.S. have a positive view of it, compared to just a bare majority who were positive about the prevailing system of capitalism. Among young people aged 18 to 30, it's an even split between those with positive views of socialism and of capitalism.

These statistics confirm almost exactly the findings of a Rasmussen opinion poll from a year ago. Likewise, a Gallup survey earlier this year found that 37 percent of Americans considered socialism as "superior" to capitalism.

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"Keep in mind," wrote Charles Derber at the Common Dreams Web site, "these findings reflect an overview of the public mind when right-wing views seem at a high point--with the Tea Party often cast as a barometer of American public opinion...This is not a 'center-right' America, but a populace where almost 50 percent are deeply ambivalent or clearly opposed to capitalism."

To the likes of Glenn Beck, this is very bad news indeed. "Your freedoms, your economic freedom, the idea of capitalism, the idea that you control your own life and you make your own decisions--it's all going away," he declared. What's wrong with these "most people," he must wonder? Don't they realize they're rejecting the kind of society where a self-described "rodeo clown" can rise to fame, fortune and far-reaching political influence?

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IF BECK was actually interested in understanding this disturbing open-mindedness about socialism--and he so isn't, but if he was--he could talk to Kenneth Hoagland.

Hoagland went to jail because of a cold.

In 2004, he was in a waiting period to get health insurance at his new job when the illness hit and landed him in the hospital for two days. Hoagland had recently refinanced his Nashville home to pay off a bill from a previous weeklong hospital stay related to his diabetes. In the months after the second hospitalization, when he and fiancée, Sonya Davis, couldn't afford both monthly payments on the mortgage and the medical bill, they picked the mortgage.

That explanation didn't satisfy the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A collection lawyer filed suit for the hospital, and Hoagland, fearing to take time off work, missed the court date. "After a series of hearings, attempts to collect the debt and what Hoagland says were genuine efforts to pay it," reported the Tennessean newspaper, "an attorney working for Vanderbilt asked a judge to issue what's known as a body attachment"--a court order requiring sheriff's deputies to find Hoagland and take him to jail.

"They fingerprinted me, took my picture and asked some questions about my medical history," Hoagland told the Tennessean. "When the guy who tested (my blood sugar) asked me why I was there, and I told him...he said, 'I didn't know we did that in this country.' I told him, 'Until now, I didn't either.'"

Hoagland was allowed to make bond, and the collection agency started garnishing his wages. But the experience left him scared of going to the hospital again.

A few months later, when he woke up sick again with a cold and his blood sugar dangerously low, his fiancée called the ambulance anyway. "I hate to admit this," she said, "but as soon as they got here, I thought, 'Oh God, I hope they aren't going to have to take him.' He was sick, but I know he was probably thinking, 'We can't afford another set of medical bills.'"

Hoagland's story is unusual in its details, but there are health care nightmares in every corner of American society. In 2007, nearly two-thirds of the 1.5 million personal bankruptcies declared that year were the consequence of medical bills, according to the American Journal of Medicine. And for every household literally driven into bankruptcy by a health care disaster, many more felt the kind of overbearing financial strains that Kenneth Hoagland and Sonya Davis did.

This is the crisis that Barack Obama's health care law was meant to address--and it's why longtime activists for a sane health care system that provides access to everyone in the U.S. are deeply disappointed in how short the legislation falls in addressing the problems.

Those problems have only grown worse. In May 2009, the Center for American Progress estimated that 2.4 million workers had lost health coverage provided by their jobs in the first 15 months of the recession that started in December 2007. Once spouses and children are added in, researchers estimated that Americans were losing health coverage at a rate of 14,000 people a day in January of last year.

If, by that point, fear of the financial consequences of getting sick was no longer first on the list of worries for many families, that's only because it had been replaced by so many others--long-term unemployment, food "insecurity," foreclosures and evictions.

For millions and millions of people in the richest nation in the world, there just isn't any other way to describe it: capitalism isn't working.

All of the claims made for the free-market system--that if you work hard and sacrifice, you can pull yourself up, you can make a decent living, your children will enjoy better opportunities than you--have vanished.

Instead, for the majority of people in society, it's harder and harder to make ends meet, with fewer and fewer opportunities to get ahead. And for the smaller but growing numbers of people who had the bad luck, like Kenneth Hoagland, to have an unexpected crisis--or who were born into poverty and never had a chance to "get ahead" in the first place--the ends often don't meet at all.

That's the backdrop to the Pew and Rasmussen surveys, and all the other signs of growing discontent with capitalism and a society built around its upside-down priorities. The free-market system itself is confirming the strongest argument for socialism--the fact that capitalism is incapable of meeting the needs of the majority of people in society.

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SOCIALISM STILL comes up most often in the U.S. mainstream debate as a term of abuse to be flung at a far-from-radical president by right-wingers counting on the lingering scare effects of 1950s McCarthyism.

To Republicans, it's a simple formula: government-plus-economy equals socialism. But the history of capitalism shows that state intervention in the economy is perfectly compatible with capitalism, especially in times of crisis. That's why it's absurd to hear Obama's health care law, which leaves privatized control of the health care industry intact and barely even more regulated, described as "socialism."

If socialism is often identified with the state, not just by right-wingers but generally, it has something to do with the legacy of Stalinism in Russia, China and elsewhere--governments that ruled with an iron fist, but used the name of "socialism" to justify it. These societies have nothing to do with genuine socialism, any more than the tame tradition of reform socialism in Europe, where parties once identified with the labor movement have carried out the neoliberal agenda.

The genuine socialist tradition is committed, as Karl Marx put it, to the "self-emancipation of the working class." Socialism must be direct and democratic rule by the working majority in society, with production organized to meet human needs, rather than produce profits.

Such a society won't be achieved by voting a socialist party into office, or waiting for an enlightened few to bring about change.

At its heart, socialism is about the creation of a new society, built from the bottom up, through the struggles of ordinary working people against exploitation, oppression and injustice--one that eliminates profit and power as the prime goals of life, and instead makes equality, democracy and freedom the highest values of all.