Americanism (Consumerism) versus Communism
A Study of Definitions
In much of 21st century, mainstream America, the word "socialism" is a bad word. Shakespeare said, "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". What do Americans think about the word "socialism" and what it represents? How does this prejudice help or hinder our effort to achieve a more just, equitable economy and government?
Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language chooses to translate French politician and historian Louis Blanc as having said, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his work". This would actually be closer to "capitalism" as described by Kelso and Adler in The Capitalist Manifesto, New York: Random House (1958), which can be taken as a direct rebuttal to Marx and Engels. It further stigmatizes the word "socialism" by defining it as a "slogan", which is a Gaelic battle cry, with jingoistic connotations, as opposed to say, a motto or "a maxim adopted as a principle of behavior". It's possible, even likely, that Blanc intended a subtle, but important, difference. He advocated "the merging of personal interests in the common good". His original French could also be translated, and often is, as, "...according to his need". He saw the pressure of competition as a societal evil that raised stronger, more aggressive people up while pushing weaker ones down. He advocated the provision of useful work for all in society, according to their abilities, and an equalization of wages so that all would be able to have what they needed to live a tenable existence. He believed government had a role in this initiative, to support the organization of workers so they could manage their own interests, to mediate the competitive actions of monied interests which serves to create inequalities of wealth, often at the expense of aspects of the "common good". To insist that each be compensated according to his work, seems to subvert this idea, fostering the competition that he was trying to eliminate.
Kelso and Adler don't so much place capitalism at odds with either socialism or communism per se. They distinguish economies as capitalistic or laboristic depending on whether most wealth is produced by the toil of individual men or by non-human means like machines, energy sources, animals, raw materials, property. The Soviets of their time had a capitalistic, industrial economy in which the state owned all the capital. In theory, it was the common property of the people, thus the name of the system, communism. Of course in practice, there was a hierarchy, a class structure, and distribution of wealth was less than perfectly equitable, not to mention the concurrent violation of human rights and freedoms that accompanied these experiments. The economy was communist, the government dictatorial, authoritarian. Just because the execution was far inferior to the theory doesn't invalidate the theory for all time. In fact, a close scrutiny of history will show the same could be said for American-style, "free-market" capitalism.
Capitalism, says Webster's, is "the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution ...are privately owned and operated for profit". Communism, rather, is " a theory or system of the ownership of all means of production (and distribution) by the community or society". Benign enough, though subtly derogatory. But then it sees fit to rapidly proceed from reference to Marx and Engels to a veritable diatribe against Leninist-Stalinist "ruthless suppression of all opposition political parties...and individual liberties under a dictatorship". Socialism is depicted as virtually identical to communism or, alternately, as a transitional stage between capitalism and communism. Absent in either of the latter two definitions is the corollary idea of production for use, as opposed to profit. This is a significant distinction, the understanding of which is essential to the discussion.
The American "capitalist" economy requires people, known as "consumers" (Webster's: a person or thing that destroys, uses up, or wastes something,) to aspire to an ever-increasing need for goods so the forces of production, owned by the capitalists, can have an ever-growing market for their products. Thus the GDP as a positive number. An indispensable part of this economy is the advertising industry, which is nothing other than propaganda and mind-control with the aim of synthesizing "needs" for things that are superfluous to a simple, healthy lifestyle, close to Nature. This leads to resource over-utilization and accumulation of toxic substances in the environment. This is what keeps the "capitalist" society, or better the "consumerist" society, going, at the expense of the environment and of the well-being of a huge percentage of the people of the world (the common good). This by definition is what socialism seeks to avoid. It seeks to do this via the concept of production for use, in other words, needing, making and using less material wealth. This theoretically should result in things like less grinding subsistence labor and greater leisure time for the pursuit of liberal work. Coincidentally, this is the exact stated aim of the "capitalist revolution".
Americans are conditioned by advertising and patriotic propaganda to blindly support the idea of the capitalist "free market", though the vast majority of them are not investing any capital, they are working for a wage, which is historically suppressed by the capitalists so they can pay their shareholders more dividends. Most Americans get up every day and drive their kids to school, to a "socialist" public school system, on a "socialist" highway system, go to their jobs in support of the work, produce, consume gerbil-wheel that is enriching, not themselves, but the capitalists, then go home and watch some more corporate propaganda on television to inspire them to do the same thing all over again tomorrow, until the day they die. This we are told is freedom, something we should be ready to die for, worse, that we should be ready to send our children to die for, in the name of defending this freedom and spreading it to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the capitalists are enriched at every turn, through such commodities as weapons, oil, minerals, water, human resources (read slavery).
To understand the socialist impulse, one needs to cultivate a habit of seeking to see the other's point of view. Many European nations have a history, and a social framework, for doing this. Their political systems are made up of coalitions of a myriad of different parties which strive to reach a compromise that will satisfy the largest number of people. In America, politics to the average man is little different from sports, a zero sum game in which there is a winner and a loser. The other's point of view is sought only so that he can be sold another consumer product.
Ralph Nader attributes this definition to his father, given at the family dinner table during one of their typical Socratic discussions. "Socialism is the government ownership of the means of production. Capitalism is the corporate ownership of the means of government." "Take your choice", he adds, smiling ironically, "concentrated power". Asked where he stands with respect to these two, he demurs, instead referring to himself as a "justice-seeker...otherwise known as an open mind" and thereby avoiding the trap of being restricted to a given, usually misunderstood discipline. The average polarized American "citizen" of either persuasion, "conservative" or "progressive", could learn a lot from this viewpoint.
The goal of Kelso and Adler's "capitalist revolution" is by no means diametrically opposed to that proposed by Marx and Engels. Both auspiciously seek to raise the quality of life of all men and ensure equality of opportunity to be free of grinding subsistence, to be free to contribute more of their life-force to liberal pursuits, arts, science, philosophy, religion/spirituality, education, in short, to the advancement of human civilization. No one system, so far, can rightfully claim unqualified superiority over another in this regard. The truth probably lies, as the Buddha said, in the "middle way", some type of hybrid of the forms that have until now tried to remain exclusive, in fact, antagonistic of each other.
In A Socialist Manifesto, North Syracuse, NY: Gegensatz Press (2007), Eric v.d. Luft calls for socialism to steer "an Aristotelian middle course among these three, preserving to the greatest possible extent the freedom of anarchy, the fairness of utopian communism, and the ingenuity and vigor of the free market", (Adler was also a well-known Aristotelian philosopher of his day). He enthusiastically supports democracy and universal suffrage as well as the elimination of organizational hierarchies in favor of cooperative networks of people. Echoing Kelso and Adler, he recognizes the "remarkable incentive" to work and produce things of value that capitalism provides, but demands its "strict, ethical, and enforced regulation". The Europeans are often scoffed at by Americans who are under the sway of the propaganda promulgated by their ruling classes. Their "socialist democratic" models can be shown by many measures to provide a higher standard of living than that in America. We must remain open-minded to ways to develop a system of economy and governance that will provide, in actual practice and not just in name, a society that will be a "beacon to the world".
In the 1970's in Florida, high school seniors were required to take a course called "Americanism versus Communism" or "AVC". My memory recalls a focus on the military and political events of the Communist Revolution, but I now believe the course was a form of latter-day Cold War propaganda intended to prejudice the next generation of American citizens against any other form of political and economic organization than "free-market" democracy. These Americans had this viewpoint justified by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990's. This event caused Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Free Press, (1992), to declare Western liberal democracy the final victor in the war between political ideologies. These Americans are now among the political and entrepreneurial classes that establish the course of development of the economy and the government. Thus we have an institutionalized misunderstanding of the various possibilities of a nuanced, hybridized system incorporating the best of all systems while guarding against the worst. In recent years, this idea of "Americanism", which has become a potential synonym for "Consumerism", has begun to betray major structural weaknesses that threaten to cause a collapse of the system akin to what the Soviets experienced. We are ripe for a new paradigm to emerge but impeded by an ignorance of the possibility due to a limited vocabulary!
In a 1964 edition of The Communist Manifesto, New York: Simon and Schuster, editor Francis B. Randall, Ph.D. accuses Marx of this wrong prediction, that "the peasants would be drawn into the cities by economic necessity, and most of the bourgeoisie would become bankrupt by capitalist competition, and would sink into the proletariat." The gross maldistribution of wealth, the industrialization of agriculture, and the rampant incidence of foreclosure and personal bankruptcy we are seeing in early 21st century American capitalism would give him reason to believe he had been hasty in his assessment. It is very possible that the time is right for Americans to open their minds to alternative solutions than what they have been coerced to believe is the "only way". This will be facilitated by taking a fresh look at the original thinking hidden behind the misinterpreted "isms" they have become so used to demonizing.
Here's a great way to grab the attention of most Americans. Start talking about Jesus in a way other than what they hear at church, every Sunday, all their lives (sounds a little like mind-control to me). Didn't Jesus rail against the "moneychangers"? Didn't he advocate for the poor, the infirm, the "meek"? Whether or not one sees him as some kind of metaphysical being, doesn't he sound a lot like some kind of proto-socialist prophet? Open your minds, Americans; your political future depends on it.