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The Triumph of Socialism: Is My Family Squabble Like Yours?

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Whenever I'm with my liberal Gen-X sons, the conversation inevitably turns towards the topic: capitalism vs. socialism. They see me as a socialist -- a product of my times rooted in the post-depression era and in the 1960s.

Similarly embedded in the Reagan counter-revolution, they argue that socialism is hopelessly impractical. Their arguments echo Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum about capitalism, "There is no alternative."

"Just give me one example of any country in the world where socialism has worked," they demand. . . "See, you can't," they continue triumphantly, "because socialism might be great in theory, but it never works in practice."

Well, I'm tired of that conversation. My dear partners never listen when I mention Sweden, Norway, Denmark, or Iceland. They don't hear me out when I cite the wildly successful Mondragon workers' cooperative in Spain. "Never heard of it," they say.

Even more: they can't even entertain the possibility that Cuba in comparison to other former colonies is actually the envy of most peers in Africa, Latin America, South Asia -- and yes, Puerto Rico, which is part of the capitalist United States. People in Puerto Rico are far worse off than in Cuba. Of course, that's because of the latter's socialist system of education, health care, environmental protection, centrally-planned hurricane measures, efficient first-responders, and housing. And this despite decades-long, extremely active efforts by the United States and CIA to make the island's economy scream.

So, in my argument here that socialism actually does work, I promise to minimize mention of those tired examples. Let me instead take the bull by the horns and simply say: socialism has worked in Russia, China -- and (get ready) here in the United States.

There, I've said it. Now let me make my case.

[Before I get into that, however, allow me a word of clarification about capitalism and socialism themselves.

Neither system exists in any pure form. I mean, if we understand the three basic elements of capitalism to be (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, we must conclude that the system exists nowhere outside the world's black markets. (And everyone considers those to be somehow criminal.)

Instead, especially since the Great Depression, all we have are mixed economies -- i.e. blends of capitalism and its opposite on every point, viz. socialism. More specifically, I'm referring to capitalism's inclusion of socialism's own three basic elements: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) earnings limited by income ceilings or redistributive taxes. This means that Sweden has a mixed economy, so does Russia, China, Cuba -- and the United States.

That is, at least since the 1930s, the world has agreed that capitalism cannot succeed without incorporating elements of socialism. And so, we have the U.S. government filling the role of the country's largest land-owner; we find ourselves cherishing the Social Security System; and then there's the IRS. . . Similarly, socialism cannot make it without absorbing the capitalist components of private ownership, markets, and incentivized incomes.

Does this mean that all economies are the same? Obviously, not.

No, what distinguishes the mixed economy of Cuba, for example, from our own, is that Cuba's is mixed in favor of the working classes, while our economy in the U.S. is mixed in favor of the rich (on the familiar theory that the wealth they "create" will eventually trickle down to the rest of us).

In other words, what my debate with my sons is really about is this: can I offer an example of economies mixed in favor of the poor that have actually worked?

My answer is, of course, that I can.]

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)

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