The truth about socialism

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Q. Is Barack Obama a socialist?


A major clue that President Obama is not a socialist is that Fox News says he is.

Another aha! moment is his unqualified endorsement of the historic, multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the capitalist “entrepreneurs” — risk-takers all! — who nearly crashed the economic system a year ago. Never mind the dire consequences of both the meltdown and the corporate welfare package for ordinary working people.

A key part of Obama’s job description, like every occupant of the White House before him, is to sell the myth that we can all just get along — that what’s good for corporate America is good for middle America.

Socialists see through this shiny happy talk. They know that society is divided into classes, and that the interests of the capitalist class and the working class are fundamentally opposed, like vampires and sunlight. Because the capitalists pay workers less than the value of what they produce, the system is one big perpetual rip-off machine.

When Obama says that wealth should be shared, he means that the wealth that workers generate should be handed over to AIG and Bank of America. When Marxists say that wealth should be shared, they mean that wealth should be shared among the people who create it.

Socialists believe in a collective, nonprofit economy. President Obama, not so much.

Q. But isn’t the idea of making industries and services public a socialist idea? Isn’t Obama’s healthcare plan a step toward communism?


Yes and no.

It’s true that radicals have initiated most campaigns for government-run, not-for-profit businesses, like public utilities. And it’s true that socialism would expand this method of producing the goods and services that meet human needs.

But Obama’s healthcare design, as well as all of the Democratic plans in serious contention, has about as much to do with socialism as creationism has to do with science.

For one thing, of course, the “public option” has turned out to be neither very public nor much of an option. (See Healthcare: the incredible shrinking public option.) But for another, socialism means much more than just turning a few private concerns into public ones.

To work, socialism needs to be system-wide. That means both nationally and internationally.

By now, everybody gets it about the global economy, whether they love it or loathe it. What happens in the United States — policy decisions, use of natural resources, wages and job conditions — affects Latin America, China, Africa, etc. and so on. And vice versa.

Socialism can’t survive in isolation, even relative isolation, as the experiences of the Soviet Union and China show. It’s a Whole Earth kind of thing.

Furthermore, socialism means more than just taking profit out of the economy, although that’s indispensable. It also means workers’ democracy: workers make the call about what to produce and how to produce it. The planet and the people on it have suffered enough already from decisions made in boardrooms that might as well be operating from parallel universes.

Q. Isn’t the private sector more efficient? Doesn’t it deliver goods and services more cheaply?


This one is easy: not a chance.

Studies in several countries of different business fields — including healthcare — show that greater private sector efficiency is a myth right up there with reports of Elvis’ appearance last week at a supermarket in Dallas.

An anecdote: when Chicago recently privatized its parking meters, the cost of hourly parking immediately jumped by 200 percent. Everybody grumbles about the cost of stamps. (Everybody who still uses snail mail, anyway.) But imagine the price hikes if Shell ran the postal service!

Michael Moore addresses this issue beautifully in Sicko. He points out that the services people really, really care about, like firefighting, are government-run. Letting Enron run the electricity grid created quite enough chaos and consternation, thank you!

A base-line contention in the argument about public sector inefficiency is that public employees are overpaid. Bogus! It only makes sense that if an industry doesn’t have to line the pockets of stockholders and overpaid CEOs with gold, workers can be paid more and consumers can be charged less.

Q. But don’t socialists just want everyone to be poor? If everybody is equal and everything is shared, doesn’t that mean that everyone will be scraping by?


There’s plenty to go around! Let’s see: if we started by ending imperialist war and expropriating Microsoft, that would give us – well, who can count that high!

Even under current conditions, with no improvements in technology or methods of production, enough is created to feed, clothe, house, and entertain the world’s people in a style very few are accustomed to now. It’s a question not of how much there is, but of who gets it.

In fact, bunches of items are overproduced, thanks to the runaway profit motive and the unplanned nature of capitalism. And the wrong things are churned out (the 18th kind of toothpaste clogging the store shelves) and built (think prisons and jails — “alternative” housing for the poor and homeless).

Liberated from the constraints of the profit system, creativity and innovation will explode. Life will reflect one of Freedom Socialist Party founder Clara Fraser’s favorite sayings: nothing’s too good for the working class.

Q. Wait a minute! Won’t socialism destroy competition, and isn’t competition the incentive for progress?


Do you really think the woman or man or group who invented the wheel did it to keep up with the Joneses?

Certainly, competition is a strong spur to progress under capitalism, because this is a system that pits people against each other for survival and the good things in life. But, historically, competition is not the only motivation for progress – not even the main one.

In point of fact, the greatest inventors and innovators are driven by the desire to make their fellow human beings happier, more comfortable, more productive, and more secure. And in the natural world around us, many anthropologists today are making new discoveries about the role that cooperation and teamwork play in the lives of other species. For these scientists, the meaning of “survival of the fittest” has expanded to include the role of mutual effort.

Not to say that competition can’t be healthy. In a socialist world, a certain type of competition will thrive: the competition to come up with the best solution for the nuclear waste that now threatens to leak into groundwater, say, or the most aesthetically pleasing and functional way to arrange urban spaces or to connect city and countryside.

But the people who are competing will not have to worry that if they “lose,” their survival will be in jeopardy. As a species, we’ve been there and done that: it’s time to move on.

This article is the first in a series

exploring what socialism is. We want to hear from readers! Please send your questions about socialism to

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