Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016

When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.

A lack of clear meaning

I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.

I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.

And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics.

Perhaps it was an expression of capitalism when Bill Pruett moved to Elkton, Oregon, when I was in high school and opened an Arco gas station just west of town. He triggered a gas war where Joe Bishop’s Chevron and Walt Esslinger’s Texaco stations had to lower their prices to compete. But that was quite a different dynamic than our current situation where gas prices at the pump are set by a small handful of big corporations leaving the local station owners no slack for competing with their neighboring rivals.

These two words, “socialism” and “capitalism,” do not seem to be capable any more of doing the work useful words do. They seem more like exhausted labels that mainly serve as cudgels for unhelpful and polarizing posturing. They do not help us communicate and find common understandings and possible common ground for important conversations about the direction of our society.

Market-oriented economics not necessarily bad

Back in the late 1970s, I read insightful writers such as E. F. Schumacher and Barry Commoner who helped me see that a market-oriented economy is not a bad thing when it spurs innovation and meets the actual needs of people. And to see that monopolistic, corporatist, state-dominated, and other anti-democratic practices are what’s bad—whether the Soviet version or the American version (later, James C. Scott reinforced these points in his book, Seeing Like a State, arguing that the problem is centralization).

Which approach is capitalist? That depends on how we define the term. If we center on free markets and the enhancement of fair competition, then capitalism is something that can enhance democracy. But if we center on the ruthless quest for ever-increasing profits that invariably leads to centralization and reducing free competition, then capitalism undermines democracy. I tend to think that we should never refer to the latter focus simply as “capitalism” but should call it “corporatism” or “monopoly capitalism”—and make clear that it is antithetical to democracy.

“Socialism” or simply “democracy”?

And what about socialism? Certainly our current “socialist” leaders are the polar opposite in their views from what was usually called “socialism” back in the 1970s—i.e., the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. Of course, we have also long had the model of the Scandinavian-style of social organization that has often been called “socialism” as in social democracy. These are two very different models. But because they are both called “socialist,” I wonder whether the term is essentially irredeemable. I think we could accurately use “social democracy” for a political philosophy that places human wellbeing above corporate greed and affirms investing in public good over being consistently deferential to the wishes of the rich and powerful.

I actually am most attracted to advocating a strengthening of the stand alone term “democracy”—meaning something similar to what others have recently called “deep democracy” [Cornell West] or “radical democracy” [Romand Coles; Sheldon Wolin]. The heart of the notion to me actually has an anarchistic kind of tinge in that it emphasizes self-determination and a suspicion of all tendencies toward centralized, top down power (be it state-centered or corporation-centered).

A more vital democracy would mean, among other dynamics, an even playing field (or better) for locally-owned small businesses vis-à-vis the big boxes; access for voting for everyone; a guaranteed living wage; an end to big money dominating politics; universal healthcare; rebuilt infrastructure with union jobs; revitalized labor movement in general; renewable energy; support for family farms; et al. None of this is socialistic per se, none is contrary to market-oriented (non-monopolistic and corporatist) capitalism.

For a future post, I will reflect on how this notion of democracy is actually pretty biblical. I was interested that Jill Lepore, in her interview mentioned Eugene Debs, America’s great socialist, as actually a kind of social gospeler. I also hope soon to read Gary Dorrien’s recent books on the black social gospel. He’s trying to recover a vital American tradition that has a lot to offer us today.

[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]

5 thoughts on “Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

  1. A few comments. One is the reference to “Scandinavian” which obscures the enormous differences among those countries. This was evident to me when my wife and I went on a Scandinavian tour and were on a bus and crossed the border between Norway, a socialist country, and Sweden, a firmly capitalist country. The difference was like the difference between night and day. On the Norwegian side, we went through beautiful forested countryside, but the border stood out because that’s where the clear cutting began. It was a wasteland, and there were also big roadside billboards typical of capitalist societies.

    But in general I agree with you that the labels are tossed around in ways that are not very meaningful. There’s a lot of blame going around. Part of that is due to Bernie Sanders, an ambitious dishonest politician I have little respect for. He is firmly capitalist, but called himself socialist to attract voters. He also talked about the “revolution” although he is counter-revolutionary. And he goes back and forth about whether he is a Democrat or Independent depending on what seems convenient that day. He has for decades been one of the most faithful to Democrat Party leadership in Congress, while trying to paint himself as independent. I find his behavior despicable, and I don’t understand why more people don’t call him out for it.

    Socialism in its origin I believe relates to ownership of the means of production. In its purest form, it is for worker ownership of the means of production. That can look somewhat capitalist in operation, because worker-owned companies compete with companies owned by the rich who are exploiting workers and both kinds of companies seek to do well financially. We have been sidetracked by state socialism, which generally has not proved very beneficial to workers.

    The Catholics use a term called distributism, which favors wide ownership of the means of production. It is possible for that to occur in a system that in some ways looks capitalist. But it is very different from most capitalist systems in that the wealth is not concentrated. Conversion from corporations owned by a few to broadly owned ones, particularly worker-owned ones, would be highly beneficial. However, I don’t know of any prominent politicians arguing for that.

    1. Thanks, Bill. A lot to respond to, but I will limit myself to just a couple of quick comments.

      I think the distinction between “worker ownership” and “state socialism” is huge, but also illustrates the problems with terminology. In the ways that matter most, that distinction marks two completely different philosophies that should never be placed under a single rubric “socialism.”

      I’m glad you mentioned Catholic social teaching. There is a powerful tradition there that I don’t think of often enough. In imagining a Christian way of looking at these issues, Catholic teaching is a tremendous resource. I was in graduate school when the American Bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy came out. It was an amazing gift. Of course, there are many quite powerful American Catholics (such as some who recently have sat and currently sit on the Supreme Court) who daily repudiate most of what the Bishops’ letter said.

      Click to access economic_justice_for_all.pdf

  2. It is nice to hear from you more frequently with this series, and I hope I can comment as a friendly voice and a deep admirer of yours, and a fan of your way of thinking through things with perceptions often missing, and finding helpful ways to identify the real issues and alternative ways of approaching things people find hard to do. And I say that as someone who has a share of your views I can’t subscribe to.

    I am sad to say I can’t find the things I value most about you in these recent posts, yet. The gist of the message seems to be that we need to adopt various progressive or left-leaning causes about global warming response, universal healthcare and so on, as the antidote to society’s (or more frankly America’s) current problems.

    I am not an American. I am not a lefty, and I don’t get worked up about global warming response or universal healthcare. I identify most fundamentally as a Christian, and I thought you did too, and I thought we agreed that it was most important to think and develop a specifically Christian approach to society, law, order, markets, family and so on, and that the result cuts across the modern issues, values and political noise. When I read you lately, I seem to see mostly lefty noise, notwithstanding the two cheers for free markets interspersed.

    Sadly, it appears you have been caught up in mistaking technical drivers of economic trends as economic bogey-men. For example, if the economics and technology of retail exhibits significant economies of scale, making ‘big box’ formats viable at the expense of ‘small box’ retail, what wisdom is there in decrying big box retail and cheering for small box retail, as if it is somehow morally better?

    The Christian approach to our issues is something we should be eager to contemplate, debate, develop and practice. I don’t think analysis paralysis is necessary or desirable. And yes, there is the Christian approach, the approach that identifies our thinking and practice as Christian, as opposed to the competing ideas and agendas that really call the shots if we limit ourselves to debate and don’t go the next step to apply and practice it together as Christians.

    There is really a Christian approach to law and government: the kingdom of God and the law of Christ. This is a specific and living set of institutions, and a real kingdom.

    The Roman Catholic social teaching is a very interesting and largely if not entirely sound form of analysis and set of values and priorities — and I say that as someone who has never been a Roman Catholic.

    The only issue I have with it is the specifics of how the Roman Catholics have traditionally applied it, in terms of what are the legitimate social institutions between those of the family, and those of Christ as the King of King and Lord of Lords. The RC approach has both the RC church and the state as legitimate intermediary institutions, and seeks to apply the principles of solidarity and subsidiary to both institutions. I don’t accept the specifics of the RC church structure (the papacy and the rule of individual bishops, taking instead more of a multiple elders and decentralised approach) but agree with the church as a key institution between the family and Christ. The state, however, I don’t see as a legitimate intermediary institution at all: it is rival to the church, not complementary, in my view. And the rivalry between the church of Christ and the state is between the legitimate intermediary social institution and the illegitimate one. Perhaps there is a place for RC social teaching on the state as an intermediary step in reducing the harm from statecraft, but I’ve never seen its proponents present it in that way.

    Now I am not sure why you seem to have retreated from Christian anarchism and are gunning for an interventionist state that promotes labour unionsation, restrictions on emitting CO2, restrictions on big box retail and I fear a whole panoply of micromanagement of our commercial and social lives. Christ’s law is the law of liberty, summed up with one rule: love does no evil to another. That one requirement is our sole moral requirement, and the ultimate answer to the question of the obligation to pay taxes to the state according to Paul in Romans 13. The legal system of Christ is a bottom up system of living and letting others live in freedom, and resolving disputes and wrongs by reconciliation, or failing that, by seeking social support and each side choosing one adjudicator and together they choose a third to make a final ruling if necessary, and then disbanding, leaving the implementation of the ruling the the honour of the parties. This kind of legal system is antithetical to the state and its tax and regulatory imposts, and its overweening micromanagement, all in the name of the common good, of course.

    With the deepest respect and affection, I miss the depth of thought and insight you have within you Ted, and I hope to see again the great value insights I have seen in your writing before.

  3. Thanks for your analysis, Ted. Your ideas would fit within Democratic Socialists of America or Green Party US platforms. Having been a charter member of DSA in the early 1980’s, I eventually shifted away toward Green political thought. A key book that helped me leave the socialist path was David De Leon’s book:
    The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism, a history book about the role of Protestantism, capitalism, and American geography in developing American libertarian sentiment. I then joined the Green Committees of Correspondence which evolved in to the Green Party. I like that the Green Ten Key Values includes nonviolence. While my influence from Anabaptist Christian thought discourages any lasting hope in politics and government, my Reformed Church heritage and Liberation Theology values lead me to support our feeble attempts at realizing God’s justice and peace.

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