Saturday, March 14, 2009


I suppose we have Lenin and Stalin to blame for making “socialism” a bad word, and the cold war for making socialism sound antithetical to democracy and the American dream.

Still, it’s lazy usage of the word to accuse President Obama of being a “socialist,” as conservatives have been doing since last fall, under the spell of Joe the Plumber, just as calling George W. Bush a “capitalist” in the usual sense of the word misses the word’s defining points.

By all accounts Bush was a piss-poor investor and entrepreneur (still, to his credit, according to, he never actually said the French had no word for entrepreneur), having survived in all his pre-political business dealings on the coattails of his father and family connections, and, as U.S. President, turning a $200-billion surplus into $400-billion deficit, hardly a high watermark for ideological capitalism.

Likewise, Obama’s “socialism” benefits the Haves somewhat more directly than the Have-nots. Republicans call it “socialism” perhaps because it does not exclude the Have-nots entirely. More than Bush, Obama at least has experience in pulling himself up by his bootstraps.

It’s also a mistake to call the present collapse of capitalism as consequently and effectively socialism. “Capitalism” and “socialism” are indeed opposite terms, but it makes no sense to assume that the collapse of one is necessarily a triumph of the other. Lurking variables do appear to exist.

Arguably, the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated a good bit of the mess Wall Street finds itself in now, so much depended on the cold war to prop up both sides of the “conflict,” just the opposite of what the long-held false dichotomy would suggest.

Since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the frisson produced by tension between workers’ interests and investors’ interests has been the (tenuous, at best) basis of global economic strategizing. And the current economic collapse could just as easily swerve America to fascism or feudalism as to socialism or communism.

The stimulus packages, all varieties of them, are designed to keep gigantic financial institutions and multi-national corporations afloat. The collapse of these entities will cost jobs for ordinary working people, but probably no more so than the collapse of the European aristocracy did in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Yesterday, I watched Roberto Rossellini’s television film The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, recently available on DVD. It shows the French monarch’s building of Versailles and adoption of sumptuous finery in dress as deliberate ploys to stave off the inevitable forces of the bourgeoisie and democratic ideals, much as the Reagan-Thatcher high style in the 1980s, combined with sugary doses of nostalgia, were deliberate diversions from the faltering economy, which most people felt comfortable blaming Jimmy Carter for, mainly because he had dared to suggest wearing sweaters and turning down thermostats.

A culture built on superficial luxury and debt is a monarch’s and a dictator’s and a CEO’s bastion against forces of history, change, and equality.

Rossellini’s film begins showing ordinary workers commenting on how a good position with the king is affecting the amount of time husband can spend with wife, since work in the palace, though well compensated and prestigious, requires slavish devotion and little time for leisure … or a personal life.

When one loudmouth mentions that England had just successfully beheaded its king and seemed none the worse for wear, he is hushed up since all their income, including the loudmouth’s, is tied to the interests of the French aristocracy.

Such is the defense of the various stimulus packages, too—critics should shut up since “everybody has a stake in the fate of AIG.”

Calling the President a socialist seems a bit arch to me, since from FDR to Reagan to Clinton, Presidents of both parties have been propping up an untenable free market, seen as such by even leading capitalists like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century, with a variety of tricks co-opted from the old aristocracy.

FDR’s welfare programs are largely credited with saving the U.S. from Soviet-style communism on one hand and German- and Italian-style fascism on the other. Similarly, building Versailles kept the aristocracy in debt to the king (thus stifling political intrigues) and French workers too exhausted to analyze what exactly their own interests and rights were, much less rise up in protest against their oppressors.

In Western democracies, civil rights have been recognized when (and only when) civil disobedience and unrest have threatened profits or, worse, threatened to pull open the curtain and reveal the flimsy mechanisms that keep the “economy” blinking and buzzing.

The West has tended to stand up for human rights elsewhere in the world when its own economic interests have been threatened, though inevitably human rights and safety are invoked as the main rationales for war.

The stock market has been shaky for some time now, and though it has been the practice of the American right wing to blame this propensity for decline on insipient socialism and “big government,” it seems to me that big government, in the form of laissez-faire liberalism, has always worked more in the interest of preserving the viability and stability (or the illusion of these) of self-consuming industrial and capitalistic forces than in the interest of the American people in general.

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