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Talking about Socialism ... and Capitalism, Fascism, Communism, Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism

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Written by Judy Pasqualge   
Monday, 25 February 2019 05:15

Hey, hold on a minute, folks! It’s only February 2019, with about a year to go until the presidential primaries, and then the election, and already terms such as ‘socialism’ are being tossed about for various ends (positive included). I can see a lot of cross-talk ahead, and arguments based only on differing and unstated definitions (and also outright slander) ‒ all to the detriment of the time that could be spent on issues, on a real look at where the nation wants to go, and the varying ways to get there.

To this end, it could be useful to look at the ‘isms’ listed in the title of this article. There is no reference here to definitions set by election-related individuals or groups ‒ but only a hope that in the coming months this will be made clear by all involved in making public statements.

In particular, since the word ‘socialism’ is now somewhat in the mainstream (thanks, Bernie Sanders), and since this will likely be the great slander label used, it seems that if its actual meaning and intent were known, and if there were some uniformity of definition continually presented, then the 2020 election might have a better chance of being won by those so inclined.

Capitalism

In the past weeks candidate Warren stated a belief in capitalism, seeming to characterise socialism as not providing for markets or competition (did she mean ‘stock market’?). Candidate Harris stated that she is not a democratic socialist, but was not asked what this means to her. Hopefully, these candidates and others will be held accountable in the months ahead to explaining exactly what they mean.

It may be well to first talk about capitalism ‒ and then one of the two ways that capitalism can be managed: fascism (the other is via liberal democracy).

Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (W7) defines capital as “accumulated goods devoted to the production of other goods.” It defines capitalism as: “An economic system characterised by private or corporation ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly in a free market.”[1]

The Dictionary of Economics (DE) says that capitalism is: “An economic system based upon the private ownership of all kinds of property and the freedom of the individual to contract with others and to engage in economic activities of his choice for his own profit and well-being.”[2]

These definitions don’t really get at the analyses done by some of the great economists and writers on socialism. They speak of the means of production: tools, machines, factories, land, raw materials, etc. ‒ state owned or privately owned. In capitalism, agriculture is more and more a branch of industry and is dominated by capital.[3]

In speaking of private ownership, what is referenced is the means of production. What is not included is personal possessions, such as a house, clothes, car, etc. I write of this here with some chagrin, because in growing up in the US from the 1950s-1960s, by the time I was 10, I somehow had gotten the image that in socialist countries one would not even own his own clothes, as if there were a massive laundry that would then distribute some previous wearer’s now-clean clothes.

Karl Marx noted that in simple commodity production, a producer makes a commodity, sells it and receives money, and then uses this money to buy another commodity. In capitalism, a capitalist uses money to buy a commodity(s), and then after a process of production sells a new product for money (at a greater value than the inputs, a surplus to him).

Finally, the actual source of the surplus lies not in such market transactions, but in the labour that produced the product (labour power) ‒ with labour itself becoming a commodity. In a workday, a worker may be paid a subsistence wage, producing a product that can be sold for that amount, but he then actually works (unpaid) for a longer period of time (surplus labour) making more products (the value of these going to the owner ‒ surplus value).[4] Surplus value can also be increased by technological innovations or increased intensity of work (speed-up).[5] John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark state that the capitalist system thus has an “inner dynamic” governed by the exploitation of labour.[6]

The origins of modern capitalism lie in mercantile capitalism: the rise of merchant and bank bourgeoisies and nations, with the acquisition of goods and wealth mainly by expropriation (theft!), without exchange/or equivalent value, as seen in colonialism and the system of slavery.[7]

The analysis goes on to look at what happened in the industrial revolution, from the very late 18th century, until arriving by the mid-20th century at a stage of monopoly capitalism ‒ monopoly meaning that in a sector, production is controlled by only several firms such that they can set the price of those goods (the market does not set the price, and companies compete mainly in the sales effort ‒ à la Coke and Pepsi). Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy saw the main propensity of current capitalism as a tendency for the surplus (to the owners of the means of production) to rise.[8]

Sweezy thus noted capitalism’s special features:

a. ownership of the means of production lies in one set of individuals; the work is done by another;

b. the means of production and labour power are commodities (both are objects of exchange and have exchange value);

c. exchange relations exist between owners, and between owners and workers;

d. thus, the buying and selling of labour power is a characteristic of capitalism.[9]

From the 1970s, capitalism further developed into the stage of financialisation: there is an over accumulation of capital (with no price competition), and investment stagnates, producing a problem in using the surplus. There is an increase in financial profits (in banks, financial institutions and real estate), used in speculation; nonfinancial institutions enter the markets, and households are drawn in via credit/debt.[10]

Fascism

W7 describes fascism as being characterised by exalting the “nation and race and [standing] for a centralised autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

But in viewing the main examples of fascism in the last century, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, it is clear that both economic systems were capitalist. It is thus useful to view fascism as being one of two modes of political management in capitalism (the other is liberal democracy).[11]

Beyond this, features include a large state hand in running the economy, a lack of democratic institutions, often a cult of the leader, and often a prejudice against a particular group(s).

The aim is the control of the state ‒ often a totalitarian state, with the basic (capitalist) economic structure remaining; usually there is a state apparatus and a party apparatus; the aim is to repress and discipline the population, and private corporations also provide discipline.[12]

Other characterisations of fascism include:

Trotsky: a particular way of mobilising and organising the petty bourgeoisie in the social interests of finance capital.[13]

Bertolt Brecht, 1935: “How can anyone tell the truth about Fascism, unless he is willing to speak out against capitalism, which brings it forth?”[14]

Sweezy: the opposite of fascism is bourgeois democracy.[15]

John Bellamy Foster: “Fascism is the antonym of liberal democracy within a capitalist society.”[16]

Samir Amin: a rejection of democracy; for submission of people to the requirements of collective discipline, with an authority or leader as main agents; it always includes a return to backward-looking ideas to provide legitimacy (about the past, state, religion, race, or nation/ethnic group).[17]

Socialism

When people start to speak of socialism it may be easier to first state what it is not. Here, it is not what existed in the Soviet Union or exists today in China ‒ socialism has not been put into place in any nation thus far. Further, by necessity, socialism requires democracy ‒ the institutions for public expression and participation, which do not favour the higher classes or particular groups.

Here again one can see the drawbacks in the definitions given in the two dictionaries:

W7 has various meanings, which reference: “collective or government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”; “no private property”; “the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

The definition given by DE is: “A collective system of ownership and operation of the means of production, usually by a government.”

What remains unclear in the above is the difference between means of production (private property of propertied classes) and personal property. Also unclear is the form of the state, and nature of participation in it.

It is true that various people, movements, parties, etc., have come up with various ways to describe socialism. And this may be all to the good, as there is no one template that can be imposed on a country: the forms of socialism must differ depending on history and conditions, and people’s choices.

It may be easier to speak of what the aims are, and I forget who wrote that the aim is: equality over hierarchy, and cooperation over competition.

Equality is not considered as a quick levelling of all to the same level, but as an aim, a direction one wants to go. Likewise, competition does not mean not trying to strive for the best or to maximize effort, but refers to using competition, with evaluation based on limited standards (such as money earned), as the only criterion for placing value.

Marx referred to competition as “war among the greedy.”[18] He did not see socialism as a utopia, because the conditions for it already existed. A good society was a society of good humans (fully developed, sane, productive).[19]

Eric Hobsbawm wrote that socialism corresponds to the interests of the proletariat/working class.[20]

John and Barbara Ehrenreich stated: “The condition of freeing ourselves from the bonds capitalist society has created – material, cultural and psychological ‒ is “socialism.””[21]

Erich Fromm linked the economic system to the development of the individual: the healthy person is: independently active and productive; his independence and freedom are rooted in the act of self-creation; he owes his existence to himself; health is the positive realisation of individuality. The idea of socialism is to serve this.[22]

Two examples that illustrate the dangers of using the socialist label come to mind:

The first placed the label on the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from the 1970s, which actually and consciously aimed at 1/3 of the means of production as lying with the state, 1/3 with the private sector, and 1/3 as some mix or other alternative. The label socialism was used by the US government as a screen to promote the overthrow of that government.

The second example dates from late 1950s Sri Lanka, when the new, capitalist, centre government nationalised the private bus system, and was then denounced as being socialist. A prime motivation in this move was that under a system where a number of people privately owned bus routes throughout the country, those owners were largely aligned with the right-wing party, and often denied opposition voters transport to polling stations.

Likewise, many governments in capitalist systems have tried to devise a state-controlled healthcare system, as being the most efficient way of providing that service, or a national transport system. In the coming election season, when someone rails against a measure as being socialist, I really hope that they are asked if they would be for, for example, the breaking up of the New York City subway system into a myriad of privately owned and separately administered and maintained lines.

Finally, it seems that use of the socialist label in a derogatory sense often arises when one country is actually trying to control the resources of another country for the good of its own multinational corporations, seen in the ongoing battles for control of oil, including foreign intervention in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Venezuela, for example. The flip side is use of the label inside a country to negate opposition to such policy.

Communism

This can be dealt with quickly, as again such a system has not existed anywhere. The term is often tied with the aims of socialism ‒ as something to be achieved. There is a vision of a future society based on the satisfaction of needs, with many and varied suggestions on how to organise such a system (including without a state), and on how needs are expressed, evaluated and fulfilled.

DE provides no clarity: “Government or community ownership of all wealth,” with no private property ‒ again, there is confusion about means of production vs. personal property.

Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism

Finally, there are the two isms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, which can exist in capitalist or non-socialist systems.

Authoritarianism: requires strict obedience; there are no democratic institutions. W7 notes: “blind submission to authority”; or “relating to or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or elite not constitutionally responsible to the people.”

Clearly the fascist capitalist form can fall under this, as can systems such as the Soviet Union, where the state controlled many means of production but was not democratic.

Totalitarianism: this incorporates authoritarianism, but with the added requirement that people not only obey, but enthusiastically participate in the system ‒ as in Nazi Germany.

It is hoped that in the run-up to the 2020 elections candidates will use the publicity they receive to start to educate on aims and issues, and on the capitalist system under which we live, and, for those so inclined, on the fact that there are alternatives. Most candidates are not taking the general public seriously.

Many people are waiting, all around the world, to see exactly what the candidates really stand for, if they can back up speech with knowledge, or if it’s just spin ‒ there are a lot of pros out there who can easily spot it.


[1] Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1963.

[2] Harold S. Sloan and Arnold J. Zurcher, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1970.

[3] Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970, 16, 18.

[4] Ibid., 57-62.

[5] Riccardo Bellofiore, “The Multiple Meanings of Marx’s Value Theory, Monthly Review, April 2018, 35.

[6] John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Expropriation of Nature,”  Monthly Review, March 2018, 1.

[7] Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism 1500-1980, London: MacMillan Press, 1984, 17; Foster and Clark, “The Expropriation of Nature,” 1, 13.

[8] Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966, 67; Tom Mayer, “A Marxist Correspondence,” Monthly Review, June 1918, 50-1.

[9] Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 56-7.

[10] John Bellamy Foster, “The Commitment of an Intellectual,” Monthly Review, October 2004; Costas Lapavitsas and Ivan Mendièta-Muñoz, “The Profits of Financialization,” Monthly Review, July-August 2016, 50.

[11] John Bellamy Foster, “Neofascism in the White House, Monthly Review, April 2017, 4.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Noted in: Ibid., 27.

[14] Quoted in: John Bellamy Foster, “This Is Not Populism,” Monthly Review, June 2017, 2.

[15] Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,” 5.

[16] Foster, “This Is Not Populism,” 4.

[17] Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,” 8.

[18] Karl Marx, “Alienated Labor,” in Michael L. Morgan, Classics of Moral and Political Theory, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996, 1142.

[19] Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1973, 294; Erich Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, My Encounter with Marx and Freud, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1962, 37.

[20] The Age of Revolution (1789-1848), New York: Vintage Books, 1996 (1962), 244.

[21] “From Resistance to Revolution,” Monthly Review, April 2018 (April 1968), 62.

[22] Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, 65-67.

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