The False Menace of Socialism

With another State of the Union address in our rear view — and all of its “Greatest Show on Earth” excitement reverberating through the political firmament — the mainstream’s pallid analysis can begin. Pundits and politicians, their animated views all firmly grafted onto a broader, elite orthodoxy, have wasted no time in getting down to explaining “what it all means.”

Their gloss on the President’s speech, of course, comes stippled with a catalog of predictably misinformative fictions well attuned to quashing any genuine exchange about ideas. Still, as long as Republicans and Democrats can “sit together,” everything about “our dialogue” is okay, and the American public is treated to the pageantry of what the President calls our “robust democracy.” In a particularly “robust” eruption of disinformation and inanity, Georgia Congressman Paul Broun reacted to the address by advising the President via Twitter, “You believe in socialism.”

Thus the spectacle of American party politics, a shell game used by a class of identical elites to misdirect our attention away from anything that might actually impel us to harbor reservations about the state’s structures. Last week, the Washington Post’s Stephen Stromberg hastily responded to one definition of socialism offered by Kevin D. Williamson in National Review. Stromberg characterized Williams’s view as the belief “that reverence for centralized state control can sort out the socialists from the non-socialists,” and asked why, under that definition, don’t we “call nearly every government ever a socialist one?”

Expectedly, both Williamson’s myopic definition — with a lack of nuance befitting a National Review write-up — and Stromberg’s response miss the point, but both inspire an opportunity for some much-needed terminological shading. Notwithstanding all of the contradiction and imprecision surrounding use of the word, the presence of socialism in and of itself is not merely a function of “state control” or of intervention in the economy.

Williamson’s piece raises the important issue of what Kevin Carson has called “regulatory capture,” where, in Williamson’s words, “[r]egulation acts as a proxy for direct state ownership of the means of production,” giving it actual ownership. This is true enough, but while Williamson sees this feature of our economy as necessarily socialistic, it is much more accurately attributed to his precious capitalism. State capitalism, in opposition to a free market made up of consensual exchanges, is just the kind of privilege-granting system that allows a plutocratic elite to monopolize societal wealth and resources.

It most assuredly doesn’t matter, as Williamson half-understands, whether we find legal title vested in the state or in the nominally “private” actors of the corporate sphere; what matters is how a participant in the economy comes to their wealth, whether it is through strictly voluntary relationships or, as in state capitalism, unfair advantages procured through the coercion of statism. That Williamson could look at the President and see a socialist rather than a servile voice for corporate cupidity testifies to just how distorted our understandings of socialism are. The president cheerleads for the biggest corporate tax cut in 25 years and National Review is worried that someone making minimum wage is going to eat Mr. CEO’s lunch.

By itself, the word socialism requires no statism whatsoever; instead it denotes a set of outcomes as an answer to the “Social Question” raised by disparities of wealth and economic power in society caused by statist intervention. On that account, it’s very possible to be both a socialist and an advocate for a truly free market, and American anarchists like Benjamin Tucker advocated for just this union of concepts “free market” and “socialism.”

Equity, as an element of the broader concept of justice, is central to socialism. We often think about the equity we’ve put into a company, or the equity we have in our home, and socialism extends that evaluative gauge to society at large, submitting that those who work and produce ought to reap the full reward of their efforts. Contrary to Williamson’s fretful assertions, the radical results that would accompany the realization of true equity for the working class don’t require statist intervention and in fact can’t ever be achieved through it.

Given that, as Carson has argued, American capitalism is statist to its core, honest objections to the unjust redistribution of wealth ought to be directed at the system Obama is actually promoting, not to some imagined version of socialism. As for conscientious libertarians, we ought to follow Professor Gary Chartier and “welcome the recovery … of ‘socialism’” for our own use; it’s a whole lot less scary than Rule by the Rich and the complete absence of a free market championed by the President.

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