This Week: Socialism Part II


Nygaard Notes doesn’t talk a lot about electoral campaigns. And that’s because I generally think that elections are less interesting and important than the stuff that goes on outside of the electoral arena. Any systemic change will be the result of organized demands rather than choices made on officially-sanctioned choices on official ballots.

Having said that, it remains true that the foundations of the USAmerican system are being challenged in recent years at a level that we haven’t seen since the 1960s, or perhaps since the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century. And this challenge, if successful, could lead to a new Progressive Era. Or it could go in the other direction. Some of this is playing out in the current Presidential campaign; you can hear it if you listen closely.

Encoded within the headlines about the 2020 election, the impeachment of Trump, and the various revelations about and indictments of numerous rich and powerful agenda-setters, there are real philosophical differences that are being contested in the current period.

The contest is typically portrayed as a contest between Socialism and The American Way, but it’s not that simple. The current series on Socialism is my attempt to take a deeper look at what is at stake in the current struggle. Let me know what you think, will you?


“Quote” of the Week: The Invisible Dead

On December 9th the Washington Post reported on a years-long investigation that reveals “how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare” in Afghanistan. The report documents an unending stream of propaganda and lies put out by “senior U.S. officials.”

This “Quote” of the Week is about the New York Times report on the Post’s report. The important thing here is not what The Times says, but what it does not say:

Since 2001, more than 2,200 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan, along with hundreds from allied countries that have contributed forces to the war. Since 2014, after the Pentagon officially and euphemistically ended “combat operations,” putting the Afghan military in the lead, more than 50,000 Afghan security forces have died. And the military effort has cost the United States more than $1 trillion.

American troops. Allies. Afghan security forces. $1 trillion. One could almost forget that Afghanistan is a real place, with real people, people trying to live their lives. The original Post story highlights Afghan and other civilian deaths: 43,074 Afghan civilians killed; 42,100 Taliban and “other insurgents” killed; 424 humanitarian aid workers killed; 67 journalists killed. Surely the real numbers are greater than these, but however many innocent people have been killed as a result of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, they disappear from the pages of our country’s newspaper of record. And this callous disregard for human life is a large part of the reason why the U.S. military can operate as the unaccountable global police force that it strives to be.

Public Opinion and Socialism

In the last issue of Nygaard Notes I asked “What is socialism?” I didn’t even try to give a definitive answer. But what is perhaps more important, from a political and organizing perspective, is what people think it is. Thanks to grassroots organizing that has elevated self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to positions of prominence, pollsters have been asking USAmericans about this thing called socialism. You may be a bit surprised at what people—especially young people—are saying.

General Support

The last Nygaard Notes “Quote of the Week has the Harris Poll saying that young people (24 and younger) “are more likely to embrace socialistic policies and principles than past generations.” So, what do they mean by “socialistic”?

What They Think It Is

The Gallup Poll, in a recent report, noted that “socialism is a broad concept that can be—and is—understood in a variety of ways by Americans.”

The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2018 American Values Survey found that “Americans are divided in their understandings of socialism. While a majority (54%) identify socialism as a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education, about four in ten (43%) say socialism is a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation, and communications industries… Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say socialism is about providing citizens with services (61% vs. 43%), while Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say it is about government control of industry (54% vs. 36%).” (The implication here is that government control of industry is a bad thing, which bears examining, but not right now.)

There’s a history here, as the Brookings Institution noted in their publication Socialism: A Short Primer: “In 1949, the Gallup Organization probed Americans’ understanding of the term ‘socialism.’ More Americans picked government ownership or control as socialism’s defining feature than all the other options combined. Almost seven decades later in 2018, Gallup posed the same question, with very different results. The share of respondents who focused on government control fell by half, to just 17 percent. By contrast, the share who emphasized egalitarianism and generous public services rose from 14 percent in 1949 to 33 percent in 2018.”

Partisan Divide

The Gallup Poll reported this past May: “As political figures espousing socialist ideas have gained popularity among their party in recent years, about three in four Democrats (74%) say they would support a self-identified socialist, up from 59% in 2015. Meanwhile, socialist candidates remain unpopular among the GOP rank-and-file—19% would vote for a socialist for president, down from 26% in 2015. Just 49% of independents would vote for a socialist, a potential problem for the Democrats if they nominate a left-leaning candidate who supports socialist-style programs.” What are “socialist-style programs? They never really say…

Things have changed since 1949, as was affirmed in an October 2018 report from Gallup called “The Meaning of ‘Socialism’ to Americans Today.” They found that “Now, almost 70 years later, Americans’ views of socialism have broadened. While many still view socialism as government control of the economy, as modified communism and as embodying restrictions on freedoms in several ways, an increased percentage see it as representing equality and government provision of benefits.”

This past April a Monmouth University poll asked survey respondents, “In general, is socialism compatible or not compatible with American values?” 57 percent said it was “not compatible.” Then, in September they did another survey, and they reported that “Nearly 7-in-10 registered voters nationwide (69%) say that America is greatly divided when it comes to our most important values.” So… who then says socialism is not compatible with these values the nature of which we aren’t sure?

Despite the fact that these polls talk about “the most important values” and “the American way of life” and “core political principles”, neither poll even attempts to say what these values and principles may be. So I guess we should try to do so. Read on…

How We View the World

It seems to be true that public opinion in the U.S. in regard to socialism is shifting. It also seems to be true that there is no generally-accepted, shared understanding of what socialism is.

(This puts me in mind of a story that the late writer and commentator Gore Vidal used to tell of a woman rising at a political meeting during the Cold War in Orange County, California, to say to him, “I have two questions. First, what can I do as an average American housewife to fight Communism? And, second, what is Communism?”)

The pollsters I’ve cited offer respondents the choice of defining “socialism” as either being “about providing citizens with services” or “about government control of industry.” But I think the disagreement here is really about something more than that. We talk about “socialism” and “capitalism,” but those are just code words—shorthand, we might say—for something deeper. That “something deeper” is what I want to discuss here.

The idea of the United States as a polarized society is not new. When I wrote about it back in 2001-2002 I said that it reflected a conflict between differing philosophies. But now I think that’s not quite right; it’s too formal, too conscious.

Perhaps a better word is the Spanish term cosmovisión, which roughly translates as “worldview.” The Germans say “Weltanschauung.” Whatever word we use, I’m talking about overall sets of beliefs about “how the world is.” Sometimes I call it “Deep Propaganda,” but propaganda is a word that is losing its usefulness through overuse, like many words in an increasingly-propagandized culture.

I will go with the word “worldview,” by which I mean the combination of ideas, feelings, intuitions, mental images, beliefs and thoughts about not only how the world is, but also about how it could be or might be. For example, your view of the world might include the belief that people are basically bad, and thus in need of structures or authorities to keep them in line. This might lead you to support an authoritarian leader. A person who believes that people are basically good might support a leader who promotes a more participatory, democratic leadership.

The Dominant Worldview: Individualistic and Competitive

The worldview that is dominant in the United States right now is fundamentally INDIVIDUALISTIC and COMPETITIVE. (If this sounds familiar, you are dating yourself: I wrote about this worldview back in the year 2001!)

People with this view of the world believe that the basic unit of society is the individual. In this regard I love to quote the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once said, “There is no such thing as society! There are individual men and women and there are families…” Such an individualistic worldview, in the U.S. at least, is accompanied by the belief that individuals can only survive and thrive by successfully competing against other individuals. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Every man for himself. Survival of the fittest. Et cetera

(This whole “survival of the fittest” idea is based on a misinterpretation of the work of Charles Darwin. The science writer Michael Le Page, writing in New Scientist magazine, explains that “The ‘fittest’ can be the most loving and selfless, not the most aggressive and violent.” Le Page goes on to say that “What we see in the wild is not every animal for itself. Cooperation is an incredibly successful survival strategy. Indeed it has been the basis of all the most dramatic steps in the history of life. Complex cells evolved from cooperating simple cells. Multicellular organisms are made up of cooperating complex cells. Superorganisms such as bee or ant colonies consist of cooperating individuals.” Relevant to this issue of Nygaard Notes, Le Page adds, “Looked at from this point of view, the concept of the survival of the fittest could be used to justify socialism rather than laissez-faire capitalism.” But I digress…)

Fundamental to the Individualistic-Competitive conception of how the world works is the idea that humans are self-centered and will generally act to maximize their own interests, narrowly defined, in a brutal competition for survival. This is all spelled out by the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book Leviathan (which I discussed back in Nygaard Notes #599, if you want to have a look).

Hobbes promulgated the idea, as summarized in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that “Everything we do is motivated solely by the desire to better our own situations, and satisfy as many of our own, individually considered desires as possible.” The founders of the United States, generally speaking, were big fans of Hobbes and the other Enlightenment philosophers, so this extreme Individualism is sort of baked into the intellectual DNA of this country.

The political economy of Capitalism is a near-perfect expression of the Individualistic-Competitive worldview.

An Alternative Worldview: Social and Cooperative

Since we live in a capitalist culture, the dominant Individualistic-Competitive worldview is reinforced constantly. But there are other ways to look at things. The worldview of people like me, for example, is fundamentally SOCIAL and COOPERATIVE. In this worldview, humans are understood to be interested in the welfare of all of the various groups and natural systems of which we are a part, and will tend to act to maximize the interests of those groups and systems, up to and including the interests of the planet itself. Sometimes there’s a moral or ethical dimension to it, but basically we do this because our worldview brings us to understand that our individual welfare is inextricable from the welfare of the context in which we exist. That’s a part of the “Social” in Social and Cooperative.

A note on language: I’ve just discussed a worldview that I characterize as Individualistic and Competitive. My plan was to contrast that worldview with one that I am calling Social and Cooperative. But notice that word “Social.” What if I had said “Socialist” instead, using the “-ist” suffix to mean what the dictionary says it means: “one that adheres to or advocates a (specified) doctrine or system or code of behavior”? Everything changes, doesn’t it?

When I say “socialist”, immediately into most USAmerican heads comes a flood of concepts that have to do with tyranny, communism, economic policy and so forth. Yet I’m guessing that the word “Individualistic” conjures no such flood of concepts. One needn’t listen to someone for very long before feeling prepared to label that someone a “socialist.” In fact, a leading presidential candidate proudly calls himself a socialist. But no candidate bears, or claims, the label of “individualist.”

In the next Nygaard Notes I plan to contrast a Competitive worldview and a Cooperative worldview, and that seems pretty straightforward. But if I’m proposing to contrast “Social” with “Individualist,” does that make me a “socialist”? I don’t actually know; when I find out I’ll write up what I’ve learned and you will see it as Nygaard Notes #650. Look for it before we have gotten too far into the year 2020.