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May 20, 2002

Returning Max's Plug

My friend Max Sawicky at his MaxSpeak Weblog attributed to me the argument that "a socialist is defined simply as one who advocates Equality."

...I can't imagine what I meant by saying socialism (or whatever word we want to use for the nonauthoritarian left) was only about equality-- I usually insist that it's actually about democracy. Inequality may exist in a socialist system, but only because everyone agrees to it democratically, much as a democratically agreed to union contract may decide that more senior employees or more highly skilled employees deserve higher pay. As long as the majority is free to vote to expropriate the wealthier, inequality is compatible with socialism. The key is that decisions on how to allocate society's capital is made by the majority; if they choose to leave some of it in the hands of certain groups as an incentive for productivity or other reasons, that's a valid democratic socialist choice. I would reverse the relationship and note that rather than absolute equality indicating socialism that... instead large degrees of inequality usually indicates limitations on democracy in the society in question, since on the empirical level the levels of inequality often allowed in places like the US go against the will of the majority. You need only look at polls which consistently show that the American people think the rich are undertaxed to recognize that there are democratic failings in the US.

....Once, not too long ago, conservatives routinely maintained that the US was a "republic" not a "democracy" since democracies inevitably lead to socialism. The new rhetorical consensus around the virtues of democracy obscures that older tradition, but I tend to agree with them. America lacks many crucial democratic features (an elitist and undemocratic Senate and Supreme Court, a Constitution restricting popular power in a number of ways, and corporate dominance of the political process), which is a good thing in many conservative eyes, but a prime reason why socialism has had less success in the US than in other countries. I don't think Americans are uniquely anti-socialist; just their institutions are.

Posted by Nathan at May 20, 2002 11:15 AM


An interesting take on socialism, one you don't normally see online and especially within the generally-conservative "blogosphere". It does raise issues: why is it that a political system that is supposedly built on democracy (as you said) seems to inevitably devolve into tyranny according to the historical record? Is it because of the Russian example?

By the way, if you aren't already aware of it, Harold Innis' "fragment theory" is a pretty good explanation of why socialism never took off in the US. I've also heard some argue that the race issue was so dominant in American society that class identity wasn't even a factor, but I can't attribute it, interesting as it is.

Posted by: Demosthenes at May 21, 2002 03:21 PM

Actually, very few democracies have ever degenerated into tyranny, at least without outside help (think the US helping to overthrow the democratic Allende regime in Chile). Russia was never a democracy, so they just went from authoritarianism to authoritarianism.

As for "American exceptionalism", I don't buy most of the theories of it, since they mostly ignore the fact that our Supreme Court overturned most legislation deemed too leftist and gave corporations powers they were never voted through any democratic legislation. Class may have had a different role in the US, but actual class conflict in the US was actually in some cases harsher and more militant than in Europe-- think of the violence of Homestead or coal country.

Posted by: Nathan at May 21, 2002 08:06 PM

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