The Case for Socialism (or not)


With capital “S” Socialism in the political news, when The Case for Socialism appeared in the new book shelf at my local library, I thought it a good time to see if Alan Maass and Howard Zinn could help me better understand Capitalism and its flaws.

Unfortunately, instead this book had me asking my wife (a professor of philosophy and teacher of logic and critical thinking) for the jargon to describe writing that at first glance appears to be in the form of logical arguments, but which is so far from logical that it’s not worth analyzing for fallacies. She sighed and muttered a word that might have been “homework” but when pressed we agreed to call it “not even invalid” as a play on the scientific jargon of “not even wrong.”

The case laid out for Socialism is that Capitalism doesn’t work. The book doesn’t ever get around to describing a system that works better. It claims Socialism does work. For “proof” it claims the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist. It claims Cuba was socialist under Stalin. It claims so was Venezuela under Chavez. It doesn’t mention China. The book doesn’t explain why some dictatorships count as socialists and some do not. It never gets around to defining Socialism beyond a few short quotes from the Communist Manifesto (which is a much better read).

For the first half of the book I couldn’t help myself comparing the lack of well considered argument vs. Marx as well as the repeated use of anecdote fails as persuasive vs. the data analysis of Piketty. That, plus in the first half of the book Maass repeatedly used anecdotes from American politics, conflating Capitalism with Representational Democracy.

The second half of the book was nominally about how to change America from Capitalist to Socialist, and this section was nearly all about how Republicans and Democrats have more in common than not, how they both promote Capitalism, and how Socialism will only come about through a mass movement outside of those two parties. That summary sounds overly logical given the actual text, but that is what Maass was trying to say.

In any case, there were a few pages that I marked as they had interesting ideas worth remembering:

Page 30. The employers get to keep what’s left over after paying wages and other costs of production. According to economic textbooks, this profit is a just reward for the “risk” taken in making an investment. But there’s no check on how big profits can get. So for a company that makes a 10 percent profit each year… its owners make back the full value of their investment in ten years. Their risk is repaid… [but] they still own their original investment, as well as the return they’ve accumulated. This seems to be one of the roots of wealth inequality and a flaw in Capitalism that is fixable without throwing away the whole system.

Page 31. One of the most common arguments in defense of capitalism is that the rich deserve their wealth. Microsoft’s Bill Gates, worth $50 billion [in 2009] is a favorite example, perhaps because he actually started the company that made him rich. It could be asked though: Is Gates’s contribution to humanity so important that he deserves to be two million times richer than anyone else? Surely a couple thousand times more wealth would be reward enough? Another good question on income and wealthy inequality. Should a dozen Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of Americans? I agree that is a problem. At least Bill is giving his (now) $100 billion back through charity, but I prefer the method Craig Newmark used at his big, successful startup, Craiglist. He simply stopped charging his customers after he and his staff were earning “enough.” Craig could have been a billionaire, but instead chose to be a millionaire. He too now focuses on charity work, but rather than shift billions of dollars in and out of his bank account, he left it in the hands of the billions of customers who use Craigslist. Imagine if Zuckerberg had followed that path instead of Gates’. Facebook could have been a beloved brand instead of the brand that seems to have changed election outcomes in the U.S. and UK.

Page 73. Socialism is based on a simple idea – that the resources of society should be used to met people’s needs. We should use the tremendous achievements of human beings in every realm of life not to make a few people rich and powerful, but to make sure every person in society as everything they need to lead rich and fulfilling lives, free from poverty, oppression, and violence. Don’t you hate it when the supposed point of the book shows up at the start of Chapter 4? Anyhow… take out the phrase about “make a few people rich and powerful” and the stated mission here is universal. Look at history and the system that worked to pull half of humanity out of poverty is Capitalism. Yes, it made some people rich along the way. Trouble (for the socialists) is that the reward of capital a few people receive is the driving force toward improving most everyone’s quality of life. The biggest flaw of Capitalism is that not everyone gets a rewarding life free of violence. But that seems a lot better than everyone being poor, which is the outcome of every society that has done away with Capitalism.

Page 75. A socialist society would not only take away the existing wealth of the ruling class, but also its economic control over the world. The means of production would be owned and controlled by all of society. Everyone would share in the important economic decisions for society. Whether you count the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and Venezuela as socialist or not, they all implemented a top-down system of economic controls with production set by committee instead of set by the market. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the Eastern European countries chose to throw away those control and replace them for the messy, imperfect Capitalist market. Why? Because he toothpick companies don’t know how many toothpicks will get sold, and they spend every day thinking about toothpicks. There is no way that the masses would ever know the needs better than they will. Because neither you nor I know how many toothpicks or car tires or tons of aluminum or roofing shingles are needed this year, and according to Maass from pages 75 through 78, the only way to efficiently run an economy is to have the masses vote on production with votes, rather than with dollars.

Page 84. The heart of socialism is making equality a reality. Marx summed up this aim with a simple slogan: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” This idea often provokes a very strange objection: That human beings given a chance to assure a livelihood for themselves, their families, their whole communities, and ultimately everyone else in the world just won’t have anything to do with it. Our human nature, we’re told, will never tolerate a world of equality, even if it could be achieved. The difference between Marx and Maass is that Marx never got to compare the efficiency of Communist China with Capitalist China or Communist Poland with Capitalist Poland, or Venezuela before and after Chavez. Deng specifically allowed Chinese farmers to grow and sell a surplus because under the communal farming system, production kept dropping. It “magically” increased once they were allowed to choose what to grow and allowed to earn a profit selling “extra” production.

“From each according to their ability” always make me wonder who cleans the toilets. In Maass’ ideal America, whose job is it to clean the toilets in the shopping malls, the airports, and the stadiums? How is that job rich and fulfilling? Or more likely, how long until public toilets are simply so gross they are no longer usable at all? I presume in the Soviet Union, everyone (who didn’t work for the party) took turns cleaning the toilets in the factories, just as everyone in my condo association takes turns taking out the trash cans. Maybe that worked in Russia for offices and factories. Here in the American that doesn’t work for the sink in most every office. But who in Russia cleaned the toilets in the Moscow subway or at the opera house? Or given no one would choose this job, were there simply no public toilets despite the social need? What other social needs are not fulfilled in a socialist system due to no one wanting to do the dirty job?

Oddly, despite this being a book I did not enjoy and despite me suggesting you need not read it at all, it turned into the longest book report I’ve written so far. As you might have noticed, I do like to question everything, and that includes questioning my own beliefs and questioning the systems I believe to be working. Check out the other posts to find a book worth reading to do the same with your beliefs.

By "Luni"


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