Last week I went to a reading group for the mis-titled book Communism For Kids
, as the book had sounded interesting. I hadn't gotten around to getting or reading it, so naturally I kept quiet most of the time. Plus, even as I heard things I privately objected to, I was the self-described token liberal in a dozen+ socialist/communist/anarchist sympathizers, and the night wasn't about me or my thoughts.
This blog is
about me and my thoughts, though! So I'll vent some responses I didn't make then.
First, a meta-note: arguing with socialists has increasingly seemed like arguing with libertarians, in that the perceptions of history and the current world, and the definitions of key terms, differ so widely as to make useful discussion difficult at best.
Also, I've seen a lot of these points in past online discussion too, so I'm kind of responding to a melange of my experiences.
"social democracy has failed": this got stated like an absolute, and accepted by everyone. Like, really? What's the criterion for failure? The richest, freest, and largely most equal countries are all social democracies, broadly speaking. People risk their lives to flee to those countries. They're not perfect: unemployment is often high, immigrant integration often lacking. But they're pretty good, and social democratic policies generally work; a lot of the flaws could be described as not trying hard enough.
Those policies are under attack, and inequality has been increasing again in many countries. One could say it's "failed" in failing to totally resist such attacks. But here, let me list the social systems which have proven their ability to last a long time on a large scale while resisting inequality:
And if social democracy creeps toward economic inequality again, every attempt so far at large scale socialism has positively raced toward authoritarianism, censorship, and purges.
"capitalism can't solve global warming": Question, is the EPA 'capitalist'? Hear me out: these people were also saying capitalism is a total system, that states created or were taken over by capitalism, that it's pervasively disruptive and corrupting. So, the EPA isn't a corporation or something, but it is an arm of the government of the USA, paragon of capitalism. It has *also* addressed many environmental problems, like cleaning up air and water and protecting endangered species. Under Obama it tried to regulate carbon emissions, and but for some tens of thousands of votes, it would be doing so under Hillary. Capitalist countries agreed to limit CFCs to protect the ozone layer, and are mostly inching toward addressing global warming -- the Paris accord was agreed to by almost every country, almost all of which are capitalist. A strong global state of any variety would be able to tackle global warming far more directly, without the handicap of a disorganized anarchy of countries going "but if we cut back, what if India or the US just pollute more?"
that laissez faire capitalism can't solve global warming. But does 'capitalism' mean that, or does it mean real existing capitalism, with regulators and welfare states and democracy? The usage seemed... fluid.
(Which is something I've seen among libertarians, too: capitalism is either the natural way for things to be such that almost everything is capitalist, or a pure ideal snowflake that evaporates at the first hint of tax, depending on whether they're assigning credit or blame.)
"Markets don't arise, they're created by governments to fund war.": Nnnng. Yes, governments can create markets, or make them work better. Yes, governments had a role in creating or expediting the modern capitalist world, including things like enclosures. But... so what? I infer implications that governments created capitalism out of whole cloth, or that the origin taints capitalism for good.
Whereas I'd say markets often *do* arise spontaneously, in the absence or even opposition of governments; we call the latter "black markets". Often, a medieval government creating a market was about banning/trade market activity elsewhere, concentrating it in one place to it could be taxed. Markets and trade tend to make most things more efficient; centuries ago, the main government expense was waging war, so yes, prudent governments would advance markets and what became capitalism, to wage war, so they could pay for mercenaries or full time soldiers rather than depending on short-term levies.
But you know what? If a government had been using labor levies for education or health care, "you must spend one month a year teaching children", it would have found raising monetary taxes, and paying for full time professionals, to be just as much an improvement for those things as it was for warfare.
"capitalism arose through trade, like with Asia": Begging the question of why this trade didn't cause capitalism in China, the other half of the trade equation... There's a whole murky area of how one even defines capitalism, which would depend on exact quotations to argue about rigorously. I'd just say that markets, contracts, money, and wage labor go back thousands of years, and that early medieval Europe was rather a low point in financialization. Modern capitalism is an intensification of things that have been around for a long time, fueled as much by changes in agriculture (fewer people on the farm) as anything else. You can argue that the change in degree amounts to a change of kind, but it didn't spring into the world out of nothing in 1700.
"Native American societies were communal": North American societies, with small populations, could be described as that. Aztec society had money, merchants, markets, and long distance trade, like any urbanized Eurasian society.
"co-ops can't work in capitalism": I can't believe no one objected with the various co-ops that do exist, including the giant Mondragon group
in Spain. The book apparently gave some theoretical example of a co-op in a market society having to lay off workers anyway, and "laying off the thinkers"; in my limited understanding, real co-ops are more likely to cut back on wages and try to keep everyone employed. (In the Great Recession, the capitalist and social democratic government of Germany took similar measures, subsidizing employment to minimize layoffs.) Transparency and democracy make such things more amenable than wage cuts from an employer would be.
Another thing didn't explicitly come up that night, but I've seen elsewhere, is an idea that capitalism is the root of most modern evil, including racism and sexism, that the struggle is between Capital and the Proletariat. But for some major policies I care about, that's not true.
* A useful tool to address global warming is a carbon tax. Capital might object to that, but capital has had to knuckle under to other environmental laws, such as sulfate cap and trade, so capital can clearly lose this kind of fight. And in theory, businesses shouldn't actually care much as long as they're not disadvantaged relative to competitors (so a world state with no foreign trade would have a policy advantage.) But... most US voters are drivers, with no enthusiasm for seeing their gas (or utility) prices go up, and I see that as a far deeper obstacle to good environmental policy. And even some leftists object with "it's regressive", or, I feel, a general suspicion of anything that sounds market-like.
* Top economic issues for the average person are "can I get a job?" and "can I afford housing near my job?" Capital's allergy to Keynesianism is a problem for the first, but on the second, capital is on my side
. Unregulated capital, aka "developers", would *love* to provide housing! Possibly substandard firetrap housing that'll kill you in ten years, but it'd put a roof over your head today. And in great quantity: subdividing houses and apartments, building tall buildings, packing 8 people into a house, turning gardens into housing. Why don't they? Because local government makes it illegal
to do so, through building codes and zoning laws, backed up by existing homeowners, most of whom are simply better paid members of the proletariat. (Also backed up sometimes by anti-gentrification activists.)
I'm all for genuine safety codes, and such inspections are an example of a way in which governments can 'make' markets: if I can trust that rental housing is safe, I'm more likely to choose it rather than be forced into it. But I'm told that in Somerville, a legal bedroom has to have a closet. Why? That's neither a safety feature, nor one which can be hidden from a prospective tenant. Why can't I choose to pay less for a room that happens to lack a closet? And lots of zoning laws outright restrict housing: single-family zoning, height limitations, minimum space requirements, parking requirements, caps on the number of unrelated people living together... none of that is capitalism's fault, but it's the basic cause of the housing crisis in many cities.
Of course, when I've tried to make that argument, I've been dismissed with "supply and demand doesn't apply to housing". Speaking of giant gaps in understanding that impede communication...