I put this in the “Not News” bucket. If you paid much attention in college you know almost everything in this post. You can safely ignore it. This story about Stuart Alsop is amusing: Tesla decides not to sell a car to a customer.
Tell me that the community is going to manage capital and property for the good of the people and all my trust issues fly up out of the grave. Ray(Ro(bert(a))), the avatar for my anxiety, pops out of thin air to appear in the blue Queen Anne chair I use to watch TV. He fires up Verizon FIOS ‘On Demand” to start streaming episodes of Jerry Springer featuring lesbian love triangles that turn into ersatz UFC cat fights on Jerry’s stage. I love the philosophy, that through some democratic, anarchistic, collectivist, consensus based process we would ensure that the Acts 2:44-45 idea of a common pot would accomplish what we hope it would accomplish. Then I think about Ray(Ro(bert(a))) being on the committee deciding who gets what. That makes me more anxious than usual.
The word socialism has become laden with tropes. It means many things depending on who you are talking with. For some it is a curse not fit for a lobotomized pig. It is said as a fight ending crotch kick intended to knock the opponent out. Others speak it with reverence as the utopian answer to all their ills. You almost have to be in the clique to know the context intended. I grew up with it as something suspicious that the adults seemed conflicted about. At times it has felt like a bastardized corruption of vaguely orthodox catholic church ideas.
I finally looked it up after reading this comment from my aunt on my Facebook wall: “Imperialism is enforced by the military. Socialism is democracy in action, like sewer and water services for all.” My first thought was, “no, it isn’t.”
My family is deeply Protestant. Even my aunt, who married a Jew (again! The prior Jew of recent memory in our family was Alfred Picker, father to my Mom), grew up Methodist and still has Protestant ideas floating about her Leftie-orthodox, somewhat Jewish mashup of personal philosophy. My family is also a story of the tension between fighting the good fight for social justice, hungering for creative authenticity, and the need to maintain a home with a full larder. We can’t shake the itch to cheer on Mario Savio. Some, like me, try to do the starving artist thing and our privilege has made us soft. Socialism resonates for us. It seems like a plan.
This is what Wikipedia says about socialism: “Socialism is a variety of social and economic systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production; as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment”.
The Wiktionary has this: “Any of several later political philosophies such as libertarian socialism, democratic socialism, and social democracy which do not envisage the need for full state ownership of the means of production nor transition to full communism, and which are typically based on principles of community decision making, social equality and the avoidance of economic and social exclusion, with economic policy giving first preference to community goals over individual ones.”
Sounds good, no? For the good of the many, social equality, avoidance of economic and social exclusion, kind of nice.
Here is how I define socialism: it is the Christian common pot method writ large and without God. For those who have forgotten, the common pot thing is from Acts 2:44-45, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need“. Anabaptist communities like the Hutterites still operate under a common pot rule.
The NatGeo channel ran a TV series called American Colony about the Hutterites. Some things I got from watching the series: If you want to be a Hutterite you are going to work. There is no way they would tolerate the sort of welfare mom we suffer with in our inner-cities, who owns a new car, seems to have no problem affording a substantial night-club life, and is otherwise a fit to the large dimple in the velour couch in her publicly funded living room. B) You will have your basic needs covered. 3. Although everything is technically held in common it is bad form to use as your own something that has sentimental value to someone else. And one more thing: the common pot does not by itself calm things down or make them unilaterally fair. We are still a thick-necked people.
I’m a poor student. I tried to phone in my English degree. My history classes tended to be propaganda of the “America is Great!” flavor. The white hats were the defenders of freedom and the constitution. The black hats were the Socialists and Communists who wanted to destroy all that is good about America. It’s only as an adult that I’ve gone back to study history a bit more and been humbled by how much I don’t know. The simple world of my youth isn’t simple. Way more interesting and technicolor than I was taught.
Of the instances of socialism that come to mind, most of them have not gone well. Community decision making means some form of governance and politics. Even with God, when the church was the remains of the Roman empire and the Pope is who was last man standing and thus, the inheritor of the title of Caesar, humanity’s talent for bitterness spoiled all attempts at a better way of governing.
Going back further, all the way to Abraham, there has been a tithe to be given to the Levites. It was to be used by the Levites to support themselves as well as maintain the temple and do benevolence. The bible seems to elevate the Levites as worthy of the burden of religious leadership. The Levites, though, had their malcontents as do any large group of people. Even with God’s blessing we are far too talented at mischief. The question of who shall hold capital and property is old. It still nags us today. Three (Trump, Sanders & Billary) of the candidates for president are advocating greater public ownership of property and capital to better manage it. It’s not a solved problem.
Last thing, then I’ll get to my point (maybe). I was a member of Taxi Unlimited from 1981 to 1983. We were one of the oldest surviving collectively run small businesses in the country. During my time as a member there were only a handful of clean & sober members. The collective was dominated by addicts and their coterie of supporters. One of our best customers sold marijuana. Some of our most powerful members owned land in Humboldt County and grew weed. We were a shining example of a living utopian, hippie community. As a young, hormonal twenty-something, it should have been perfection. It was not.
This is a broken world. There are plenty who have great ideas as to why it is a fucked up world. I’m not that smart. I know what I’ve been told, that Eve is a traitorous bitch who fed Adam some fruit from a prohibited tree and that explains everything. I’m not so sure it’s that easy. As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe Eve had her reasons. I do agree that our world is fucked up. There is misery. The misery afoot seems chronic and terminal. I find more resonance in the Buddhist and Hindi idea that all the dark is one half of creation intimately made along with the light, that you can’t have one without the other. All in all? Whatever. We are here and some of it sucks.
Socialism. If, against nature, good triumphed over evil and we could find an as yet unfound solution to the incredible talent of humanity to be asshats, it might work. In the meantime, socialism depends on a foolish and naïve faith in the fundamental goodness of man. Man can be good. He is at times. It’s the small percentage of the time when he is brilliantly bad that wags the dog and screws things up. We are brilliantly perverse enough of the time that giving the community control over capital and property ends up making corrupt and obscenely wealthy civil servants and pisses off everyone else. Clergy are famously no more immune to this than anyone else. If anything, their power as religious figures just makes the potential upside of malfeasance harder to resist.
Taxi Unlimited taught me the importance of character, and the need to respect boundaries and traditions. Collectives, because they don’t have traditional leadership, are much more vulnerable to the hurts, habits & hangups of their members. Collectives can work if they have quality people of good character who enforce the standards of the collective. Taxi Unlimited in its effort to be more radically anarchist tolerated a suspicion of rules and governance. It’s egalitarian hiring policies allowed street people to become members. Just getting through the day vertical was a feat for a key number of our members. Responsibly operating a business without a traditional manager/owner was a tall order. I’ll give you Berkeley’s Cheeseboard as a collective that has thrived. They are not free of the need to take care to value people of good character and to value traditions & boundaries.
Socialism on a national scale just magnifies the problems we had at Taxi Unlimited. Instead of a group of 25 people or so and their troubles, there are millions. The odds that at least a minority of those millions will have troubles are very favorable. With that large a population it is likely that all the ugly ways people can be brutal to each other will exist. There are well-meaning civil servants. There can even be a majority of civil servants who are sincere in their effort to do a good job for the people they serve. We will still have irreconcilable needs, demands and asshats. It only takes a few asshats to perpetrate the usual crimes to disrupt the hoped for utopia and screw over some (?all?) of the people. Misery ensues and dildos get presented.
In effect, the choice becomes which bastard do you want holding the sandpaper dildo stuffed up your anus. Do you want a red, white & blue dildo held by a bearded old white man with a fetish for war? Would you rather have a brown man or woman hold a red dildo decorated with yellow stars? Perhaps a guy in a toupee with a trophy wife who claims he’ll make you great again? Or grandma and her significant other and his harem?
Democracy didn’t get invented in the 18th Century. Rome was something of a democracy. There was a Senate and Caesar. The Senate had as much or as little power as Caesar would allow them. Greece was a democracy as well. That was about 3,000 years ago. Our forefathers had the king of England to worry about and the corruption rampant within the Vatican and the church. They wanted a form of governance that limited its power. Our constitution is a list of limited powers because our forefathers had recent, bitter memories of what it’s like to be subject to an asshat ruler and a corrupt Pope.
Pop-pop Bernie, Grandma Clinton, Trump and others are trotting out familiar election cycle tropes about the unfairness of it all. They say they will fix it, they will get things done. Their ideas about the means to get things done all seem to involve a larger federal involvement in our lives—single-payer health care, free education, mandated paid time off, and mandated living wages.
We have a 3-4 trillion dollar federal budget. The Executive Branch has grown in size so as to be a permanent civil service, fourth branch of government largely immune to elections or the whims of Congress. Our federal debt exceeds $19,000,000,000,000 and is climbing rapidly. With that much governance in play, why is it that some of our presidential candidates assert we haven’t done enough, that things are still unfair? $800,000.00 per family of debt. If we just folded the government and wrote everyone a check for a million I’m guessing we might actually come out ok.
I don’t have answers. Thinking about it, unfairness and malfeasance have been a constant through human history regardless of how things are governed. Character matters. Our leaders are a reflection of our character as well as influencers of our national mood. If we limit the size of government we limit the amount of malfeasance that can be generated by it. I am not in love with corporations and capitalism. If I have to pick a hand to hold my dildo I think I’d rather pick the capitalist pimp with diamonds embedded in his teeth than the skinny bearded guy in the tri-colored tux and ugly hat who is constantly begging for money and picking fights with my friends. Oy. Ray(Ro(bert(a))), just found all the old episodes of, “All My Children” online. He’s on my couch sobbing. Does Oxyclean remove alien tears?