“Socialism”: The Provocative Equivocation

The socialists are back, but is it a big deal?  It’s tempting to say that it’s purely rhetorical.  Modern socialists don’t want to emulate the Soviet Union.  To them, socialism just means “Sweden,” right?  Even if their admiration for Sweden is unjustified, we’ve long known that the Western world contains millions of people who want their countries to be like Sweden.  Why should we care if Sweden-fans rebrand themselves as “socialists”?

My instinctive objection is that even using the term “socialism” is an affront to the many millions of living victims of Soviet-style totalitarian regimes.  Talking about “socialism” understandably horrifies them.  Since there are plenty of palatable synonyms for Swedish-type policies (starting even “Swedenism”!), selecting this particular label seems a breach of civility.

If this seems paranoid, what would you say about a new movement of self-styled “national socialists”?  Even if their policy positions were moderate, this brand needlessly terrifies lots of folks who have already suffered enough.

On reflection, however, this is a weak objection.  Yes, if a label’s connotations are – like “national socialism” – almost entirely horrible, then loudly embracing the label is uncivil.  “Socialism,” however, has long had a wide range of meanings.  Even during the height of Stalinism, plenty of self-styled “socialists” were avowedly anti-Communist.  The upshot: Even if you were a victim of Soviet oppression, assuming the worst when you hear the word “socialism” is hypersensitive.  And hypersensitivity is bad.

Yet there’s a much stronger reason to object to the socialist revival.  Namely: It’s far from clear that the latter-day socialists do mean Sweden.  While some (like John Marsh) plainly say so, others (like Elizabeth Bruenig) are coy indeed.  Which raises deeply troubling questions, starting with:

1. Are latter-day socialists unaware of the history of the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Given widespread historical ignorance and the youth of the new socialists, we can hardly rule this out.  A troubling thought; isn’t it negligent to champion a radical idea without investigating its history first?

2. Are latter-day socialists ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Do they look on the Soviet Union as a noble experiment with unfortunate shortcomings?  How about Chavez’s Venezuela?

3. Do latter-day socialists think of Sweden as a starting point, and something more radical as the ultimate goal?  Are there outright crypto-communists among them?  If so, do their comrades know?  Care?

4. Do latter-day socialists realize that being coy raises the preceding concerns?  Do they care?  Or is the raising of these concerns a “feature, not a bug”?  I.e., they enjoy making people wonder if they’re secret Leninists?

What’s the truth?  While I don’t personally know any latter-day socialists well, I do read a lot of articles in The Nation, which publishes a wide range of modern socialists.  So here are my best guesses about the preceding possibilities.

1. Older socialists (age 50+) know a lot about the actual history of socialism.  The younger ones (age 40 and under), however, know little and care less.  They’re negligent romantics.

2. Most historically-literate socialists are indeed ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name.  Very few will defend Stalin, but they just can’t stay mad at Lenin, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh.  Even the historically-naive socialists feel pretty good about Cuba today and Venezuela in 2015.

3. Yes, most avowed socialists have a more radical ultimate goal than Sweden.  In our Capitalism-Socialism debate, even the reasonable John Marsh mused about a future that realized radical socialist dreams without degenerating into a typical socialist nightmare.  How extreme, then, are ultimate goals of the unreasonable socialists?  While I really don’t know, videos like this make me strongly suspect that Bernie Sanders is literally a crypto-communist.  Even if I’m wrong, how many latter-day socialists would care if Sanders was a crypto-communist?

4. Latter-day socialists really do enjoy making people wonder about their ultimate agenda.  When you read The Nation, for example, authors almost never specify exactly what policy should be.  Instead, they focus on radical movement in a desired direction, with minimal discussion of their ultimate objective.  In particular, they almost never say what would be “too far.”  Of course, this describes most political movements; they want to rally the troops, not provide blueprints of an ideal world.  But when you cultivate a “radical” image but withhold specifics, you should expect critics’ minds to go to dark places.  Rather than try to calm the critics, the latter-day socialists court their disapproval.  In fact, most seem to positively enjoy the imagined intellectual trauma they’re inflicting on the unbeliever.

On reflection, then, the return of the self-styled socialist is indeed a travesty.  The reason, though, is not that the word is offensive, but that it is deliberately confusing.  If you really thought Sweden was a model society, you would just praise Sweden.  The “socialist” label, in contrast, is a provocative equivocation.  Latter-day socialists adopt it because they would rather insinuate their possible support for totalitarian horrors than earnestly promote an intellectually defensible position.

To what end?  In modern parlance, the latter-day socialists could just be trolling.  This is bad enough, but some socialists probably sincerely believe what they’re insinuating.  Or worse.  If all you want is Swedish social democracy, making common cause with such socialists is a grave mistake.

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Donald Trump, Socialist

“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” US president Donald Trump announced in his State of the Union address in February.  His base, as he had hoped, cheered him on in setting himself up as foil to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In the three months since, though, Trump has doubled down on his own socialist policy proposals. On trade and immigration, he’s 21st-century America’s most strident — or most empowered, anyway — advocate of an indispensable tenet of state socialism: Central planning of the economy by the government.

Trump wants the government to control what you buy and who you buy it from. Thus, his “trade wars” with Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and China, powered by tariffs intended to advantage “Made in America” goods (and their politically connected makers) over others.

Now he’s announced a plan for “merit-based” government control of immigration under which bureaucrats in Washington decide how many, and which, immigrants the American economy “needs,” instead of leaving such decisions to markets and individuals.

In the past I’ve bemoaned the fact that “socialism” has come to mean such different things to so many different people. From its 19th century definition of  “worker ownership of the means of production,” it’s been continually re-defined to characterize everything from Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism to a more all-embracing “democratic socialist” welfare state powered by heavy taxation on “the rich.”

That’s a pretty broad net. But except among anarchist socialists, state control of the economy is the axis on which all versions of socialism turn, and Trump is clearly all-in on the idea.

He even lends a socialist cast to the  excuses he makes for his economic policies. He continually positions himself as protecting workers from the “dog-eat-dog” competition of capitalism (while avoiding using that word negatively). By adding an emphasis on political borders to those excuses, he changes the discussion from “labor versus capital” to “American labor versus foreign capital.”

That approach is nothing new. See Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” for example, or the marriage between central economic planning and nationalism characterizing the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler.

America’s Republican president campaigns against socialism while attempting to implement it. Meanwhile, America’s progressives  campaign for socialism while attempting to thwart actual worker ownership of the means of production (e.g. the “gig economy”). Talk about cognitive dissonance!

Notice what’s missing from the discussion on both major “sides”: Freedom.

Freedom to move within and across political borders.

Freedom to trade within and across political borders.

Freedom to plan our own lives and live them instead of turning that power, and that responsibility, over to the state.

Neither major political party even convincingly pretends to care about those fundamental human rights anymore.

The entire public discussion revolves around what the politicians should “allow” or “forbid” the rest of us to do next, based on an unquestioning assumption of their moral authority to make such decisions for us.

Unless we break that cycle, we’re on our way into the next Dark Age.

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The Weakest Generation

“What is wrong with people today?”

It’s a question we hear frequently, in many different forms, but all are probing at an increasingly obvious observation. Previous generations entered their thirties with families, houses, and a decade or more of meaningful work experience under their belt. They bought used cars, built small starter homes, worked their asses off, and somehow made it work. Their families grew as did their homes, they got better jobs, started businesses, saved for retirement, and dressed pretty damn well doing it.

Contrast that with the weakest generation which can’t figure out why spending a quarter of a million dollars getting a sociology degree won’t make them happy and provide them the standard of living to which they believe they are entitled. Millennials have extended childhood from 18 to at least 26 (when the big mean government forces them off mommy and daddy’s healthcare plan), while they save nothing, own nothing (other than $50 T-shirts and $200 jeans), and wonder why “the system” continues to fail them.

As it turns out, sharing a downtown loft with a horde of dysfunctional roommates, taking an Uber every time you need to travel, and using Postmates instead of going grocery shopping doesn’t exactly create functioning adults.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Helicopter parenting, participation trophies, a lack of real-world experiences and work (whatever happened to summer jobs?), and the systemic failures of higher education have all played their part. Let’s talk a bit about the last one.

America’s modern higher education system has failed to provide marketable skills to an entire generation (going on two now) while massively increasing costs due to ever more bloated administration and taking on a host of projects designed to accomplish social goals rather than to prepare people to be productive. This is not an insignificant contributor to our country’s present sad state of affairs.

They’re depressed!

Every year or so, it seems that the estimated number of depressed people increases. Current estimates claim that 15 percent of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their lifetime. Could it be that the increase in depression is less about any fundamental changes in brain chemistry and more about people allowing themselves to sit around thinking about how bad they imagine their lives to be compared to whatever unrealistic and unrealized fantasies they have concocted?

People have always felt sad, had bad days, and sometimes felt like not getting out of bed. They did it anyway. They got up, put their boots on, did their damn job, took care of their families, and focused on what mattered instead of on their aversions and phobias. Busy people don’t have time for prolonged bouts of introspection and discontent.

I understand that mental health is important. It’s a core component of well-being, in fact, but I believe that people are looking in the wrong direction. Mental health and well-being are not being improved by our modern society—they are being made worse. This hyperfocus on “self-actualization” and other pseudo-scientific nonsense is (quite literally) driving people crazy. Life will never be perfect and happiness is a decision more than it is a reaction to circumstances or environment. Humanity (as a species) has long benefited from the structure of people getting married, having children, producing wealth, and training the next generation to do the same.

Today, people are questioning the basic science of their own existence, mutilating their bodies, attempting to restructure the primary building blocks of society and humanity, all while going into debt and rejecting fundamental biological imperatives. Humanity isn’t evolving at this point. It’s (over) thinking itself out of existence.

The downside of freedom

Let me go on record as being an unequivocal supporter of individual freedom. You absolutely have the right to do or not do whatever you choose so long as you do not aggress against the life, liberty, or property of others in the process. That said, it is still possible to use (or misuse) one’s freedom in a manner which is harmful to oneself and which, if widely adopted, could lead to the downfall of the human race. I’m not just talking about excessive heroin use, either.

Among millennials (although the trend is spreading), there is a growing tendency to question everything—even basic truths and fundamental realities. They question their genders and their sexuality, their purpose in life, their reason for existence. They search for hidden and higher meanings in everyone and everything, all the while condemning those who prefer a more forthright existence. Saving the whales is no longer enough—now they want to save the planet (perhaps the next generation will task themselves with saving the galaxy) as if they are the superheroes of their childhood imaginations.

The result is something of a lost generation. They are not aimless, exactly, but by taking aim at everything, they are effective at nothing. Rather than focus on the fundamentals of career and family, they search for meaning through social justice campaigns and wars against those who hold unpopular or traditional views.

And yet they are still unhappy and unfulfilled.

This situation can be vividly observed in millions of disaffected young Americans embracing the tenets of socialism as preached by a septuagenarian millionaire who has convinced them that their happiness is contingent on torpedoing the economy for short-term gain. Perhaps they will be happy when they are reduced to eating zoo animals as has happened recently in the “socialist paradise” of Venezuela.

What now?

The solution to these problems isn’t particularly complicated, but its implementation is far more difficult. The solution is a return to the proven principles of hard work and free markets that transformed America from an agrarian colony to an economic powerhouse unrivaled in human history.

Human beings thrive when they are busy and productive. Sitting around a coffee shop debating which pronouns most effectively convey one’s chromosomal ambivalence is not the key to happiness. We need purpose and ambition for our lives to have meaning. We need work and responsibly to give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The beauty of a free market is that an individual’s drive is all that is required for success. It doesn’t require that one be born a noble or attend a royal academy. In a free market, those with talent and ambition have truly unlimited potential. Sadly, this seems to scare millennials rather than to inspire them. They want to turn off the market and replace it with a “universal basic income” so that everyone can be equally miserable in a life of perpetual navel-gazing.

I may be a millennial by age, but I have no desire to spend my life in morose self-absorption while blaming those who are successful for my mistakes and bewailing my life in a world that fails to acknowledge my genius. Life is too short to waste it wishing for an unobtainable reality—especially given how much happiness is available in our present reality to anyone with the gumption to take advantage of it.

I refuse to be a part of the weakest generation and to squander my life begging the state to care for me. I want no part of such a pathetic existence. I will make my own way in this world and I challenge others to do the same. Let’s return to the proven strategies that have successfully created prosperity for numerous past generations. They never stopped working. People did.

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The Art and Science of Physical Removal

Part 1: Removing Yourself

I have long been of the opinion, as a Voluntaryist, that there are only two legitimate ways of voting: With your money, in terms what products and services you choose to buy (outside of taxation, of course, where you are effectively given no choice), and with your feet – choosing where you prefer to live, all things and circumstances taken into consideration. It follows, then, that most libertarians of whatever stripe gravitate towards locales where, at least, the politics and general presence of government are not as aggressively antithetical to the basic enjoyment of life as others. For example, at present, I am seriously considering getting out of Vermont sometime during the next few years, and taking up residence in Wyoming – where taxes are both less numerous and lower, the cancerous hysteria of gun control has not yet taken root, and where there is still a rural, low-population environment (not to mention one almost certain to contain a higher percentage of like-minded people). In short, all the things Vermont had once upon a time, and no longer does.

There is certainly nothing wrong or immoral about wishing to improve one’s circumstances by choosing to go and live somewhere else – so long as one has every intention of paying one’s own way rather than leeching from whatever Welfare State may exist in one’s new chosen location. There is nothing wrong with wanting to cohabitate amongst one’s own “tribe,” as it were. Having libertarians (and even a couple of conservatives here and there…maybe) as neighbors is always preferable – to me, at least – than being surrounded by roughly 70% Democratic “progressive” lefties who are almost sexually enthralled by Marxism of every conceivable variant. Surely, the former promises a better life. So, I’ll be investigating that – thoroughly and in full – over the next couple of years. You’ll likely hear from me more on that as things unfold. Stay tuned.

Part 2: Removing Others

So now suppose I’m living my new life happily in the Big Sky Country of Wyoming, enjoying that big boost in freedom that was rapidly dying back over my shoulder there in Vermont…and before too long, the same kind of leftist disease begins to take hold within Wyoming’s Forever West political system.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe has this rather blunt commentary to make about just such a situation: “There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and removed from society.”

Now this is not to say, first off, that Wyoming is a strictly “libertarian social order” to begin with. More accurately, it might be characterized as predominantly conservative Republican in flavor – with some inevitable libertarian blandishments as a consequence. That stated, conservative and libertarian camps both, I would think, have a mutual vested interest in seeing that leftist ideology does not gain serious ground or take root in the Wyoming landscape. Such concern can be quite correctly characterized as nothing more nor less than self-defensive in nature: People who are paying few and low taxes, enjoying virtually unrestrained gun rights, and relishing most or all of the trappings of rural rugged individualism do not want these conditions to be reversed or undone – most especially not at the hands of some Marxist-inspired brigade of self-styled do-gooders who believe with almost religious fervor that they’ve come to the unwashed lands to teach the heathens how to live a better, more civilized life under full-on socialism.

So for the conservatives, the solution to this equation is very easy: Out come the pitchforks, and away we go. For the libertarian camp though, there’s a bit of a problem.

Unlike all forms of statism, libertarian ethics demand tolerance. Unlike libertarianism, however, statism requires force. I think you can see the quandary this seems to present.

And I’ll repeat a line from above: Such concern can be quite correctly characterized as nothing more nor less than self-defensive in nature.

Ever since my awakening as a libertarian some 25 years ago now, I have spoken with probably a couple of thousand leftists – from garden-variety Democrats, to hardcore Marxists. Out of all of them, I have come across maybe two who I sincerely believed when they told me that they did not wish their views or economic system to be imposed on others by force. One of them even used the term “libertarian socialist” – which made me laugh derisively at the time. But I’m older now, and no longer laughing. I think that’s a valid term to describe such a philosophical position. I also think, through experience, that scarcely one in a thousand leftists possess a viewpoint of such benign integrity. The overwhelming majority of them are more than willing to use whatever level of violence and brute force they feel is necessary to bend you to their will – to force you to be subjugated to their ideas whether you agree with them or not.

And I will say unequivocally that these are the leftist elements about whom Hoppe is spot-on correct. Those who would agitate and proselytize for the dismantling of a libertarian socio-economic environment – which, no doubt, would have likely taken tremendous efforts and sacrifice in order to build in the first place – in favor of mandatory economic regulations, taxation, gun control, redistribution of wealth, etc. – such individuals must indeed be “physically separated and removed” from the midst of a region or territory which has managed to construct a libertarian society.

As would, for that matter, anyone from any ideology that sought to reinstitute involuntary political governance in any form.

Legitimate self-defense, after all, should never require apologism.

That said, it is the even smallest potential for “libertarian socialism” that causes me to distance myself somewhat from Hoppe. That one-in-a-thousand leftie who just wants to live peacefully in a commune with his or her buddies down the road – so long as their chosen lifestyle and preferred economic models are kept among themselves and other willing participants who are free to leave at any time – is not and should not be considered a problem. So long as, being the phrase of paramount import here. Hoppe’s absolutism lends itself too readily to a total witch-hunt mentality otherwise. Thus, allow me to offer a revision of his above maxim, more in line with purist libertarian sentiment:

“There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists who agitate for political and economic control over others in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and removed from society.”

Liberty, sovereignty, and autonomy are key elements of my own personal vision. Not living as a slave to a bunch of parasitic politicians and soul-sick bureaucrats, as the Left would have us do – all the better to control, manipulate, and dominate us to death. It is a vision worth both projecting and fighting for, I think, especially in the face of a world bent on ever-increasing authoritarianism and control.

I’m thinking I may be able to do that more effectively by physically removing myself to a different geographical locale, surrounded by a different culture. We’ll see. Life is strange, and can take many unexpected twists and turns.

Should I get there, however, when I do, I’ll then be prepared to defend my place, person, and property in it. Not with indiscriminate prejudice against others whose philosophies I find abhorrent, but with a more finely targeted and focused sense of just what is absolutely necessary in order to do so.

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The Gig Economy is What Yesterday’s Socialists Said They Wanted; Why do Today’s Socialists Hate it?

A February Harris poll finds that 49.6% of Millennial and Generation Z Americans would “prefer living in a socialist country.”

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), among other politicians, proclaim a message of “democratic socialism,” evoking an ideology last ascendant in the early 1900s when Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas moved the needle in US elections.

But the devil is, as always, in the details. The goals of today’s American “democratic socialism,” as laid out in Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution, in Sanders’s “Stop BEZOS Act,” etc. look a lot more like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effort to “save capitalism” through welfare statism than like the proposals of socialism’s last rise to prominence.

The essence of socialism as laid out by Proudhon and Marx and promoted by the International Workers of the World, et al., came down to destroying the wage system and building a classless society based on worker ownership of the means of production.

Those earlier socialists would almost certainly have lauded gig economy workers as examples of what socialism sought. Today’s socialists disdain them.

Consider gig economy drivers, once just called “gypsy cabbies.” In recent years many of them have chosen to affiliate with services like Uber and Lyft to get easier connections to people seeking rides.

Gig economy drivers own the means of production (their cars).

Gig economy drivers set their own hours and choose their own workplaces instead of slaving away on  someone else’s terms.

Gig economy drivers can use customer discovery services like Uber/Lyft, or they can go their own ways (many Uber drivers give me their cards, telling me to call them directly next time and cut out the capitalist middleman).

But today’s “democratic socialists” fought tooth and nail to preserve the capitalist “medallion cab” monopoly, and having lost that fight they’ve re-oriented their struggle toward roping the drivers, and the companies they choose to work with, into the old-style capitalist “wage employee” system.

Even the most virulent revolutionary Marxism posited that the state would wither away as workers seized the means of production, got rid of the bosses, and started working for themselves. That didn’t work out — the socialist parties ended up substituting themselves for the old ruling class, operating in the name of, but not as true proxies for, “the workers” — but that was the goal.

In the US, the same kind of substitutism came about “democratically” and incrementally as “progressives” co-opted pieces of socialist-sounding reforms. But just like the Marxist-Leninist parties in the old Soviet orbit, today’s “democratic socialists” are … well, conservative.

They don’t want the wage system to go away. They just want to run it.

They don’t want the workers to own the means of production. They just want to tax and regulate it.

They don’t want a classless society. They just want to be the new ruling class.

US president Donald Trump is already touting the 2020 presidential election as a referendum on “socialism.” Are any real socialists going to show up for that fight?

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The World’s Largest Socialist Economy

Nobody asked but …

Who has the largest military system in the history of the human race?  And who has the largest corporate welfare system to support the industrial arm of that military?  Who has the largest public schooling program in the world?  Could it be China, or India?  I don’t know, but let me know if you are aware of real evidence that it is not the USA.  Who has the highest per capita incarceration rate?  Are you aware of a larger, by total cost, publicly owned and operated infrastructure than the one on America’s lands — with a trillion dollar upgrade purported to be in the wings.  Who has an espionage wing that is greater than all of those which went before the second world war.  Which country has had steady but escalating bureaucratic growth since the beginning of the 20th Century?  Which country makes political promises that all uncertainty will be removed from life?  Which country seeks to satisfy any whim of its least considerate populace no matter how much printing the treasury has to do?

And yet we have demagogic politicians promising to fight “socialism!”  The new McCarthyism.  We’ve been had.

— Kilgore Forelle

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