Socialism Part 3: Democracy on a Ventilator

Because in case you weren’t looking, we are now an oligarchy, a society run by the ultra-wealthy for the benefit of the ultra-wealthy. We’ve heard all the statistics – that roughly 400 people control half the world’s wealth, that these few people control more wealth than the “bottom” 80 percent, etc. I’m going on memory, but the point is that thanks to the few remaining independent economists and journalists, we are becoming aware that the vast majority of wealth produced by the activities of hundreds of millions of people is going directly into the hands of a few corporate overlords and dynastic “money” families like the Waltons, Kochs, Mars, Cargill, S.C. Johnson, etc.

But the most eye-opening report came recently, and it was enough to provoke Jimmy Carter himself to publicly claim that we are no longer a true democracy, that we have in fact become an oligarchy. The study in question is the book-length treatise Affluence and Influence, by Martin Gilens of Princeton University. The research shows plenty of scary statistics, but in essence, as Carter states it, it outlines how the role of big money donors in American politics has corrupted the system beyond repair. Carter sees recent developments like the Citizens United Supreme Court decision as the final steps toward “a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors.”

The study’s conclusions are not ideologically arrived at. It’s not just one more volley in what wealthy conservatives and their apologists like to dismiss as “class warfare” or the “culture of envy” – no rhetoric can hide the data that tells the story. And the story it tells is that the actual policy decisions made by the U.S. government over the last 50 years, and increasingly in the last decade or so, reflect the preferences of the wealthy and not the preferences of the middle and lower classes. From

Martin Gilens set out to test this theory based on over 2,200 government policies from the mid 1960s to 2006. His study shows that the preferences of low and median income Americans have no effect on government policies, while the preferences of those with income in the top 10 percent have far greater [sic] influence. Over time, this influence is increasing, regardless of presidential administration. Gilens’ work has withstood analysis well over the past few years, and provides ample data to show that the affluent have more voice in government than the poor or average income groups.

Along with other research revealing that most income goes to the top earners while productivity among rank-and-file workers soars, what Gilens’ study shows is that there indeed was a class war, and we have already lost the major battles. It’s almost over.

Socialism Part 2: What’s in a Name? Plenty.

The first step in the process is to reclaim the validity of the word “socialism.” American conservatives – capitalists by nature – have done a good job of transforming the word into a pejorative. For that matter, they’ve made good progress on the term “liberal,” as if the very concept of being open to new ideas and new approaches is anathema to our buttoned up, top-down economy and its trans-national corporate masters. Also not coincidental, the nation’s approved history textbooks barely touch on the popularity of socialism among Americans in the 1930s (with the Great Depression marking the first object demonstration that the Dow Jones is a measuring stick for the elite’s finances, not a system of governance for all of us). Of course, the end game of America’s flirtation with socialism and communism in the 1930s was Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the great communist witch hunts it set off in the paranoid post-war 1950s.

Now the Great Recession has reminded us, once again, that the big risks of our economy are being borne not by ultra-wealthy “job creators” but by the 99.99 percent of us who do not own the world, its resources and its governments. When capitalist deal-making hits pay dirt, oligarchs get richer. But when it goes bust, as it did in grand style in 2008, strapped taxpayers foot the bill in the form of tax write-offs and bailouts. Then, as a final insult, when the government needs more money than the GOP will let it collect in taxes from billionaires, the government borrows it from – you guessed it – these same billionaire tax dodgers, who prefer to make interest on the money they “lend” to Uncle Sam. This is known as “privatizing gains and socializing losses.” Americans are picking up on this pattern, and they do not like it. The natural question that should come to our minds is, “If corporations are going to get the taxpayer-funded benefits of socialist policies, shouldn’t we taxpayers be eligible for them too?”

But as the options for choosing leaders dry up — as our politics gets deeper and deeper into the gutter, scaring off decent people who want to help — those who vie for office all appear to be variations on the same gladiatorial theme. Politicians are being molded by corporate interests, at corporatized universities, by special interest “AstroTurf” groups like ALEC and the NRA, and by corporate “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth. They are producing politicians the same way McDonald’s produces managers at Hamburger University—absorb the corporate philosophy, preach the corporate philosophy, defend the corporate philosophy, and project a belief that there are no viable alternatives to the corporate philosophy.

Except that it’s not a corporation—it’s my government, it’s your government, it’s our government, and it should work for all our interests.

Socialism = Despotism?

As an option for governance, socialism’s biggest hits came from those 20th century revolutionaries who overthrew their monarchies or oligarchies and put in place severe, ideological, paranoid, oppressive regimes that were called (naturally) “socialist” regimes. So for Americans who are not curious enough or creative enough to wonder how else one might implement a socialist system of governance, the only working models are the totalitarian regimes of Mao, Stalin, Kim Jong Il, and the rest. Worst of all from the American perspective, the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” what Ronald Reagan famously called the “evil empire” – this evil empire was our object model for conceptualizing socialism. We perceived socialism through the prism of an anti-socialist, pro-capitalist society.

Now, as in the 1930s, people are waking up to the reality that a blend of our Democratic principles with Socialist monetary and regulatory policies may – that is to say it just might – be preferable to a system run by a cabal of self-interested billionaire families, a system that works for the benefit of roughly 0.01 percent of the population. Yes, it might be better than the oligarchy our current “democracy” is creating.

Next: Democracy on a Ventilator

Growing Up Socialist

Based on my upbringing, it’s almost impossible that I would turn out to be anything other than a card-carrying socialist. This truism would make my father roll over in his Arlington National Cemetery grave, I suppose. But he – as an intellectual – would also have to agree with my reasoning.

Dad was a South Omaha Polish Catholic boy made good, graduating from West Point in 1958 to embark, along with his new wife (and my mother), on a globe-trotting career in the U.S. Army. He was a career man, with two tours in Vietnam attached to an SVA (South Vietnamese regular army) unit, a Signal Corps officer who retired at the age of 45 or so.

This means that as a child I also traveled the world, often living on federal property, and was essentially raised within the U.S. Army culture. It is a 100% socialist culture.

In the military, everyone has a job. Nobody is starvation-poor, and nobody is mega-rich. For 2016, the Army pay scale lists the lowest private at about $1600 a month and the biggest, cigar-chompingest four-star general making about $19,700 a month. That’s a difference in pay, between the lowest-paid grunt and basically the CEO of the Army, representing a factor of 12.3. Compare that to someone at Wal-Mart making minimum wage ($1,200 a month) and the Wal-Mart CEO making, let’s say conservatively, about $1.5 million a year or $125,000 a month. That’s a factor of 100+. (Top-earning CEOs make $125,000 an hour. Side question: how does one “earn” $125,000 in one hour? How is one person’s “labor” equal to the labor of 17,000 minimum wage workers?)

In the army, as in a classically imagined socialist society, there are “party members” (officers) and the “proletariat” (enlisted). Officers “run things” (executive) and the enlisted “do things” (labor). The executives get better pay and more perks—they have college degrees and undergo extensive educational training (War College, Command School), not to mention the added responsibility of being in charge. But those in the ranks of labor are provided for as well – in addition to base pay the enlisted soldiers in the barracks eat for free, have free housing, and free uniforms. (Officers pay for most of these things unless deployed in a war zone.) Yet everyone is guaranteed vacation (30 days a year last I checked) and sick leave. And if you get really sick, guess what? You’re covered, because health care is free. Provided you make a career of it, a soldier gets free medical care for life, plus a fair pension after twenty years of service. (Right now the pension is 50% of the soldier’s highest average 36 months of pay, regardless of rank, and this is in addition to Social Security retirement benefits.)

Everyone is covered. There are no homeless, there are no “illegals”, there are no charity cases, there are no elderly workers left high and dry by raided pension funds or crappy 401K plans.

Because of the “uniform” quality of life in the military—nobody stands out, nobody is singled out for special treatment—the military has largely marginalized the effects of American racism and classism in its culture-within-a-culture (except for the traditional, generalized class differential between officers and enlisted). Obviously these effects cannot be entirely eliminated. But as folks like Colin Powell have shown, a black soldier faces no institutional barriers to success in the military. He or she can get all the way, as Powell did, to the very top. You don’t have to come from any particular family or go to any particular school. (West Point helps, but again, anyone with the chops to succeed there is welcome. There’s no tuition—students get paid—and of course room and board are free. And you have a good job the day you graduate.) As you may recall, the military was even out ahead of the rest of American culture on gay acceptance. Women, in a culture invented for men, have had a rougher road, but they too are progressing. The army just graduated its first two female Rangers last year (both West Point graduates).

It’s simple: an egalitarian culture promotes and nurtures egalitarianism in its members, who feel a natural sense of dignity, of being respected within the culture no matter their individual role. Regular soldiers, not generals, tend to win the highest of military decorations. Most enlisted soldier’s I’ve known regard officers as “different” than them in their career path, not “better” than them because of their rank.

Of course, the U.S. military is an artificial culture in that, socialist as it may be, it is completely dependent on the greater American economy for its continued existence. The military is not an economy, it does not “produce” anything (aside from abstract “security”), it only consumes tax funds. The U.S. military is not the answer to our struggles with corporatism/oligarchy, but it does serve as an object lesson in how to build a fair and equitable societal structure, one in which all can thrive and all can live with dignity. We can learn from it.

Why Now?

It feels like I could have written this item a long time ago. Maybe, because in my past the word “socialism” was roughly equivalent in the American lexicon with terms like “godless communist” or “evil empire,” I felt like it would be a wasted effort. I mean, I think I’m pretty safe in arguing that before 2016, no socialist of any kind could have expected to be nominated for the presidency, let alone occupy that office.

And maybe that’s still true. At this writing, the bean counters expect Hillary to win the Democratic nomination this summer despite the extraordinary grass-roots popularity of her Democratic Socialist challenger, Bernie Sanders. She simply has the math in her favor, and – not incidentally – the party apparatus and its many veteran Democratic voters.

But the phenomenon of the nation’s young people “feeling the Bern” and coming out for the man in huge numbers looks like a harbinger of a new direction for America. It feels as though the dismantling of the oligarchy may come, if not next year, then soon—regardless of who wins the next presidential election.

Next: What’s in a Name? Plenty.

What is Trey Gowdy Waiting for?

Congressman Trey Gowdy runs the 5th annual select Congressional Witch Hu..I mean Committee on Benghazi, otherwise known as the Stop Hillary At All Costs Committee. With all due respect to Benghazi, and those 4 dead people, the committee’s real interest has been in either finding or fabricating a “smoking gun” that would let the American People know just how much the GOP hates the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. Gowdy says, “Just wait…we have big news…” This was several months ago, after Clinton handed the Committee’s GOP members their asses in her now-famous “eye roller” appearance before them. Since then, the FBI has been carefully gathering its “evidence”, but we hear nothing else from the group.

Now I get it. Gowdy is waiting for the primary results to shake out. If Bernie gets the nomination they can just sit tight and let the Koch’s $900 million worth of “Honeymoon in Russia” ad buys do their work (look it up), along with every right winger on the planet laser-focused on message: “America is not a socialist society. Capitalism is our way of life.” (Here’s the ad: slo-mo images of sun-kissed Old Glory waving along with fields of grain and kids playing baseball, affluent grandpa serving up a turkey a la Norman Rockwell – meanwhile the concerned motherly female voice-over – “America was built on the spirit of independence and personal freedom, where anyone can strive to realize their dreams. Do you want your grandchildren to grow up in the good old USA?” – images now abruptly switch over to slower-mo Hammer/Sickle overlaying Bernie’s angry-looking face, red flags waving in a barren field, gray drab room full of angry-looking brown-uniformed bureaucrats scowling at the camera – motherly voice becomes ominous now “…or the (big “Soviet” block letters cover the screen) USSA? Vote Ted Cruz in November. Vote for freedom.” Cue GOP landslide.

But if Hillary wins – what then? Hillary isn’t a commie. Simple. The day after she takes the nomination, announce her indictment for crimes against the United States. What crimes? Well, passing on classified e-mail on a non-secure server is plenty for them to work with. Sure, it’s not really that big a deal, and she probably couldn’t have realized the stuff she received in her In Box would later be classified, or in a couple cases already was classified, and at bottom some 99% of classified stuff is unnecessarily classified, and a conviction would be difficult to get. Sure. But the law is the law, and politics ain’t beanbag, and $900 million is $900 million, and every minute she’s under indictment she’s vulnerable, distracted – and losing.

This could well be the strategy behind the current lawlessness of the Senate majority, refusing to perform its duty under the Constitution. Why bother with Obama’s Supreme Court nominee when the White House is a lock?

On the plus side, I still don’t think it will work. I’m beginning to think the woman could go 15 rounds with Sugar Ray and not even take a corner.