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.

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