It's just under 7 weeks until the presidential election - supposedly the most important one ever, although to be fair, the Democratic Party trots out that line for pretty much every election.
Being this close to such a big day, I'm going to be focusing for now on issues that directly affect how we vote, trying to help cut through the emotionally-charged scarewords and whataboutism and logical fallacies perpetuating stereotypes and patently false information - or, as it's colloquially referred to, "American electoral politics."
So today, we're going to talk about economic systems and their relationships to government; namely, socialism, communism, and capitalism: what they are, what they aren't, and common misconceptions about them.
Socialist dictator: bad
Communist dictator: bad
Capitalist dictator: super bad
Socialism ≠ socialist dictatorship
Communism ≠ communist dictatorship
Capitalism ≠ capitalist dictatorship*
Candidates and political pundits - and, by extension, pretty much everyone passionate about politics who doesn't have the time or money for a degree in political science - often point to dictatorships as proof that their economic systems are inherently authoritarian and detrimental to the public. "Look at this socialist country! The public lives in run-down shacks and their leader keeps them in line with an oppressive military! That's what socialism does!"
Now, aside from the fact that that information is completely unreliable (more on that later) and that more often than not socialist countries' problems are intentionally caused by the violent antagonism of capitalist countries, usually the US (more on that later), that's a syllogism: a form of deductive reasoning that can be true, but in most examples isn't. Generally syllogisms are examples of how deductive reasoning comes to completely inaccurate conclusions when we aren't precise with our understanding of things. Consider a popular syllogism:
--God is Love
--Love is blind
--Ray Charles is blind
----Therefore, Ray Charles is God
Obviously that's not an accurate conclusion to draw; love is just one aspect of God, blindness is just one aspect of love, and Ray Charles is not the only blind person - according to this, all blind people are God. The point is, when we oversimplify our terms and assume that two things being true means one caused the other (implying causation from correlation), we come to completely inaccurate conclusions. The same is true for:
--[Country] is socialist
--[Country] has authoritarian dictator and terrible living conditions
----Therefore, socialism leads to authoritarian dictators and terrible living conditions
A socialist country may have a dictator, but that doesn't make dictatorship an integral part of, or inevitable result of, socialism, and the same goes for communism. The problem with those states isn't socialism or communism, it's the dictator who exploited them to gain and retain authoritarian power, not the economic system.
There are dozens of different ideologies under the umbrella of socialism, but socialism is, at its core, the idea that the government exists to serve the needs of the people; that means roads, public safety, healthcare, shelter, food, and any other need shared by all citizens more or less equally, should be provided at the expense of the government for all citizens regardless of their role in society or the economy.
There's nothing inherently authoritarian about a government taking proper care of its citizens; if you're going to have a government, that's literally the entire point. If you live in a country and your work contributes to its economy and you pay taxes to its government, that government should be ensuring that your health, safety, shelter, economic security, and any other needs are met; if you're physically or mentally unable to do those things, we, as a society, should be happy for that government to meet those needs for you regardless. Otherwise, what's the point of having a government?
Similarly, communism has its branches and divisions - Leninism, Marxism, Maoism, Trotskyism, dozens of others, all with their own ideas on how best to achieve and maintain a communist state - but at its core, communism is the idea that anyone performing labor should receive their share of the economic value of that labor, instead of being paid a minimal wage while someone who "owns" the company keeps all the profit; that means if it costs $20, all told, to manufacture an iPad, and it sells for $200, that $180 profit is shared by those who made it instead of by a board of directors and an owner.
It's also the idea that "workers own the means of production," meaning that, per the iPad example, those working in the iPad factory own the factory themselves, and all decisions about how to produce and market the iPad are made collectively by those workers. It's an ideology prioritizing the self-determination of the working class and fair (and frankly, logical) allocation of economic value.
There's nothing inherently authoritarian about workers owning the means of production and receiving equal share of the economic value of their labor; that's just logic. If you perform labor, and that labor creates X dollars of economic value, you should get X dollars. If your labor is performed at, say, a factory, you should have a stake in the economic value produced by that factory. If you work for a company, you should have an equal voice in the decisions and actions of that company. Otherwise, you're a completely disposable, unappreciated cog in a mindless machine generating massive profit for someone whose only contribution to the economic value created by your company is a piece of paper saying it's their company.
We have that now, and you can see how well that's working.
Meanwhile, capitalism is the idea that the accumulation of personal wealth takes priority over anything else. The safety of others, basic morality, the good of humanity - everything takes a back seat to maximizing profit and hoarding wealth and resources.
You might think that's an unfair assessment, but let's take a look at the history:
- We have child labor laws specifically because before those laws, we had five-year-old coal miners. The movement against child labor took almost fifty years to put in place the standards we have now.
- We have a minimum wage (such as it is) specifically because before we had one, there was no requirement for companies to pay workers enough to survive, or to pay them at all - and they absolutely utilized that. They even went to war with us over it. Literally. And now, because of inflation, and the government actively refusing to adjust the minimum wage accordingly, we have that again.
- Chattel slavery was a direct result of capitalism: more laborers means more production, more fields, more product, more money. Given the choice between paying laborers or literally stealing human beings from another continent and beating them to get them to do the work for free - well, which one was better for the bottom line? And then we turned that into a commodity market for more profit, and also fought a literal war to protect the right to do it.
- Speaking of war, if you're reading this and still think we invaded several countries in the middle east and South America to protect their citizens from someone else or to protect our own freedom from the zero people who were threatening it? I just don't know what to tell you.
I could keep going - the housing market, the healthcare market, how Hawaii became a state - but I feel like child exploitation, starvation wages, slavery, and pretty much all war makes a pretty good case for capitalism not being a particularly humanitarian system.
So when I say that capitalism prioritizes maximum profit above literally everything else, know that I do mean literally.
"But Venezuela/North Korea/China/USSR! That's a socialist/communist dictatorship!"
Is it, though? Honestly, I couldn't tell you, I'm the wrong person to ask. I can tell you that there is solid reason to doubt that North Korea and China are oppressive authoritarian regimes, strictly based on the amount of increasingly desperate propaganda surrounding them from the US government. I can tell you that when the USSR was formed, it was with the emphatic blessing of its people. I can also tell you that while some on the Left sing the praises of the DPRK (North Korea) and PRC (China), it's hard to find a properly credible authority on the topic - a bunch of people who happen to want the same things I do, that's not necessarily a primary source. I honestly haven't figured out the truth on all that.
However! Counterpoint: What does that have to do with anything? This is the point I was making above. Maybe these are brutal dictatorships, maybe they're bountiful utopias; it doesn't matter either way. The fact is that even if some communist or socialist nations end up as authoritarian regimes, that's a completely separate issue from the communism and socialism. Communism and socialism lead to a well cared-for populace; anything else that happens isn't a direct result of that.
You might say it's just easy to seize power as a dictator under these economic systems, but you may have noticed that someone is seizing it pretty easily under capitalism now...
...so I don't think it's a very strong argument.
"But so many South American countries are socialist, and their leaders are overthrown!"
Yeah. By us. By the United States. Like, it's not even a secret. There's a whole section on Wikipedia titled "United States involvement in regime change in Latin America." Libertarian wet dream Elon Musk tweets about how great it is. These aren't "The People Hate Socialism And They Overthrew Their Socialist Dictator" popular uprisings. These are "The People Voted For Socialism And Were Overwhelmingly Happy And Healthy Under Socialism But The Socialist President Wanted To Charge A Fair Price For Lithium And That Means We Lose Money" overthrows of democratically elected leaders.
"But Cuba is communist and they're poor!"
First of all, is poor really the worst thing in the world to be? Because a staggering number of us here in the US are also poor, and I guarantee you, given the choice between being poor as we are now, or being poor but having food, shelter and healthcare - even if those things aren't at the level of extravagance that the middle, upper and elite classes currently enjoy - most all of us would gladly choose the latter.
Second, yeah, brutal economic sanctions from the largest economic power on the planet tend to make a country "poor" by comparison - and yet despite that, Cuba has such a robust public healthcare system that they've been sending doctors to other countries to assist with COVID response, and years ago they developed a FREAKING LUNG CANCER VACCINE. I'd say "poor" is a pretty small price to pay.
This prevalent American misconception of alternatives to capitalism, and misconception of capitalism itself, for that matter, is not necessarily rooted in nationalism, xenophobia, American exceptionalism or even plain old selfishness - at least, not in the hearts and minds of the public - but the misconception absolutely fertilizes the seeds of those things, planted in all our minds by growing up and living in the US; but the point of bringing this up right before the election is that the rallying tool for both major parties is fear of the other - not to mention fear of the Other - and socialism and communism are two of the most-used scarewords. If you can accept that you're being lied to about what these systems are and what they lead to, as well as lied to about either major party being in favor of them, then you can start to see through the veil and recognize how many other things you're being lied to about; and ultimately, that's the best thing we can do to fix the problems we have in this country: we can foster within ourselves a full understanding of objective reality, free from propaganda, and make better decisions based on that. It might not seem like much, but it really is the most vital starting point to any lasting change; and I pointedly challenge you to try it.
I'm bad at conclusions. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week. As always, I am only an egg.