The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been a poignant reminder of how seemingly indestructible tyrannical power can be overthrown by popular movements peacefully. It’s also given liberal commentators the chance to “remind” us all of how “unworkable” socialism is. A prime example was a recent BBC phone-in held by Nicky Campbell on the question of “Is socialism dead?“.
It’s typical of the mainstream media to frame the issue in this way. It is unimaginable for example that the BBC would ask the question “Has corporate capitalism failed?” or even “Has liberal democracy failed?”. The debate was at least a fairly open one with many people pointing to the absurdity of the original premise. The question Campbell should have been asking wasn’t whether socialism was dead or not. It should have been, “Why hasn’t socialism been realised yet?”.
The collapse of communism is frequently cited by liberal commentators and the right as “proof” that socialism doesn’t work. But you don’t have to be a political scientist to see that communism had absolutely nothing to do with socialism. Whichever particular brand of socialism you believe in, two of the most fundamental characteristics of a truly socialist system are worker control of the means of production and redistribution of wealth. The communist system had absolutely none of this. The East German system was – like corporate-capitalism in fact – run by a greedy elite who espoused socialist principles of solidarity and equality but practiced none of them. In reality, East German state-communism had more in common with corporate-capitalism than socialism.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a victory for a brutally oppressed people against a totalitarian regime. By helping remove the fraud of communist “socialism” from the world map, it was one of the biggest victories of the 20th Century for those who believe in genuine socialism.
The Guardian today reviewed Michael Moore’s latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story” premiered at the Venice film festival and gave it 4 stars. Sounds like a return to form for Moore although I think his last film “Sicko” was also pretty good, if a little sluggish in places. I’m glad to hear from the review that Moore points out that Goldman Sachs – one of the biggest culprits he identifies for the financial crisis – was Obama’s biggest private sponsor during the election.
The trailer for Michael Moore’s latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story” is now out. The film is due for release in October and Moore says he made it as if it was “the last film I was ever going to make.” Looks like he’s aptly chosen M.I.A.’s Paper Planes as the soundtrack too.
Despite criticism that he cherry picks footage and data to suit his own ends, I’m looking forward to seeing this. However, I hope Moore looks at how capitalism doesn’t really exist in the real world. As the bailouts proved in its crudest form, what we actually have is closer to socialism – socialism for the rich that is. Markets are so distorted by governments and corporations working hand-in-hand that calling it “capitalism” is about as accurate as calling Stalinist Russia “communist”. Using the term capitalist only serves to maintain misunderstanding of the current system and give ammunition to those who support it to dismiss opponents as simply “anti-capitalists.” Don’t ask me what a better term would be but something along the lines of “state-sponsored-capitalism” rolls off the tongue, erm, badly.
The post I wrote yesterday about Eric Hobsbawm’s article was picked-up by Tobin Harshaw writing in the New York Times Opinionator Blog which looks at the interesting issue of what socialism really is and what it means to Americans.
Harshaw quotes a Rasmussen poll that found only 53% of Americans feel that capitalism is better than socialism. This result and the results of an earlier poll perhaps indicate that more and more Americans are starting to question whether they really live in a capitalist society. The earlier poll found that 70% of Americans would prefer a “free-market economy” to “capitalism” indicating that Americans feel that the system they’re living in is not as “free” as it’s made out to be.
Although the telephone poll is hardly representative of the whole country, it should be no surprise that many Americans feel this way. As far back as 1996, Noam Chomsky made a speech on this subject at Harvard University on what he calls “really existing free market theory”. Chomsky points-out that time after time, the public are made to pay for the financial troubles and misadventures of corporations:
So, if Third World debt gets out of control, you socialize it. It’s not the problem of the banks that made the money. When the S&Ls collapse, you know, same thing. The public bails them out. When American investment firms get into trouble because the Mexican bubble bursts, you bail out Goldman Sachs. And — the latest Mexico bail out, and on and on. I mean, there’s case after case of this.
Of course, the latest round of high profile bailout packages passed by the Bush and Obama administrations have brought this fact into the American consciousness more than ever. If this makes them question the authenticity of real-world capitalism, then it may be at least one silver lining in the economic crisis.
So argues Historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Guardian today. Hobsbawm is right that after years of capitalist dogma that there is no alternative, the time has never been better to seek alternatives.
Many of the comments that follow his piece however take issue with his assertion that socialism has failed. The communist brand of “socialism” practiced in Russia wasn’t socialism at all – more a vicious state centralised authoritarianism that had little to do with true socialist ideals. The same could be said however for the type of neo-liberal capitalism we have today which has strayed so far from the principles and ideals of pure capitalism as outlined by founders such as Adam Smith that it’s almost unfair to say that capitalism has failed also.
The problem is that if a new socio-economic system emerged, it would have to be adopted by every country in the world. Countries are so inter-linked nowadays through exports and imports that a country could have the most stable and healthy economic system on the planet but it wouldn’t be able to cope if other countries around it were collapsing.
Incidentally, Hobsbawm’s volumes The Age of Revolution, The Age of Extremes and The Age of Capital are excellent reads.