The following involves a series of somewhat connected but disjointed observations on issues that profoundly impact us but which are profoundly misunderstood, much to our detriment. They are shared as food for thought, in the hope that they might generate some civic discourse rather than the polarization towards which we have been so efficiently herded by the worst among us. I’ll start with the concept of “socialism”, anathema to most Americans since its introduction in Europe, although many of those who find it most objectionable idolize, even worship, someone who preached very similar ideals several millennia ago. It’ll take off from there.
A popular definition of socialism is that it is an economic system where the means of production are owned and governed by society as a whole. Corollaries involve the belief by some advocates and most opponents that in order for society to obtain control of the means of production, violent revolution followed by a period of authoritarian transition is required. The foregoing is simplistic.
Socialism to me is a derivative, not only of Marxian ideology but of John Locke´s hypothesis as to the evolution of private property. Locke believed that property was inherently a communal concept but that a portion of such communal property could become private when individuals imbued it with special and important value through their individual effort. Because during his economic era wealth was primarily measured in real estate, the added value involved working land so as to render it productive. Analogous added value could of course involve other forms of property. Such concepts were not invented by Locke but rather, involved perceptions concerning the evolution of the concept of wealth. A corollary to Locke’s observations was that not all community property was converted to private property. Another more relevant corollary, then as now, should have been: ¿what happens when private property is no longer “imbued … with special and important value through individual effort”? The social aspect of such corollaries would seem to involve the logical premise for property in a socialist setting. In socialism, private property exists divided into two categories: personal property – home, vehicles, etc., and private commercial property, e.g., your own business. Personal private property is generally not controversial except when large deviations from a reasonable norm occur. Private commercial property would be subject to the same observation were it not for two massively distortive concepts: corporations and government granted monopolies. Non-privatized property, that property which society controls because it either never became private or lost its status as such, is that property subject to social ownership as perceived in socialism.
Another essential economic concept related logically to both socialism and capitalism and most of the “isms” around and in between such erroneously perceived polar opposites involves “means of exchange”. On an individual basis, that is not problematic. One person or related group agrees with another, on a case by case basis, to exchange tangible property or services for other tangible property or services. However, that form of economic exchange via “direct barter” eventually proved inefficient and a socialized alternative, money, evolved. Socialized because it is not based on the inherent value of the means of exchange but rather, on a society wide agreement to accept an arbitrary, even illusory, rate of exchange. We can only imagine what that was initially but eventually, it evolved primarily into exchanges involving precious metals, mainly gold and silver, designed into standardized units (coins) based on perceived purity and weight. The metals had no inherent value as did the goods and services for which it was exchanged, only socialist conventions imbued it with value. Thus, money is a social, not an individualistic concept.
Initially money was a somewhat simple and efficient albeit arbitrary concept. However, over time, it came to be supplemented by “financial instruments” subject to large scale manipulation through widespread trading whose value, was only distantly linked to the value of money (stocks, bonds, reinsurance agreements) or in many cases, especially in the last decades, anything tangible. The value of such financial instruments was based more on sleight of hand than anything else, illusion and wagering: options, hedges, etc., essentially bets on how other gamers would react in given situations. Unlike the case of money, the value attributed to such financial instruments was and is not based on a societal convention but rather, on agreements among the players involved imposed on a confused society. Most of the world’s wealth today is based on such financial instruments (financialization) which have little if anything to do with the addition of social value to property. Thus we have a highly inefficient and inequitable economic system, where the rich become richer, as French economist Thomas Piketty demonstrated, not through work or addition of societal value, but through inheritance and investments in financial instruments. In essence, the economic hypothesis upon which Locke, Adam Smith and others premised their private property based economic system has proven inaccurate. Wealth is not, by and large, created by hard work and productive innovation as much as it is the result of inheritance and monopolistic privileges, monopolies being a terminal impediment to the system of fair and open competition that they envisioned. Among the most egregious and counterproductive monopolies are those involving intellectual property, especially intellectual property protected for decades even if deliberately kept off the market in order to maintain the unmerited value of inferior intellectual property.
If we were monetarily rational, we would realize that money, in the aggregate, in any society, should represent the aggregate value of that society’s goods and services plus those that it is reasonable to anticipate will be realized in the reasonably near future, the way common stock represents the value of a corporation (i.e., the current value of future economic prospects). If money were created and placed into circulation by the state itself without the intermediation of banks or other private institutions (a socialist concept) there would never be justification for public debt and taxation itself might well become anachronistic.
A more realistic vision of socialism is thus premised on the realization that each of us is both an individual and a member of society, and that, by and large, most of our needs are met by social constructs applied to individual efforts, social constructs such as the different concepts of property, means of exchange and rules of acceptable conduct. While all reasonable efforts should be taken to reconcile our dual natures, when reconciliation proves impossible or impractical, then, as Spock of Star Trek fame frequently noted, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, in other words, the decision ought to be in favor of society as a whole. Something one would also expect of the Nazarene many equate with a divine being.
Many, perhaps most modern socialists tend to be “democratic socialists” rejecting the revolutionary change and authoritarian interim espoused by Karl Marx and his followers. They respect personal private property and, as long as it is not destructive of the social welfare, private commercial property as well. However, certain socioeconomic institutions essential to the common welfare are deemed inappropriate subjects of for-profit management and should therefore be managed on a social basis. These include much of the financial sector, e.g., banks and insurance companies; natural resources (today, practically given away at way below market royalty rates); much of the educational sector (in order to guarantee that each individual has unfettered access to all the education he or she is capable of assimilating); hospitals and large scale providers of health related services; and, institutions charged with maintenance of safety (e.g. fire departments and rescue services) and, public order through monopolistic access to the use of force (such as police and military forces).
The combination of socialism and democracy sounds positive but like socialism, “democracy” is a little understood and pretty complex concept. At its essence it involves rule by a majority with periodic elections designed to assure that the majority is maintained. For democracy to function it requires the circulation among all electors of accurate and complete information, as well as a free and uncensored interchange of opinions, otherwise, as computer programmers have long observed, “garbage in, garbage out”. Unfortunately, the profession charged with the accumulation and circulation of such information and opinions, journalism, has always been extremely problematic, dysfunctional and corrupt and that has never been more true than it is today. Few things make that more clear than the nomenclature of the most prestigious prize in modern journalism, the Pulitzer, well-named after one of the cofounders of fictitious “yellow journalism, Joseph Pulitzer. For a while it seemed as though technology and especially the Internet would provide a mechanism for exchange of information with much less interference by politicized special interests but that dream proved an illusion as monopolistic “platforms” all too quickly acquired control of transmission deciding what information and opinions were acceptable and to whom they would be transmitted.
Of course, as currently understood, or more accurately, misunderstood, “democracy” itself is a confusing concept. At least in so called western democracies, the term has been muddled with incoherently contradictory concepts, especially liberty and pluralism. While all three are desirable, they are inherently in conflict. Liberty involves individual autonomy regardless of the will of a majority and pluralism involves the will of minorities, a kind of hybrid between individuals and society as a whole. Constitutions are designed to reconcile such concepts but, logically and realistically, reconciliation on a broad and long-term basis is frequently impossible and thus, constitutions are imperfect vehicles seeking to salvage what they can by imposing mechanisms to prioritize the values inherent in the three opposing concepts. Such prioritization utilizes another complex and largely misunderstood concept, that of “rights”.
Purportedly, rights are inherent, i.e., not granted but an essential part of our nature), consequently they are not subject to limitations, are unconditional (even when conditions are reasonable or even essential), have always existed and must always exist although, not being aware that they existed, we have all too often violated them (e.g., slavery). While the concept is beautiful it is incoherent. In reality, based on the foregoing definition, there are no rights. Pick any and there will be conditions and exceptions, many quite reasonable or absolutely necessary. What we really have when we refer to rights are socially agreed upon conventions which society, governments and individuals agree to respect when it is convenient and not unduly expensive to do so. So called rights often clash and are ignored as frequently as they are respected, relying on a purportedly independent judiciary for their protection, except that the judiciary, rather than independent, seems always to become politicized, especially when, as is the case in the United States federal system, judges are selected by the political branches and their selection becomes a principle issue in political elections.
The United States today, during early July of 2020, is being racked with demonstrations protesting against things that in many cases really need to change, things which have needed to change since before there was a United States, but protests which all too frequently involve mere political campaign slogans all too quickly forgotten. Ernest demonstrators are all too often joined by fellow travelers who merely find in them an opportunity and excuse to riot and loot and burn and engage in mayhem and raise hell, using the protests as a kind of shield guaranteeing impunity. Of course, they are not as bad as the hypocritical political opportunist who gather them all in, at least until they attain power.
Today, confusion and hatred and intolerance in the name of tolerance and peace and justice seem to rule but that may only be a carefully crafted superficial appearance designed to divide and conquer. This article is dedicated to the majority of decent people of all political persuasions who’d love to work together to help build the world our progeny deserves.
Have at it.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2020; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also a citizen). Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.