America in Crisis: The Liberal Challenge and the Prospects for Socialism

America is deeply divided. For one thing, most Americans want an end to the war against Iraq and some form of universal health care, while the ruling class is committed to the war and to sacrificing social services to pay for it.

This conflict between the rulers and the ruled reflects a deeper, structural rift. In a series of three articles (Z Magazine, February, April, May, 2007), Jack Rasmus reveals how,

“From the early 1980s on, income inequality widened, deepened, and accelerated until today well over $1 trillion in income is being transferred every year from the roughly 90 million working class families in the U.S. to corporations and the wealthiest non-working class households.”

Thirty-five years of pro-business policies have hurtled class inequality back to the level of the 1920s. One percent of Americans now owns half the nation’s wealth. By 2005, U.S. millionaires owned $30 trillion in assets, more than the annual wealth produced in China, Japan, Brazil, Russia and the European Union combined!

The extent of inequality is angering the working class and alarming sections of the establishment. In “the land of opportunity,” inequality is typically blamed on the have-nots for lacking the skills and determination to succeed. Now that the majority has been left behind, this excuse has lost credibility. Consider the following editorial from the New York Times (August 29, 2007),

“The median household income last year was still about $1,000 less than in 2000, before the onset of the last recession… When household incomes rose, it was because more members of the household went to work, not because anybody got a bigger paycheck…The earnings of men and women working full time actually fell more than 1 percent last year…The spoils of the nation’s economic growth have flowed almost exclusively to the wealthy and the extremely wealthy, leaving little for everybody else.”

Americans are seething with discontent over falling living standards, the environmental crisis, the war and the abysmal state of the medical system. In the spring of 2006, this anger exploded in the largest demonstrations in the nation’s history. Protesting anti-immigrant policies and chanting “We are America,” the working class rose up and punched the capitalist class in the face. That fall, the Republican majority was swept from office by voters who were sick of government lies, incompetence and corruption.

Reform or revolution

A section of the ruling class is concerned that popular discontent could coalesce into a generalized rebellion against the system. This happened after World War I, in the 1930s and again in the 1960s.

There are only two solutions to such crises: reform from above to restore confidence in the system or revolution from below to replace it. Let’s examine the first option.

Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are committed to the American Empire and to the conquest of Iraq. To counter widespread anti-war sentiment, Washington has repackaged the war as military support for the Iraqi government, with Iraqi incompetence being blamed for “delaying” troop withdrawal. Regular announcements of “signs of progress” imply that the war is winding down when it is actually escalating. This stalling tactic seems to be working, for now.

Reducing class inequality presents a greater challenge. The New York Times concludes, “What are needed are policies to help spread benefits broadly — be it more progressive taxation, or policies to strengthen public education and increase access to affordable health care.”

The elite immediately cry “socialism!” at the suggestion that any portion of the social pie should be returned to the working class. Capitalists want a State that enacts policies just for them and rescues only them. And that’s what they get. In countless ways, capitalism functions as a kind of socialism for the rich.

America’s tax laws free the largest corporations from paying any tax whatsoever. Federal judges have allowed ailing industries to abandon billions of dollars in “burdensome” pension obligations. The multi-billion-dollar federal bailout of mortgage lenders has not been matched by any money for working-class home owners facing foreclosure. And while the Bush administration allows Medicare-funded insurance companies to keep millions of dollars that should have been returned to beneficiaries, it vigorously pursues beneficiaries to recover money that it says is owed to insurance companies.

While the New York Times complains about such injustices, it doesn’t want socialism. It wants a lesser-evil capitalism directed by the Democratic Party.

Liberals and liberal institutions condemn the worst aspects of capitalism in order to preserve the system as a whole. Most Americans want more investment in the nation’s infrastructure. They want universal healthcare and more funding for schools. They want New Orleans rebuilt and their bridges secure. Liberals fear that if the system fails to deliver, the majority will reject the system.

Wiser capitalists remember the French Revolution. Those who take too much can lose their heads. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett prefer to return a small piece of the pie than forfeit the entire bakery.

Gates criticizes the “inequality gap” and devotes a tiny portion of his fortune to charity. Buffett says it’s unfair that he pays less than 18 per cent of his income in taxes, when his secretary pays 30 per cent of hers. Gates and Buffett aren’t socialists. Like the robber-baron philanthropists of the previous century, they understand that their class must appear generous to preserve its system of organized thievery.

President Roosevelt faced a similar choice when he fought for the New Deal despite opposition from business interests. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn explains,

“The Roosevelt reforms…had to meet two pressing needs: to reorganize capitalism in such a way as to overcome the crisis and stabilize the system; also to head off the alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion…— organization of tenants and the unemployed, movements of self-help and general strikes in several cities.”

Reining in a 35-year wealth-grabbing binge won’t be easy. Despite liberal demands that Democrats in Congress develop a spine, the Democratic Party serves the business class. Returning any wealth to the working class would undermine Corporate America’s ability to dominate the global economy.

Unless it is forced to use the carrot to quell discontent, the ruling class prefers to use the stick. The war on terror, with its attack on civil liberties, is the capitalists’ response to inequality and injustice. They seize the wealth; they do not share it. They crush their victims; they do not rescue them. And they don’t feel threatened by a labor movement that is currently too weak to mount a sustained rebellion. At the same time, their confidence has been shaken by their failures to win the war, create a workable immigration policy and resolve the health-care crisis.

Channeling discontent

Liberals argue that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The capitalist class is a tiny minority that needs majority consent to rule. That consent could be lost if social problems are allowed to deepen. Liberals prefer to align with social discontent in order to contain it within established channels.

When the President defended insurance industry profits over the needs of sick children, the New York Times shared the nation’s outrage. In “An Immoral Philosophy” (August 1, 2007), Paul Krugman writes,

“What kind of philosophy says that it’s O.K. to subsidize insurance companies, but not to provide health care to children?…9 in 10 Americans – including 83 percent of self-identified Republicans – support an expansion of the children’s health insurance program…There is, it seems, more basic decency in the hearts of Americans than is dreamt of in Mr. Bush’s philosophy.”

The liberal media are running to get ahead of a growing number of dissidents, like Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, who are fueling discontent. Klein’s best-selling book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, has joined Moore’s documentary film, SiCKO, to punch holes in the lies that prop up the system. When Oprah and Moore agree on national television that America needs some form of socialized medicine, the wind is definitely shifting.

Suddenly, “socialism” is not such a dirty word. In “A Socialist Plot” (August 27, 2007), Krugman writes, “The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care.”

Liberals must convince the capitalist class that a lesser-evil-capitalism, even when it calls itself socialism, is preferable to the threat of real socialism. However, conservatives argue that granting reforms will be the start of a slippery slope. If Americans think they have a right to health care, what else will they think they deserve?

Conservatives remember the 1960s, when Americans gained the confidence to demand racial equality, women’s liberation, aboriginal rights, gay liberation, more social support, higher wages, safer working conditions, more affordable housing, better schools and more access to medical care. There was organized opposition to the arms race, nuclear power, the death penalty, American foreign policy and the Vietnam War. It took a concerted effort and many years to beat back that rebellion.

Is America ready for socialism?

The social crisis and the conflict at the top have opened a space to discuss genuine socialism, a worker-run democracy where ordinary people take collective control of the economy and direct it to meet human needs. The material conditions already exist for such a society.

Because socialism is based on sharing, there must be more than enough to go around. That is no longer a problem. If the yearly production of American workers was transformed into dollars and equally shared among the population, it would provide $45,000 for every man, woman and child in the nation, or $180,000 for every family of four. This sum would be many times larger if everyone who wanted to work was employed and if the wealth produced in previous years was included.

The same is true on a world scale. Between 1800 and 2000, the amount of wealth produced grew eight times faster than the global population. Only a few have benefited. By 2001, 497 billionaires enjoyed assets of $1.54 trillion, more than the combined incomes of half of humanity.

The second criterion for socialism is a matter of choice. Human beings create the societies in which they live and they can choose to change them.

Most Americans do not choose socialism because they are bamboozled into thinking that it would not be in their interest. Our rulers insist that there is no alternative to capitalism, as they intensify their barbaric tactics of blame-the-victim and divide-and-rule. By dazzling us with their power, they hope that we will not discover our own, much greater power.

Capitalism isn’t threatened by talk of cooperation and sharing. However, it cannot tolerate demands for a society based on these principles. That’s why the elite have made “socialism” a dirty word. If people knew they could meet their needs and solve their problems without a ruling class, they would have no need for capitalism.

Socialist organizations bring ordinary people together to discover and use their collective power. Where capitalism divides and fragments, socialists link individuals, struggles, past events and future dreams into a unified struggle for human survival.

The battle for ideas is critical. To isolate workers and re-enforce their feelings of powerlessness, the capitalist class infects them with fear and pessimism. In contrast, socialists connect workers’ experience of individual suffering with their collective power to eliminate that suffering. It’s easy to believe in those who believe in themselves. Socialists believe in the working class even when it does not believe in itself.

The anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s raised the hope of change. So did the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded America’s invasion of the Middle East. When the U.S. began bombing Baghdad, many became discouraged and retreated from activism.

Today, rising discontent is not matched by a corresponding rise in struggle. While millions of Americans are enraged by the deterioration of their lives and society, decades of defeat have deepened the belief that real change is not possible. But beliefs change.

The working class is obedient, not stupid. It has rejected the war despite a steady stream of pro-war propaganda. Workers are also exceedingly patient, but there is a limit to how much unfairness they will tolerate.

With the economy sliding into recession, the New York Times warns, “It seems that ordinary working families are going to have to wait — at the very minimum — until the next cycle to make up the losses they suffered in this one. There’s no guarantee they will.”

No one can know when the next struggle will erupt or what its outcome will be. Only one thing is certain. The needs of the capitalist class will continue to clash with the needs of humanity. If we can organize ourselves in sufficient numbers to end the war and win universal health care, we need not stop there. We could proceed to build a very different world based on peace and security for all.

Susan Rosenthal is a socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Power and Powerlessness (2006). She recently launched ReMarx Publishing. She can be reached through her web site or by email: susan@susanrosenthal.com. Read other articles by Susan.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Terry Greenwood said on September 22nd, 2007 at 8:19am #

    Ha, ha. I suppose you would prefer the socialist utopia they have in North Korea.

  2. Michael Kenny said on September 22nd, 2007 at 10:01am #

    The problem with any ideological debate in the US is that you are totally out of date compared to the rest of us.

    Here in Europe, for example, liberalism is the ideology of the 19th century. It brought us the concepts of democracy, individual freedom and all the rest of what we call “human rights”. All of that is viewed very positively by most people and nobody wants to abolish any of it. Nonetheless, liberalism threw up some problems and 20th century socialism provided the answer to them, giving us the welfare state, workers’s rights, consumer protection, public services and all the things we call “social rights”. That too is viewed very positively by most people and nobody wants to abolish any of it. That’s why American neo-liberalism, an esentially reactionary ideology, has never had anything like the following in Europe that it has had in the US and the one serious European attempt to ape it, namely, Thatcherism, has proved to be a monumental disaster, dragging Britain down to almost American levels of degeneracy and depravity.

    Now, like liberalism before it, socialism is starting to throw up problems and people are thinking, not of abandoning it, but of building upon it and judging from the way the young are going, I would guess that the ideology of 21st century Europe will be ecology (even the Pope is putting solar panels on the roof of St.Peter’s!).

    To us, Americans are “intellectual Amish”. The world seems to have stopped somewhere around 1910! It’s a bit like an astronaut in a powdered wig! You get all this 20th century technology combined with a 19th century mindset. If a European asked if his country was “ready for socialism”, people would laugh at him! It resonates bowler hats and horseless carriages!

    One final caveat, if I may. Dr Rosenthal speaks of “build[ing] a very different world”. It is not for Americans to bulid a “world” and the world is sick and tired of Americans, of ALL political persuasions, bullying us and pushing us around in our own countries. All the world wants America to do is to go home and stay home. Physician, heal thine own country!

  3. Deadbeat said on September 22nd, 2007 at 10:37am #

    Great analysis from Dr. Rosenthal. I agree completely.

  4. Miriam said on September 22nd, 2007 at 11:19am #

    Hmmm…… a socialist utopia in the making? Methinks not. This ‘war on terror’ has been cleverly engineered enough so that if things get too hot to handle, the American ruling elites will successfully deflect the anger of their people on the traditional scapegoats in all feudal societies ….. the Jews. Zionists are happy because Israel gets a population boost, corporate elites are happy because they never did like us anyway, American neo-Nazis are happy because now all their friends agree with them and the ordinary Christian, Jew and Muslim who just wants to raise their family in peace without screwing people gets done over yet again. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m wallowing in despair at this point……

  5. Mike McNiven said on September 22nd, 2007 at 12:52pm #

    Fortunately there are several anti-war movements in today’s US. Of all of them, the only one which is for sure anti-socialist is “MoveOn”. It is financed by a very vocal anti-socialist George Soros! Please never forget the Bill Clinton war on Yugoslavia which was a Sorosian operation!

  6. robert watson said on September 22nd, 2007 at 5:02pm #

    i like to keep in mind that >the necessary and sufficent condition for the existence of capitalism is for labor to regarded as a commodity

  7. Dave Silver said on September 22nd, 2007 at 7:16pm #

    Lesser evil capitalism is an oxymoron like compassionate capitalism.
    What liberal call it socialism which is preferred to Real (and therefore
    threatening) soicialism

  8. Dave Silver said on September 22nd, 2007 at 7:20pm #

    Lesser evil capitalism-an oxymoron. Are ther really opoortunistic or stupid so called liberals that would call it socialim” And that it’s preferrable to REAL SOCIALIM?
    As Brecht said the least fascist is still fascist. ( or substitute neo-con, neo-liberal) or Dennis Kucinich.

  9. Joe said on September 22nd, 2007 at 8:00pm #

    If you want socialism, move to Sweden. Otherwise get the hell out of the USA. I don’t want someone from the govt. telling me what to do.

  10. Lloyd Rowsey said on September 22nd, 2007 at 8:38pm #

    Dear Susan,

    What a wonderful article. I’m sixty-five and have been a communist most of my life, but I only joined Gus Hall’s outfit in….1989!

    What has been dawning on me over the last several years – as I’ve been personally experiencing the sicknesses and deaths of myself and loved ones – is what a cutting-edge issue health care truly is. “Of course!” I’ve always known there’s a reserve of radicalism among seniors, but I’d always known it intellectually, not viscerally.

    Howsoever, it’s been better than fresh air to read America in Crisis in DV. I’ve long admired physicians, for their courage and commitment to life even more than for their intelligence and compassion. In fact, my greatest heroes are Ali, Fidel, and Dr. Kervorkian. In no particular order.

    Keep up the very, very excellent work, Susan. We need you.

  11. Ron Horn said on September 23rd, 2007 at 11:45am #

    An absolutely excellent article! Really got my brain cells going! So rare that I read something by a real socialist. Most people I encounter in “left” circles either in my everyday life or on this website are what I would call political liberals, that is, a subset of economic liberals. It seems to me that intellectual understanding of socialism in the U.S. has stopped at the 1910 level as Michael Kenny wrote. On the other hand I think intellectual understanding of socialism in Europe stopped after they attained social democracy. Of course socialism is not social democracy which is only capitalism with a welfare state component added to maintain the system. I also object to Kenny’s false inference that Rosenthal is calling only for Americans to build a new world.

    I tend to share Miriam’s pessimism because of the absence of real radical thought in the U.S., and I think that it is extremely important that a revolutionary movement develops here, along with other places in the world, because the U.S. with its military power serves as the linchpin of capitalism. The media and the educational system in the U.S. has been extremely successful in retarding the development of socialist thought as well as critical thinking in general. There is so much unlearning and relearning to be done and Rosenthal’s writing is advancing this project. Thank you so much!

  12. Parser said on September 24th, 2007 at 3:32am #

    “Most Americans do not choose socialism because they are bamboozled into thinking that it would not be in their interest.”–

    Not true; it is because they are bamboozled into believing it is the same as communism. Regardless of who’s interest is served, anti-socialism is as deeply ingrained in US propaganda as believing the US is the wealthiest, smartest, most honorable nation on Earth. It is part of America-as-a-religion doctrine, or America’s religion, if you will. That is what makes socialism an extremely difficult concept to promote.

    Even though socialism is a more accurate way of describing what American economic society actually is, with its many layers of corporate welfare, altruistic beliefs about charity, and so forth (democracy is actually the belief in the greatest good for the most people achievable) the word ‘socialism’ has been thoroughly stained with the smell of shit by propagandists. Nor can we or should we overlook that capitalism and the ‘free market’ is as much a government-regulated economy game as any in history. Capitalism simply could not function if it weren’t for the government, no matter how loosely defined or organized, intervening in keeping it stable. Raw market forces are as devastating as flash flooding or storms at sea.

    Socialism is exactly like the insurance paradigm: pooling the risk among many to reduce the devasting impact upon the few.

    One other problem with promoting socialism is that the American mindset cannot look its own selfishness in the face. American selfishness is tweaked and fed by the propaganda that socialism is the same thing as communism. They are, of course, very very different. But good luck getting the majority of Americans–who tend to think in terms their grandparents did–understanding this. Tradition is tradition.

  13. Lloyd Rowsey said on September 24th, 2007 at 2:13pm #

    Parser, I agree with almost all of what you say. Especially the sentence in your last paragraph, “they (communism and socialism) are, of course, very very different. ” Considering that communism is probably the oldest and longest-running form of human organization known, and socialism is….has…what?….never been tried, they could hardly be more unlike.

  14. Lloyd Rowsey said on September 25th, 2007 at 4:50am #

    I am with you, JE. And I didn’t even know I had a favorite Chomsky quotation.

  15. Parser said on September 25th, 2007 at 9:02am #

    // Um, LR, I am inferring that you subscribe to strict communism, to the proposed net result of dialectical materialism? ;)

    I’m not so sure that communism is the oldest or longest-running system known. The notion that ‘Jesus was a communist’ is fallacious; at best, that doctrine is socialistic. Socialism is about decency and being merciful. Mercy is quite different than is compassion. Past social structures are assumed to be “collectivist” but only in a narrowest sense of the term; they were clan/tribal, at best feudal and at worst monarchic. Even Athens was a monarchy; the oligarchy was by definition monarchic. The very notion of citizenship (to the Greeks) was a loose monarchy of privilegees of the city-state.

    But returning to/concerning the main points of this article, the flip-side point to assert to capitalists is that capitalism *is* in fact and principle a controlled economy!, the very charge leveled against socialism and communism, aside from being ‘godless’ (which is patently untrue). Common sense dictates that you can’t *have* an “economy” without also controlling it. Capitalism is about as un-Godly/un-Christian as you can get. There is nothing ‘Natural’ about it. A sheer contrivance of the mind. If there is anything science has categorically refuted, it is ‘survival of the fittest.’ Biodiversity will attest to that. No lion nor mouse eats nor hunts unnecessarily. Animals do not compete. There is a difference between competition and rivalry; rivals vie for dominance in time, which is by definition an equilibrium. Competition vies for exclusiveness to escape time, which is by definition vicious. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Controlling economies is what governments do. They are there precisely to govern. Anti-socialists think that governing/gummint is something bad. It is necessary, not to mention useful. Under any system (Paine; “that which governs least….”, for example) *something* is going to be ‘The Governer.’ What is very very bad is uncontrolled, opaque government such as what we get under ‘free’-market capitalism ideology, which in few ways is actually free; i.e. it is despotism based in anarchism. You cannot obtain a free, much less a functioning, society that way. You can only enforce one.

    The Framers wrote the Constitution in such a way that it reflects most all of the benefits of socialism and deflects most all of the vicissitudes of raw communism and capitalism; Rome at certain periods (the idealized models) was a perfect example of the blending of raw communism and capitalism. At other periods it was socialistic. And to us it is *always* idealized.

    The Constitution was framed in such a way that it reflects foremost thought given to banking and transparency, and no provision whatsoever was made *for* centralized banking. The Constitution was socialistic. Thought was directed toward establishing and maintaining a commonweal. Every effort was made to decentralize concentrations of wealth, and therefore power, under the interdependent independencies. If at the least a functioning free society (i.e. an *aggregate*; full range, representative, least to most, etc.) is obtainable under free-marketism, it will only be relative to a small margin that is also the central node, and won’t progress beyond feudalism and guilds unless strong centralized controls on transparency are in place that in themselves are controllable. No *centralized* money controllers, and conversely, centralized money *distribution*, yields little/far less probability of tyranny and wealth/power concentration (what other kind of tyranny is there?) getting out of control of whose weal it is. ‘Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness’ for all and any; not pursuit of wealth. Happiness means health; ultimate good, wholeness brought by Fortune, inspiration, ineffable what-have-you— look it up. Read US history to see how blindingly fast that aim was corrupted. Bentham and similars are spinning in their graves.

    Under free-marketism, we get to a lot of cakes from which to *select* from but little in actual choice. Two hundred years ago, free-marketism made a little bit of sense in that real selectivity controlled and also governed supply/demand (ergo their prices.) It no longer makes sense today when differences between products are so infinitesimally microscopic that there is only the illusion of choice. Hence, capitalism no longer creates wealth; it *creates* inflations that destroy wealth.

    In other words, “wealth” has been redefined; simple hoarding is thought of as being fungible. Selection is still there, but little choice is available except price. Eroding purchasing power = price is moot. That is evidence that capitalism is now so corrupt it eats itself; it eats only its own kind, as there is no other kind to eat. The same butter is spread around over and over, or sucked out of circulation and consumed, leaving less butter. No new butter is produced; it is “created” out of thin air by renaming a gun ‘butter.’ Growth as cancer. Socialism is about housing, food, water, warmth; it is not about any other type of “commodity.”

    Phrased in rather sweeping terms, communism intends to redistribute in principle, but isn’t able to. It is only viable in theory as a logical end-result, which is precisely *why* it’s scientific, and has to be. Socialism distributes the burden of inflations into an equilibrium. Capitalism doesn’t produce because it literally can’t. Capitalism thrives on disrupting equilibrium. Socialism doesn’t aim at perfections (“efficiency”) or unified theories, such as communism or capitalism do. Nature is not “efficient”; it is merely effective, and there is no such aminal as ‘equality.’

    Socialism also bypasses feudalism/guildism effectively, which makes it widely practical. Practicable. Socialism’s practicality curtails and limits the accumulation of inflations (power is one such inflationary thing) precisely by removing adverse inverse-proportioned pressure points, such as wage vs purchasing power, necessary for smoother social structure maintainance (productivity; creativity). That makes it flexible. Socialism is an open system. Capitalism and communism are both closed systems, no basis in reality, only on paper, as fanciful and abstract as religious doctrines are. Rigid.

    Socialism is the most practicable method toward sustainable equilibrium, and equilibrium is the empirical law of nature that governs stability in the material universe (as we know it) including human conduct.
    ~~ Parser

  16. Lloyd Rowsey said on September 25th, 2007 at 9:32pm #

    I subscribe to Cuban communism, Parser. Does Cuba now or the Soviet Union then embody in the greater degree the principles of dialectical materialism? I’m neither a political theorist nor a philosopher, and I haven’t the vaguest idea. Nor do I particularly care.

    I do know enough history and anthropology to spot the nonsense of your conflating “clan/tribal” and then “feudal” and “monarchic.” On the other hand, I’m sure we agree on many things, as I said in my short posting. And without actually reading all of your long reply to my posting – and thereby forming an opinion as to whether you’ve basically just repackaged previously composed opinions, or you’ve put some clear and present thought into your reply – I take it as a compliment.

    Moreover, I promise to try to read all of your piece again. And if you’d prefer, we can certainly try to pick this up at my email: moc.liamtohnull@yeswodyoll.