Why are People Talking About Socialism? – with Paul Jay
From Donald Trump, Karl Rove, and Fox News to an invigorated progressive movement and many newly elected members of Congress, many are saying that socialism will be the issue in the 2020 elections – a viewer mailbag segment with Dharna Noor and Paul Jay
DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor. And I’m back in the studio with our editor-in-chief, Paul Jay.
For the past few days we’ve been taking a look at viewer questions and comments from The Real News Network. And we’re here to discuss some of those. How’s it going, Paul?
PAUL JAY: Good.
DHARNA NOOR: So we recently were looking at a segment that you did with Francesca Fiorentini on November 2, which was called Trump Defines Socialism as a Key Issue in the 2018 Elections. And often when we put socialism in a headline or discuss socialism in pieces we get lots of viewer comments that are pretty skeptical. They say socialism doesn’t work, it’s never worked. Look at, for instance, a country like Venezuela. What goes through your mind when you see things like that? What’s your response to those sorts of critical viewers?
PAUL JAY: Well, first of all, let me say again what I said to, you know, some of the other mailbag things. I’m giving you my opinion. Real News does not have an opinion on whether socialism is a good thing or a bad thing.
DHARNA NOOR: But Paul Jay might.
PAUL JAY: But I do. And Real News does have an editorial guideline that we should try to follow evidence and facts. And so my response is, and may be the the most common one these days–and by the way, everybody all of a sudden thinks socialism is the thing to talk about. Trump, as you said, it’s the issue of the 2018 elections. Karl Rove wrote an op ed saying it’s going to be the issue of the 2020 elections. Fox News can’t stop talking about socialism, of course, how bad it is.
DHARNA NOOR: And the Democratic Socialists of America has grown in membership. We have people really excited about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-avowed democratic socialist.
PAUL JAY: Who Tom Perez says is the future of the Democratic Party. There’s arguments about what is social democratic socialism versus socialism, and so on. So it’s a big topic. Everybody’s talking about it. And so we’re we’re going to talk about it too. And the reason I think everybody’s talking about it is not because socialism failed in Venezuela, which is a particular case. And it did, in a sense, fail in Venezuela. But we’re talking about it because capitalism is failing. And the reason socialism has come again to such a forefront of conversation is because capitalism is out of solutions. You can barely talk about an area of life which is critical to our existence, whether it’s climate, whether it’s the threat of accidental nuclear war, if it’s the threat of financial meltdown and financialization, whether it’s the coming of artificial intelligence which, at the very least, could be replacing millions and millions of jobs. Mass unemployment. Like, take all the big picture questions. Capitalism is not offering solutions to any of it.
But let’s say, yes, socialism failed in a lot of countries where it was attempted. But before we kind of get into that, capitalism has failed on a far grander scale. Because you got to ask, you know, capitalism succeeded for whom? Failed for whom? Capitalism gave us World War I, and capitalism gave us World War II. Capitalism has given us endless wars since World War II. I mean, you know, you can go on, from Vietnam, to Korea, to Iraq and Syria. I mean, you can’t end–capitalism has given us endless numbers of outright fascist dictatorships. Capitalism gave us Hitler. Capitalism gave us Mussolini. Go on with all the Latin American dictatorships and capitalism gave us kleptocracy in Africa. You go on and on. Capitalism has been, for most people, a disaster, and continues to be for the majority the people of the world.
Now, if you’re an American, and particularly if you’re a white American, but not only, capitalism hasn’t been so bad until recently. Especially after World War II, there was a big expansion of the United States. The United States became the global hegemon. The United States grew into a position where it could essentially plunder much of the wealth of the world. And the elites, the oligarchs the United States, did share some of that wealth; at least with the upper stratum of the working class. You know, workers living and working in critical areas of the economy. The auto industry, transport, telecommunications, where workers had real leverage, because if the workers went on strike in those sectors they could close down whole sections of the economy. And of course the Democratic Party, that was an important base for the Democrats to get elected, this upper stratum. Some people called it the labor aristocracy.
So yeah, so capitalism worked–and even you could say empire worked–for a large section of the American population for quite a while. Western Europe, for a lot of period of this expansion, most of Western Europe’s standard of living was pretty good. The kind of social democracy that developed in Europe, which is important to distinguish that from what most people think socialism is. Social democracy, European style, the governments that came to power, is essentially just reining in some of the excesses of capitalism. That’s their words. But it continues concentration of ownership, private ownership, and concentration of political power. And you can see even in Europe eventually, you know, the savagery of capitalism asserts itself as soon as you brought online the availability of getting cheap labor from China and other places, and you could start undercutting the wages both of American, Canadian, and West European workers.
So when you start assessing whether socialism failed in a Venezuela, or even a Soviet Union, or whatever, we have to first of all acknowledge that yeah, more or less, it did. I think one example which I think was, you know, relatively positive was Cuba, but a tiny place that could never withstand the global forces without some big ally. Cuba’s a long conversation. It’s certainly no utopia. But the main point is that when we look at this issue of what socialism is, and does it make sense, and is it possible, the starting point is the absolute failure of capitalism. Even though, sure, it made some people rich. And somebody wrote in we have cars and nice houses. But how many people lost their cars and nice houses in the 2007-08 crash?
DHARNA NOOR: That was Mike Newman commented.
PAUL JAY: And that’s coming again.
DHARNA NOOR: So I think, again, there are viewers who are writing in and saying that this is kind of a whitewashing of socialism. Somebody wrote in saying, well, coming from a socialist country–they don’t say which one–I can tell you that it’s terrible, very very bad, but not so different in some aspects from the U.S. present system. And even–I mean, Francesca, in your segment with her, mentioned that the basis of the Venezuelan economy, though of course more democratic, was based on the extraction of oil. Which, of course is, I think we can both agree, a flaw of Venezuela. So what’s your response to people who say, well, I lived there, or I went through it, and it wasn’t so great?
PAUL JAY: Well, you know, you have to–and I haven’t walked a mile in those people’s shoes. And for example, if you were living-
DHARNA NOOR: You’re from Canada. That’s not a socialist utopia?
PAUL JAY: No. And that is an important point, actually, that just because you have a socialized healthcare system doesn’t make the country socialist. But listen, if I had grown up in the Soviet Union, if I’d grown up in Eastern Europe, if I’d been who I am, I mean, I could likely have been in jail. So I understand the sort of anger and rage, even, people had to how bureaucratised, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it got. The extent to which it became very much like a police state. I think it’s sometimes exaggerated, especially in Eastern Europe. I think it’s very exaggerated in Cuba. It’s, you know, Cuba is a kind of unique situation.
But Venezuela, just to take it, because that’s the one they’re talking about all these–socialism is not just somebody has a good idea, oh, let’s have, let’s have a socialist system, any more than capitalism was just a good idea. Oh, feudalism. Yeah, kings, and aristocracy, and lords. You know what? I’ve got an idea for a whole new system. Let’s have capitalism. It doesn’t begin as an idea. It begins as an objective process of how human society develops, and how human economy, the economies of human society, develop. And you know, we learn how to make tools, and now we don’t want to have–you know, our tribal society that was built on just gathering berries and, you know, running around chasing animals. All of a sudden we had agriculture and animal husbandry. And our society changes. And with that the ideas change. So we start to become conscious of what’s possible because of objective developments. It’s not all just springing from people’s heads.
So to apply that idea to Venezuela, I mean, Hugo Chavez comes to power because neoliberalism–and one of the first big mass protests against this hypercapitalist policies was in Venezuela prior to Chavez getting elected, and prior to his involvement in the attempted coup. But these policies were destroying Venezuela. And people, you know, they rose up against these policies. Hypercapitalism wasn’t working. And the exploitation of the oil resources was, you know, a tiny elite was benefiting from it, and people were conscious of this.
So sure, socializing the benefits of that oil, it was obvious as a way out of the situation. You have a movement, and you have leaders that emerge from the movement, and it is what it is, meaning, you know, it wasn’t–they didn’t have some great worked-out plan. It wasn’t you know a party where they had economists and all kinds of people to figure out what to do once you get elected. You know, stuff happens. They may have been been as surprised as anyone that they actually wound up running the country. And with all its defects and all its weaknesses and all its warts, the Venezuelan or Bolivarian revolution, it accomplished a lot. And it wasn’t just about spreading more of the oil money around. There was, and I guess still is–I haven’t been for a while, and I don’t have the same kind of a handle on it–but the kind of community decision-making, community governance at the local levels. There was a, there were real experiments and development, developing different forms of democracy, which has to be part of the socialistic conversation. Because, like, you have a big state-owned sector in China, right. But you don’t have any democracy to speak of. And you have a class of billionaires that have emerged that run the Communist Party.
So I don’t know what kind of socialism it is. It’s not socialism just because you have state ownership. And on the other hand, there’s a certain amount of planning going on in China. People’s standard of living is going up. These are complicated processes, and we need to analyze them as such. But I’ll go back to where it was in the beginning. The reason we need to have this conversation of what does a modern socialist system look like, and how will it operate, and what are the features of it–you know, we talk about even the United States is a mixed economy. There’s socialistic features. We’ve got a publicly-owned post office. We have public libraries, and schools, and such. Why? Because it made so much sense. But the same sense that it made to do that has made sense to have socialized healthcare in virtually every advanced capitalist country. It makes sense here. But once that makes sense, so does banking. Why would you let big banks blackmail the whole society and whole economy so that they can go speculate? So it makes sense. You should have socialized banking.
DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Or here in Baltimore, Baltimore recently became the first major city in the U.S. to ban water privatization. And in my reporting on this I found a lot of people–people in Baltimore are generally pretty fed up with the Department of Public Works because there have been so many instances of, you know, false bills that have been sent to people. The price of water has gone up so much. And so many people I spoke with would say, well, public ownership shouldn’t really be on the table because, you know, we have a publicly controlled system right now. It’s not doing very well. But I think the point that I want to make is that just because not privatizing doesn’t fix everything doesn’t mean it’s not the right first step. I mean, the statistics show that the price of water goes up across the United States when a private system does come in.
PAUL JAY: And there’s cities that privatized and went back again because it was such a failure.
DHARNA NOOR: Sure.
PAUL JAY: I guess I just want to end on where I started. It’s not just some intellectual conversation, is socialism good or bad. Yeah, there’s been–as, frankly, any major transformation of human society–there’s going to be tremendous fallout and weaknesses and stupidities. Especially if you talk about the Soviet Union building, trying to build socialism in what was a very backward country. And that was a matter of great debate at the time.
But we need to look at this. We need to talk about it, because capitalism has failed. It’s failed most of the population of this world for at least the last hundred years. But most importantly, it has no solutions to the actual threat to us as human society. Capitalism is completely out of steam with the most urgent threats facing us. So this is not just some idea, I mean, cafe conversation. This is about our existence or not. And unless somebody has some other idea, and I don’t think there is, when you look at what there is, you need to take what–you’ve got to break up the concentration of ownership. Because with concentration of ownership goes concentrated political power. Everybody understands that. But there’s no way to weigh against that without public ownership. How else do you break up concentrated ownership? It’s not because you’re going to give everybody a share of a company. That’s not going to happen. The only counterbalance, counterweight, to concentrated private ownership is public ownership.
On the other hand, public ownership in a small number of hands, like a single-party state or some of the models of the 20th century, that’s as dangerous. Because concentrated power, even if it’s in the name of socialism, will also be a disaster. Will be a–you know, become a dictatorship. Because concentrated ownership equals concentrated political power. So we’ve got to look at how does this public ownership look in a way that’s very diversified? You know, whether it’s ownership at a city level, at a state level, at the federal level when necessary. Whether it’s workers co-ops, whether it’s regional conglomerations.
But you know, but I’ve said this before. We’re in an era now, because of artificial intelligence, where you could coordinate an economy like that. You could have a Green New Deal which is mostly built out of public ownership in many ways, so that it doesn’t get too concentrated, and still coordinate that. I don’t think it was ever possible in human history to have the kind of socialism that could also be democratic. And as I said before, I don’t think there’s any choice to this. The alternative is we’re not going to have civilization at all.
DHARNA NOOR: Right. Thanks very much, Paul.
Again, we’re in the middle of our end of the year fundraising campaign right now. We’re going to keep doing this. Paul and I are going to keep discussing your viewer comments and questions. So if you have any comments or questions about this or anything else, put them down below, and please support The Real News Network. We don’t take any corporate funding or government funding, and we don’t sell ads, which means that the only people we have to answer to are you. So please help us make Real News, and stay in touch.
Thanks, Paul. And thank you for watching The Real News Network.