Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Socialism and Utopia

The first half of this article by Brett Heinz might be the most appealing description of socialism I have ever read. He focuses mainly on all the ways we already use government ownership and cooperative ownership to manage big parts of the economy:
Because of its Cold War connotations, most Americans think of socialism solely as inefficient and bureaucratic public ownership through a powerful central government. But actual public ownership need not be either centralized or wasteful. The state of North Dakota owns both a public bank and the nation’s largest flour mill, each providing reliable services to state residents while also being accountable to and returning their profits to the state government rather than to private shareholders. Indeed, in order to ensure that everyone had access to basic banking services, the U.S. ran a highly successful basic public banking program through the post office from 1911 to 1967 (139 countries still offer at least some financial services through their post office).

While private internet service providers ignore rural consumers and systematically overcharge the customers they do have, more than 500 cities across 40 states have established cable internet networks owned and operated by municipal governments, with great results: The municipal networks for Longmont, CO and Chattanooga, TN are both among the 10 fastest internet service providers in the nation.

As private utilities have been busy starting wildfires and poisoning rivers to protect their profits, 16 percent of Americans already get their electricity from public utilities (and another 13 percent from cooperatives). Nebraska, the only state to exclusively use public and cooperative energy utilities, has some of the cheapest and greenest energy in the country, and sends most of its excess revenue into state coffers. Every citizen can elect the members of their utility’s board and attend public meetings to provide direct input. In one of the most conservative states in the country, socialism is already thriving in one sector. . . .
All of which is true; there are lots of publicly owned enterprises in America and western Europe, and some of them are quite productive and efficient. We even have one publicly-owned football team, and it has an above-average record. I'm all for public ownership or cooperative ownership when it seems to work. When capitalists cry "Socialism!' at the sight of any government run or heavily regulated activity, I just shrug; the word holds no fear for me.

But then Heinz starts dreaming utopian dreams:
Democratic socialism means waking up in the morning without worrying about rent, making breakfast with ingredients you grew alongside your neighbors, and taking clean and free public transit for your short commute to the job where you and your co-workers elected your own management. It means having your share of the profits you help produce direct deposited into your local credit union, going on a long walk through your vibrant and diverse neighborhood in the late afternoon, watching a movie over high-speed public broadband, and then going to sleep in your warm bed without worrying about energy bills. You don’t have to call your insurance agency to argue over a deductible, you don’t have to have your allergies exacerbated by dirty air, and you won’t be stopped and arbitrarily questioned by an aggressively militarized police force. We know that this world is possible; the only matter now is to fight for it.
Why does democratic socialism mean not worrying about rent? Every public housing program I know of across the whole world charges rent. Soviet citizens all paid rent. If we don't pay rent, how would we build new housing or maintain what we have? If there are no utility bills, who pays for the solar farms and wind farms and high-voltage power lines? Who is going to upgrade all those old lines that spark fires? – because it is aging infrastructure, not perfidious capitalists, that makes the lines dangerous. Soviet citizens all paid to ride the subway, too. Why would cooperative firms mean shorter commutes? Without knowing anything about it I would be willing to bet that some of those North Dakotans who work at the state-owned flour mill have very long drives. Why is socialism going to improve policing, when all the police already work for the public? (Come to think of it, there's an excellent case of a situation where democratic control does not in itself solve the problem.) Why is socialism going to reduce allergies, when by far the most harmful allergen in the US is pollen? Are we going to create jobs by paying people to uproot all the ragweed plants? Why is it going to reduce air pollution? Publicly-owned firms have historically prioritized jobs over the environment, not the other way around. And spare me raising my own breakfast alongside my neighbors; I love to garden but grain farming is a job for agribusiness.

Heinz rants about big, hierarchical companies, which I absolutely agree can be as maddeningly bureaucratic as governments; but without huge, hierarchical companies, who is going to build airplanes? Without huge banks, who is going to provide the financing for state-of-the-art minimally polluting factories? Without stock markets or investment firms, where is the money going to come from for start-up companies? Small cooperatives are great at making butter and cheese, but some things just can't be done that way.

I would prefer a world with more publicly owned utilities and more cooperative businesses, and I would love to see a public option for health care. I would be happy to bring back government banking, I suppose this time on the Internet. But it is a fantasy to think that re-arranging ownership will solve the basic problems of modern life. Some of our problems reflect the basic technological and social structure of our civilization, and some of them, like the torture of trying to get any group of neighbors to agree on anything, are just part of life.


David said...

Could it be that Heinz meant his description of utopia as a parody, even a self-parody? Because without that, it's almost pathetically silly and (like all descriptions of any utopia, IMHO) creepy.

Growing food with your neighbors . . . the problem isn't just the economies of scale. I for one am not a growing things kind of guy. Nor am I a doing things heartily with my neighbors kind of guy. That's when I start to wonder if I'll be forced to go out and grow because it's good for socialist solidarity. And then in the evening I can discuss my lack of enthusiasm at the struggle session.

szopeno said...

I think socialism' vices seem to show at larger scale, because of problems with information sharing, promotion of the people who are more skilled in talking the talk instead of being competent, lack of personal responsibilities and omnipresent misinformation and lies.