On “socialists” and “right wing extremists”

Whatever one thinks about President Obama, it must be admitted that he has not been quite the unifying figure that some had hoped. This is not entirely his fault, as financial crises tend to breed polarization, just as times of plenty tend to paper over some of the difficulties. As long as there is enough to go around, there is less reason to fight over it. But once scarcity arrives, the fights begin. 

To add fuel to the fire, the Obama administration is running some really extraordinary budget deficits to get the economy going again. I don’t know whether that is the best approach, but it has opened the door for accusations of “socialism.” I don’t take that label seriously when it is applied to a government that has been redistributing money upward. Nevertheless, the accusation has struck a chord. Government programs are expanding and the government is exerting some pretty strong control over banks and automakers (even while taking great pains to avoid actually nationalizing anything). Conservatives are riled up.

This week saw an outpouring of anti-tax dissent; “Tea Parties” reportedly happened in more than 800 towns. There is some question about whether this is a genuine grassroots movement or “astro-turf” in which an elite stirs up the rabble in ways that are not necessarily in the rabble’s interest. Certainly Fox News played a significant role in getting this movement moving (and made a point of labeling it a “grass roots protest movement” so you know there’s some question of that).

But hey, even the American Revolution was partly launched by colonial merchants who saw the potential for greater profits and power if they could get the British competition out of the way. You will recall that the vote was initially offered only to white men with property for decades (finally abolished in N. Carolina in 1856). Don’t you think there was a reason for that?

In any case, we should probably keep an eye on this Tea Party development, which has the potential to inspire more radical forms of resistance. Indeed, a recent report outlines a growing threat that the economic troubles will feed the growth of potentially violent right wing movements. Tea party organizers rightly bristle at being linked to violent extremists, but I suppose that the shoe is on the other foot now. Anyone remember the infiltration of Peace Fresno? Dangerous bunch, that.

Nevertheless, there is an important point here: just because protestors are right-wingers who are being stirred up by corporate media (and beer commercials!), it doesn’t mean that we should think that they are a bunch of brownshirts or militia members, or dismiss their cause. After all, there is a really nasty process underway in which our tax dollars are being used to bail out people who really don’t deserve to be bailed out. Essentially it’s the biggest blackmail in history, and it has subverted our government in some really ugly ways. I know I’m pissed.

Meanwhile, it seems that socialism is actually making a bit of a comeback (nothing like two decades without a seriously socialist enemy to help us forget the drawbacks of that approach). I hope this doesn’t go in the direction of a government-imposed redistribution, but if this long and disjointed post tells us anything, it is that people aren’t really quite sure of what the heck socialism means anymore. So who knows, maybe we are about to see some strange form of socialism make a comeback in the U.S. It does sound nice, doesn’t it? Like an ideology centered around people instead of money, mmmm….people.

Socialism used to be pretty big here, and it has ironically been strongest  in the supposedly more individualist West, and especially Alaska. A progressive paper from that state reported that Nome (the largest city at that time) had a socialist government for a few years starting in 1906, and a socialist came in 2nd place for the Alaskan delegate to Congress, with 25% of the 1908 vote.

And it wasn’t just Alaska: “Between its founding in 1898 and the beginning of World War I, the Socialist Party had won two seats in Congress, dozens of seats in state legislatures, and the mayoralty of more than 80 cities and towns including Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Butte, and Berkeley. By the 1912 elections, Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs received 916,000 votes, or 6% of the national total.” Granted, that was before the world got a look at the shortcomings of socialist government, but it shows that we can’t just dismiss socialism. It is part of our history too.

But that was a century ago, and what the heck is going on now? Are international capitalist firms really agitating for some sort of revolution against themselves? Boy, I sure hope that they don’t succeed because that would be a really confusing mess. Revolution is a tricky thing and it tends to just bring in new elites (sometimes including some of the same individuals from the previous elites). So if the elites are starting the revolution, it will make for rough sledding. We would be better off finding ways to revitalize democracy in our current system.

The original Boston Tea Party was about taxation without representation. While we do have some degree of representation now, it is badly limited by the ways that the elites control the media, and advertising, and the political system. Just as the first American Revolution brought democracy into the political realm (at least a little ways) the next one needs to be about economic democracy. 

Tune in next time when I go into some thoughts about how that might be changed through extending democracy into the economic sphere.

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