TRUE Democracy and the Common Good Will Lead the American Left to Victory

Expressing the Common Good through cooperative effort. Photo source.

The ‘Common Good’ is a Rose that Smells as Sweet
By Zwarich / The Rag Blog / November 3, 2008

In his recent piece entitled ‘Socialism, Capitalism: What’s in a Name?‘, David Hamilton has hit upon the crucial key to success for the American Left. In this excellent essay, he posits that we should examine the terminology that we use to advance our social ideals. I could not agree more, and would like to support his thesis, and hopefully direct more attention and discussion to this crucially important idea.

I heartily agree with Mr. Hamilton’s implied thesis that too many of us insist on using terminology that has been loaded with layer upon layer of cultural mythology. Many people use these terms, like ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’, without having any clear idea in mind what they mean. They only know that the cruelly unjust system under which we live now is referred to as ‘capitalism’, and they have come to believe in a false binary reality in which something called ‘socialism’ is the only alternative.

It is my own impression, derived from a lifetime as a leftist, that very few people who advocate for ‘socialism’ have ever read Marx or Engels at all, or have even a rudimentary understanding of the extended implications of the kind of highly centralized economy posited by these mid 19th century thinkers.

Our modern cultural mythology has been heavily influenced by the historical record of the abhorrent ‘on the ground’ experiences that have resulted from the practice of noble socialist theory, to the extent that ‘socialism’ has come to symbolize the horrors of totalitarianism, with which it has always been closely associated in the real, (as opposed to the theoretical), world.

When many people use this word ‘socialism’, it is my experiential impression that they are not intending to advocate for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or any other policies that History has shown to be abject failures. They are simply advocating for what Mr. Hamilton so aptly suggests here, (the commons), but does not call by its full proper name, the Common Good.

The culture of indulgence of individual Desire that has developed in America with the rise of mass media is a perversion of the culture of the Common Good that was once much more characteristic of the thinking, manner, and teaching of the common citizenry. Americans once believed, and taught our children to believe, that an individual has the social obligation to restrain her or his Desire within the bounds of the Common Good.

It is fine, and admirable, and to be encouraged, for ‘the individual’, (according to this culture of the Common Good), to strive to achieve her or his desires and dreams, but it is the obligation of each to restrain dreams that infringe on the dreams and desires of others. Each individual must fit her or his dreams and desires within the shared social concept of the Common Good.

It is instinctively abhorrent to human sensibility that some should be allowed to garner such a degree of wealth and privilege that others are deprived of the necessities of a dignified life. Beneath this modern culture of the celebration of selfishness and greed, we have an instinctive sense of the Common Good. No parent teaches their children that they are free to grab a portion that deprives their brothers and sisters of their fair share.

I have long tried to get leftists in America to quit using emotionally charged terminology that is poorly understood and weighted down with the baggage of an historical record of totalitarianism. We should use terminology that has universal human appeal, and rather than refer to ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ as mega-systems, we should refer to specific policies that either serve, or damage, the Common Good.

Health care, for example, is a human right. Our basic need and desire to be healthy should not be allowed to be grossly exploited as a profit opportunity. Likewise other needs that are common to all of us, such as our basic utilities, such as water and energy, or our mass communications system, or our basic food production and distribution, should not be allowed to be held captive by private interests to be grossly exploited for their opulent profit. All such policies can have universal appeal, (and once did), because they conform to the instinctive human perception of the Common Good.

I have tried to get the American Left to look at the empirical evidence of the historical record, or else to conclude from the most basic logic that seems like it should be easily clear to all, that neither Socialism nor Capitalism, nor any other ‘ism’, are the major determinants of social justice. It is the degree of True Democracy in a society that determines whether or not the society’s economic system serves the Common Good, or private gain.

We need only look at the historical record to see that in countries where Marxist theory has been put into practice, Democracy has been an absurd pretense, with the inevitable result that the people have soon discovered that by ‘overthrowing capitalism’ they have only traded one set of oppressive masters for another.

Why advance a concept represented by a word, ‘socialism’, that is used as a epithet by so many people, when we could advance concepts, like Democracy, and the Common Good, that are so deeply and inherently ingrained in the psyche of American culture? True Democracy, by its very intrinsic nature, cannot serve any purpose other than to advance the Common Good. This social concept has been severely assaulted by the culture of selfishness and greed at the level of mass consciousness, but when most American mothers and fathers rear their children, they still teach them that they must ‘share their toys’, and ‘consider others as they would have others consider them’.

These basic concepts, Democracy, (TRUE Democracy, not the perversions that have been purveyed by socialists and capitalists alike), and the Common Good, are the concepts that will lead us to the victory that we, the American Left, are destined to achieve.

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1 Response to TRUE Democracy and the Common Good Will Lead the American Left to Victory

  1. Of course, in the post-WW2 socio-political climate, the American left must find other words to use than socialism, but simply changing terminology is not enough.

    John Conyers’ health care bill, adopted by Dennis Kucinich in both his presidential primary bids, has been called, legitimately, socialist. Barack Obama let the phrase “spread the wealth around” slip from his mouth, and the cries of “Socialism!” began again. Even his health plan, which involves maintaining many aspects of the status quo, including the health insurance companies, has still been labeled by conservatives as socialist. As a member of the Green Party, when I get into discussions that involve economics with folks outside of Green Party meetings, I am not unaccustomed to hearing, “But isn’t that socialism?”

    The simple fact is that whenever we try to advocate for the common good, we are going to have such words thrown at us. If we ever expect to make real progress toward policies that embrace the common good, we will have to begin turning “socialism” into a less negative, more neutral, term.

    Of course, it is only in the last couple of years that we have been able to take some of the sting out of “liberal,” so I do not kid myself that this will happen soon. Nevertheless, at the very least, we on the left must realize what socialism is and is not, so we can begin the process of countering the slander.

    Socialism is not marxism. Karl Marx was a socialist who carved out a particular niche within that broader spectrum, but it is not necessary, or perhaps even desirable to be well acquainted with the works of Marx and Engels as a modern socialist/leftist/progressive. It is perhaps more practical to be familiar with the ideas of Bakunin, Weitling, Proudhon, and/or Blanc. Or if access to those who might be called founders of socialism is desired, it might be better to investigate Owen and Fourier, or even go back to those who advocated socialist ideas before the word come into being, like the Diggers, who were in some ways an early incarnation of the Green Party.

    It might also be useful to note, in a society that is 77% Christian, that Jesus advocated many ideas that would today be called socialism. Maybe we should make T-shirts saying “Jesus was a socialist,” with a key verse or two.

    David Hamilton’s assumption that entrepreneurial endeavor is somehow contrary to socialism is part of the mental block we must exorcise from our society. Socialism is the shared ownership of the wealth of society. It does not mean that one cannot fill an economic niche that would benefit society or some part of it. It does not mean that every decision must be subjected to the collective will of some state apparatus. And it does not mean that everybody works for a standard wage.

    A truly socialist society would eagerly welcome his restaurant idea, and provide the space and resources to make it a reality. What it would not allow is for him to use that restaurant to charge unfair prices, pay unfair wages, maintain unsafe working conditions, or otherwise gouge out unnecessary profits.

    At the very least, we must break the link in the collective American psyche, beginning with some of our own, that socialism is in any way related to totalitarianism. We, at least, should know that the economic model of the Soviet Union was not socialism, because the people were not the owners of, or in any way in control of, the means of production or the wealth of the nation. It was government-monopoly capitalism, with all the means of production owned by an undemocratic government that used the wealth thereof for its own gain at the expense of the people.

    Yes, democracy is a key ingredient, and a key measurement, of justice in a society. While it is possible to have a just monarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy or oligarchy for a temporary period, it is entirely dependent upon the sense of justice of the person or group in power to maintain. Only when power is shared by all can justice be maintained without dependence on the altruism of the elite(s). And true democracy and true justice are almost necessarily going to result in an economic model that would fall somewhere under the umbrella of socialism.

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