Socialism as an insurance policy for the wealthy

I’d like to very briefly expand on one of the recurrent themes here at Notes: complaints about the posh backgrounds and attitudes of socialists, or, as Brandon often puts it, their tendency to “only care about the rich.”

There’s no shortage of paradoxical examples of wealthy socialist politicians and activists, socialism being most vigorous in the wealthiest parts of a given country, etc. These paradoxes became a lot less baffling to me once I started considering what the wealthy stand to lose in the event of disaffection among the poor. They stand to lose more than the middle classes, and certainly much more than the poor. Conversely, the wealthy stand to gain more than the middling or the poor from a stable, prosperous society. A great example of this is the lengthy vacation allotments for employees in much of Europe, which poorer beneficiaries often spend at modest vacation spots within a few hours’ drive of home but wealthier beneficiaries often spend at much more luxurious establishments in Asia or the Americas.

This calculus gets much more compelling when one considers government measures to nurture a broad middle class as an insurance policy against social unrest. That’s really too kind a term for the rioting, assault and retaliatory murder to which a badly mistreated working class can be provoked, to say nothing of the much nastier behavior of goons under the auspices of the demagogic governments that take root in destabilized societies. The Nazis controlled most of Western Europe within living memory, so the threat of war and genocide as a response to bad economic conditions is less of an abstraction to the average European than it is to the average American, sheltered as the United States has been from domestic warfare for over a century.

War, no matter its magnitude or duration, is not something to be romanticized or celebrated as something worthy in its own right. It is a necessary evil, one that is absolutely hellish for all but the most sadistic. For the purpose of not getting people traumatized, maimed and killed, rioting, vigilantism and the like should be regarded as tantamount to warfare; they’re certainly precursors, and they’re certainly dangerous and destructive. These truths are all too easily lost on people who have not lived through civil unrest or war, and on those who choose to live in atavistic fantasy worlds. These segments of the population have a huge overlap, and both are very widespread in the United States.

Offhand, I’d say that privation in some form or other has been the most common trigger for unrest throughout human history. Astute leaders recognize this, as Otto von Bismarck and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did when they implemented social insurance programs that were unprecedented in their countries. Other leaders, however, assume that they’ll always be able to beat the proles into submission. In a good decade, such leaders keep their heads; in a bad decade, ask Marie Antoinette.

The United States has more than its share of the latter sort of leader, which has a long history of questioning the patriotism of the former sort among its compatriots. The bareknuckle robber barons assume that if they hire enough Pinkertons, none of their number will end up with his head in a basket on the town square, but history has disproved this assumption on a number of occasions. Sure, it’s the history of other countries, but Europeans were aghast to see the United States, that beacon of peace and freedom, descend into internecine bloodletting in 1861. These things are unimaginable until they happen, or until one comes across some imagination, and maybe some humility. We aren’t that special as a people. In the right conditions, those we’ve mistreated can really do us harm.

Or, as Abraham Lincoln said, “I’d like to have God on my side, but I need Kentucky.”

4 thoughts on “Socialism as an insurance policy for the wealthy

  1. I’ve never bought this “welfare revolutions” argument. The French Revolutions (the first three, at least) were blatantly supported by the bourgeoisie for political rights, not withstanding the establishment of the National Workshops after 1848 (a policy that would be bitterly opposed by so-called “socialists” today, pace Cait Reilly’s Poundland saga). Similarly the Russian Revolution was a bourgeois revolution for democracy, hijacked by a set of intellectuals who wanted to impose their mad fantasies of technocratic control on an entire empire. “[H]istory has disproved this assumption on a number of occasions.” OK, name 5. I’ll give you Toussaint L’Ouverture for free.

  2. A very good post!

    Offhand, I’d say that privation in some form or other has been the most common trigger for unrest throughout human history. Astute leaders recognize this, as Otto von Bismarck and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did when they implemented social insurance programs that were unprecedented in their countries.

    Yes, but this assumes that the social insurance programs were actually designed to help the poor, rather than, say, buy votes (in the case of Roosevelt) or implement national policies designed to legitimize a newly-created state (Bismark had just forged Germany out of “blood and iron”). Privation was never an issue.

    The bareknuckle robber barons assume that if they hire enough Pinkertons, none of their number will end up with his head in a basket on the town square

    This is simply not true. Capitalists hire workers out of a cold, hard self-interest in making money. Nothing more, nothing less.

    I am reminded of an essay by the Polish philospopher Leszek Kolakowski, a former socialist who witnessed firsthand the horrors of socialism throughout his lifetime until he finally immigrated to Great Britain in 1968. In an essay titled “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” Kolakowski explained well why a society is unable to base itself on disinformation. He wrote:

    Even in the best of conditions the massive process of forgery cannot be completed: it requires a large number of forgers who must understand the distinction between what is genuine and what is faked.

    Indeed. Kolakowski’s point is perhaps too simplistic for the advocate of socialism to be considered a devastating blow to his ideology, but it fits in well with the critiques of governments (and their programs for the poor) I have heard from non-Americans over the years. Our co-blogger Evgeniy is particularly crucial in this regard. Our co-blogger Jacques has a great piece on this topic.

    • Bismarck and FDR are great examples of why it’s generally misleading to think of politician’s motivations in simplistic terms. One misses a lot of nuances that way.

      You’re absolutely right that Bismarck and FDR had ulterior motives for implementing limited socialist policies, but I don’t believe that these ulterior motives were enough to negate the good intentions or good effects of the policies introduced by either man. These guys were savvy politicians. They recognized that softening the blows of capitalism on the average citizen was a good way to keep the public satisfied with their leadership, and hence keep themselves in power. The glosses that can be put on this sort of leadership run the gamut from glowing to scathing. Is the average Chicago alderman, for example, a pragmatist who tries to respond to problems in his ward as they are brought to his attention, or a filthy, craven, corrupt rat bastard of no principle who greases every squeaky wheel in his ward and runs with mobsters? The disconcerting answer, especially for those who think of politicians in black and white terms, is that he might be both. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive approaches. Politics can be very, very messy.

      Privation was in fact an issue in the Great Depression. The economic dislocation was massive. A number of industries (e.g., household appliance manufacturers) had saturated their markets in the 1920s and ran into trouble when demand for their products fell. Farmers on the High Plains were ruined by a similar, but more pernicious, dynamic in the Dust Bowl, one of the worst ecological disasters in North American history. The Dust Bowl was more than just a secular bust. Falling grain prices played an important role in encouraging farmers not to fallow their exhausted fields, but the fencepost-to-fencepost cultivation model was a matter of official government homestead policy, informed by ignorance and Manifest Destiny hubris. The great irony, of course, was that the busts were largely the result of substantial surpluses, but the market structures in place prevented the emergency transfer of these surpluses to people who badly needed them. The same thing happened (and has been happening again since the housing bust of 2008) in the housing sector on account of the mortgage-based system of property tenure.

      Despite the aggregate absolute wealth of the United States at the time, things truly were dire for a great many Americans in the Great Depression. Making people fend for themselves without any relief efforts would have been a recipe for disaster. As it was, crime surged while police officials and newspaper publishers colluded to suppress crime statistics, and Father Charles Coughlin, an open bigot, built up a dangerously large and enthusiastic following by scapegoating alleged Jewish cabals. We were very lucky as a country not to end up under the thumb of an Axis-style military dictator.

      If anything, I’d say that Roosevelt didn’t do enough to soften the blows of the Depression. He would have been wise to implement more effective, more permanent backstops to the free market for individuals and households. Still, I’d say that his programs were a lot better than nothing, and that they may have made the difference between the continuation of representative government and an autocratic coup d’etat.

      I’m rather bemused by the tendency of many libertarians and conservatives to downplay the severity of the Great Depression or the ruthlessness of many leading industrialists circa 1880-1940. It strikes me as historical revisionism. On the latter point, even a list of the violent acts that the big industrial concerns abetted or commissioned against their own employees in this period would be tendentious. To take just one example, I happened to walk through the site of the San Francisco longshoremen’s strike in front of the Ferry Terminal this afternoon. Today, this area is thronged with tourists, artisan merchants, and professionals from the Financial District, but in 1934 it was the site of a concerted, and at times violent, police and military suppression of striking workers. Perhaps these strikers’ heirs in the trade are killing the goose that laid the golden egg by demanding such generous terms in their contracts, but I’d certainly rather err to that extreme than to the status quo extreme of 1934 on the West Coast waterfront. I’d much rather have overpaid but peaceful skilled tradesmen than underpaid ones resorting to street battles with goons in the pay of their grandiose, psychopathic bosses.

      The concept of balance in policy is an important one, all too often neglected by ideologues at each extreme of the the spectrum. The halfheartedly whitewashed sclerosis of the Eastern Bloc that Kolakowski criticized (rather generously in the above excerpt, I might add) was terrible for ordinary citizens. The rare saving graces in those regimes tended to come from the free market: remittances from the Polish diaspora, Romanian bus sales to the West, etc. Central state planning of entire economies is disastrous, but so are completely unregulated free markets. The form of the damage is different, but there’s great damage nonetheless.

      Thus we find another paradox: Harry Bridges and Lech Walesa had a lot in common.

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