This is my first post on the 2020 election. I think it’s indisputably important to understand clearly what one is debating. That goes for capitalism versus socialism, which has been thrust into the forefront of American politics--and the 2020 presidential election.
It is in that vein that I just finished reading The Communistic Societies of the United States; Harmony, Oneida, the Shakers, and Others by Charles Nordhoff. Nordhoff offers a facinating look inside more than six dozen communist enclaves established in the United States.
These societies are based on the common ownership of all property, central economic planning, abolition of wages for labor, sharply regulated social life including marriage and even sexual conduct. In exchange, everyone’s needs are provided for out of the common fund based on the principle of strict economic equality, but luxuries are forbidden or at least frowned upon. The communist societies are governed authoritarianly by an individual or small elite. Some kind of democratic process is generally involved. They differ in details and implementation, but all adhere to the basic socialist doctrines, usually rooted in Christian theology.
These societies are strictly voluntary. They have their own constitutions, which conform to the laws of the United States. When someone is accepted in—some who apply are rejected—s/he must contractually agree to the terms, agreeing to turn over all personal property to the society’s collective pot. People are free to leave, and when someone does, s/he is usually compensated to some extent based on their original property contribution, or some other criteria. People can be expelled for non-compliance. No coercion or violence is ever used to keep people in, and disputes are resolved in a civil manner, although occasionally must be resolved in the courts of the United States.
These societies build and run agricultural and manufacturing industries, and trade with the “outside” capitalist world. Profits are deposited into the common fund, and either used for the material needs or invested frugally, for the benefit of the members. All members must learn skills and work, unless too young, or indigent. When needed, the rulers hire outside labor for wages.
One of the communistic societies Nordhoff describes, the Perfectionists, was established by John Humphrey Noyes, who himself wrote a book, History of American Socialisms, which I also own and am now reading.* There have been other voluntary socialist societies in the U.S. The Amish have a variation. American Kibbutzim, modeled on the Israeli Kibbutz, have been established around the country. There were the 1960s hippie communes.
Interestingly, many of these communistic societies were established by devout Christians who fled Europe in the 19th Century, which was still burdened by the tyranny of church-state unity. These people were prosecuted and even jailed because their practices differed from the views of the established religious/political authorities, so they emigrated to the United States, because the U.S. guaranteed their freedom to establish their socialisms.
This is really important. European socialists were coming to the capitalist United States of America because this is where they have the freedom to practice their socialist creed. Melvin D. Barger, writing for FEE about another commune, Robert Owens’ New Harmony, said this:
The New Harmony movement also had wide support in the new American nation, and Owen had even been given an audience with President-elect John Quincy Adams and the Secretary of the Treasury when he arrived in Washington. There was a kindly tolerance of new ideas, and if New Harmony had been a sound and workable system, the United States had both the political freedom and the available land for thousands of such communal enterprises.
Then or now, nothing in the fundamental American idea was opposed to the socialistic communities of the early 19th century, since they were voluntary arrangements and used peaceful means. [My emphasis]
This goes to the heart of my point in this article. Socialism is perfectly compatible with a free capitalist society, if everyone respects the rights of everyone else to live by their own values and judgement, and to freedom of association. Why? Because in a free society, like America in its Founding principles, the government neutrally protects that freedom by law and constitution.
Unfortunately, the 20th Century saw a new and malignant manifestation of socialism, political socialism. Instigated by Karl Marx, the socialism we speak of in today’s debates is not the benevolent, peaceful, voluntary socialism I just wrote about. Today’s socialism is a tyrannical, top-down system imposed by force on the entire society regardless of whether anyone wants it or not. This political socialism is from beginning to end an organized crime enterprise. It is weaponized socialism. It is criminal socialism.
Since the Enlightenment gave rise to capitalism, history has provided plenty of opportunity and freedom for people to voluntarily choose socialism. But confronted with the choice explicitly, most Americans will not willingly give up their means of production--their lives, liberties, property, businesses, and pursuit of personal happiness--to a central planning authority. Not many people will, when confronted with undiluted socialism, go for it voluntarily. This is true even in societies that are highly conducive to socialism in the abstract. Given the freedom to choose socialism, in real life, very few people have, which means that the only path to a socialist country is through totalitarianism.
Today’s Democratic Socialist movement is a manifestation of criminal socialism, because it's proponents are acting through government force. Rationalized as “democratic,” it follows on the heels of communism, national socialism, fascism, et al. It rejects voluntarism. It holds that enough votes to win an election is enough justification for imposing one’s socialism on the entirety of society without everyone’s voluntary consent. Bernie Sanders, Occasio-Cortez, and company don’t seek to organize their supporters by voluntary consent. They go into politics. Why? Because they seek political power. Why political power rather than the power of persuasion? Because political power, as Marx’s most loyal disciple observed, “grows out of the barrel of a gun.” On “Why go into politics to advance your cause?”, today’s democratic socialists would answer—to paraphrase a quote attributed to a famous bank robber—“I go into politics because that’s where the guns are.”
Unfortunately, Americans' overwhelming rejection of undiluted socialism—the recent collapse of Bernie Sanders's campaign within the Democrstic Party is the latest proof—may not save us. The ongoing piecemeal slide into socialism is a real danger, because too few people can connect the philosophical dots. Many people may like certain welfare state socialistic programs like Social Security or food stamps. But most, including many who call themselves socialist supporters, still will not accept full-blown socialism, even as they are unwittingly accepting the principles that lead to full-blown socialism.
That’s worth remembering, because here is where we are today. Capitalism vs. socialism is the underlying political battle of America. But perhaps that characterization is not precise enough. The choice capitalism vs. socialism is really capitalism versus criminal socialism, since capitalism is perfectly compatible with voluntary socialist arrangements.
Here’s the bottom line: When the government remains in its proper, neutral, rights-protecting, American-ideal mode, capitalism or socialism is a personal choice. The millions of supporters of today’s democratic socialist movement don’t have to wait for politicians like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to gain political power. They can live their socialist dreams right now, by forming their own communities based on their common values. Unlike 19th Century socialists, they do not necessarily need large expanses of land to commune. With technologies made possible by capitalist freedom, they can form virtual communities. All they need to remember is to respect the rights of others. They can form their communities by the voluntary consent of all of their members, leaving anyone with different values free to go their own way. Any other method of forming communistic associations is the method of the criminal.
QUORA *: ‘What makes someone a socialist?'
“Who Would Choose Socialism? The Israeli Kibbutzim Provide the Acid Test for Voluntary Socialism”, by Robert Nozick. Reason, May 1978.