Yesterday, while tag surfing, I read a post on some blog which basically questioned the notion that the American political system is socialist in nature. The argument offered was that under socialism, the “means of production” are owned by the state (that’s what everybody, including me, seem to have learned at school), whereas that is not the case in present day America. K.M. made a similar argument (that its not socialism) without taking recourse to the “means of production” criterion, some months back. He said-

Finally, as a tactical matter, it is incorrect and therefore damaging to label the statist and welfarist policies of most politicians today as socialist. They are not. Miller’s worldview is what socialism means. And fortunately, very few people subscribe to it. Many people share some of the moral ideals of socialism implicitly. But they also believe in personal responsibility, individual freedom and free enterprise (however inconsistent there beliefs may be. Calling them socialist when they explicitly reject socialism (as Miller’s frustration shows) is not the best way to reason with them.

Whatever the political system – socialism, fascism, communism or capitalism – it always comes down to their position on “individual rights.” And “property rights” are a necessary part of individual rights. Capitalism stands for absolute – inviolable – property rights; socialism and communism differ in degree, but their coercive form (I am not sure a non- coercive form is politically possible) – as practiced in China, USSR, India and every country in the world even today – has zero regard for property rights – all property rights exist at the pleasure of the state. Fascism as an ideology doesn’t even merit discussion in this context.

I started reading Leonard Peikoff’s book, “The Ominous Parallels”, yesterday. And in the very first chapter – “The Cause of Nazism” – he tackles the issue of “control” of property. Peikoff writes-

Collectivism is the theory that the group (the collective) has primacy over the individual. Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective—society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race etc.—is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it; on his own he has no political rights; he is to be sacrificed for the group whenever it—or its representative, the state—deems this desirable.

Fascism, said one of its leading spokesmen, Alfredo Rocco, stresses-

the necessity, for which the older doctrines make little allowance, of sacrifice, even up to the total immolation of individuals, in behalf of society…. For Liberalism [i.e., individualism], the individual is the end and society the means; nor is it conceivable that the individual, considered in the dignity of an ultimate finality, be lowered to mere instrumentality. For Fascism, society is the end, individuals the means, and its whole life consists in using individuals as instruments for its social ends.

“[T]he higher interests involved in the life of the whole,” said Hitler in a 1933 speech, “must here set the limits and lay down the duties of the interests of the individual.” Men, echoed the Nazis, have to “realize that the State is more important than the individual, that individuals must be willing and ready to sacrifice themselves for Nation and Fuhrer.” The people, said the Nazis, “form a true organism,” a “living unity,” whose cells are individual persons. In reality, therefore—appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—there is no such thing as an “isolated individual” or an autonomous man.

Just as the individual is to be regarded merely as a fragment of the group, the Nazis said, so his possessions are to be regarded as a fragment of the group’s wealth.

“Private property” as conceived under the liberalistic economic order was a reversal of the true concept of property [wrote Huber]. This “private property” represented the right of the individual to manage and to speculate with inherited or acquired property, as he pleased, without regard for the general interests…. German socialism had to overcome this “private,” that is, unrestrained and irresponsible view of property. All property is common property. The owner is bound by the people and the Reich to the responsible management of his goods. His legal position is only justified when he satisfies this responsibility to the community.

Contrary to the Marxists, the Nazis did not advocate public ownership of the means of production. They did demand that the government oversee and run the nation’s economy. The issue of legal ownership, they explained, is secondary; what counts is the issue of control. Private citizens, therefore, may continue to hold titles to property—so long as the state reserves to itself the unqualified right to regulate the use of their property.

If “ownership” means the right to determine the use and disposal of material goods, then Nazism endowed the state with every real prerogative of ownership. What the individual retained was merely a formal deed, a contentless deed, which conferred no rights on its holder. Under communism, there is collective ownership of property de jure. Under Nazism, there is the same collective ownership de facto.

The Nazis called themselves socialists, and they did take over “control” of the “means of production.” The same is true in every modern “republic,” America included. While citizens (probably) won’t tolerate Jews (or any other minority) being gassed, not only do they tolerate government intervention in the market, they actually clamor for it. From zoning laws that determine how you are allowed to “use” your land, to taxation of every kind – income tax, wealth tax, inheritance tax, property tax, to “eminent domain”, to laws that lay down quantitative and qualitative limits on production, to laws that actually control or ban production of certain products – the modern state has de facto control over – ownership of – the property of its citizens. And this is without getting into the state monopoly over the “means of exchange” – money.

That’s why I don’t think there is anything wrong in referring to America, or any other country in the world for that matter, as socialist. They may not be “by the book” socialists, but the results – consequences – of their measures are the same.

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  • Paul  On February 6, 2009 at 1:47 am

    It seems you may have broadened the definition of socialism so much that it loses its usefulness. Perhaps the simplest way we have to recognize a country is by its government. All governments take money from their peoples to sustain them, and (so far as I know) none do it based on voluntary contribution. That implies, then, that all countries are and have been socialist. And if the group ‘socialist countries’ contains all the members of the group ‘countries’ then the ‘socialist’ part becomes redundant, or at least loses its usefulness.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On February 6, 2009 at 3:28 am

    “or at least loses its usefulness.”
    Usefulness for what purpose? If its a question of the term losing its “sting,” then I agree, somewhat. I, for example, am careful when I use the terms “fascist” and “genocide” for that very reason.

    The truth is, however, that every country in the world is socialist to some degree; they are mixed economies. I wouldn’t call them socialist if I thought that they were moving away from socialism and towards laissez-faire capitalism. But that’s not what’s happening. Controls – regulations – are increasing day by day, and so is the size of government.

  • Paul  On February 6, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I’m really struggling to formulate what I want to say, but I’ll have a go! Traditionally socialist has been used to define a country or government, in much the same way that communist is used. As such it is close to a binary description; a country is socialist or it isn’t. What you’re suggesting is that this ceases to be a useful function for the word (what does it mean to describe a country as socialist when *all* countries are socialist?) Instead socialism becomes a quality of government that we can measure relative to other countries, in much the same way that we might measure journalistic freedom or religious makeup. That’s an interesting way to repurpose the word.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On February 6, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    “Traditionally socialist has been used to define a country or government, in much the same way that communist is used.”
    That is true, but it doesn’t work like that – if its not socialist and its not capitalist, what is it?

    I think of it more like a crude line the two ends of which are communism/ socialism and capitalism. If the country is on the wrong side of the center, its more socialist than capitalist and the same with capitalism; calling it a mixed economy doesn’t help because the term does not explain what kind of mixed economy it is. If we were to use Full Socialism, Full Capitalism or Full Communism as the criteria, no country – not even USSR (which was more fascist than communist) will ever fit into the basket.

    “Instead socialism becomes a quality of government that we can measure relative to other countries”
    Not relative to other countries, but relative to the actual definitions of the political systems. If the government has final say on everything property-wise, the system is nearer to socialism than capitalism; if the government cannot dispose off property against the will of the individual, its nearer to capitalism than socialism. So we would not be wrong to call it that.

    But there are too many ‘isms’ in theory, and in practice – corporatism for one, which is a kind of mercantilism or even fascism of the socialist kind. One thing is common to nearly all of them – every one of them except capitalism is an attack on property either in the name of the proletariat (socialism, communism), or in their name but with most benefits going to special interests (mercantilism, corporatism). Whichever trend is in vogue, that is the political system the country follows.

  • you12  On February 6, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Thats the whole point of collectivism isn’t it? Its about consensus and about who has the power, there is no right or wrong in collectivism.

    Why would a collectivist government give property rights or any rights for that matter? It is designed to “equally distribute” and end the “inequalities”. It is not a coincidence that all socialist struggles are armed ones.

    Although all collectivist ideologies are bound to fail because of its inherent characteristics of Consensus decision making and no sense of right or wrong. One type of ideology is usually replaced by another one leading to fragmentation. The clash and constant divides of religions for example.

    But the most dangerous thing about Collectivism is that people feel they have some sense of control over government and its power, as if they are giving the power to the government.And a continuous belief in the idea that elections and better representatives can change things.

    No matter how good a shooter is ,he can’t do much with a bad gun, nor can he shoot all the targets.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On February 7, 2009 at 1:36 am

    “Thats the whole point of collectivism isn’t it?”
    It is, but people refuse to believe it.

    “But the most dangerous thing about Collectivism is that people feel they have some sense of control over government and its power, as if they are giving the power to the government.”
    Ayn Rand said this about America-

    I have stated repeatedly that the trend in this country is toward a fascist system with communist slogans. But what all of today’s pressure groups are busy evading is the fact that neither business nor labor nor anyone else, except the ruling clique, gains anything under fascism or communism or any form of statism—that all become victims of an impartial, egalitarian destruction.

    Read what she and Peikoff have written on the subject of fascism/ nazism, and fascism and communism/ socialism.

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