In October, the Council of Economic Advisers, which counsels the president on economic matters, published a far-from-moderate report attacking socialism. Producing large-scale economic studies about socialism can be considered to be progress on the Washington establishment’s part, considering its usual practices of invading countries and instituting embargos that force entire populations into starvation (as in the cases of Nicaragua and Cuba).
Ultimately though, the report reveals conservative, bourgeois economists’ ignorance about constructive political discourse. These economists — the very people who have much to lose from a transition to socialism — employ a paternalistic attitude toward the “careless masses,” one that resembles economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek’s approach in his bestselling book The Road to Serfdom. They desperately aim to prove that, as Hayek stated, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
These conservative economists, Trump and all the other members of the Washington establishment are ignorant of current political discourse. Their blurry definition of socialism and incoherent comparisons between the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, Nordic social democracy and Bernie Sanders’s proposals throughout the report demonstrate as much. More specifically, they enmesh “here-and-now” demands with transitional socialist demands. In turn, they call the “here-and-now” demands “socialist” (as opposed to social-democratic) and focus their criticisms on them. This is evident on page 39 of the report where they refer to Medicare for All as a “socialist proposal.”
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Doing so demonstrates that they fail to comprehend that organized democratic socialists’ purpose in the “here and now” is to stand up to large capital and the devastating byproducts of its “efficiency” (i.e., lack of quality health care and education and unaffordable shelter costs, as well as millions of people living in poverty). It is by no means the ultimate goal of the socialist movement to achieve a mixed economy, but rather to abolish market economy altogether in favor of a collective (democratic) ownership of the economy.
This is clear in all academic readings, as well as current practical struggles. The Washington establishment’s disingenuous characterization of democratic socialism shows its paternalism and its ultimate aim: to impose its de-facto anti-socialist views on the masses. The essence of freedom of speech, though, is the ability to present opposing views as they are in earnest debate.
Moreover, the report defines socialism as state control, as opposed to collective ownership of the economy and participation in decision-making. In turn, it employs the example of agricultural shortage under the Soviet Union to prove that a Stalinist state-control of the economy will have devastating results. More specifically, it supports that under Stalin’s state control “large state farms were less productive than small private ones.”
State control and forced collectivization, however, have been dismissed by the vast majority of European and US socialist movements in favor of democratic and collective decision-making. Nevertheless, the Council of Economic Advisers fails to sufficiently acknowledge that socialists do not want to impose a dictatorship, or any form of top-down organization of society.
Understanding these points, the following questions arise: How does this type of critique affect those of us who identify as democratic socialists? What lessons can we deduce, and how are we to respond to such criticism? The first, clear lesson to be learned is that the Washington establishment is seriously considering (and seriously fears) the increasing tendency of people to flood the streets and the potential for such mass mobilizations to turn into socialist demands.
Second, the report’s pattern of criticizing the socialist movement shows that we have a lot of work to do in regard to immersing ourselves in other mass movements, like the Socialist Workers Party in the UK has done in the run-up to a national demonstration against racism and fascism.
It is of crucial importance to articulate the concept of coexisting short-term demands (such as demands for a single-payer health care system) and long-term, uncompromising, socialist economic and political demands, such as establishing a collective ownership of the economy, abolishing corporate structures and capitalist institutions altogether. We need to be clear so that our political opponents are not able to blur the lines of the political spectrum like the Council of Economic Advisers has attempted to do.
Third, and most importantly, we need to isolate the parts of the report that hold truth and wrestle over these areas to find answers. We do not do this to denounce socialism, but rather to strengthen our proposals and promote them. The most prominent example is the point they make (however hostile) on the interplay between socialist economic organization and incentives to either perform well or to innovate. Despite the nature of the Advisers’ tone, the argument itself holds some truth; eliminating economic competition, which is currently the driver for innovation and for rendering new products rapidly marketable and readily available, might cause a slowdown in the aforementioned processes. But even if this is not the case, it is a strong enough argument for us to be obliged to provide sufficient counterarguments.
We need to present the socialist alternative using concrete proposals for socialist institutions. For people to work well, perform well and innovate, how do we introduce and nurture incentives in a collective, socialist economy in the absence of economic competition? We ought to bring forth concrete proposals that go far beyond mere fundamental principles — “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” and “socialization of the means of production” — transforming them from philosophical jargon into much-needed actualities.
We need to carefully imagine the society we want to live in and create blueprints for it. We need to acknowledge the limitations of the alternative we bring forth and create proposals for concrete socialist structures that combat those limitations.
It is only then that Washington establishment’s greatest fears will materialize.