Socialism: Ethically Judging Current Societies

[This is the third in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it will or ought to seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

If our current societies do well in fulfilling equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and ecological sustainability, we need not try to envision drastically altered ways of carrying out social tasks as the ways we have would be adequate. But if our current societies do poorly fulfilling our values, then we have great reason to envision drastically altered ways of carrying out social tasks, and good reason to proceed with an essay series attempting to do so.

When a claim is made that Trump lies, while for some purposes listing a few thousand instances may prove helpful, really just a few choice instances make the case. Better to spend one’s time battling Trump and especially defining and seeking an alternative to Trumpism, than repeatedly excoriating him. And the same holds for the claim that contemporary societies violate our values. Though we could pile up evidence to mountainous levels, a few choice indicators should suffice.

Regarding equity, in the U.S. three individuals — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — own more wealth than the bottom half of the country combined. Three stand on one side, a hundred million or so on the other side. That is as opposite to equity as one could imagine, and that is what I mean by a choice fact. Of course one could go on to statistically compare the top 20% to the bottom 80%, or one could impressionistically drive around various neighborhoods comparing homes — supposing one could get past the guards of the rich neighborhoods. One could also compare the wealth or income of various constituencies, men and women, Blacks, Latinos, and whites, and so on. The point is, contemporary societies offer nothing even remotely like equity. Most citizens who aren’t already desperate are one paycheck, one unexpected illness, or one personal misstep from disaster. Perpetual panic is epidemic. 

The inequities are perpetually enforced not only by armed guards, but by cultural repetition and celebration. Those suffering poverty are regaled with TV, movie, and other media images celebrating the rich and famous and their utterly unattainable and even inconceivable lifestyles. Even in sports talk shows, incredibly, the focus has broadened from analyzing the details of performance in years past to more recently studying the mechanics of contracts while commentators get wrapped up in knots of awed respect for one hundred, two hundred, and even three hundred million dollar contracts for single athletes, sagely telling us that it isn’t enough, or, in some cases, is a little too much. And we are given this as our entertainment, literally to root for and to find escape and solace and excitement in — and we do so, because what else is there?

Look no further for equity unless you wish to wallow in the pain of an endless river of ever more depressing details. The bottom line, equity, is obliterated by a few people owning workplaces and the rest not, by a few people monopolizing skills and information and the rest not, and by many suffering the denials imposed by racism, sexism, homophobia and other social, geographic, and age related divisions. More, society not only generates and defends vast inequities, it celebrates them as if inequity is necessary and even virtuous, piling indignity and stupidity on top of subjugation. There isn’t even a contrary pretense denying uncountable accumulated wealth. Likewise, no one denies gargantuan yearly incomes, palatial mansions, inequitable health care, schooling, and diet. Equity? We don’t have any and everybody knows it.

Regarding self management, the story is basically the same. Most societal decisions occur with the vast majority of the population not even knowing a decision is being made, much less having a say. Law and disorder, prosecution and revenge, war and military spending, what is produced with what means and norms, the composition of jobs and the distribution of responsibilities, what is available to consume and what isn’t, and the norms of admiration and ridicule that pervade the culture, all these are beyond even our purview much less our influence. 

It turns out that the abhorrent fact that candidates for office win and lose due to media  and financial machinations and not due to honest informed accounting of substantive plans, is actually only the surface of society’s denial of people having a say in the outcomes most affecting their lives. Did any person addicted to opioids have any say in the pharmaceutical decisions that addicted them other than saying yes to a doctor’s advice or desperately seeking drugs on the street to survive pain and alienation? We all know the answer is no, and similarly it is no to dozens of similar questions we could investigate. For example, do policed communities have appropriate self managing influence over the policing they endure? In workplaces, do most workers, about 80%, have any say about anything at all…or do they have to accept a degree of subservience in many ways even exceeding that imposed by dictators. Not even Hitler or Stalin ever told a population when it could or could not go to the bathroom, something that occurs daily in many workplaces. 

In institutions across society a relative few decide virtually all outcomes, and the rest obey and endure. It isn’t just that we don’t have self management, it is that we have it’s opposite, and everybody knows it.

What about solidarity? It is not for nothing that we say it’s a dog eat dog world, a rat race, every one for themself, and so on. It’s because that’s our experience. Market relations require that we buy cheap and sell dear, my gain is your loss and vice versa. Fleece or be fleeced. And then schooling, culture, and even upbringing ratify that this is how it is and how it will always be. You better get yours while you can, others be damned. In truth, in our societies, humans appear to be nastier to other humans than dogs to dogs and rats to rats. Our fetishization of numero uno, our competitive economics,  and our perverse culture make it so. 

Consider the aphorism, “nice guys finish last.” First, it is basically true. My more extreme version would be “garbage rises,” which if you think about it, is also true. And, if you don’t want to be nasty, or garbage, and many people do retain enough humanity to opt out of those options, then to avoid being repressed on top of being denied you need to at least accept the subservience that inevitably punishes your civility. Second, all by itself the fact that nice guys finish last, or that garage rises, reveals that solidarity, much less empathy, is an ethical orphan in our society. We all know it and endure it or take advantage of it.

On to diversity. Here I suppose an argument could ensue. Some will feel that with our hundred channels and countless brands of this and that, diversity is in the saddle. But I would contest even that. Consider blacks, whites, workers, professionals, women, gays, and other constituencies you can no doubt name. Each, to a considerable degree, differs from the rest in its modes of living, dress, music, film, sports, and even diet preferences. Is this all just free choice among options? Or is it the impact of homogenization defining opposed groups? For that matter, is the diversity of, say, the internet, really diversity when a handful of sites garner a huge percentage of all web views, and an even smaller handful mediate an even higher percentage of all online social communication? 

I won’t press this issue overly but perhaps you will take a moment to imagine you are arrested and hauled off. Suppose in jail there is a commissary. You arrive and find its offerings abhorrent. For a couple of weeks, you get nothing. But left with no other recourse, in pursuit of something better than nothing, you start to make choices among the limited offerings. Soon when you visit the commissary, the array of offerings seems reasonable, even plentiful, compared to, well, the nothing you had had for the two weeks you avoided it. You start to differentiate, to want this more than that. Are you enjoying diversity that speaks to your unfettered inclinations, or are you making the best of a horrible poverty of options? And, by analogy, are society’s citizens enjoying diversity in society’s malls, on its TV, seeking and doing its jobs, and all the rest, or are we making do with a horrible poverty of options by bending our preferences to fit the intellectually, socially, and ethically limited range of society’s offerings, in essence making the best of a horrible situation?

The fifth value we offered was sustainability, or ecological sanity. This is arguably the most calamitous failing of the bunch, and, again, everyone knows it. The world is at risk, elites give lip service to global warming, and humanity barrels over a cliff of our own creation. Suffice to say, climate catastrophe, resource depletion, and poisonous pollution literally threaten human survival. You can’t get much more of a violation of a paramount value than that. And, yes, again, everybody knows it. (I keep repeating that we all know it, exaggerating only minimally, but Leonard Cohen, the poet/singer put the same observation vastly better in his song, Everybody Knows Take a look!)

But, a question arises. If everybody knows, why are we not all up in arms? Why isn’t our knowing how horribly our societies restrict and even threaten our lives enough to galvanize massive, sustained, revolutionary desire, education, and activism? I think a Catch 22 is at work. Everybody does know all kinds of devastatingly horrible truths about our societies, but only a ridiculously small number of us think it is anything other than just the way things are, and even among that small number who do believe “another world is possible,” only a still smaller group believes they have any way to contribute to bringing it about. So we have a Catch 22. Without a compelling vision of how society could be better and an informed belief that the massive impediments to reaching that better society are overcome-able by actions we can contribute to, why should people give any time to that project, including to the initial task of generating and sharing vision and developing workable strategy. The greatest enemy of potential progress, cynicism, turns out to be a personally self serving albeit socially suicidal disposition. Maybe a series of articles addressing vision and strategy and whatever discussion might ensue, all at our unusual moment of a resurgent and surprisingly widespread espousal of socialist aspirations, can help. That is the hope of this essay series.

Next Installment: Socialism 4 (Economics): Dividing Society’s Pie


  1. avatar
    James April 6, 2019 12:48 am 

    There is strong vision out there and Parecon for instance, represents the only non-market, non-centrally planned side of the coin along side others , perhaps less radical but possibly equally important.

    The problem is NOT the masses or the bewildered herd. The problem is the inability of the disparate Left, to work together under some banner, some umbrella, whatever, that still allows groups autonomy to pursue what they are best at while acknowledging they are part of a bigger movement with a greater goal for the greater good and its inability to sell, or even come up with alternative, clear, coherent and convincing vision.

    The Left can’t keep beating the masses on the head with how bad shit is and expecting them to wake up, when they don’t have anything clear, coherent and convincing to wake up to and the Left cannot keep rolling its eyes, bickering and splitting over difference…it makes it far too hard for the bewildered herd to access stuff, let alone understand it and rally behind it, if the Left is all over the friggin’ place.

    The bewildered herd, even within so called democracies, spend most of their lives inside private tyrannies just trying to get by. They’ve been beaten to a pulp over the years. What many may describe as a willingness to participate in their own subjugation, is really just a result of exhaustion or existential fatigue and an inability of Left activists, radicals, and agitators to convince them of something better.

  2. Elizabeth Marxsen April 5, 2019 4:08 pm 

    I think that first the “catch 22” which you so perceptively cited, is the thing to address first. In addition to a lack of vision and a belief that change is possible is an underlying apathy that also needs to be addressed. In other words people need to wake up, and I haven’t been able to think of a way to make that happen. I’m pretty sure there is a way, just not sure what it is.

  3. avatar
    Michael April 5, 2019 1:51 pm 

    “…socially suicidal disposition” describes well what we are faced with in the US, and often elsewhere, but not always. Matt Taibbi’s book “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” is a powerful description of what we are faced with in the massive abyss that exists between the relatively few “haves” and the immense numbers of “have-nots.”

    There needs to be a powerful vision in order to face this situation. The pervasive hopelessness and struggle simply to survive and to plant oneself in front of a TV, computer, or cell screen is a formidable foe and certainly used by the leadership class to develop our outlook and values. We don’t much talk about this, but perhaps it is the modern “opiate of the people” and not so easy to break free of.

    So, “adelante,” Michael Albert, more power to you!

Leave a comment