Politics & Media
Apr 30, 2009, 07:31AM

INTERVIEW: Thomas Schaller

The author and political commentator explains what we're getting wrong in our cultural discourse about socialism.

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Photo by jem

Two years ago, I was walking up Charles St. towards Mount Vernon Square to check out the annual Baltimore Book Festival. As I waited to cross the street about a block from the main part of the festival, I saw out of the corner of my eye a small table set up on the other side of the street. "Odd that they’re set up so far away from the other tables," I thought. I squinted to read what they were about. The Socialist Party of the United States of America. It seemed all too appropriate that they were positioned just out of spitting distance from everything else, and that the two people behind the table had no cover from the drizzle that had been falling all morning.

In spite of the prominence of such voices as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, and even the late Studs Turkel, broadly socialist left-wing ideas have not, in recent years, found a secure place in mainstream American political discourse. Even still, 100 or so days into President Obama’s tenure, “socialism” has become a byword, in the mouths of ideologues like Eric Cantor and Glenn Beck, for all that is European, anti-entrepreneurship, un-American and therefore very wrong. In order to make some sense of the sound bytes, Splice Today contacted Thomas Schaller—professor at UMBC, Salon.com contributor, Colbert Report guest, and author of Whistling Past Dixie—to get his take on how socialism really figures in American politics. In our discussion, we started by defining socialism broadly as a political ideology based on a commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society based on people being able to seek fulfillment without barriers of systemic inequality, and that challenges the property relationships that are fundamental to capitalism.

SPLICE TODAY: When the average American hears the word “socialism,” what do you think he hears?

THOMAS SCHALLER: I suspect the average American hears and thinks “communism” when they hear “socialism.” I wonder how many Americans who have taken Social Security payments, unemployment insurance payments or Medicare benefits—some of the largest and most redistributive programs in the history of the planet—consider themselves to be the practicing beneficiaries of socialism they are.

ST: Forms of democratic socialism (I’m thinking of Eugene Debs and elements of the New Deal) had much greater political currency in the early 20th century. How did socialism come to be in the position it currently holds in the American political landscape?

TS: Socialism in the partisan sense gained a lot more traction in the early part of the 20th century in part because of the huge disparities in income in the United States, coupled with the then-inability of the two major parties to rig an electoral system to reinforce the partisan duopoly they enjoy today. There is no sign of the latter changing, but the reemergence of income inequality of a magnitude not seen in almost a century and the reemergence of all this socialist talk is no coincidence.

ST: In terms of third parties, the American Socialist Party makes Bob Barr and Ralph Nader look like leaders of enormous political machines. Why haven’t socialist ideas had more momentum in recent times?

TS: Few third parties gain any traction in our single-member-district, plurality rule system because such systems have been proven to inevitably gravitate toward two-party systems, for no power is attained for third-place finishers as is the case in proportional representation systems.

ST: How much of it is a function of our media environment?

TS: Socialist Party successes do not even rate with those of a Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan in part because, in the eyes of the American media, being labeled a socialist is barely a notch above child molester. In fact, a child molester who started a small business would probably get more favorable coverage than a self-avowed socialist.

ST: But where did the media stigma come from?

TS: I don't know, other than to say that we have a private, corporate-owned media and matters would be decidedly different if we had the American equivalent to Britain's BBC or Canada's CBC.

ST: Eric Hobsbawm, the historian, recently wrote that, at this point, both socialism and unregulated free-market capitalism have failed, saying that the world’s biggest governments are too addicted to maximizing economic growth. Do you think his vision is too polarized? Do you think the current recession represents a serious threat to the American, even the global, political status quo?

TS: I don't know Hobsawm's work, but I do know that Larry Bartel's new book, Unequal Democracy, dispels the notion that economic disparities are somehow the natural consequence of economic growth. In fact, the two-decade period of great growth in the United States following the Second World War was also characterized by greater income equity between top and bottom and, not coincidentally, high marginal tax rates approaching 90 percent at one point. So the notion that growth and socialist-style tax rates or redistributive programs are somehow mutually exclusive choices is a fallacy. Henry Ford wanted his employees to make a competitive wage for a reason—so they could afford to buy the very cars they built. Somehow, in the post-Reagan era we seem to think that shipping somebody's well-paid job with benefits and a pension to Chennai will result in the lower-wage Indian who now holds that job somehow buying the American product or service the American worker formerly produced. This is absurd.

ST: Really, just how socialist are the Obama Administration’s policies so far?

TS: The Obama administration's policies constitute the most dramatic growth in the size and scope of governmental action since the New Deal. We have a massive, Keynesian stimulus coupled with new domestic investments in education, health care and the environment, with a new regulatory (or re-regulatory) plan to prevent future credit crisis and reckless financial speculation. Capitalism requires regulated markets, and Obama's Cooper Union speech in March 2008 foreshadowed everything he is now proposing to reform Wall Street. Anybody calling these actions socialism understands nothing about the operation of free, open, and fair markets. When government uses its power to engage in fixed prices or no-bid contracts for military contractors we call it entrepreneurial capitalism, even though such actions are more socialist than anything Obama has proposed to regulate under- or unregulated financial instruments, mandate transparent accounting and require sufficient capital reserves.

ST: After the defection of Arlen Specter and the probable seating of Al Franken, it looks likely that the Democratic Party will soon have 60 potential votes in the Senate. If not towards socialism, might their newly filibuster-proof agenda move further to the left?

TS: Not much connection to the 60 votes and socialism, and I really don't think it changes the calculus that much. It's not hard to get one vote to make 60 right now, with Franken in there putting pre-Specter Democrats at 59 seats. After all, when the Liebermans and Bayhs want to make a fuss, Specter is probably going to be with them anyway, whatever his party label.

ST: Is the current recession a bad financial mess, or a broader crisis of free-market capitalism?

TS: It's both a really bad mess and an indictment of unregulated capitalism, which is a less efficient and less productive and less equitable alternative to properly regulated markets—and for all non-corrupt or predatory parties involved, from the top of the income ladder to the bottom. Look, when the financial services industry accounts for one-fifth of our economy, it's clear we have a serious problem. You can only generate so much growth from managing wealth without generating sufficient wealth to manage in the first place. Laugh all you want at the Germans and other European economies, but at least many of them realize you still need to make stuff in order to have wealth to invest.

  • Socialism is a word that creates tremendous anxiety even in the middle class mainly because it conjures up images of the slothful poor waiting for cradle to grave handouts from the government-- in the form of welfare and disability checks. Discussions about wealth, ownership of property and so on do not take human nature into consideration. There are all kinds of human beings--those who are rabidly ambitious and will do anything to get ahead, they love the stress and the breathlessness of busy living, there are those who embrace a less hectic lifestyle, earn less, are happy to rent rather than own anything, there are those who want the government to take care of them, they will display bedazzling brilliance to get their docs to fill out disability forms and the reasons for their inability to work could range from fibromyalgia to claustrophobia. As the number of people who want to abdicate from work using creative excuses increases, the government's obligation to provide for them also increases. The socialist is quite impervious to these concerns. He wants to make sure the rich and the middle class don't lord it over the poor and the poor get their chance at the American dream. The socialist also does not want the middle class to vanish into the underclass and to avoid middle class collapse he wishes to regulate the greed of the wealthy. The hyper capitalist, on the other hand, wants to shield himself from the sloth and the clever manipulations of the poor. He also wants to be left alone to keep making money at the expense of every class including his own. The socialist's eagerness to equalize the playing field for one and all and the hyper capitalist's lack of sense of fairness are opposite sides of the same coin. For example both fail to give credit to the poor. Many among the poor know how to work the ropes, get their docs to certify them as disabled, get early retirement from their drudgery jobs, get medical assistance for their health care. They are perfectly capable of hustling to cushion themselves against the an uncertain existence. The socialist feels sorry for the poor and the hyper capitalist feels contempt. Among the rich, the poor and the middle class there are survivors and non survivors. Marlon Brando's son had his father's money but of what use was this money to this loser? Farah Fawcett's son --the same. I know a heck of a lot of poor people who wheel and deal better than these two. The middle class too is divided into successful climbers, static bureaucrats and losers who can never save any money living a hand to mouth precarious existence. Socialists and capitalists can be found in all the three classes. Hyper capitalists are peculiar to the wealthy class-- Bernie Madoff and his pyramidal scheme brothers, the AIG CEOS' these are claasic hyper capitalists. Truth be told all the "isms" of this world put people in large categories and assume the majority in each class fits into one or other mold. This engenders disastrous public policies. We are individuals first, poor rich and middle class, and the "isms" we have invented do not define us clearly enough for governments or the private sector to solve our problems.

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  • So, we're all individuals who should be unencumbered by "isms," but you feel comfortable using types like "the socialist" and "the poor"? I find the idea of a public policy completely divested of ideas, leaving each individual to define himself as if it has no effect on anyone else, truly naive. Also I think you miss the point that socialist ideas, in their most useful forms, engage with and critique capitalist ideas about property relations, class, etc. that you and far too many other people seem to think represent "human nature." Capitalism is certainly a powerful deterministic force in the world, but it isn't human nature, whatever that is, anyway. The "sloth and clever manipulation of the poor," as you call it, is just as much determined by economic circumstance as it is by individual actions. But "sloth and clever manipulation"? Come on. That is barely concealed class discrimination -- we are all individuals, you seem to say, but clearly some classes of individuals (yours, for example) are better and more virtuous than others.

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  • mpoland, Thank you! The simple fact is this:In every class there are cheaters. Some poor may choose to be poor because to be rich or even to be middle class can be a big fat headache--boring and bureaucratic-filled with paper work and daily hassles. Some rich hate to be rich--they give away their money and go adventuring. Some poor work very hard--they are proud and will not accept hand outs. Other poor are indeed slothful--they want a way out of work. Have you ever refused to fill out disability forms for perfectly healthy cop outs? It is not true that they are cheats because they are squeezed by their economic circumstances. The drudgery of work simply doesn't sit well with some of these folks. There are an equal number of cheats among the middle class and the rich--Bernie Madoff who made off with so much money from the pockets of his compatriots is a case in point. I accept that public policy cannot be divested of ideas--that would be inconvenient and impossible. But as Eric Hobsawm has said socialism and unregulated capitalism have failed. All the "isms" are unable to separate the cheats from the sincere ones--the manipulative and slothful poor edge out the sincere poor in need. The rich stash their money off shore and chafe at the bit when they are regulated. The middle class folks want more breaks-feel that their middle class spine is being broken-they say, "Heck every one is robbing the system--why can't I do it too?" Politicians play all the categories--even as our deficits balloon and our spending is getting unsustainable. The governement is too big and absurdly inefficient. It is not that we did not have regulations in the books to control run away capitalism. We did. But these regulations were not enforced. The regulators were in bed with the cheats. The politicians-the law makers-- were in bed with the cheats. Regulators themselves were cheats--Tim Geithner-- case in point. Already it is known that the TARP money was misspent. The stimulus package is so large--the likelihood that a lot of it will disappear, be robbed or be spent on no bid contracts is guaranteed. This is where human nature sabotages all the "isms". Modern government is so large it needs neatly articulated "isms" and ideas on paper to function and survive. But the whole damn shabang is a mess thwarted by human nature. Finally do I want this kind of system to tax me more for redistributive purposes assuring me that high taxes+redistribution are not incompatible with growth--brothers Schaller and Poland (or should I say sister Poland?) I ain't buying it--all the taxes in the world won't eradicate the inequities of a system where cheats abound--where the regulators and the law makers themselves are corrupt--Unellu

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  • By the way mpoland each individual IS defining himself as though he has no effect on anyone else--you sound brilliant--surely you've been watching the news. Truly naive? Look at the guys at AIG--defined themselves that way--you call them truly naive? I call them greedy. The entire collapse of the economic system according to Schaller came about because of less regulation--according to me it came about because each individual defined himself as though he has no effect on anyone else. In a highly populated and competitive world it is almost as if each individual cannot help behaving this way--this was economic Darwinism at work--the strong preyed on the weak, some of the weak died, some teetered and managed to live, the rulers of the strong and the weak imposed regulations, some of the strong lay low, some of the strong were carted off after being rendered weak, then the strong came out of their holes--dusted themselves off-- the rulers kissed them and made up...the cycle started again-- Darwin laughed in the sky--I call this hyper capitalism chases socialism chases hyper capitalism--a game of pin the tail on the donkey. unellu

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  • "Sister Poland" is unnecessary, friend. I'm a dude and the lame commie joke isn't necessary, either. I'm not going to get into how you contradict yourself repeatedly, but to your platitudes and generalities about greed and class I say, no kidding. They're still self-defeating bigotry. I was trying to suggest that there is far less free will involved in poverty than you'd like to think. Monks choose poverty, I don't know of too many others that do. Poverty is a systemic issue inherent in the kind of economic structure we have in America. I am not saying that socialist ideas will solve this - they have alleviated poverty and exacerbated it in different cases. I am only saying that they are ideas that stand outside the kind of economic system we have and can valuably critique it, allowing us to move ahead so that *all* Americans can have a chance at fulfillment. I'm not talking about the played-out right wing talking points about taxes and wealth redistribution. I'm talking about fundamentally reassessing our economic model, which has proven to be, as with Soviet-style communism, unsustainable. Moving past simpleminded identification of greed and corruption to something useful. There's something disturbingly nihilistic in your mangled pseudo-Darwinian libertarianism.

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  • Hi dude, Thank you--I would have called you comrade if I wanted to make commie allusions--anyway I salute you for your persistence in a world too preoccupied to converse. I speak not of my own beliefs when I say that human nature seems too potent and will render your high mindedness impotent. Greed and corruption should be an integral part of this discussion. What is this fundamental reassessment of our economic model you speak of--a critique is not the same as implementation--will your economic model be insulated from human nature--the current economic model is neither socialistic, nor capitalistic-it is as you have so eloquently and aptly put "nihilistic, and mangled pseudo-Darwinian libertarianism"--I didn't propound it my friend, I didn't put it in motion--it is all around you--despite the rules, the regulations, the critiques and so on- you suggest poverty is not a state anyone would voluntarily embrace--you seem to suggest people only seem to embrace it because they have never experienced any better--that the plutocracy and the aristocracy to stay in power and to stay rich may sentimentalize poverty for the long poor and plunder the wealth of the world but the poor themselves are not so happy with their state and would want out of it. Again your discussion does not take into account the colossal diversity in human nature. I've gotta go and stamp out a little bit of poverty here and a little bit of disease there--this is what I do for a living. Chow!

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  • You've completely misunderstood what I've said, and I frankly have no idea what you're talking about.

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  • That makes two of us, Matt. Your online detractor is out of his mind; you ought to ignore him.

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  • Hi Matt, I see I am outnumbered--you brought along a friend and he or she agrees with you--how nice for you--I am incomprehensible and therefore certifiable. I have misunderstood you, you say. How so? Is it perhaps your fault that you are being misunderstood--you are not talking about socialism, you are not talking about right wing taxation and redistribution of wealth but you are talking about ideas outside the economic models we have--what are these ideas or is that a secret you will share only with Sourpuss? By the way I am not your detractor Matt-I am a mere seeker of the enigmatic economic model that lies buried deep within your soul. unellu

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  • Ugh. Grand economic arguments always devolve into boring Human Nature arguments. Didn't we do away with talk about How We Really Are Deep Down Inside All Of Us back in '60s?

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