On Monday I gave a talk about socialism at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, MA. Because Andover is one of the oldest and most expensive private schools in the United States, I thought it would be worth beginning with the subject of educational inequality. Below is the speech I prepared, though when I delivered it I ended up improvising a bit and going a bit more “off the cuff.” The students were delightful and asked thoughtful and challenging questions. I’d like to thank Derek Curtis for arranging the whole thing, he was extremely kind and helped me lug my bag across campus.
We’re going to talk about socialism and capitalism and whether those words are meaningful and how we should use them and I’m going to make the case that socialism is good and capitalism is bad and that you should be a socialist and use your life to try to make the world more socialistic. I am going to try to avoid just having a terminological discussion about what abstract terms mean, and instead talk about the principles that I think should guide us as we consider political and economic questions.
But before we get into theories I want to start with facts. I have a friend who teaches 2nd grade in Detroit. She buys her own school supplies, in fact 94 percent of teachers end up spending their own money on school supplies, so that isn’t unusual. But she told me: These kids are lovely and they are smart, but they just do not have what you need in order to learn. Many of them come to school hungry, some are often homeless and don’t know where they’ll be spending the night. Separate from the issues that come from poverty at home, the school just isn’t able to provide them what they need. My friend has about 30 students in her class, and because some of them are severely autistic she spends all her time trying to keep order in her classes and at the end of the week she despairs because she wishes she could have taught them something but doesn’t feel like she’s been able to do her job. All this is made worse by the fact schools are dilapidated and there isn’t enough money to pay for the basics. Forget having a good music program or good sports equipment. Detroit recently estimated that its schools need $500 million worth of repairs, and they’ve just admitted that it’s not going to happen. Here’s a 2016 description of conditions in one of the elementary schools:
The gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold. Instead of professionally addressing the problem, a black tarp simply was placed over the entire area like a Band-Aid. That area of the school has been condemned. The once beautiful pool sits empty because no one has come to fix it. The playground is off-limits because a geyser of searing hot steam explodes out of the ground. What do our kids do for exercise with no gym, playground or pool? They walk or run in the halls.
And coming to your idyllic campus, here in beautiful Andover, I can’t help but think about my friend’s students. The school you have here is amazing, it’s what a school should be. Your teachers are well-paid, your library is well-stocked, your grounds are well-maintained, you have every conceivable resource at your disposal. If you want to bring someone to come and give a talk, you can pay for them to come. But I think we all know that there is some kind of serious social injustice when some people go to schools where the gym has been condemned, and some go to schools that offer 30 different sports. Whatever we might think about how people earn success, when you’re young you don’t really earn much of anything. The kids in the Detroit School system are there because of the accident of their birth, and you are here because of the accident of your birth. That’s not to say that you don’t work hard, or that you aren’t smart—I am certain that you do and you are. But we all know that there is no element of justice in whether a 10 year old is hungry and homeless, because children really have very little control over their lives. The statistics on youth homelessness are really staggering—in the United States, it’s 4.2 million young people who are going to spend at least some part of each year not knowing where they’re going to stay. And while we often discuss the United States, when we start looking at the whole world things become just unfathomably unfair.
I’m beginning here, with a basic example of an unjustified inequality, because I think it’s important to see what I might call “the socialistic instinct” starts. Jack London, of Call of the Wild fame, was a socialist, and he explains in his essay “How I Became A Socialist” that it was not because he had read Karl Marx and accepted the dialectical materialist conception of history. It was because he went out into the world, and he realized that not everyone was like himself, and that the things he told himself about why some people deserved more than others simply broke down once he actually got to know people. He says that when he was young, at first:
I looked on the world and called it good, every bit of it… This optimism was because I was healthy and strong, bothered with neither aches nor weaknesses, never turned down by the boss because I did not look fit, able always to get a job… And I looked ahead into long vistas of a hazy and interminable future, into which, playing what I conceived to be MAN’S game, I should continue to travel with unfailing health, without accidents, and with muscles ever vigorous… I could see myself only raging through life without end like one of Nietzsche’s blond beasts, lustfully roving and conquering by sheer superiority and strength. As for the unfortunates, the sick, and ailing, and old, and maimed, I must confess I hardly thought of them at all, save that I vaguely felt that they, barring accidents, could be as good as I if they wanted to real hard, and could work just as well.
What changed his mind? London went out tramping, he says. And he went from the West, where jobs were plentiful, to the East where they weren’t, and he says he “found myself looking upon life from a new and totally different angle.”
I found there all sorts of men, many of whom had once been as good as myself and just as blond-beastly; sailor-men, soldier-men, labor-men, all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses. [I] shivered with them in box cars and city parks, listening the while to life-histories which began under auspices as fair as mine, with digestions and bodies equal to and better than mine, and which ended there before my eyes in the shambles at the bottom of the Social Pit.
Jack London’s socialism was formed by getting out of his bubble and actually trying to understand lives that were different from his own. And for me, that is where the socialistic instinct begins, not with economic theory but with a sense of solidarity, feeling a deep understanding, love of, and sympathy with your fellow human beings in very different circumstances, and wanting nothing for yourself that you do not also want for them. Terry Eagleton has a quote: “A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.” That really is the core of it. A socialist is, first and foremost, not just perturbed by injustice, but horrified by it, really truly sickened by it in a way that means they can’t stop thinking about it. It gives you the feeling that “we can’t do anything about that” or “that’s just the way of the world” is not acceptable.
I think both Jack London’s experiences, and my own observations here and at Harvard where I am a social policy student, testify to something important about inequality: The severity of the problem is never obvious when you are on top, because it is very hard to get concerned about things that you do not see before your eyes. Now, I have had days when I have looked around and felt like Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist who argues that we are all far too negative and need to wake up and smell the roses. Look at our excellent bistros, our growing GDP, our iPhones, the diminishment in extreme poverty, our global peace. And all of those things do exist. But then I remember how many people are in prison, how many people spend their days making the iPhones and growing the food and cleaning the bistro floors. It’s so easy not to notice the lives of others, because those lives are kept conveniently out of view—the prisons are far away in the countryside, the cleaning staff come in at night, the kitchen staff are confined to the kitchen. One of the most disturbing things about inequality is that two completely different situations can exist in the same place: paradise and hell on a single patch of ground. In New Orleans, where I live, you can see what that was like in the antebellum years: beautiful, peaceful Southern manor houses that also housed the unimaginable suffering of slaves.
The world has, in many ways, improved, in ways that are impossible to deny. It has improved in part through the efforts of activists who gave their lives. People have the eight-hour workday and the weekend because courageous working-class movements refused to tolerate exploitation. We have to be grateful for all the bounties that other people’s hard work has given us. But in many ways, the world has gotten more unjust even as it has gotten better, because there is a greater gap than ever between human potential and the reality many people face. So, for example, life expectancy has long trended upward for the United States overall, but it’s actually gone down for the poorest people, so that while the rich are living longer than ever there is a greater gap than ever before between people’s life expectancies. That gap means that even if on average you’re doing better, you might still have a more unfair world than before.
The standard argument that is used to defend the status quo is that for the most part, while the rich get extremely rich, the poor get better off too. Some people even call it a global miracle, because there are fewer people living on less than $2 a day than ever before, and they point to statistics showing “huge” gains for people at the bottom of the global economic spectrum. Now, this is partly a result of selective statistics. A lot of the decline in extreme poverty was in China, where a centralized government controls the economy, and if you look at Sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa, median income has actually not really moved. Often times if you look closely at the numbers, what you’ll see is that GDP per capita increases, absolute extreme poverty decreases, but you don’t actually have many poor people being lifted toward American standards of living. You’ll see charts showing that the income of the global poor increased by 50 percent or whatever, which seems like a great advance until you realize that it could mean the difference between having $1 and $1.50. What we should want is actually an increase of 1000 percent, because what you have is still billions of people living on amounts of money that are shockingly low. But more importantly, the degree to which we should be disturbed by deprivation should be directly correlated with the degree to which it is possible for us to do something about it. Even Bill Gates has called poor people’s deaths of preventable diseases a “failure of capitalism,” because when some people are poor and some people are rich, the economy will produce a lot of the things that rich people want (such as FitBits) and not a lot of things that poor people need (such as cheap medicines). Solvable problems go unsolved because the concept of economic value means that some people’s preferences matter far more than other people’s.
So, it’s not good enough to say that even though the rich are getting very rich indeed, to the point where most people in the world have almost nothing and a few people have more wealth than the GDP of many countries, if the poor are getting a little more then we have a well-functioning and just system of production and distribution. If there are still a million people dying of malaria every year, and our overall capacity to do something about that is increasing, then we should be more disturbed than ever before. One reason that I find extreme concentrations of wealth morally disgusting is that it is a kind of unrealized potential. Every day in New Orleans I see homeless people who don’t have teeth, and families who are evicted from their houses because they can’t afford rent, and people who stay in jail on minor charges because they can’t make bail. People who have extreme wealth could do something to help, and aren’t, and regardless of whether we think capitalism is efficient or people deserve what they get, the fact that so many bad things happen that could be prevented is something that I think should make every person somewhat nauseated. Everyone knows that—there are sociological studies like Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence about the way that people who have wealth are extremely uncomfortable about it. Howard Schultz of Starbucks doesn’t even want to be called a billionaire, he wants to be called a “person of means,” because he doesn’t want to be reminded that he’s a billionaire at a time when a lot of people can’t make their rent. People with wealth hate talking about money, hate admitting they have it, because it does seem shameful to have so much when other people have so little. And I do think we should all start with that sense of being troubled by the unequal distribution of benefits. But that doesn’t give us much of a political philosophy, or a political program.
With that moral starting point, then, of a revulsion at the disparities between the many and the few, let’s try to elaborate socialism a bit more. The word “socialism,” just like the word capitalism (and in fact the word democracy, justice, republic, etc.) has a highly contested meaning and I don’t think there’s any full agreement among people who call themselves socialists. Some people think socialists are those who support government control of industry, and capitalists are those who support private control of industry. That definition can’t work, because there are many socialists who don’t believe in the government at all, the anarchist socialists like Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin who believed that private power and government power were both tools used by the oppressors against the oppressed. What unites socialists in one big tent is a hatred of the concentration of wealth, and a belief that ordinary laborers deserve a fair share of the social product. The old slogan is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” and that does get at the nub of it. Whether we’re talking about a government redistributing wealth, or whether we’re talking about the internal workings of a company, people should be taken care of according to their needs and give according to their ability.
This is why socialists have historically pushed for government programs to take care of the sick, but why socialists also believe in unions, which aim to balance the power of employees against employers. Because it’s not just inequalities of wealth that we object to, but inequalities of power. We talk a lot about workplaces, because workplaces are extremely undemocratic places and employees often have very little power and very few rights. Your boss can fire you for things you say and do outside of work, and in the United States you have no remedy. Because you need a job in order to live, this can limit your realistic range of options in dealing with an abusive or exploitative boss.
This focus on power is something that I think distinguishes very strongly the socialist from the traditional liberal. Many of my friends work for nonprofit organizations, doing excellent work that they enjoy. But it’s been startling: A number of them are miserable at their jobs, even though they are doing the thing they love. Why? Because they have horrible bosses, and those bosses make absurd demands, threaten to fire them when they fail, humiliate and bully them, etc. Now, these bosses are liberals: They work on civil rights or racial justice. But they still subscribe to a fundamentally hierarchical social order, one in which people don’t get to vote for their bosses, where it’s the subordinates who receive performance reviews from their superiors rather than vice versa. Separate from any question of whether the public sector or the private sector is more efficient, libertarian socialists object to concentrations of power wherever they may be, and the power of employer over employee is one that is rarely discussed even though it causes a lot of unnecessary misery. Bryan Caplan, who is a staunch free market libertarian at George Mason University, whose most recent book is about why we need to get rid of public schools, recently reported from a cruise he took, and even he was kind of startled by the way that private enterprise tramples on the dignity of workers. He wrote:
If you’ve ever wondered if capitalism is turning human beings into machines, taking a cruise will feed your fears. The cabin stewards, for example, spend 10-12 hours a day making every room on their watch spotless. Then they disappear into the lightness belly of the ship, reemerging the next day to begin their duties again. An occasional shore leave aside, they work seven days a week.
It’s this dynamic that has caused the political scientist Elizabeth Anderson to call corporations a kind of “dictatorship,” because in their internal structure they are completely top-down. Anderson has argued that companies constitute a kind of “private government,” one that has a lot of control over people’s lives but that they often don’t have any say in the management of. We can see the way this impacts people like the Amazon warehouse workers, who don’t get any say as to how many boxes it’s reasonable to pack in an hour, or how many miles they can walk comfortably. That’s one reason that Elizabeth Warren has proposed a plan for something called “co-determination,” which they have in Germany, where workers would be guaranteed a certain number of seats on corporate boards in order to ensure that their interests were represented and not always sacrificed for the sake of maximizing profit.
There is another important difference between the way a socialist thinks and the way a liberal thinks, and it’s the difference between meritocracy and entitlement. I recently wrote about Barack Obama’s signature education plan, which was called Race to the Top. The way it worked was that states had to implement certain policies, like making it easier to found a charter school and instituting stricter teacher accountability, and then the states would compete for government funds with other states and the states that won the “race to the top” would receive grants from a $4.2 billion pot of money. And when this was announced, it was seen as a radical departure for traditional ways of funding schools, which focused on need: If the federal government has money, it picks the schools that need that money most and then it funds the things they need it for. This plan was merit-based. The result was that the money didn’t necessarily go to the schools that were the most destitute—the Detroit school system didn’t receive a penny of it, for instance—but instead it went to the schools that were the best, and I find that objectionable because to me it’s important to give everyone, regardless of their merit, what they need to meet the basic standards of a good life.
I think this focus on merit is something that socialists have historically found highly dubious, because it has a kind of social darwinism in it. For example, you might propose that we have an immigration system based on merit, where we let in people who contribute the most to the economy. But that would mean that people who were old, sick, or disabled were the least likely to gain admission, and because we have a society in which able-bodied white men do the best, you’d end up rewarding able-bodied white men. This is one reason why socialists talk a lot about universal programs, because we don’t want to be in the business of deciding who deserves what. If you take a school like this, or like Harvard, they have diversified a lot in recent years which is to their credit. Many of the students here are not from the kinds of backgrounds like the Bushes. But what has happened is a kind of rat race, where everyone is pitted against each other to be the best: Instead of guaranteeing everyone the best college education, only those who win the contest get it. Competition produces an impressive kind of productivity: If everyone is working hard for just a few available rewards, they are going to be phenomenally productive. But in many ways it leads to a less empathetic, more vicious society, in which my gains come at your expense.
There is an honorable socialist tradition. Libertarian socialists are not advocating bungling the economy like the leaders of Venezuela did, and it’s telling critics ignore examples of successful poverty reduction under socialistic governments or successful public sector industry or successful social institutions like public libraries. Our socialism is the socialism of Helen Keller, who said that while she may have been deaf and blind, those who mocked her socialism as ignorant were themselves economically blind and socially deaf. It is also the socialism of Albert Einstein, who said that “the economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source” of our evils, because “we see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor.”
I want to conclude by noting just why I think socialism and socialists are so important today. We are standing at a very precarious moment in time. The forecasts of the consequences of climate change make it clear that unless radical action is taken, the Garden of Eden that we live in will die. We are facing a very serious global problem, and even the Economist magazine has admitted that the unimpeded free market cannot solve climate change. The liberalism of Clinton and Obama has proved itself inadequate to deal with the most important human challenges: It does not understand how workers are exploited, it does not know how to fix the Detroit schools, it cannot take the radical action necessary on climate change. That’s why young people have been so eager to embrace democratic socialism, not because they have any nostalgia for the Soviet Union but because they see that those who call themselves capitalists simply don’t have answers to the questions we have, like how are people going to afford to pay their rent or how are we going to make sure that diabetics aren’t having to do GoFundMe campaigns for their insulin?
Socialists look around us and we see the vast gap, not just between rich and poor, not just the wealth gap between black and white or the income gap between men and women or the power gap between bosses and workers, but the giant gap between what humans could be as a species and what we are. We are dreamers, and proudly so. We can have a debate about what kinds of policies we ought to adopt that best embody the socialist instinct, but I think we all have to agree that the instinct itself is the right one, and that those who apply the label to themselves are the most pragmatic and clear-eyed about the problems of our times.
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