Friday, October 3, 2008

Is the Proposed Economic Bailout a Socialist Solution?

After the initial announcement of the 700 billion dollar economic bailout plan, Jonathan Alter appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and made light of Republican support for it by comparing it to Senator John McCain’s response to the earlier military conflicts in South Ossetia. McCain had declared at that time that “We are all Georgians.” Alter then said that with the economic bailout plan, ”We are all socialists now.” Oh, are we? Some of us had always been socialists. For my part, I rarely define myself along the lines of parties or bandwagon ideologies, but I am a firm believer in and advocate for the benefits of socialism. And from that standpoint, I can say confidently that this, my friends, is not socialism. Indeed, I would say that anyone who does declare proudly “I am a socialist” should be deeply offended by any implication that the Paulson/Bush plan is a socialist alternative.

As of this writing, the new bailout (excuse me… rescue) plan – the one that expands two and a half pages of largely objectionable material to a practically unreadable four hundred fifty – has passed the Senate, with the House vote expected soon, and its outcome uncertain. The interesting thing, as has been noted in some analysis of the twenty-five “no” votes last night, is that the only Congressmen standing firmly against this legislation are those on both far ends of the mainstream political spectrum. There are, of course, few or no admitted socialists in the US House of Representatives, though there is a fair abundance of free market capitalists. The House vote on the original bailout package, then, afforded me a rare opportunity to cheerlead the Republican party from my living room, as they voted two to one against it. Of course, one-third of Democrats helped to defeat the bill, as well, and I am all the more fond of their probable rationalizations for it, but even a capitalist empire guided by a kleptomaniacal invisible hand is preferable to what the original bailout plan sought to enthrone.

That would-be system of financial-governmental collusion is not socialism. It is not traditional capitalism, either, and to call it that would perhaps be the more foolish. It is neither of these, but rather an enemy to both, something we might term governmental corporatism. It is, in other words, larceny, as After Downing Street explained marvelously by pointing out ten egregious aspects of the original plan. The media in general has detailed some of these with reasonable thoroughness, namely, that the plan amounted to issuing a blank check to financial institutions, without restrictions on golden parachutes for top executives, and without any measures to protect homeowners. This coverage has, however, perhaps come at the expense of adequate focus on the absence in the original plan of any added regulation of or control over the institutions bailed out. The current administration had every intention of channeling money from the lower classes to the fantastically wealthy so that the existing predatory and exploitative practices of a debt-based economy can continue unchecked.

Make no mistake, this is precisely what the Bush administration wanted. It is exactly in keeping with a now long history of promoting cronyism, acting to increase the profit margins of large corporations, and dismantling the middle class. White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto acknowledged that the White House had been sitting on its 700 billion dollar scheme for some time, but claimed that he thought a couple of days was sufficient time for the legislature to consider it – and pass it. No doubt there was an agreed upon sense within the White House that if such an unpalatable plan was unveiled during a time of perceived crisis, it would be passed in a virtual panic, with little resistance from either ideological base in Congress, or from the American people, who would be intensely worried about their job security and economic future. Of course, there actually is resistance amongst both of those groups, and perhaps Bush and Cheney and Paulson and Bernanke failed to consider that with this, at long last, Bush would be a uniter, not a divider, bringing together a disdain for government interference and for private exploitation with respect to the economy. And perhaps they failed to perceive a latent skepticism in the American people, about a million of whom have little reason to be concerned with the security of the jobs they don’t have, and more of whom likely do not gauge their personal well being according to the success of large financial institutions.

It’s been clear that a majority of American citizens are opposed to any bailout whatsoever. Any individual’s opposition, and perhaps yours, could have any of a number of reasons underlying it. It might be that you wish to preserve the purity of the free market, and you may wish this even if the price of that is economic depression. But there is no justification for opposing the current language of bailout plans on the basis that they are bringing about a socialist state. They are not. This is maneuvering by the propertied class, for the sake of protecting and strengthening the propertied class. An editorial piece on the first bailout, written in surprisingly class-sensitive terms, puts it plainly:

The purpose of all this will be to save the people who happen to be in charge of the payments system and to save the propertied class generally. But people without many assets, people who don't earn enough to own housing, people who could gain from lower housing prices and lower prices of everything else, are not even in the government's equation.

That being the case, you might oppose the economic bailout because you fail to see genuine consequences should it fail. I accept that this view is shortsighted and naïve. I understand full well that there may be dire consequences, though I also suppose that there may be a depression regardless of whatever late steps we take. The consequences of deregulation are already being felt, and the poor are still growing poorer while we talk about a bailout of financial institutions. If there is no such, still more may join the lower class, and taxes may increase overall anyway, but what is important from my perspective, a pro-socialist perspective, is that these are consequences I am perfectly willing to accept. Paying the government to provide unemployment benefits to persons laid off or unable to find work, or to subsidize housing or grocery costs to those who are underemployed or underpaid is perfectly acceptable. This is the essential role of government. But to accept a bill levied on those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, to pay for the continued security of persons and solvency of institutions at the top, all on the supposition that the positive effects of that money will find their way back down to the producing class is asinine. This is not the role of good government, but that of oligarchy, of kleptocracy.

That’s not socialism. Socialism, explicitly defined, does not channel wealth through private institutions. Of course, the definition of that term has grown decreasingly explicit over the years, but we must butcher it to a formerly inconceivable degree if we are to let this bottom-up redistribution of wealth be understood as socialism. For there to be strict socialism, there must be government ownership of the means of production. That is to say, there must be regulation par excellence before the government has even stepped towards such an identity. But Wall Street, if Paulson has his way, not only remains a collection of private, independent institutions, but continues on unfettered by any regulation. There is no socialism there. There are not even shades or threats of socialism. Conservative Americans are very sensitive to those threats. They perceive certain doom, in the form of banished financial liberty, if Congressmen so much as suggest providing affordable health care to the poor among us. The bastardized definition of a socialist state is one that levies tiered taxes on its citizenry to pay for government institutions, or even simply subsidize the high costs of citizen engagement with private institutions for their own personal well-being. And in our current situation, that would be a propos of what? The most obvious answer is purchasing a home, and we can find not one provision in the original plan that so much as protects homeowners affected by poor loan practices. Indeed, it had the government taking on mortgages at excessively high values, and rather encouraged accelerated foreclosure rates, for the sake of recouping money for the Treasury. No socialism there.

You may have any number of reasons for opposing this or any other Wall Street bailout. I would encourage most any of them. But do not oppose it on the basis that it is a socialist alternative. It is nothing of the sort. And far from supporting that rationale, I would urge, in no uncertain terms, that if you fear socialism, or its would-be offspring, Marxist Communism, lend your support to this bailout. For if it fails, we are likely to lose more banks, and more brokerage firms, and low-level Wall Street employees will be put out of work, and a “crisis of confidence” will continue in our national economy, and unemployment will continue to rise. And the worse things become for the underclass, the more they will be motivated to organize, and to demand change. And the more the economy suffers, the closer that underclass moves towards a critical mass, whereby the imbalance of class power becomes increasingly difficult to rationalize, increasingly indefensible, and the more likely to breed unrest. Hard times, times of widely shared strife, breed revolution in society, be it revolution by arms, or revolution of thought, or revolution in political engagement. A reader of the blog Deer Hunting with Jesus, in detailing the practically endless, artificial inflation of home prices, envisions this outcome:

They told us we should fear the consequences if they did not swindle us. That the financial system would fall apart. So we are on the hook for more than we are going to earn. More than we can generate after making a living. At some point, it just won't be worth it to go to work anymore. Or pay taxes. And then we start to barter, to move to grey economies and off the books transactions.

And if there is anything the uber rich should fear, it's for the rest of us to learn how little they actually contribute.

That reader and I seem to disagree somewhat on whether the bailout will push the underclass forward or hold them back, but perhaps his last comment describes a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the swindle goes on one way or the other, no matter what legislation is pushed on us, or courageously defeated. Still, I say that if you call yourself a socialist, or a communist, you should resist the bailout, because there is a public good to be obtained only on the other side of our mutual suffering and endurance. The bailout may protect a few, and it may instill some small and false confidence in the tattered remnants of the middle class. But the continued descent into depression will be all the more evident if it fails, and when things are permitted to get worse, they will get better. If, however, you despise the very word “socialism,” and you are satisfied as you are, and you have complete trust in the society that has brought us to this, then put forth your money to rescue Wall Street and to demonstrate your trust. What we are considering is not simply a bailout of private financial institutions, but a bail out of the status quo, and if that is what you believe in, and if you believe in it against a socialist alternative, it is the best that you have. But consider the matter carefully, because if the bailout passes, the best case scenario is that nothing changes.