Web Only / Features » October 24, 2018
A Spectre Is Haunting the White House: Why the Trump Administration Is So Scared of Socialism
A new report from the Trump White House attempts to curb the growth of socialism in the United States. Clearly, the administration sees the movement as a real threat.
Socialists present a break with the logic of capital not simply by elevating policies that downwardly redistribute wealth, but also through redistributing power.
If you want proof that the growing popularity of socialism poses a real threat to the Trump administration—and to the dominance of market fundamentalism over the U.S. economy—just look at a panicky report released Tuesday by the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).
Titled “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” the 72-page document is a capitalist retort to rising calls for redistributive policies. Ostensibly (and bizarrely) released in recognition of “the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth,” the report acknowledges that “self-declared socialists are gaining support in Congress and among much of the electorate.”
Indeed, by the time the 2018 midterm elections come to a close, there will almost assuredly be three self-described socialists serving in the U.S. Congress—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders—along with dozens more in state and local offices throughout the United States. But it’s not just the historic growth in electoral power for socialists that has the current government worried. It’s the widespread embrace of socialism and social-democratic policies by the American public.
Medicare for All, a policy cornerstone of the resurgent American socialist movement, is supported by 70 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans. Policies such as a $15 minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee, higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations, free public college and urgent action to tackle climate change all similarly boast majority support. And more and more candidates are running on these ideas, as current office holders push for legislation that would make them U.S. law.
Clearly, the Right is losing the war of ideas. Apparently they hope an eye-glaze-inducing white paper will help pull the public back into their camp.
The ghost of Thatcher
The report frames its critique of socialism by quoting former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s oft-cited claim that “‘Socialist governments … always run out of other people’s money,’ and thus the way to prosperity is for the state to give ‘the people more choice to spend their own money in their own way.’”
It’s appropriate that the authors take the Iron Lady’s words as gospel, since she was similarly distressed by “creeping socialism” and used her time in power to push neoliberal economic policies of deregulation, privatization and austerity coupled with attacks on voting rights and organized labor.
The ruthless ideology grounding Thatcher’s market-centric economic philosophy, “monetarism,” was revealed by Alan Budd, one of her economic advisers, in 1992 when he called monetarism “a very, very good way to raise unemployment and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. So what was engineered there, in Marxist terms, was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labor and has allowed the capitalist to make high profits ever since.”
Such high profits for the super-rich are the type of benchmarks the CEA sets for judging economic success. Throughout the report, the authors consistently use “growth” as a marker for how capitalist economies are able to outperform socialist ones. (Never mind that a full 95 percent of income gains in the growth years following the Great Recession—from 2009 to 2013—went to the top 1 percent.)
Inequality levels in the United States continue to rival those of the Gilded Age, while the racial wealth gap grows ever larger and millions of Americans go without adequate access to housing, education, healthcare and other basic needs.
But these are not the concerns of the CEA analysts. Instead, they employ a series of absurd Friedmanite graphs, odd references to discarded Christmas sweaters as representations of mixed value (“the recipients of Christmas gifts sometimes value the gifts less than they cost the giver, as exemplified by Christmas sweaters that are never taken out of the closet to be worn”) and strange claims that “owning and operating a pickup truck costs the average worker in a Nordic country substantially more than it costs the average American worker” to prove that capitalism must be the only system capable of ushering in true “economic freedom.”
At no point, however, does the report address the fact that the kind of “economic freedom” the report’s authors are championing is incompatible with a profit-driven order that systematically deprives large swaths of the population of the freedom to live in an affordable home, be taught in a fully-funded school and access life-saving medical care without breaking the bank.
Whose economic freedom?
In fact, what the CEA authors really mean when they talk about “economic freedom” is the freedom of the market to determine the functioning of the economy—freedom for the few to have no limits on how much wealth they can accumulate while the many are deprived of the freedoms that come from having their basic needs met.
As Corey Robin explained, contesting the capitalist conception of freedom in the New York Times:
When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
Socialists present a break with the logic of capital not simply by elevating policies that downwardly redistribute wealth, but also through redistributing power. Injecting more democracy into the economy, taking the distribution of basic services out of private hands, divesting from the military and building rank-and-file power in the workplace would all fundamentally challenge current power relations. And that’s why the Trump administration is taking the threat posed by this new socialist upsurge so seriously.
The truth about M4A
It’s not just Tuesday’s report. Earlier this month, President Trump penned an op-ed in USA Today directly criticizing Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, claiming that it would somehow “eviscerate Medicare” and “threaten America’s seniors.” Of course, the plan would do no such thing, seeing as how it’s predicated on expanding the existing program—which functionally serves as a single-payer system—to all Americans. And as Sanders himself pointed out, Trump’s case is “full of lies.”
But one thing Trump did get right in his op-ed is that a full 64 percent of House Democrats, along with 15 Democratic senators, have signed on to Sanders’ plan. And in nearly half of all the races that Democrats are contesting this fall, their candidates are backing Medicare for All. That’s a massive shift from just two years ago, when few national Democrats openly favored such a plan. Even Hillary Clinton said in 2016 that single-payer healthcare would “never, ever come to pass.”
Sensing the surging popularity of Medicare for All, the CEA authors devote over a dozen pages to criticizing the policy. Yet, as Sarah Kliff points out, the report “inadvertently makes a case for single-payer” by showing that Medicare recipients in the United States actually face shorter wait times than those who hold private insurance. Oops.
A flawed critique
Accidental arguments for single-payer aside, the entire premise of the CEA critique of socialism misses the mark. After pointing to the failures of farming and food production under Stalin and Mao — models which, as far as I’m aware, no socialist politicians or Democratic Socialists of America organizers are publicly advocating for — the authors claim that “the lessons from socialized agriculture carry over to government takeovers of oil, health insurance, and other modern industries: They produce less rather than more.”
The implication is that socialist policies would result in scarcity—breadlines, famine and rationed care. For socialists, however, the goal is not to eliminate production, but to shift it from boosting corporate profits to serving human needs. As Meagan Day explains, “Our goal is not to rein in the excesses of capitalism for a few decades at a time—we want to end our society’s subservience to the market.”
Medicare for All would replace the current system of private health insurance, which would spell the end of the industry. But it would do so in service of making health care a human right that all people have access to regardless of their ability to pay, and base our care provision on that proposition. Current plans for instituting Medicare for All—including Sanders’—also incorporate job training for health insurance workers to gain employment in other fields that would be more productive for society.
When it comes to the oil industry, socialists are clear that avoiding the worst effects of climate change—spelled out in detail in the recent IPCC report—requires leaving current fossil fuel reserves in the ground and immediately transitioning to renewable energy. That would mean stunting the oil industry’s growth, but it would be in service of the continued existence of our civilization. And energy production would massively increase in solar, wind, and other renewable sources instead of fossil fuels.
Another bizarre claim made in the report is that “Nordic taxation overall is surprisingly less progressive than U.S. taxes.” That statement may come as a surprise to Amazon CEO and U.S. resident Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth whose company paid zero in federal income taxes last year and has avoided $20.4 billion in state taxes since its founding in 1994. Also, because he lives in Washington State which has a notoriously regressive tax system, Bezos personally pays no state income taxes.
This type of tax avoidance is commonplace among U.S.-based corporate behemoths and the super rich—including President Trump himself who has boasted about it. If such a system is considered “progressive” by CEA standards, the bar has been set to a new low.
Naming the class enemy
One point that the report largely gets right is the fact that, throughout history, socialists have been effective at directly identifying their political opponents: “The socialist narrative names the oppressors of the vulnerable, such as the bourgeoisie (Marx), kulaks (Lenin), landlords (Mao), and giant corporations (Sanders and Warren).” While Warren, who has clearly stated “I am a capitalist,” may disagree with being named in such a list, she and Sanders have been effective at contesting the obscene role of corporate power in influencing our political system.
What has set Sanders apart, as Bhaskar Sunkara points out in The Guardian, is his insistence that a movement challenging the “billionaire class” and building working-class power is the only force that can truly transform the American political system, turning it away from oligarchy and toward democracy. And Sanders has set out to help bring about such a transformation under the label of democratic socialism.
Why they’re scared
With growing support for socialist policies and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) now counting over 50,000 members and running candidates in races across the country opposing the Trump administration’s policies on the economy, immigration, housing, healthcare and more, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the White House is attempting to tamp down on this swelling movement.
Yet while the Council of Economic Advisers expresses concern in droll, wonkish prose about the supposed evils of socialism, conservative activists are much more focused on instilling reactionary narratives and rolling back democratic rights throughout U.S. society.
Rather than trying to win over Americans by offering better policies, the Right is instead countering the Left’s success in the court of public opinion by disenfranchising voters, stoking racial animus, blanketing the airwaves with conservative propaganda, and bankrolling far-right candidates. Their strange pro-capitalist academic screed through official White House channels is just the intellectual side of that project.
The Trump administration has every reason to be scared. Socialists are building a movement.
Disclosure: The author is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. firstname.lastname@example.org @MilesKLassin
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