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.

Miles Kampf-Lassin October 24, 2018

The Trump administration is taking the rise of socialism very seriously. (Katie Sharing / DSA-NYC)

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).

Socialists present a break with the logic of capital not simply by elevating policies that downwardly redistribute wealth, but also through redistributing power.

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. 

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. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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