Tagging Socialism

Sorry for the long, unexplained hiatus, life sort of got away from me for a little while there, and I’m now living in another province while working on both sides of the border. Not to say I’ve got everything locked down, but it’s back to where I can find the time to write one of these things and not feel like I’m short-changing myself and the people who inexplicably wander by here and read what I post. So, with that said, on to business.

While driving to work the other day, I happened to notice some graffiti that had me wishing I carried spray paint in my car so I could post a reply in rebuttal; it read, “Socialism doesn’t work” in large blue letters, with the philosopher’s name signed below. What I would have written beneath it if I had been equipped to do so was, “Except for when it benefits me, which is surprisingly often; then it’s OK.” I mean, it’s just such a puerile and flippant thing to write on a public building, it ought to have some sort of response to counteract the decaying effect on public thought, shouldn’t it? By no means am I advocating some sort of universal socialism where everything is owned and operated by the government, but to say in stark terms that, “Socialism doesn’t work,” full stop, is such a demonstrably false statement that the simple-mindedness of it calls out for educational correction. It could take the form of a simple list of all the social programs and services that citizens of liberal western democracies enjoy and depend on regularly, including health care, education, roads, water treatment plants, street lights, police and fire protection services, safety regulations, public broadcasting, weather services, and the mother of all social spending items, our various military branches, among any number of other items. This list could go on for ages, itemizing point by point just how many things in our daily lives, from workplace safety regulations to student loans to the new MRI unit at our local hospital, are direct results of socialism, but I really don’t think this is the way to go about addressing this glaring point of ignorance.

Perhaps a better way to approach this attitude is to look at what socialism is at its roots and examine what rejecting it really entails. Maybe there is something down at the bottom of what socialism is that really is a pernicious evil that ought to be opposed, regardless of the incidental benefits we citizens might gain from it. Let justice be done, thought the heavens fall and my Employment Insurance benefits disappear, right?

So, what is socialism then? Is it really the cancerous blight on society that some would say it is? Is Tommy Douglas really the Worst Canadian and not our Greatest? Taking Tommy as our model, we’re talking about someone who is often cited as one of the central figures of Medicare in North America, and his was the first socialist government formed on this continent, so I think he’s as good a person as any to look to as an example of socialist thinkers, and better than most. His roots in this school of thought go deep, right down to his childhood experience with a bone infection that almost cost him his leg; in reference to this he said, “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.” This was a man who had socialism right down in his bones, in a manner of speaking.

Well, if that’s what he says was behind his drive to provide socialized medical care to every citizen of Saskatchewan, let’s take him at his word and think about what his statement means. Is it reasonable to think that poor people ought to have access to the same level of care as their richer neighbours? Should a six-year-old have his leg cut off because he had the misfortune to get a bone infection while being the child of poor parents who cannot afford the services of a top-level surgeon, while another child with a similar medical problem is treated due to his good luck of coming from a wealthy family? When you state it in these terms, it seems more than a little cold-hearted to parcel out medical care based on something the patient has little or no control over, such as to whom they were born. In terms of dispensing medical care in a just manner, it seems like such an arbitrary criterion is not well suited for the task, and maybe Tommy’s right on this one point, but that’s just one point, it doesn’t go beyond this context because it’s a special case.

Now unions, that’s one place where Tommy just falls right on his face, right? Nothing like a union to tank your economy; with their outrageous demands, unreasonably high wages, and poor work ethic, there’s no force for economic evil greater than a union, that’s just a fact. Right?

OK, while I’m not going to defend the abuses that organized labour have gotten into, the racketeering, bribes and myriad forms of corruption that union opponents will bring up every time the subject comes up, let’s take a moment and think back to what workers were dealing with a century ago. Working conditions were downright Dickensian, with no limits on hours, no minimum wage protections, and no kind of safety regulations in place to protect people from death and dismemberment while trying to earn a living. In the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, police brought guns to a fistfight, and countless other examples from the period go to show that while our modern unions might be bloated and unnecessary at least in a number of cases, this certainly was not the case back in the early 20th century. Workers had few if any rights and conditions were grim for millions among the working poor. Tommy had a rather clear opinion on this situation, as he illustrated in his Cream Separator parable; he wasn’t saying that Capital should get none of the cream, just that the people producing the whole milk and working the machinery ought to get a little of it as well, rather than pouring all of it down one greedy throat. Think about your own working situation: would you be better or worse off if workplace regulations were thrown out tomorrow and your employer could set their own rules about how you were treated, paid and protected from accidents?

Abuses and corruption aside, doesn’t it seem like maybe unions have done you some good along the way in your working life? And really think hard, can you remember an example of union corruption that had a direct impact on you in any way that wasn’t balanced out or outweighed by some sort of offsetting corporate corruption? In my own direct experience, unions in general have been a roughly zero sum in terms of direct effects; they got me a little higher pay and marginally better benefits than I might have gotten for an equivalent position in a non-union shop, but my union dues didn’t do squat for me when the company shut our plant down, so call it a wash.

Going back to my earlier question, what is socialism then? In its own terms, it’s about being concerned about society in general, rather than our own small clan of friends and relatives. It’s about being social, for lack of a better term. I know it’s kind of an outdated idea, but isn’t that one of those notions we used to think of as being a good thing? You know, helping your neighbour when he gets stuck in the snow, wanting to see the Bob Cratchits and Tiny Tims of the world get a nice roast goose on Christmas Eve? It seems that rejecting this kind of thing is something good people wouldn’t do back when I was a kid, but maybe that’s my age creeping up on me and clouding my memory a little. Don’t we want the rising tide to lift all our boats, not just the luxury yachts we convince ourselves we’ll be owning one day when our ship comes in (to mix nautical metaphors a little)? Are we really so self-deceived that we honestly believe we’re all going to be part of the 1% some day, all the laws of mathematics to the contrary? What else could convince us that stacking the deck for the haves against the have-nots was a good way to set up our society, if not some sort of misguided selfish interest?

This is the center of my gut reaction to that offending graffiti, the idea that being social doesn’t work; that sharing with those around us and caring about the well-being of our fellow citizens is a misguided political philosophy that ought to be rejected by right-thinking individuals. Was this tagger’s kindergarten experience really so twisted that he came away from it with the lessons we all learned as children turned 180 degrees so that sharing was wrong and looking out for Number One was the highest ideal we should base our government and society on? Was this spray painting subversive so traumatized by being forced to share the cookies his mother sent him to school with that it echoed in his political philosophy to this day and inspired him to lash out in an act of vandalism?

Whatever the reason might be, somebody needs to give that graffitist’s inner child a few hours of Romper Room and a nap, because he’s cruising for a time out.