A persuasive essay against utopian statism in all its forms.
|Malvina Reynolds’ 1960’s song “Little Boxes”, later performed by Pete Seeger, provided an archetypal expression of deep-rooted distaste for American suburbia:
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same...
And they all play on the golf-course...
And they all get put in boxes...
And they all come out the same...
The song has been remembered fondly by millions as an enlightened lyrical association of suburban life with a total loss of individuality. Predictably, it was received well in places with real examples of suburbia.
A debut of “Little Boxes” in Cuba or the USSR would have been more clumsy on Reynolds’ part.
There, the closest parallel among economic planners and social engineers to “suburban conformity” are urban obedience and agrarian serfdom. Why allow a population to subject itself to commercial conformity when conformity can be institutionalized? Reynolds argued that the choices of “pink, green, yellow, blue” houses were false indicators of individuality. Because socialism does not consider the individual, but the leadership element to be the most vital in society, it was inevitable that Soviet citizens found themselves either in cinderblock houses or in political prison. Spared from the choice of an American “little box”, lives were lived in grey cement boxes just as perfectly representative of the statist attitude as Reynolds’ lyrics were supposed to represent the shallowness of Western life.
Reynolds, like other Western socialists, did not view individual choice as compatible with a perfect world, but as a negative and unfortunate characteristic of a fallen world. After repairing the world by arranging every aspect of the human condition perfectly for all posterity, the world would transcend the old-fashioned emphasis on the influence of the individual, replacing it with a collective social conscience affording eternal peace and harmony. Currency would cease to exist and the world would boast perfect health and literacy statistics. In Cuba, where private investment is restricted (mostly restrictions against Cuban citizens themselves, not against those outside the border) and 76% of Cubans work for the government, this only means maintaining a workforce that can work perpetually in its primary sectors of energy (petroleum) and services (tourism).
Cuba’s comfortable stagnancy (evident in its apparent 1950’s throwback theme that is actually its average consumer’s level of technology) has made it a poster child for the idea of “successful socialism” that has fit the debate since 1959. 76% employment by the government alone is admittedly an impressive statistic, at least when viewed with a willingness to ignore the government’s management of all published media forms, and its subsequent banning of any anti-government propaganda under a penalty of up to three years in prison. With no need for unions in a theoretically perfect economy and society, they don't exist. There are no Pinkerton agents because the government fills that role for itself.
No revolution, violent or peaceful, has ever ended with utopia. Between the Castro family, Chavez’ multi-million dollar “dictator’s retirement fund”, Mao’s farmer-run steel mills sitting in wheat fields, and Lenin’s exclusive vanguard politics, which led to Stalin’s exponentially inclusive “disappearing comrade” policies, utopia through coercion has in all these past experiments resembled the post-apocalyptic vision that revolutionaries saw for the capitalist world. Unlike in free markets, where depression has always been followed by recovery, a crash within a statist system means that millions have already died, as Mao (among others) discovered.
Alternatively, there is the European Union’s case with its 21st century slow melt. To paraphrase the head of the European Investment Bank, Werner Hoyer, the Eurozone crisis “has no prospects for settling down any time soon”. Only time will tell when private investors are willing to touch Europe without fear of losing everything, but in the meantime the EU will continue to discuss its member nations’ still unsolved debt issues as well as the potential death of the Euro currency itself. Emphasis on discuss.
Malvina Reynolds also wrote the following lyrics for a socialist publication including entries from youth in the movement. The lyrics displayed a sense of confidence and righteousness absent, or at least less overt in modern mantras:
They’ll get nothing, those who shirk,
Those who do all will get the all...
Everything will be alright,
If the workers of the world unite.
According to the anonymously authored “The Youthful Guardsmen”, a children’s song from The Socialist Songbook, compiled and still sold by the American “People in the National Office of the Young People’s Socialist League”:
Our aims are set on victory,
Our enemies must fall.
With ordered step, red flag unfurled,
We’ll build a new and better world.
We are the youthful guardsmen of the proletariat.
Of course, most modern movements for statism don't their ship with product with packaging so blatantly militant in more than one sense. Despite Europe’s apparent claim to “successful socialism”, between the European Union’s attachment to economic protectionism, the restrictive immigration policies of several Euro nations, and a multigenerational policy of heavy spending and even heavier borrowing, the reality of a Europe currently engaging itself in a self-feeding cycle of immigrant-juggling and attempts to bail itself out with taxes that incite as much rioting as recovery is a striking parallel to the popular vision of a social and economic oasis.
This isn’t to say that by comparison the American economic system is one that the world should emulate. Far from it. While according to the World Bank, American tariff rates stay reliably under 2% compared to the EU’s more complicated range of 6.4% to 37.6% (calculated by the World Trade Organization), a 2016 context for America presents the implications of two popular presidential candidates dedicated to protectionism (D. Trump, B. Sanders). Important to recognize is that the States have more in common with Europe than is popular to admit. As the Washington Post, NY Times, and other outlets are routinely “surprised” by, “two-thirds of all subsidies benefit big banks, businesses”. Naturally, particularly unscrupulous big businesses aren’t opposed to “reform”, but only to changes that directly harm them. Therefore the pragmatic decision is not to operate outside of the government’s influence, but to move into it. As Cuba’s Castro family and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have demonstrated, the most robust and profitable monopolies possible are run from leadership positions in government. While articles are written daily about subsidies in the United States, discussion about subsidies in Europe starts within the context of vast databases of funding programs still running in spite of greater economic issues. For example the “CEF - Connecting Europe Facility” subsidy program will, with its 30.4 billion euro budget, ensure a more sturdy international transport system. One would assume this means being able to observe the sites of recent Swedish and Greek riots in the same day, even faster than the private sector would have allowed!
Outside of openly dictatorial circles, between Europe’s attempts to circulate nonexistent money to trouble spots, the US’s emulation of Europe’s tradition of financial folly, China’s bizarre hybrid of Communist leadership given capitalist-style management practices, and Cuba’s outright dynastic control economy, it becomes clear that statism in any of its forms, including socialism, is no more just than monarchy or anarchy. Nor does socialism transcend the weaknesses of a capitalistic society. In socialism’s least self-destructive moments it creates situations like modern Europe’s, a Depression-style atmosphere delayed until a century after America’s, and being handled just as incompetently. In its worst times, through its counterpart of communism, it ends with the decimation of the “dictatorship of the people” supposedly holding the reins. In the name of utopia. Former communist David Horowitz noted that as the USSR crumbled, “someone [in the Soviet Government] -Boris Yeltsin perhaps- observed that it was a pity that Marxists had not triumphed in some smaller country, because ‘we would not have had to kill so many people to prove that Utopia does not work'".
Utopia as a policy goal binds all statist systems together through all of its numerous and futile incarnations. Fascism, communism, and socialism are closer to each other than they are different from capitalism. All statist systems institutionalize a board of economic and social engineers that purportedly represent faceless and voiceless “masses”, as Marxists prefer to describe groups of individuals.
All statist systems exercise policies and assume control that would in a free market only be allowed in wartime, a rather uncontroversial example being World War Two; instead of creating favorable conditions for progress, socialist and fascist policy attempt “conscious organization of industry”. Swathes of journalists, policymakers, and citizens are ritually outraged when monopolies become overly influential. But rather than an inevitability of capitalism, monopoly is directly supported by economic policy. Between subsidies for dying or growing industries, protectionist tariffs, and institutionalized economic "planning", monopoly is often as much a product of faulty policy as any private action, if not doubly so.
All statist systems maintain a simulated economy. True socialist and fascist systems at least attempt a facade of a competitive market, though inordinate effort goes into assigning arbitrary or convenient prices to goods outside of supply and demand. Communism on the other hand disposes of the market concept altogether as , only interacting with the market through hypocritical international trade, as communism is theoretically self-sustainable. All statist systems embody these characteristics because of their belief in the viability of utopia. Utopia translates as “no place”. Rather than interpreting this as a simple statement of its impossibility, statists interpret it as a challenge. With ripe circumstances and capable leadership, utopia would spring up and convert the world into paradise. Most ironic here is that systems based on “dictatorship of the many” have always hinged on the guidance of the few; this universal relationship serves as a direct, however altered reflection of the Utopian perception of a capitalist society controlled by an elite element.
Utopian thought, however rigidly cynical in concern to the state of the world as it is, requires subscription to the idea that people are essentially good, and that all or most evil is a result of victimhood. After the deaths of Stalin and Hitler, post-death psychoanalysis was the popular method for dismissing the failures of nations as the personal failures of misguided, even mentally-ill individuals who found themselves in command of control economies. Stalin’s paranoia was described in a research paper by Marina Stal from Columbia University, citing Stephen Baum’s book The Psychology of Genocide as claiming that genocidal leaders are the products of “a lack of maturation and an abundance of social identity”. This may to an extent be true, but it may also be true that statism in all its forms, especially communism and fascism, fit this description equally well.
Being more palatable than either of these systems is a minor achievement for socialism. Millions of deaths as a result of policies unrelated to war is a hard feat to match. But socialism’s case is still weakened by its direct relation to them through similar foundational policy.
As Lenin wrote: “The goal of socialism is communism”. Marx wrote that “the ruling ideas of each era have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”; perhaps with the next wave of socialism’s proliferation around the world that statement is more fitting than ever. The world shied away from it during the Cold War, but with the absence of a true socialist or communist superpower for decades, it has become increasingly appealing, especially to nations already in financial distress. What direction will the next failures of utopian experiments take public policy? Most likely nowhere. Excuses are cheap, and utilitarianism is after all about the most efficient way of making as many people as possible happy, so the failure of systems will likely continue to be attributed to the failures of individuals.
A mainstream rejection of statism, of Utopianism, would be a rejection of overly-simplistic solutions to complicated problems. To return to a present-time context, the utopian promise of prosperity and security espoused by the Sanders and Trumps of the world is the same exchange of power for security that defines many aspects of modern politics in the free world, and all aspects of life under statist control.
While the freedom to trade without the burdens of protective tariffs, without the artificial advantages of commercial subsidies, and without the presence of a synthetic market is an essential one, its counterpart is the freedom of exchange of ideas. This is the same freedom that rightfully allows conversion to other types of government if the people make or let it happen. This is in contrast to governments with the pre-existing conditions of these statist systems, particularly in developed nations. The United States is convertible into an attempted paradise, be it fascist, socialist, or communist. Europe at least has the opportunity to make fundamental changes in policy every time there’s an international flood of bailout requests, however sparse those changes (and whether or not those opportunities are taken at all). Cuba, however, could hypothetically remain stuck in the 1950’s forever, with everyone on government payroll still working in energy plants and serving American tourists.
As the German poet Friedrich Holderlin wrote: “What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven. The ultimate destruction of human nature and experience are the inevitable outcomes of the search for utopia. Utopia will remain no-place until humans transcend humanity in all of its strengths and weaknesses, in the end having (and deserving) neither.