We can thank Bernie Sanders for making the “s” word (i. e., socialism) into a term relatively acceptable for mainstream dialogue. And we can give credit to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) folks for popularizing a sort of class consciousness (i.e., the1%/99%), a concept which has been consistently suppressed by a controlling elite class or made mostly invisible to most middle and lower class Americans for generations. While their tactics vary, at a minimum Sander’s supporters and OWS share socialist-type values of collective perspective and fairness, human considerations in addition to system ones in political/economic affairs, and a flattening of the political/economic status hierarchy.
Nevertheless, neither Bernie Sanders nor his supporters are going to do anything significant to achieve their goals or to incorporate their values into American governance. Winning a presidential election (or even just influencing the Democratic Party platform) will be nearly inconsequential in changing our 18th-Century-based American governance principles, institutions, and habits, much less prevail over elite class opposition.
And while the Occupy Wall Street characterization of class consciousness as the wealthiest 1% versus the rest of us has energized public discourse and more about political-economic injustice (even as that characterization is theoretically-invalid–see below), it has not been proven much helpful in advancing socialist values. OWS doesn't have a “roadmap,” so to speak, to advance beyond mere critique and agitation.
The sorry truth is that, other than motivating emotional reactions and some sympathy (and optimism) for progressive change in America, neither Sanders nor OWS will lead any significant change in liberal democracy. In other words, capturing a mostly figurehead role in an archaic political system and pointing fingers at the "bad guys” and raising hell in the streets and in alternative media sources provides for some (harmless) venting only.
As of spring 2016, it appears as if the dust has already pretty much settled and the little people will still continue to be subjected to the logic of the individualist and capitalist ideologies and the elite will still dominate. The system will still be rigged against the little people with all of the consequent negative outcomes for them.
Perhaps worse, after realizing failure, the hopes and inspirations of these purported change agents (especially youths) who have admirable high-minded values and willingness to sacrifice to advance them will turn into crushed expectations, deep frustration, and even despair. A lot of formerly energized supporters might just give up to cynicism (like so many Americans have already done.) This is the most likely outcome in the medium-long-term. What a huge waste of potential!
Some would like to think that the broadly-shared values of the Sanders/OWS and other social change activists (even some Tea Party supporters and populist conservatives) together with the enormous heart they bring to public policy debates and activism ought to amount to something important. But, that understanding is wrong. Mere angry and frustrated expressions of values (no matter how heartfelt and morally compelling) and unfocused, undisciplined, and incoherent protests and critique have almost always been too little. They have been trumped by overpowering capital, elite-dominated political and military forces, and immensely effective ideological manipulation powered by elite-controlled media and cultural institutions.
Except for a distressingly small number of historical events like the overthrow of the monarchical system and rise of democracy in the 18th-Century and the worker-friendly and social safety net legislation of the New Deal era in the early 20th-Century (resulting in the development of the American middle class), a tiny established elite class has almost always dominated the vastly more numerical little people, even in a majority-rule political system.
Social scientists, for the most part, understand how the logic of individualism/capitalism—incentivizing self-interest, competition, aggressiveness, and status—naturally results over time in a very tall social hierarchy with a tiny elite controlling the economic, political, and even cultural sectors of the society. This is so even though the elite class since the late 18th-Century has (reluctantly) accepted democratic principles which theoretically offer the multi-millions of little people an opportunity, at least, to outvote the much smaller set of elite members in matters of public policy and governance.
Yet, voting out the “bums" in favor of "new blood" has proven over centuries to be a worthless strategy for the little people (and a clear manipulation strategy for the elite.) The contemporary elite is enjoying a Golden Age lifestyle while the little people lose jobs, homes, pensions, health insurance, upward mobility, and trust in their authority institutions. Despite the rage of the general citizenry and the efforts of thousands of progressive activist and change organizations, things have actually worsened for the little people.
Why is this? Is the extreme status hierarchy the natural state of human society? Is (plutocratic) liberal democracy the ultimate form of governance (as many have argued?) Is the society we have now the best we can expect in governance and social relations in the 21st-Century?
The quick answers to these questions are No! No! And No!
There are five major reasons why “socialism”(or socialist values) in America are missing. (But, each of those problem areas can be fixed. The fix includes a new, theoretically-sound vision of society and a unique practical plan to unify the little people, focus them, and make it easy for them to support a significant social change movement in America based upon socialist-type values. See more below.)
1. There is no clear, shared understanding of what socialism actually means.
There is no definitive concept what socialism is, none theoretically sound anyway, and dozens of “soft” ones. That softness means vagueness, incoherence, centuries-old ideas unsuitable to contemporary society, etc. For some, it means new governance structures like Soviet-style authoritarianism, Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution, or a state-dominated political-economic system. Typical idealistic concepts of “worker" states, small communities with localized governance schemes, or anarchic social interaction among the little people freed from elite control, are either theoretically unsound, incomplete or incoherent, or operationally impractical, as well as vastly outside of our American experience.
If even the intellectuals and activists can’t agree on what socialism means, what can we expect among the multi-millions of little people who will have to support and achieve it? (What the hell is "socialism" anyway?) No one can design an effective program to obtain what is not clearly thought out (and theoretically valid.) No one can plan to implement what is not clearly articulated (and practical.)
Since significant social change will require the support and participation of millions of the little people, no solidarity will occur among them without a unified, accessible conception of what they will be asked to believe in and strive for. They need to know why it makes sense for them to ally with millions of strangers. They need to feel that a socialist change project is worth doing and is in conformity with their values. They need to know what specific benefits there may be for them. And, crucially for implementation, they need easy access into participation.
Without a clear concept of what socialism ought to mean: theoretically sound and practical, (relatively) simple to communicate and understand, values-based and broadly-targeted, and generally harmonious with historical and psychological American experience and habits—forget significant social change!
For the most part, the little people just want some semblance of economic security and fairness; space for human meanings like family, community, and the like; and respect for being the best that they can be where their lives matter in both the personal and social spheres. While it is not obvious to most, a smarter, more modern system of governance needs to be a part of a successful social change movement, too.
That set of elements is a sort of socialism that can make sense to most people. In other words, Balance, Meaning, Respect, and Smarter governance is what a modern, effective version of socialism ought to mean. Notably, this sense of socialism is essentially an alternative social ethos—a new set of public values—and not any alternative structural governance scheme. It is an attitude, not a regime concept. (See more below.)
In one sense, an effective socialist change program has to be a plausible, relatively straight-forward story outline of why and how the little people achieve private-public interest balances, human meanings, and respect. (People love good stories!) They need the complexities of economics and governance framed into a relatively simple but compelling story outline with themselves as characters in the story. They have to be inspired with the potential to shape the change narratives and to (hopefully) frame a realistic happy ending for themselves.
In sum, socialism ought to mean a value-based vision of modernized principles of governance and social relations in the form of an attitude based on a balance of private/public interests, space for the humanity of people, and respect for living the “small life” well. (We don't even have to call it socialism. How about something like the National Character Program?)
2. Class consciousness defined as the wealthy elite class versus the rest of us is theoretically unsound.
Since at least 19th-Century Marx and Engels, class consciousness has been conceived of as the wealthy elite class versus the rest of us. Those with the wealth aggressively dominate economics, politics, culture, and social outcomes. This concept, however, has never really caught on much (with American citizens, at least.) It has way too much unfavorable history and connotative baggage and has become toxic for much of public discourse.
More importantly, traditional Marxist-inspired class consciousness is mostly wrong, anyway; it is theoretically invalid. It doesn't explain well enough how and why wealth disparities alone equate to economic injustice and unfairness. It doesn't explain why some wealthy are not morally responsible for economic injustice and unfairness. It doesn't explain why some (many?) of the so-called 99% would have the same self-interested attitude and behaviors of that elite if they could make it happen.
There are, for example, large numbers of the wealthy (the 1%?) who do not exploit the little people, have earned their wealth honestly and honorably, and/or who share the values of the little people yet themselves are helplessly constrained by the imperatives of the individualist/capitalist system which dominates nearly all of us.
It's not fair to point an accusatory finger at them, for one. Secondly, doing so just alienates them from allying with the little people with whom they could be effective in facilitating progressive social change if there was a feasible program to facilitate that. (See more on this below.) More contemporaneously, OWS’ 1%/99% characterization of class is wrong, too, for many of the same reasons. While having some experiential appeal, correlating wealth and political power with exploitation and injustice is both unfair and inaccurate and operationally impractical for influencing public policy and social outcomes.
The conception doesn't explain why some members of the 99%—some labor unions, government officials, and even ordinary folks—for example, act as special interests and/or self-interested at the expense of the collective good little different than the openly self-interested elite class. They contribute in various ways to the individualist/capitalist logic which produces unfair social outcomes, makes our governance incompetent, and makes our social relations corrosive (all from a collective perspective.) Some of the 99% are just as self-interested, competitive, aggressive, and status-driven as the demonized 1%.
Although there may be a pretty high correlation between the sorry status and outcomes of the little people and the higher status and positive outcomes of a political-economic elite (the 1%?), in this regard, we are “slicing” the demographics incorrectly. It is not the positioning of people on a wealth/power scale which is valid and useful to illustrate economic-political injustices and hierarchies but the attitudes of people in taking either a private citizen or public citizen approach to social affairs. The better, more theoretically-sound class distinction is of those aggressively and righteously self-interested and those who morally and practically balance private and public interests.
Private citizens are aggressively selfish. They include, especially, special interests of all sorts, among both the elite and the little people. These people reject moral or practical responsibility for the good of the collective, the nation, the planet, and future generations. They are playing seriously and aggressively by the individualist/capitalist "rules of the game.”
"Socialist" people, on the other hand (perhaps a large plurality of Americans) are public citizens, meaning that they balance private interests with those of the collective. They see themselves as members of families, teams, communities, “Team Americans”, global citizens even, and stewards of the environment and of future generations. They do not need or want to exploit anyone. They believe in a national, collective interest and collective fairness, among other public-oriented values.
They have a separate track outside of the existing rules of the game which makes them (partially) independent of system needs, openly sympathetic to human needs, and comfortable with statuses and outcomes which are "middle ground” localized. In other words, they reject the private citizen focus on being the absolute best, the richest, etc. They are comfortable being the best that they can be, considering their set of traits and values. In other words, success for them is not the wealth/power standard of the existing system but in living the small life well.
The proper targets of socialist disapproval are those people who act as private citizens aggressively and righteously pursuing an individualist attitude ignoring or rejecting the most important values of socialism—collective perspective and fairness.
In sum, sound class consciousness involves a rejection of the wealth/power-based differentiation of Americans and an embrace of the private versus public citizen attitude instead. Thinking wrongly about these demographic traits means acting wrongly. We need to look at demographics that way so we can properly and more fairly target our attention and remedies.
3. Socialism is a mere set of values and not an organizing scheme for government institutions and processes.
While some people see socialism as some kind of formal alternative for society with its own economic and political structural and procedural elements, it is not a clearly-defined way to structurally organize society economically or politically. It is better thought of as a social ethos and attitude based on collective interests, rationality, and fairness. (A society imbued with such a social ethos will, however, eventually work out some new structural and procedural aspects in an organic, incremental manner.)
This sense of socialism doesn't have to reorganize economic production or activity; it doesn't have to offer a radically new political system; it doesn’t have to formally flatten social hierarchy in any legal way. It has no distinct organizational or managerial style and it doesn't set out a distinctive way of governance.
Try to conceive (with some sense of credibility and common sense) what a socialist “replacement” of individualism/capitalism could/should? look like. If you're thinking of a large set of self-governing localized communes or multiple self-sustaining communities, you are a dreamer. If you conceive of an overweening authoritative government run by good-hearted, incorruptible, principled officials with the interest of the little people a priority, you are not only a dreamer, but seriously risking an authoritarian dictatorship on top of that. The Russian Stalinist experience, as well as dozens of similar failures elsewhere, ought to have extinguished that way of thinking.
Even if we tried to come up with a set of new business structures, a reformed political system offering more access and leverage to the little people, and a large set of competent, incorruptible, principled leaders, we will come up short and disappointed. The richness and complexity of economic and political affairs, a multi-cultural citizenry, mass society, global relationships, change of all sorts in most areas of social life, and other elements, precludes effective and democratic management of it all by any programmatic regime.
We simply don’t have the managerial competence to control most of social life. Nor do we really want to, for good reasons. People—Americans especially—like their individualism and personal space and would object to a significantly revised set of governmental structures and processes regardless of the objective benefits such an overweening management system could provide to the vast majority of people.
In other words, we can’t easily alter much of our existing structures of economics or government. We can’t come close to effectively managing our vast scope and breath of economic activity and we don't want to excise the virtues of individualism/capitalism. Yes, there are virtues–individualism has inspired personal esteem and innovation and creativity, among other things. Capitalism has a relatively self-managing nature, a useful pricing system, an openness to innovation and creativity, some benign incentives, and the like.
Nor do we need to attempt to alter these elements in major ways. Instead of re-orienting the basic structures and principles of an entire nation with a long, deep history, we merely need to impose a new set of public (collective) values along side of what we have and flip the primacy of the private citizen attitude with that of the public one. Think, for example, how non-smokers have flipped the “rights” and interests of smokers who now subordinate their interests to those of non-smokers. This happened simply from a change in attitude.
Flipping, in other words, we make the public citizen attitude the primary one. That means that it's the private citizens who "go outside," so to speak, who pay more for their activities, who compensate for their negative impacts upon society, who are subjected to conditioning schemes to change their wants and behaviors, and who accommodate to the rest of us instead of the other way around, as it has been for generations.
We don’t have to manage the whole economy, political system, or cultural worlds–we simply condition citizens’ attitudes towards the values and attitude we want them to have instead. That means incentivizing, encouraging, and rewarding people to be public citizens rather than private ones.
The nice thing about this approach is that we don't need any radical new structural regime to obtain socialism in America. The change in citizen attitude alone will make the mantras of “Business is business!” and "Every man for himself” not only obsolete but detestable. They will be replaced, perhaps, by new mantras emphasizing collective interests, rationality, and fairness. We don't have to put a heavy management hand on Big Business, for example, we can significantly alter social outcomes just by cleverly designed modifications of our existing tax system (among other changes. See below.)
Nonetheless, objective changes in business and governance structures and processes will evolve naturally and positively by the change in attitude alone. Businesses will act for the benefit of stakeholders instead of only shareholders. The little people will maintain a class consciousness (and new political-economic leverage) based on a new set of collective values. Existing governance will be complemented by informal, collectively-oriented, professional institutions dedicated to collectively-smart policy, implementation, and planning standards.
In other words, updated socialism, as implemented, will be seen not as a formal political-economic structural system but as the complementary overlay of a set of values (and attitude) alongside of what we have.
The attitude change, all by itself, can make all the difference. Think of how the civil rights movement, feminism, sexual orientation accommodation, non-smokers rights, and even recent developments in marijuana policy derived from changes in attitude alone.
In sum, we ought to understand socialism as a set of values (a new social ethos) overlaid alongside of existing formal structures and processes where the public citizen attitude is the primary one.
4. Liberal democracy–that is, individualism/capitalism as a basis for a governance system—is not going to go away or be replaced.
The ideologies of individualism and capitalism are not going away. Historical philosophers, like conservative Edmond Burke, understood that big social facts (like those) exist for good and sufficient reasons. They are, perhaps, in conformity with human nature; they fit the needs of their times; they are deliberately shaped and maintained by powerful human actors (e.g., an elite) via ideology, economic compulsion, and/or physical force; etc. Those ideologies, in reality, also have virtues (as noted above) which we would want to retain (mostly) in any case.
In years past, some have recognized the abuses of these ideologies and described placement of a “human face" on capitalism to tone down its individualism, aggressiveness, self-interest reward structures, and the like. That might happen via governmental regulation and whatever (modest) social mores can be implemented system-wide to informally condition it's dynamics of self-interested, aggressive behavior.
In historical practice, this approach has proven to be way too ineffective as the system is dominated by a powerful logic which resists “softening" or balance. Bending, a bit, the "rules of the game" is a flawed strategy as the competitive dynamics impel the elite to resist much loss of focus and/or control over their “rights."
It is the elite which controls the statutory/regulatory processes, holds most of the world’s capital, conditions culture via ideology and the like. The competitive, aggressive logic fits them morally and practically. They will tolerate only enough of the human face to obviate outright rebellion by the little people. In other words, the logical imperatives of individualism/capitalism are too strong to tolerate much inhibition of the aggressiveness and system values which makes these ideologies what they are.
Beyond that, no one has come up with a sound vision of what a replacement system would look like, thereby making hopes for revolution, for example, irrelevant. Even major political regime changes, as in the Arab Spring uprisings in the early part of this century, have not worked to help the little people much at all as there was no realistic vision of an alternative society, much less any socialist system.
If individualism/capitalism is not going away (and it is not) there has to be a strong, comprehensive, complementary social ethos which can flip the primacy of private and public citizen attitudes. As stated above, this kind of change of attitude can make all the difference. The "flip mechanisms" have to be outside of the control of the elite. That implies an active role of the little people in political-economic-social affairs in as in some systematic form of “pushback." (See below for more on this.)
In sum, we are not going to replace liberal democracy as a governance system so we must condition it with a complementary, public value system instead. Any objective structural changes will likely evolve naturally from the value primacy change.
5. Activating the little people to support significant change requires a single, unifying theme, focus, and accessibility. We have to MAKE IT EASY for the little people to participate.
Nearly every proposed remedy for the dominance of the elite envisions the uniting of the little people in some way. Given their lack of capital, political access, and other similar resources they have to leverage the only advantages they have–their numbers and their consumer power.
Trying to unify the little people has a long history. That includes attempts at development of old-school economic class consciousness, populist reform movements meant to poke at existing institutions and processes, large and noisy (but gentle) protests in the parks, third-party electoral organizations, rageful rallying behind populist leaders who promise “CHANGE” (but can’t and don’t), and the efforts of thousands of activist organizations each pushing separate missions to address some complaint with the existing system.
Well, we know how well those efforts have done! All have been/are failures. (Some battles have been won but the war has long been taken by the elite.)
It is hard for anyone to organize any substantial number of people for nearly any cause, especially on a “volunteer" basis. Maybe war-time patriotism and natural disaster philanthropic reactions have been exceptions. However, even as exceptions, they prove that motivating citizens into a sort of "Team America" can work, given the right circumstances and approach.
Given the low amount of time most people have to devote to even consideration of civic affairs; the priorities of work, family, chores, etc.; a baked-in cynical attitude about social change; etc., if anyone is to engage the little people they will have to MAKE IT EASY!!
Organizing the little people effectively into a socialist movement requires a new, smart approach leveraging a realistic vision and plan with new technology (like the Internet, online databases, social media, mobile devices, and the like) which provide vastly more efficient and effective ways to communicate, organize, and mobilize.
MAKING IT EASY entails at least the following elements:
a. an easy to understand agenda/program which addresses their needs and wants (an American governance system suitable for the 21st-Century and the flattening of the elite/little people hierarchy.)
b. an agenda/program based on values important to them (e.g., Balance, Meaning, Respect (BMR) and Smart governance.)
c. a single agenda/program providing a focus, preferably in the form of a “Brand” representing their values
d. elimination of distractions from the single Brand focus, like appeals from multiple activist organizations for money, membership, or commitments. (This means that these entities must subsume themselves in significant ways under the Brand.)
e. an identity in a primary new demographic unit–the “American Team”—to help them feel connected and wanted, and also to minimize other, less benign, tribal identifications (and discriminations) such, as race, gender, region, liberal-conservative affiliations, etc.
f. accessibility into the program in the form of a variety of roles and duties, from simple to complex, at their choice, facilitated by new technological tools.
g. a minimal demand on the time/effort of most people, offering participation in the form of digital/virtual world access as in a program-dedicated computer “Dashboard” or mobile app. We will need to inspire people with rewards and benefits to give at least minimal habitual attention to an interface/app allowing participation with a mere couple of mouse clicks per week.
h. a story outline of how they participate as characters in a unique, grand program of social change worthwhile just in the adventure even if the results are in the future and for junior generations.
In sum, make it easy for the little people to participate in a social change program emphasizing a simple values theme, focus, accessibility, and inclusiveness all supported by modern technological tools of communication, organization, and mobilization.
—New Ideas, author June, 2016
(Authors Note: A full description of the vision and plan mentioned in this essay can be found at www.theactionmanual.com)
© 2016 The small life company, inc. All rights reserved.