27 August 2020

The socialists are coming!!

I'm not much for labeling people,
but I have to make a living somehow. Source.

Among my friends and relatives, the supporters of Donald Trump's re-election as U.S. president have two top priorities.

Priority one is their opposition to abortion. I wrote last year about my own conflicted views on abortion, but those who explain their support of Trump by saying "I’m voting for every unborn soul the Democrats want to murder," are probably not available for the conversations I advocated there.

Right now, in close second place, Trump supporters oppose the inevitable socialist apocalypse that would follow a Democratic victory in November. "Don't let the Socialist Democrats turn the USA into Venezuela," warns one popular graphic. Once again, the "socialist" label is being pressed into service, not in the service of a fair discussion, but as an epithet.

To be effective, this scare tactic requires us not to look too closely at what's behind that "socialist" label. We must believe that the democratic socialism of people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the same as the forms of socialism practiced in Venezuela and Cuba, for example, and that the factors that shaped those case studies would be present in the USA as well.

I can see why it would be tempting to encourage this confusion. Classic socialism -- government control of most or all markets for goods and services -- has a disastrous historical record. In theory, such a system would ensure that everyone gets their basic needs met, but the level of social control required to maintain these systems practically guarantees a descent into tyranny. For a preview of this tendency, look at the history of socialist and communist organizations. Only Protestant Christians rival them for the ability to quarrel and divide on doctrinal issues. If we just take the scare tactics at face value and assume that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are hell-bent on creating that sort of system, we can be excused for fearing the consequences.

(For a fictional attempt at a spiritual x-ray of late-stage Soviet socialism, read Francis Spufford's novel Red Plenty, which I summarized here as "the most unusual book I've ever read about the Soviet Union.")

Democratic socialism shares the same major goal as classic socialism: eliminating the social and economic causes of suffering. Eliminating preventable suffering is also a major ethical priority of Christianity, which is probably why so many socialist thinkers have been Christians. For example, Canada's democratic socialist political party, the New Democratic Party, included Christian politicians such as J.S. Woodsworth and Stanley Knowles among its formative leaders. The Roman Catholic Church's social teachings helped form the modern labor movement in many countries. Prominent Christian socialists in the USA's history include Norman Thomas, Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Kirby Page, and Mother Jones. This history, if better known, might go a long way to correcting the impressions left by the celebrity Christians of the far right.

Democratic socialism recognizes that there is no way to impose this laudable goal of eliminating preventable suffering from the top down. Coercive centralized planning, no matter how elegantly organized or diligently practiced (see Red Plenty), involves a monopoly on power, and we humans have a terrible record with unchecked power. Democratic socialists rely on two major devices to keep power in check -- a system of political checks and balances, and a market economy. Strangely enough, these are the same mechanisms favored by conservatives

The mission of democratic socialists is simple and twofold:

First, they advocate and evangelize for their central vision: a good society ensures fair access to the community's resources so that nobody suffers needlessly.

Second, they must compete in the political marketplace of ideas and policies, engaging with colleagues and opponents to find the right balance between two competing goods: building up enough resources for the community's social goals, while providing for reasonable incentives for the private marketplace to thrive and the hybrids (public utilities and other public/private joint ventures) to reward investors. This is where conflicts often arise: advocates for the most generous social policies can collide with those who want to maximize entrepreneurial and investor incentives. The more we challenge each other to keep our shared values of social justice at the center, the more fruitful (my optimistic self says) these conflicts can be, and the more we can expose the hidden motives of greed and class interest that are in direct conflict with all (progressive and conservative alike) whose goal is fair access to resources and the elimination of needless suffering.

Democratic socialists propose solutions that analyze the division of labor between government management and the free market, and adjust that division in favor of our most vulnerable people. For all activities that are best regulated by the free market -- the vast majority of industries and services -- there may be no role for government beyond the preservation of public safety and mechanisms for resolving disputes. But for those activities which are basic to everyone's health and safety, such as police and fire services, roads, every-address postal service, guaranteed access to education, and (I would argue) health care, accountable government management makes sense. The free market simply does not know how to weigh private incentives and the public good in such large-scale concerns, though many will pretend (for their private benefit) that any alternative to the market is (scary music) socialism!

Improving this division of labor -- making better choices between what the free market does well, and what an elected government can accomplish -- is the actual conversation proposed by actual democratic socialists. Every democratic country in the world has already arrived at some such division of labor, including the USA, although nobody has done a perfect job. How can we in the USA do a better job together to "promote the General Welfare" and eliminate needless suffering? And ... really, does this urgent conversation sound so apocalyptic?

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In thinking about this theme, I found a couple of interesting articles.


And on Norway as a case study of democratic socialism, "Scandinavian Socialism: The 'Truth' of the Nordic Model."


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To call Jesus a socialist might be a suspicious use of religious rhetoric for political gain, but let's look with pure motives at how Wess Daniels describes the biblical evidence of the Savior's priorities: Jesus against empire.

Church during "lockdown" and a "hiddenness of life and worship...."

A sad anniversary: Samantha Smith and the Soviet Union.

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UPDATE on the Ramallah Friends Schools:

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the pandemic-era situations faced by several Friends schools. I've also been wondering how Ramallah Friends School in Palestine has been doing. Yesterday I got an update from Adrian Moody, director of the School:
We are currently preparing for a return to school on the 7th September. Cases in the Westbank are going up around 600 per day. We know if we get a case here at school then we will have to close again so things are really uncertain. We have to prepare whilst the goal posts are constantly moving.

The pandemic has really hit school finances. Shop owners were severely hit with all the closures but civil servants were also hit because salaries were cut up to 60%, A lot of our parents are struggling to pay their fees and have to pay for the last academic year as well as prepare for the new academic year. We do what we can to help and we have opened up applications for financial aid and fortunately were able to raise some emergency funds through donors to help our most affected parents.

The financial situation on the Westbank has been dire for some time and the pandemic has just made it incredibly difficult. We are in for a tough year.
To make a contribution to Ramallah Friends School and their resources for financial aid, visit the School's online donation page. To participate in Friends United Meeting's support for the School, visit FUM's donation page

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Enjoy Sue Foley breaking down the blues guitar for us:

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