Socialism for the Rich


As my favorite political philosopher Hannah Arendt made clear more than 50 years ago, notions of left versus right are hopelessly out of date. For example, no one believes in free enterprise anymore.  Least of all business people, who are the first to lobby the government for grants, subsidies, and protections.  Witness the farmers, often thought to be the last bastions of individualism.  They are now among the quickest and loudest in their demands for government intervention.  What we see now is what others have called “socialism for the rich.”  Or what David Lewis, years ago, referred to as “corporate welfare bums“.

At the same time, the ideas of the left have also been discredited.  The welfare state is seen as a prison, governed by mediocrity.  But the voices of dominance and privilege are heard loud and clear, and are usually accepted at face value, while no credence is given to the voices of the dominated.  Their voices are considered cranky, silly, and immature.

The philosophy of privilege, namely, conservatism, or its newest version, neo-conservatism, particularly in the US, but also in Canada, has been very effective in imposing its agenda and its very vocabulary on government.  The public sector is regularly pictured as a burden on individuals, as sapping their strength and vigour.  The free market is lauded as the engine of real growth and the savior for all of our woes.  For example, in Canada, the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, is given a wide press each year when it announces “tax freedom day“.

It is implied by such comments that public institutions merely consume, while not providing anything of value.  But is it really true that video games are more valuable than public libraries? Is it really true that toys are more important than public swimming pools?  Public services are often more important than private services.  Through them we have clean water, clean air, accessible hospitals, standards for safe food, housing for seniors, safe roads, and mind-expanding education.  Public services are not a drain on our initiative.  They are what frees the creative juices in each of us.  Without them civilization is a dream.


My  favorite economists, John Kenneth Galbraith understood this process and explained it with his customary verve. As he said,

“…individuals and communities that are favored in their economic, social, and political condition attribute social virtue and political durability to that which they themselves enjoy.  That attribution, in turn, is made to apply even in the face of commanding evidence to the contrary.  The beliefs of the fortunate are brought to serve the cause of continuing contentment, and the economic and political ideas of the time are similarly accommodating.  There is an eager political market for that which pleases and reassures.  Those who would serve this market and reap the resulting reward in money and applause are reliably available…

…there were few doubts among the happily privileged, strongly  self-approving, if hygienically deprived, throng that surrounded and sustained Louis XV… a forceful set of economic ideas, those of the Physiocrats, affirmed the principle by which those so favoured were rewarded .  These ideas supported and celebrated an economic system that returned all wealth, superficial deductions for trade and manufacturing apart, to the owners of the land, the aristocrats who inhabited and served the court.

The case continues.  The great entrepreneurs and their acolytes who were dominant in British, German, French and then American political and economic life in the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth were not in doubt as to their economic and social destiny, and this, again, was duly affirmed by the companion views of the classical economists. ”


And of course, this process continues to this day. Those who speak to power with news that power wants to hear are quickly given an audience.  Such people  find themselves much less welcomed. The privileged see their privilege as natural, right, and good. That happened then, it happens now, and will happen forever.

Galbraith even pointed out that this process was common in the Soviet Union, which we all know bore no resemblance to its reputed realm of justice and equality. As he said about socialist countries inside the Soviet circle, “They were protected in their fortunate position by the presumed power of socialist principles…Thus, to repeat, was belief accommodated to the need and comfort of the favored.”


What does this have to do with the green new deal? Everything. Proposals for reform of our energy system are made, and immediately rejected by the contented in power.  Radical proposals are seen as absurdly expensive clap trap. Radical proposals are often wrong, but what about the status quo?  There are clearly people who benefit from it and they will do everything in their power to prolong what they find comfortable and delay or dismiss which is not in their narrow interests. The rich would have us believe that the only socialism we can afford is socialism for them. The rest of us should be content with rapacious capitalism.

Perhaps the green new deal is not as ludicrous as the contented would have us believe.


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