I’ve been thinking about an older article where I deliberated my own ideological thoughts. I figured I’d revisit them and give a few updated thoughts on capitalism as well as clarifying why I think equality on the whole is a worthy goal for society.
As an egalitarian, my principle belief can be summed up in two clauses: all people should a) be free of socially created oppression and b) deserve a share of society’s output consistent with a high standard of living.
The Nordic experience
In terms of civil equality, the first clause is a straight-forward (though still difficult fight) reorganization of laws and institutions, achieving authentic legal equality for racial minorities, indigenous peoples, queers, women, the disabled, and youth.
That doesn’t quite solve economic inequalities and hierarchies which bridges us to the second clause. While it seems like a tall order, it’s not impossible to get near such a state. The Nordic countries – Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland specifically – are the happiest nations in the world, consistently ranking high in quality of life, boasting very low poverty rates, and are highly trusting of each other and their governments. There’s nothing exceptional about this either, and labor movements alongside liberals, socialists, and social democrats fought for such societies. As the linked study notes:
“…there seems to be no secret sauce specific to Nordic happiness that is unavailable to others. There is rather a more general recipe for creating highly satisfied citizens: Ensure that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities.”
And that’s basically what socialists like myself are aiming for. They are living, breathing examples of better societies and they should be the role model for others unlike past nations like the USSR that ultimately failed.
They’re not perfect of course, and I could go on all day about their particular issues. With that said, despite working less than Americans, Matt Bruenig has shown they all generally manage to cover the vast majority of their workers with unions and collective bargaining, produce more output per capita, and even maintain higher levels of employment, all leading to a much more level playing field for many. In order words, the US is working more for less while ending up with worse outcomes. None of what they do seems to dampen innovation either.
A typical quip to these countries is: “Well, they’re small and homogenous, so it works for them.” Incorrect on both fronts. Being smaller actually makes it harder for them to pull off such feats. And these countries do have substantial foreign populations nowadays with no serious detriments to their model; 15% of Sweden’s population is foreign-born as of 2010 with a majority of them coming from outside of the European Union. On the other hand, the US contains vast amounts of wealth, including a massive domestic economy which can harness immense economies of scale.
Another criticism is “Okay, but they’re still not totally socialist, so why go beyond that?” Sweden literally did try to take a step into socialism, although the currents of the day blocked it from doing so. Regardless, this brings me back to capitalism. Let me be clear here: unlike other leftists, I don’t completely despise it with some irrational burning passion. Capitalism ultimately transformed production from the individual – solo merchants, hand weavers, crafters, farmers, etc. – into a collective process. And this was good! It was also a needed improvement to finally get away from feudalism. This initially unleashed remarkable change in the economy, helping produce an amazing number of goods and now services on huge scales as well as unlocking enormous amounts of new wealth. This, however, gives way to another critique against my line of thought: “Exactly, and capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty as a result.” It sure did, but we could go much farther. More importantly though, this argument falls flat since almost no country actually practiced pure capitalism to achieve such results as it typically took a lot of state intervention to do so as economies evolved into the 19th and 20th centuries.
The lingering issues with capitalism and their solutions
So why do I still have a problem with it? Several, but three things stand out most:
1) Non-workers, who make up half of modern societies now as children, elderly, disabled, students, and the unemployed, receive no market income under its own rules
2) While capitalism does produce lots of wealth, it always tends to gradually accumulate in the hands of a small number of owners, which overtime leads to a widening gap between workers and capitalists, and inevitably gaps among workers themselves. Inequality translates into economic and inevitably political power through corruption, all of which negatively distorts what democracy there is along with the wellbeing of individuals
3) Speaking of democracy, the system itself is undemocratic in that nearly all workers have no substantial say in their workplace which is both alienating and depressing, and is only exacerbated by the second point
Implementing a universal welfare state easily solves the first point as it is mostly a distributive issue, and it should be comprehensive as well as high quality, allowing all individuals to be independent on an equal material footing regardless of work status. A number of developed and developing countries already do provide a form of welfare, although they certainly need to be kicked up a notch to say the least.
The second point is always going to be a problem unless you tame capital. Blair Fix in his fantastic blog post highlights this historical class struggle and shows that if workers don’t strike, fight for progressive taxation, or pressure their states to adopt worker-friendly measures through activism or the ballot box, capital will win out. Individualized “solutions” for poor people to just “work harder” does not cut it. It makes no sense in terms of us being social creatures to begin with or in the collective societies we’ve always lived in, and trying to tell people to “get ahead” or “pull your bootstraps higher” by definition is illogical given that everyone cannot get ahead of everybody else. Research reveals the highly negative impacts inequality imputes on society, namely in terms of physical and mental health, let alone the development of children. Additionally, the International Monetary Fund also found trickle-down economics to simply not hold up in reality, and that higher spending/taxation can actually contribute to growth rather than impede it.
While there are numerous ways to go about taming capital, the big three are mass unionization, full employment, and socializing capital income streams in order for everyone to receive a piece of society’s wealth. This isn’t about “sticking it to those damned capitalists” for the sake of it; it’s about redirecting capital for more productive and socially useful ends so that we all can further grow as society. More importantly, this is more or less the market socialism I advocate for in my original post, where prices and markets largely stay, but production and investments are socialized around to influence them.
Finally, undemocratic workplaces may not seem intuitive to higher income laborers, but many people are disengaged from their work and it empirically results in further unhappiness or even helplessness. This is because of the lack of control and input we have at our jobs. If we’re going to spend a great amount of our lives in the workplace, why don’t we have a say in it? Profit-sharing, worker ownership, worker participation, codetermination, influencing the state through democracy to make decisions on behalf of workers, etc., whatever direction is pursued, all of it improves productivity and makes workers happier. Above all though, unions are really the key and expanding/updating unions for the modern economy will do wonders for many. Indeed, we now have new emerging unions across the United States such as in newspapers, magazines, warehouses, and even tech firms like the Alphabet Workers Union.
Circling back to the Nordics, the social democracy practiced in these countries is desirable for the short-term. For the long-term, a measured socialization through the above reforms should be the goal to achieve a “democratic equality” as Elizabeth Anderson puts it. We need not pursue distributive justice per se, e.g. only divvying the spoils to certain classes, but pursue a more comprehensive equality that fundamentally reorders politics, civil institutions, and ultimately the economy through democratic means. Everyone should be materially well off to allow for individual freedom, and should be neither socially above or below anyone else due to distinctions based on race, sexuality, gender, labor status and so forth. Anderson sums this up nicely by noting:
“Egalitarian political movements oppose such hierarchies. They assert the equal moral worth of persons….the claim asserts that all competent adults are equally moral agents: everyone equally has the power to develop and exercise moral responsibility, to cooperate with others according to principles of justice, to shape and fulfill a conception of their good.“
But what about me?
At the personal level, it doesn’t require some leap of faith or even being a socialist. Having a sense of solidarity is making your voice heard in the political arena and the workplace through democracy, treating all others as a moral equal in the process, no more or less. Sure, the cost is higher taxation on the aggregate, but the net benefits for most helps tie us into the society, making us feel connected with a sense of purpose when everyone is chipping in. The coalition for such a system would involve many, including although not limited to labor unionists, middle and working class voters, liberals, rural interests, environmentalists, and socialists of all varieties, with equality indeed being the goal. Those viciously opposed to it may have a deeper reason for believing so.