I have recently stumbled into a few videos online with pro-capitalist arguments, decrying socialist ideas and encouraging free markets to take full form. The one thing I have found listening to them, whether their arguments have any legitimate points within, is their selective examples and, at times, complete disfiguration of facts. One such video was an argument about why socialism did not work by a man (who I know nothing about beyond this) called Daniel Hannan. I haven’t written in a while, so what better way to get back into it than by questioning this random guy’s points?
Fascism and Socialism
Hannan begins by claiming that the Nazi Party in Germany, spearheaded by Adolf Hitler, was a socialist one. The only connection many people make between Hitler and socialism is simply that he used the word. Even a basic glance at his actions and the totalitarian horrors he unleashed in Europe and his own country would prove that his was not a socialist mission, but purely a fascist one built upon racial supremacy and complete control of the people.
This inference, through name only, that Hitler was socialist has given ammunition to those in opposition to actual socialism, a cheap shot to convince those ignorant of the real terminology that fascism and socialism are synonymous. One representation doesn’t go that far, but instead makes a horseshoe shape. It places fascism and communism on the two ends of the horseshoe with liberalism in the middle. The implication being fascism and communism are closer to one another on the “extremes” than the “rational centre”.
All of this rests on the fact that these interpretations view each of these terms as being State based – the State is the actor that controls society. In fascism, this is true. There is a single person at the top, such as Hitler, with a government whose purpose is consolidating control over the populace. Socialism, as many understand it, is this same State body controlled by the workers. It is the workers that have control over their own lives, both in and out of the workplace, not a single person or higher authority. The State is used as a body to bring this about – again, ideally with popular control – and communism, as Marx foresaw it, saw the State fade out once it became redundant.
So there is very much a difference in how these two ideas work. However, it is most certainly possible there is risk of the socialist State becoming a fascist State, an example being Lenin’s Bolsheviks, not Hitler’s ridiculous façade. That is why people like myself, and “traditional” libertarians (not the US corruption of the word), view the State as an unjustifiable authority, preferring instead to opt for voluntary participation in collectives as opposed to State – however benevolent – intervention. But, in the context of an argument comparing socialism to fascism as synonymous, it doesn’t add up.
A properly run socialist society, with full democratic control over State and work, is far from the crushing authoritarianism heralded by fascist regimes or the more cleverly crafted manipulation of an overbearing bureaucracy (Hitler and Lenin respectively). I have trouble labelling the Bolsheviks as “socialist” for that reason, and when you try to repeat that with the USSR there is just no proof to back that claim. Those on the “Left” who admire Lenin, or the even more concerning who look to Mao or Stalin as if they’ve “pierced the veil of propaganda” against them in the West, are more victims of opposition to capitalism than any real defence of socialism or communism.
This does, however, provide those like Hannan or more provocative voices like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro with credible accusations against “socialism”, which is a shallow and troubling victory they flaunt often.
Hannan then goes onto claim one of the unique hallmarks of socialism is “the readiness of the State to deploy coercive force.” This, honestly, hardly needs refuting. Even if you believe countries like Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, etc. are actually socialist (as defined above), it is a remarkable feat of utter blindness to believe that capitalist and liberal States, or “libertarian” corporate power, does not use similarly destructive coercive power.
One thing many of these “libertarians” do to champion the successes of capitalism and free enterprise is conveniently forget the violent imperialist histories that built (and still contribute to) the modern capitalist nations. Much of this was driven by Empire, State actors. Should they have not existed, or cease to exist now, the “libertarian” utopia would not exist either, or collapse swiftly. I’ve not had a chance to read it yet, but I have a book about the tyranny of the East India Company, a corporate power described as an Empire in its own right that used vicious “coercive force” to succeed as it did.
The capitalist argument is that “socialist” States oppress their own people, whereas we have freedom – notably, the word freedom is used frequently, but never democracy from what I’ve noticed – and opportunity. This ignores the coercive force capitalist nations use internationally against others who do not submit to “free markets” and “sound economics” – i.e. economic positions and interactions that benefit the wealthy imperialists, not the countries being “freed”. If such “coercion” into the “free market” of economics and ideas is too troublesome to ignore, it is often justified, like the devastation of the Vietnam War or rampages throughout Africa and South America. It isn’t coercion, it’s what the people there want! What they need… right?
It also just happens to ignore the very real coercion that State and corporate actors, usually in close collaboration with each other, do inflict on their own people in capitalist societies. One of the touted successes of the US is that the “free market” helped abolish slavery, but slavery has never been abolished, and today it is heavily exploited by corporate powers across the globe. The idea that capitalism, as it existed when slavery was “abolished” and exists now, could survive without slavery is farcical.
In the US, prison labour almost immediately replaced slave labour, with blacks being arrested for various phony charges and forced to work. Today, prison labour in the US is a huge (and private) industry, and still very racially disproportionate, as well as those in low socioeconomic circumstances. Groups from the Civil Rights era, like the Black Panthers, that were not only a threat to the white liberal hegemony but also capitalist power, were systematically wiped out by the FBI, who, under COINTELPRO, targeted anyone suspected of “communist” actions or even ideas. Similar programs have been running against Muslims since the bogeyman changed from Russia to Islam after 9/11, with equally controlling and coercive results.
More broadly, workers in the West have had various freedoms won and curtailed over the centuries. Victories such as weekends, an 8-hour working day, minimum wages, safe work conditions, etc. etc. were not corporate kindness – they were fought for by Unions and other workers’ movements. Corporate powers opposed these changes, and have tried vehemently to erode them, mostly through the State that it buys. Hannan, in some weird rant where he suggests dishwashers help people go for walks in the country, and where personal cars (as opposed to trams, likely meaning public transport without explicitly stating it) let people listen to Beethoven more, claims that you don’t have to spend 6 weeks working to feed your children, allowing you to spend the weekend with them.
These are the statements of a man living a life of privilege he probably does not even recognise in the slightest. He does say that there are billions who cannot afford those things, but that through the Wests’ exporting of “free markets” it will bring those less fortunate up with everyone else. Sadly, the ideas that capitalists and market proponents peddle have been exported, with quite horrifying results and with the aid of the State. There is no “bringing up” of the billions that capitalism is predicted to save from the impoverishment of their obviously unenlightened economic senses. To the contrary, the opposite has taken place, leaving countless communities destitute or wiped out, a process that has continued for centuries.
One can, and should, condemn the oppression State actors carry out against their own populations, but to call them socialist is a little misleading, and to do so without recognising and condemning one’s own atrocities is a hypocrisy and blindness that beggars belief. Comparing deaths under different regimes to demonise the “worst” one overlooks the simple fact that deaths elsewhere are equally abhorrent and are the results of our actions.
Hannan quite ironically ends his speech by quoting what he called “proto-libertarians”, seemingly without understanding the words he was saying, or perhaps knowingly using sound ideas to promote a warped variant of them. He emphasised the part of the quote talking about being “free to trade the products of my own labour”, something that, if I’m not mistaken, is kind of one of the main goals of workers’ control over their own lives. Of “leftist” libertarian tradition, ranging from socialist to anarchist.
Because in the capitalist butchering of libertarianism, Noam Chomsky neatly disregards it as private tyrannies, unrestrained capital in the hands of unaccountable corporate power. That is the kind of ownership and “freedom” the likes of Hannan and other “libertarians”, whether they realise it or not, believe in. True libertarianism places power and ownership in the hands of the workers – those who work in the factories and mills ought to own them. Obviously the older maxims would need to be adjusted for modern industry and work, but the concept is applicable.
I used to work in hospitality until our store (part of a franchise) was shut down to make way for another (fast food) franchise being run by the same overhead company. Ironically, it was doing terribly after the initial hype and, while I don’t have figures, can only assume they regret their decision. Point being, our store was working well and making profit due to the work of the 70 or so of us there were, whether casual, part time, or full time. Then it was announced we would be shutting down, a decision we had no say in or control over.
The fruits of our collective labour were not ours but owned by distant and faceless bodies. That is the “freedom” of markets and private ownership for those who work for a wage. I have often thought how fascinating it would have been if, instead of having been shut down, the restaurant was owned collectively by us workers. No overhead costs flying out to fill profit margins and pay for a bureaucracy that we could have functioned without, no unjust authority controlling how we carried out the business, and a democratic model of decision making with participation from all colleagues.
Surely, if Hannan argues for self-ownership of one’s own labour, he would not be opposed to such a venture? In fact, such rhetoric encourages it, as it offers the maximum freedom for the people in their work. Somehow, I doubt he would agree with me. He will happily spout ideas that sound invigorating, that promise freedom, all in the name of private power. Understand that I do not agree with the State necessarily, and would be entirely against the notion of the State controlling my workplace (unless, obviously, I were in the public sector). I am simply pointing out that Hannan’s alternative is one that benefits only the privileged few at the expense of working people and the unemployed, and that his critiques are not of socialism (actual libertarianism) but of concentrated State power – essentially, one could say, a single monopoly.
These are important distinctions to make, because the terms capitalist, socialist, “left/right”, etc. have all been bastardised to the point of redundancy. As such, people’s understanding of them and which groups belonged to them have been wildly distorted, leaving their convictions shrouded in inaccuracies they cannot perceive. Hannan’s concept of libertarian and self-ownership, for example, appear illusory.
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