What Is Socialism in 2020?

Red flag waving.svg

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2019/08/06/what-is-socialism-in-2020/

We can see the mudslinging already. Trump’s attacks on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and other members of the “squad” as left extremists is just setting the tone for the 2020 election season. Regardless of who wins the primary, Bernie Sanders (the only avowed Democratic Socialist), Elisabeth Warren, or others — Trump will be casting them as socialists. This is part of his needed strategy. Given his unfavorables as the only recent president to never have achieved even a 50% favorability rating, he knows that his path to a second term is through scaremongering. He has to make the other candidate, whoever it is, seem scarier than he is. How will the candidate supported by Vladimir Putin do it? By calling up the specter of totalitarian socialism.

We all know the old Republican trope. Those who oppose laissez-faire capitalism are not just proponents of a welfare state or Keynesian economics, but of socialism, maybe communism. But socialism, of course, is a rather complex word. Trump hopes to capitalize on that complexity, and the darkness associated with some forms of it.

Of course, Bernie Sanders and all the other Democrats reject all forms of authoritarianism. One of their main talking points and grave concerns is precisely that Trump is working in a way that authoritarians often have in early stages, undermining the balance of powers, threatening political opponents, summoning up violence, trying to silence criticism by attacking the independent media. It’s quite easy to make the case that each of the Democratic candidates has less of an authoritarian impulse than Trump.

But what about their economic policies? Are they proposing the abdication of private property? No. The state ownership of all forms of production? No. In what way are they socialist then? Warren says flatly that she isn’t. But what does she want? It turns out to look a lot like what Sanders wants — namely policies that are very much like those of Social Democracies that emerged in Europe in the mid-20th century. These are policies can be seen in Germany, Sweden, and France, among other places. In each of those countries, everyone has property rights. Everyone has freedom of speech and the other typical civil liberties. In fact, each of these countries routinely ranks higher than the US on the major quality of life indexes of the UN.1 Now, are these countries socialist? Not in any traditional sense, though socialist and Social Democratic parties in each of these states helped them to develop the policies that they have.

So as Trump continues his scaremongering, this is what needs to be kept in mind. There is not one Democratic candidate on the left, even Bernie Sanders, who is advocating for anything other than what has just been outlined — policies that allow private entrepreneurs, protect property rights yet that see a need to regulate businesses and legislate policies that better ensure higher levels of education, healthcare policies that increase average life expectancy, corporate policies that secure worker safety and lead to a stronger more stable economy that doesn’t primarily aim to benefit millionaires but that focuses on the well-being of working people (while still having room for plenty of people who are millionaires).

The problem with the term “socialism” today is in some ways similar to that of the term “capitalism.” Neither word means what it once did. Just as some speak of various forms of socialism and include these Democratic Socialist countries in that categorization, others speak of various forms of capitalism and include these very same countries. In this latter context, we hear of Nordic State Capitalism, for Sweden, for example, or more generally “social capitalism.” Are these countries really socialist or capitalist? Well, in the traditional senses, they’re neither. Like the United States, they have politically controlled economies. But they’ve seen the need for more controls than the US has.

As we are now faced with 1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt, a healthcare system that fails to cover all Americans while costing about twice as much as that in the other counties mentioned, an administration that denies climate change and is not even attempting to address it and burgeoning debt because of wasteful tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the time is ripe for a change in our politics — namely for a politics done less with a view to corporate interests and more with a view to the public interest. At the moment our greatest threat comes from an administration that is working precisely in the opposing direction. No Democrat in the field is as anywhere near as frightening as that.

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  1. Some recent indexes have criticized the UN Human Development Index since it considers changes in three domains: economics, education and health. Other indexes include the human life indicator or the social progress index. I believe the very best index is the”Inequalit-adjusted HDI published by the United Nations. It 2018 report ranks the USA 24th.

Ilhan Omar: “It Is Not Enough to Condemn Trump’s Racism”

Ilhan Omar, official portrait, 116th Congress.jpg

Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, recently penned a thoughtful and moving op-ed in the New York Times, “It Is Not Enough to Condemn Trump’s Racism.”
Her main thesis is that “the nation’s ideals are under attack, and it is up to all of us to defend them.” Let me begin by stating that her coherent essay and uplifting biography stand in stark contrast to the vile inanities and the “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” bio of our supreme leader. According to Wikipedia, Congresswoman Omar

was born in Mogadishu on October 4, 1982,[5][6] and spent her early years in Baidoa,
Somalia.[7][8] … Her father Nur Omar Mohamed … worked as a teacher trainer.[9] Her mother, Fadhuma Abukar Haji Hussein … died when Ilhan was two.[10][11][12][13] She was raised by her father and grandfather thereafter.[14] … She and her family fled Somalia to escape the war and spent four years in a Dadaab refugee camp in … Kenya, near the Somali border.[15][16][17]

After … arriving in New York in 1992,[18] Omar’s family … secured asylum in the U.S. in 1995 … before moving to … Minneapolis,[12] where her father worked first as a taxi driver and later for the post office.[12] Her father and grandfather emphasized the importance of democracy during her upbringing, and at age 14 she accompanied her grandfather to caucus meetings, serving as his interpreter.[14][19] She has spoken about school bullying  … She recalls gum being pressed into her hijab, being pushed down stairs, and physical taunts while she was changing for gym class.[12] … Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000 when she was 17 years old.[20][12]

Omar … graduated from North Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree, majoring in political science and international studies in 2011.[22][19] Omar was a Policy Fellow at the University of Minnesota‘s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.[23]

Her op-ed begins thus

Throughout history, demagogues have used state power to target minority communities and political enemies, often culminating in state violence. Today, we face that threat in our own country, where the president of the United States is using the influence of our highest office to mount racist attacks on communities across the land …

Last week, as President Trump watched the crowd at one of his rallies chant “Send her back,” aimed at me and my family, I … couldn’t help but remember the horrors of civil war in Somalia that my family and I escaped, the America we expected to find and the one we actually experienced.

The president’s rally will be a defining moment in American history. It reminds us of the grave stakes of the coming presidential election: that this fight is not merely about policy ideas; it is a fight for the soul of our nation. The ideals at the heart of our founding — equal protection under the law, pluralism, religious liberty — are under attack, and it is up to all of us to defend them.

Having survived civil war in my home country as a child, I cherish these values. In Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, I saw grade-school children as young as me holding assault rifles in the streets. I spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, where there was no formal schooling or even running water. But my family and I persevered, fortified by our deep solidarity with one another, the compassion of others and the hope of a better life in the United States.

Congresswoman Omar says that despite the fact that she suffered prejudice as a black, Muslim, immigrant she values that democracy provides a means to make society better. (As an aside, my mother always wore a scarf. That the hijab upsets people reveals the supremacy of the reptilian brain over higher brain function. It’s a damn scarf.)

But of course, the promise of democracy is today under threat through voter suppression, ignoring of subpoenas from Congress, the use of “overtly racist rhetoric,” and more. The reasons for the weaponizing of democracy are obvious. Racism is a classic means of dividing people who should be uniting against the extraordinarily wealthy elite. As Omar puts it:

Every time Mr. Trump attacks refugees is a time that could be spent discussing the president’s unwillingness to raise the federal minimum wage for up to 33 million Americans. Every racist attack on four members of Congress is a moment he doesn’t have to address why his choice for labor secretary has spent his career defending Wall Street banks and Walmart at the expense of workers. When he is launching attacks on the free press, he isn’t talking about why his Environmental Protection Agency just refused to ban a pesticide linked to brain damage in children.

His efforts to pit religious minorities against one another stem from the same playbook. If working Americans are too busy fighting with one another, we will never address the very real and deep problems our country faces — from climate change to soaring inequality to lack of quality affordable health care.

(I agree. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious bigotry, etc. have always been used by the powerful to divide those who might challenge their wealth and power.)

Ms. Omar calls on us to listen to “the better angels of our nature.” As she concludes:

The proudest moments in our history — from the Emancipation Proclamation to the civil rights movement to the struggle against fascism — have come when we fight to protect and expand basic democratic rights. Today, democracy is under attack once again. It’s time to respond with the kind of conviction that has made America great before.

Brief reflections – Of course, this well-written essay won’t change the reptilian minds that follow their cult leader. They are sheep, being led to the slaughter by (almost exclusively) men who don’t care about them at all. They applaud those who want to take their health-care away and dismantle the rest of the very limited social safety net in this country. They support those who want all the wealth and power of society for themselves. They cheer his cruelty to their (perceived) enemies, not realizing they will get nothing from him and his kind. As Bob Dylan wrote they are only “pawns in the game” of the rich and powerful.

Quotes Attacking Religon

The Yazılıkaya sanctuary in Turkey, with the twelve gods of the underworld

My recent post linked to a few of the many essays I’ve written on religions. For those who want an even briefer summary of my views here are a few quotes that exemplify them.  I should note that I’ve had many friends who were practitioners of various religions. While I disagree with them, I also recognize that I could be mistaken.

There is no point beating around the bush. Supernatural concepts have no philosophical warrant. Furthermore, it is not that such concepts are displaced only if we accept, from the start, a naturalistic or scientific vision of things. There simply are no good arguments—theological, philosophical, humanistic, or scientific—for beliefs in divine beings, miracles, or heavenly afterlives. ~Owen Flanagan

There is no greater social evil than religion. It is the cancer in the body of humanity. Human credulity and superstition, and the need for comforting fables, will never be extirpated, so religion will always exist, at least among the uneducated. The only way to manage the dangers it presents is to confine it entirely to the private sphere, and for the public domain to be blind to it in all but one respect: that by law no one’s private beliefs should be allowed to cause a nuisance or an injury to anyone else.
~A. C. Grayling

All thinking men are atheists. ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. ~Stephen Roberts

The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration. ~Carl Sagan

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. ~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Emotional excitement reaches men through tea, tobacco, opium, whisky, and religion. ~George Bernard Shaw

The time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all to make their dissent from religion known. ~John Stuart Mill

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. ~Blaise Pascal

Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion. ~Thomas Hobbes

The aim of a religious movement is to inflict a malady on society, then offer the religion as a cure. ~Eric Hoffer

If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion. ~L. Ron Hubbard

Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous. ~David Hume

Religion … the universal … neurosis of humanity. ~Sigmund Freud

Religion is all bunk. ~Thomas Edison

The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with the superstitions of the Christian religion. ~Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I count religion but a childish toy and hold there is no sin but ignorance.
~Christopher Marlowe

Religion is the opiate of the masses. ~Karl Marx

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. ~Kurt Vonnegut

These [religious ideas] are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. ~Sigmund Freud

I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. Religion is based . . . mainly on fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. ~Bertrand Russell

The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. ~Sigmund Freud

Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God. ~Philip Appleman

Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration—courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth. ~H.L. Mencken

Religion is a byproduct of fear. For much of human history, it may have been a necessary evil, but why was it more evil than necessary? Isn’t killing people in the name of God a pretty good definition of insanity? ~Arthur C. Clarke

No man who ever lived knows any more about the hereafter … than you and I; and all religion … is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.
~Edgar Allan Poe

I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will—and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain. We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes. ~Gene Roddenberry

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for 800 years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there as no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. ~Mark Twain

Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror. Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that has ever infected the world. If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities. Superstition, born of paganism and adopted by Judaism, invested the Christian Church from earliest times. All the fathers of the Church, without exception, believed in the power of magic. The Church always condemned magic, but she always believed in it: she did not excommunicate sorcerers as madmen who were mistaken, but as men who were really in communication with the devil. Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense. ~Voltaire

Man is a marvelous curiosity . . . he thinks he is the Creator’s pet . . . he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to him and thinks He listens. Isn’t it a quaint idea ~Robert G. Ingersoll

To abdicate from the rule of reason and substitute for it an authentication of belief by the intentness and degree of conviction with which we hold it can be perilous and destructive. Religious beliefs give a spurious spiritual dimension to tribal enmities … It goes with the passionate intensity and deep conviction of the truth of a religious belief, and of course of the importance of the superstitious observances that go with it, that we should want others to share it – and the only certain way to cause a religious belief to be held by everyone is to liquidate nonbelievers. The price in blood and tears that mankind generally has had to pay for the comfort and spiritual refreshment that religion has brought to a few has been too great to justify our entrusting moral accountancy to religious belief. ~Sir Peter Brian Medawar

Since the early days, [the church] has thrown itself violently against every effort to liberate the body and mind of man. It has been, at all times and everywhere, the habitual and incorrigible defender of bad governments, bad laws, bad social theories, bad institutions. It was, for centuries, an apologist for slavery, as it was an apologist for the divine right of kings. ~H.L. Mencken

History does not record anywhere or at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it. ~Robert A. Heinlein

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that [the human] heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man. … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better. At all events, in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreat, or go about begging. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

Essays Against Religion

In Plato‘s ApologySocrates (pictured) was accused by Meletus of not believing in the gods.

I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. Religion is based . . . mainly on fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. ~Bertrand Russell

I have recently let some of my readers express their views on religion. I thank them for their contributions. I would also like to say that I’ve had many friends who were religious. But if anyone is interested in my views on religion they have been expressed multiple times over the years. So, rather than respond to all the specific points my readers have made, here are a few links to my own work on the topic.

Religion’s Smart-People Problem

The End of Religion: Technology and the Future

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

Transhumanism and the End of Religion

Should We Live as if Religious Claims are True?

Arguing with Theists

Some Interesting Biblical Prescriptions

Logic Decreases Religious Beliefs

Religion and Superintelligence

Science & Religion: A Dialogue

Science and Religion: A Not So Sympathetic View of Religion

Science and Religion portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890).

In response to Alhazen’s views covered in my last post, Professor Darrell Arnold penned this thoughtful reply.

You make various points in your post, underlining the value of a religious, or perhaps we should say spiritual, mindset. Your main point seems to be that scientific and religious explanation, or religious life, inhabit different domains and fulfill different needs. And you argue, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I agree with you that religion in some cases serves functions that you allude to. Some people are deeply committed to religion because they see it serving fundamental needs that science doesn’t serve. These are needs for a personal sense of connection with something greater than themselves or for connection to a caring community.

However, religion all too often it doesn’t seem to serve those purposes at all. For Jason, for example, and clearly for many others, religion has largely been oppressive, undermining free-thinking and even empathy. Jason may wish to speak for himself. But his experience of religion doesn’t appear to be like the one you talk about. His experience is that his religion supported racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and more. Further, it didn’t support intellectual development or curiosity. Rather, it claimed a dogmatic solution to every problem. Jason’s experience with religion is similar to that of many others. Now having this experience, are you suggesting that Jason or others like him should nonetheless continue to look within religion for some reserves of truth because those are uniquely provided by religion?

I do not doubt that some — with strong religious impulses — feel a need to continue on some kind of religious quest, and possibly to rely on religion to address some of life’s questions that evade science. Various people seem to me to do this with a spirit of honesty. But I guess I don’t think religion is necessary for these purposes — as the source of connection or meaning, or for building community, or certainly for ethical action.

I do think one of the issues with secularism is that it often does not do a very effective job of helping to meet some of the needs that religion does meet for some — of providing a sense of purpose, or a sense of belonging within the world, or a sense of community. This failure means that some secularists retreat from their communities and only are concerned about taking care of themselves. This doesn’t seem to have afflicted Jason. But in any case, I don’t agree that religion is the only way to address those failures. And in fact, many forms of religious life don’t solve but exacerbate the very problems mentioned. Think of the high incidence of suicide among transgender and homosexual religious youth.

Looking at the demographics of global population growth, I don’t expect the eclipse of religion anytime soon. So I hope that religions more seriously take up the needs that you mention than they now do and that they play a less adversarial role with science. If there are two domains, religion, too, needs to respect the one of science.

Unfortunately, a look at demographics doesn’t lead me to think that religion will generally develop in these ways. Rather, it will develop much more in alignment with the way that opponents of religion see it working. It will all too often continue to offer simplistic dogmatic answers to questions scientific and non-scientific. It will all too often continue to defend bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia in the name of God and truth. It will offer insular communities. For that, I’ve little hope that the world will become increasingly secular, with populations of people with mindsets apparently similar to Jason’s, such as we find in Scandinavia. That’s a pity because it is, on the whole, those nations that have the most social forms of political and economic development and that have taken up climate change and environmental concerns seriously.

I’m with William James that religion meets a unique need for some, one not met by science. These tolerant forms of non-dogmatic religion will surely play a role for many in our immediate future as well. But many of the most humane people I have known have found no need for the kind of experience of the transcendent that James talks about. And they’ve no need for the kind of malformed community that religions all too often form.

For some of those, forms of community are lacking. Secularists need to do more to facilitate such forms of community and to emphasize possibilities for collective action in organizations like the Sierra Club or other such groups. The world we also be a better place if more people did what John does and tried to write clearly and approachably about questions of meaning from a secular perspective, so that those who find that religion does not resonate with them have some non-religious insights to draw on — the way apparently Jason has — in ways that give them a greater sense of a meaningful life. One of the most regrettable realities is that when people are going through individual crises, it is often fundamentalist religions that are first available to offer them (thoughtless) answers and entry into (malformed) communities.

To get back to your baby/bathwater analogy — if an analogy of that sort is appropriate, I’m not sure how much of religion is in the bathwater. Maybe meaning and value beyond instrumentalist reason are. But this, it seems, can be found in various ways.