Socialism made the headlines locally and at a national level last week. The Prime Minister explained his admission that a socialist streak runs through New Zealanders by acknowledging he too holds socialist ideals. And an aspiring Mayoral candidate blamed socialists on Gisborne District Council for the increase in his rates demand, which he thinks is a form of wealth tax. Of course he failed to mention his properties are collectively worth many millions of dollars and the proportion of his rates to property value is less than one tenth of what the vast majority of us contribute.
As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “the term socialist has been so evacuated of content over the last century that it’s hard even to use in any sensible way. The Soviet Union was called a socialist society by the two major propaganda powers in the world at the time. The west called the Soviet Union socialist to defame it by association with the miserable tyranny and the Soviets called it socialism to benefit from the moral appeal that true socialism had among large parts of the general world population.” But the Soviet Union was about as remote from socialism as you can imagine. The core notion of traditional socialism is that working people have to be in control of production and communities have to be in control of their own lives. The Soviet Union was the exact opposite of local control, the working people were virtual slaves. Chomsky suggests the collapse of the Soviet Union was in fact a great victory for socialism.
There are attempts today to describe a detailed vision of a socialist future and some of the most extensive and detailed are examples like Participatory Economics and the moves toward an extension of democracy to the industrial sphere through worker-owned cooperatives.
Philosopher and educationalist John Dewey’s main work concentrated on democracy and he pointed out that as long as we have industrial feudalism – that is, private power controlling production and commerce – our democracy will be very limited, we have to move to what he called industrial democracy if we hope to have democracy of any significance.
The way for individuals to realise the democracy “in their own hearts” was through community. As Dewey wrote, “it is through association that man has acquired his individuality and it is through association that he exercises it. The theory which sets the individual over against society, of necessity contradicts itself.”
Dewey believed that direct participation in a democracy would foster an unexpected talent for thoughtful deliberation in ordinary citizens. “We lie in the lap of an immense intelligence,” he said. The difficulty was to unleash this intelligence, which remained dormant until “it possesses the local community as its medium.” In The Public and its Problems — Dewey’s only work of formal political philosophy — he outlined an elaborate program of truly participatory democracy, one built around face-to-face interactions in “neighborly communities.”
The idea that people should be in control of their own destiny and lives including the institutions within which they work and the communities within which they live is traditional socialism.
So when the label socialist gets used pejoratively by people who should know better, I hope John Key is correct, that New Zealanders do all have a socialist streak and we are proud of that commitment to local, egalitarian democracy that protects us from the tyranny of both big government and big business.