My house has a back alley where, once per week, the local trash truck passes through to empty everyone’s cans. Over the years, my neighbors have developed an informal agreement: if someone will be out of town, or will be filling their can less than full for some reason, that person lets the other residents know. This sharing exercise has great value to those who accumulate surplus debris due to home improvement projects and the like.
Our street’s little courtesy isn’t out of the ordinary. In many places, tool exchanges, yard help, and teenager work subsidies are regular occurrences.
This sharing of resources in a neighborhood fits the definition of socialism popularized by Karl Marx: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Local residents move resources from those with excess capacity (ability) toward those with less capacity (need).
The residents of my neighborhood have worked hard to earn a living, to save for a rainy day, and to accumulate resources for their old age. Most describe themselves as capitalists. But they are also socialists. They don’t choose to self-label with the term. Some even recoil at the thought. But their actions fit the term’s definition.
Marx’s statement reduces to two key words: from and to. At the neighborhood scale, perhaps the ”from” consists of only a few minutes of time. Maybe the ”to” Is a small favor the recipient isn’t even aware of. Nevertheless, the flow follows the direction defined by Marx’s description.
This doesn’t mean that Americans who claim to be capitalist are instead the naive supporters of top-heavy government efforts to control economies. Folks like my neighbors are far too smart to make such a significant intellectual blunder. But it does mean that our society has never defined the term socialism in a way that can be used productively in collective decision-making.
For this reason, confusion, conflation, and group-think follow in the wake of the term’s use in most political conversations.
This failure to define the concept doesn’t reside in the word itself. Marx’s description was actually quite accurate. Instead, our difficulties lie in a lack of qualifier terms. Those qualifiers must address the crucial context of scale, which resides on a continuum that is bounded by two opposites.
Thus, the term socialism can’t become functional until its definition is divided into two distinct types: centralized socialism and citizen socialism. At the heart of this distinction is a question: Who is allowed to decide the ”from’s” and ”to’s” of our lives?
In the classic connotation of socialism, a centralized force – the government – makes such decisions. This exposes the unspoken assumption behind the term as it is most often asserted. Street-marching, sign-holding socialists have attached themselves to this approach, usually without examining it. But as readers of this blog know, such assumptions are actually the un-assessed answer to one of our political system’s fundamental questions: Who should control power in America?
When debates break out about what kind of country America should become …… should we be capitalist nation or a socialist nation? …… this is the form of socialism being discussed. But it is just one sub-division of the concept – a small slice which resides at the far end of a deep spectrum. This specific type should be described as Centralized Socialism.
Those who give the other answer to the power question …… those who believe that citizens should be empowered to make their own choices …… can also be considered socialist. In fact, by Marx’s definition, they must be. We see them voluntarily sharing neighborhood and congregational resources every day. Their “citizen socialism” contrasts sharply with the centralized version.
Prior to the industrial revolution, and even into the twentieth century, Americans shared resources often, without coercion from an outside entity. There were barn raisings, quilting circles, help with the harvest, and the exchange of products from differing farms. Even in city life, neighbor helped neighbor as the need arose. Their form of mutual cooperation – a transfer “from” those according to their ability “to” those according to their needs – was freely given. And it still is, as many neighborhoods demonstrate.
The failure to draw adequate distinctions in our vocabulary isn’t limited to the concept of socialism. It extends to capitalism, which also exists along a spectrum bounded by two opposites: a centralized version and a citizen-empowering type.
Many Americans function simultaneously as citizen socialists and citizen capitalists. This might seem like a contradiction at first. But it isn’t. They live according to a consistent creed because the conduct of their lives emphasizes the qualifying term that should sit in front of both capitalism and socialism: citizen.
My neighbors are citizens first. Sometimes they function as citizen capitalists. Other times, as citizen socialists. The “citizen” allows them to reconcile two differing approaches to the distribution of resources.