Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What is socialization?

The communist project is to socialize the ownership of capital. What precisely do I mean by "socialization"?

Socialization refers to a change in attitude, a new set of ideas that achieves wide distribution in the members of a society. Specifically, socialization is the attitude that some social condition or property is inherent to each individual, as opposed to the attitude that the condition is acquired or earned by some "merit" or positive activity.

The analogy between communism and capitalist democracy is especially important here. It's difficult, I think, for modern Americans to really understand how groundbreaking the American Revolution and US Constitution were. They didn't just set up the capitalist class (more precisely the large land-owners of a more-or-less regressive agrarian slave state) as the new ruling class; what's interesting is how they did so. The founders didn't just set up a new aristocracy; they actually and explicitly socialized political power.

(Of course, they outrageously rigged the system so the large land owners and later the nascent merchant- and industrial-capitalist class would have an overwhelming advantage, but it's interesting that they created a system that had to be rigged, rather than creating a system that just directly privileged these classes.)

Before the American Revolution, political power — physically manifested as the allegiance of the police and the army, also social constructions — was owned by the monarchy and nobility. The king* could act more-or-less arbitrarily and he could employ his coercive powers directly for his own benefit. The only way the people could actually change kings was by armed rebellion and civil war... which of course required military discipline and a candidate replacement king to lead and organize the rebellion.

*I use the male constructions advisedly. While there were influential and powerful women in the feudal aristocracy at every level, the whole of feudal society was thoroughly patriarchal in every culture, not just the West.

Of course, there were a lot of compromises, restrictions and dilutions of that power along the way, such as the English Parliament and the Magna Carta; the socialization of political power did not spring ex nihilo from a practical vacuum any more than it did from a philosophical vacuum. Practically speaking, no monarch actually exercised absolute arbitrary power. But all of the compromises centered around the underlying idea of the feudal aristocracy's possession of power by virtue of hereditary, divine and military merit: even when compromised, you had to control the king to control political power.

Practically speaking, the governments of the American Revolution (the state governments and the US Constitution) were the first to be explicitly republican: political power was directly owned more-or-less by the people inherently and not deservedly or by merit. Although at first imperfectly* implemented, the social constructions of political power immediately after the Revolution gave enough impetus to the underlying idea that the trend until the late 20th century was unmistakably towards increased republicanism, and the vesting of political power in more of the population.

*If you'll forgive the outrageous understatement of calling the institutionalization of slavery and the restriction of the vote to white male land-owners "imperfections".

(The 18th and early 19th century United States did not face any "existential threats", threats to its very existence as a nation; this relative safety undoubtedly affected the course of the social evolution of capitalist democracy. It's interesting to speculate how the Russian and Chinese revolutions might have evolved had they not faced the severe existential threats of two massive invasions in the case of the Russians, or the threat of immediate famine and widespread starvation, which long preceded both the Russian and Chinese revolutions, especially the Chinese.)

There are a number of elements to the socialization of political power. Some were directly and explicitly constructed by the authors of the Constitution and its amendments, some have evolved over time. Some are honored more in the breach than the observance; that they have to be subverted rather than simply dispensed with, however, testifies to the power of the underlying socialization.

The first element is the vote, the direct and explicit socialization of political power. The vote is non-transferable: it cannot be sold, relinquished or expropriated*,**. The vote is secret, and there is no practical way an individual can face direct social consequences for the content of her vote. Each vote counts the same, regardless of any measure of individual merit. An election, the physical counting of actual votes, is the final arbiter of political power***.

*A person can be disenfranchised, but her vote cannot then be used by another.
**Representatives do vote arbitrarily; their vote cannot be reversed by their constituents. But representatives must always at least give lip service to the idea that they are voting for the benefit of their constituents.
***Even in
Bush v. Gore
, the Supreme Court installed Bush by certifying a particular electoral result.

Another important social construct, both explicit* and implicit, is the idea that representatives cannot use their vote or delegated powers directly and explicitly for their own immediate, personal benefit; any benefit they derive must** be indirect, primarily in the form of keeping their jobs at the pleasure of their constituents.

*See especially Article II, Section 7: Executive pay and the 27th Amendment, limiting changes to congressional pay.
**Or should; this construction is definitely honored more in the breach than the observance.

Another element is the near-elimination of explicit individual privilege (literally private law) under law. Under feudalism, there were actually one set of laws regulating the commonality and an explicitly different set regulating the aristocracy. Furthermore, the difference accrued to the person, not the office (feudal "offices" were inalienable). Under capitalist democracy, individual conduct is equally regulated, and any privilege that exists (such as the privilege to cast a vote on federal legislation or the power to command the army) accrues to the office, not the person. This legal equalitarianism is of course often superficial: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." But it is important that the law must be at least superficially equalitarian; a law that explicitly forbade only the poor from sleeping under bridges would be an outrage.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the socialization of political power. First and foremost: it can be done. We know it is possible to explicitly socialize a social construct that has been privatized for millennia. We know too its possible for socialized political power to operate more-or-less successfully in the real world, avoiding catastrophic failure*. Political power has also been socialized in various different ways in different nations and cultures: we have a lot of examples to draw on. We also know that we don't have to initially get it exactly right; social evolution can, at least under favorable circumstances, modify the imperfections and mistakes of the initial implementation. (Which is not to say the initial implementation doesn't matter at all; As modern China and several economically successful autocracies such as Singapore and Taiwan have shown, capitalism — more-or-less necessitated by economic reality — can exist without the socialization of political power.)

*If you'll forgive the understatement of not labeling as "catastrophic failures" institutionalized chattel slavery, colonialism, imperialism and the megadeaths of two Imperial Wars just because they did not result in the abandonment of democracy.

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