Trump's advisers slander socialism: a reply to White House lies – part four

In the final installment of Alan Woods' reply to the White House's slanders against socialism, he discusses the terrible financial and human cost of American capitalist imperialism. He points to the clear superiority of a planned economy, and explains that a transition to socialism in America (given its vast productive forces) would be far easier than in backward countries like Russia in 1917, and would be a colossal advance towards the goal of world socialism.

Part one | part two | part three

The capitalist state

Just as in the field of economics, the idea that all consumers are equal and “free to choose” is a meaningless abstraction, so in the field of politics, the idea that, in a formal capitalist democracy, people can actually decide who rules their lives and destinies is an equally hollow abstraction. Politicians and presidents are bought and sold, just like any other commodity in the market economy. And this oligarchic control cancels out democracy, which is reduced to the level of an empty and meaningless farce.

In order to break the power of the oligarchy and place real control in the hands of the people, it is absolutely necessary to break the economic power of the ruling class. The prior condition for socialism is the expropriation of big capital—the big banks and corporations that really rule society. In order to control the economy, it is necessary to take these commanding heights out of private ownership altogether.

That is the only way to destroy the dictatorship of capital and create an economic system that is owned and controlled by the majority, not a privileged minority of obscenely rich families. Yet this extremely democratic and necessary measure is painted in the most sinister terms as somehow surrendering the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens to some kind of monster totalitarian state.

This stands the truth on its head completely. It is the present system that is profoundly undemocratic. It is the rule of an irresponsible, un-elected and unaccountable minority that exercises a despotic and asphyxiating control over the lives of the people. Under the present system, it matters little who is elected to Congress and the White House, because Wall Street extends its tentacles into every level of political life.

The federal bureaucracy is a monster. It consists of roughly 2.6 million employees, plus many freelance contractors. Most of the bureaucracy is engaged in implementing the law. There are 17,985 police agencies in the United States, which includes college campus police, sheriff departments, local police and federal agencies. The repressive nature of the state is increasingly obvious, with numerous cases of police murdering people—more often than not, blacks and Latinos. And the prison population is exploding.

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons and county jails in 2013. In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2015 was $31,977.65 per person ($87.61 per day).

This huge apparatus of repression is necessary because a tiny minority of exploiters rules over the overwhelming majority. It constitutes an enormous drain on the wealth and resources of society. The cost of maintaining this bloated army of federal bureaucrats was around $58 billion a year in 2015. That was about 14 percent of total government spending and around 16 percent of its revenues.

The true cost of militarism

Military expenditure is yet another colossal drain. Donald Trump has signed what his administration calls the largest military budget in US history: $717 billion, no less. Everything he says suggests he means to increase that figure in future. In fact, American taxpayers will send approximately $6 trillion to the Pentagon over the next decade, as military costs are projected to hit levels 20 percent higher than their Cold War peak, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Nor does the matter end there. Constant involvement of the USA in foreign military adventures is a never-ending drain that puts a severe strain on the resources even of the world’s richest nation. And these figures do not include the cost of so-called “overseas contingency operations.” That is military slang for the billions of dollars spent off-budget every year on the never-ending “War on Terror”.

The US embarked on the so-called global war on terror following the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 and were orchestrated by the Islamist militant group, Al Qaeda. Weeks later, the US led an invasion of Afghanistan, which at the time was controlled by Al Qaeda-ally, the Taliban.

9 11 Image Flickr Cyril AttiasIn the attacks on the Twin Towers, out of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi citizens. Yet it was not Saudi Arabia that was invaded, but Iraq. What followed was an expensive orgy of bloodshed / Image: Flickr, Cyril Attias

In March 2003, Washington overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, accusing him of developing weapons of mass destruction and harbouring US-designated terrorist organisations. Both claims were false. Despite oft-repeated claims that the US possessed “irrefutable evidence” that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, no such weapons were ever found. It was a blatant lie designed to deceive the US public and justify the invasion and occupation of a sovereign state.

The claim that Iraq was harbouring jihadi terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda, and was somehow linked to the attack on the Twin Towers was another lie. It is conveniently forgotten that, in the attacks on the Twin Towers, out of the 19 terrorists who hijacked the planes, 15 were Saudi citizens. There was not a single Iraqi among them, and in fact, Saddam Hussein was a bitter enemy of Al Qaeda, which had no base in Iraq. Yet it was not Saudi Arabia that was invaded, but Iraq.

Whatever may be said about Saddam Hussein, he was a secular ruler and implacably hostile to Islamist extremism. He ruthlessly suppressed all opposition—including the jihadi kind. Only after the US invasion had destroyed the Iraqi state did Al Qaeda manage to build a strong base (morphing into the “Islamic State”) and, despite setbacks, it still represents a menace today.

Somebody calculated that the “War on Terror” added $2.1 trillion to the huge US debt: around 10 percent of the total. Taxpayers spent more than $800 billion on the Iraq War alone. The $2.1 trillion spent on the War on Terror is said to have created 18 million jobs. But if it had gone toward education instead, it would have created almost 38 million jobs. That gives you an idea of the colossal waste caused by arms expenditure.

However, it now seems that even this eye-watering estimate understates the total amount. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute recently published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that have gone into the so-called War on Terror. From 12 September 2001, through to the fiscal year 2018, the bill stood at almost $6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for veterans). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.

This study includes both the Pentagon’s spending and its Overseas Contingency Operations account; and “war-related spending by the Department of State, past and obligated spending for war veterans’ care, interest on the debt incurred to pay for the wars, and the prevention of and response to terrorism by the Department of Homeland Security.”

“The United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $5.9 trillion (in current dollars) on the war on terror through Fiscal Year 2019, including direct war and war-related spending and obligations for future spending on post 9/11 war veterans.”

The report concludes:

“In sum, high costs in war and war-related spending pose a national security concern because they are unsustainable. The public would be better served by increased transparency and by the development of a comprehensive strategy to end the wars and deal with other urgent national security priorities.”

In 2014, the US gathered an international coalition to combat ISIS, which has spread from Iraq to neighbouring Syria and beyond. The US-led, NATO Western military alliance intervened in Libya and helped insurgents overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the nation in a state of unspeakable chaos, anarchy and civil war. Under Gaddafi, Al Qaeda was not a serious force in Libya. Now it thrives there and is spreading its tentacles into Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report also found that the “US military is conducting counterterror activities in 76 countries, or about 39 percent of the world's nations, vastly expanding [its mission] across the globe.” In addition, these operations “have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the US and abroad.”

The human cost of these foreign adventures has been huge. Overall, the report estimated that “between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” This toll "does not include the more than 500,000 deaths from the war in Syria, raging since 2011” when a West-backed rebel and jihadi uprising challenged the government, an ally of Russia and Iran.

The number of deaths may be much higher and is also compounded by hundreds of thousands killed by the side effects of such conflicts. The Watson Institute also calculated that the combined human cost for the US throughout its actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan was 6,951 troops, 21 civilians and 7,820 contractors.

The report states:

“While we often know how many US soldiers die, most other numbers are to a degree uncertain. Indeed, we may never know the total direct death toll in these wars. For example, tens of thousands of civilians may have died in retaking Mosul and other cities from ISIS but their bodies have likely not been recovered.

“In addition, this tally does not include ‘indirect deaths.’ Indirect harm occurs when wars’ destruction leads to long term, ‘indirect,’ consequences for people’s health in war zones, for example because of loss of access to food, water, health facilities, electricity or other infrastructure.”

Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were brutal dictators and no friends of the oppressed masses. But can anyone honestly say that Iraq and Libya are safer and more stable since imperialism devastated these countries? And what about Afghanistan? After 17 years (longer than the Vietnam War), the expenditure of trillions of dollars and terrible loss life, the country is a bloody quagmire in which the Taliban threaten 70 percent of the territory.

800px Muammar al Gaddafi 12th AU Summit Image Jesse B. AwaltSaddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were brutal dictators. But are Iraq and Libya safer and more stable since imperialism devastated these countries? / Image: Jesse B. Awalt

Despite the initial quick victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has been plagued by ongoing insurgencies—and not only in these countries. The invasion of Iraq destabilised the whole region. This forced the USA to expand its “counterterrorism operations” way beyond the Middle East, to Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

These endless military adventures do not make America any safer or stronger. Nor do they make the terrorist threat any weaker. On the contrary, the terrorist mad men grow more numerous by the day. They thrive on the instability caused by US military intervention. The world is now a far more unstable and dangerous place than what it was in 2001. The invasion of Iraq generated a huge wave of resentment and hatred that will have to be paid for by countless more victims in the future—both outside America’s borders and within them.

The Nazi Hermann Göring once said: “Guns before butter! Guns will make us great. Butter will only make us fat.” But America’s colossal arms expenditure, which makes Hitler’s rearmament programme seem Lilliputian by comparison, has done nothing to restore America’s greatness. In a world torn apart by constant wars that are a reflection of the crisis of capitalism, it is dragging the US ever deeper into a bloody quagmire.

In February, President Trump complained that “we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East,” adding “what a mistake”. Weeks later, he reportedly told his military advisers to prepare a plan to withdraw from Syria, as the war against ISIS entered its final phase. But since then, the US military intervention in Syria has been continued and even stepped up, dragging out a senseless conflict that has already cost too many lives.

All this reminds one of the famous words of the Roman historian Tacitus:

“And when they have created a wilderness, they call it Peace.”

The workers must take power!

Socialism is democratic or it is nothing. It means taking control of society out of the hands of a greedy, irresponsible and corrupt elite and placing it in the hands of the overwhelming majority. This means the overthrow of the existing state and its replacement with a new kind of state. Engels describes the state as “a power, seemingly standing above society […] but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it.”

These words are an accurate description of the present situation. The Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the US nuclear and arms industry, and the rest of what used to be called the Military-Industrial Complex has become a state within a state, with its own interests, enjoying colossal power and leverage over the central government. Trump has found out to his cost that the intelligence agencies that are supposed to be the servants of the people, in reality serve nobody but themselves and the capitalist establishment whose interests they represent.

The defenders of capitalism used to point to Russia and China and say to the citizens of the USA: “you want socialism? That is socialism for you! The gulag, the KGB, dictatorship, spies on every street corner, standing in line for hours for a loaf of bread or a bar of soap. Do you really want that?” And the terrified citizen would shake his or her head and say: “No, thanks! That’s not for me!”

Of course, no one in their right mind wants the things described above. But these things are not at all necessary byproducts of a socialist plan of production. They are precisely the products of economically backward countries where the material conditions for socialism were absent. And that is very different from the situation in the USA.

Whereas in Russia and China, the productive forces were at a very low level when their revolutions took place (and that was also the case of Venezuela, with the partial exception of the oil industry) in the USA, the productive forces have been raised to a very high level. The American population enjoys a high level of literacy and a strong tradition of democracy—all of which was absent in the above-mentioned countries.

We stand for the control of the banks and industries by the state, but we also stand for the democratic control of the state by the whole people. Under a regime of workers’ control and management, all the levers of economic power would be in the hands of the workers themselves. The people who really produce all the wealth of society must own and control the productive forces.

In the first place, this means transferring the wealth of society and the productive forces from private hands to the hands of the state. But the future proletarian state will have nothing whatsoever in common with the present bureaucratic monster that is the state power of the bankers and capitalists. The socialist revolution will do away with the old state of the exploiters and oppressors and create a new, genuinely democratic state power, which will be smaller, more accountable, and infinitely more economical to run.

What will a workers’ state look like? Just over a century ago, Lenin answered that question in a famous work entitled State and Revolution, in which he explained the fundamental conditions, not for socialism or communism, but for the very first days of workers power. These conditions may be summarised as follows:

  1. Free and democratic elections, with right of recall of all officials.
  2. No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
  3. No standing army or police, but the armed people (a popular militia).
  4. Gradually, all the tasks of administering the state of society to be performed in turn by the whole people. When everyone is a bureaucrat, nobody is a bureaucrat.

Measures such as these will ensure that the American workers’ state would be genuinely democratic and representative. It would be the true realisation of the democratic aspirations that have inspired the American people ever since the American Revolution and the Civil War, which was really a second American Revolution.

This is the real face of socialist revolution. It has nothing whatsoever in common with the bureaucratic totalitarian state of Stalinism. On the contrary, it is a democratic conception of society that is fully in line with the basic revolutionary-democratic traditions of the country—traditions that have been systematically whittled away and reduced to nothing under the present system of capitalist oligarchy.

The transition to socialism

The White House document states:

“The proposed solutions include single-payer systems, high tax rates (‘from each according to his ability’), and public policies that hand out much of the Nation’s goods and services ‘free’ of charge (‘to each according to his needs’). Where they differ is that contemporary democratic socialists denounce state brutality and would allow individuals to privately own the means of production in many industries.”

Karl Marx Image public domainIt is impossible to jump from capitalism to communism. There must be a transitional period, which Marx described as the lower phase of communism. The length depends of the level of the productive forces / Image: public domain

Here we have confusion piled upon confusion. The authors have some vague recollection that socialism is something to do with “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” But to begin with, this formula has nothing whatsoever to do with taxation. As a matter of fact, this formulation was used by Marx to describe the situation that would exist in a completely classless society. In such a society, on the basis of a very high development of the productive forces, with the consequent increase in wealth and culture, we would arrive at a situation where each individual would contribute to society to the degree that his or her physical and mental potential permitted. In return, he or she would receive all that is required to live a fruitful, genuinely human life.

Marx was no utopian. He was well aware that not everybody has the same potential. Not everyone is a potential Darwin, Einstein or Rembrandt. Nevertheless, every human being has some potential and should have the possibility to develop that potential to the full. Every man and woman should be able to contribute to society to the best of their ability. In return, they can expect to receive the right to live a civilised existence.

During the transitional period, as Marx explained very clearly in The Critique of the Gotha Program, there could be no question of immediately introducing the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This is what he writes:

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only—for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

“But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Marx-Engels Selected Works, 1970, vol.3, pp. 18-19)

It is impossible to jump straight from the capitalist jungle into the higher form of socialism without a transitional period, which Marx described as the lower phase of communism. During this period, inequality of income would exist, although the differential would be far less than the obscene inequality that exists today, and will tend to be reduced still further as unskilled and unqualified labour becomes a thing of the past.

The length of this transitional period would be determined by the initial level of development of the productive forces, technique, culture etc. in a given society. In Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in an extremely backward country, with a narrow industrial base and a largely illiterate population. Therefore, in Russia, the transitional period assumed a particularly difficult and painful character.

Lenin and Trotsky understood very well that the material conditions for building socialism were absent in Russia, and that it would require the victory of the socialist revolution in one or more advanced countries (Germany, for example) in order to advance in the direction of genuine socialism. The problems faced by the young Soviet Republic were the products of extreme economic and cultural backwardness. It was these objective conditions that led to the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, which ended in the abomination of Stalinist totalitarianism.

But in an advanced capitalist country like the United States, with its colossal productive potential, its educated population, and its democratic traditions, the advance towards socialism would be achieved far more easily, far less painfully and far more swiftly than was the case in backward Russia.

The superiority of a socialist planned economy

What effect would the nationalisation of the banks and monopolies have on production? Our friends in the White House speak of a collapse of maybe 40 percent “in the long run.” This is once more a figure somebody has sucked out of their thumb. Nowhere do they produce the slightest proof to back it up. But we believe we are in a position to demonstrate the precise opposite. Let us refer once more to a concrete example of what a planned economy could achieve.

Under frightful conditions of economic, social and cultural backwardness, the Bolsheviks began the titanic task of dragging Russia out of backwardness on the basis of a nationalised planned economy. Within the space of two decades Russia had established a powerful industrial base, developed industry, science and technology and abolished illiteracy. In a period of 50 years, the USSR increased its gross domestic product nine times over.

By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was a formidable industrial power, which in absolute terms had already overtaken the rest of the world in a whole series of key sectors. The USSR was the world’s second-biggest industrial producer after the USA and was the biggest producer of oil, steel, cement, tractors and many machine tools.

Nor is the full extent of the achievement expressed in these figures. Moreover, unemployment like that in the West was unknown in the Soviet Union. The USSR had a balanced budget and even generated a small surplus every year. Not a single Western government has succeeded in achieving results like these. The federal budget deficit of the USA was $665 billion in the financial year 2017, versus $587 billion in 2016, an increase of $82 billion, or about 13 percent. Right now, US public debt is about $20 trillion, having increased by an astonishing 115 percent over the last decade.

Moreover, for most of the postwar period, there was little or no inflation in the USSR. This was particularly the case with the price of basic items of consumption. In the early 1980s, the price of bread, sugar and most food prices had not been increased since 1955. Rents were extremely low, almost free in fact, and included unlimited free electricity and gas. Just compare this to the West, where most workers have to pay a third or more of their wages on housing, and the high cost of housing puts home ownership beyond the reach of millions and condemns millions more to homelessness.

In the 1980s, the USSR had more scientists than the USA, Japan, Britain and Germany combined. Only recently was the West compelled to admit grudgingly that the Soviet space programme was far in advance of America’s. The Western critics of the Soviet Union kept very quiet about this, because it demonstrated the possibilities of even a transitional economy, never mind full-blown socialism.

Now, if these results were possible on the basis of an extremely backward, semi-feudal economy with an illiterate population, it does not take a genius to understand that far greater results would be achieved by the application of democratic socialist planning to an advanced, industrialised economy like that of the USA. All the vast, unused productive potential of this mighty land would be mobilised for the satisfaction of human needs. Every able-bodied man and woman would be invited to participate in the socialist reconstruction of America. A crash programme of house building would eliminate the scourge of homelessness and rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

Freed from the control of the parasitic oligarchy of bankers and capitalists, on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management, the American economy would advance by leaps and bounds. Under a democratic socialist plan of production, an annual rate of growth of 10 percent would be quite a modest objective. This would mean the doubling of America’s collective wealth in the space of two five-year plans. Far from collapsing, living standards would be raised to a level never seen before in history. The hours of work could be drastically reduced, giving people time to develop themselves mentally, physically and spiritually.

Far from being an impossible utopia, we already have in our hands the productive potential, based on modern science and technology, to guarantee a future based upon a level of prosperity that can satisfy all human needs, without the necessity of an animal struggle for existence. Is this really an aim that is beyond the capacity of the human race to attain? Only an ignorant and narrow-minded misanthrope would dare to say so.

Once the powerful American economy is freed from the stranglehold of the private banks and monopolies, it would be possible to reorganise the productive forces in a harmonious and planned manner, which would guarantee every man, woman and child a far higher living standard than what they have at present.

White House protest Image Ted EytanOnce the American economy is freed from the stranglehold of the banks and monopolies, it would be possible to reorganise the productive forces in a harmonious and planned manner, which would guarantee every man, woman and child a far higher living standard / Image: Ted Eytan

The democratic participation of the working class, which is the prior condition for the building of socialism, would be a very simple matter, given the fact that the US possesses an educated population. The general application of modern technology—computers, calculators, smartphones and other wonders of modern science—would render the tasks of accounting and control accessible to everybody, providing a solid basis for the introduction of workers’ control and management at all levels of industry and the economy.

Freed from the need to fight for a bare living, the people would be free to pursue their interests and to develop their potential to the maximum. The schools and universities would be open for every citizen that wished to improve their knowledge of science, culture and the arts. Access to learning and culture would be provided free by the state, laying the basis for a new Renaissance of art, painting, music, literature and architecture. That would be a giant first step in the achievement of the final goal: a socialist federation of the entire world.

However, such a world will be possible only after humanity rids itself of the parasitic yoke of capitalism. And this is precisely why the gentlemen of the Council of Economic Advisors are so keen to warn the American people against such a perspective.