American Socialism and the Cold War

Socialism in the United States was not an automatically anti-American position, and nor was the idea that a socialist state might emerge elsewhere. Chicago trade unionists in the nineteenth century, for instance, stood proudly on the idea of gun ownership and the second amendment as a guarantee of their rights, and utopian communities based around quasi-religious ideas of material equality were and are of longstanding in America.

Herbert Hoover, like many of the Progressives, liked the idea of a National Plan, (indeed he even toyed with the idea of saving the USSR as well as Belgium in the early 1920s, when he should have been President) and Theodore Roosevelt was not averse to the idea that there was more wrong with monopoly capitalism and monopsony employment than there was with working mens' guilds, or the exercise of state power.

Something in the idea drove American politicians spare, though. What was it they hated when they looked in the mirror?

Calvin Coolidge (whom I have found a film of, speaking, which I've placed below) grew to prominence as a Governor who threatened to shoot policemen and crack 'reds', for instance. The first Red scare happened at a time when American and British troops were attempting to intervene in the Russian Civil War, and, moreover, American business was more than happy to collaborate with members of America's establishment to keep an eye on 'radicals'.

One shouldn't commit the fallacy of lumping radicals together--anarchists, socialists, racists and populists, were usually different people after all--but there was something limbic about the reaction to socialism in America in the twentieth century.

All of this is surprising, given how open soviet socialism was to American methods, latterly known as 'Fordism'. On the cusp of Stalin's reach for power, the Soviets saw how productive Taylorism and Ford's production line methods were, and doubtless noted how easily Ford could invade the lives of his staff and control them, and thought them good. They actually copied methods. FDR, too, was none too distinguishable from a highly active sort of statist, production-oriented moderniser, even if Glenn Beck does say so.

I was thinking about this the other day when idly asking the question, 'why didn't the cold war ever go hot?'.

Was one reason that the American state built its strength around the vast economic scheme disguised as a military after 1947, and that this was more important than any foreign armageddon? The Pentagon has long since surpassed the point when it was an employer in every state, and in the finest tradition of oligopolies it shares and coordinates its power with other vast state bureaucracies like NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission as well.

The United States is a state capitalist. It transfers public money to banks now on a regular basis via the mechanism of a federal reserve that is in itself owned by banks. Its congress is a vast lobby machine, its elections by-words for money orgies and its car companies, sheltered for too long behind chicken tax rules, are now on state support.

Socialism was modernity. Its collectivism and antireligious organisation of the material things of life thrived on the idea of a world outside it that was worse. Those in the United States who ever thought that the wars from which huge industries made a great deal would ever go nuclear failed to see that that would have been bad for business. You defend the factory, and keep the workers occupied and the farmers needing more by all means; but don't burn it down when there is no insurance.

Perhaps this pathology of socialised effort that Alexis de Tocqueville once saw in 'the collective American mind' was one recognisable enough to America's children that they had to reject it to stay sane. Perhaps the sort of people who thrived in it went a little mad, in the sense of being morally disoriented. By promising a sensibility of self-creation, America alienated people from community and faith, but then rebound them to a system that grew like Topsy, all the while shouting about how the chains made people free.

And now, what? I think that America can restore itself, but that its future is much more local, much more state-based and much less grand than it has seemed. I'm not convinced that the country's ingenuity can't find new energy sources, and nor do I think that the country need cede to an Asia experiencing vast monetary swings whose children are as apt to aspire to the west for all its decadence as they are to struggle with its nationalisms.

I do wonder what people in one of the most socialised cultures on earth, even in the cities, think that they are doing calling themselves liberal individualists and capitalists without understanding how trapped in modernity they are. Where in America can one be free of space or military products, an infotainment media owned by big corporations, taxes that socialise debts of companies whilst individuals are minced by them, and vehicles that are protected and subsidised by law?

I'll make it simple. You can't.

America was born of four sorts of republicanism; the English, rioting, common law one, the southern European elite one, the classical one, and the northern European religious one. Sundry stabs at developing a racial republicanism have generally failed there, though not immediately.

The dark blend of these ideas powered the state along with immigration and the systematic and highly effective exploitation of every form of resource and enterprise for a long time. None of those republics allowed for real individualism to be more than a fantasy, except as long as it could escape money, fences and laws in the west. The stern impassioned stress of the pilgrim feet, hymned in a part of the anthem they all forget, drove more than a thoroughfare through America.

I'm glad that Texas is now replacing Jefferson studies with Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin in its school history curricula. They're doing it as part of some misconceived effort to declare the founders Christians rather than deists and to take on the enlightenment.

But what it will really do is give intelligent Texans (in a state where it is illegal to criticise the cattle industry amongst others) a place on which to stand. Imagine what they will do when they have Aquinas and the Big Skies in their heads. It's a start, a preparation. To have a full sense of humanity and human possibility and human independence, it is necessary in the twenty first century to step back from state capitalism and liberal modernity and to let oneself be part of the main. New Orders for the Ages, imprinted on twentieth century dollars, are all very well, but people need an older place to stand before they can turn to real freedom under God.

There is a sense of regimes changing in America at the moment. Perhaps it makes sense for the country to think about the attempt to prove a republic of the mind under God-love, hope, whatever you want to call God-- possible, and to push itself into work and productivity again. They are putting Hayek on there too. Perhaps he will teach the Americans about how enterprise and the republic could really get along, if only its institutions were not so, well, socialist.

Comments