“No, Socialism Isn’t Just More Government” with Chris Maisano
The fourth and final lecture in Jacobin’s ABCs of Socialism lecture series saw Chris Maisano, an NYC union staffer and Jacobin contributor, tackle the argument that socialism is just big government. Maisano addressed the question by critiquing the supposedly progressive policies that exist and encouraging people, especially people already working within government, to take a critical look at government agencies and policies and work out where and how to reform them for social good.
He began his argument by directing his anger at the “dumb liberal memes” that try to irk the Right by claiming that government programs are examples of Socialism in action. He said that he dreaded the recent storm because of the socialist snow plough memes. He highlighted the meme below which shows 55 programs and agencies of the US government under the title, “Socialist Programs in America”. The list includes the CIA, the FBI, and the police as Socialist programs. Maisano explained that the only corollary in the list was the involvement of Uncle Sam. Some of the programs serve the public interest, but the list also includes basic activities of any government, such as snowplows, and parts of the “vast apparatus of coercion and force”, employed by the State for the benefit of the Capitalists.
Public libraries, he argued, are an institution that Socialists can support because they follow democratic principles and provide free services to people. The Police on the other hand represent the interests of the Capitalist class. They are the force responsible for killing countless poor people and squashing dissent against the Capitalist system. So, the position that Socialism is just big government undermines the Socialist cause because it forces Socialists to connect their political identity to the repressive State, which has sided with the Capitalists.
If it were true that government is already partly Socialist, and Bernie Sanders would have won the election, Socialists would need to accept that to get a Socialist government all they need to do is to continue expanding government. His argument is that to actually win a Socialist government people would need to radically reform State programs, the existing administrative bureaucracy, and the relationship between business interests and government.
He critiqued three major government expansions from the last few decades. The Earned Income Tax Credit, he claimed, is a surreptitious giveaway to low-wage employers. Medicare Part D majorly benefits the pharmaceutical industry. And Obamacare was a massive subsidy for the insurance industry. The point of these three critiques is to note that these ostensibly Liberal programs act as a cover for policies that primarily benefit the interests of big business.
Why does this power imbalance exist? He asked. Because the upper classes spend their fortunes on political activities that promote their interests and block progressive reforms. This allows them to manipulate legislatures and create tax loopholes. Here he referenced the Princeton Oligarchy study which showed that average citizens have a near-zero influence on policy making, while big money holds a lot of sway.
Tax revenue is another reason he gave for the special relationship between the rich and government. It is directly related to the rate of growth and profitability in the economy. Capitalists have the power to make economic activity decline. Sometimes it happens because of economic cycles but Capitalist interests are harmed by pro-labor and pro-environmental policies. They make the cost of doing business grow and profits shrink. Therefore, they are able to hold power over governments through the threat of lost jobs or decreased productivity. In a Democracy, this would predictably lead to a loss at the ballot box for the residing party. He referenced difficulties in overturning a tax-exemption for real estate developers in NYC, 421a, which costs the city billions of dollars every year despite the fact that it could be profitable to build in the city without it.
So Maisano has told the listeners that, as far as he sees, the politicals system as it stands cannot produce truly Socialist institutions because they are chained to the success of the Capitalist classes. He said, “Without popular pressure and militancy, government will not shift the balance away from the interests of capital … There’s some truth to the claim that people are mostly at the mercy of Capitalists to get money and food”. Electoral strategies will never succeed without a mobilization that actively claims the government as a people’s institution. Otherwise, the ruling class will always be able to undermine Democratic institutions.
Progressive reform is won through direct, mass struggle against employers and the government. The next step, upon winning Progressive reform or in a #BernieWouldveWon fantasy, would be to protect the stability of the system from the gargantuan Capitalist hissy-fit that would ensue when the government started to forcibly share the Capitalists’ toys. For this, he thought it would require mass mobilization and direct participation in a project to plan and then overhaul the operations and goals of the agencies of governments. He hoped that dedicated civil servants, in the wake of Trump’s Corporate shakeup of government, might facilitate the planning and eventual implementation of an institutional revolution, a critical evaluation of their practices and priorities. This would mean a realignment of the priorities of government from a system that is highly responsive to the wishes of the most wealthy people, to a system that provides people with uninhibited access to a Democratic political process whose first priority is to meet the needs of the public. He targeted civil servants as focal points for this institutional revolution because they hold knowledge and leverage, as employees of the government, and they would stand to benefit through improvements in their working conditions.
To make this argument he referenced his time working in an NYC public library. He said that even in these community institutions, as an employee he was subject to the hardships of working for somebody. he cited bad management, arbitrary discipline, increased workloads, and little control over the working conditions. From there he imagined a Democratic workplace where, in the case of the library, all of the employees get a say in the decision-making process. And since libraries produce a public service, he imagined that the local public would also get delegates at the meeting.
In this series of promotional lectures by authors of The ABCs of Socialism Jacobin and Verso Books presented best-practices for Socialist argumentation. The lecturers discussed the importance of the working class to any Socialist movement, how human nature and socialism are compatible, the universality and international applicability of Socialism, and here, the difference between how government operates in a Capitalist Oligarchy and how it would operate in a Socialist Democracy. The lectures all focused on strategy from the current weak Socialist position in American politics.
Watch the full lecture below or read his article, which the lecture follows closely.