Just call me comrade

I am a capitalist. I’m also a socialist. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re mix-n-match. That’s the new reality.

That was a response I sent by email to my friend Colin during one of the dozens of exchanges we’ve had surrounding the recent banking crisis. We’ve always been a pair of interesting contradictions, he being the conservative Scot with many years in banking but a progressive voice for financial technology, I being the one of the few MBA-laden bankers who sits on the far left of the political spectrum. As such, our discussions are usually lively, especially when we’re separated by a small wooden table and several empty pint glasses.

As I dashed off that email the implications of what I’d written sunk in. I’d always contended that I was both capitalist and socialist — I believe markets should be reasonably free but never unfettered, and I believe governments can both foster economic growth and support social goods like health care — but many I talked to said you couldn’t be both. I don’t quite understand how they could make that argument, since the country we live in is an optimal (if imperfect) marriage of capitalist economic policy and liberal social policy. I suppose we have the cold war to thank for the perception that capitalist and socialist were diametric opposites. I’ve long considered that an outdated and inaccurate distinction, but would nonetheless get questioning looks from friends on both the left and the right.

We’re obviously long past the point where general society will accept that pure socialism can work in isolation, but there are still considerable pockets in western democracies who believe the contrary: that pure, unfettered capitalism is a viable option. I don’t believe these Friedman acolytes are any more grounded in reality than those who subscribe to Marxism, and I think recent events in the American financial system support that. It’s hard to argue that more financial regulation would have hurt, given what’s happened. And while this is only a small sample of events on a short time line, you could point to Canada as an outcome of the long-term effects of the afore-mentioned mix of capitalist and socialist policy.

In any case, to argue that even the most capitalist of democracies — the United States — has no socialist tendencies is silly. National defense is an enormous draw on taxpayer dollars. The government provides old age pensions, welfare, police and fire services, snow plows and national parks, public school funding and endowments for the arts. The degree to which these are funded is always in question, but the fact that someone has deemed these things necessary is an indication that sometimes the social good outweighs the capitalist ideal. I find it odd that this would be seen as anything other than a healthy, moral response, but it has always been challenged by ideologues who see this as black or white, and not as a sliding scale. I suspect those voices will temporarily quiet, given recent events, and especially pending the outcome of the upcoming elections. Democracies are wonderful mechanisms with which to overthrow ideologies, and (again, imperfectly) determine where on the sliding scale between capitalism and socialism their country shall sit.

When writing that email to Colin I was surprised at how I had worded it. Not because it revealed anything new about me, but simply because I had the feeling that he was a little less likely to taunt me for saying it than he would’ve been even six months ago (when he’d have laughed and called me a Communist). I’d be tempted to label that progress, but I’m not sure that standing still while the world changes around me counts.

0 thoughts on “Just call me comrade

  1. Well … where do we begin. I believe that the traditional right/ left definition of political positioning is over. As Bobbitt wrote in ‘ Shield of Achilles” we have just exited the ‘long War” which occurred between 1918 and 1989. He contends the point of that war was the battle between fascism, communism and parliamentariasm. The latter won. But the only differences between them, he contends lies in strategy. At the core their intention is to maintain the state within guidelines for security, welfare etc. the differences lie in to what degree.

    So it makes sense that the extreme views should be replaced by views that pull the right strategies but first its important to know the strategy for the country’s government. What are the things that are incontrovertible, and those that are debatable. i think its perfectly ok to pull have strategies that support health care, pensions and welfare. Its all about degree.

    But the real debate should be about the big parts, not left and right. What about the role of government for example? I think that the governments ability to control through regulation, for example is in question.

    Everyone is blaming Reagan and Thatcher for reducing the role of government as a strategy, for example, and pointing to the credit crisis. Whatever regulations those two eliminated or privatised, I think no-one can dispute that banks have seen exceptional increases in government regulation worldwide in the last 15 years. (SOX, Basle 1 & 2 to name but three).

    Enough rambling for now.

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