I met Aline this summer. She’s a like-minded adventurer who really squeezed the most out of her first summer in Alaska, spending almost all of her free time hiking and camping and exploring the mountains and trails around McCarthy, AK. She’s also from France, originally, though she’s been in the States for quite some time now.
She read some of my posts on capitalism and socialism. We were eating together, outside on a sunny afternoon in July, and we started talking about it all. Aline’s perspective was international, it was interesting, and I’m still mulling it over.
Basically Aline’s main point (or at least the one that really stuck with me) was that she appreciated American mobility, the kind of uniquely American ability to be transient. We talked about it, and Aline expressed a good deal of sympathy for my pro-socialist and anti-capitalist writings, but said that there were many things about American individualism that she appreciated, and she wondered if we’d lose some of these things, were America to embrace socialism. As a quasi-nomad, I immediately understood her point.
There’s a certain romanticism about American mobility, it’s the life of the cowboy on the open range or the pioneer family in a wagon train, slowly plodding west and looking for a little plot of land to settle. Agent X recently passed along a great little documentary (see below) that I’d never seen, American Vagabond, that explored some of the romanticism surrounding the transient lifestyle, and the ways it calls to many of us, despite the hazards and dangers.
Is socialism doomed as being anti-individual and anti-American?
Capitalism is an economics of transience. I find it kind of ironic, too, because the greatest advocates of capitalism are the wealthy (obviously) but also mostly just folks who are settled (suburbs, nine-to-five, white picket fences and whatnot); yet capitalism as a system tends to move toward what people are now calling “the gig economy,” which is short-term contract workers with little or no benefits or security. So, it’s a system that has eroded permanent relationships to people and place. It’s no accident that the erosion of the family has gone hand-in-hand with America’s embrace of capitalism.
In a capitalist economy, it’s the owners and shareholders (a small group) who call the shots, and profit is their primary goal. Hence, anytime you can cut wages and benefits, it’s good for the bottom line. If you can move transient workers in and out of your business, it’s cheaper and more profitable.
Still, Aline raised a good question that I still think about: is socialism doomed as anti-individual? Does it violate the sense of individual freedom that so many of us love? Does socialism stifle individual creativity and initiative?
Quite often when I debate the merits of socialism, I get objections that socialism is a system where big government calls all the shots, crushing the soul and spirit of the individual. As a drifter myself, I’m particularly sensitive to this charge, but my hunch here is that the opposite is true. I think that a distinctly American form of socialism could combine our instincts for individualism with a heightened sense of social consciousness, that it could be a collective consciousness based on the freedom of individuals, a true and effective synthesis.
This kind of thinking isn’t new to me. If you’ve read American radical leftists like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, then you’re probably nodding your head right now. Few are more suspicious of a dominant government and an oppressive state than Zinn and Chomsky, and yet they are squarely in the socialist camp. The best term for their political perspective is “libertarian socialist,” whose express goals is a form of socialism that protects the freedom of the individual from coercion.
Is such an American synthesis possible?
Could we have a socialism built by American nomads?