'Ownership Society'


VOL. 114 NO. 6

'Ownership Society'


When President Bush introduced his idea of an "ownership society" at last year's Republican convention, Socialists naturally pricked up their ears. When he added that he wanted "to build an ownership society, because ownership brings security and dignity and independence," Socialists naturally braced themselves for another bombardment of propaganda to deceive the working class into accepting some new scheme designed to benefit the capitalist class.

Socialists, of course, have been calling for an "ownership society" right along, and knew immediately that what President Bush had in mind and what the Socialist Labor Party is aiming for are poles apart.

Socialists want a society in which the means of life are collectively owned and democratically operated to insure full, prosperous and healthful lives to all. President Bush's plan for an "ownership society" is less ambitious. Indeed, it bears all the hallmarks of a swindle that would simply allow high-stakes speculators to raid the federal treasury.

The central feature of Mr. Bush's "ownership society" plan to provide "security and dignity and independence" to the American working class is to overhaul the Social Security system. He claims a crisis in Social Security is imminent. His critics disagree. They claim that with minor alterations the system will remain "solvent" and serve its purposes for decades to come.

"The system's trustees estimate the Social Security trust fund is in good shape for another four decades," as Kevin Drum of the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR put it. "The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office figures five decades. Many independent economists think Social Security is healthy for more like six or seven decades."

President Bush's proposal has not reached the legislative stage yet: his administration is still "testing the political waters" to see how it might be received. For now, at least, understanding the differences in formula between the state-run system created by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal during capitalism's Great Depression and the partially privatized system being pushed today may be less important than understanding the purposes Social Security was initially meant to serve. There will be time enough to explore how those original purposes have changed or expanded over the years, and what the new Bush proposals suggest about changed conditions, when and if those proposals are introduced into Congress.

Social Security and kindred measures (unemployment insurance, Medicare, etc.) were never intended to provide security for workers. They were intended to provide security for capitalism. They were intended to tie the working class to the political state by making it appear that the working class had a stake in the capitalists' system. It was a politically expedient measure adopted at the height of capitalism's greatest economic crisis to stave off what "enlightened" sections of the ruling class, led by Roosevelt, feared would develop into an equally destabilizing political crisis.

Many capitalist interests were as fiercely opposed to the reforms of the 1930s as they are in favor of President Bush's proposals for "reforming" the system today. Then, as now, both sides of the argument claimed to take their stand in the interest of America's workers. When Congress debated Roosevelt's proposal in 1935, for example, Rep. John Taber of New York denounced it as "insidiously designed to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employer providing more work for the people."

Many of the same capitalist interests that initially opposed the New Deal measure eventually became reconciled to it. THE NEW YORK TIMES came out against it in 1935, but in 1960 it described Social Security as "a permanent part of the American life, not only because it works, but also BECAUSE SO LARGE A PART OF THE POPULATION HAS A PERSONAL INVESTMENT IN IT." (Our emphasis.)

Of course, both sides of today's capitalist argument also claim to speak for the working class, which they can get away with because the working class is unorganized and cannot speak for itself.

Regardless of which side capitalists and politicians take in the debate, however, the "success" of either approach is linked to future expansion of the economy and high rates of employment. Yet the economy continues to stagnate, and only recently the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a smaller proportion of working-age Americans are active in the labor market today than at any time since 1988. The fact that so many American workers have been dropped from the labor market entirely helps to keep the official unemployment rate low because those who give up the search for work entirely are excluded from the official jobless figures. Included or not, however, they are there, and wholly apart from what that might mean in political terms as a growing source of social breakdown and unrest, it undercuts the arguments on both sides of the debate on Social Security.

In short, even if we were to accept the argument that workers really do pay into the Social Security system, and that the fund is not simply diverted from surplus value, the systemic elimination of a large and growing portion of the working class from the economy removes them from the Social Security system.

Bush's "ownership society" idea did not provoke the same response before last year's election as it has since he brought it up again in his State of the Union address in January, but it was not totally ignored during the campaign. Last September, for example, former labor secretary Robert Reich dismissed it as "hokum."

"Ownership of America is now more concentrated than since the days of the Robber Barons of the 19th century," Reich said. "The richest one percent of America owns more than the bottom 90 percent put together."

("The most current Monthly Population Estimate for the United States is 293,382,953, as of June 1, 2004," according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which, if Reich is correct, means that 2.9 million people own more wealth than the other 290 million people put together.)

The conclusion is hard to escape: if "ownership brings security and dignity and independence," as Mr. Bush said, capitalism has brought just the opposite to 99 percent of the American people.

Reich added his own bit of hokum to the mix by claiming that the solution to this disparity is to tax the rich and overhaul the education system. That won't do it, however, anymore than the New Deal reforms of the 1930s did. What will do it is a socialist reconstruction of our society in which all of America's 293 million people will own the economy and determine their own economic destiny.