We are all taught that socialism is bad, but many of us fail to realize that many of the political, social and economic rights Americans currently enjoy were the direct product of 20th century domestic and international socialism. During this period of time internal socialist agitation and external socialist and communist influence threatened the American Establishment and economic elites in a way they had never been. Unable to adequately distract the people with foreign wars sufficiently large and numerous (which could result in nuclear annihilation) the elites compromised with, or, rather, co-opted the left and granted them many of the rights and entitlements that socialists had been fighting for since the turn of the century.
These positive rights (positive rights are rights to something, rather than negative rights, which are rights from external interference; American constitutional rights are mostly negative rights, rights protecting individuals from various forms of government interference, but not rights to things such as water, food, education, safety and the like) included civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women’s rights, affirmative action, social security, welfare, labor rights, workers compensation, Medicare, Medicaid and the GI Bill.
Although entirely lacking the negative rights enjoyed by Americans, the Soviet Union had been at the forefront of the world’s nations in granting these positive rights to their citizens. Afraid that popular support for these positive rights would assist the rise and legitimacy of socialism in the United States as well as provide the Soviet Bloc with ideological ammunition with which to proselytize within both the First and Third Worlds, the American elites emulated Bismarck. They granted a handful of the primary claims of the leftist radicals and in so doing, stole their raison d’état, co-opted their ideas, and made these policies serve, rather than work against, the Establishment that created them.
This is not to undercut or minimize the efforts played by domestic actors and non-socialist agitators and activists during this time period, many of whom worked just as hard as, if not more hard than, many of the socialist activists and intellectuals of their day. That being said, without the constant threat of socialism and communism, many of the rights advocated by these non-socialist groups might not have been granted by members of the American Establishment. As political scientists often say, all equilibria are the result of competing forces, both endogenous and exogenous. So it is with the rights mentioned above.
Don't believe me? Voting rights for African Americans had existed, on paper, since the 1870s, but had never been truly effectuated and realized until the height of Cold War tension in the 1960s. Why? Apartheid in the United States had been criticized for over 100 years as well, but no serious attempts to dismantle Jim Crow came about until the height of the Cold War. Why? Women’s Rights had been advocated for more than a hundred years prior to the 19th Amendment, but weren’t realized until the post Bolshevik Revolution, post-1917 Red Scares that swept the nation. Why?
These positive rights comprised the basic tenets of socialist parties throughout the world and the refusal of status quo Establishment governments to accede to socialist demands often made the socialist parties stronger and in time, contributed to their overthrow of the existing order and the Establishment that profited from it. The Soviet and concomitant socialist revolutionary threat loomed in the hearts and minds of the American establishment, such that they granted these positive rights to the American people in order to neutralize and nullify socialism as a viable threat to their power and wealth.
As such, through adopting these policies, the American Establishment was engaged not so much in an act of noblesse oblige, but, rather, in an act of self-preservation during a time in which they perceived a severe threat to the social and economic order. This, even though the American economy was rather prosperous during said period of time. (It remains to be seen how the outcome might differ if a similar set of variables were in play during a period of severe economic instability).
Americans enjoyed most of these rights throughout the Cold War. However, with the creeping collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the wholesale Chinese repudiation of Maoism in the late 1970s, (and the concomitant adoption of pro-capitalist “Deng Xiaoping Theory”), socialist agitation, both within and without, no longer posed a credible threat. Without an external counter-example, external funding to rely upon, and deprived of the necessary leadership and access to radicalized students and labor union activists necessary for a sustainable mass movement, due to repeated government, university and corporate crackdowns throughout the 1960s and 1970s, domestic socialist parties and left-wing organizations began to rapidly demise. By the late 1980s, the movement was practically dead. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and images of long breadlines in the Soviet Union, the efficacy of Marxism as a philosophical and economic system was cast into doubt by the mainstream media, a fact which emboldened the American economic and political elite.
Relishing the collapse of their principal, 50-year economic and geopolitical rival, and free to act without the external philosophical constraints posed by a non-capitalist Superpower, self-satisfied American elites smugly proclaimed the “end of history,” and began to overturn the various political, social and economic rights that they had been forced, by way of domestic and international crises, to grant to the American people. One-by-one, social security, welfare, workers compensation, women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, the rights of labor--all of these became targets of the newly insurgent and invigorated right-wing, Establishment attempt to dismantle the institutions their hand had been forced, by circumstance, into creating. The Presidency of George W. Bush was but the latest assault on these hard-won rights.
The question today is whether Obama will stand up to the forces of Establishment reaction, or whether he will work to uphold what few surviving vestiges of the New Deal and Great Society remain? Will he work to recreate and reinstate those laws and policies that were rescinded by prior administrations? If the boys from Goldman-Sachs have any say, Obama will be forced to betray the Left and the answer will be a resounding "no." Luckily, the individual actions of a President are often of less consequence than the irresistable currents of history. If history proves me right, the leftward swing of the pendulum, while temporarily halted, will invariably continue along its predetermined course, if the forces of finance and capital continue playing this unsustainable, kleptocratic game. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction and the more the leftward swing of the pendulum is averted, the more violent and passionate will its leftward momentum become, until the consequences will become too unbearable to ignore.
This isn’t the first time such a series of events have unfolded. Talleyrand, watching the behavior of Louis XVIII and the returning Bourbon émigrés in Paris during the Restoration of 1815-1816, was astounded by the hostility they openly displayed toward the popular rights and privileges created by the French Revolution and Napoleon. Many of them believed that since Napoleon was beaten and the Jacobins destroyed, the “end of history” was at hand, that the Ancien Régime would be restored to its pre-1789 authority, that feudalism could be reinstated and that the various democratic and meritocratic institutions created in the two decades prior could be abolished. They were unprepared for the popular backlash that would entail, and, as such, their actions would sow the seeds of their own overthrow two decades later. It was in this light that Talleyrand famously remarked that the Bourbons had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
The American Establishment has learned nothing and forgotten nothing and, like the Bourbons, the denial of our hard-won rights and the restoration of their primordial privileges will not last.