Sen. Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) was in his element last Thursday as he gave a bizarre and groundless indictment of socialism to a broadly sympathetic audience at a Resource Development Council breakfast meeting.
The event was meant to be a preview of the 2017 legislative session, and for a while things stayed on track. But as soon as the incoming Alaska Senate president took to the podium, the meeting derailed. Sounding as though he had just crawled out of his family’s Cold War bunker and was seeing daylight for the first time since 1960, Kelly launched into a paranoid tirade against the haunting specter of socialism.
It had all the stink of Red Scare propaganda, which has been resurrected in the national discourse of late by liberals and conservatives alike.
“A socialist presidential candidate was nominated this year by the Alaska Democratic Caucuses,” Kelly said in disbelief. “That should scare the pants off of you.”
It’s true; Bernie Sanders is an open democratic-socialist. But if you stop pointing and screaming “Red! Red! Red!” for a second and look at the policies Sanders supports, you would see that he has far more in common with an FDR-style, New Deal Democrat than the type of socialist that Kelly seems to fear.
Sanders’ proposals are rooted in fairly standard reforms that can be seen in all other developed nations, beginning with limiting laissez-faire capitalism and creating universal programs such as healthcare and education.
America has swung so far to the right in terms of economic policy that something as common sense as providing a basic safety net for workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas is derided as offering “free handouts.” Kelly and his like would apparently rather see more of their neighbors slip into poverty, illness, and addiction than offer a helping hand.
Kelly warned his breakfast audience that “socialism fails wherever it’s tried.”
History, particularly recent history, overwhelmingly contradicts this assertion.
Most of us are familiar with frequently cited social-democracy success stories like those of the Nordic countries. Finland, for example, maintains the world’s strongest education system, while Norway and Denmark rank one and four in standard of living, respectively. Around the world, universal healthcare systems like those in England and Canada — and, well, every other developed country — ensure citizens quality treatment. One might also look to Bolivia, where extreme poverty has declined by an astonishing 43 percent under leftist president Evo Morales.
There are countless other examples. But let’s look a little closer to home.
The history of socialism in the United States is one of hard-fought, significant gains in human rights. The eight-hour workday, for instance, came as a result of a decades-long (and sometimes deadly) struggle in the labor movements. Countless workers’ strikes and union campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries helped earn U.S. workers gradual gains in pay, protections, and benefits.
The successes of the Progressive and Socialist parties in the 1912 elections helped rapidly accelerate the fight for women’s suffrage. The Civil Rights Movement counted among its ranks various socialist (or at least anti-capitalist) thinkers and activists, including Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and, arguably, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Socialism has had a particularly interesting impact here in Alaska. Ever since Republican Governor Jay Hammond established the Alaska Permanent Fund in 1976 (then called the Sovereign Wealth Fund), Alaska has operated a form of market socialism. The state captures a portion of the oil revenue earned by extraction from public lands and invests it for state, rather than private, benefit. There’s no way around calling this a type of socialism.
When this wealth is then distributed evenly in the form of the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), it becomes a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is significant in that it makes Alaska a socialist pioneer of sorts — UBI has been frequently proposed the world over, but Alaska was the first to implement it. We should pat ourselves on the back for that.
Clearly, the history of socialism is not one of failure.
This brings us to Kelly’s even more puzzling assertion: “Wherever capitalism’s tried, it succeeds.”
Surely, a brief look at our country’s recent past would disavow Kelly of this notion. When capitalism has been the driving factor in government priorities, it has resulted in the absolute crushing of American freedoms. Look at the Palmer Raids of 1919-20, which resulted in the illegal detention of thousands of labor union members, or the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, in which workers who had been striking for higher pay were literally bombed from the air and shot at by their employers. Look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, in which 146 men, women and children perished as a result of unsafe working conditions. Look at the Great Depression of 1929, or the 2008 financial crisis, which saddled millions of Americans with insurmountable debt, no homes, and little hope for the future.
Senator Kelly’s solution to Alaska’s recession and budget woes parrot those of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a hyper-conservative bill-mill with ties to the Koch brothers and an organization that Kelly, himself, used to chair in Alaska. His grand idea is to “deploy the forces of capitalism,” but when profits are favored over the needs of the people it leads to the kind of open-shop and right-to-work states that actively crush workers’ rights to organize unions that negotiate better wages and benefits.
Kelly alleges that “socialism crushes the independent spirit,” but this is untrue. In fact, it is the fear of socialism from people like Kelly that has been mainly responsible for crushing that spirit. After all, while the rest of the developed world has earned guaranteed paid family leave, vacation leave, and medical leave, Americans have no such benefits. While the rest of the developed world enjoys universal health care, many Americans are unable to afford life-saving treatment.
There was a moment in his speech when Kelly expressed nostalgia for America’s Cold War mentality. “We had very defined views of what socialists were in those times,” he said.
And it’s true. Americans had a widely held, narrowly defined, and thoroughly incorrect definition of socialism in Kelly’s childhood days, confusing all forms of it with Stalinism. Perhaps if the senator were more familiar with what socialism actually means he would notice that he has benefited immensely from socialist programs throughout his life.
Kelly is a former member of the Teamsters Union, an organization that was once labeled as “socialist” by people with Kelly’s exact brand of anti-worker politics. And how many years has the senator and his family collected annual checks from the Alaska government, who essentially “seized the means of production” and gave the profits to the people?
If Kelly so fears “handouts” and redistribution, surely he wouldn’t mind returning all of his PFD checks.
Senator Kelly thinks the fact that a democratic socialist came so close to winning the presidency should scare the big-business private sector. In that we actually agree. Because the American people are sick of being trampled on by private companies who exist above the law thanks to the unlimited amounts of money that their workers earn for them.
The levels of wealth inequality in the United States are staggering, and Alaska, despite maintaining the lowest level of wealth inequality in the country, is no exception. According to a 2014 article in Time, income for the bottom 99 percent of Alaskans (that’s probably everyone reading this right now) shrank 17.5 percent between 1979 and 2007, while income for the top one percent increased by 118.6 percent.
If that doesn’t enrage you, just keep reading those figures over and over again until they do. We’ll repeat: from 1979 to 2007, average income dropped 17.5 percent for the 99 percent while the income for Alaska’s top one percent more than doubled. What is Kelly’s response to all of this? Cut Medicaid expenses, which the poorest Alaskans rely on if they’re to access any sort of medical care beyond home amputation with a dull bread knife.
This goes beyond Senator Kelly, though. While the state gives extremely generous tax subsidies to oil companies, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz states that a sales tax (a regressive tax that will hurt the poor more than the rich) will be needed to fund our police force.
So to reiterate, our politicians let our incomes fall, then take away the safety nets there to catch us. This is the “Parachute? I thought you said pair of shoes!” joke happening in real life.
We need socialism more than ever. We need socialism to counter the rising costs of tuition that are placed on the backs of students due to massive budget cuts coming from Kelly and his ilk. We need socialism to provide healthcare for all, including the sick and feeble who are unable to work or afford sky-high deductibles.
It seems as though Senator Kelly is blind to the history of the United States. He has completely forgotten that before our collective brains melted like the ice caps, socialist-leaning policies were used to provide where capitalism could not.
Franklin Roosevelt once gave a speech in the New York State Legislature in 1929, and his words still ring true today: “No greater tragedy exists in modern civilization than the aged, worn-out worker who after a life of ceaseless effort and useful productivity must look forward for his declining years to a poorhouse. A modern social consciousness demands a more humane and efficient arrangement.”
And that social arrangement is still in demand by the citizens of Alaska. Here at the Democratic Socialists of America, we only hope that Senator Kelly’s social consciousness will someday extend to the people instead of the corporations.