Socialism in One Country

by Henry on July 16, 2003

These aren’t good times for traditional socialists. What with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its satellites, China’s evolution towards bog-standard market authoritarianism, and the dismal record of the few remaining true-blue Communist regimes (Cuba, North Korea, Myanmar etc), there aren’t all that many active examples of state socialism out there to inspire the masses. But there is one political organization that has remained true to the cause through thick and thin, providing its members with extensive social benefits in return for unquestioning obedience. Friends, comrades, I give you the US Armed Forces.

I’m quite serious about this; anyone who knows how the US military live in their permanent foreign bases, has seen successful socialism in action. “Free healthcare and dental care”:http://www.goarmy.com/army101/benefits.htm. Tick. Heavily subsidized groceries at your friendly local PX. Tick. High quality childcare. Tick. Whomping big grants towards your further education. Tick.

Forget Sweden; sign up as a grunt if you want to enjoy the benefits of working socialism. It’s a worker’s paradise, mate. Admittedly, like all workers’ paradises, the Armed Forces have their downsides, including the requirement of prompt and complete obedience to your superiors, and iffy delivery on some of the much-touted benefits. Not to mention getting shot at – for all my disgust at Bush administration policy, I have a lot of sympathy for the poor sods out there in Iraq trying to make the peace.

Serving members of the US military are remarkably well insulated from the chill winds of market forces. A few years back, I spent a couple of days on the US Air Force base at Rammstein. The personnel there had their own little town, where everything was heavily subsidized. When they had to buy something from the local German shopkeepers, where they had to pay full whack, they referred to it, in rather telling terms, as “going on the economy.” No Invisible Hand here.

Of course, this argument isn’t original to me. There’s even a loopy von Mises Institute “article”:http://www.mises.org/freemarket_detail.asp?control=76 out there deploring the “vaguely totalitarian notion” of the “Total Army Family.” Not only do the von Mises crowd argue that the extensive Army childcare system “actively encourages illegitimacy in the ranks,” but they worry that the Army is a socialist Trojan Horse, surreptitiously introducing nanny-state welfarism to American society.

bq. In imitation of Third World militarism, the American armed forces are becoming agents of social change, instruments of social engineering committed in particular to eradicating belief in differences between the sexes, and building new family forms under complete control of the state.

Which is nonsense, of course, but which leads to an interesting question. Why is it that a mild form of socialism is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged, at the heart of the US state apparatus? And why do military personnel – who enjoy the benefits of this miniature welfare state – tend towards the conservative end of the spectrum, as I presume they do? Answers eagerly solicited.

{ 29 comments }

1

Scott Martens 07.16.03 at 7:45 pm

Oh man… I was working on a post about my visit to the US Army’s mall at Schinnen and the NATO PX at Geilenkirchen a couple weeks ago. Now I have to either do it quickly or wait a while.

Why are they conservative? My impression is that people in the military tend to feel that their welfare state is something they’ve earned, and not something everybody has a right to. Personal responsibility is something of a cult among the military folks I’ve met over the years, American and otherwise.

I think they’re wrong. Of the dozens of US and Canadian military guys I’ve known, only one was a genuine combat specialist. The rest were guys doing a job – a job with a particularly restrictive contract and excellent benefits, but still just a job and not generally even terribly dangerous ones. But, the people I’ve met are probably not a truely representative sample.

I don’t see why everybody shouldn’t enjoy comparable benefits.

2

dsquared 07.16.03 at 8:00 pm

“Personal responsibility” in a military context means “not complaining about being unjustly treated”. It’s rather like “guts”, which means “not complaining about being unjustly treated” and “attitude”, which means “not complaining about being unjustly treated”. It’s another part of the cult of obedience. If ever asked to take actual responsbility for something (I dunno, say a marriage for example, or a massacre), squaddies don’t tend to cover themselves in glory.

3

jfwells 07.16.03 at 8:10 pm

Former Army Psyopper, here. I serverd back in ’88 – ’92. As to why the military votes repub… Let’s just say this: Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” was a perennial favorite. Alot of people expected that having served in the military would be a huge benefit when they got out. Funny how that doesn’t seem to work in the real world. Also, the pay is abyssimal, so you look at the food, lodging & medical care as making up for that. Lastly, when I was in, the CW was that Repubs were more friendly toward the military, Dems wanted to gut it. That may change with the way the current admin is treating the military.

4

m@butler 07.16.03 at 8:31 pm

I think the reason for the apparent discord lies stems that useful but monstrously simplified construct of debate, the one-dimensional political spectrum. The term ‘conservative’ (and for that matter, the Republican party) has come to represent a pretty divergent set of positions, whose only thing in common is that they are more comfortable with each other than with the equally ragtag constellation of views called ‘liberal’. So you have free-market purists and bible-thumping fundamentalists and flag-waving patriots, and countless variations thereof, crowded into a single word.

The (stereo-)typical enlistee, I think, is conservative in the nationalist sense. He loves his country and it’s long-held values of equality and opportunity. But he’s a team player. He values community, camaraderie, and sacrifice. He’s fiercely loyal to his organization, but he expects loyalty in return, in the form of good treatment and benefits.

He’s very different from the (again stereotypical) fiscal conservative on Wall Street. This guy is an individualist who sees himself as self-made, self-contained, neither owed nor owing anything to anyone. He vaguely resents how much of his tax dollar goes to keeping the military in new tanks and dental care, but accepts it because ‘those guys earn it’, what with being shot at, and because the (actual and merely possible) use of the military over the decades has yielded good returns in the form of a favourable international business climate.

5

Lavoisier1794 07.16.03 at 8:32 pm

I read in Kathy Lutz’s Homefront that the highest General in the army is only payed 7 times as much as the lowest private. That is very egalitarian compared to the differences between a corporation’s CEO and its janitors.

6

Reg 07.16.03 at 8:33 pm

Nobody has to be in the military, the military competes with other business for hiring. I’ve seen some companies do the same thing, though not quite to the extent that the military does it. Churches are also starting to provide community weights, daycare, schools, etc.
Socialism is great so long as it is VOLUNTARY, which is the key here. Government imposed socialism is not, and is always totalitarian (unless the unlikely thing happens and 100% of the voters agree to it).

7

msw 07.16.03 at 9:12 pm

Receiving those benefits may be volutary (sorry VOLUNTARY), but paying for them is enforced by Uncle Sam the same way Uncle Sven makes the Swedes pay for their more universally available benefits. And, as you say, that is always totalitarian. Thus, the only army appropriate for a free people is one that is chosen by the market. Besides there are Indian soldiers that’ll kill our enemies for 1/10th the price.

8

Maria 07.16.03 at 9:15 pm

One fringe-benefit I’ve heard of for Army people who return to civilian life is getting security clearances and therefore government jobs much more easily.

Through my addiction to the Washington Post Live Online jobs pages, I’ve learnt more about federal employment security clearances than any non-US citizen needs to know. A few weeks ago, there was quite a bit of discussion about whether or not ex-Army people really deserved this indirect benefit.

9

PG 07.16.03 at 9:46 pm

Security clearances make a huge difference in the Washington D.C. area job market.
I’m not talking just about working for the federal government directly; many, if not most, of the companies that contract with the government have to get clearance for their employees as well.
Because clearance can take up to a year, companies — especially in this economy — simply require that applicants have the appropriate level of clearance already.

Good point by msw; I’ve suggested before that the U.S. military follow the lead of corporate American and start outsourcing jobs. They already recruit outside America.
I flew through Germany a couple of months ago, and sat next to a kid whose dad was British but in the U.S. Air Force. Apparently he had been interested in the RAF but had been deemed too old, so the USAF took him instead.

Personally, I have a hard time saying what grunts should be paid. In peacetime, their jobs don’t seem that difficult, don’t require much skill and are less risky than working in a slaughterhouse. In wartime, all that changes.
The obvious answer would be to double pay when people actually go places where they could get shot, but we don’t do that.

10

Scott Martens 07.16.03 at 9:54 pm

“Personal responsibility” in a military context means “not complaining about being unjustly treated”. It’s rather like “guts”, which means “not complaining about being unjustly treated” and “attitude”, which means “not complaining about being unjustly treated”. It’s another part of the cult of obedience. If ever asked to take actual responsbility for something (I dunno, say a marriage for example, or a massacre), squaddies don’t tend to cover themselves in glory.

That sounds just like a cult to me.

11

back40 07.16.03 at 10:30 pm

It does sound like a cult, but it’s false in every respect.

Personal responsibility in a military context means the same as in any context, no scare quotes needed, no special interpretation is useful.

Sneering about the marriages of military persons and associating them with massacres may have been phun, but it is inaccurate and childish. The best, most enduring marriages I know of are among those I know who are in the military or who have retired from the military. They are good and loving husbands, wives and parents who have demonstrated personal responsibility in every aspect of their lives. We may have different philosophies and politics but that doesn’t justify demonizing them in such an unfair and false way.

Anecdotes about good or bad marriages don’t prove general cases but do illuminate the childishness of broad brush sneer smears and the illogic of building on sneers to draw further conclusions. Sadly, this seems to be diffcult for many to grasp.

12

pathos 07.16.03 at 10:38 pm

Can someone better versed in political theory explain why the military is here defined as “Socialist” (i.e. leftist) and not “Fascist” (i.e. right wing)?

Dictionary.com gives me for “fascism”:

“A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.”

Dictatorial — check
stringent socioeconomic controls — check
suppression of opposition thought — more than in civilian life
censorship — ditto
belligerent nationalism — that’s why they’re there, after all
racism — not so much anymore, but not required

What, exactly, distinguishes a “socialistic” military from a “fascistic” one?

13

Micha Ghertner 07.16.03 at 11:43 pm

I’ve always considered the primary difference between socialism and fascism to be their respective positions on nationalism: the former is internationalist while the latter is not.

So, accordingly, your analysis seems to be correct: militaries are better described as fascist organizations than socialist ones.

14

Micha Ghertner 07.16.03 at 11:45 pm

On the other hand, when we consider that many, if not most socialist countries of the past century were militaristic, the distinction between the two terms is not so clear.

15

dm 07.17.03 at 3:36 am

It’s pretty simple, Henry. Soldiers aim to conserve the regime. Being conservative, they like old books written by white males. Reading Plato’s Republic, they learned that the just city is characterized by absolute communism and equality of the sexes in the warrior class.

You did get the memo that Wolfowitz is philosopher-king, right?

16

Daragh McDowell 07.17.03 at 3:44 am

Intriguin argument cuz, especially since the Bush administration’s increasingly cynical slashing of benefits for the ordinary GI’s, running almost parallel to his praising this loose collection of rednecks and poor minorities who couldn’t jobs anywhere else as ‘America’s best’ mirrors the eventual treading on the working classes of the state that all communist nations have winded up doing. Even the wonderful GI Bill that grants free college education to former leathernecks (In the land where most students leave University with +$100,000 in debts) seems under threat. Whoo-Ra sempe fi.

17

Martin Wisse 07.17.03 at 11:21 am

“I’m quite serious about this; anyone who knows how the US military live in their permanent foreign bases, has seen successful socialism in action. Free healthcare and dental care. Tick. Heavily subsidized groceries at your friendly local PX. Tick. High quality childcare. Tick. Whomping big grants towards your further education. Tick.”

I wouldn’t call that socialism unless the means of production were controlled by the workers.

You don’t need a socialist regime in order to implement your examples, just one with some common sense.

18

dsquared 07.17.03 at 1:13 pm

back40: My comments about “responsibility” are taken from Norman Dixon’s book “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”, for the purpose of writing which he was given unparalleled access to the files and personnel of the British Army. The actual passage models that of a Sandhurst cadet quoted in the book. It is perhaps possible that the US or Canadian armies differ materially, but Dixon presents decent evidence that they don’t.

Furthermore, I can’t imagine that anyone’s trying to argue against the *horrendous* statistics for marital breakup and spousal abuse in military organisations around the world. It’s a known, huge, problem, and one that most armies are trying to do something about, in the face of a culture which specifically refuses to take responsibility.

19

Dan Hardie 07.17.03 at 2:29 pm

>Norman Dixon’s book “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”, for the purpose of writing which he was given unparalleled access to the files and personnel of the British Army.< Unparalleled, eh? Remind me- what does 'hyperbole' mean? I remember Dixon's book as pretty light on research, to be honest. But it's good to see that your authoritative statement is founded on the immense intellectual effort of having read *one whole book*.

20

Walt Pohl 07.17.03 at 2:39 pm

Dsquared: I’ve never heard of that before. Do you know any links?

21

back40 07.17.03 at 3:16 pm

“But it’s good to see that your authoritative statement is founded on the immense intellectual effort of having read one whole book.”

It’s what Aquinas called ignorantia affectata, cultivated ignorance, an ignorance is so useful you don’t want to get rid of it. Statistics known to be contrived and/or selective are used to support weak theses, poison conversation or persuade.

22

UsedToBeAGrunt 07.17.03 at 4:33 pm

As a veteran, (Army, 1986-1991)(in the infantry), I think that most are arguing from complete ignorance here. I’m not surprised though. Experience is the best teacher.

I don’t really see how one can seriously argue that the Army is Socialist, any more than you could argue its Fascist, or Communist or Democratic.

The Army is an organization. The Army is not a society. The Army is not a country. The Army is part of a society and defends a country. I suppose one can say that the Army has its own mores and stuff like that, but you’d be arguing semantics at that point.

Anyway, as to all the ‘benefits’; those *are* actually counted as part of a soldier’s compensation (notice the corporate speak), I can remember getting documents detailing what the Army thought my rations, barracks, & healthcare were worth, and what my actual compensation was, above the actual money I was paid. Frankly, they were right, too. Compared to what I have to pay for things like food, clothing and lodging as a civilian, I still don’t have the disposable income I did as a Sergeant in the Army. I did sign up for the GI Bill, and I did get a signing bonus for enlisting in the Combat Arms, and I used my GI Bill to go to a community college (paid for all the tuition and books and left me with some petty cash, too) and now I have a rather comfortable job playing with computers all day. I haven’t tried to get a job that requires a security clearance, although I did have one when I was serving. I am right now going through the procedures to get the guaranteed VA home loan.

Do I deserve all this? I guess it depends on your point of view.

But if you think its socialist, you don’t know anything about socialism.

23

Hanah 07.17.03 at 8:49 pm

It’s not socialism because it’s not self-supporting. These are benefits paid by one part of American society (tax-payers) to another part (military personnel). We pay them this as part of their compensation because the services they provide are worth that much to us.

This so-called socialist paradise cannot be “expanded” to the whole of America because it would not be able to pay for itself. It would fail in the same way all national experiments in socialism have failed.

24

Flaffer 07.17.03 at 9:17 pm

Speaking from my own case: a lot of people I have known who have joined the armed forces did so out of boredom or economic necessity. Barely out of high school, no desire to go to college, and no skills for high paying jobs.

Most of them thought they had no choice.

How this is reflected in political affiliation is not clear to me.

Good post.

Flaffer

25

Dan Hardie 07.18.03 at 12:31 pm

I have decided to inaugurate a new blogging feature, Shorter Daniel Davies, which will run on Crooked Timber and (until posts are spotted by Davies and deleted) Davies’s own site. This is, of course, a reference to ‘Shorter Steven Den Beste’, which Daniel Davies used to write until he *lost an argument with the halfwitted Den Beste*.

Shorter Daniel Davies, part 1:
Everyone in the military has no sense of personal responsibility and is morally worthless- this is a Scientific Fact, it says so in a book.

26

dsquared 07.18.03 at 5:53 pm

Walt: it’s not on the Web, but I very much recommend it.

Dan: I bet you don’t last a month.

27

Dan Hardie 07.21.03 at 3:09 pm

>Dan: I bet you don’t last a month.< Me too, given that I have other things to do with my life; at the very least there will be month-long pauses between instalments. But that's better than starting an argument with someone, losing it and then deleting their posts, as you did on 'D-squared digest'.

28

nick 07.27.03 at 7:57 pm

Good to see the LSE is maintaining its usual academic standards. Makes me cherish my Oxford degree more and more.

29

Dan Hardie 07.30.03 at 5:03 pm

>Good to see the LSE is maintaining its usual academic standards. Makes me cherish my Oxford degree more and more.< Nick, mate: I did my first degree at...dare I say this?... Balliol. In Oxford, you know.

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