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Why Socialism Is Back as a Political Force That Will Only Grow
The political and economic ideas of socialism are coming back into fashion.
Socialism saw its heyday in the 20th century when its ideas were adapted by a number of countries, in a variety of bastardizations of its message. In fact, some would argue that a pure socialism never existed. Now it is experiencing a tremendous resurgence in the 21st century due to the growing economic disparity, anger at the establishment and charismatic older socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. who gathered massive support from the young. A new wave of socialist thinkers is also beginning to emerge that looks to distance the movement from the historical stigma to formulate a new socialism that speaks to the challenges of today.
What is socialism? In the most basic definition, it is a political and economic system where the means of production and essential resources are owned by the community. Socialism comes in many different forms and has been practiced with great variety around the world.
Jacobin, a magazine that’s gained popularity for “offering socialist perspectives” on political and cultural topics, published a guide on how to redefine socialism for the modern age. In it, the publication’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara describes socialism as, fundamentally, a way to build the kind of world where people don’t take advantage of others for gain but rather for the benefits of cooperation. To Sunkara, socialism is “abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use — factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure — and replacing it with social ownership, thereby undercutting the power of elites to hoard wealth and power.”
Private property would not exist, but personal property would remain. The government will not take away your “Kenny Loggins records,” jokes Sunkara.
An old Russian woman fixing her belongings on a vandalized symbols of the Communism, the Hammer and Sickle, on an avenue of Moscow, on November 1990. At the time of creation, the hammer stood for industrial labourers and the sickle for the peasantry; combined they stood for the worker-peasant alliance for socialism and against reactionary movements and foreign intervention. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
In their guide, the writers and editors of Jacobin also try to dispel some of the confusion related to socialism. In particular, they argue, many people tend to associate any kind of government institution, even the DMV, with socialism. But just because it’s a part of the government doesn’t make it socialist. In fact, an average person has so little say politically due to the stronghold of corporate interests on the government, that any “state action will disproportionately benefit capitalist interests at the expense of everything else,” writes Chris Maisano in the Jacobin’s guide.
The journal also offers a defense against the charge that socialism inevitably ends up in authoritarian governments. Joseph M. Schwartz writes how Marxists and European socialists could not anticipate that revolutionary parties would try to create socialism in “predominantly agrarian, autocratic societies” like Russia and China.
“In many ways, one-party Communist states shared more in common with past authoritarian capitalist “developmentalist” states — such as late nineteenth-century Prussia and Japan, and postwar South Korea and Taiwan —than with the vision of democratic socialism. These governments prioritized state-led industrialization over democratic rights, particularly those of an independent labor movement,” writes Schwartz.
Jacobin’s prescription for building a more socialist country - mobilize the people through education and direct participation in the government.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (C) addresses a rally with protesters calling for higher wages for federal contract workers in the rain on Capitol Hill November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Is Bernie Sanders a socialist? He is the country's most popular active politician according to the polls, but he's not socialist enough, according to the editors of the Jacobin. Noam Chomsky famously called him “a decent, honest New Dealer.” Sanders himself draws the distinction, calling his politics - democratic socialism. He often refers to Scandinavian countries as models for what he would like the United States to become. Sanders’s key themes of reducing economic inequality and the influence of politics in money appeals to a cross-section Americans from the left and the right.
To combat the negative stereotypes of socialism, Sanders invokes the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that were called “socialist” like establishing social security and the minimum wage. Sanders also links the way he sees the world to Martin Luther King’s calls for social and economic justice.
To Sanders, education, affordable housing and universal health care are the public’s right rather than private commodities that can be used to turn a profit. Still, he has not called for nationalizing any industries, saying specifically “I don’t believe government should own the means of production.”
He defined “democratic socialism” himself in 2015 as a necessary adjustment in an increasingly unequal society.
“Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.,” said Sanders, adding “In my view, it’s time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street, billionaires and large corporations.”
Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party speaks during a campaign rally at Union Chapel Islington on June 7, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Is Jeremy Corbyn a socialist? The leader of UK’s Labour Party, which won a surprising number of seats against the ruling Conservative Party in recent elections, also identifies as a “democratic socialist.” Labour’s 2017 manifesto, titled “For the Many, Not the Few” includes plans to re-nationalize the rail, postal and water services, abolish college tuition fees, increase the minimum wage and spending on national healthcare, as well as upping the tax on the wealthy. Many of these ideas are certainly more to the left of what's been proposed by Sanders for the U.S.
Corbyn’s message has energized young voters in particular, with close to 70% of those 18 to 24 supporting Labour. How much more support can these kinds of ideas gain? The latest polls show the party’s appeal growing wider still, now 5% ahead of the Tories at 46%. Corbyn’s personal approval is also high, better than the Prime Minister Theresa May’s.
To consider why the ideas of socialism continue to have followers in our times, let’s turn to Albert Einstein. One of the world’s most brilliant thinkers who had seen the effects of socialism in his lifetime, Einstein wrote an essay called “Why socialism” in 1949 that still resonates in some of its themes.
German-born American physicist Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) speaking during his Science And Civilization lecture at the Royal Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Einstein critiques capitalism as having a tendency towards becoming an oligarchy where “private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands” that cannot be “effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society”. This happens because the capitalists control the main mass media sources (including education) while the members of the government come from political parties that are “largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature.” As as a result of that, according to Einstein, these representatives do not “sufficiently protect” the interests of the underprivileged.
Sounds familiar? If similar challenges present themselves almost 70 years later, it is no surprise solutions like socialism come back. Of course, there are now also fears of fascism returning to fashion.
Einstein saw the establishment of a “socialist economy” with an accompanying educational system that’s oriented towards social goals as the only way forward for society.
“In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society,” wrote Einstein.
Einstein did caution, however, perhaps with an eye towards the Soviet Union, that a planned economy might result in “the complete enslavement of the individual” by the bureaucracy and saw it essential for socialism to resolve the problem of protecting the rights of the individual.
Historical lessons aside, socialism is a rejuvenated force. Polls show that somewhere between 30 to 60% of Democratic voters have a favorable view of its ideas. Over 50% of millennials have a positive opinion of socialism. As automation is sure to put a major portion of the world out of work, the issues around ownership of necessary resources and distribution of wealth are sure to stay vital.
Check out this video from mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein on how capitalism can use socialist principles to cure what ails it:
Cover photo: A US-made 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air races past a billboard that reads,'Stronger than ever, Socialism' 14 February near Santa Maria del Mar, Cuba. (Photo credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
Ancient Mayans have been a continuing source of inspiration for their monuments, knowledge, and mysterious demise. Now a new study discovers some of the drugs they used. For the first time, scientists found remnants of a non-tobacco plant in Mayan drug containers. They believe their analysis methods can allow them exciting new ways of investigating the different types of psychoactive and non-psychoactive plants used by the Maya and other pre-Colombian societies.
The research was carried out by a team from Washington State University, led by anthropology postdoc Mario Zimmermann. They spotted residue of the Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) in 14 tiny ceramic vessels that were buried over a 1,000 years ago on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The containers also exhibited chemical traces of two types of tobacco: Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica. Scientists think the marigold was mixed in with the tobacco to make the experience more pleasant.
"While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored," said Zimmermann. "The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before."
The scientists used a new method based on metabolomics that is able to pinpoint thousands of plant compounds, or metabolites, in residue of archaeological artifacts like containers and pipes. This allows the researchers to figure out which specific plants were utilized. The way plant residue was identified before employed looking for specific biomarkers from nicotine, caffeine, and other such substances. That approach would not be able to spot what else was consumed outside of what biomarker was found. The new way gives much more information, showing the researchers a fuller picture of what the ancient people ingested.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
The containers in the study were found by Zimmerman and a team of archaeologists in 2012.
"When you find something really interesting like an intact container it gives you a sense of joy," shared Zimmermann. "Normally, you are lucky if you find a jade bead. There are literally tons of pottery sherds but complete vessels are scarce and offer a lot of interesting research potential."
The researchers are negotiating with various Mexican institutions to be able to study more ancient containers for plant residues. They also aim to look at organic materials possibly preserved in the dental plaque of ancient remains.
Check out the study published in Scientific Reports.
For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
- The bodies of some Tibetan monks remain "fresh" after what appears to be their death.
- Their fellow monks say they're not dead yet but in a deep, final meditative state called "thukdam."
- Science has not found any evidence of lingering EEG activity after death in thukdam monks.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.