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What socialism is — according to Michael Harrington

America's socialists owe a lot to one man, but what did he think about socialism?

  • Michael Harrington was a public intellectual who strove to help the poor. In doing so, he inspired a generation of socialists.
  • He was the first chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, and nearly ran for president in 1980.
  • While he is far from the only influential thinker on the American left, his ideas have had an outsized influence over the last sixty years.

The United States is seeing a renewed interest in left-wing ideas. Chicago might have five socialists on its city council by April, a democratic socialist is considered a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, and many Americans like the idea of "socialism" more than the concept of capitalism.

What gives?

A great deal of the credit for this has to go to Bernie Sanders, who campaigned as a democratic socialist, despite not really being one, in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Some of the credit should also go to the members of the Democratic Socialists of America, who have been very successful over the last two years not only in growing their organization but as activists working to make socialist ideas mainstream.

What exactly they say socialism is has a lot to do with the thought of their founding chairman, a public intellectual named Michael Harrington.

Who?

Michael Harrington was an American intellectual known for the book The Other America, which is often credited with inspiring the War on Poverty. A leading socialist, he was involved with several left-wing organizations. He was so well known as a public intellectual that he considered running for president in 1980. His ideas continue to influence the Democratic Socialists of America, who cite him on their history page.

What does he say socialism is?

He talks about what socialism actually is in his book Socialism Past and Future, which he finished writing shortly before his death. After a few chapters of introduction to basic theory and history, he attempts to answer the question directly by looking to what he calls "socialization":

"Socialization means the democratization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as macro choices. It looks primarily but not exclusively to the decentralized, face to face participation of the direct producers and their communities in determining the matters that shape their social lives. It is not a formula or a specific legal mode of ownership, but a principle of empowering people at the base, which can animate a whole range of measures, some of which we do not even yet imagine."

In this case, socialization means democratizing workplaces and economic decisions. This can take many forms, such as giving workers a say on corporate boards as they have in Germany, having enterprises organized as worker-owned cooperatives such as Mondragon, or forcing companies to issue shares of stock to the workers as was proposed in Sweden. At the civic level it can also include participatory budgeting.

His dedication to socialization means that he was able to critique government programs that he found otherwise agreeable. In one case, he praised the work of the government owned Tennessee Valley Authority but pointed out how the people who worked for it or lived in areas it operated in had little more influence over its operations than they would have if it were privately owned.

This doesn't mean he was utterly opposed to public enterprises or nationalizations, since he understood that in the modern world some things would be hard to manage for the public benefit otherwise, but rather that nationalization also needed socialization to fully realize the goals of the socialist movement.

What did he have to say about the USSR?

As a socialist in the 20th century, he had an opinion on the USSR and often had to compare his vision of utopia with the Soviet model.

Harrington believed that Karl Marx was a democrat in the sense that his political ideology supports democracy. However, he did blame Marx for excessive vagueness and making it too easy to justify dictatorships with his theory. This, he argues, allowed Lenin and Stalin to claim they were following Marx to the letter as they sent vast numbers of working people to Gulags.

He also argued that the Russians, realizing that they could hardly implement socialism in a semi-feudalistic society, hoped to use state control of the economy to modernize rapidly. Using "socialism" to do this was never planned for in Marxist theory and had more in common with the Prussian route to modernization than anything else.

In the Russian model, the state controlled the economy with little or no input from the workers. The state was, in turn, controlled by the communist party with little or no input from the majority of the population who were non-members. He argued that these points made the Russian model "Authoritarian Collectivism" rather than "socialism."

He then argues that this analysis can be applied to any non-industrialized, impoverished, unstable country that adopts "socialism" as an ideology and then uses it to try and modernize rapidly. He gives the examples of Russia, China, and Cuba as case studies in what not to do when making a successful democratic socialist society. The utter lack of democracy either in the workplace or in the political system being two fundamental problems.

This guy died in 1989, what do his ideas have to do with our problems today?

Harrington's ideas on what could happen to capitalism in the early 21st century were frighteningly accurate. In his final book, he considers the problem of automation leaving vast armies of the unemployed in the midst of greater economic output than ever seen before. He discusses how this automated unemployment might affect consumer demand and how that would alter the entire economy.

He also considers ecological problems that were only just coming onto the radar in the late '80s that we are now grappling with. At several points, he discusses the greenhouse effect and posits that capitalism will be unable to fix the problem. Instead, he argues that there must be an international movement dedicated to fixing the issue at the expense of the countries that put most of the pollutants into the air.

His solution to both of these issues is — you guessed it — socialism. In the first case, to assure that in a world where fewer workers are actually needed to produce the goods and services we need can share in what will be the incredible productivity gains automation promises to bring us all. In the second, to help keep us from destroying the planet we live on in the name of a quick buck.

As America continues to consider democratic socialism as a cure for its social ills, the insights of Professor Harrington will be of great use. His ideas continue to influence some of the most prominent voices on the left today and his work continues to inspire those who want to make the world a little more just.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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