Socialism, American Style – Part Four

The Social Collective

In another life, when I was still a young man just back from the war in Vietnam, I tried to find work in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia and had to settle for a low paying job in an auto parts store for minimum wage, which was sub-minimal and totally insufficient for anyone addicted to three meals a day.  It wasn’t enough to live on, but lacking either a college education or a useful trade, I had trouble finding anything that would pay me a decent wage.  In an interview for one position that did pay a decent wage, the manager I spoke to asked me if I’d learned anything from the military that I could translate to the job for which she was hiring, I said with a smile, “Well… I could kill your competitors.”  She laughed, but didn’t think that fit the job description, so I wasn’t hired.  After I moved across the river to the city of Newport News, the home at the time of the nation’s largest shipyard, I was hired there… and though the pay was not particularly high for the work it entailed, relative to the same jobs up north where unions dominated the shipyard trades, that Virginia yard paid the highest wages for skilled trades in the region… and they were willing to train new guys off the street.  Accordingly, the yard drew many young men from all over the South.

150113-N-RC246-112-2

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) arrives pierside at Naval Base Kitsap Bremerton prior to a planned incremental availability at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility. US Navy photo. “I built that.”

My first assignment in 1968, after attending a brief class on welding, was to help lay the keel and work the inner bottom tanks of a huge nuclear attack aircraft carrier.  Worked there for about a year and a half as a shipfitter, responsible for assembling the steel structure of the hull according to designs and specifications laid out on drawings, enormous blueprints that were two dimensional representations of the structure, thousands of pages of which were required to direct dozens of trades in all the infinite details of the ship’s construction and assembly.  The creation and drafting of these design documents and drawings required an enormous pool of engineering expertise in dozens of technical disciplines, drawings that were completed by hundreds of designers, engineers, draftsmen, mathematicians… experts all, men and women who worked in a building the size of an entire city block.

newport_news_shipbuilding

The shipyard was enormous, the size of a small city.

They’d labored there for over a year designing that carrier.  In the actual construction, besides the shipfitters who did the work of assembling the plates and the molded shapes, an army of welders knitted the cellular components of the hull and the superstructure together such that all its physical components were as one united body.  Behind the structural trades, there were pipefitters, electricians, loftsmen, machinists, riggers, painters and countless other tradesmen and technicians of every sort… each with their own set of skills, thousands of men and even a few women, though it would be decades before women managed to become a significant part of the labor force there.

The ship was nothing but a hull number when I worked on it and was not completed until long after I’d moved on from Virginia.  Launched from the drydock and christened the USS Nimitz,  CVN 68 in 1972, tt was fitted out and completed dockside in the yard, then finally delivered to the Navy in Norfolk and commissioned as a ship of the line in 1975, a little more than seven years from the day the shipyard got the order to build it… a massive project, one that easily dwarfs such primitive world wonders as the Great Pyramids in Egypt.  Designed to last fifty years, the Nimitz is still in operation today, operating out of Bremerton, Washington.  She… (it’s common… traditional to speak of a ship with the pronouns she, her) … she is not scheduled to be retired from service (decommissioned) and replaced by a newer carrier until the year 2022.

My point in telling you these things is simply this… as individuals, we can never begin to accomplish that which can be achieved by groups of people working in concert, one with many, each bringing specific knowledge and skills to the greater task.  When people work together, they can accomplish virtually anything they can imagine and deem worthy of the effort.

The question then arises… these great things we accomplish?  What benefit do they ultimately bring to the many people who actually do the work?  For me… and for many, the work and the wages were a short term benefit, but I was aware that shipyard work was subject to long lay-offs according to the ability of the yard’s owners to obtain contracts.  In Newport News the owner was a bloodless corporation that had acquired the yard from private ownership… after which they immediately employed a small army of time-study analysts armed with clipboards to begin the process of winnowing those they deemed ‘inefficient’ from the labor force.  These “experts” were mostly young men in white shirts and ties who had never done any shipyard work in their life and who interpreted as “unnecessary and inefficient” even a gang of fitters awaiting the drop of a huge section onto the hull by a crane.  They were particularly interested in eliminating older fitters who received the higher wages so that they could hire younger, less experienced men who could be hired at a rate far less per hour than the veterans.  A corollary benefit to the corporation was this…. if they could rid themselves of men who’d worked for decades, they would not have to pay them a full pension.  You can believe or disbelieve their motivations as you wish, but I will tell you without any reservation that practices like that are fully in line with the concept and reality of capitalism which is not subject to moral, but rather to financial motivations… bottom line… profit.

But the immediate answer to the purpose served in the construction of the USS Nimitz was “national defense” and, even if we question the need for construction of such a massive vessel in an age where a single tactical nuclear missile can neutralize an entire fleet, national defense is the stated purpose for which it is built.  At the time it was built, it cost the American taxpayers about $1,000,000,000 (that’s one billion) which equates to about $4,750,000,000 in today’s dollars.  Though I have no idea how much it cost to maintain and operate the Nimitz over the last four decades, the expense has been justified by the various military adventures our nation has precipitated globally… limited warfare with nations who could never challenge the American military juggernaut and survive.  Proportionately and metaphorically speaking, we’ve built ourselves a military monolith that equates to a massive sledge hammer with which to deal with minor flea infestations in the houses of people we can’t even see beyond the vast oceans that separate us, places that we will likely never visit, even as tourists.  National “defense” and the abuses that are inherent in a powerful military-industrial complex is a moral issue… and quite beyond the scope of this humble document… but, sometimes, I simply cannot help myself from casting an elbow in that general direction hoping to connect with the appropriate chin.

Given a budget of nearly five billion dollars and the collective skills of thousands of engineers, mathematicians, designers, draftsmen, technicians and tradesmen from every skilled and technical craft known to mankind, what would you have them produce?  Speaking entirely for myself, it wouldn’t be a nuclear aircraft carrier and the profit in dollars required to overpay the CEOs and the CFOs et al. in a massive corporation, or to offer the various bribes and donations to however many admirals and politicians it takes to win the contract… all the while maintaining a small army of lobbyists to ensure a steady flow of more billions in lucrative government work… and then, above all, to produce sufficient dividends for the corporation’s greedy stockholders.  But hey… that’s just me.  I can’t even begin to change the world, especially at my age and with few resources on which to draw… but I can influence one small part of it… and when this series is complete, it’s my plan to begin putting the theory of the institutional model of a local social collective to work by planning and building one in the little city where I live.

Social collectives are, I believe, the corporations and the governance of the future and an immediate solution for the growing needs of many Americans today, those who have not been fulfilled economically or socially within the current environment of capitalist-inspired inequities within the profit motivated society in which we live.  Social collectives are a way for everyone to get their fair share of the collective benefits supplied by their individual effort invested in a collective venture… and the return?  Equal shares for everyone… no matter the effort and the investment of each… there will an equal return for every member of the collective and equal access to every resource, with democratic control of the work and the outlay in every benefit it may produce.  You can call it socialism.  You can call it community.  You can call it co-operation.  You can even call it Fred if it pleases you to do so.  I prefer to call it a social collective rather than a socialist collective or a cooperative or simply a collective, which choice bears not a dimes worth of difference either way.  The purpose of its construct is neither an “ism” nor an ideology… neither a brand nor a religion, though its authors can make it thus if they so desire… and all its membership agrees.

In fact, no single individual should drive the creation of a social collective.  One person can do the work of attracting others to the idea, acting in the role of an organizer… and he or she may even guide its formation for a time, but the group itself must be the author of its purpose and its focus in a purely democratic process that will, over time, require occasional and consistent commitment and effort on the part of every member.  Remember, the collective is a democratic institution and democracy is not a spectator sport.  It’s a way of life.

Let’s say that you are the organizer… an individual who has the energy and the desire to get things started.  What steps should you take?  Is there a model you can follow, an example that provides you with the framework for a plan?  Simple answer is “Absolutely.”   If you have ever done the work of an activist, chances are you already have the skills… or at least some of them.  If not, here is an excellent manual you could use to help you on your way:   Click on the link to the manual here:

Organizing Handbook

It is important however, to always remember that, even though it takes initiative and leadership to get something started, the leadership role in a social collective is not the same as a leadership position in an enterprise devoted to profit.  A social collective is founded upon the essence of community in absolute and universal equality, such that every member is equal to every other member, each bearing the same rights and the same privileges as does every member of the collective. The best model you could possibly choose is that of what the founder of Christianity, the carpenter from Nazareth declared to his disciples two thousand years ago, “…If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.”

laoziOr, you could follow the words of the author of the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu, who, 500 or so years before Jesus, declared, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists.  When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

And this single characteristic… equality… is essential to the concept of a social collective, the acceptance, the embrace, even the celebration of absolute equality within and among the membership, such that even its leaders, its founding members, no matter the personal investment they make, is ever permitted any greater benefit or privilege than any other individual within the collective.  Without an understanding that equality is the utter foundation for its existence, every social collective will fail.

As I have tried to demonstrate from the beginning of this work, history is rife with examples that show us that socialist governance without democracy and equality in every aspect of its structure is not capable of surviving.  Every attempt at establishing a socialist institution could eventually morph into some form of autocracy when its principles are compromised.  When the group places a premium on leadership it will eventually adopt all the characteristics of a plutocracy.  In the early Christian church, the concept of Christian leadership was utterly reversed from that which is paramount in its doctrine.  In the Soviet socialist revolution, the Party leadership became a new aristocracy that proved even more oppressive and brutal than the Tsarist regime from which the people had supposedly been liberated in 1917.

The social collective derives its success, even its reason for existence from the concepts of equality and democracy, but equality above all.  If it cannot maintain the ability to afford to every member, it will fail.  Every dispute must be settled, every conflict resolved within the dictates of the principles of equality in justice, so if you plan to build a social collective, the language of its founding document must somehow reflect the essential understanding and means for obtaining justice within the group based upon the absolute equality of its membership.  Secondly and with no less importance, it must outline the structure through which democratic governance can be realized.  In a social collective, it’s leaders must be democratically chosen, answerable to the membership and they can receive no more privilege, no more esteem, no more benefit than any other member.  They must be willing to accept that the work they accomplish is a responsibility they accept without any additional compensation beyond that which is required for them to accomplish the demands of their job.

120704112156-declaration-of-independence-story-topAs Americans, we have a much better chance than any previous peoples or nations to establish socialist institutions because our personal freedoms and our rights guaranteed in our Constitution are founded upon the bedrock principle in the Declaration of Independence that preceded the founding of our nation’s government and states… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Equality may not be the driving motivation of our economy… and true equality has been a slow and evolving process we have yet to achieve, but it is in our psyche… it’s in our blood.  Having said all that, I would also state that it is important to develop a reason for anyone to join a social collective, to get an understanding of its benefit to the membership and the possibilities inherent in group solidarity.  It has to begin somewhere, so the task of the organizer is to take some initiative and canvass the community, determine a need, and suggest a a purpose around which a social collective could be formed.  The founding theme could be absolutely anything, for instance, these:

  1. A grocery co-op in a food desert.
  2. Acquisition of a business by its employees from an owner wanting to sell in order to keep jobs in a community… or the foundation of any new, worker-owned business to create employment where jobs are scarce.
  3. A health care and transportation collective in a community of retirees providing in-home medical care and assistance and/or transportation services for people who cannot drive themselves or do not own a car.  An Uber collective, if you will.
  4. An intentional community providing housing for its membership… offering both privacy for individuals and families along with all the advantages of extended family through a social collective.
  5. A child care co-op.
  6. A credit union.
  7. Community work spaces developed for the acquisition and use of special, expensive tools that the membership can share… and/or storage space with an option for shared equipment like lawn mowers, tractors.
  8. Community gardens for the collective effort and benefit of growing fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers.
  9. A mutual aid or a legal aid collective, providing help for its membership such that they need never be forced to rely upon charitable institutions or state-sponsored social welfare organizations… a collective that springs from the concept that a people united in solidarity through a social collective, however poor, need not rely on the charity of those who possess greater resources than they do, but can fend for themselves with the dignity and respect every one of us deserves as a human being.

The possibilities are endless and they can include any number of goals such as those listed in combination according to the needs of the members.  The initial purpose can be ambitious or modest… but you have to start somewhere.

In the next essay, I will provide details of the steps an organizer can take to get things started… and perhaps even suggest a narrative in a specific example for the kind of social collective I might plan to initiate in my little city here in Ohio, how it can be be formed, how structured, logistical and legal issues, etc.

Watch this space.

Creative Commons License
Socialism, American Style by James Lloyd Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.