Michael Meeropol: Pete Seeger Was Great Because Of Not In Spite Of His Politics
Like many in the Hudson Valley, I took the loss of Pete Seeger personally. He was a great national and international figure having received over 20 honors and awards including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, the Harvard Arts Medal, the Kennedy Center Honor and been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame to name a few. For us who lived in and near Beacon, NY where he had lived for 65 years, he was a local hero. The sloop Clearwater and the attention it brought to the Hudson River actually led to an actual clean-up of terrible pollution. Now, the river can be fished and it’s safe for swimming.
What has Pete Seeger got to do with economics, you might ask? Well, as most people know, Pete was a committed socialist – had even been a member of the American Communist Party for a time. Some of the commentaries about him argued that he was a great man, despite being a Communist. I want to argue the opposite: Pete’s commitment to social justice and full human rights was part and parcel of his belief that socialism was a much better economic system than capitalism. His brief membership in the Communist party in the 1940s was his way of expressing that belief at that time.
[The best article about that issue was published on line http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/1/peet-seeger-communistpartyactivism.html )
It was entitled, “In defense of Pete Seeger, American Communist” and it was written by Bhaskar Sunkara, In the article, the author makes the point that when Americans think of communism as Stalin and Mao and the Soviet gulag, they forget the fact that when communists are not in power, they almost always are on the right side of most fights – whether it be their support for Trade Unions and civil rights for African Americans in the US or their steadfast support for the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. As an American, Pete Seeger was on the right side of almost every political issue throughout his long life. And we should never forget that his main focus for the past 40 years has been saving the environment -- both the Hudson River and the entire earth.
Listeners to this commentary may remember that in the summer of 2010 I referred to a PEW study which discovered, quite surprisingly, that 43 % of people under thirty reacted positively to socialism – the same percentage that reacted positively to capitalism. Over half reacted negatively to both.
In 1936 Pete Seeger travelled with his parents to parts of rural America and later (in 1939) was involved with The Vagabond Puppeteers, a traveling puppet theater "inspired by rural education campaigns of post-revolutionary Mexico". One of their shows coincided with a strike by dairy farmers. Despite his privileged position as the son of well-known folklorist Charles Seeger, he could see up close and personally the ravages of the depression. In those days, the stories of Stalin’s murderous regime were dismissed by communists and fellow travelers alike as capitalist propaganda. (Just as people in the old Soviet Union used to dismiss stories about American poverty and racism as “Soviet propaganda.”) Thus, people like the young Pete Seeger could think (as did many people from that generation) that the Soviet model – which included full employment, free education and medical care for all – was much better than the US version of capitalism in the middle of the depression.
Today, young people can see the ravages visited by our form of capitalism on ordinary people -- the stagnation in median incomes for workers -- the devastation of long term unemployment for the poor – the grotesque inequalities. Thus, it is not surprising that for many people under 30, “socialism” whatever that means, would have to be better than the capitalism they see before them.
Of course Seeger and many leftists in the 1930s were wrong about the Soviet Union. But that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not capitalism is an acceptable way of organizing an economy for the benefit of the majority of people. In his autobiography Seeger makes the point that just a communism is not the Soviet Union, the teachings of Christ should not be confused with the behavior of many churches who claim to follow Jesus.
This is where economics comes in. Too many economists try to assure us that there is no alternative to capitalism. Some (the so-called conservatives) tell us that if we would only let capitalism get free of government intervention then we’d have a nirvana of opportunity for all.
To a certain extent in the US, those economists got their way between 1980 and 2008 – with disastrous consequences. [Anyone interested can check out my books – Surrender How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution – Michigan 2000 (pbk) and (with Howard Sherman) Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies – M.E. Sharpe, 2013. Another really good book is Contours of Descent, US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (Verso Books, 2005).]
Most economists, however, accept the fact that capitalism needs to be managed by government to make it work for the majority of people. We economists call that the “mixed economy” where government has a very significant role to play in smoothing out the rough edges of “pure capitalism” with a social safety net (Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare), regulation of pollution (the EPA, etc.) and workplace safety (OSHA) and provision of some services (Police, Fire, Pubic Education, TVA).
Those of us who agree with Pete Seeger that some form of socialism would be much better than what we have argue that the entire history of post World War II America shows that the “mixed economy” no matter how positive the results for the majority of the people, will always be fought by those at the top of the economic pyramid who believe the restrictions on their ability to make as much money as possible is grossly unfair and even un-American. Given the concentration of wealth and power at the top of the income pyramid it would only be a matter of time before a “mixed economy” such as the US experienced from World War II through the 1970s, would inevitably succumb to those at the top. In other words, the Reagan revolution was inevitable – even though the US economy did extremely well for the vast majority of the population from World War II through the 1960s.
The short period of shared prosperity from 1945 to the 1970s was an anomaly. Since then we’ve had a more “normal” capitalism --- great for the 1%, pretty good for the 10% -- not so good (to put it mildly) for the rest. No wonder more and more young people are agreeing with Pete Seeger about the superiority of socialism over our form of capitalism.
Michael Meeropol is visiting professor of Economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.
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