The S- and C-words

On the surface, David Forbes’ excellent article about socialism, (“The Other S-Word,” May 2 Xpress) featured two Asheville City Council members engaging in a fairly polite conversation about economic systems. Between the lines, however, time-warping Cold Warrior/Council member Carl Mumpower was hurling accusations of socialism like Molotov cocktails. And because of the S-word’s connotations for many Americans, he was implying that atheist communists on City Council may destroy all property rights, religion and everything else Americans hold dear.

The article also resonated with the voices of underpaid, abused and killed workers through ages, whose treatment eventually resulted in socialist revolutions in many countries. Finally, the article whispered about the terror of all living beings on earth, gasping for habitat, fleeing from a system that must grow, consume and pollute more and more, at a faster and faster rate, for increasing billions of humans.

Behind these cries lies the tragedy of Asheville—and America—being forced to see capitalism and socialism as absolute religions. Like many other Americans, Mr. Mumpower has exploited this religious fervor to disrupt meaningful debate between the two camps. By concentrating on their economic aspects, however, it’s possible to shear the S- and C-words of some of their religious baggage. This reveals that capitalism primarily defends the economic individual, and socialism defends the economic community. Thanks to strategies like Mr. Mumpower’s, the American economic community has been all but ignored.

Lost horizons

Proof that the current American dialogue can’t come to grips with the destructive potentials of capitalism is that almost all concept of the right to humane and fulfilling work has been lost. City Council’s efforts to ensure a living wage in Asheville are impressive, but they should be just the beginning.

For most, a living wage means that if you can tolerate 40 to 50 hours a week on an inhumane assembly line or similar type job, you should be allotted the resources needed to survive decently. According to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, more than 21,000 people in the metro area work in manufacturing jobs, many of them on assembly lines that are a form of torment. Thousands more work in jobs so repetitive or hard on the body that they aren’t much better. And even these horrendous jobs are being eliminated—more than 6,000 in the last six years, according to the Chamber—often due to outsourcing and exportation to ensure maximized individual profit.

What’s been lost is the idea that if work can’t be enjoyed, then it should be only part-time, enabling the laborer to find fulfilling self-expression in the remaining hours.

Meanwhile, those with challenging, enjoyable and/or lucrative jobs often work too many hours, forcing them to live in a constant state of haste if they want to have a life outside of work. What’s the rush? It’s the perceived individual need for more and more people to acquire more and more things at an ever-faster rate.

But just as the community needs healthy individuals to progress and adjust to changing conditions, individuals requires a healthy community to satisfy their needs and desires. To ensure this, we should establish some boundaries: a seamless economic floor that prevents financial insecurity while promoting workplace fulfillment, and an impervious economic ceiling that prevents environmental destruction and overpopulation. We should continue to maximize individual private-property rights—but operating between the community ceiling and floor.

Proof that we haven’t even approached an authentic debate about an ecological ceiling is Asheville’s lack of any substantive dialogue on regulating growth and population. As soon as we run up against the rights of large-scale property owners, we have to shut up. Thus our current, environmentally conscious City Council has felt it necessary to allow about 27 percent more environmentally destructive development in the last year than happened in any of the 10 previous years, according to Asheville’s Building Safety Department. And thus they can get excited about various designs for the environmental atom bomb that is the I-26 connector.

The right to hold a certain amount of property is sacred, necessary for the good of individual and community alike. But when we’re dealing with a significant number of acres, or a development that impacts a large area, the community should have a major say over how that property is used and whether it’s developed at all.

Meanwhile, Asheville’s natural beauty and quality of life are being paved over, and the community appears powerless to stop it. Worse yet, this development often benefits absentee property owners who may have little interest in our community. Yet City Council virtually rubber-stamps those developers’ plans, as if they were divine commands. And for all practical purposes, they are: Unlimited property rights are a holy doctrine of capitalism, America’s most sacred religion.

A commonwealth of individuals

While America was leading the Cold War fight against out-of-control economic community, Western Europe had begun creating the humane working floor and ecological ceiling needed for earth’s economy to be sustainable. Many Western European countries offer cradle-to-grave security, making it difficult for their citizens to become destitute. Most provide national health care and free college. Residents of these countries work fewer hours and enjoy far more vacation time than Americans get. And unlike the United States, most European countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Now that the Cold War is over, Asheville and other small, progressive cities may have to lead the way in promoting economic community. National efforts have less of a chance, because giant, entrenched institutions and corporations have too much power. And though it’s important to have people like Mr. Mumpower defending individual economic rights in the long run, his arguments are the last thing Asheville needs right now, as individual economic rights bulldoze the community rights belonging to the rest of us.

[Asheville resident Bill Branyon’s latest novel is Asheville, NC Circa 2000 AD (Transnational Publishing, 2003)]

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