Is Sustainability Socialism?

A recent letter in Willmar’s West Central Tribune left me reeling.  According the author, a Mr. Harvey Koehl of Morris, MN, Wal-Mart is starting to “take a new direction in their purchasing ideas.”

Those ideas include investing in sustainable agriculture in order to increase production of goods from farms and companies that embrace environmentally sound practices.  You can read Wal-Mart’s press release about the program here.

Here’s what Mr. Koehl has to say about the program:

They in their infinite wisdom have decided we in agriculture are doing it all wrong. So Walmart is going to spend billions of dollars to train farmers to be more sustainable, whatever the heck that means?

In my farmer way of thinking, sustainable and socialism are about one and the same. Walmart says it will buy lots of inputs from so- called small farmers who are “taking care of the land and who are not using all of these terrible products that are destroying our environment.”

I’m not sure what definition of socialism Mr. Koehl has in mind here (or whom he was quoting), but let’s review what the word actually means.  Dictionary.com defines socialism as,

a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.

In what way does Wal-Mart’s investing in the production of goods their customers are demanding constitute socialism? Wal-Mart isn’t advocating collective ownership in the means of production; it’s investing in the production of goods that will make the corporation more money.

That looks purely capitalistic to me.  And while I believe sustainability is a laudable goal for the mega-retailer, I also believe control over our food supply is a lot safer and more sustainable when it’s in communities’ and individual farmer’s hands.

And, considering that no one who wants to get started in farming can actually afford to purchase land anymore, we might have to start looking at how communities can invest collectively in order to keep farmers on the land and food in our mouths.

But, you know, then we might be dabbling in socialism, and we can’t have that. We’d better just sell out to the corporations instead.  I’m sure they’ll take care of us and our rural communities. [OK, sarcasm off.]

The final twist of Mr. Koehl’s letter is probably the most mystifying–he at once shames Wal-Mart for investing in sustainable agriculture while wondering why Wal-Mart did not sustain all the community-based businesses its presence doomed to failure:

If you support one segment of an industry and not the other, you control it, you do not make it better. This is called socialism, or sustainable, take your pick. It surprises me to see socialism coming from a company that has used the capitalistic system to become the biggest retailer in the world.

Walmart, when are you going to start setting up a program to help all of the mom-and-pop hardware stores and clothing stores you have put out of business in our local communities over the years? Surely they have a right to be sustainable and survived as well as all of those farmers who are not surviving. What would Sam Walton have said about the direction you are taking?

Of course, subsidizing certain segments of the ag industry and not others is what our Farm Bill has been doing since its inception.  In Mr. Koehl’s mind, it appears to be OK for the government (and by extension, the taxpayers) to subsidize the production of major commodity crops, but it’s not OK for a major retailer to provide financial incentives for other types of production.

Clearly, Wal-Mart is setting up this program to make money.  It’s a “green campaign,” and it’s designed to lure people who want to “shop their conscience” away from their co-ops and farmers markets and into the Big Box.  More money for Wal-Mart; less money for local businesses.

That ain’t socialism.  It’s not even in the same ballpark as socialism.

In his analysis of control, I somewhat agree: when you subsidize, you’re encouraging desired behaviors by rewarding them.  That principle is at work when give your kid a buck for every A on his report card and when the Farm Bill codifies rewards for maximizing corn production for ethanol.  Whether or not the behaviors or production models being rewarded are good or bad is a separate question.

Mr. Koehl creates a bizarre hypocrisy in his closing plea: that Wal-Mart also start investing in the small businesses they’ve run out of business in all those small communities across the country–those “mom-and-pop hardware stores and clothing stores.”  He calls investing in sustainability, “socialism” (which he clearly disapproves of), and then says he wants more of it.

Of course Wal-Mart isn’t going to do that.  It’s a corporation that exists to make money for its shareholders. It will invest in sustainable agriculture to expand production so that it can make money from selling those products, but it’s not going to prop up the competition.

But, the kind of support Mr. Koehl seems to denigrate for some and advocate for others should not be a function of big corporations, but of communities re-investing in their own infrastructure and collectively deciding that they’re more interested in keeping Ms. Jones’ grocery store or Mr. Smith’s auto parts in business than saving a few cents on a gallon or milk or a fuel filter at the cost of their neighbors’ livelihoods.

Or maybe they want to hold the line on high utility costs by forming a rural electric cooperative that’s owned and controlled by its members–a very popular socialist model in this country that seems to work well.  It seems like I’ve seen a few Farmers Cooperative Elevators in the area as well…

It takes a conscious collective decision about the lives we want to live and the communities we want to live in–and it takes a collective effort and investment in that goal–in order to create truly sustainable communities–socially, economically, and environmentally sound for the long term.

Sustainability does not equal socialism, but there are many models for sustainability that incorporate community ownership and control to protect citizens from the machinations of corporations, which typically only have a community’s best interests in mind when they align with a greater margin of profit for that corporation and its shareholders.

How often does that happen?  And for how long?

Whether or not Wal-Mart’s investments in sustainable agriculture will be good for farmers is a reasonable question, and I’m guessing the answer will be tied to whether what’s good for farmers is good for the corporate bottom line.  As a farmer, I’d be leery of signing that contract .

But socialism?  It’s not even close.

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2 responses

  1. For the record…I don’t pay my kid to get A’s. 🙂

    Seriously though, I think the dude needs a dictionary…plain and simple. It’s sad that the talking heads of Fox and wherever else make regular folks sound so stupid by putting words in their mouths, LITERALLY.

  2. I am really tired of conservative people who label anything they don’t like as ‘socialism’. You are dead on: they don’t understand the word. Words indeed have meanings, people. Calling what Wal-Mart is doing ‘socialism’ is like calling an apple a turnip. But then I see so much hypocrisy amongst people these days, such as taking ethanol subsidies, which is clearly a hand-out, while decrying other, similar hand-outs to people of whom they might disapprove.

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