Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is the 'S' Word Making a Comeback?

The Nation recently launched a forum called Reimagining Socialism. Over at Union Gal, bendygirl drops the S-Bomb in the first sentence of her latest post. The cover of Newsweek recently declared:
We Are All Socialists

Socialism, the idea that the economy and society should be run democratically to meet public needs, doesn't have to be talked about in whispers anymore. There are a few reasons for this. 

First, we're in the middle of another capitalism-induced disaster, so people are wiling to look at alternatives. We're living in the Era of Bailouts. Even President Bush pumped $700 billion of bailout money into the financial sector last year. It's beginning to dawn on people that if the pillars of the economy require public money to keep them standing, maybe they should also be under some measure of public control and run for the public good. 

Second, we just witnessed a presidential campaign where the Republicans repeatedly characterized the Democratic candidate as a socialist. It was apparently a major strategy of the Republican campaign. Then the Democratic candidate won a landslide victory. During President Obama's first few months in office, Republicans and the right wing media have labeled most of his agenda as socialist, and the president has remained immensely popular. So the former toxicity of the S-word is wearing off, thanks largely to conservatives' repeated use of it. (With enemies like these, who needs friends, huh?) Or, as Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. point out in The Nation:
"If 'capitalism' is represented by right-wing populist blowhards like Limbaugh and Beck, while 'socialism' bears the far more appealing face of Barack Obama, the choice is not too difficult."
Finally, the Cold War is over. Conservatives can no longer argue that America needs to stand as a polar opposite to all things socialist in order to win some global ideological struggle. That struggle should never have been against "socialism" in the first place, by the way, but against authoritarianism. But for much of the last century, the Left in America was hamstrung every time the Right pinned it to the Soviet Union and authoritarian communism. Basic movements for justice and sustainability like the civil rights movement and the environmental movement were derided as "communist." Now the Soviet Union is dead, and we can do what makes sense rather than rush to the right for argument's sake.

So if "socialism" is making a comeback, the Left needs to articulate what we mean by socialism. At every turn, conservatives will try to equate socialism with Stalinism. They'll try to paint democratic socialism as authoritarian communism a la North Korea. That should be easy enough to dismiss. But we'll need to make it clear that socialism doesn't have to mean giant, unwieldy government. It doesn't have to kill the incentive to work hard. And it absolutely doesn't have to consist of democratic bailouts for anti-democratic institutions, as we've recently witnessed. (The Newsweek article, intentionally or not, makes the latter mistake.)

To me, this is an exciting time. Bold ideas are in fashion again. The political debate won't be an argument over minor tweaks and adjustments. Whether or not you consider yourself a socialist, if you're reading this blog you're probably a progressive. And whatever stripe of progressive you may be, the rising popularity of socialism is good news. I think history shows that the possibility (or threat) of fundamental systemic change is crucial to winning even the incremental changes. (More on this later.) So in the end, if all we want to do is slightly raise taxes on the rich or tighten regulations on business, with "socialism" on the table, we'll be in a much stronger position.


Mason said...

As a member of the Left, what does socialism mean to you? I don't know if I'm socialist or not.

Also, what about the strategy of calling yourself a capitalist while you work for more socialist reform? That way you can avoid the bullshit name calling and get something positive done. I doubt the possibility of a socialist revolution anytime soon.

Elizabeth said...

Very interesting. I'll admit that I have varying reactions to the word "socialism" of a beautiful, peaceful Europe, another of oppression, "disappearances" and the removal of religion from everyday life. There are, of course, historical reasons for all of these feelings, and some of them are just...feelings.

I wonder if you read this article in the Washington Post back in March? (It's funny, I thought of BTM back when I read it! And then I just googled it to share it here) Billy Wharton is the editor of the Socialist magazine. In his article he pretty much lays out why Obama is not a socialist. Food for thought.

delaine said...

I think you make a good point by differentiating between socialism and authoritarianism, one that needs to be understood before we can consider a new opinion on socialism. For citizens of my generation, it will require a big shift in our thinking.Do you think the citizenry is ready for that conversation ?

Camp Papa said...

My particular brand of Christian faith (United Methodist) maintains that no person should have exclusive control over any part of the created universe without regard for the interests of others and responsibility to God. If that is a position that we wanted to act on as a nation, what would it look like? Maybe one thing it implies is the notion that's being discussed lately: If a business enterprise is "too big to fail" then it is "too big". Why should any institution be allowed to get so big and powerful that it can cause widespread harm to even those who are not directly invested in it? Surely there must be some mechanism to guarantee that the public interest in protected...and maybe those mechanisms are rightly called in socially responsible.

Amy said...

Yeah, can we talk (By "we" I mean you, since I'm clueless) about what is meant now by socialism? Cause I just learned to equate it with communism, cabbage and really ugly clothes. And I just don't look good in gray burlap.

Seriously, I'd like to know what's being advocated, I guess. I'm all for more responsibility and balance of power, but is that "socialism"?

Help me out here, dude.

Better Than Machines said...

I think the label, "socialism," is not terribly important in itself. After all, the word has a lot of baggage--baggage from the deliberate smears of conservative capitalists and baggage from the many anti-democratic regimes that have used the word to describe themselves.

That's part of why it's so impressive that the word itself is making a comeback.

Socialists themselves will disagree on what precisely the word means. We could name various things a socialist society might include, like universal healthcare, wide-ranging quality public services, a national pension plan, etc. But I don't even think arguing over the specifics is all that important. To me, socialism is an aspect of democracy. It's the idea that democracy and egalitarian principles should be applied broadly in society, to things that involve wealth and resources. Unbridled capitalism, on the other hand, says that democracy should not touch money. (Keep your democracy over there! Don't let it touch the good stuff. You can pick the next American Idol, but you can't demand a national health care system.)

This is a complex topic, with lots of potential detours. I will try to break up some of these ideas into future posts.

For now, here's a great passage from Howard Zinn about the label of socialism:

The word itself-"socialism"-may still carry the distortions of recent experience in bad places usurping the name. But anyone who goes around the country, or reads carefully the public opinion surveys over the past decade, can see that huge numbers of Americans agree on what should be the fundamental elements of a decent society: guaranteed food, housing, medical care for everyone; bread and butter as better guarantees of "national security" than guns and bombs; democratic control of corporate power; equal rights for all races, genders, and sexual orientations; a recognition of the rights of immigrants as the unrecognized counterparts of our parents and grandparents; the rejection of war and violence as solutions for tyranny and injustice.

There are people fearful of the word, all along the political spectrum. What is important, I think, is not the word, but a determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas that are both bold and inviting-the more bold, the more inviting. That's what remembering Debs and the socialist idea can do for use.

Better Than Machines said...


That's an interesting WaPo article. The author makes some of the same points I made in this post. For instance:

"Oddly enough, Republican politicians such as Mike Huckabee and John McCain had become our most effective promoters."He's right! Republicans like Sen. Jim DeMint saying things like that Obama is "the world's best salesman of socialism," makes Republicans sound dumb, makes the American people (who highly support Obama) interested in learning something about socialism, and gets the editor of the Socialist magazine writing an article for the Washington Post. Not bad.