RENEWED INTEREST IN RADICAL POLITICS IS INSPIRING THE SAME OLD BACKLASH
Bernie Sanders’ amazing success during the 2016 election campaign and his status as the most popular senator in the country today set off a trend in Americans, especially young Americans, to look into the dreaded “S” word. Now, a number of socialists, in the center of which is the invaluable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been elected to Congress. Those left-leaning Congress critters who do not identify as socialist are demonstrating a surprising willingness to embrace socialist ideas.
What the hell is going on? After all, don’t these people realize that we are capitalists? Even Nancy Pelosi says so, and you know–Nancy Pelosi!
Well, Nancy, the problem is when someone who is worth over $25 million gets up and asserts that “we are capitalists,” she doesn’t carry much weight in a discussion with someone who hasn’t benefited from the system. This is especially true of young people who didn’t necessarily have the lifetime brainwashing of “socialisms baaaaaaaad” socialization as did those of us who grew up while the Cold War was still going on. They look at Nancy Pelosi, only the thirteenth wealthiest member of Congress, and quite rightly believe that she doesn’t speak for them. They’re looking at starting their adult lives buried in debt, with lower expectations of success than their parents had. In the meantime we are no longer really talking about the top ten percent of wealth holders. We are no longer talking about the top one percent. We are talking about the top .1%. Yes, the top one-tenth of one percent of households holding the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%.
In the meantime, we keep hearing how we can’t afford to make clearly necessary social investments like renewable energy, job guarantees, healthcare and education. We just don’t have the money.
Who is this “We”. Why is it that the We whom Nancy Pelosi is clearly referencing has more money than they can ever use while the “We” of the rest of the world have to literally watch the planet melt because “We” can’t afford to do anything about it.
It is painfully obvious that capitalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So maybe there’s a better solution.
I wrote this piece back in 2010 when the likes of Glen Beck and Sarah Palin were yammering about Obama’s Socialist Agenda. Yeah. I know. Seems almost quaint.
But it wasn’t. At that point, presumably liberal politicians like Obama were still afraid of the “S” Word label. Consequently, they offered nothing more than anemic, milquetoast policy proposals that failed to inspire the base. For nothing. They were still labeled Socialists!
Now we have a new generation of politicians and voters who are not afraid of the “S” Word, and they won’t be cowed by conservative clatter about creeping socialism.
This should be interesting.
Do Not Be Afraid of Socialist Tyranny!
July 15, 2010
It never fails! Whenever conservatives are being challenged, especially when they are being challenged on a popular front with legislation designed to benefit common people the very first bogeyman they embrace is socialism! Since the turn of the century, the socialist threat has been attached in some way to just about every progressive program from child labor laws to our current health care and financial reforms. In about every instance the proposed legislation is defined as “the first step to socialist tyranny.” Social Security will lead to the hammer and sickle flying over the White House. In 1961 Ronald Reagan gave an impassioned speech on the perils of socialized medicine. In the speech, he disingenuously claims that medicine is a common avenue through which to impose socialist tyranny. His speech is in anticipation of Medicare, which passed in 1965.
So there’s socialist Social Security, socialist Medicare, socialist Medicaid, socialist food-stamps, socialist welfare, unemployment compensation. There are all these socialist laws floating around. Um…where’s the tyranny? Somehow the tyranny just didn’t materialize. Indeed, some of our most vociferous voices against socialism love their Social Security and Medicare.
Indeed, the fear of socialism is deeply ingrained in American politics. In the opening years of the 20th-century socialists really were a viable political force in the United States. Eugene V. Debs was an outspoken and popular critic of the American political economy. Socialists advocated for fair labor practices, redistribution of wealth, checks against the accumulation of power in the hands of the Robber Barons and turning away from war. What they never advocated was tyranny. Regardless, socialist paradigms were considered dangerous and radical to the power elite. Progressivism rose to stem the tide of radical thought by offering more politically palatable reforms to satisfy an understandably angry populace.
Socialism remained a powerful force in American politics until World War I. Socialist organizations were harassed, raided and shut down as a result of the Espionage Act 1917. Eugene Debs was imprisoned under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the war. In the 1920s A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover declared war against the radical elements, especially anarchists, communists, and socialists. Thousands were rounded up and held without trial. Hundreds, including the famous social critic Emma Goldman, were deported. This without any evidence of a threat to the United States. A House Un-American Activities Committee was formed, later supplemented by Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings. These institutions blacklisted and disenfranchised some of America’s finest artists and writers. Indeed, socialism was a focus of tyranny, only it was socialists themselves who were the victims.
So scapegoating socialism is old hat to the political establishment. Socialist fear mongering is used to water down or kill any even mildly progressive reform that might possibly serve the public good. Last year the widely popular “public option” was struck from health care reform as it was linked to socialized medicine. President Obama and many other left-leaning or liberal political influences were falsely accused of communism/socialism…which has somehow also been linked to Fascism through what can only be described as philosophical acrobatics performed by the likes of Glenn Beck et, al.
The reason this scapegoating is possible is due to the overall ignorance of what socialism really is and what socialists really stand for. Any attempt at an honest analysis of socialism is defined as condoning the socialist agenda…and really, who wants to do that. But if people actually knew what socialism was, they may not agree with socialist tenets, but they certainly wouldn’t fear socialist influence. Knowing what socialists stand for and strive to achieve would lay rest the absurd claim that President Obama and his administration is somehow fulfilling the feared socialist agenda. Maybe then we could actually participate in a real critique of Obama social policy.
The crux of socialist fear mongering is centered on Joseph Stalin and the failed experiment of the Soviet Union. True, Stalin came to power on a wave of socialist/communist revolution. The formation of the Soviet Union was the ultimate expression of that power base. Reading socialist literature, however, one finds deep criticisms of Stalin and the Soviet Adventure (yes, one can also find socialist and communist apologists for Soviet tyranny as well). Stalin was power mad and brutal. He would have been power mad and brutal regardless of the premise by which he achieved power. And the Soviet system is a clear warning about the dangers of concentrated power in the hands of a few, in this case, the communist party. Stalin and Soviet politics, however, is not definitive of socialist thought.
In fact, socialists eschew tyranny, promoting democratic principles. Socialists, however, recognize that economic oppression is no different than political oppression. The socialist believes that so long as the factors of production are concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people then those who must trade their labor in exchange for wages cannot experience true freedom. Overall, the socialist believes that the factors of production, or key market areas, should be a public trust and directly benefit the community or society. It should especially benefit those who actually do the work. Socialism is a response to the existence of poverty in otherwise wealthy societies, where that wealth disproportionately benefits the few at the expense of the many. This is not an uncommon complaint.
Socialists also identify certain mechanisms that serve the interests of the elite to maintain their non-egalitarian control of the factors of production. Such mechanisms include police state tactics and warfare, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly as well as the perpetuation of myths like racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and nationalism that serve to keep working people antagonistic toward each other rather than turning their anger toward their real enemies–free-market capitalists. Consequently, socialists have a long history of standing up for justice, peace, freedom of thought, expression and association. Socialists have been active in the civil rights movement, women’s movement, and environmental movements. They have a long record of standing up for human rights.
Socialists believe that mitigating the negative effects of the market requires that the ownership of the factors of production, capital, should reside in the hands of people as a whole, not in the hands of individuals or shareholders. This is a central principle of socialism, but there are many different perspectives on how such a system can be achieved and administered. Most socialists believe that the factors of production should be regulated democratically. That any capital enterprise should be owned by the people of the community in which the enterprise exists. Others support cooperatives in which the workers own the enterprise itself. There are those socialists who believe that the state should nationalize all capital endeavors in the interests of the citizens. Then there are the less radical socialists who offer that perhaps not all business should be centrally controlled, but rather certain key industries should be held in the public trust, such as medicine, power or central production industries. Other socialists, like Social Democrats, or not necessarily antagonistic about private ownership of capital, but demand certain rights and social safety nets for the working class. And yes, there are Leninist socialists who suggest that a single party, working in the interests of the working class, should decide how fruits of production are distributed.
Communists, overall, distinguish themselves from socialists. The communists see socialism as an incomplete idea. According to Karl Marx socialism is a crucial step toward the collective consciousness that will ultimately lead to a classless society. Again, communists represent an ideological spectrum rather than a central, cohesive belief system. Though communists see their ends as ultimately democratic they recognize that their ultimate revolution will be violent and the dismantlement of capitalism will be accomplished through an interim, socialist government.” To many communists (though not all) this bloody process will be necessary to liberate the working class and institute a true democracy unencumbered by state or market tyranny. This is not a belief shared by most socialists.
What socialists do not have is a cohesive, sinister strategy to institute an oppressive regime by providing health care and minimum wages. Socialists believe that their goals are democratic and that achieving their goals can be done through democratic means. They believe that a truly responsive, democratic state–if a state should exist at all–is one in which the interests of all its citizens are served, not just the elite few.
So the confusion of socialism with fascism perpetrated by conservative talking heads is inaccurate. The socialist believes that the state should serve the needs of the citizen. Many socialists believe that the state should extend no further than a regional community. Some socialists, namely communists and anarchists, believe the state shouldn’t exist at all. This is a clear contrast with fascists who believe that the individual should serve the state, and the elite few possessed of the superior qualities that legitimize their rule. Fascism is an idea that socialists find abhorrent, which is why socialists and communists were, in fact, among the first to resist the rise of fascism before World War II.
The above description is meant to wash the fear of socialism from contemporary political discourse. It is not, as the conservative mouthpieces are sure to insinuate, a defense of socialism. Indeed, it is the position of this website that an economy or a society cannot be effectively run via the use of dogma, whether that dogma is free market capitalism or socialism. There are many weaknesses in the socialist discourse. For instance, it is unlikely that a socialist society would be immune to the very same power dynamics that corrupt the free market, namely the accumulation of power in the hands of a few. However, socialists do have very legitimate concerns about economic inequality and instability that disproportionately impacts the working class.
Simply using “socialism” as a scary fable to frighten uninformed citizens away from otherwise popular reforms demeans the democratic process. Why not have a discussion in which socialists and free-market capitalists, and the many and varied ideas that don’t necessarily conform to this dichotomous construct, expound on their ideas, present their policies and let the people decide the direction they want to go. What represents a democratic society more, one in which opposing viewpoints can hash out their differences in an open political arena, or one in which certain ideas are vilified without discussion?
You don’t have to accept a socialist agenda in whole or in part. But you should not be afraid of the socialists.