For most U.S. Americans, the word “socialism” is so loaded with negative connotations that it’s tempting to avoid the topic altogether. Linked with the most frightening excesses of totalitarian regimes, from Stalin to Pol Pot, equated with brutal repression of freedom and rights, to most people in the U.S. socialism means the subservience of individual rights and dignity to the service of a dictatorial, imperious, bureaucratic state that serves no one’s interests except the political elite who make all the rules and enjoy all the benefits. Everyone else suffers under an oppressive sameness, a dreary gray hopelessness in which their individual aspirations are crushed under the heel of relentless state control. In the U.S., even those who define themselves as left of center rarely espouse socialist ideals. Barack Obama, for example, vehemently denied that he had any intentions of “socializing” medical care, let alone the whole of the U.S. economy. Even those to the left of the Democratic Party are far more likely to call themselves “progressives” than socialists, let alone Marxists.
In Europe, the term socialism is less reviled. Socialist parties abound, at one time holding a majority of the European parliament and recently becoming the ruling party in France. But, as the New YorkTimes accurately put it (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/sunday-review/whats-a-socialist.html?pagewanted=all) (upon François Hollande’s recent election as President of France), “And what does it mean to be a Socialist these days, anyway? Not very much. Certainly nothing radical.” Socialist parties in Europe, like the Democratic Party in the United States, may support policies that, in comparison with their more conservative foes, benefit a larger portion of the working population, but they do not envision a radical reordering of the socioeconomic order.
Socialism, then, is simultaneously vilified by conservatives as a fundamental danger to human freedom, while being diluted by its “proponents” to such an extent that it can barely be distinguished from a tepid liberalism. If, as most of the U.S. and European press would have it, radical socialism — socialism that envisions a significant reorganization of society — is merely an anachronism, a political philosophy with no contemporary importance, why does it continue to stir such intense hostility?
Part of the answer lies in the aversion, particularly in the United States, to anything that can be considered an “ideology.” Nearly all “isms” are dirty words today in both liberal and conservative circles. The whole notion of an “ideology” is pejorative, implying a devotion to a cause that is at once irrational and over-intellectualized. It is as though the process of formulating any structure of ideas were somehow responsible for all atrocities done in the name of an ideology. The ideology of socialism — essential to socialism meaning anything more than broadly liberal goals — is thus doubly burdened with negative connotations. In the United States, voters can be passionate about their support for one party and their loathing for the other, yet most would agree that any ideology cannot and should not be part of the conversation about where the country should be headed. This hostility extends to any serious discussion about underlying principles, about what makes our society what it is and how it could possibly be transformed.
By eliminating socialist ideology from the debate, capitalism, for all its injustices, inequalities and miseries, for all its paroxysms of impending collapse, continues to carry with it a ring of inevitability. By giving the status quo this ring of being the only alternative and hiding behind euphemisms like the “free market economy” to describe a system that is anything but free and nothing like an open market, those who benefit most from exploiting workers and absorbing a grossly inordinate share of the world’s resources avoid the necessity of even defending the system. It is as though capitalism were not an ideology, but merely an apparently permanent and “natural” aspect of the modern world.
But for all that status quo’s critics decry its inhumanity, its pervasive exploitation and deprivation of the many for the benefit of the few, rarely is an alternative envisioned. It seems easier to imagine chaos, even Armageddon, more easily than the emergence of a more equitable, more just, more democratic societal organization. Though we see people raise their voices against economic injustice and political oppression, rarely do we see a clear vision of a future in which injustice, structural inequality of economic opportunity and sharing of the planet’s resources, political disenfranchisement and oppression are erased and a more human, more equitable, more democratic society takes its place.
Another part of the problem is that opponents of a significant reordering of society have cornered the market on “democracy.” Many open-minded, progressive, intelligent people can barely comprehend that socialism may not only be compatible with democracy, but essential for its success. Most of us recognize that what we see (in the U.S., at least) is a parody of a legitimate democracy. Put simply: Despite intermittent progress (and frequent setbacks) in the struggle for a “one person = one vote” system, we have progressively lost more and more ground on whether one person equals one voice. U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions, from handing over the presidency to George W. Bush without a recount to declaring corporations to be “persons” with respect to freedom of speech, have put a dramatic nail in the coffin of “leveling the playing field” in terms of the power of wealth to control the government. The North American and European governments give the appearance of “anyone can win” systems, while guaranteeing that significantly different perspectives, especially including socialist ideology, have no ability to reach a broad sector of the population with their ideas.
The end result of avoiding discussion of socialist ideology is that even demands for radical change, including much of the Occupy movement in the United States, do not define a clear vision for the future. The “We are the 99%” is a brilliant rallying cry: It is true that only one percent, and most likely even less, are the beneficiaries of the status quo. But that 1% has extremely powerful allies in the managerial class (including most career politicians) who are paid handsomely for their services to the 1%’s interests. Most, even on the left, shy away from acknowledging that a significant socioeconomic reordering will mean changes that affect not only the very rich, but also those who serve the very rich. Nor is it conceivable that the process of change will be simple or easy. Transforming the society will be a long and difficult struggle, not simply a matter of increasing taxes on the wealthiest 1%. It is foolish to try to sell this change as painless. But is even more foolish to abandon socialist ideals because the struggle to achieve them will be difficult.
But the battle is nevertheless worth waging. A core of the socialist ideal is equitable distribution of resources. Beginning with economic wealth, it extends to access to health care and opportunities for education as well as political resources, i.e. access to power and influence. The final realization of this ideal would extend beyond nation-states to the entire planet. This would be a very different “globalization” that what we see today: a world in which the accident of one’s country of birth does not determine one’s socioeconomic fate.
The proposition of capitalism is the reverse: it posits that the more resources one already controls, the greater say one has in the distribution of all resources. The corporation, the fundamental unit of capitalist society, is explicitly defined as having its own profitability as its raison d’être, it’s sole guiding principle. Corporations are, of course, composites of individuals. In the case of large corporations, these are, naturally, extraordinarily wealthy individuals. Protected from virtually all forms of liability, the sole danger to these individuals is that their stake in the corporation’s wealth could diminish. Core to the definition of a corporation is that the owners have “limited liability.” Thus the “LLC” following corporate names in England, replaced by the less obvious term “Incorporated” in the U.S. The board of directors could suffer losses in the sense that the company could go bankrupt, but their personal finances, not to mention criminal responsibility for the damage their company may have done to the environment or its employees or customers, is limited by law as well as practice.
While full-blown communism may declare that “all property is theft,” the ideology of socialism does not demand complete government control of all aspects of the economy and life. Private ownership on a reasonable scale, small business, and individual initiative are fully compatible with the idea that the vast majority of resources needed by all — potable water, electricity, health care, participation in political decision-making, etc. — are essentially shared resources that should be under public control. There’s not even anything that says that a person cannot profit from that their own efforts. The only thing that is prohibited is excessively profiting from the accumulation of capital to the point of exploiting and oppressing everyone else.
The potential for significant social change underlies the “Occupy” movement and the “We are the 99%” concept. Yet even many of the most progressive people are loathe to talk about how society could be different. There is a problem with jettisoning anything remotely resembling ideological thought: As we expose the deep fault lines of the current world economy and the broad disenfranchisement that accompanies it, where do we propose going forward? How do we emerging from the current precipice? The 99% is a decent starting point. The struggles of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and Chile is another pole of a starting point. We have to begin to formulate how a saner world might look.
And that’s why it’s a hobbling to avoid talking about socialism. Because, at its core, socialism is a pretty damn good idea: Societal resources should be more or less equally divided amongst those who do the work, rather than a system that sanctifies the right of the wealthy to control the laws of the land and resources of the planet.
Socialism contemplates changing this relationship fundamentally. It proposes that the economics of society should be controlled by membership in the society, not by accumulated wealth whether of individuals or, worse, by “corporate entities” that are no more than sets of individuals who reap the profits of ownership, while being dutifully protected by law from individual responsibility.
But as dangerous as being too much attached to theory can be, going forward without some idea of where we’re going is also problematic. It’s crippling to be cowed by the abuse and vilification of socialist ideology. If socialism were as anachronistic and irrelevant as those who oppose it say it is, then there would not be such a reaction to the least suggestion that it might be a solution to the violent economic and political pains that accompany the current socioeconomic and political order.
In Central and South America in particular, we have seen — and continue to see — situations where socialism cannot be as easily dismissed as it is in the United States. While neither Hugo Chavez in Venezuela nor Evo Morales of Ecuador may be perfect models of enlightened political leaders with a socialist vision, each has contributed to keeping socialist ideals at the heart of the discussion of reordering society. We have only to look at the violent crushing of Nicaragua’s and Chile’s tentative steps toward socializing important areas of their economies to see how crucial it is to the powers-that-be to ensure that no alternative to the socioeconomic status quo is allowed to test its wings. Unfortunately, especially in the United States, most people have limited awareness of the rest of the world and painfully short memories. But it should never be forgotten the degree of violent support given by the U.S. to dictatorial regimes that sought to erase forever the notion that citizens of other countries could freely choose leaders dedicated to socialist ideals. That alone should remind us that these ideals are seen by those in power as enormous threats to their hegemony.
It is time that those of us who seek significant change shake off our fear of being branded as wild-eyed radicals, molotov cocktail-tossing bolsheviks and anarchists who espouse long-discarded Marxist pipe-dreams. We need to be able talk sensibly and passionately about sharing the planet’s resources and about sharing the political processes that determine this distribution.