COMMENTARY: The current manufactured controversy around “socialism” is a curious thing. Like love, socialism means different things to different people. But ordinarily, here in the United States, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.
In this nation, socialism as a concept is only dragged out of the closet when it is ￼￼needed by one political group or individual to beat up on another political group or individual.
No need to label which is which. That part is always the same and it is always obvious. And in such instances, the reference to “socialism” or “socialist” is always wielded pejoratively.
America does not have dispassionate conversations about socialism — or about capitalism, for that matter. There seems to be an unspoken taboo in force, exept in academia, where in history and economics courses that discussion is quite natural and uncontroversial.
In the hands of the accuser, the weapon — “socialist” — is some undefined concept that is supposed to elicit dread and aversion in the listener. In this cynical application, it really doesn’t matter what socialism actually is. In fact, when you listen closely to the context in which the accuser uses the term, sometimes it is quite obvious that the accuser does not understand the term him/herself!
Clearly, when used as a political epithet to attack one’s opponent, the meaning of socialism is far less important than that it be understood as a dirty word.
Competing with capitalism
It is important to understand how the word got its bad rep. Historically, the real ￼reason that socialism was considered “bad” was because it was the competing economic system to Western capitalism.
The West was threatened by the rise of socialist systems in the USSR and China — socialism seriously perverted, by the way. Those governments strayed far from the socialism that was envisioned by its theorists, away from the intended democratic forms of government, into totalitarianism.
Lest Western workers yearn for the visible benefits to quality of life in those socialist systems and start demanding the same in their countries, the rulers needed to nip the impulse in the bud. They did so by demonizing socialists and communists through powerful propaganda programs. In their hands, the words ￼became synonymous with the worst human abuses one could imagine.
The Cold War was all about making the world safe for the capitalists.
A cynical, rigged game
Back to today’s political scene here at home, we see the same old tensions continue to play out. It is particularly interesting because, despite all their money and power, the capitalists are still quite easily threatened. When progressives and liberals demand that government operate with greater social responsibility, the other side martials huge amounts of money and lobbyists to counter attack.
Those capitalists and their lackeys break out all their rhetorical weapons, including the “S” word, and blast away. Unfortunately for us, they can count on an army of poorly informed citizens, many of them voters, who are duped by that rhetoric and rally to their cause. No bother to the rulers that those same voters are acting against their own interests.
For seven years we have watched as Republicans have labeled Barack Obama and his policies “socialist” when there is any hint of movement to promote the public welfare. Of course, corporate welfare, of which there is plenty, is magically not considered socialist. So what we have is simply name-calling devoid of meaning.
In this instance, the corporations’ grievance is that government money — that is, our tax money that goes to meet the needs of the people — is not available to them. It’s that simple, and that ugly.
Now, after 40 years of casino capitalism, the zeitgeist has changed. The Great Recession that began in 2008 and the very slow recovery that ensued has succeeded in sensitizing a critical mass of Americans to the cynical, rigged game being played against them.
Bernie forces new conversation
Fortunately, waiting impatiently in the wings, conducting a valiant, but mostly futile struggle on our behalf that we knew little about, has been Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Bernie is the rarest of people, ￼let alone politicians. He is honest, principled, determined, dogged and undeterred. He has finely tuned political acuity. He is also smart and right!
What are the big boys going to do with/to him? A man who calls himself a democratic socialist right out there in public? His emergence on the presidential campaign scene is forcing the nation gradually to have that conversation about what socialism really is. Extraordinary!
Well, the corporate media are taking the position of an ostrich burying his head in the sand. They barely acknowledge Bernie’s candidacy. That serves to help Hillary Clinton and to delay the broader public conversation about socialism.
￼Nevertheless, the discussion has begun — and before the election is over, few in America will not be touched by it. Many tens of thousands have been to Bernie’s rallies and participate in Bernie-relevant social media. They are discussing, educating themselves and talking socialism with others. The term is taking on real meaning again, and in so doing, the negative connotations are sure to dissipate.
Restoring and tweaking a balance
As that conversation ensues, here is what people will learn. Perhaps most importantly, they will learn that Bernie Sanders the “socialist” has no plans to end capitalism in the United States and replace it with the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In ￼fact, Bernie does not intend to make any structural changes to the U.S. government or economy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented a group of social welfare programs in the 1930s and 40s designed to lift people and the country out of the Great Depression. Some prefer to view those programs, known as the New Deal, as socialist. Well, Bernie Sanders’ announced plans are nothing more than a restoration and expansion of the New Deal.
So if you are worried about socialism coming to America, the only socialism Bernie is going to give us is what we have already been living with since the 1930s — only more and better.
The New Deal was very good for the American people — and despite their ongoing whining, it did no harm to the capitalists. They grew significantly from the 1940s to the 1980s. Then, since Ronald Reagan began dismantling the New Deal, the capitalists have seen extraordinary growth to the present day.
Trouble is, that excess growth came at the expense of our middle class and working poor, and of our democracy.
A reasonable conclusion is that the American “socialism” of FDR kept the capitalists in check to the extent that allowed both the middle class and the capitalists to thrive.
Bernie Sanders simply wants to restore and tweak that balance.
Mastellone is a long-time activist, Las Cruces resident and supporter of Bernie Sanders for president.