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If there is one thing that the right wing will be going after Bernie Sanders for in the coming year (besides his 1972 essay, which they have already decided to take literal, like their bible), it is the fact that he openly admits to being a socialist. Well, not really, he calls himself a “democratic socialist” — but to the right, its all the same. This fact has already flabbergasted most of right wing America — that an open socialist would run for president.
While it has been a quarter century since communism fell, along with the irrational fear of communist infiltration, Republicans have yet to give up the McCarthyist paranoia and misunderstanding of what socialism actually means. If you say socialist, many America’s still automatically assume it means Stalinesque totalitarianism; a brutal dictatorship with a cult of personality. The truth, of course, is that Stalin’s Soviet Union was in no way socialist, but a kind of state-capitalism with a quasi-feudalist personality, based on that of Stalin’s. It is one of histories great tragedies that the monster of Stalin grabbed power after the death of Lenin, who recommended removing him from power in his last testament.
In America, the perception of socialism over the past hundred years has been based on Soviet communism, and fear mongering during the Cold War. But neither socialism or the democratic socialism that Sanders subscribes to are the social system that existed in the Soviet Union, especially when socialism is at its very essence democracy.
If there is one thing that Sanders will hopefully accomplish with his presidential run (besides pushing Hillary to the left), it is to once and for all put an end to the paranoid misunderstanding of socialism that has existed here in America for the past century (if not with older voters, at least with the young, who have grown up in a post-communist world). While the fear of socialism may not be what it once was during the heyday of the cold war, it is still with us, and the constant labeling of Obama as a socialist shows how very ignorant most American’s are of socialism.
This kind of fear goes back a long way in American politics. Monarchists, royalists, masons, bankers, communists. Richard Hofstadter wrote about this paranoia in his 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics:”
“America politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
During the writing of this essay, communism was of course the great conspiratorial enemy. The John Birch Society was calling Eisenhower a communist agent, while Barry Goldwater was warning American’s that their children would grow up to be communists. While terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism became the great new ideological enemy after communism fell, the enemy of socialism still holds a special place in the heart of paranoid politics.
So what is socialism, anyways? Maybe its best to first look at what socialism is to the people who scream socialist when the conversation shifts to our president. There is the paranoid view, and the less paranoid view. The less paranoid view believes that socialism produces mass laziness and creates a state of dependent citizens. These observers basically think of socialism as a giant welfare state with a nightmarish bureaucracy, where politicians tell you how to live your life and wealth is unethically redistributed from the rich to the poor.
The paranoid view, on the other hand, believes that socialism is a plot for totalitarian dictatorship. This goes back to F.A. Hayek’s book, “The Road to Serfdom,” which warned that any central planning from the government, which was happening in both Europe and the United States at the time, would inevitably lead to tyranny, or as he put it, serfdom. Hayek’s prophesy did not pan out, but the idea remains. Predictably, the paranoid view of President Obama has shifted over the years from “socialist” to “dictator,” according to recent Pew polls. And so he has followed the Hayekian course, and is now a totalitarian dictator, according to right wing paranoia.
Of course, Obama has never been a socialist, and whenever someone calls him one, you know that they do not actually know what socialism really means. So what does socialism really mean? In the classical sense of the word, it means the collective ownership of the means of production. Not government ownership, as it was with twentieth century communism, but collective ownership; ownership by the people, or more specifically the workers. Cooperatives are the best modern example of what socialism, in the sense that Marx wrote about it, would look like.
The largest cooperative is the Spanish Mondragon Corporation, with 147 companies and 80,000 employees. Mondragon was founded by a Catholic priest Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta in 1956, and is owned and operated by the workers, meaning they own shares of the company, elect the management team, and participate in important decisions. There is also a salary range limit, in which the highest paid employees can make no more than 6.5 times the lowest paid employee, keeping it reasonably equal, especially for the work that is done (compare this to the CEO-to-worker average of 354-1 here in America). This form of “socialism” does not increase laziness or create a bureaucratic nightmare; it actually increases the effort of workers, as they are working for their own company. Indeed, it is at its very heart democracy, and it has been widely successful.
Now, the Democratic Socialism that Bernie Sanders advocates is largely based on the Nordic model, in countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. In these Scandinavian countries, there is universal healthcare, free education through college, strong unemployment benefits, old-age pensions, etc. This is paid for with high progressive taxation (something the United States once had), which Scandinavians are fine with — the region is consistently ranked the “happiest” in the world. If you were a regular viewer of Fox News, you might expect these countries to be ravaged in debt, but they actually have much lower debt-to-GDP ratios than the United States. They also rank high in areas like global competitiveness, prosperity, global innovation, and ease of doing business.
Okay, so this so-called socialism that Bernie Sanders talks about does not create a labyrinthine nightmare of bureaucracy, or induce mass laziness, or destroy our freedom. Of course, people who hold the paranoid view of socialism will not listen to reason, because they don’t really care what socialism means, it is just a word to them; a word that they grew up hating. But hopefully, for the less paranoid folks, and even the independents or centrist democrats, Sanders can finally end the willfully ignorant and hostile perception that has long existed in this country towards a social system that long ago became a first-world model for the world.