The US political scene is haunted by talk of socialism. The basis for this has been developing now for some years, especially since the financial meltdown of 2008, which many came to see as decisive proof that a capitalist economy does not serve the majority.
But how does this new mass perception express itself? On the one hand, there is wide recognition of the grotesque level of inequality, as expressed in the slogan – made popular by the 2011 Occupy movement – of “the 1% vs. the 99%.” But on the other hand, people are bombarded with conflicting definitions of socialism, and uncertainty is rife.
The dominant tendency in US political rhetoric is to view socialism not as the dissolution of capitalist class-relations, but rather as an expansion of the scope of government. A favorite strategy of those – like Bernie Sanders – whose proposals are attacked as being socialist is to respond by denouncing billionaires as benefiting, via government subsidies, from so-called “corporate socialism” or “socialism for the rich.”
Socialism is thus equated with government subsidies rather than with an alternative vision of society. While the privately owned banks and corporations are attacked for their hypocrisy and their special advantages, there is no assertion that such icons of capitalist power should cease to exist.
Similarly, the target of attack, in Sanders’ rhetoric, is not the capitalist class but rather the “billionaire class.” Capitalism as such escapes the blame.
At the same time, full socialism (i.e., dissolution of the capitalist class and socialization of its holdings) is attacked as being inherently undemocratic. In this sense, when Sanders calls his socialism “democratic,” what he’s telling us is that it remains embedded within basic capitalist institutions. Regimes of full public ownership are presumed to be inherently authoritarian.
Sanders thus treads a fine line between advocating and denouncing the fundamental change that a fully socialist program would entail. On the one hand, he tells us that there should be no billionaires, but on the other, he implies that a system that would preclude those billionaires would be undemocratic and therefore unacceptable.
But the problem with a system that generates billionaires is not only that it entails vast inequality and poverty. This system – the rule of private and corporate capital – also fosters the permanent economic expansion that is driving the planet to environmental breakdown.
What saving the planet requires, and what full public ownership makes possible, is a deepening of democracy: its extension into spheres of activity – notably production decisions at every level – from which capital excludes it.
It is precisely such deepening of democracy that capital most fears. Hence the panic of the US political Establishment at any hint of a move in that direction. Because its own powers are threatened, the capitalist class wants us to think that all freedoms are endangered.
We have to note that in the actual history of socialism, repressive practices have at times extended beyond just targeting capitalist resistance, to quashing dissent more broadly. But while acknowledging this, we must analyze the reasons for it. We should not be surprised to find in such conduct the persistence of past social habit – both capitalist and pre-capitalist – in which hierarchy and repression are built in.
In current US debate, however, corporate politicians and media are so rabid in their opposition to socialism that they try to prevent us from knowing any positive achievements of socialist regimes. Thus, merely to recognize Cuba’s successes in public health and education elicits accusations of being hostile to democratic principles. Such charges betray a fear of facts that, if they became known, could alert people to the real possibility of a better world.
The corporate media play a huge role in keeping such an alternative beyond public purview. They thereby skew political debate, giving unfair advantage to politicians who seek to tap popular discontent by uttering platitudes rather than facing the enormity of what needs to be undertaken for the sake of our common survival.
Long-held assumptions about public priorities must be overturned. Moves in this direction have already occurred, as shown in a new openness on the part of young people toward socialist ideas. But the process must extend itself far and wide and deep. An electoral campaign can be part of it. But whatever the outcome of any particular campaign, the old habits and assumptions – backed by state and vigilante violence – will remain a permanent threat.
In response, we will need to draw on all the cultural resources bequeathed to us by generations of human creativity, reflection, struggle, and community.
Just as the mega-expansion of capitalist operations has brought on epochal disruption of the world’s eco-system, so a previously unimaginable deepening of human cooperation – dissolving class antagonism and crossing all other social boundaries – will have to be brought forth in response.