The Politics of the "S" Word
By Frances Moore Lappé
“Socialist” has become the new favorite term of derision--working its fear-making magic because, for many Americans, socialism equals the great “government takeover.” It’s assumed to be not just un-American but downright anti-American. Tea Partiers at their round up in Searchlight, Nevada, told us that “socialist” Harry Reid “hates America.”
Our national aversion to the S-word isn’t necessarily a problem. But the term’s rapid rise as a political pot-shot, points to a huge problem: our culture’s lack of a common civic language, words on whose meaning we at least vaguely agree. Without it, we can’t hope to talk to one another about what matters most.
“We have a language of capitalism. We have a language of Marxism. But we have no language of democracy,” historian Lawrence Goodwyn once remarked.
And we need one.
Capitalism and socialism. Imagine if we just got some clarity on these basic terms alone.
First, capitalism. To most of us, it’s quintessentially American. Many of us assume it’s democracy’s essential partner.
But what is it? Capitalism is an economic system in which the person or body owning capital—productive resources like raw material and labor—has the power to make decisions as to the use of these resources and who benefits from them. The capitalist is in control, not the workers, not the community members, not the government. It is a system in which capitalists seek to gain for themselves the highest possible return on their investment.
Reduced to these elements, it’s no surprise that capitalism returns wealth to wealth, leading to a jaw-dropping chasm between rich and poor: In our country meaning that 1 percent of households now have as much net wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
Given this common definition of capitalism—with no built-in civic accountability—it’s no surprise that subsidiaries of U.S. companies, for example, sign contracts to build up Iran’s energy industry, even while the U.S. government sees our national interest as putting the squeeze on that very same economy.
It is paradoxical, then, that we see capitalism and democracy as best buddies when in reality they are driven by opposing principles: Democracy is about the wide dispersion of power so that everyone has a voice. But capitalism, merely left to its own devices, inevitably concentrates wealth and therefore power, so “capital’s” voice carries vastly more weight than citizens’.
Little wonder that capitalism is losing friends around the world. A recent BBC poll in twenty-seven countries found that on average only 11 percent believe it works well. In just two countries did more than a fifth of respondents believe that it works well “as it stands.” One was the U.S.; the other -- Pakistan.
Even more dramatic, almost a quarter of all respondents see capitalism as “fatally flawed, and feel a new economic system is needed.” In France 43 percent hold that view, in Brazil, 35 percent.
And now to socialism. What is it? Maybe it’s harder to define. Hitler used the term “national socialism” for his brand of fascism in Germany, which explains a lot about its bad name today.
But “democratic socialism” or “social democracy” is commonly used to describe the Scandinavian countries, France, or the Germany of today in which government plays an essential role in making sure that all citizens have the essentials to thrive: Unemployment benefits in Germany, to take but one example, offer about two-thirds of previous pay, compared to less than half in the U.S.; and they last much longer.
Americans see anything labeled socialism as restricting citizens’ freedoms.