As I have been suggesting for awhile, perhaps ad nauseum, we’re off to the races with conservatives accusing Democrats of being “socialists”, with some Democrats embracing “democratic socialism” while others work feverishly to distance themselves from the label “socialist” as if it were gonorrhea. This was predictable. Trump weaned at the political teat of Roy Cohn, one of the most despicable characters in American political history and also a mentor to Roger Stone. Mr. Red-Baiting himself.
All this will continue apace without anyone suggesting we pause and define what these terms mean and how, or even if, they apply in our real world. Mixing political organization with economic systems produces cognitive nonsense, something of a civic “who’s on first?” comedy bit. Worse, when we use these terms as absolutes without nuance or sub-text or texture, it’s a veritable laugh riot.
I predict this ignorant debate will dominate the next twenty months. And it will only get dumber. Just this morning, Colorado’s recent ex-governor, John Hickenlooper, budding presidential candidate, a very successful past business owner, declined to call himself a “capitalist”. Amy Klobuchar and other moderates who support national health care, social security, public schools and government jobs programs, twist themselves into pretzels making sure no one thinks they are “socialists”. Hickenlooper’s campaign may well have ended today. He might have dodged this trap by asking for a definition. “You ask if I am a capitalist? Please define what you mean.”
Impossible as it sounds and unlikely as it is, we have a dire need for a base level of national education about macroeconomics. We have office-holders, candidates, the chattering class and voters debating terms they have not studied or defined, much less understood. Everyone could stand four hours in a Macro-Econ 101 class. They mix the political with the economic and end up with an apples AND oranges fruit salad, with nuts.
Ignorant American citizens and the partisan propagandists who benefit by manipulating them conflate socialism, communism, totalitarianism and authoritarianism and all too easily equate “capitalism” with “democracy”. There is nothing democratic about our current form of multi-national corporate capitalism. Hell, it’s not even bound by national loyalties.
In virtually none of the successful socialist democracies is the means of production owned by the state, literally the textbook definition of socialism. What Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and others have is a robust social safety net AND big time capitalism. Heard of IKEA? Novo-Nordisk? Volvo? Ericsson?
Our safety net used to be better. Never great. Our very own capitalists want to shit-can what’s left of it. What those Scandinavian democracies share is more democracy, more fairness, more opportunity and happier people. (see the exhaustive and authoritative World Happiness Report…2015-2017 top three in the world: Finland, Norway and Denmark.)
In the US, most of us would describe ourselves as “capitalists” without really knowing what that means, while only a minority of us actually owns any means of production, again, literally the defining aspect of capitalism. Less than half of us even trades in the markets. What most of us actually are is not “capitalists” but rather workers in a modern feudal plutocracy. Forty million of us are “food insecure”. Millions are homeless. Millions go bankrupt when they get sick. Millions are imprisoned. We’re only 18th in being “happy”.
Meanwhile, Shanghai is one of the most “capitalist” cities I’ve ever been. Certainly Jack Ma of Ali Baba and Ren Zhengfei of Huawei would not claim they are state owned nor hindered in banking their billions. China has been minting millionaires for decades. Hordes cross from Guangdong Province into Kowloon with literal bags of cash to shop at Ferragamo and Coach and Fendi stores on Nathan Road.
Our dominant form of “socialism” in the US is a government that favors and protects big business, stymies rational regulation and rewards our own oligarchs with triple-digit earnings growth even while workers flounder without a living minimum wage. And if the risk becomes untenable for them, our “free market” government is there to take our tax dollars and bailout banks, auto makers, soybean farmers and the milk industry. If I get behind in my health insurance payment, well, tough shit.
Shouting “socialist” is intended to scare you, to hasten mental images of Kruschev banging his shoe or starvation in Mao’s China or untreated disease in Maduro’s Venezuela. What is it called when we cozy up with fascists like Duterte or MBS, or Erdogan? Remember before we pushed Castro toward the Soviet Union, our guy was Batista, the ultimate mobbed-up, corrupt authoritarian. But he was our (and Meyer Lansky’s) fascist. Castro’s Cuba could have been our biggest outlet for Levi’s, Coca Cola and hula hoops, but for our Cohn- and McCarthy- fueled communist hysteria.
“Let the market decide” is a cruel bait-and-switch. Markets and shareholders will naturally and appropriately decide to reward themselves first, and likely, only. “Trickle down” never worked and is more akin to being on the lower fire escape of a New York tenement while the super relieves himself six floors above onto our heads.
Compassion and collective caring do not appear on a balance sheet. There is no margin. Humans with beating hearts need to decide to help each other, to realize we are indeed in this together, to decide that “we are a we.”
But unless some commitment to defining terms in our civic discourse along with a new perspective that moves us beyond a zero-sum, binary debate magically occur, this discussion will be no better than a Beavis and Butthead dialog.