“… capitalism unchecked leads to oligarchy, and socialism unchecked leads to communism. Democratic socialism, however, is a system that keeps in check both capitalism and socialism; it’s the best compromise for both systems.”
Trump has declared that “America will never be a socialist country” and some Americans share his hatred for anything attached to the term “socialism”. The stigma is so strong that many progressives, with the notable exception of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have attempted to avoid using the term altogether, despite their policies closely mirroring successful socialist programs in Scandinavian countries. To use the word “socialism” or to describe a policy as “socialist” seems to be tantamount to anathema in the current political climate. Politicians know that if they use the term at all, their policies, whether good or bad, will be instantly rejected by those who hope to see America forever free of “socialism”. According to a recent Gallup survey, 51% of Americans still believe that socialism is a bad thing for America. Perhaps that’s because the socialism they hate isn’t the socialism anyone wants.
So what is socialism? A quick search of the Merriam Webster dictionary give us the following three definitions for socialism:
1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
2a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property.
b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.
When a politician uses the word “socialist”, a socialism-adverse listener often mentally falls upon one of the above definitions. They imagine a society where there is no private property, or where the means of production is owned and controlled by the state, or where the society as a whole is in a transitional state that will eventually lead to full-blown communism. In short, when the scare word “socialism” resounds in an American’s ears, images of failed socialist nations like the Soviet Union are conjured into the mind. More recently, the fear mongering has been connected to Venezuela. Though some argue that Venezuela’s downfall has more to do with oil than socialism, opponents of “socialism” use it as an example of what would happen to the United States, should we embrace socialist policies. The truth, however, is that countries like Venezuela are irrelevant to the discussion, for three reasons. First, democratic socialism is not pure socialism, hence it not fitting any of the above definitions. Second, it is simply a non sequitur to say that examples of failed socialism prove that all socialism is bad. Even if Venezuela were a democratic socialist nation, (it’s not) and even if its failure is horrible, it does not follow that any attempt at socialism will similarly fail. In fact, Bolivia, an entirely socialist country, remains happily successful. Third, those opposed to socialism seem to ignore that there is a difference between a communist nation and a socialist nation, and a difference between someone who is a socialist and someone who is a democratic socialist. Opponents of socialism are conflating terms, and hence the confusion.
While the former Soviet Union might be an example of failed communism, it is not an example of failed socialism. It was never a socialist country like Bolivia, and it was never a democratic socialist nation like Finland or Denmark. Similarly, while there may be a few socialists who argue for completely open borders, democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders don’t; they simply want to modify the current immigration laws, in order to make them moral and fair. Despite these facts, you will find republican conservatives conflating terms and demonizing “socialism” at every turn. Their fallacy of equivocation is implemented ad nauseam, as they attempt to convince others that communism, democratic socialism, and socialism are really all the same thing. They’ve turned “socialism” into a scare word. In 1952, Harry Truman said, “Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people”. Sadly, that statement is still true today. No matter what is said to them, the opponents of “socialism” will go on believing that democratic socialism will turn America into a country like the former Soviet Union, or Venezuela.
Despite Michael Bloomberg recently impying that Bernie Sanders is a communist, it seems obvious (to those paying attention) that candidates like Bernie Sanders are not advocating any version of socialism that fits the aforementioned definitions, and they are certainly not advocating communism. Not one democratic socialist believes that we ought to follow in the footsteps of the former Soviet Union, Venezuela, or even Bolivia. They are, rather, arguing for a democratic socialist country that retains capitalism, much like we have now. You see, right now, when we pay for roads, that is socialist. When we pay for primary education, that is socialist. Social security and Medicare? Socialist. We are already living in a democratic socialist nation, which is to say that we have socialist programs checking a capitalist system. These program are needed because capitalism unchecked leads to oligarchy, and socialism unchecked leads to communism. Democratic socialism, however, is a system that keeps in check both capitalism and socialism; it’s the best compromise for both systems.
The question is not whether or not Americans should allow socialism; the question is: how much socialism should we allow? Since an oligarchy has already arrived in America, democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders believe that America would benefit from being a bit more like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. These are all countries that have implemented socialist programs into their capitalist societies, and it worked. In fact, they are doing better than the United States.
Democratic socialism produces prosperous nations with happy citizens. We know this because democratic socialist countries consistently rank highest in world happiness reports. Of course they do. On average, they have less crime, cleaner streets, less homelessness, better education, better medical, better job opportunities, cheaper and more affordable housing, better child care, better unemployment benefits, and the list goes on. By nearly every rubric by which a country can be measured, the United States falls behind the more socialist countries. Yes, the citizens of those countries pay higher taxes in exchange for their benefits, but they do so happily in the understanding that collective wealth creates collective well-being. Meanwhile the United States ranks nineteenth in happiness, and continues to fall.
Could it be that having the “freedom” to selfishly horde all of your money negatively affects the society in which you live? Could it be that working overtime at a meaningless job you hate, while your rent cost rises and your wage stays the same, while you scramble to pay for overpriced medical care and overpriced education with loans you’ll never pay back, while you struggle to stay comfortable in an environment of of gun violence and crime, while you fight to avoid joining the thousands of homeless people on the street, while you struggle to pay for child care because it is overpriced and you can’t afford a single day off to spend with your children might…just might….make you unhappy? It is no mystery why socialist countries have happier citizens, even though they pay higher taxes: a bit of altruism and an investment into fellow human beings produces happy and stable societies – not communist Armageddons.
America won’t turn into the Soviet Union or Venezuela if we allow universal healthcare or universal education, or if we otherwise augment our capitalist society with socialist programs. To say so is simply a lie; a myth invented by the rich that is designed to ensure the continuation of an oligarchy. That oligarchy is fighting to demonize “socialism” in any way they can, because they have the most to lose. We are talking about people who make around 3 million dollars a year. We are talking about the 1% of earners whose income has grown by almost 30%, at the same time that the bottom 90% of earner income has grown by only 5%. The increase in taxes will affect them, not the average American. By making them pay their fair share, America can become a prosperous and democratic socialist nation, like so many others.
If we willfully misunderstand democratic socialism, and if we refuse to invest in social programs, American society will continue to collapse. We absolutely cannot sustain a nation with rampant individualism and capitalist greed. We must accept this reality: our prosperity is contingent on the prosperity of others, as is our suffering. An investment in society purchases quality of life. Socialist nations around the world have understood this fact for a long time. Meanwhile, America’s echo chamber approach continues to degrade our nation, as those who hate socialism, purely on principle, double down.
Pure capitalism is failing our nation as it falls into disarray, and yet the only argument we’ve had for why we should preserve the system is essentially: “this is how we’ve done it until now”. Despite the conservative’s fear of change, change must come. Religiously dedicating ourselves to a broken ideology is not a solution to the many continually developing social problems in the United States. Fortunately, we don’t have to look too far to find an answer to our predicament; democratic socialist countries like Denmark and Finland have already shown us the way. All we have to do is reduce our aversion to change, educate ourselves about what socialism actually is and how it can help us, and try to be just a little less selfish. It’s time that we embrace socialist programs with confidence, rather than fear them in ignorance, because the evil socialism that conservatives hate isn’t the socialism that progressives want. The socialism we want is much, much better – for everyone.