Something amazing is happening.
A few years back, I came to believe that we need to rehabilitate the S-word in order to reach the best solutions to the problem facing us in America. I expected this to be a difficult task: only a short while ago, if anyone bothered to engage someone who identified as a socialist at all, the odds were good that the interlocutor was only trying to gauge just how far the self-described socialist was off her rocker to have willingly tainted herself with such an epithet. Now, thanks to the remarkable campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, people are asking and listening seriously to the answer.
It will therefore be my pleasure to devote my next couple of posts to a preliminary answer to the question that so many are talking about – Why socialism? – and to arguing that you, too, should consider taking it seriously. Because whether you’re a progressive, a frustrated moderate, or a Tea Party activist, it might be what you’ve actually been looking for.
Flash back with me to 2012. Some 30,000 feet above the illuminated parking lots and strip malls of an unidentified town in Pennsylvania or perhaps Ohio, the gentleman in the seat next to me strikes up a standard in-flight conversation: where are you from, where are you going, what do you do? I was returning to my Rust Belt home after a trip to the East Coast in search of a job that would pay my student loans; he, it turned out, was a banker, in the employ of J.P. Morgan Chase.
The conversation found its way to what he had experienced during the Financial Crisis of 2008. It was the banker himself who went there; I, a polite Midwesterner, would have been loath to antagonize a stranger on a plane even if he had single-handedly brought our economy to a grinding halt, which I gather he had not. But he had watched the gears as they ground to a halt. I cannot directly quote him as the words would be inaccurate after three years, but his sentiment remains crystal clear in my memory: while he didn’t like the idea of a nationalization of the banks after the Crisis, he had to admit that it would have been a wholly defensible course of action—and perhaps better than the one that had been chosen.
He gave me his card as we parted ways near the baggage claim. The wide red letters spelling out the name of his employer suggested that this had not, in fact, been a strange hoax perpetrated by an actor with Occupy Wall Street sympathies.
A banker just told me that the government should have considered nationalizing the banks, I recall pondering as I waited at the baggage claim for my suitcase. The world has turned upside down.
But hanging upside down can invigorate. The rush of blood to the head provided by the new perspective stirs creativity. If there were bankers out there who sincerely thought such things, then maybe the new ideas some began to search for as the economy hovered so precariously in 2008 were actually out there to be found.
But not everyone wanted new ideas.
Around this time, the S-word was experiencing the early waves of its renaissance, in the form of right wing talking heads pulling out their old red-baiting kits and slamming the dreaded label on everything they didn’t like. This, as it turns out, sparked curiosity: Leftist organizations owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Glenn Beck, who led what appears to be one of the most effective advertising campaigns for socialism in decades.
These people started reading.
Now, there are a lot of lines of argument I could take from this point. I’ll come back to others in future posts, but here’s one I think is crucial to explaining why “socialism” resonates with so many today:
To engage with socialist ideas is to question the dominant paradigm.
And that, after all, is what so many saw to be necessary. To question the paradigm is not to cast aspersions on our whole society; today’s socialists agree that there’s a lot that’s good about the way our country works overall. But 2008 laid plain cracks in our system. Remember when Senator McCain said during his campaign that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong?” It was regarded as a huge blunder because the electorate had come to see that, in fact, the problem may well be rooted in those very fundamentals.
It must be said that when Barack Obama was elected, he didn’t question the fundamentals much himself. And yet, perhaps because he arguably “nationalized” General Motors (maybe sort of in letter, but definitely not in spirit, but I digress*), the right wing pulled the S-word out of the closet.
And those people whose entire understanding of economics had just been tossed into the air Googled “socialism” and continued to read.
And they found a lot to read. Discussion of the 2008 Crisis is merely the beginning. Socialists are talking about loads of intriguing alternative ideas, new paths that aren’t bound by the dominant ideological paradigm in our country. Take something like municipal broadband, for instance, as promoted by Kshama Sawant, a genuine socialist elected (and recently reelected!) to Seattle’s City Council. Or look at microcredit, a system that our dominant ideology makes us want to love despite its fatal flaws, as described in the new socialist magazine Jacobin.** I won’t go into discussing those in the post; for now, the point is that there are voices out there saying things that make a lot of sense because they’re not afraid to look critically at what we’ve always been told about they way we allocate our scarce resources.
It’s striking what solid, intelligent conversations you can find out there, if you are willing to take only a step or two outside of what is politically safe. And when enough people take those few steps, then society itself shifts.
And that, friends, is why I’m casting my lot with the socialists. Because anyone who in 2015 is willing to call himself a socialist is someone who has the boldness to point out that the Emperor is not wearing clothes. And I’m sick of seeing so many leaders running around in the ideological nude.
Next time, on CounterNarration!
- Defining Socialism / The Socialist Ethic
And after that:
- But really, do you have to use that word?
*It’s worth noting, since nationalization came up twice in this post, that I’m not necessarily in favor of nationalizations, and moreover, that this doesn’t define socialism. But we’ll get to that in another post; suffice it for now to say that whatever the GM plan was, it seemed to have worked out, whatever it was, and miraculously, people in Detroit still have freedom.
**I just discovered that there’s no digital equivalent of the microcredit story online as I publish this; I read it in the paper issue that recently came in the mail, but it will absolutely suffice for now to point to Jacobin’s other excellent content.