Why Socialism, Part 1: Perspective at 30,000 Feet

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.

4 thoughts on “Why Socialism, Part 1: Perspective at 30,000 Feet

  1. While reading this post, a question occurred to me. As we have discussed before, at the present time many democratic socialist ideas are pretty much identical to social democratic ideas (because it seems like Bernie Sanders and others are understandably skittish about broaching social forms of ownership until more basic issues have been dealt with). While social democracy has never really been mainstream in the US, it has carved out an acceptable niche in the dominant ideology, represented by the Ralph Nader/Dennis Kucinich/Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party. So are people actually warming to socialist ideas, or are they warming to social democratic ideas and mistaking them for socialist ideas?

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    1. Dana, I’m so glad you asked. I want to do that very question more justice than I’ll be able to do here, so I intend to incorporate it into this series of posts I’m doing to cover the broader question of “Why socialism?” But the short answer for now is that I suspect genuine socialist ideas might be more popular than we might have been led to expect — especially if you don’t put the word “socialism” on them. (Which runs counter to my broader argument, which is that we need to use that word to detoxify it. But hey, it’s a complex situation.) I’d also say — and many in DSA would disagree with me, I think, though not everyone — that the distinction between social democracy and socialism is not necessarily important to this conversation. They’re definitely not the same thing, but I think at this stage, opting to go the reformist route rather than stage a messy revolution, the path toward socialism is going through social democracy, provided that it’s not a social democracy co-opted by neoliberalism. If I say I’m driving all the way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and someone else only wants to go as far as Cleveland, well, I can drop them off in Cleveland and we can still go that far together. And maybe along the way we can convince them that they ought to at least go as far as Detroit.

      But yes, I do think young people are warming to genuinely socialist ideas, though socialists have to be clear as to what those ideals are. We’re talking economic democracy, not central control of all production of consumer goods here. And economic democracy should help bring about those goals that are important to social democrats as well!

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  2. So in the early 1970s there was a big left movement from the left that was to meet the big new financial and social problems in the world. A wave of youth Trotskyist activists fighting the labor cause. But then that was a big failure in the end and ushered in decades of conservatives in power.
    In fact many of those very leftists turned into Reaganites and Thatcherites and now are the staunch right wing.
    So there’s two issues here:
    The big fear of the left is that we’ll have another Jimmy Carter and then more decades of gross neoliberalism. That’s a centrist democrat argument against voting full socialist and actually asking for what you want but instead vote for someone who agrees with what Tariq Ali calls “the extreme center”. What would you say to this problem?
    What do you think the mechanism was that turned so many leftists hard right in the late 70s? How possible do you think the danger of this is for today’s left leaning youth? Maybe in 10 years time those Occupy Wallstreet drum-circle kids will be drumming up votes against government red tape for corporations?

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  3. Chris, the leftist origins of today’s neocons is definitely intriguing and worth studying to see what we can learn, though my hope is that we saw a confluence of unique circumstances there (messes being made in the USSR, which purported itself to be socialist, Reagan mastering the use of dog whistle politics to get racists to vote against their own well being, etc.). So I am not too concerned that today’s Occupy kids will be tomorrow’s hedge fund managers. Isn’t it the case that the Trotskyists-turned-neocons also had some geopolitical security influence that altered their economic stance? Without researching more, I can’t say much of value (though you remind me that this is a topic worth researching!) but we’ve made such a mess with wars and veterans we can’t afford to treat that I think this generation, at least, isn’t going to have a large backlash against its own current values. What the next generation will do, I have no idea.

    Basically, let’s just be ready to take on the next Reagan — an actor who can sell a message that feeds on the worst in us by polishing it up on the surface.

    We do have a lot of work to do taking down the idea of the “extreme center” as the safe place to vote, but that’s part of why I think it’s important to detoxify the S-word. If it’s a normal part of mainstream discourse, then people can see that what we call the center in this country really isn’t very centrist at all.

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