Are we all socialists now? Glenn Beck, Lawrence O’Donnell, and the politics of name-calling
By R.K. Barry
MSNBC political commentator Lawrence O'Donnell recently identified himself as a socialist in an on-air discussion with prominent blogger Glenn Greenwald. Whatever his motivation, one result of this self-identification may be to begin the process of reclaiming a term that the right has been able to completely remove from our political landscape.
It would be interesting if this started a more public discussion about what this term means and how an examination of its main points might be useful. O'Donnell was not, I am sure, unaware that this would all be red meat to certain of those on the right who don't care how embarrassing they appear to others.
You would not be surprised to learn that Glenn Beck rose to the bait. No analysis, no thought at all, just silly Beckian name calling. Quelle surprise! Has anyone else noticed that Beck comes across mostly like a bratty nine-year old hell-bent on annoying his siblings?
To call someone a socialist in America has always been just about on a par with saying that the person kicks puppies as a hobby or steals lunch money from five-year olds as a way to make a living. There has never been much debate. Just launch the epithet and watch the subject of the attack reel in horror and protest vigorously.
In point of fact, the term "socialist" is just too complicated, ambiguous, and multi-faceted to really mean much of anything specific in the modern context. But it does mean something. And if you happen to live in Europe or Canada, the term can actually be a conversation starter rather than a dirty name called to make cheap political points and shut down any further discussion.
At the risk of oversimplification, most of the people I know who either identify with the term or look favourably upon it consider the power of corporations, the gross concentration of wealth, estimation of life chances tied directly to socio-economic class, the systemic inequities and terrible degradation endured by the underclass in capitalist society, etc., etc., as being circumstances that require some degree of state power to remedy.
Not long ago, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story stating that "We Are All Socialists Now," and the right-wing howled. But obviously Newsweek was right, up to a point. We have government pension systems, Medicare, progressive income taxes, and all manner of government activity that socializes risk, and, yes, redistributes wealth. Now we even have health-care reform, and though it is hardly socialized medicine, it moves in that direction. In a manner of speaking, we are all socialists now.
If we are to be honest, decades ago capitalist countries realized that in order for them to function at all, certain kinds of government intervention would be necessary: child labour laws, occupational health and safety regulations, social security legislation, all programs under the general heading of "welfare," etc. Capitalism just proved too blunt an instrument not to be counterbalanced by collective action in some way.
Some sort of interventionist state has been a reality for a long time. We don't even need to go into the fact that George W. Bush understood as well as President Obama that the federal government would have to spend its way out of the current recession. The hard right claims not to approve in either case, but they're just wrong.
A lot of people who identify themselves as socialist may not think that nationalizing major industries is a good idea, or that a command economy run by government is workable, or that there is a very good alternative to capitalist markets. Just as those who consider themselves more pro-capitalist want the latitude to consider a range of policy tools, self-described socialists can reserve the same right.
But what we should all understand is that we live in a mixed economy. The private sector does a lot of things. Government does a lot of things. The key is in working towards a better balance between them that might just result in greater numbers of people having more than a slim chance of living a decent life.
The point I am trying to make is actually quite simple. I have been calling myself a socialist for a long time, though I recognize it is an imperfect term. The important thing for me is that it suggests a constellation of ideas that we should welcome into the mix, such as: how much government intervention is justifiable in the lives of Americans; what limits should we place on private property for the sake of the common good; are there enterprises that might best be run by the government, like health care; are there goods so basic that they might be provided by government, perhaps like housing? I would want to talk about what factory owners owe local communities when they contemplate pulling up stakes after many years. I would want to talk about how governments ought to work with business to help create jobs. All kinds of stuff.
Having the tools to explore these questions is what the concept of socialism makes possible.
Yes, we can look at certain strains of socialism and try to connect them to state communism and then say that anyone who wants to argue for an expanded government role in the economy in the early part of the 21st century is a Stalinist in waiting, but, with all due respect to Professor Hayek, that would be silly. We might as well say that every capitalist is no better than a factory owner in some sort of 19th-century Dickensian hell or at least on the slippery slope to becoming one.
Times change. The meaning of words changes. Like it or not, what the Newsweek headline should have read is that "We Are All More or Less Capitalist and More or Less Socialist Now." (I know. I'll never get a job as a headline writer).
These days, any discussion about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism is really about how much government involvement in the economy is advisable. We can't know in advance. We have to take every case as it comes and work it out.
If being a socialist means that I am more inclined to think that government should have an expanded role in ensuring that greater and greater numbers of Americans have a chance at a good life, then, along with Lawrence O'Donnell, I'm a socialist.
Mostly I just want to ask a lot of questions to see where the answers take us. I think socialism provides some tools to help us do this. Nothing to be afraid of.
But calling someone a socialist as a way to marginalize their ideas does nothing to help us find the answers we need. It's just dumb and par for the course for too many on the right.