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Matthew DeCoursey

Matthew DeCoursey
Hong Kong, Hong Kong
December 30
I am a Canadian academic. I have been wandering, and have settled in Hong Kong. I find that Open Salon draws me in, using time and energy that I need for my regular work. I stay away from months at a time, but I come back.


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OCTOBER 23, 2008 10:19PM

What do Americans Mean When They Say "Socialist"?

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Recently, Republicans have been saying that Obama is "socialist," and Democrats have been ridiculing the suggestion. As a former member of an avowedly socialist party in Canada, I find this discussion more than a bit confusing. This is a term of abuse in this  context, an insult. But shouldn't even insults have meanings? I mean, if I say somebody is fascist, I could be exaggerating or dead wrong, but I'm making a statement. I mean that the person is undemocratic, excessively nationalistic, and in the background, I'm suggesting that the person might end up attacking or even massacring some minority. But in recent American political discourse, it's hard to see that the term "socialist" has any meaning at all.

 When people say they are socialist, what do they mean? A lot depends on geography and history. The old Soviet Union used to take the Marxist-Leninist view that socialism is a stage on the way to the ideal state, communism, which was something like nirvana. That is, people share but the state has not as yet withered away. Effectively everything is nationalized, but this is a stage on the way to a situation with no government at all. That's why you see the word "socialist" in the name "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." I suspect (from bits and pieces I've heard from mainland students) that the Chinese equivalent appears in political theory classes in Mainland China in this sense, too, so it's not entirely consigned to the dustbin of history.

In the Western world since World War II, however, the word has been effectively synonymous with "social democrat."  This is the case in Canada, where the first socialist government was elected in my province, Saskatchewan, in 1944. Like any political movement, it combined political sophistication with crudeness. The ordinary person blamed the greed of the rich for the Depression, and socialism was meant to be a way to bring the economy back to the control of the people. (Nationalism played its part, as corporate fat cats are always American in the Canadian imagination.) The early Canadian socialist party was called the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and at the ground level, it was built on the co-operative movement: the distinction was in corporate governance. You couldn't buy a stake in a co-operative. You owned a share of the corporation in proportion to your use of it. If it's a grocery co-op, you get a bigger share when you buy more groceries. Once in government, the CCF targeted areas in which corporate control of a sector seemed to have bad consequences for the ordinary person. The party nationalized car insurance, for instance. I don't know what the situation is now, but when I owned a car in the late 70s, car insurance cost about a quarter of what it did in neighbouring Alberta, where they use the corporate system. In 1962, the party introduced socialized medicine (what we call "Medicare" and what Americans call a "single payer model"). By 1970, Medicare had been introduced in all provinces, Alberta included.

Socialized medicine has become the flagship program of socialist parties throughout the Western world. The success of socialized medicine means that no significant party, no matter how conservative, proposes to go back to the old system. 

An important distinction: anybody who wants to nationalize the entire economy is not a socialist. That person is a communist. And there are not many of them left.

In recent American discourse, as I say, "socialist" has been thrown at Obama as if it were an insult. The strange thing about that is that the United States government is already socialist. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are each, in the fullest, richest sense of the term, socialist programs. They are very inefficient, unjustifiably expensive socialist programs, but socialist nonetheless. When George Bush expanded Medicare (in the American sense, this time), he was acting as a socialist. 

On the other hand, many American commentators think that the partial nationalization of banks is socialist. This does not seem socialist to me, because the nationalization does not involve structural change in the relation between the government and the economy. Nationalization is connected to socialism, but it is a means, not an end. The same tool can be used by conservative governments for conservative purposes.  A contrasting example: when the Socialist Party of François Mittérand came to power in France in 1981, they nationalized the 100 largest banks. That was a socialist move. It was quite possibly misguided, but it's fair to say that it was socialist, because it aimed to restructure the economy.

I am at a loss to understand what anybody is talking about when they say that Obama is or is not a socialist.  Can anybody explain this to me?

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This is a great question. It is one that confounds me constantly.

I think there is huge swath of average Americans who think socialism equates with a military dictatorship; they actually have no, or very little, understanding at all about the meaning of the word, or about the concept in general or how it relates to capitalism. Corporatists have done such an outstanding job of selling this misconception, like so many other misconceptions, to the general public that the mindset perceiving socialism as bad is almost an autonomic response to the environment for many Americans.

Anyone with any critical thinking ability should easily be able to recognize that there are some services to which capitalism based on profit motive is antithetical. But, there again, there is that large swath of average Americans who do not possess those critical thinking abilities, so they are led around by their noses by the capitalists/corporatists whose interests are in direct opposition the interests of the people who make up that swath of average Americans.
The answer to youyr question is -- sadly -- that most Americans have no idea what socialism really means. Yours is an excellent analysis.
One could write a blog on this, and one still may, but by then the election will be over, and the word's fifteen minutes of infamy will have evanesced.

I think you are trying to analyze this too rationally and logically, IMHO. At best, it can be analyzed as semiotics. The word is nothing but a shibboleth i.e. a slogan, a catchword, as the dictionary says "without current meaning or truth". Over the last forty years of watching and despising Republican politics, I have seen them use this kind of secret, coded message in every Presidential election. And in virtually every case the code has to do with defining "the Other" and making you fearful of the bogeyman.

The most powerful bogeyman, of course, has been race. It started with Nixon's Southern Strategy (openly running against the Civil Rights Act), Reagan kicking off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi (virtually on the site that the three civil rights workers had been murdered) and following up with his fictitious "welfare queens in Cadillacs", George H.W. Bush and the "Willie Horton" ads. The "tax and spend" epithet hurled at the Dems would have no power unless you followed the subtext: Who are they gonna spend it on? The answer, of course, is those lazy, shiftless.....

The same signs are cloaked under Messianic white Christian evangelism and the anti-abortion movement (rarely have I seen a black person blocking Planned Parenthood clinics), and have morphed into anti-Muslim (i.e. darker Hajjis) symbology and rhetoric of the last eight years.

Then comes Obama, the perfect sacrificial lamb (half-black, half-Muslim) for the Republican altar. But due to the shifting demographics and the tanking economy, the catechism isn't taking. So what other alien, fear-inducing attributes can be piled on: terrorist, socialist, sex pervert (forced sex education for six year olds), all signs to reinforce the image of the Other.

We all cite Karl Rove. But this all goes back to Lee Atwater (and his guru, whose name slips my mind right now) and his very Platonic sounding dictum, paraphrased here: "It's not reality that wins elections, it's the perception of reality." And it's that perception that they have managed to manipulate through their signs. Socialism is just the latest.

Phew, that almost did become a blog :).

So, if I understand all of you correctly, the situation is this:

1. When Republicans say "Obama is a socialist," they know the statement is meaningless, but believe some voters will be frightened away from him by it.

2. When Democrats, say "No, he's not," they also know that their statement is meaningless, but they fear the Republicans are right about the voters.

3. If both are right, then a large number of voters are sufficiently affected by the word to change their vote, but fail to realize they've no idea what it means.

Is all of that correct? (Incidentally, your discussion agrees nicely with what Arianna Huffington has to say today, though she doesn't mention socialists.)
Matthew, a good question/observation. Thanks.

I agree with those who say that in the US, some segment of the population don't know (nor probably care) what socialism is. It's just a scare word that people who write cynical advertising use to tell people they should be scared because it involves change and they're not going to like it. It's sort of like prodding them with a stick and the reaction is just reflexive, nothing more.

Moving outward from our national collective reptilian brain, we find a layer of people who reason emotionally by anecdote rather than systematized understanding. Particularly for a lot of older Americans, I think, socialism means the economic/political equivalent of what physicists refer to as the heat death of the Universe, that is, the melt-down of all that is good in the world, resulting in something useless. A common cited anecdote is the Canadian health care system, and what they "know" is that people don't get what they want and have to come to the US for care.

Ironically, this failure to understand terminology and/or to lay blame correctly may be somewhat due to a failure of our somewhat-socialized education system. But if you'll notice, the Republicans kind of like the public "not too smart". Their public rhetoric routinely reinforces that it's ok to not know things, that education is bad, that one should not want to talk to intellectuals, etc. I think they find the electorate more pliable in that form, and so are not much motivated to fix the education system, especially because their kids are not in the system. If everyone were unavoidably in the same system, the outcome might be different.
Matthew, your query came in as I was writing my reply. Yes, I'd agree to all three of your proposed summary statements.
"If both are right, then a large number of voters are sufficiently affected by the word to change their vote, but fail to realize they've no idea what it means."

Matthew; it's the American way.
Don't be so dismal, everybody. It appears that the tactics aren't working this time. You're at an exciting place in your political history. If it comes out on November 4th as we all hope it will, it's a new day. Keep the faith.
Good grief, Matthew, is Arianna spouting Derrida and Plato now? Damn, thought that was my province :-).

If you are asking is the claim (Obama is/is not Socialist) is "meaningless" in Wittgensteinian sense i.e. sinnlos or unsinnig, my answer is clearly yes. And that is why I attempted to get to the semiotics, what the word is meant to signify.

Here a bit of the sub-text, which may not be reported as much out there, may be necessary. The "Socialist" canard is often followed by: "He wants the government to take our tax money and give it to those who don't pay taxes. " This is the textual flag... those who don't pay taxes being those lazy, shiftless.......

Race is the stain on the body politic of the U.S. The Republicans will stop at nothing to signify it and exploit it.

Matthew, an excellent question and excellent analysis.

I agree that it is a largely meaningless insult against Obama, or at least, as C.C.C. pointed out, without a meaning connected to real definitions of "socialism". However, my hope is that the usage of the word "socialism" as a smear means that the effectiveness of "liberal" as a smear has worn off.
I'm not familiar with Wittgenstein, Woofy, so I can't really comment on that. When you say "semiotic," I wonder if you aren't referring to Julia Kristeva's very idiosyncratic usage of the term. I'm more of an Umberto Eco man myself. I don't get deeply philosophical. I don't give a damn about Derrida. Whatever gets me inside the text is all right with me. (Oh, my God. I got all Freudian there. Never mind. Let it stand. Damn. Did it again.)
Sorry. Thought you were using the term"meaningless" in the philosophical sense. In any case, I was trying to get inside the text/sub-text of the "socialist" tag, and that IMO at the basest (pun intended) level it plays to the same divisive, much of it racial, fears that the Republicans have been adept at arousing now for a while.
good post. Thanks, Kent, for pointing it out, and of course, Matthew for your insightful observations on American politics and discourse.

Americans (ok, not all, but a whole bunch) like their politics "simple."

Socialism is bad.

They don't really need to know why, but they're pretty sure it has something to do with making us [more of] a welfare state, rationing health care, and taking away our religion and guns.

On a more serious note, as you point out, I think fewer people understand "socialism" as an economic system to be contrasted with "capitalism" and fear it as a form of government that is not compatible with democracy.
I still feel I have no real idea what it means, but I'm getting closer- Thanks for this.