What we, who call ourselves progressive, need to do is be clear on what type of socialism we are advocating, Greg Camp writes.
First published in October 2019.
Donald Trump’s insistence during his State of the Union speech that “tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country” drew chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” from many members of Congress and glee from his supporters on social media. But so often, the right wing demonstrates that to them, the word, socialism, means ‘anything I don’t like,’ be that protecting the environment, guaranteeing healthcare, or gathering everyone onto collective farms in the Nevada test ranges – all treated as equally likely and horrible.
But when a word means everything, it too often ends up meaning nothing at all, conveying no sense beyond a simultaneously vague and intense emotion.
If we, on the left, want to see our policy program enacted, we need to be out and loud about what we, in fact, wish to do. Too often, we employ the ‘Orange Man bad’ slogan that the right wing accuses us of using – which, while true, goes nowhere – without explaining what we have to offer that is better, allowing our opponents to define our position for us.
There was too much of this in 2016, for example. And we need a nominee who will unapologetically fight for progressivism – 2016 once again comes to mind, but Joe Biden this time around is doing everything he can to cure the healthcare industry’s fears of having to provide Americans the medical arts at a cost that we can afford, among his other efforts to retain the label of diet Republican – and he is not alone in the field of Democratic candidates.
There will be a temptation to say that Trump is imploding, and so our candidate only has to be minimally competent. But Trump has a lifetime’s worth of spectacular collapse and subsequent rise, and his supporters regard his behavior as good TV. I, at least, would like a candidate for whom I can cast an enthusiastic vote, and if the party would do me the favor of offering someone who will carry the progressive banner, I would appreciate that.
Given the discontent with things in the country as they are, I suspect that I would not be alone. Pete Buttigieg has expressed his concerns over proposals like Medicare for All, but that is once again a result of Democrats who allow Republicans to define what such a program would be in the public mind. Republicans – and too many Democrats – keep claiming that a single-payer system would be a government takeover of healthcare akin to the British National Health Service (NHS), though private care still exists in the United Kingdom for those who wish to spend their own money, and the costs of the NHS are much lower than what we pay in the U.S., while the quality of the British system is among the best in the world. But a single-payer system is, in fact, a takeover not of doctors and hospitals. It would mean that the government would function as the singlepayer – as the name suggests. Americans seem to love our doctors, but hate our insurance companies, whereas Medicare remains popular among people who get to use it.
An NHS model probably would not work in America, while single payer could, precisely because of our demand for choice – whether illusory or not. A country that celebrates a toothpaste aisle in the grocery store that is eight feet high by fifteen long and laden with ‘choices’ is not going to accept having to go to government hospitals. But we can get used to the idea of going to the healthcare provider we like and being able to afford the visit.
The right wing’s attack on Medicare for All derives from their general outrage at what they regard as ‘socialism.’ Their view of things – I draw this conclusion from years of discussions on the subject – is that the world is divided into collectivism and individualism with clear distinctions of bad and good. America is supposedly a shining example of a zone of freedom wherein the rugged individual can thrive on his – and it is his, unless they want to show his dutiful wife and children coming along – own merits.
In other words, the right wing ideal is one in which anyone can succeed by heading west into the wilderness and carving out a living. I invite them to read Frederick Jackson Turner’s paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” presented to the American Historical Association on the 12 July 1893. The frontier ceased to exist almost 130 years ago. And since that time, humanity has come to a broad agreement that land tends to belong to the people who live on it, not to the people who come in to take it, and that wilderness performs a necessary role in the global environment. Perhaps today’s would-be libertarians can hitch a ride to Mars, but on the real Earth, we live in civilization.
This means that we all benefit from society and thereby owe in return. Contrary to the claims of the right wing, honoring our collective responsibilities can enhance the exercise of individual rights. This is to me the essence of what socialism is. What I just said is, of course, an ideological definition. Use it as a guiding principle. Under the efforts toward laissez-faire capitalism, we have collectivized the people – our resources, our labor, our lives – for the personal benefit of the rich. I am calling here for a return to the New Deal belief that society in general and government in specific exists for the good of all.
To a right winger, socialism means Venezuela or the Soviet Union, as if those are the only models. Those of us on the left will often respond that roads, the military, and the police force are examples of socialism, and the discussion ends up in endless quibbling. What we, who call ourselves progressive, need to do is be clear on what variety we are advocating.
For me, the desirable socialism is a realization of democracy in the field of economics. This includes the standard Democratic programs of banking regulation and progressive taxation, while also advocating for strong labor unions and for workers owning the companies that employ them.
Democratic socialism means recognizing that taxing the rich is not a redistribution of wealth from its owners, but is instead an acknowledgment that the rest of us have a large part in creating the wealth that the rich enjoy. It means universal healthcare, as suggested above, a social agreement to cooperate in guaranteeing everyone the care that each of us needs. It means protecting the environment – reversing the causes and damages of climate change among other things – since that is the context in which all of our activities occur. On this subject, the right wing repeatedly claims that climate science is nothing but a Marxist attempt to control the people, hoping that we will not notice the control they seek as lands available for habitation and crops disappear.
One thing that democratic socialism does not have to mean is gun control, a key concern among the right wing. As my favorite socialist, George Orwell, did in fact write, “That rifle hanging on the wall of the working class flat or labourer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” These words came at the end of his article, “Don’t let Colonel Blimp ruin the Home Guard,” an essay on the efforts of stuffy Victorian-era types to take control of defensive militias in England during the early days of the Second World War away from the commoners.
What the right wing does not understand – willfully or otherwise – is that collective work makes individual rights practical in the modern world. It restrains the elements of life that would otherwise keep things solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow the phrasing of Thomas Hobbes. Healthy citizens with money in their accounts and a say in how society is run are freer, and those of us who are progressives, social democrats, or democratic socialists – take your pick – must explain this again and again until the popular framing of ‘socialism’ shifts to what we have in mind.🔷
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