Because of Bernie Sanders, there will be a lot of media sound bytes about socialism during this seemingly endless election cycle, and most of it will be wrong, some intentionally, some just uninformed.
It’s easy to get confused, as there is so much misinformation, and because most words ending in –ism are weighted with more emotion than clear thought.
Socialism and capitalism are both economic systems; communism is a political system, as is a democracy, a monarchy, a dictatorship, and so too a federal republic, which is the form of government in the U.S.
Capitalism is based on private ownership of the means of production and individual economic freedom; socialism is based on the workers owning most of the means of production in common, but with private property rights on personal property; communism is based on the state owning the means of production and everything else; there is no private property in a communist society.
No economic system in the world is purely socialistic or purely capitalistic or purely communist.
Some aspects of socialism are already part of the fabric of American life; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling through the 12th grade, the Post Office, unemployment insurance, and there are many others.
It is instructive that many of the most ardent opponents of socialism in the US find that working together in times of crisis is not all that bad. The bailout of Chrysler and the savings and loan industry in the 80s and more recently, the bailout of the financial services industry would be considered socialistic from a dispassionate observer.
Some institutions and organizations just run better under a socialist system. Fire departments for one.
Early fire departments were capitalistic enterprises, and there were disagreements and often fights over territory. New York City companies were famous for sending runners out to fires with a large barrel to cover the hydrant closest to the fire in advance of the engines. Often fights would break out between the runners and even the responding fire companies for the right to fight the fire and receive the insurance money that would be paid to the company that fought it. Supply and demand, free enterprise at work.
But somewhere along the line, folks began to think that those fire supression businesses should be owned by all and paid for by all, and everyone would be protected.
My grandpa might roll over in his grave, but he was one of the men instrumental in my home town of Pierce in providing fire service to the whole town back in the 30s, in what could be seen as the implementation of socialism.
But somewhere in the communist witch-hunts of the 50s, though the practice of socialism in the US didn’t fall off, the use of the word socialism became anathema.
Now comes Bernie Sanders, who now dares to utter the word, though earlier in his career it was problematic. “I myself don’t use the word socialism,” he said in 1976 in the Vermont Cynic, a student publication at the University of Vermont, “because people have been brainwashed into thinking socialism automatically means slave-labor camps, dictatorship and lack of freedom of speech.” In an interview with The Associated Press in November 1990 he said, “To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.”
And in the book he wrote with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the House, published in 1997 he said, “Bill Clinton is a moderate Democrat. I’m a democratic socialist.” So for those who need to label candidates, Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist.
What does that mean?
For Sanders, “I think [democratic socialism] means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money.”
I have no interest in the socialism of the classical definition. Most Americans, including Bernie Sanders, don’t. But the next time you hear a talking head rattling on about socialism in the same breath with Bernie Sanders, realize that that particular talking head is relatively empty.