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Let’s talk about socialism: The term has largely lost its power to scare, and that’s a good thing

2019-08-29

A Medicaid office employee works on reports at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

The term socialism is getting tossed around loosely these days, usually as an epithet intended to demonize or ridicule mainstream Democratic politicians. But with more and more people expressing curiosity about the term, it’s time to move beyond name-calling.

“America will never be a socialist country," President Trump vowed in his last State of the Union address, a line he has repeated to crowds at his rallies. The sentiment has been echoed by other conservative politicians, who often frame the choice as “socialism vs. freedom.”

That old-fashioned red-baiting approach, familiar to those of us who lived through the Cold War, doesn’t seem to be working these days. A Harris poll from earlier this year found 40% of Americans claiming they would rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one, which echoes a Pew poll in which 42% of Americans (including 65% of black Americans and 52% of Latinos) said they have a “positive impression” of socialism.

The level of interest in socialism represents deep skepticism that our current, consumer-fueled capitalist system is equipped to tackle big questions like climate change, crumbling roads and bridges, inadequate health care and the stunning levels of economic inequality that have left so many families homeless, broke, bankrupt or under-employed.

To put it another way: How bad has economic inequality become in America? Bad enough that four out of 10 people are willing to at least consider an entirely new way of organizing society.

“I became a socialist first by having a sense that so much of this world is the result of accidents of birth,” is how Bhaskar Sunkara put it. He’s the editor of Jacobin, a Brooklyn-based magazine and website, and the author of a new book, “The Socialist Manifesto” (our full discussion is the latest episode of my podcast, “You Decide”).

“We take for granted that someone born in New Rochelle or White Plains or Pleasantville is going to have a radically different life outcome than someone born 20 miles south in the Bronx,” says Sunkara. “We take that completely for granted, even within neighborhoods in the city — and in other countries, that’s just not the case, because they provide a bedrock of social rights.”

At a minimum, says Sunkara, government ought to provide basic services like public transportation, good schools and free healthcare.

“Beyond that, I want to ask questions about power and distribution. If we agree that democracy is a good thing in the ballot box once every two years, once every four years, then why don’t we have democracy in our workplaces?” he told me. “Workplaces might still need to compete with each other in a market, but why can’t they be run by the people who work there? And why can’t management be elected? I think asking those slightly deeper questions about power and not just about the redistribution of wealth is the difference between social democracy and socialism.”

That opens up a much larger discussion about worker-owned businesses, cooperatives, land trusts, credit unions and other enterprises where management decisions and profits are shared broadly and democratically.

Allowing democratic input doesn’t automatically guarantee that a cooperative or worker-owned business will be efficient or profitable. Basic challenges of any enterprise — when to invest in new technology, or how to discipline or dismiss incompetent, abusive or dishonest workers and managers — are just as hard to figure out when the firm is run by an elected committee.

And the politics of getting elected and re-elected to run a private firm can involve the same kind of backroom deals, insincere promises and shady financing that we know so well from the world of politics.

Sunkara is quick to acknowledge that socialism isn’t a cure-all. But if it takes socialists to raise fundamental questions about a system that has delivered spectacular failures like poisoned water systems in Flint and record-high homelessness in New York City, then by all means, let’s have the conversation.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.