That Dirty S-Word

An anti-masker holds up a sign — “Covid is about Socialist Control.” Betsy DeVos calls free college education “a socialist takeover of higher education.”[1] They’re mental and strategic twins. Don’t like something? Call it “socialist.” Instant photo-op. Instant sound byte.

This is post-truth in action:  gut words of meaning; inflame, don’t inform; stoke the rage.

It’s intellectually and ethically irresponsible – if you believe there ought to be some standard of knowing what you’re talking about. Some people do –they do their homework, actually think about it before they rebut or support,.[2]

But never mind. Nobody reads that stuff. Only people who already agree with them.

If you’re an S-word user, all you need to know is that’s what the Nazis and Soviets called themselves. The Soviets called their country the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” The Nazis were the “National Socialist German Workers Party.” (How do you get Nazi out of that? In German it’s “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.“ N-a-z-i is there, in that first word.)

There!

Any questions?

Bernie didn’t help. He didn’t explain what he meant. Maybe he thought people would work it out on their own. Wrong. You got Stalin, you got Hitler, we’re outta here.

The Democratic Socialists of America hope it helps to put “Democratic” in front of it.[3] They do their homework, too:  historical socialism isn’t the same thing as democratic socialism, and neither of those is communism.

Too bad they’re polishing a turd.

Same for the people at Jacobin. I recently requested a sample copy from the library – the public library – if anybody gets “Democratic” it’s the public library. The public library declined my request -– the magazine didn’t “meet their standards.” We’re talking Jacobin, not Porn Today. (I don’t know if there is a “Porn Today.” I don’t want to find out.) If the public library thinks socialist is a bad word, it’s a bad word – an irredeemably bad word — a turd word.

I thought about trying for Monthly Review, but there it is, right on the masthead:  “An Independent Socialist Magazine.” What do you suppose are the odds Monthly Review meets the public library’s standards?

Monthly Review creator Nathan Robinson wrote a book with a bold full-disclosure title:  Why You Should Be A Socialist. The subtitle reached out to those who still might be willing to think: “A primer on Democratic Socialism for those who are extremely skeptical of it.” Nathan Robinson is trying, but again, what do you suppose are the odds?

I like how he approaches defining the S-word:

“More than half of millennials describe themselves as more sympathetic to socialism than capitalism. What do they mean by these terms? What are they actually endorsing? Do they want to live in the Soviet Union? Do they want a centrally planned economy in which there is a government bureau for every product and the type of cheese you are able to  buy depends on what the Bureau of Cheese has decided to make available this week?

“I haven’t asked them all, but I suspect this is not what they want. Instead, I think they are socialists of Terry Eagleton’s description:  people who are simply unable to get over the unfairness and brutality of the world, and who refuse to accept intellectual rationalizations for greed, bigotry, and hierarchy. They don’t like how undemocratic and unequal the world is, and they refuse to accept that this is the best we can do.”

“That, in and of itself, is not an endorsement of a specific “alternate” economic system. Instead, it’s a kind of instinct:  an instinct of solidarity and a disagreement with a number of consensus beliefs about how wondrous and fair certain features of capitalism are.

“You will find that if you speak to these young people, many of them will have a difficult time articulating what exactly they mean by socialism. That’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because they are looking for a term that embraces a wide number of different feelings they have and allows them to show how disgusted they are with economic and political life in the twenty-first century.

“Twenty-first century socialism expresses a commitment to a certain set of values, values that are diametrically opposed to the dog-eat-dog, laissez-faire capitalism that both the Democratic and Republican parties seem to have fully embraced. It’s an expression of horror at “avoidable misery” – at long hours with low pay, at dying because you can’t afford medical treatment, at police shootings, at families being separated at the border.”[4]

That doesn’t sound too horrible. I mean, how bad could it be to avoid avoidable misery?

Really bad, apparently — if you’ve been infected with the “Free” strain that’s been going around. “Free” is another word that’s been gutted of its meaning. “Free” now means “everything that’s not the S-word.” The longer version is “I’ll take all of that avoidable misery – all those long hours with low pay, all that dying because I can’t afford medical treatment, all those police shootings, all those families being separated at the border… because at least I won’t have some socialist telling me what to do.”

“Free” like that is Libertarianism – the reigning intellectual capital of the post-truth world. Free in that world means “free no matter what.” But that leaves the Libertarians with the same problem as the Democratic Socialists:  look too closely and it’s got a lot of explaining to do, so they have caveats like the “nonaggressive axiom” to tone it down?[5] But the average Freemonger isn’t concerned: “free” means you’re on your own to the point that misery becomes unavoidable, and that’s a good thing.

“A certain kind of thinking on the right goes like this:  if you’re sad, it’s because you’re weak; if you’re poor, it’s because you’re stupid; if you’re marginalized, it’s because you’re culturally dysfunctional; if you’re being screwed over, you shouldn’t have signed the contract; if you did something horrible, it’s because you’re evil; if you’re angry, it’s because you’re resentful; if you’re sentimental, it’s because you’re not a man.”[6]

Pretty wussy stuff, if you’re a Freemonger. I imagine Nathan Robinson taking a deep breath and writing on.

“I have to admit, I hate that kind of thinking, in part because all my life, I have had to resist it in order to maintain my self-confidence. When you start to believe that all of your problems are your own fault, you can begin to hate yourself. As important as it is to take responsibility for our actions, it’s also important to acknowledge that many things are beyond our control…. We can decide how to make use of what we are given, but it’s not an ‘ideology of victimhood’ to say that many people are, well, victims. Some people are destinated to try their hardest and still fail, and suggesting that they didn’t is adding insult to injury, tormenting them  by making them feel not of the pain of deprivation but guilt and shame. (And they say the left likes shaming people.)”

“Some people think socialists have a naïve view of human nature, that we think people are naturally good, and that once our horrible economic system is replaced, our inner perfection will be set free. This is not what we think. In fact, it’s because we recognize the everyone is a mixture of greed and goodness that we want to make sure greed doesn’t triumph. We went to encourage people’s best and most community-spirited impulses and discourage their nasties and most callous ones…. If you play a game in which selfishness increases your chances of winning, and notice that every seems to be behaving extremely selfishly, this is not proof that people are naturally inclined toward selfishness.”[7]

Never mind that the U.S. Constitution was written in part to “promote the general Welfare.” Trouble is, everybody knows that one person’s “general welfare” is another’s “don’t tread on me.” To a Freemonger, “general welfare” has “socialism” written all over it. Plus, if you’re a Freemonger who thinks – a Libertarian – you know that all this socialist touchy-feely-ism doesn’t work.

“Well-designed institutions don’t necessarily make people good, but they can incentivize constructive social behavior. Take the theory of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’ In a famous 1968 article, Garrett Hardin envisaged a situation in which village herdsmen use an unowned pasture for grazing. If everyone uses only the amount of land necessary to keep the land sustainable, there is not problem. But, Hardin said, ‘as a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain,” and “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit.’ This means that each herdsman’s cows will gobble up more and more of the pasture, ultimately leading to the destruction of the commons that could have served everyone fairly well.”[8]

Oh I get it. Socialism doesn’t work because the Freemongers will ruin it for everybody else,

Except they won’t:

“In fact, as it turns out, that this is not what happens to commonly owned land. Elinor Ostrom’s fascinating Nobel Prize-winning work Governing the Commons goes beyond theory and empirically outlines the ways in which people actually manage public commons to ensure that they aren’t destroyed.”[9]

So what do we do? Stop using the S-word? Take another shot at educating and learning, at ethical knowing and speaking and sign-making?

Or how about if we think of it this way: “social” – you know, as “being sociable,” as in you and me trying to get along together?

Okay?

Oh never mind.


[1] Binckley, Collin, Devos Says Free College Amounts To A ‘Socialist Takeover’, AP (Dec. 1, 2020).

[2] The Hill, Forbes, New York Post, Market Watch, Black Enterprise, Washington Examiner, The Independent.

[3] “What is Democratic Socialism?” Democratic Socialists of America.

[4] Robinson, Nathan, Why You Should Be A Socialist (2020)..

[5] Britannica – Libertarianism.

[6] Robinson, op cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.