Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016
When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.
A lack of clear meaning
I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.
I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.
And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics.
Perhaps it was an expression of capitalism when Bill Pruett moved to Elkton, Oregon, when I was in high school and opened an Arco gas station just west of town. He triggered a gas war where Joe Bishop’s Chevron and Walt Esslinger’s Texaco stations had to lower their prices to compete. But that was quite a different dynamic than our current situation where gas prices at the pump are set by a small handful of big corporations leaving the local station owners no slack for competing with their neighboring rivals.
These two words, “socialism” and “capitalism,” do not seem to be capable any more of doing the work useful words do. They seem more like exhausted labels that mainly serve as cudgels for unhelpful and polarizing posturing. They do not help us communicate and find common understandings and possible common ground for important conversations about the direction of our society.
Market-oriented economics not necessarily bad
Back in the late 1970s, I read insightful writers such as E. F. Schumacher and Barry Commoner who helped me see that a market-oriented economy is not a bad thing when it spurs innovation and meets the actual needs of people. And to see that monopolistic, corporatist, state-dominated, and other anti-democratic practices are what’s bad—whether the Soviet version or the American version (later, James C. Scott reinforced these points in his book, Seeing Like a State, arguing that the problem is centralization).
Which approach is capitalist? That depends on how we define the term. If we center on free markets and the enhancement of fair competition, then capitalism is something that can enhance democracy. But if we center on the ruthless quest for ever-increasing profits that invariably leads to centralization and reducing free competition, then capitalism undermines democracy. I tend to think that we should never refer to the latter focus simply as “capitalism” but should call it “corporatism” or “monopoly capitalism”—and make clear that it is antithetical to democracy.
“Socialism” or simply “democracy”?
And what about socialism? Certainly our current “socialist” leaders are the polar opposite in their views from what was usually called “socialism” back in the 1970s—i.e., the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. Of course, we have also long had the model of the Scandinavian-style of social organization that has often been called “socialism” as in social democracy. These are two very different models. But because they are both called “socialist,” I wonder whether the term is essentially irredeemable. I think we could accurately use “social democracy” for a political philosophy that places human wellbeing above corporate greed and affirms investing in public good over being consistently deferential to the wishes of the rich and powerful.
I actually am most attracted to advocating a strengthening of the stand alone term “democracy”—meaning something similar to what others have recently called “deep democracy” [Cornell West] or “radical democracy” [Romand Coles; Sheldon Wolin]. The heart of the notion to me actually has an anarchistic kind of tinge in that it emphasizes self-determination and a suspicion of all tendencies toward centralized, top down power (be it state-centered or corporation-centered).
A more vital democracy would mean, among other dynamics, an even playing field (or better) for locally-owned small businesses vis-à-vis the big boxes; access for voting for everyone; a guaranteed living wage; an end to big money dominating politics; universal healthcare; rebuilt infrastructure with union jobs; revitalized labor movement in general; renewable energy; support for family farms; et al. None of this is socialistic per se, none is contrary to market-oriented (non-monopolistic and corporatist) capitalism.
For a future post, I will reflect on how this notion of democracy is actually pretty biblical. I was interested that Jill Lepore, in her interview mentioned Eugene Debs, America’s great socialist, as actually a kind of social gospeler. I also hope soon to read Gary Dorrien’s recent books on the black social gospel. He’s trying to recover a vital American tradition that has a lot to offer us today.
[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]