I stumbled upon a meme yesterday that got my attention:
The point made in this image is powerful, and it reminds me of a gripe I’ve had for a long time. We often accept language without challenging the precision or meaning of the words. And in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the term “Democratic Socialist” is especially maddening, even if it’s not mentioned in this meme.
The United States considers itself the ultimate in capitalism, and many conservatives seem to worship capitalism more than religion itself. But we haven’t had pure capitalism in the United States for many generations. Even before income taxes were instituted in the beginning of the last century, we often had supply taxes during wars and all sorts of local levies to repair roads, fund fire fighters, etc.
The capitalism that conservatives revere demands no regulation and no impediments to the free expression of supply and demand. But again, this capitalism hasn’t existed for a long time, and rightly so. By the end of the nineteenth century, even a weakly regulated capitalism did what unbridled capitalism will always do – created kings and serfs (or in the parlance of that time, Robber Barons). Capitalism’s essence always bends towards concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Under the right constraints (for example, no monopolies or oligopolistic collusion) capitalism has proven itself the most efficient mechanism to match supply with demand, and the best system to match ambition with opportunity, but pure, unregulated capitalism has proven itself a disaster. That’s why we don’t have private armies, private highways or private police forces.
On the other hand, we’ve never had pure socialism either. Not even close. And countries that enforced socialism (where all economic activity was run by the state, and where the means of production was owned by the state) ran into the opposite disaster – they created citizens wholly unmotivated to work. Not withstanding the corruption and graft that went along with it, the Soviet Union was a great example. By telling citizens where, when and how to work, they crushed individuality. And by making all jobs (and efforts) equal, they crushed the motivation of their citizens to work hard. In short, socialism led to stagnation and despair.
The United States has long employed a combination of capitalism and socialism. But many fellow citizens have made the mistake of calling it capitalism. Sorry, but they are wrong. Taxes are not compatible with pure capitalism. All of the New Deal protections are antithetical to capitalism. Critical government regulations to our water supply, air quality and food system go against capitalism. And yet these constraints on our nation persist, many with great popularity.
Which brings us to the present moment. When we look at Europe, we see many countries that are considered Democratic Socialist nations. But this term is deeply misleading. It doesn’t mean a socialist nation that votes for its leaders. “Socialist” in the name isn’t the same Socialist that brought down the USSR. These European nations are mainly capitalist, allowing and promoting private ownership of land and businesses. However, they tax their citizens (particularly their wealthy citizens) at a higher rate than we do and use the money to provide a broad safety net of social services like healthcare, child care, education, work training and retirement security. Just like us, they are a blend of capitalism and socialism, but they have a different emphasis.
To call them Democratic Socialists is simply wrong. And yet the name persists. They are really blended Capitalist-Socialist Democracies. But when someone in the United States tries to promote a European blend of capitalism and socialism, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liars and spin-meisters on the radical right immediately label them Socialists! and demonize them as if refugees from the former USSR.
What modern Democratic Socialists are advocating is capitalism that is a little more regulated and controlled than we’ve had since the Reagan revolution, especially in the areas of healthcare and education. It should really be called Controlled Capitalism or Beneficial Capitalism or Blended Capitalism or Regulated Capitalism because these are a lot closer to the truth than Democratic Socialism. We have to find a way to talk about a vision of the future where everybody has health care and access to affordable education without Koch-funded think tanks and Fox “news” losing their freaking minds that evil socialism is coming to destroy us!
Democratic Socialism is simply wisely-regulated capitalism. Can we please find a better name, or a better way to talk about it? Otherwise, by using a term that is misleading and imprecise, we hand the lunatic conservative fringe a deadly talking point to confuse and alarm their base. And we hand conservative politicians like John Faso a gift to spread fear into the hearts of his supporters. The socialists are coming! No, it’s just capitalists who want smarter, better public servants. Let’s keep working to elect Delgado and Fire Feckless Faso…