The American Media and Misunderstanding Socialism

The Oxford New American English dictionary defines socialism as

a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

I start with the dictionary definition of socialism not because I believe it to the best and most authoritative source for political and economic theory, but because it is a source that presumably more people have access to than a three volume set of Das Kapital or some other weighty academic tome.

Yet, when we hear the word socialist thrown around in the media it seems doubtful that many of those using the word are using this definition or are using the word as anything more than all purpose pejorative to incite hysteria. This is why Glenn Beck, members of the Tea Party, and Republican elected officials have decried Obama, who raised more money than McCain from Wall Street in 2008 and has currently raised more money than Romney from Wall Street, a socialist. This why the mandate to buy health-insurance from a private for-profit corporation, an idea first conceived of by the Heritage Foundation and championed by then-President George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and seemingly the entire Republican establishment until Barack Obama adopted it as his own, is socialist. This is why when George Bush, with the support of both Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, bailed out for-profit banks that helped to crash the economy while doing nothing to stop home foreclosures or help working people suffering from the economic downturn the reaction from some would lead you to believe the closing words of The Communist Manifesto were “Bankers of the World Unite, You Have Nothing To Lose But the Public Treasury.”

Of course members of the far-right have historically never allowed reality to get in the way of red baiting, with the John Birch Society in the 1950s proclaiming that Republican President Eisenhower was a communist. One would hope given the “mainstream” (read corporate, for-profit, private) media’s self-appointed gatekeepers of truth members of the press would at least consult with a dictionary before discussing socialism. One would in this case be overly optimistic.
American’s paper of record, the New York Times, considered red baiting to be amongst all the news that’s fit to print as early as 1856 when they warned Americans that “socialist” disciples of Thomas Paine (Glenn Beck’s favorite founding father) “boded evil for the future of our Republic.” Only twenty years later and still a good half-century before the Cold War the New York Times would blame the walkout of B&O Railroad Workers in 1877 on “communists.” (See John Nichols The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism and Sidney Lens The Labor Wars respectively)

With a 156 year-old tradition to uphold the New York Times took it upon itself to explain in what is apparently dubbed “news analysis” “What’s a Socialist?” However, instead of the usual prophecies of doom the Times give us a confusing, contradictory, banal, and muddled account of what exactly it was the French Socialist Party of François Hollande stood for and in the process explain what socialism is for all people, in all contexts.

The “objective” analytical voice of its author Steven Erlanger informed us that socialism was in fact not a very radical idea and that it had succeeded in most places, including in the United States. To prove his point Erlanger discusses typical features of liberal or social democratic welfare states, such an unemployment insurance and the mere existence of trade unions. To further support his assertions Erlanger goes onto to various European ex-radicals turned Greens who talk about the moribund state of socialism and its contemporary irrelevancy, while at the same time and seemingly unaware of their own contradictions parroting Erlanger’s line that a liberal welfare state or higher taxes on the wealthy constitute successes for socialism. Thus we are presented with a world in which all socialism is dead and no longer meaningful and a new definition of socialism has emerged and its chief tenants are accepted by all members of the political class.

Next Erlanger gives extensive space to French intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy. Henri-Lévy is a self-described leftist who believes all other leftist besides himself advocate some form of barbarism leaving him the only true leftist ever. Luckily for Henri-Lévy, who deems socialism to be “barbarism with a human face,” socialism died in 1968 and the current French Socialist Party are neither barbarians nor socialist. Even the “objective” voice of Erlanger cannot stand the insipid cant of Henri-Lévy and quickly intervenes to inform us that “non-barbaric” “democratic socialism” (whatever that may be) has a long tradition in Europe and is alive and well. We then conclude by learning that socialism, in the French context at least, is “very statist” and its supporters are largely educated elites who are career government bureaucrats.
While this article is a far cry from the looney ravings of Glenn Beck or even the New York Times circa 1856 it is still muddled and not only demonstrates no coherent intellectual understanding of socialism as a political or economic theory, but makes no attempt to do so. The fact that the paper of record cannot even be bothered to consult a dictionary is damning for what passes for both “news” and “analysis.”

Slightly better than The New York Times was a recent episode of the Charlie Rose Show on PBS which featured “Marxian” anthropologist David Harvey and Marxist economist Richard Wolff. Both men addressed the question of whether or not the “capitalist system that has brought so much prosperity to the world is in some sort of crisis”(short answer:yes), what alternatives there were to capitalism, and why taboos existed in the United States about discussing said alternatives. While I applaud Rose for even having two Marxists on to discuss capitalism even he seemed genuinely confused by much of what Wolff meant by a a society that “organizes the production of goods and services in a fundamentally different way” asking him if he meant something like Norway to which Wolff answered no. Still hung up on the issue of an actually existing socialist state Rose asks Harvey if he advocates something along the lines of the Cuban model. Like Wolff and Norway Harvey states that he is not an advocate of the Cuban model. In spite of the fact that Wolff and Harvey could name several successful examples of worker’s cooperatives that could provide the blueprint of a socialist society Rose continued to badger them about the current existence of a socialist nation-state. Questions about the right to public space garnered a similarly pedantic and condescending tone from Rose towards Harvey.
Even though Rose presents a much better alternative then the ideologically narrow New York Times which does not consider the views of those they wish to profile “fit to print” it still demonstrates a lack of clarity about socialism within the American media. While part of this is a willful attempt by the American political class and the media to limit and police the realms of acceptable conversation (something Harvey and Wolff touch on quite nicely) it is also indicative of an ignorance towards what socialism is or isn’t.

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