Be Wary of Political Labels

Not my kind of socialist!
 Perhaps you've read about Spenser Rapone, the dude booted from the U.S. Army for stunts such as wearing a Che Guevara shirt under his dress uniform jacket, and writing "Communism Will Win" on his hat during his West Point graduation. He is a self-proclaimed "revolutionary socialist," and the Army wearied of his antics and dismissed him.

Maybe you've read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old that unseated the sclerotic five-term Democratic congressman Joe Crowley. She also calls herself a socialist.

I wanted to vomit when I read about Rapone—but not for the reasons knee-jerk patriots would assume. Rapone is either naïve or an idiot; take your choice. He makes me sick because I am a socialist, and I have very little in common with him. Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, gives me hope that American politics might actually have a pulse.

Rapone used the word "socialism" in ways that fuel the miseducation of history-resistant Americans. He used it as a synonym for "communism" and that's exactly what most Americans believe it to be. * Millions of Americans associate socialism with the former Soviet Union, or perhaps with North Korea or Cuba, though ardor has cooled on Cuba now that right-wingers don't have Fidel Castro to kick around. The same crowd, by the way, downplays the fact that China is a communist country, because they make billions in business deals with those reds.

My kind!
 Ocasio-Cortez is my kind of socialist. So too is Bernie Sanders. And Billy Connolly. And Kaniela Ing. So we must ask, why do the far right and the extreme left get to own the word socialist?

Most of the political labels we toss around are categories, not specific ideologies. They reference a spectrum of thinking, not a single viewpoint. I often liken them to ice cream. When someone utters that that word, don't you immediately think, "What kind?" In our post-Ben and Jerry's/ Herrell's/ Hagen Daz world, choices and combinations are endless—not like the old days when choice was basically strips of a Neapolitan: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Yet we still think of politics as if it is a Neapolitan: democracy, communism, and fascism. Sometimes it gets even worse—like when Americans think capitalism is a synonym for democracy. Sorry, but capitalism is an economic term, not a set of political values. Have you ever asked yourself how the democratic United States can even do business with communist China? The answer is that that China isn't really a communist nation; it's an authoritarian nation whose guiding economic principle is state-command capitalism. The latter is cool with the United States, which isn't a pure democracy any more than China is a utopian communist state. At best, the United States is an indirect representative democracy that practices a de facto form of oligarchic (control by a few) capitalism. Moral: democracy, socialism, and fascism come in various "flavors." **

Back to my confession. I am a socialist, something I remind people when they tell me I "must" vote for Democrats. My economic principles are quite different from those of two-party capitalists. I think, for example, that medical care should be free for all, that public colleges should also be free (or very cheap), that all employers should have to pay a living wage, that Social Security should be fully funded by removing the income cap on paying into it, that no company should be allowed to raid or default on pension plans, that military spending should be slashed dramatically and funds diverted into infrastructure spending, that we should fully fund anti-poverty programs, and that government should invest heavily in green energy and biomedical research. I also believe in strict business regulation to ensure healthy environmental conditions. Regulators should also remove tax incentives for moving profitable businesses to lower-wage nations, or for setting up dummy offices abroad to avoid taxes. And, yes, I'd like to see a true graduated income tax that makes those who have more pay more. A personal mantra is: "Free trade is and always has been a fraud!" Yet I wouldn't go the barricades for any of this, because I oppose militarism and compulsion—touchstone values for democratic socialists the likes of which we find alive and well. (See chart.)

To (over) simplify, two-party capitalists believe that most forms of wealth should accrue to individuals; socialists hold that many forms of wealth should first serve a collective public good. Sure—the far end of the socialist spectrum results in nightmares such as the military-based bureaucratic socialism of the Soviet Union, or the smoke-and-mirrors fake socialism of Venezuela. It's also true that oligarchic capitalism meshes comfortably with fascist states such as Nazi Germany, religious monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, and military dictatorships such as that of Honduras. (Don't be fooled by sham elections; look at where power really lies.)   

Rapone is a revolutionary communist; I am a democratic socialist. No group in history has more fiercely opposed communists than democratic socialists. They saw early on that those claiming the communist label were authoritarian monsters drawn to personal power, militarism, and bureaucracy, not in empowering the people, assuring the public welfare, or building democracy. In a way, self-proclaimed communists remind me of today's Republican Party; many of my friends like to compare Trump to Mussolini, but I think he's more like Stalin.

But for now, let's chew on this irony: Rapone was thrown out of the Army for being a socialist, yet the U.S. military is the largest socialist enterprise in the United States—100% taxpayer-supported! But it sure as hell isn't the kind of socialism this democratic socialist wants.

* Comic Jimmy Tingle quipped that Americans are taught to despise socialism in public school, "a socialist institution!"  

**Here's a short list of flavors. The most benign forms are in bold. Keep in mind that many nations have "mixed" forms of government that borrow from various political models.

Democracy: direct, indirect, pure, representative, parliamentary, one/two-party, proportional, winner-take-all, authoritarian, restricted electorate, capitalist democracy, social democracy, moderate libertarianism, religious, secular

Socialism: democratic, market, liberal, eco-socialism, utopian communism (as in the commune movement), religious (like early Christians), cooperative, Marxist, Maoist, labor parties, anarchist, syndicalist, state bureaucratic

Fascism: Nazism, military juntas, nationalist movements, religious theocracies/dictatorships, most authoritarian regimes, hate groups, extreme libertarianism, capitalist oligarchy, police states, power elites


No comments: