Americans are working out of at least three different dictionaries when they talk about Socialism. No wonder they can’t agree on what it is, or even whether it’s an economic or governmental system.
In the 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride, Wallace Shawn’s character Vizzini repeatedly finds the movie’s plot twists to be “inconceivable!” After a number of such declarations, Vizzini’s fellow outlaw Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, tells him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The line became a classic meme used to refute people who use words, such as “decimate,” incorrectly on the Internet. What happens, though, when the word in question is evolving? Consider what the word Socialism means lately. It varies widely based upon who you ask. Everyone thinks they have it pinned down, but does it mean what they think it means?
Contemporary meanings associated with the term Socialism seem fall into three distinct and scarcely overlapping groups. It’s one of many words that have different meanings in various political subcultures, and like any population that fragments into geologically or socially distinct species, eventually the groups will fail to recognize each other as similar enough to exchange genes, or in this case, ideas.
The first group uses Socialism as a scare word. They associate it with governmental control of industry, forced social and economic equality, and redistribution of wealth, a slippery slope leading directly to Stalinist flavored Communism. This definition is espoused by stereotypical FOX News viewers and Republican political operatives, and the definition found on Conservapedia (the Right’s answer to Wikipedia) is a prime example. They conflate Socialism with Nazism, especially easy since the term “National Socialism” (Making Germany Great Again, but only for perceived Aryans) looks like the similarly named “Democratic Socialism.” If you believe adopting socialist economic policies would cause the tortured death of millions of people, of course you’re going to react in horror when someone suggests it. Not coincidentally, this definition works well for oligarchs, corporate aristocracy, and anyone else afraid of finding themselves on the business end of torches and pitchforks.
The second definition is currently in vogue with a large swath of the American left, especially among younger people. It’s easy to understand why Millennials favor systemic changes when the American promise of a better life over previous generations isn’t materializing on schedule. This version of Democratic Socialism, however, merely gives a new coat of paint and a few fixture upgrades to the same basic Capitalist system. Advocates speak favorably about the Nordic model, which itself requires a strong capitalist engine to fund robust social benefits (even as it underwrites the same entrepreneurial spirit Americans claim to embrace but often fail to achieve). This is Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this is Occupy, this is the protest cry of a generation which wants to succeed the same way their parents and grandparents succeeded, with affordable education, financially rewarding jobs, and a healthy margin of institutional protection during Capitalism’s inevitable downturns.
There is another definition of Socialism lurking out there, one with deeper historical roots and a greater commitment than the “socialism-lite” of the Berniecrats. Instead of throwing workers a few bones (Fight for $15, anyone?) while the profits from their labor inexorably flow upward (and outward towards offshore tax havens), Socialists would prefer that all workers control the means of production, sharing in both the benefits and responsibilities that entails. It also requires rethinking the whole purpose behind the production of goods. Under Capitalism, food is grown and shoes are manufactured to be sold for profit; if junk food and shoddy products sell well, that’s what you’ll get (if you can afford them, anyway). Wouldn’t it be more useful to grow food to feed people, and make shoes because people need good footwear? Socialism aims to fix this problem since the market fails to deliver.
Each of these groups faces challenges. To win the battle on behalf of the super-rich and corporate elites, the FOX fearmongerers need to stop making Socialism sound awesome to a generation that doesn’t remember the Berlin wall falling, but does know the struggle of trying to pay rising rents and exploding tuition simultaneously while making minimum wage. The Berniecrats face an uphill battle to implement a friendlier Capitalist paradigm, confronting an entrenched corporate juggernaut that’s threatened by “public options.” And old school Socialists must consider how to update their ideology to fit modern circumstances rather than those prevalent several decades ago.
Most importantly, though, we must bridge the communication gap. We keep using the word Socialism, but other people don’t think it means what we think it means. Without a doubt, this benefits those who deliberately obfuscate and sow discord among Americans in order to run away with the money and power while we’re at each other’s throats. However, working out of different tribal dictionaries does nothing to help us come together, honestly debate the merits of the options before us in good faith, and embark on the best road forward in an uncertain and troubled future. That takes real self-examination, holding the interests of other people on par with our own, and a lot of hard work. Are we even up for that anymore? Inconceivable!
Related: The Case for a Socialist America