Have All My Radical Friends Settled Down?

Capitalism, Socialism, and the life of labels

Suburban liberals like me are accustomed to the middle of the road, but the folks on the left side of the street are getting antsy. In their restlessness, more and more are calling themselves “socialist.” Quite a fracas has ensued, including warnings from the right about Soviet-style gulags and counter-accusations of straw-manning. All this background noise needs to be sorted out. To get clear, like an evangelist at your front door, we should ask, how did we get here, what are we doing, and where are we going?

First, to acknowledge the obvious, right-wingers in the United States have lost their minds. We can argue over whether it’s actually new, whether it was inevitable, or what have you. Suffice it to say, the overwhelming majority of the American Right now supports a president who’s more or less just a reality-TV star whose main political strategy consists in authoritarian-style demagoguery deployed against the American people in tweets and at rallies. It’s bad. It’s, I hope we make it through this dark period intact, bad.

The political rupture has caused some serious scrambling on the left. After all, said reality TV star defeated an experienced and qualified member of the liberal establishment in Hillary Clinton. When liberals fail, leftists lie in wait. This dynamic is typical of the historic competition between bourgeois liberalism and populist leftism, and a more specific pressure on the liberal establishment has been building since the financial crisis of 2007–08. Mostly though, so long as a measurable progress was being achieved, the political forces at the edges could be kept at bay. But now there’s no progress. Now it’s all going up in flames. The Obamacare mandate is gutted, conservatives are poised to take over the majority on the Supreme Court for the first time in decades, the federal bureaucracy is under attack, and white-identity politics is exploited to drive division and resentment. All this while our reality TV star-in-chief rubs our noses in it on a daily basis. I could go on, but the real question is, if this is how conservatives choose to treat the liberal center’s piecemeal and pragmatic reforms, leaving us in this awful political wilderness, why not try something truly radical instead?

It’s an argument with no clear retort. Liberals themselves are commonly accused of being socialist just for favoring mildly progressive reforms, so if we’re going to get called radical either way? In any case, along with a lot of other people nowadays, we should notice that socialism isn’t necessarily radical at all. Technically, “socialism” is used to refer to a political arrangement in which the government owns and operates the means of economic production. But it’s also used to refer to a Scandinavian/Nordic model which simply adds a large welfare state on top of a capitalist mode of production. When the political sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is asked to define her socialist stance, like Bernie Sanders before her, she lays out something more akin to a Scandinavian welfare state than a Soviet-style command and control economy.

So what’s with all the fuss? This all looks a little more like Denmark than Cuba, like Sweden than the Soviet Union. Something even a middle-of-the-road suburban liberal like me could embrace. You can take my prognostications with a grain of salt, given my shock at Hillary Clinton’s loss, but a more Scandinavian/Nordic version of socialism is likely the most extreme form that has a chance in hell of thriving in the U.S. So are people worried about the normalization of the term socialism? Do they think a more robust welfare state will be a slippery slope toward a leftist form of totalitarianism? Are they simply engaging in a kind of unfair red-baiting? The answer to these questions is yes, but it only gets us half-way to an understanding.

A camper receives help in fitting a coat from a sewing instructor of the Works Progress Administration, a vital New Deal program. At Shafter camp for migratory agricultural workers (Farm Security Administration-FSA), California. Library of Congress

Amidst the historic competition between liberalism and leftism is a relationship of mutuality. The New Deal was heavily influenced by socialists, some of whom were disappointed that their ideas were being used to “save Capitalism.” Perhaps partly because of this proximity, liberals have had to watch their backs to avoid the “commie” accusation, during McCarthyism, and more recently, conservatives using rhetorical short-cuts like calling milquetoast liberal reform “socialist” may have actually helped mainstream the term. This caricatured overuse of the socialist accusation may have also mainstreamed the relatively tame “social democracy,” and in particular universal health care.

Yet, the underlying reality is that genuine radicalism is more emboldened on the left than at any time since maybe the 1960’s. There will be plenty of red-baiting in our future that will unfairly paint policies with wide support as radical, but really, radicals on the left are not at all settling down. They’re gearing up. Many people on the mainstream liberal-left have a kind of selective knowing (which I’m sure is true on the right as well, but that’s a topic for another day) wherein they couch every motive and policy on the left as perfectly normal and not at all outside the sensibilities of the mainstream. “Of course Bernie and AOC are just talking about something like Sweden!” is the complaint. The implication of which is that the characterization of our socialism du jour as radical can only come in bad faith.

Indeed there are plenty of bad faith examples to choose from, but there really are genuinely radical political spaces on both sides, and these radical spaces blend with the mainstream in a give and take. Either knowingly or not, denying or dismissing the existence of the relationship with the radical edges is as much a part of the political game as falsely accusing others of being radical. It’s not the case that there’s some secret radical cabal behind the scenes, controlling it all. Rather, just actual people, in plain sight, who say that they’re actually socialists, you know, in the real sense.

Some socialists would bristle at the notion that they’re in favor of large nation-state socialism, preferring instead some version of collective anarchism, but the point is that plenty of people on the left have a worldview well beyond the boundary set by a Scandinavian welfare state. Some of these people find an ideological home in the organization behind AOC’s insurgent candidacy, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA chapters are independent so one cannot presume that every expression from the DSA represents AOC’s views. Local independence is an advantage for grass-roots organizing, and also lets some of the pressure off of trying to keep everyone on script.

But, certainly the stated views of DSA members count for something, and among those members, you don’t have to look very far to find views outside the Overton Window. From calls to “abolish profit,” to outright denials that DSA members are just New Deal liberals, there are actual people on the left publicly expressing sincerely held radical views. So on the one hand, socialism can simply mean a stronger welfare state, or it can encompass truly radical outlooks. On the other hand, even a left-edge member of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, Senator and possible 2020 presidential contender Elizabeth Warren, in the midst of laying out a solidly progressive agenda, felt the need to declare “I’m a capitalist to my bones.” Bernie Sanders is sometimes cagey about the question of entirely what his socialism entails, and AOC usually just lays out the agenda items. We don’t typically hear any specific lines being drawn to exclude genuine socialists, the way mainstream democrats occasionally do in distancing from more radical appearing elements on the left. All of which raises the question: shouldn’t Bernie Sanders and AOC disassociate from the controversial radical left so we can finally put this semantic argument about behind us?

Before we take this question too seriously, why should they? Seriously. Why should people using the term socialism have to bend over backwards to clarify that they mean a more non-threatening version, rather than, say, a full-bore seizure of private property? It’s true that the technical, academic definition of socialism entails that the government essentially owns all the means of economic production, but why doesn’t capitalism signify the opposite? That is to say, why doesn’t Elizabeth Warren, after professing her commitment to capitalism, have to fend off years worth of questions over whether she means something more extreme? Perhaps we should wonder if she secretly believes in a “night-watchman” state, where police keep the peace and workers build the roads, but other than that, it’s pedal-to-the-metal private industry, with no unions, no wage laws, and no regulation to speak of?

Even the monarchy couldn’t stop fat cat capitalism

In Elizabeth Warren’s case, we know that’s not what she’s advocating, because we know a lot about her general beliefs, but it wouldn’t work any differently in the mouth of another person. If a mayoral candidate professes a commitment to capitalism at the next town-hall meeting, chances are that candidate will not automatically be suspected of being an extreme right-winger. That’s because, by and large, “capitalism” is a domesticated word. Capitalism signifies good things like innovation, freedom, and a robust economy. In mainstream political discourse, it doesn’t mean exploitation, severe inequality, and wildly disproportionate political influence. What’s worse, there is no equivalent word for the left, with equally potent and positive signifying power. I’m tempted to say, it’s not fair.

As a linguistic community, we seem to have tasked ourselves with explaining why we prefer capitalist fire to socialist water, if you will. Looked at literally - fire vs. water - it starts to seem a little ridiculous. People rarely have arguments over whether or not fire is better than water, as everyone already understands that neither are good or bad by themselves, and that both must be harnessed to extract their creative potential while protecting against destructive possibilities. We have no such linguistic parity when discussing the labels of capitalism and socialism.

Still, meaning isn’t found only in consulting academic definitions, but also in how people use words in everyday contexts (as Wittgenstein would counsel, meaning is use). People don’t tend to mean anything radical when employing the term “capitalism” but “socialism” does tend to have a radical connotation in the U.S. There are probably some bad reasons for this, but at the same time, the way people currently use words should seem to garner at least some level of deference. How much latitude in word-use you give folks like Bernie Sanders and AOC likely overlaps with your sympathy for their project. I count myself significantly, but not boundlessly sympathetic. That is to say, I too roll my eyes when I see overwrought warnings from conservatives on the danger of normalizing the term “socialism,” conjuring up totalitarian fears. But conversely, there is no cause for folks on the left to see these conservative warnings as completely arbitrary. There are radicals in the vicinity of the socialist movement who, granted, aren’t generally in favor of gulags and violent cultural revolutions, but nevertheless hold views well outside even AOC’s stated agenda. And neither side works particularly hard to distance themselves from the other.

To bring this exploration home, if a change in the way we talk about what’s politically possible can take place, then labels matter, and trying to change the way labels are used will be a part of the project. Even in the absence of such conscious linguistic engineering, the uses of words often change over time. From a wider scope than our current argument over words, there is nothing new or exotic about this process. Whether members and allies of the DSA and the like are genuinely radical or not, all desire to rehabilitate “socialism.” Some in the base want to rehabilitate the term because they’re genuinely socialist in the technical sense, others, because they’ll need a term on par with “capitalism” even for Scandinavian style reform over the long-term. Reclaiming a word might necessitate simply beginning to use it in an audacious fashion, in a way you know will rankle some observers, and then pushing back when they try to nail you down on the meaning. Especially if the goal is to create a playing field wherein people don’t have to be subject to such scrutiny when using the previously tainted term.

There is a more prosaic reason to stop short of disavowal, and that’s that the DSA base is, well, the base, and it’s not wise to cast your net more narrowly unless you stand to gain something bigger. The mainstream of the Democratic Party is not where the most recent push for medicare-for-all, free college, and a $15 per-hour minimum wage came from, and party leaders have pushed back on the notion that socialism in any form is ascendant in the party. What’s more, the DSA provides tangible and intangible help in the form of foot-soldiers and moral motivation. Maybe someday, on the a cusp of a major political breakthrough, a “socialist” will have to admit, Elizabeth Warren style, the capitalism in the bones of the American body politic. When that day comes, many a DSA member will groan, and many a Democratic Party operative will breathe a sigh of relief.

Until then, while we don’t know how far socialists will go to rehabilitate their label, as it stands we already have a few significant clues. Taken by themselves or even together these clues provide no proof, but nevertheless point in the direction we’re heading. Aside from the fact that Bernie Sanders and AOC only ever highlight more Scandinavian/Nordic agenda items, Sanders likes to invoke the New Deal when asked to defend his stance, and we can’t forget that when push came to shove, he endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, even going so far as to wrangle the Bernie or Bust crowd after endorsing Clinton. Most recently, AOC has sought to distance herself from the horrors of Venezuelan socialist policy and draw nearer to the efficiencies of Norway’s. It doesn’t take much foresight to disassociate from policies that have contributed to the humanitarian disaster in Venezuela, but that along with the mention of Norway is an unmistakable gesture toward the mainstream.

What all this shows is that we’re about to see a previously radical political label gain admittance to non-controversial use. This partially reflects a genuine constituency that’s forced the issue, partially an ironic effect of conservative hyperbole in describing middling Democratic proposals and candidates, and partially because of the seeming failure of mainstream, technocratic liberal policy. We’ll still suffer through what will undoubtedly be more fruitless debates over the meaning of capitalism and socialism, but eventually more substantive policy arguments will begin in earnest, because even the softer form of socialism AOC advocates constitutes further steps to the left that the U.S. has taken since the New Deal. Even while a more diluted form of socialism crowds out true radicalism, the sights and sounds, that is, the optics of political expression will continue to be more infused with genuine radicalism from the left. Political signs, social media battles, and general agitation will be the means of continuing to change the discourse - a stylistically radical but substantively domesticated socially democratic platform. To this imminent state-of-affairs suburban liberals like me can only say: Comrades, Unite!