The Big S: Its Implications and Relations to Modern Society
“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”
-Hubert H. Humphrey
It’s old news now that John McCain has been calling Barack Obama a socialist. Mostly, he’s citing what Obama said to everyman archetype “Joe the Plummer” when they met.
Joe: “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
Obama: “It’s not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance for success too. My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody … I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Therein lies the question: Does Obama’s word use imply Socialism? What is Socialism?
Socialism refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and the creation of an egalitarian society Modern socialism originated in the late nineteenth-century working class political movement. Karl Marx posited that socialism would be achieved via class struggle and a proletarian revolution which represents the transitional stage between capitalism and communism.
Socialists mainly share the belief that capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth among a small segment of society that controls capital and creates an unequal society. All socialists advocate the creation of an egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are distributed more evenly, although there is considerable disagreement among socialists over how, and to what extent this could be achieved.
Socialism is not a discrete philosophy of fixed doctrine and program; its branches advocate a degree of social interventionism and economic rationalization, sometimes opposing each other. Another dividing feature of the socialist movement is the split on how a socialist economy should be established between the reformists and the revolutionaries. Some socialists advocate complete nationalization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange; while others advocate state control of capital within the framework of a market economy. Social democrats propose selective nationalization of key national industries in mixed economies combined with tax-funded welfare programs; Libertarian socialism (which includes Socialist Anarchism and Libertarian Marxism) rejects state control and ownership of the economy altogether and advocates direct collective ownership of the means of production via co-operative workers’ councils and workplace democracy.
So what does Obama mean by spreading the wealth? Individuals making over $200,000 annually (couples $250,000) will go from the current 35% to 39% (Chicago Sun Times), the rate they were under the Clinton administration which managed to produce a budget surplus by the end Clinton’s term. This rate hike would be used to pay for several things the country needs, i.e. spreading the wealth, so to speak.
But my real point here was not to dwell on Obama’s plan. It was to study and discuss the use of the term Socialism in an election being decided quite possibly by those of us from ages 18-35. My question is: does Socialism and Communism still mean what it did, say, during John McCain’s day?
Red Scare has been retroactively applied to two distinct periods of strong anti-Communism in United States history: first from 1917 to 1920, and second from the late 1940s through the late 1950s. These periods were characterized by heightened suspicion of Communists and other radicals, and the fear of widespread infiltration of Communists in U.S. government.
McCarthyism is a term describing the intense anti-communist suspicion in the United States in a period that lasted roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. This period is also referred to as the Second Red Scare, and coincided with increased fears about communist influence on American institutions and espionage by Soviet agents. Originally coined to criticize the actions of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, “McCarthyism” later took on a more general meaning, not necessarily referring to the conduct of Joseph McCarthy alone.
During this time many thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and even imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.
I’ll make the correlation here: John McCain was born in 1936 and was a teenager during part of the McCarthy era. The word Socialism probably has much darker meaning to him, and people in older generations, than it does to people like us. What I’d suggest is that, while it probably does turn a few heads when McCain bandies a word like Socialist about, the word has mostly lost its meaning, its deeper weight. Young people, of which I’ve heard many times have the possibility to decide this election, do not connect Socialism to anything negative or anything positive either, unless they have some sort of background or teaching in it. We did not grow up in a time when the Communists were “out to get us” and therefore it is not an emotional response that is evoked when the term is used.
So really, I don’t think this technique being used by the McCain/Palin campaign is a useful one. My personal theory is that it is lost on many, if not most, of the current voting public. As always, though, I invite people to respond with their ideas. Intelligent discourse is always valuable, and I am more than interested to hear what other people believe, especially those new voters and people in the 18-30 demographic.