The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 18, 2009

Socialism: A nasty word only in the United States


Socialism – the enemy of America, so it’s been preached to us by business and political leaders, by editorialists and letter writers. The word is wildly misused and thrown about, like a cuss word against anything vaguely liberal, by the thoughtless. Its strict meaning is the ownership of the means of production by the state, not much practiced by any Western democracies these days, except for the ownership of some transportation companies.

Capitalism is its antagonist, a term pretty disgraced by its ruthless, exploitive history of workers and the public in both Europe and America, now replaced by nice sounding terms like “free market.”

Socialism isn’t a nasty word in much of the rest of the world. In every Western European country, the governing or main opposition party is the traditional socialist party, “social democrats,” or labor party in Britain. Now, they are mainly capitalist, but with strong roots in protecting the majority of their workers’ wages and benefits.

Some socialist countries, such as the Soviet Union, were repressive dictatorships, but most socialist parties emphasize the “democratic” in their names.

On the other hand, many capitalist countries turned into brutal military oppressions at the behest of their business elites.

Here, the Democrats are supposed to be the party of the ordinary people and the workers, but their dependence on corporate campaign contributions makes them as much a party of capitalism and business, as we saw recently with their massive support of the bankers and their bowing to the private insurance and drug company interests on the health-care bill.

It is deemed unpatriotic in our country to believe that anyone, anywhere, has a life as good as Americans do, that we are a classless society in some sense, that people get what they work for, and that socialism rewards those who are shiftless and irresponsible.

In many ways, though, ordinary people, in Western Europe especially, get a better economic deal. For starters, other developed countries provide health care for all, more importantly better health care, shown in important measures like infant mortality and longevity, and at much less cost.

Only among the aged do we keep up, because, under Medicare, all seniors are covered (See T.R. Reid’s “The Healing of America”). European countries like Germany mandate five weeks of vacation, others provide paid family leave (unpaid in the U.S. when available), more extensive child care for working parents, longer unemployment compensation, better financial support for schooling (such as paid medical school costs), and a higher minimum wage.

Some decades back, Americans may have been better off.

If they realized how they have fallen behind in many areas, would they demand changes?

Our newspapers all have business sections, but none run a labor section to cover the interests of the 90 percent in that category. Since these benefits are all opposed by America’s business elite, we aren’t liable to even hear much about them, much less get them. They are dismissed as “socialist,” even though they are just what any country as wealthy as ours should be providing its citizens.

We do give great tax breaks to our richest, great bonuses to our bank executives along with subsidization of their failures to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars (socialism for the rich.)

European countries are not socialist by any accurate definition. But labeling them so enables our leaders to avoid comparisons that show that these countries may have better deals for the average person in a number of areas.

George W. Bush did his best to undermine Social Security. The Republicans never favored Medicare, despite their pretense now that they are defending it in the health-care debate. Thus, even these social welfare measures that the U.S. has – and where would our seniors be today without them? – are routinely attacked. No wonder such critics don’t want us to realize that we could have other benefits from our wealth than wasting it on big tax cuts for the rich and expensive foreign wars.

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johnstown.