In November of 2018, the United States held the midterm elections. It elected dozens of brand new faces to Congress; including the now infamous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). She is a “Democratic Socialist” and is a Congresswoman for New York’s 14th district. AOC’s success ushered in an entirely new era of democratic politicians. She proved that more radical policies can be popular and added to the growing pool of “socialists” in Congress. Bernie Sanders and AOC are the two most prominent democratically socialist thinkers in government right now. With this shifting climate against “the elites” in mind, it’s important to examine the ideas people are putting forth with a critical eye.
America has, in general, not received socialism well. Looking back in history, we see the Red Scare in the 1950s and other, smaller incidents in the 20s and 70s. The country has viewed socialism, communism, and any other anti-capitalist system as foreign and dangerous. More importantly, people view them as un-American and counter to the value of personal responsibility. However, with all this panic and praise around socialism and capitalism, it’s easy to haphazardly define these systems.
Examples of Socialism
The nations that people point to as successes and failures flip-flop from Venezuela, Cuba, Finnland, Russia, Ukraine, and Bolivia, but these nations couldn’t be more different. Ignoring the variance in culture, GDP, imports and exports, and governmental leadership, their economic systems are drastically different.
Venezuela’s economy is in shambles and its people are suffering. This fact is undeniable and uncontroversial. However, what is debatable is why its economy is so out of shape. Venezuela is one of the nations that people point to as an example of a nation under true socialism. Free-market capitalists tend to argue that socialism, full stop, was the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. On the other hand, people more sympathetic to socialism tend to blame the problem on everything except socialism.
Trying to Define Socialism
For either of these to be true, there needs to be a set definition of socialism. Going from the original definition of socialism, no one could call Venezuela a socialist nation. In fact, “the workers seizing the means of production” couldn’t describe any nation alive today. That definition is suspiciously similar to the definition of Marxism, but Marxism is different from socialism. Chiefly, socialism allows for the existence of the state while Marxism is inherently stateless. Generally, “the workers” in reference to socialism actually refers to “the people”. Ultimately, this translates to “the State”.
Socialist scholars, however, don’t seem to agree on this definition. There is an extensive and ever-growing list of socialist philosophers, writers, and thinkers with different ideas. There is intense disagreement within socialist circles about what constitutes a theoretical socialist society.
Moreover, disagreement exists about what a practical socialist society would look like. Some believe socialism is a less radical version of Marxism. Others see it as simply the redistribution of capital. Perhaps it is only classlessness. Is it actually government control of the market? Some Marxists consider socialism to be a misinterpreted and misimplemented version of Marxism. But the truth is, no one really seems to know.
The Hodgepodge of Economic Labels
This is how we come to see people with good intentions using the same heading to describe Finland and Venezuela. If we consider the Nordic model to be socialism, the thing which makes them socialist is their welfare state. By that logic, America and Canada are also socialist nations: at least in part. They would be not socialized systems, rather, they’d just be poorly executed socialism.
Alternatively, if we describe socialism as what Venezuela has, the defining factor would be governmental monopolies. This would describe America in at least one way, as the state has a monopoly on violence wherever it exists. It would also describe the healthcare systems of countries like Canada and the UK.
Ultimately, describing a nation as “socialist” is just as helpful as describing it as “good” or “bad”. It says less about the country itself and says more about the person calling it socialist. However, unless they are specifically referencing the original definition of socialism Marx laid out, the label is meaningless and unhelpful. There are simply too many varying schools of socialist thought for the word to adequately define a country.
Socialists and Marxists constantly argue with each other and their other schools of thought on the basis of everyone but them being “bourgeois revisionists”. It turns out, everything is “not real socialism” or “not real Marxism”. But in reality, “revisionism” is just the natural progression of developing any type of philosophy to a wide academic audience.
How We Should Really Define an Economy
What matters more than the arbitrary assignment of economic labels is practical action. Marxism, communism, and socialism are all invented economic systems with impractical real-world applications. It’s the only thing we can expect. This is the reason systems like Leninism and Maoism are very easy to define. For one, they described systems which already existed or were going to exist. The reason capitalism and feudalism don’t fall into the same trap is that they already existed. People only described them after they came into existence somewhat naturally, or at least out of an accident.
What is more useful is an examination of the real qualities of each nation’s economy. Socialism, or any other vague label, didn’t cause the problems in Venezuela. Economic mismanagement, atrocious leadership, and an economy that relied almost entirely on oil did. These would cripple any country, regardless of a free market, tax plans, and healthcare.
On the contrary, Finland and Denmark are so successful because their markets are some of the freest in the world. The EU assists them and foreign nations cover their military expenses. The Chinese economy is the second largest in the world because they have a tremendous amount of exports. However, GDP doesn’t necessarily mean the economy serves the people within it, and the morality of any given economic style is always up for debate.
Addressing the Real Arguments
It isn’t right or logical to dismiss politicians like AOC on the basis of them being “socialists”. Moreover, that assignment does nothing to point out, contest, or to praise the real policies a politician proposes. It’s less an argument of value or goodness, but rather an easy way to dismiss ideas you don’t like. There are plenty of bones to pick with “socialist politicians” but supposed or self-described socialist ideals are not enough. The different schools of economic thought are made up of qualities which we can separate from their prescriptive labels.
A proposal may limit the free market, which damages specific areas of the economy. They may suggest a policy that destroys a certain job market. Any concrete example of political missteps is better than chucking a meaningless label at a person’s image. We must address real ideas, not a pejorative strawman. This is the only way we will have hope of honest political discourse.
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