Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?

Only in America is the word freighted with so much perceived menace.

By David Bentley Hart

Dr. Hart is a scholar of religion and a cultural critic.

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from the April 27, 2019, issue of The New York Times.

Related imageTo be trapped in the boarding area of a smallish airport in the upper Midwest is, as often as not, to be subjected to that bestial din of fricatives, gutturals, plosives and shrieks of hysterical alarm that constitutes political discussion on Fox News, pouring incessantly from those obnoxious pendulous ceiling televisions. And unless one fancies running the T.S.A.’s gantlet of gropers again, there’s no escape. The experience is especially nasty if one’s wait coincides with the prime-time shows hosted by those two almost indistinguishable fellows with the suety faces, bouffant coiffures and nerve-racking mezzo-castrato voices.

That fate, at least, I avoided a few weeks back. Instead, there I was with the commentator Ben Stein hovering over me like some grim heathen god, exuding all the effervescent charm of a despondent tree sloth, glumly wobbling his jowls and opining that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez espouses a political philosophy that in the past led to the rise of Hitler and Stalin.

Now, I realize that this has become axiomatic on America’s excitable right. I know also that in this country we employ terms like “socialism” with wanton indifference to historical details and conceptual distinctions. I grasp too that many among us truly believe that, say, a higher marginal tax rate or a public subsidy for poor children’s dentistry is only a step away from the gulags. And I am painfully aware that the male Fox commentariat nurtures its sickly obsession with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez partly because they resent her cleverness, charisma and moral vitality, but mostly because they suspect that in high school she was one of those girls they had no hope of getting a date with (though, really, she comes across as someone who could look past a face of even the purest suet if she thought she glimpsed a healthy soul behind it).

Absurd as it was, though, Mr. Stein’s remark was not all that far removed from mainstream American public opinion. Even the liberal “left” in this country is densely populated with politicians whose stated views on socialism seem scarcely more exact.

It may be amusing to hear Republicans assert that a military kleptocracy like Venezuela is a socialist country because its government uses that word when lying about itself (rather in the way that North Korea claims to be a people’s democratic republic). 

But fair’s fair, it’s not much less bizarre to hear a “progressive” like Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, assert that “socialism” simply means state seizure of all the means of production. (Had Marx and Engels only known this, they might have spared themselves the effort of denouncing the socialists of their time for failing to call for a completely centralized economy.)

Only here is the word “socialism” freighted with so much perceived menace. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.

In countries where, since World War II, the principles of democratic socialism have shaped public policy (basically, everywhere in the developed world except here), the lives of the vast majority of citizens, most especially in regard to affordable health care, have improved enormously. This is acknowledged by almost every political faction, whether “liberal” (like Social Democrats), “conservative” (like Christian Democrats) or “progressive” (like Greens). And the preposterous cost projections that American conservative propagandists routinely adduce to prove that “socialized medicine” or a decent public option would exhaust our Treasury are given the lie in each of those countries every day.

Democratic socialism is, briefly put, a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness that was historically — to a far greater degree than either its champions or detractors today often care to acknowledge — grounded in deep Christian convictions. I, for instance, am a proud son of the European Christian socialist tradition, especially in its rich British variant, as exemplified by F.D. Maurice, John Ruskin, William Morris, R.H. Tawney and many other luminaries (including, in his judiciously remote way, C.S. Lewis), but also in its continental expressions (see, for example, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, with its prescient warnings against the dangers of unfettered capitalism).

One need not idealize any of these nations or ignore the ways in which they differ in balancing public and private financing of civic services. But all of them are, broadly speaking, places where — without any unsustainable burden on the national economy — the cost of health care per capita is far lower than it is here and yet coverage is universal, where life spans are longer, where working people are not made destitute by serious illnesses, where a choice between food or pharmaceuticals need never be made, where the poor cannot be denied treatments by insurance adjusters, where pre-existing health conditions could never be denied coverage, where most people have far more savings and much lower levels of debt than is the case here, where very few families live only a paycheck away from total poverty, where wages generally keep pace with inflation, where every worker has decent vacation time each year, where suicide and opioid addiction are not the default lifestyle of the working poor, where homelessness is exceedingly rare, where retirement care is humane and comprehensive and where the schools are immeasurably better than ours are.

Americans, however, recoil in horror from these intolerable impositions on personal liberty. Some of us are apparently even, like Mr. Stein, canny enough to see the shadow of the death camps falling across the whole sordid spectacle. We know that civic wealth is meant not for civic welfare, but should be diverted to the military-industrial complex by the purchase of needless weapons systems or squandered through obscene tax cuts for the richest of the investment class. We know that working families should indenture themselves for life to predatory lending agencies. We know that, when the child of a working family has cancer, the child should be denied the most expensive treatments, and then probably die, but not before his or her family has been utterly impoverished.

We call this, I believe, being free. And as long as we have access to all the military-grade guns we could ever need to fight off invasions from Venus, and to assure that our children will be slaughtered at regular intervals in their schools, what else can we reasonably ask for?



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