I’m sure you have noticed that Republicans use a different dictionary than everyone else does. Their grasp of certain terms is shaky at best, and they like throwing around words they do not understand. These words often get people who are even more low-information (read: not very bright) all agitated and red-faced, and they get their crayons out to make angry, misspelled signs with, er, creative punctuation. It’s particularly entertaining when they combine two or more terms which mean mutually exclusive things together in one big rant.
The problem is that people who know better (read: people who actually know how to read, and who have discovered the mysterious and magical powers of Google) have to take the time to explain–when your drunken Uncle Harry calls Obama a “communist”–what communism actually is, and that takes time. Time that you will never, ever get back. Time you’d probably prefer to spend having a relaxing adult beverage or shooting hordes of zombies in a video game, or looking at funny cat images on The Interweebz. Next time, just link Uncle Harry to this article, if you find it helpful, and use the time you have saved to do something more productive.
Benjamin R. Barber at Huffington Post offers a good outline:
The President’s a socialist, Nancy Pelosi’s a communist, and Mr. Coons from Delaware is a bearded Marxist. Nice rhetorical ingredients to boil up in the Tea Party’s scalding kettle, but ridiculous [when touted as legitimate] philosophy, history or politics. I know that clarifying the actual meaning of such terms, deployed by ignorant zealots to vilify opponents in our over the top Congressional elections, is unlikely to make much of a political difference. People who use words as clubs are not really interested in their meaning. But just for the record, words do have meanings.
Concepts like libertarianism, liberal democracy, socialism and communism are meant to define attitudes about individualism and collectivism, limited government and big government, and distrust or trust of democracy. We actually have a rather ample store of such terms to frame our democratic beliefs and define the broad spectrum of attitudes we have about government, from total individualist enmity to any and all government to total collectivist affinity for the most corporatist forms of government. The spectrum reads, from pure liberty to pure statism as follows: anarchism, libertarianism, constitutional republicanism, liberal democracy, welfare state democracy, social democracy, socialism, communism (Marxism) and corporatism. [...]
[T]he American political discussion starting with the founding debate between advocates of limited government and advocates of democratic activism — between liberalism and. egalitarianism — and coursing on through the argument over the New Deal and the Great Society, right down to today’s contest about health policy, environmental oversight and financial regulation has pretty much occupied the space defined by this central part of the political spectrum. This means liberal democrats in the middle (Clinton) with limited government constitutional republicans (Reagan) and the occasional libertarian (Rand Paul) to the right and “welfare state democrats” (Nancy Pelosi) to the left. America has been defined by this centrist debate about how to reconcile individual liberty and democratic egalitarianism, both being seen as valuable. Socialism has never been an American option and certainly is not one today. If anything, the center of the debate has moved slighted to the right.
First up: SOCIALISM. Ooh, scary. To conservatives, socialism means “pick-pocketing me to pay for stuff I don’t like.” What they usually “like” just fine is letting the wealthiest among us skip out of paying their fair share in taxes and allowing huge corporations get away with off-shoring American jobs, not paying taxes, receiving huge subsidies, polluting our air and water, spending millions on (Republican) political causes, haranguing their employees to vote for particular (Republican) candidates, and paying their (Republican) CEOs enormous salaries and million-dollar bonuses. That’s OK. What they “don’t like” is helping the poor (including the working poor), unemployed, dependent children, elderly, hungry, needy, disabled and sick (including veterans). Which isn’t socialism, as the vast majority of the poor, unemployed, elderly, hungry, needy, disabled and sick have paid their taxes just like you have, and thus it is their money as much as it is anyone else’s. In some ways it is a type of insurance: “If I live in this country, and pay my taxes and contribute to Social Security with each paycheck, then–should I have the misfortune to fall on hard times–I won’t have to starve, or live on the streets, or die without prompt, proper medical care.”
These “Obama is a SOCIALIST! ZOMG!” people rarely complain about other things that could arguably be called “socialist” (though this is changing, with Republican attacks on Social Security, Medicare, national parks, the Arts, PBS, NPR, FEMA, science in general, and, in some communities, firefighters, which has led to people’s homes burning down while the fire department stands by and watches, because they were unable to afford an annual fire protection fee). Even some of the whiniest Republicans seem to be OK with public libraries, national museums, police, the military, 911 service, the national weather service, national disaster relief (yes, they are suddenly all for FEMA when a hurricane is bearing down on their state) and more: all arguably “socialist”. They just really hate the idea that they have to pay to help the less fortunate. It makes their tiny, Grinch-y, selfish hearts hurt. Sharing is hard! Robert N. Lee explains what socialism really is:
“Socialism” means total state or collective ownership of the means of production, as opposed to private ownership.
“The means of production” means: farm to floor, the whole shebang, the resources, the factories, the distribution, the infrastructural backbone (roads, rails, air, and every single thing involved), the stores, et cetera.
So…if you live in a country where you bought the computer or tablet or smart phone you’re reading this on from the government, and the government made that device out of materials the government gathered, and the sales person and the Geek Squad guy who spied on your pr0n at the store all work for the government, and you drove home from the store in the car you bought from the government, to look at your neat new phone that isn’t exactly “yours” in your government-owned house, you live in a socialist country.
Otherwise, you don’t.
In other words, the United States is nowhere near being a socialist country. Really.
Another helpful thing to understand is that socialism is a type of higher-level category, with communism being but one of several sub-categories. Pretend that socialism is the C: drive on your computer with communism, libertarian socialism, marxism (and so on) as folders on that drive (some of which then have sub-folders of their own). If we aren’t a socialist country, it stands to reason that we can’t be a flavor of socialism, either.
In capitalism, a person or group can own a factory, all the machines that produce the products, and all the products produced. Workers are hired to make the products and wages vary; people compete for better-paying positions and raises. The products are then sold, with the owner(s) keeping, as profit, the difference in price between what the product sells for and the cost of producing it.
In socialism, those who work in the factory own the factory (or workplace), machines and products. The workers sell the products and distribute the proceeds equally amongst themselves.
In communism, the entire community (or government) owns all the factories, all the machines, and all the products. The products are then either distributed within the community or sold, with profits being equally shared by all, even those who do not work in the factories.
Uncle Harry says Obama is a dirty communist. I think he’s wrong, and here’s why: communists do not believe in capitalism. They think it is damaging to the people, and that workers should unite and destroy capitalism via revolutionary means. Communists believe the government should own all the land, all the natural resources, and all industry. Under communist governments, everybody works, everybody gets paid the same amount, everybody gets taxed the same amount. The government owns everything and distributes it as it decides what is fair. According to The Communist Manifesto, communism has ten essential planks:
- Abolition of Private Property
- Heavy Progressive Income Tax
- Abolition of Rights of Inheritance
- Confiscation of Property Rights
- Central Bank
- Government Ownership of Communication and Transportation
- Government Ownership of Factories and Agriculture
- Government Control of Labor
- Corporate Farms and Regional Planning
- Government Control of Education
Unless you have been in a coma, you’re probably aware that industry is doing just fine in the United States, and CEOs are actually offended at the idea that the government might force them to follow regulations to keep them from grifting the less powerful, abusing workers, polluting the environment, and becoming monopolies. Why, if we were a communist system, would the government bother to set regulations? “Setting regulations for” is not equivalent in meaning to “owning all of” or “controlling every aspect of.” Wouldn’t a communist government just seize–and then own–all industry? Has Obama been busily forcing businesses to turn themselves over to the government when I wasn’t paying attention?
Do you know someone who owns some private property? Have you been able to purchase a home, including the land it sits on top of? Other than possibly referring to eminent domain (which is a sticky subject, as it has been abused before, usually by local governments and not the federal government), any wild-eyed people flipping out and screaming about the government being communist are 99% wrong: the government doesn’t own your house, you do (at least once you pay it off; before then, then bank owns it, and the government does not own each and every banking institution in the United States).
How are unions doing? Are all workers unionized? Could they overthrow the government? Probably not. Hasn’t the government–mostly at the city-level, via police officers–been busy quelling many protests which are arguably in support of the working class?
Does the government own all natural resources? Hmm, no, or there wouldn’t be regularly-occurring outrage over the price of gasoline. The price of gas is set by market speculators, not any representative of government; not even the President.
Do we have a Central Bank? We do not.
Does the government control all education for all citizens? No. We have public, private, and parochial schools and you can home school your kids, too.
How is capitalism doing? Simply super, thanks for asking. The rich are getting richer at an astonishing rate. The poor, not quite so much.
Is everyone working? No, even if they’d like to. It’s getting better, but we still have a lot of Americans who are unemployed.
Is everyone paid the same rate? Again, no, and the income disparity between CEO salaries and worker salaries has only widened in recent years.
Is everyone taxed the same rate? Again, no. If you are very poor, you don’t pay federal taxes (though you do pay into the system via stuff like payroll (FICA) taxes and sales taxes). If you are very rich, you probably take advantage of loopholes, tax credits, tax shelters, off-shore bank accounts, trusts and other accounting tricks to reduce what you have to pay in taxes. If you are a corporation making record profits, but are in a certain industry, you might not pay any taxes at all, like Bank of America and Exxon.
As for a “heavy” progressive tax, you can go to the Tax Policy Center website and examine what the top tax rate has been since the first day federal income tax was collected. SPOILER: Rich folks have, in the past, paid up to 92% of their income at the top tax rate. The top tax rate was an average of 70% for about fifty years, before Reagan took office in 1980. It has hovered around 35%, more or less, since. The top tax rate now is, indeed, about 35%, but very prosperous people like Mitt Romney pay nothing even close to the top tax rate (apparently he pays less than 15%). Under Clinton, the top tax rate was a whole whopping 4.5% more. That is what the 1% are butthurt about: they aren’t concerned that we may be returning to the top tax rate pre-Reagan, which was 70% on average (and which most of them were able to dodge legally paying), they are whining about the possibility of simply letting the Bush tax cuts for the very, very rich expire. They would be asked to pay a whole 4.5% more, and, again, most of the 1% will find ways to avoid paying it anyway. They would rather spend millions of dollars to try to force a pro-1%er into the White House than just pay their damn taxes like everyone else has to (and which the poorer folks pay in full since they do not have the luxury of hiring tax accountants to see how many ways they can avoid paying what they owe).
Does the government control all transportation and communication? No. The government has guidelines that transportation and communications-related businesses must follow, and the government often leads the way with research or funding (for example, DARPAnet started off as a government project, but has since become the Internet, which has global reach) but it does not own each and every form of transportation or communication in the United States.
Lastly, though some countries have tried communism out, it has never worked and probably never could, due to flaws of human nature. Whereas the idea of “perfect equality and fairness” might initially sound appealing, human nature dictates that everyone wants to have a little something extra that their neighbors do not have. (When not trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” we want to feel a little better off than everyone else, and if that means having the newest shiny bit of technology or the newest hairstyle or the newest shoes, so be it.) Those on any “committees” tasked with determining what is most fair for everyone else in the community typically become corrupt and abuse their positions, and accumulate hoarded resources. A black market springs up to offer luxury goods at an extortionate price (and “luxury” can mean, you know, a loaf of bread that isn’t moldy or stale yet).
Capitalism is safe and sound in the United States. Your angry Uncle Harry doesn’t want to believe it, perhaps, but it is true. Regulations are not the same thing as “control.” Unregulated capitalism is a disaster (see the bank collapse of 2008, and the LIBOR scandal, and TARP (thanks, Bush) and other industry bail-outs, some of which everyone approves of, and some that are controversial). Unregulated capitalism leads to bad decisions, such as trying to pretend corporations are people, and money is free speech; funny how that sort of thing benefits the wealthiest and most powerful among us, and not the average Joe out there.
Let’s just discuss three things that would be worse if privatized. One: prisons. When you make a profit off of keeping human beings locked up, what happens? You strive to find more people to lock up, and ways to keep them locked up longer. For-profit prisons only make money when they have incarcerated people. When they need to cut costs, they do so at the expense of the incarcerated, and with little outcry from the general public. Prisons and jails are meant to punish, right? So what of it if the imprisoned get smaller and less nutritious meals, or fewer recreational outlets, or if they are stacked up like cordwood in tiny cells (or forced to live in tent cities in a desert climate) when prisons become overcrowded? Screw the bad guys, right? Well, bad or not, they are human beings. And sometimes the human beings sent to prison are juveniles who have no business going to jail at all. With a little financial incentive, some corrupt judges actually recommend that children go to prison for the most minor of offenses:
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent kids to juvenile detention for crimes such as possession of drug paraphernalia, stealing a jar of nutmeg and posting web page spoofs about an assistant principal (3 months of hard time). Some of those sentenced were as young as 10 years old. A mother of one of those sentenced by judge Caivarella lashed out at him after the guilty verdict. Sandy Fonzo’s son, Edward, was a promising young athlete in high school when at the age of 17 he found himself in front of judge Caivarella for possession of drug paraphernalia. With no prior convictions, the judge sentenced Edward to months in private prisons and a wilderness camp…he missed his entire senior year in high school. Edward never recovered from the experience according to his mother and in June 2010 he took his own life at the age of 23.
Two: National disaster relief (currently handled by FEMA and organizations like the Red Cross). When a hurricane, Snowpocalype, or tornado devastates communities, especially when more than one state is affected, do you want a for-profit business handling life or death situations? Republicans do! Helping people is generally not profitable, you know. Having multiple privately-owned disaster relief corporations quibbling over who has jurisdiction over what would be a nightmare (PROTIP: all of them would want to handle the profitable part, such as selling disaster relief supplies like water and sand bags and work crews, but none of them will want to take on the expense of caring for injured, dying, or dead people or repairing anything). Have you noticed how much more efficiently disaster preparation and relief has been handled under President Obama? You just have to look at how Bush handled Hurricane Katrina to see the difference. Some services are, by their very nature, the amount of funding required, and potential multi-state impact, better handled by the government. It is morally and ethically reprehensible to suggest that disaster relief should be a for-profit business opportunity.
Three: Social Security. Republicans have been agitating to privatize Social Security for decades. If we privatized Social Security, banks and corporations would get their mitts on everyone’s Social Security funds, which currently reside in a secure trust. That trust is fully solvent and will be for decades. The cost of administrating that trust is nearly nil. Add bankers and corporations into the picture, however, and the first thing that happens is that Social Security has to pay out nearly 30% of those funds for administrative fees. Further, Social Security would then be held hostage to the ups and downs of the stock market. We saw how disastrous that could be in 2008, and the LIBOR scandal (where a handful of banks decided to play the rate fixing game) proves that bankers are not exactly motivated by altruistic and humane considerations. Corporations are all about privatizing profits, and socializing losses. Just laugh right in any Republican’s face who suggests that privatizing Social Security would be a good idea, or that it is somehow “doing badly,” because it is not. There’s another thing: if we raised the payroll tax ceiling or eliminated it altogether, Social Security would be funded in perpetuity. Dubya was against raising the payroll tax ceiling because he felt it was so very mean to pick on the poor millionaires and ask them to pay the same percentage of their annual salaries into the Social Security fund we all contribute to. Currently, someone earning tens of millions of dollars a year pays the exact same amount into FICA / Social Security as someone earning $110,000 a year. So, how about NO, Republicans? Hands off Social Security.
Not everything should be (or could be) effectively privatized, and it is notable that the political party which is most gung-ho about privatizing everything possible (which, again, benefits Big Business but not Average Joe Citizen) is Republicans. PROFIT ÜBER ALLES. Some things are better handled by federal government, especially things that deal with the health, well-being, safety and security of citizens in general. Republicans acknowledge this truism when they express love for the military, something that would be a total horror and failure if all fifty states were handling international conflicts individually. (And, of course, their so-called “love” doesn’t include supporting job programs for veterans, or healthcare for veterans, or social safety net programs for military spouses or survivor’s benefits. It might, in fact, include booing a gay veteran who has the temerity to a question at a Republican debate.)
On the plus side, the most war-hawkish states tend to be Red States, so maybe it would help them divert their obsession with war and guns into, you know, actual wars with guns. Somewhere else–probably a miserably hot and sandy place that they couldn’t find on a map–not here in the United States.
If your Uncle Harry really want to throw labels around, it would be more accurate to note that today’s Republican party has a lot more to do with fascism than ever before, not Obama or Democrats. I don’t know about you, but I find fascists a lot more frightening than socialists, especially when the people being called “socialists” actually aren’t, you know, socialist.