What is socialism? For academics it’s a systematic way of organizing the distribution of goods and services. Said former President Harry S. Truman, in reference to socialism’s opponents: “Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.” Dr. Martin Luther King later observed ironically that, in light of American racial and economic inequality: “We have socialism for the rich and rugged free-enterprise capitalism for the poor.”
To utter the word in public in today’s America is to open a red-hot can of worms. People who can’t quite define socialism use it as a convenient curse. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. In the spirit of Michael Moore’s 2009 Capitalism: A Love Story, director Yael Bridge’s energetic new documentary The Big Scary “S” Word builds its argument for socialism—perhaps our society’s most widely misunderstood political/ philosophical system—on a case-by-case, ground-level basis, with plenty of help from the history books and such public figures as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, philosophy professor Cornel West and sociologist Adaner Usmani.
Bridge’s entertaining history lesson lays it out clearly. The friction between cooperative living and the proprietary interest began about the time that hunter-gatherers were first notified that someone else owned the land they considered open to everyone. With the enshrinement of private property and the profit motive, labor became a salable commodity and the concept of rent reared its ugly head. Taken to its extreme, this fundamental inequality eventually led to the current situation, in which the five richest persons on the planet—go ahead, guess who they are—own more wealth than 3.5 billion of their fellow human beings.
Economic inequality in the 21st-century United States is, of course, shockingly widespread. The battle between diehard capitalism—and its apologists—and working people goes back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century. Surprisingly, socialist thinking has deep roots in the U.S. Organized labor, workplace rules, occupational safety regulations, Social Security, the minimum wage and unemployment compensation are just part of the legacy of socialist action. Poet Walt Whitman was an American socialist, as were disabled rights activist Helen Keller, scientist Albert Einstein, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., author James Baldwin and Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. One of the doc’s talking heads points out that Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential campaign platform was to the left of Bernie Sanders’.
Here are a few factoids to chew on: The U.S. abolition of slavery during the Civil War was the largest transfer of wealth in human history, according to one of the doc’s experts. Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party—the latter-day hideout of corporate pirate Donald Trump—was founded on the principles of anti-slavery socialism. Furthermore, Lincoln and Karl Marx, the founder of communism, famously exchanged views with each other on the issues of slavery and labor in 1865—their letters were published in newspapers in the U.S. and Britain.
However, the ownership class continues to tenaciously fight back against workers’ rights. Low wages and debt, the twin nemeses of working Americans, have been wrecking families since the 1970s. The Wall Street Bailout of 2008—also known as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act—left everyone else in the country behind, while rescuing the bankers. The current Coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the inequality. “Capitalism may even destroy the possibility of human life [through climate change],” warns sociologist Vivek Chibber.
What’s a struggling American wage-earner to do? The first challenge sounds abstract but makes sense: rebuild faith in ourselves for a more equitable economic/social system. Support organized labor and collective bargaining. Keep in mind Harvard sociologist Usmani’s blueprint for a just economic principle: in the best of all possible worlds we wouldn’t have preconceptions about each other, and we’d all be in this together equally. This Labor Day weekend, see The Big Scary “S” Word and take a long, hard look around you.