I happened to catch a podcast segment of Bernie Sanders on an episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week. At the very start of the interview, Maher went immediately to the issue of Bernie’s brand of “socialism.” Maher’s take was that Bernie should talk more about the things people already like about US socialism. He said that, since most Americans “don’t already realize we are already socialist,” Bernie ought to be reminding voters that US socialism already exists and they already love it, in the form of medicare, social security, the military, and the VA. Bernie responded with a list of uniquely American failures from which no other “major country on earth” suffers: We lack free tuition, paid family leave, guaranteed single-payer healthcare, and a stronger tax on the top 1%, for starters. Bernie’s point was that, while we may have some socialist programs, we are not yet a democratic socialist country, and that the democratic socialist societies of Europe have also figured out as developed nations how to meet the basic thresholds he listed.
Socialism for the masses has had its role in the United States. According to the formidable John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, and author of “The S-Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism,” the US was built with the contributions of many fans of conventional socialist thought. Likewise, in Bill Maher’s interview with Sen. Sanders, Maher seemed to be referencing these remnants, or at least an FDR-era short list of socialist victories in this country.
Here’s the thing, though. This is all true, even revealing, guiding and insightful. But, for today’s Bernie-built debate, I don’t think the big conversation to be having is whether we are already a little socialist in the ways Bill Maher suggested. And I don’t think the real zinger in the debates is ever going to be, “If Denmark could do it, so can we.” I think the crux of the “socialism” debate brought to the national stage by Bernie’s campaign is, indeed, that we already have socialism and always have had socialism, but mostly for the rich, and not generally for “We, the People.”
We do not socialize risk to any suitable (not to mention, moral) extent in the United States.
One in five children –our children– go hungry here at home. Student debt is at record levels and will surpass that of the debt that crippled the housing market and the economy. We continue to allow tens of millions to work and struggle day-to-day or paycheck-to-paycheck without adequate healthcare. Combine our homeless families, our crushing debt for middle and working class households, our malnourished, our incarcerated, and our undereducated, and we could easily fill 15 Denmarks, and then a refugee crisis of millions more pouring into the borders of the rest of Scandinavia and democratic socialist Europe.
No, when the United States socializes risk, we, in the big picture, don’t do it for ourselves; we do it for the big banks.
- When we socialize risk, we don’t do it as an investment in a future generation of competitive thinkers and problem-solvers;
-No, we do it for giant oil corporations salivating over oil and gas fields under the soil and sands of far away nations, or rupturing it into our rivers, oceans, coastlines, and neighborhoods.
- When we socialize risk, we don’t do it for our kids, too hungry to focus at all, let alone in school;
-No, we do it for war profiteers, too overcome with the addiction of greed to see past the next multi-billion dollar handout, too often in the form of another subsidized fighter plane that will never be used in the next corporatist war party, or worse, one that will be.
The point is, obviously, we do socialize risk, massively, by the trillions, so we aren’t only a very, very socialist society, but we are the world’s largest socialist system, by far.
The meaty part of the debate isn’t whether we are socialist. We bailed out the banks alone for $17 trillion in public money and trillions more in lost revenue, home values, incomes… The issue is not just about if we have always been a socialist nation subsidizing the addiction to wealth and power for the super rich and powerful. The issue is about whether we are ready to start covering our needs by taking back a fraction of the wealth and power we have invested and injected into the veins of the corporate class.
The way the Sanders-inspired socialism question has been discussed so far has left out the glaringly obvious reality of American socialism: it’s for, of and by the ruling class, and, as Michael Parenti puts it, “there’s only one thing the ruling class has ever wanted, and that’s everything.” So, in case you hadn’t noticed, in the United States of America, it’s socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest.
Since this nation’s beginnings, the richest and most powerful interests began using and abusing the substances of wealth and power to build and reinforce a system that would guarantee access to their substance. So, today, compromised workers, consumers and voters manufacture the ingredients of their addictive substance: wealth and power. Corporate cartels then threaten the food on the table and the shoes on the kids unless we sell our wealth and power to them for a fraction of the actual value. Next, lobbyist pushers make sure our elected officials have begun using and abusing, if not only enabling the addicts in both corporate and elected office. Once in a while, some muscle is called-in to send a message about what happens if you don’t go along to get along. Politicians spend more than half of every day raising more and more campaign powder.
Every one of them, like most in denial about their addiction, will tell you that they’re really the ones in control, that they don’t have a problem, and that they can quit anytime they want.
As they continue to take more and more from us to feed the bottomless pit of this national disease, we have less and less, and feel the desperation that makes people turn on one another, passing blame for all the symptoms, instead of taking on the illness at its source. And for some unhealthy, codependent reason, we stay in a relationship with this partner, fighting over whether we have collectively paid, with the wealth, health, and power of generations past and future, for all the damage his addiction has done and will continue to do.
The question isn’t whether we’re going to continue to be pitted against one another like gladiators covered in the logos of our power-addicted owners insisting on their socialist system. The question is whether we’re ready to take care of one another with a fraction of the subsidized wealth handed over to take care of the big banks, the pharmaceuticals, the corporate media conglomerates, the insurance giants, the “defense” contractors and the fossil fuels behemoths, to name a few. It’s never, ever been about whether we’re socialist; it’s only ever been a question of who gets the benefits of socialism and who gets stuck with the kind of raw, unfiltered, unsubsidized capitalism that we’ve let into our lives, our homes, and our communities for far too long. We all know our past has been built on socialism for the corporate class and their insatiable cravings for more and more of our wealth and our power. Now is the time to draw strong boundaries in this toxic, abusive relationship to a corporate elite blinded by their addiction. Now is the time to socialize not a system driving us all to hit rock bottom, but instead, to socialize the many hundreds of millions of risks taken in service to corporate wealth and power everyday in this country.
Later in this same episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation magazine said that social security was “the greatest anti-poverty program” in the nation. I would add the exception of a well-organized working class. From time to time, greed gets the best of those at the helm of our society, and only an intervention from those suffering most at the hands of the addicts can push in the direction of recovery. That’s how we got social security in the first place. And medicare. And any of the social programs listed in last week’s episode in the exchange between Bernie Sanders and Bill Maher. And of course, a national intervention continues to be our only fighting chance toward recovery today, including any of the guarantees that separate us from every other industrialized nation on earth. Until then, it would seem we work very hard at financing our own slavery.
In the first Democratic debates of the 2016 general auction season, (brought to you by CNN, owned and operated by TimeWarner, top donor to Hillary Clinton), moderator Anderson Cooper went swiftly for Sanders’ identity: Is Bernie a capitalist or a socialist? Bernie’s response referenced Denmark and then the “casino-like” capitalism of Wall Street. While touching on this idea of the reckless, addictive gambling behavior of the financial sector, it didn’t quite go so far as to surface the kind of wild socialism we actually do practice in the US just to keep Wall Street’s roulette table rolling our dice at all other costs.
From now on, maybe people might handle the S-word question more directly.
The answer is simple:
“Let’s not be naive. In this country we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest.
The question isn’t whether we are socialist. The question is, simply:
‘Do we really want to continue American socialism for the billionaires and their corporations?’”