On New Year’s Day, I was skimming the various web and social media feeds that I track to have a sense of what’s going on day to day around the Commonwealth, and I noticed a headline from the Enterprise, “Cape official under fire for civil war question.” Intrigued, I read what turned out to be a news brief reporting that a conservative Barnstable County commissioner named Ron Beaty was facing criticism for a question he had asked on Twitter the previous day.
Now I could certainly give the commissioner some grief in print here. That quote is over the top, yes. And he’s done some questionable stuff in his life and his political career. But readers can look him up if they want to see those details. That’s not why I’m mentioning him.
I bring him up because I don’t think Beaty knows what socialism is. And he can be forgiven for that. The vast majority of Americans have no idea what it is. Even though significant minorities have started to say they support socialism in some polls (which are designed by pollsters who have no more idea of what socialism is than their fellow Americans do).
Before I discuss why that is the case, allow me to briefly review my understanding of what the term means.
In 2017, I wrote a fun column entitled “Progressive Confusion” aimed at demolishing the idea that “progressive” means anything in politics anymore—because I noted that all major political factions in the US describe themselves as progressive when convenient. For the sake of clarity, I created a glossary of key terms for the piece. And this is how I defined socialism: “A political economic system based on democratic control of the means of production and their operation for the public good.”
That’s it. That’s the basic definition of the term. Karl Marx, the most famous and successful proponent of socialism, thought of it as an extension of democracy from the formal political sphere (where it still didn’t exist in most countries when he began his career) into the workplace (where it can be said to exist in only a relative handful of co-operative and nonprofit enterprises in the 21st century). And a transitional phase to the projected classless society that would be communism.
But most Americans think socialism means either a) the imposition of a horrendous military dictatorship synonymous with fascism or Nazism that will allow the US government to take all their stuff, enslave them, and eventually kill them; or b) a welfare state where the government makes sure their basic needs are met.
Neither view is entirely wrong. The former—held by Republicans like Beaty, and virtually every powerful Massachusetts politician in both major parties—invokes the Soviet Union, China, and their satellite states. And those states were, and are for those that still exist, dictatorships that have been responsible for the deaths of lots of innocent people. Millions or tens of millions depending on where you are on the political spectrum, which historians you agree with, and which deaths you blame them for (for example, do you count famine deaths… and do you also blame capitalist governments for terrible famines that occurred on their watch?). Either way, a lot of people.
The latter view—held by many activists in the growing left wing of the Democratic Party and many of the Americans who say they like socialism in polls—generally invokes western European governments. Especially Scandinavian countries like Sweden that had strong welfare states for decades in the 20th century. Governments that tax the rich and corporations heavily and use the funds to pay for social goods (housing, transportation, healthcare, schools, etc.) for all. And retain weaker welfare states today that are still stronger than what’s left of the American welfare state.
But neither view is entirely right either. The Soviet and Chinese blocs have called themselves socialist. But many socialists, including me, think they made a terminal mistake in turning away from the broadly democratic vision of early socialists like Marx in following later thinkers like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In fact, some left-wing socialists—notably libertarian socialists (again including me) and most anarchists—also question Marx himself and wonder if his ideas were democratic enough. A tricky debate since his magnum opus, Capital (originally meant to be a six-part work of which the volumes that were ultimately produced focused on his economic theory and were only to comprise the first part), wasn’t even half finished (in its final form) at his death. And never fleshed out his political theory.
As regards the view of socialism as a welfare state, yes, the socialist governments following the Soviet, Chinese, and western European models have all been welfare states. But then so have governments across the political spectrum. Since modern governments that fail to deliver basic social goods to their citizens won’t usually remain in power for very long (even while they persecute people they deem to be noncitizens). The perennially center-right US government has been more or less of a welfare state in different eras. And all kinds of right-wing dictatorships have been welfare states. Though it’s worth noting here that many libertarian socialists and anarchists (and Greens) don’t believe that a nation-state is a necessary or desirable requirement for socialism, let alone a welfare state, and would like to devolve government to regional or local polities run by direct democracy and linked by voluntary federations.
Returning to explaining why very few Americans have any idea about what socialism—a body of political theory with many rival camps—means, that’s easy.
Two reasons. First because American public and private K-12 education—with very few exceptions—has valorized capitalism and suppressed discussion of socialism for generations. Second, and central to my argument here, because most American news media has been owned by capitalists for well over 150 years. And, sure, there are all kinds of capitalists, just like there are all kinds of socialists. Some capitalists (like Bernie Sanders) are social democrats of the western European type that believe in strong welfare states and strong democratic values. Some (like Donald Trump) are dangerous sociopaths that put profits for the few above human needs for the many—and view democracy as something to be end run at best and destroyed at worst.
Yet that capitalist news media—from its commanding heights at major networks and publications like CBS and the New York Times, all the way down to local newspapers like the Somerville Journal (now mostly owned by conglomerates like Gannett)—has excluded socialists. And continues to do so. Baking anti-socialist bias into a news industry that prides itself on its supposed objectivity. And as long as that’s the case, public figures like Beaty will be able to call a capitalist political party like the Democrats “socialists” with a straight face.
Which is supremely ironic for me. Because I’m working overtime to help revive a dying news industry that has iced me out as a subject and as a journalist for nearly my entire adult life since I became a socialist at 18. And I’m doing it in the interest of expanding democracy.
It took me over 30 years as a journalist to become the number two editor of an alternative metro news weekly. Neither the biggest nor smallest outlet in the Boston news ecology. And even now, after almost three years on that job—and after over a decade of writing heavily researched political columns and editorials on a wide spectrum of issues for my previous publication Open Media Boston and for DigBoston (via the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism)—I’m never invited on even local mainstream talk shows. Or asked to write for larger local publications. Forget about the big national news outlets where, for all intents and purposes, I don’t exist.
Yeah, I know, boo hoo hoo, too bad so sad. But it’s not just me. It’s large numbers of fellow socialist thinkers and activists who have done solid work in their fields, amassed the right credentials, jumped through every hoop American society has put before them. Hell, it’s Noam Chomsky. Literally the most famous intellectual in the world. Until a few years ago, he lived in the Boston area and worked at MIT for decades. And I challenge readers to name one major local media outlet that ever gave him a platform. Including ostensibly public radio and TV stations that have been effectively privatized by the federal government at the behest of giant corporations and wealthy donors who don’t like public funds going to media outlets that allow any discussion of socialism—a system that seeks to end ruling class power over the broad working class (which encompasses what Americans call the middle class).
None of us are allowed to be in the public eye discussing issues of societal import on any kind of regular basis. Our politics automatically disqualify us. And on the rare occasions we are interviewed by some news outlet with a sizable audience, it’s almost always on narrow topics that excise our broader beliefs. Worse still, we were traditionally called “self-identified socialists” or “so-called socialists” on those rare occasions that our views were even mentioned in the major media. Because it was so far outside acceptable discourse that capitalist reporters and editors couldn’t even bring themselves to admit that actual socialists existed in the US.
Until news media at all levels changes its collective attitude, America is going to continue to have an incredibly limited debate on every major political, economic, social, and cultural issue of the day—between positions that range between “capitalism” and “more capitalism” as the remedies for literally every challenge we face. At a time when capitalism is failing to provide for the basic needs of most Americans. And when democracy itself is thus threatened.
In the media organizations I help run, at least, we allow people with socialist positions a fair hearing. Understanding that socialism is supported by major political parties and movements the world over, has much to recommend it, and offers tried and true solutions to problems that capitalism can’t fix—because capitalism has caused most of the problems in question.
It would be nice if the Boston Globe, WBUR, WGBH, WEEI, WBZ, WCVB, WHDH, NBC 10, NECN, and other capitalist media outlets around Massachusetts and the nation would do the same.
Certainly the local news media that I’m putting a great deal of personal effort into helping rebuild should not repeat the mistakes of the very recent past on this front. Because even tiny capitalist newspapers and broadcast media stations committed the same sins of omission when it came to socialist voices. As such I must leave the owners of capitalist media large and small with the following challenge: If socialists like me are so stupid and out of touch with reality, why are capitalists like you so afraid to debate us openly?
*CORRECTION 1/22/20, 9pm: Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty contacted DigBoston via Twitter earlier this evening to inform me that I had been quoting an earlier tweet of his on the same theme in the original version of this column (“Because of the lunatic socialist fringe Democrats and their political insanity, civil war for the first time since the 1860s may possibly happen again!”). I thank him for bringing the matter to my attention and have now replaced it with the correct tweet.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.