Monday, July 26, 2021

Socialism, Capitalism, and Talking Past One Another

I've been seeing a lot social media posts recently about socialism. Often, they take the following form: "How can anyone today seriously think socialism is a good idea? Are they too young to remember the Soviet Union and its collapse? And too out-of-touch to have followed the news about Venezuela?" 

The problem, more often than not, is that the advocates of socialism and the critics of socialism are talking about different things--using the  term "socialism" in different ways. They are talking past each other. And it seems to me quite possible that if they understood what the other was saying, they might actually agree with each other. Or at least be able to have a productive dialogue about their real points of disagreement.

I also think that there are forces at work in our society that are committed to stopping such mutual understanding and dialogue from happening, because they benefit from polarization--whether it comes from miscommunication or from substantive dissent.

So this is a short post aimed at, hopefully, countering some of those forces of polarization by clarifying concepts. 

Strictly speaking, "capitalism" refers to a system in which the means of production are privately owned and the goods produced are made available in free markets to those who can afford to buy them. "Socialism" refers to a system in which the means of production are publicly owned and the goods produced are distributed to the public in accord with existing laws (created in whatever way the political system creates laws).

Most actual economies are a mix of these things. In the US most goods and services are privately produced and sold at market. But K-12 education, fire and police departments, the military, infrastructure such as roads, etc., follow a socialist model.

In such countries, it is perhaps better to speak of certain areas of the economy being capitalist or socialist than to speak of the country as socialist or capitalist. So we can say that in the US, the beer industry is capitalist and the military is socialist. But we usually don't. We usually talk about countries being socialist or capitalist.

So when is a country "socialist"? Here we see a diversity of uses.

Countries like the former USSR, which attempted to follow Marx's communist philosophy but got stuck in dictatorship, have been called "socialist".

Democratic countries like Norway with mixed economies are sometimes called "socialist" when their mix has more areas of public ownership than in the US.

The Nazis, during their rise to power, were competing with Marxist-communist groups for the support of disaffected working class Germans and so put "socialist" in the name of their party and adopted a few token socialist proposals as a rhetorical ploy to win support. Because of this self-labeling, some people want to call Nazi Germany socialist.

But the USSR, Norway, and Nazi Germany are all very different from each other. If someone says they'd like to see the US become like Norway (at least in certain ways), it would be a mistake to take this to mean they want the US to become like the USSR or Nazi Germany.

And if someone is talking about socialism in the sense of a country like Norway (as many younger generation Americans do), it would be a mistake to interpret them as talking about socialism in the sense of a country like the USSR (which is the sense that may older generation Americans appear to have).

Many of the criticisms that are right on target when one is talking about the USSR will miss the mark if one is talking about Norway. And so we can easily get a situation where one person is advocating socialism in the sense of "a country like Norway, with more socialized elements than the US but also with privately-owned businesses, free markets, representative democracy, etc." And someone else, hearing the term "socialism," imagines the USSR, with a command system and five-year plans and a dictatorial regime. The ensuing argument goes nowhere because the parties to the dispute are talking about different things.

Put simply, the term "socialism" has come to be used in different ways. Make sure, therefore, that when this term comes up in conversations about public policy, everyone is clear about how the term is being used. There are those who will try to prevent such clarity and mutual understanding because it serves their interests for people to be (metaphorically or literally) shouting uselessly at each other rather than having productive conversations.

For what it's worth, my own view is that the real disagreement in our society--and as such the real conversation we should be having--is about what mix of capitalist and socialist elements is the optimal one at this particular time and place (and I do believe that the optimal mix changes from time to time and place to place based on social and environmental conditions). The US is a mixed economy, like Norway. The Norwegian mix is probably not the best mix for the US today--but is there a mix that is better than the mix we have now? That is the conversation we need to be having, and it is a conversation that is derailed by those who encourage us not to understand what other people mean.

Resist them by asking clarifying questions. Here's one to try: "When you use the term 'socialism,' what do you mean?"


  1. Along the same lines, a term that I've heard thrown around lately around Black Lives Matter is that it's a "Marxist" organization. I'm thinking that they are using that term as a synonym for communist, but calling people communists is so last century, so Marxist works as a scary, militant term.

    1. I think that's right. And, of course, the unifying ideas around which Black Lives Matters is organized have little to do with Marxism. Even if there are presumably some under the umbrella of BLM who are Marxist or Marxism-adjacent, calling it Marxist is misleading at best given that there is nothing about BLM's mission or methods that calls for allegiance to a Marxist philosophy (and many who fall under the BLM umbrella who would reject the Marxist label for themselves).

  2. I am sympathetic to models of socialism that are working well in especially the Scandinavian countries. I also have thought equating socialism to such failed states as the USSR and China as bogus. Many innovations need to be dialed in, initial failures give rise to correcting the problems that resulted from first stage iterations. The adoption of well thought out socialistic policies makes sense to me. Then again, we are in a country where many challenge the election of our current president and that think covid vaccinations are from a cabal of pharma conspirators wanting to kill off the masses. I think we are a long way from implementing socialistic reforms but I am definitely on board.