I hate labels. Labels end thinking. Put a label on someone, and you no longer have to consider what that person means when she speaks. All you need is the meaning you put into the label. Our present shameful political scene is just one massive collection of labels. Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, progressive, populist, right-wing, left-wing, etc. Don’t even get me started on judicial theories. All of these are just cubbyholes for our prejudices, and we use them so we don’t have to think about what their proponents and opponents mean when they say them. It is exactly the same as labeling someone a liar or a choker or a con man. Don’t think. Just label. I hate it.
So let us put aside this anti-intellectualism, this abandonment of what It means to be a human being, and consider another one of the labels: socialism. The other day the news featured a marine biologist who had joined efforts with a team of Cuban marine biologists to investigate the waters around Cuba. He found two things of great significance. The first was that, when he dove into the waters surrounding Cuba, he found that the sea life and the coral life around the island were flourishing. He observed that ninety miles away, in Miami, one could find nothing like that because the environment had been rendered too toxic for marine life to survive and grow.
The second thing he observed was the attitude of the people of Cuba. He said that he was expecting to find a group of frustrated capitalists, all thirsting for the opportunity to adopt the American way of business. Instead, he said, he found that people, while openly critical of their government, were happy with their way of life and with the relation they had with their environment. Yes, the infrastructure was badly in need of repair. But there was no urge to engage in the endless pursuit of profit which has come to define the American style of living.
The beauty of the sea world around Cuba highlights, by glaring contrast, the junkification of the American landscape by the unslakeable thirst for profit that has characterized American business for the past several decades. What little of the environment we have put aside for communal use and appreciation is now being put at risk by those in government who would sell it off to private interests. Every call for environmental protection is shouted down in the name of jobs, by which label the opponents mean profit. It is in the name of profit that we are, for the first time in the history of this nation, passing on to our progeny a world that is decidedly worse than the one we inherited.
We are in need, not of a change of political regime, but of a serious cultural change. We need to see the world, our world, in a manner consonant with our environment. We need, as a culture, to see environment, and social interrelations, not as a means to personal aggrandizement, but as a shared asset to be put ahead of any private gain. We need to have the attitude that the Cubans seem to have developed in their decades of development since the overthrow of dictatorship.
Is that socialism? Well, that depends on what you mean by socialism, and to understand that you have to look at the term outside of its meaning as a label. Trump now refers to Bernie Sanders as a communist, which only proves how lost in labels Trump is. If you want to understand what it is that is rallying youth around Sanders, you have to think about what it that youth wants from society and what it is they, perhaps naively, think that they might get from their politicians.
I think the youth of America are rebelling against the junkification of our world created by the persistently single-minded pursuit of profit. The American landscape is well illustrated by the barrenness of the sea world around Florida. We have, in the name of profit, so reduced and squandered and uglified our surroundings as to render them all but unlivable. Recently a news program showed photographs of a public school in the Detroit area that had allowed standing water to remain in its walls so long that there were mushrooms growing on the walls. Our streets and highways are a mess. our public lands are up for sale. Our cities are rotting from the inside out. Over 2000 American cities are providing drinking water that violates OSHA safety standards.
What the youth of American are clamoring for is for the assets of this country to be preserved and fostered by the entire community rather than sold off or let slide in the name of profit. What they are suggesting is that we operate on a different principle, namely that we should all share the cost of those things for which there is a universal need. We all need military defense and police protection and fire protection. These things should be paid, and are being paid, by the community. In addition, we all need medical care, and we all need good streets and highways, and we all need basic education. These things need to be paid for by the community, and their preservation and fostering must have priority over private profit. Very likely it means increasing taxes on everyone, in accordance with their ability to pay, and it means placing the needs of the community over the interest of private profit.
Is that socialism? Yes, in an extremely broad sense. The fact that we all share the cost of military and police and fire departments and roads and highways, means that we are socialists. We socialize these costs. If, on the other hand, like Trump and his ilk, you identify socialism as a label that carries with it the inhumane political oppression of the Soviet Union and Maoist China and North Korea, then it is nothing of the kind and you are completely missing the point.
The conversation about what we are all looking for needs to start with a clarification. Democracy is a political system. It is contrasted with dictatorship. Socialism is an economic system. It is contrasted with laissez faire capitalism. These systems are segments of a broad continuum of answers to two questions: first, how should a community be governed, and, second, how should a community manage its living needs. Democracy, oligarchy, plutocracy and dictatorship are segments of the broad continuum of answers to the first question. There are various ranges of positions within those segments, as is illustrated by the division between Republicans and Democrats, both of which groups are, at least in principle, committed to the principles of democracy. Likewise, socialism and capitalism have various ranges, from the extremes of Marxist socialism to the much watered down socializing of public costs that is being promoted by the right wing of the Republican party today.
Here is my basic point: Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, not if by that term you mean extreme Marxist socialism. And we all are socialists, if by that term you mean to include the sharing of expenses like military, police and fire protection. To find out what someone means by the term, you have to think, and using terms as condemnatory labels will prevent you from thinking.
So do me a favor. The next time you hear someone call Sanders a socialist, ask that person what the word “socialism” means. If the person won’t discuss it, you’ll know it’s just a label. I hate labels.