Little noticed by most Americans, Merriam Webster, one of the world’s most important dictionaries, announced a few months ago that the two most looked-up words in 2012 were “socialism” and “capitalism.”
Traffic for the pair on the company’s website roughly doubled from the year before. The choice was a “kind of no-brainer,” observed editor at large, Peter Sokolowski. “They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist.”
Leading polling organizations have found converging results among younger Americans. Two recent Rasmussen surveys, for instance, discovered that Americans younger than 30 are almost equally divided as to whether capitalism or socialism is preferable. Another Pew survey found those aged 18 to 29 have a more favorable reaction to the term “socialism” by a margin of 49 to 43 percent.
Note carefully: These are the people who will inevitably be creating the next American politics and the next American system.
As economic failure continues to create massive social and economic pain and a stalemated Washington dickers, search for some alternative to the current “system” is likely to continue to grow. It is clearly time to get serious about a different vision for the future. Critically, we need to be far more sophisticated about what a meaningful “systemic design” that might undergird a new direction (whether called “socialism” or whatever) would entail.
Classically, the central idea undergirding various forms of “socialism” (and there have been many, many forms, some of which use the terminology, some not) is democratic ownership of “the means of production,” or “capital,” or more simply, “productive wealth.” Quite apart from questions of exploitation, systemic dynamics (and “contradictions”), the core idea is simple and straightforward: Those who own wealth – and the corporations that operate it – have far more power to control any system than those who don’t.
In a nation in which a mere 400 people own more wealth than the bottom 180 million together, the point should be obvious. What is new in our time in history is that the traditional compromise position – namely progressive, or social democratic or liberal politics – has lost is capacity to offset such power even in the modest (compared, for instance, to many European states) ways the American welfare state once represented. Indeed, the emerging direction is to cut back previous gains in many areas – not to sustain or enlarge them. Even Social Security is now on the table for cuts.
Perhaps the most important reason for the decline of the traditional reform option is the decline of labor: Union membership has steadily decreased from roughly 35 percent of the labor force in 1954, to 11.3 percent now – a mere 6.6 percent in the private sector.
Along with this decay, and give or take an exception here and there, major trends in income and wealth, in civil liberties, in ecological devastation (and the release of climate-changing gases), in poverty and many other important indicators have been “going South” for several decades.
It is, accordingly, not surprising that dictionary look-ups and polls show interest in “something else.” If, as is likely, the trends continue, that interest is also likely to increase. But what, specifically, might that “something else” entail? And is there any reason to hope – even as interest in the word “socialism” grows in the abstract – that we might move from where we are to “some other system” that might nurture equality, liberty, ecological sustainability, even global peace, more than the current decaying one we now have?
New Models of Socialist Structures