I had recently a get-together with schoolmates from university. Not with my friends from university, who are a diverse bunch of different ages and professions and with whom I meet usually once/twice a year on a hiking trip or New-year celebrations, but with people with whom I studied chemistry. It was a totally depressing experience for multiple reasons, some deeply personal that I am not inclined to discuss with anyone, ever, and some that I shall discuss in this post.
The discussion did get slightly political and at that point I realized that I am the only person in the group who does not think that “socialism” is a dirty word describing an inherently ill-thought-out, dysfunctional, and/or evil political system. Everyone else expressed more or less libertarian or conservative-leaning opinions, although I must say not to the extreme sociopathic extent that can be observed in the US political discourse. After a short debate, I have inadvertently killed it outright with what in retrospect was the nuclear option, although it was not intended as such.
I said, “Correct me if I am wrong, but at this table, I am the only person who actually has worked in the private sector his whole life and is not and was not employed by the state in an in-principle socialistic enterprise.”
What followed was a short awkward silence, re-seating, and a permanent change of subject.
You see, everyone else seated at that table was either an accomplished scientist, a physician, a teacher, a high-ranking military officer, or (usually) a combination of these. Education is free of charge up to a university for anyone willing to take it, even foreigners residing in CZ, as long as they can take the classes in the Czech language. Healthcare is free of charge at the point of receiving, with healthcare insurance being mandatory for the employed and paid for by the state for the unemployed (it could be better by forgoing the middle-man in the form of insurance companies IMO). And the military is entirely financed by our taxes and owned by the state, as it always was.
So, why do these highly educated, highly intelligent, and oftentimes highly accomplished people think that socialism is inherently bad? Probably for the same reasons that I, too, thought so until some fifteen-twelve years ago.
We are the generation who still remembers the times behind the Iron Curtain. And although we did not experience the most brutal phases of that regime, it was still pretty bad at the time we were children. But when I tried to explain that what was wrong with that regime was not the “socialism” part but the “totalitarianism” part, it fell on deaf ears. I have managed to disconnect these terms in my mind, they have not. To them, the association between the two is too strong and they are seen as inherently intertwined.
And this might be, paradoxically, exactly because they never worked for a private company that habitually abuses its employees. They never experienced the disproportionate difference in negotiating power between a non-unionized workforce and an international corporation that feels laws need not be obeyed, if they exist at all in the first place. They had no first-hand experience with high-ranking managers of such corporations and thus did not get insight into their thinking (heck, I even met some who apparently thought that even laws of physics can be circumvented, although in reality that was possibly just a psychological pressure to force employees to commit fraud with plausible deniability). In short, they lack the experience that would show them that not all the propaganda we were shown as children were lies, and not everything that Marx wrote was misguided – a lot of it was, unfortunately, very spot-on and true.
And for this perception of socialism being inherently and unavoidably totalitarian, I blame Russia and the version of socialism it imposed by force on the rest of Eastern Europe. I have already written about this in part 35 of my “Behind the Iron Curtain” series. Only I did not think that this legacy survives that strongly in my generation. Even after the literal Iron Curtain fell, apparently people keep its bad legacy in their minds still. And my conclusion that such mental barriers might be more difficult to remove seems to be, unfortunately, supported by my recent experience with my schoolmates from university.
I might be guilty of a similar misuse of language. Recently on PZ’s blog, I conflated capitalism with what Adam Smith proposed in The Wealth of Nations; and Pierce R. Butler and Dunc promptly corrected me. I knew that Smith had not invented the term, but I thought that Smith’s ideas were what came to be known as capitalism. (I think I got that idea from David Brin’s blog several years ago.)
Is there a word other than “capitalism” for Smith’s proposal? If so, I should use it. (I’m guessing that it’s one of those words that can have multiple meanings, in this case, both what Smith had in mind and what Marx feared.)
I tend to call Smith a “monarchist”.
Generally because that leads to a discussion about the later chapters where Smith describes his taxation schemes and then what to do with the money raised by a monarch (i.e. an equitable justice system, and investments in education and infrastructure).
My experience in the US in comparing my viewpoint of socialism to those of the people I grew up with are surprisingly similar to what you’ve told here, but also completely opposite. In my case, although I’ve worked in private sector jobs, most of my working life was spent in the US military from which I’ve retired. I receive a good pension and basically free healthcare, so you could say I am the beneficiary of the closest thing to socialism there is in the US, while my classmates mostly made their livelihood via the private sector.
Although I’ve never lived in the sort of totalitarian state that you experienced, I also view socialism as something beneficial. However my former classmates and your former classmates both regard socialism as something inherently bad (though, as you said, Americans’ views are more extreme).
In the US, it’s easy to see why people have such a loathing of anything that as much as hints at socialism because of all the propaganda they’ve absorbed their entire lives, whether from government, school, employers and society in general.
One might guess that your classmates who, as you put it, were basically employed by the state in an in-principle socialistic enterprise, would actually see socialism’s benefits, but they don’t. My guess is that after 1990, they began receiving the same “capitalism-good/socialism-bad” messages that we in the US have had since before 1776.
Great American Satan says
Hard agree. Recently escaped working in the private sector and the amount of evil I was subjected to flatlined. Work is still hard as fuc, but I no longer have to live with constant threat of being fired at the whims of bastards, no real path to advancement except becoming part of the problem, etc etc.
In the USA anti-commie hate is so absurd even now that I get some joy out of calling politically adjacent people comrades, but due to your life experiences, I consciously avoid calling you that. Lemme know if I slip up.
My experience is almost the polar opposite of those you described. I grew up in Texas. My adolescence was in the 1980s, with their spike in jingoism and fetishization of capitalism. Yes, I heard a lot about how horrible the USSR and socialism were, but capitalism was such hell that I couldn’t help but feel that maybe we should give socialism a try.
Incidentally, as an adult with somewhat more knowledge of the USSR than I had as a teen, I agree that it was horrible, but really it strikes me as more state capitalism than socialism. Surprise, monopolies don’t work well, even when they’re run by the state. My impression of the US has not changed significantly. It’s a hell hole of nationalism, racism, and greed.
Capitalism has managed to convince large amounts of people that it’s the best system possible and that it’s actually working by a) kind of working for them b) convincing them that all the people for whom it doesn’t work have only themselves to blame or are victims of bad actors
While not endorsing Adam Smith, I think Adam Smith sometimes gets an overly bad rap. Adam Smith is not the founder of modern-day conservative economics, and he has been misappropriated by them.
I think Christianity is far more to blame with the “just world” fallacy lying at the heart of many (most?) conservative flavours of Christianity. Loosely, the “just world” fallacy states “poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or they deserve it, or something”. Many have to believe in the just world fallacy because the alternative is to admit that there is needless evil in the world, aka the problem of evil, and admitting that there is needless evil in the world is often the first step in deconversion.