Socialism: Conservative’s ‘Colloquial’ Definition

This is a continuation of my thoughts in a previous post, Against Capitalism: Democracy & Socialism. That post was partly written in response to my conservative dad’s view of socialism. I wanted to clarify what actual socialists supported vs what conservatives think they support. After making my correction, my dad didn’t disagree with it. But he did argue that his use of socialism was colloquial and so still somehow true or relevant for basic discussion.

Here is what my dad considers to be the colloquial definition of socialism: big government especially in terms of spending other people’s money, centralized power especially when abused, etc. I pointed out, however, that both parties have promoted policies that would fit under his definition of socialism despite the two parties being dominated by some combination of neoconservatives and neoliberals, political views that are very different from anything socialists advocate. In fact, socialists in the US are some of the most vocal critics of our present two-party system and those who control it.

From my perspective, this is sadly ironic to hear a conservative like my dad make this argument. By his own logic, the McCarthyist anti-communists were socialists which simply makes no sense whatsoever. Joseph McCarthy (along with others such as J. Edgar Hoover) was defending big government and centralized power against the socialists/communists who were challenging the oppression and injustice.

I once brought up the issue of the Bonus Army. I explained to my dad how this was an abuse of power. Despite the protest camp having signs up forbidding communists, despite the protesters being completely pacifist, the US government sent in troops to violently break up the protesters and killed some of them in the process. The US government’s rationalization, as I recall, was that they were harboring communists or that it might turn into a communist revolt or something like that. Once again, going by my dad’s logic, we are forced to conclude that the US government had been acting like socialists in attacking others as socialists.

So, you would think my dad would be against this abuse of power, although you would be wrong. My dad thought the threat of communists was real and so the abuse of power necessary. This means that it is acceptable to act like a ‘socialist’ when fighting perceived socialists (or one’s projections of fears about ‘socialism’); but when socialists don’t act according to the colloquial defintion of socialism it is acceptable to criticise theoretical ‘socialism’ and to pretend it has anything to do with socialism in the real world.

What my dad misses is that his colloquial definition of ‘socialism’ is only colloquial among anti-communists. How is it fair to use an anti-communist rhetorical frame as a way of discussing socialism in a fair and rational way? It isn’t.

Here is the source of much of this conflict of worldviews. My dad is of an older generation. He is on the young end of the Silent generation. He grew up with the anti-communist propaganda that began earlier in the century and manifested as full-blown paranoia during the Cold War. So, his ‘colloquial’ definition is grounded in propaganda. My dad was raised on that propaganda and so to him it is his reality… or, as I would call it, his reality tunnel since he is almost incapable of seeing outside of it. Even when I point out that real world socialists don’t fit his theoretical ‘colloquial’ definition, his anti-communist rhetorical frame, he still insists on his beliefs about socialism over the reality of socialism. He just can’t wrap his brain around the reality of socialism.

The generational issue seems key to me. The world was very different earlier last century. I don’t dismiss the dangers the Cold War posed. My point is that it has little to do with today. When I told my dad of a right-winger who became a left-winger, a socialist even, his entire sense of reality was blown because that just didn’t seem possible. My dad didn’t understand that socialism and libertarianism originated from the same opposition to abusive power, didn’t understand that many people are simultaneously socialist and libertarian.

When my dad was growing up, the frame of politics was Godless communism vs God-fearing capitalism and the conservatives of the time tried to conflate this with partisan politics, thus making the entire left into communist conspirators. Conservatives were largely successful in their reframing politics and so the entire political spectrum including both parties shifted to the right and have been shifting to the right ever since, even as the majority of Americans have been shifting left.

My dad doesn’t comprehend how much the world has changed. Most GenXers don’t see the world according to such frames. Rather, the frame of GenXers tends to be alternative vs mainstream, centralized power vs decentralized power, etc. Partisan politics and party loyalty mean a lot less to GenXers and maybe a lot less to Millennials as well at this point. Both parties are for big government that spends other people’s money and for abuse of centralized power. If a person wants to be against big government and centralized power, then they are morally compelled to be against both parties.

My dad, however, can’t quite bring himself to such a morally principled position. It goes against every fibre of his body. He is a partisan. It is the worldview he was raised in and so it is how he makes sense of the world. He recently spoke of the common partisan view that it is better to vote for the lesser of two evils. As such, my dad just wants to vote for the candidate who has the greatest potential of defeating Obama. What my dad and other partisans are oblivious to is both sides are playing this game. When both sides are voting for the lesser of two evils, evil always wins. I suggested to my dad that people vote their conscience instead, but he was utterly baffled by this concept and couldn’t imagine how that could work. In his mind, Americans have always voted for the lesser of two evils… and so how could it be otherwise?

My comments here also fit into another post of mine, Conservative’s Two Faces of Fear. The basic thought I had in that post is expressed in this comment about conservatives:

“They criticize both centralized government and grassroots activism. Both criticisms are based in their fear of democracy. They fear a government that would fairly and equally represent all people, including the poor, unemployed and homeless, including immigrants and minorities. But they also fear the people governing themselves through direct democracy for they fear mobocracy (and the same reason they fear grassroots organizations such as workers forming unions). These aren’t two fears but rather a single fear manifesting in two ways.”

I just now realized that this is the same dynamic playing out in the anti-communist frame. To conservatives such as my dad, their fears of socialism are tied up with their fears of democracy. In this, at least they are being consistent since social democracy and democratic socialism are two sides of the same coin. What this kind of conservative fears isn’t big government, but rather big government that represents all equally and fairly (democracy) and that serves all equally and fairly (socialism). What this kind of conservative fears isn’t grassroots activism, but rather grassroots activism that gives voice to all equally and fairly (democracy) and that demands economic and social justice for all equally and fairly (socialism).

Even when confronted with the reality of democratic socialism, my dad feels compelled to hold onto the anti-communist frame that distorts this reality. Why? Because his entire worldview would fall apart without it. The reality of democratic socialism (especially in context of it being inseparable from the reality of social democracy) undermines all of his beliefs and values. To fully confront this reality would portend an existential crisis. Outer revolution (or even the potential of it) must be suppressed because the outer turmoil mirrors an inner turmoil every ideologue struggles with. If the simplistic political frame fails to give adequate meaning and to maintain a semblance of order, one’s personal reality will crumble.

The question that arises is this: Can a conservative still be a conservative without attacking caricatures of communism based on their own projected fears? How could the conservative movement define itself without such scapegoats? If conservatives accepted the fact that some of the most socialist countries in Europe are also the most successful, how could they continue with their righteousness about laissez-faire capitalism and why would they want to?

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Additional thought:

I’ve identified as a liberal for all of my adult life. Recently, I’ve decided to identify as a socialist. I figured I might as well embrace the label of ‘socialist’ since any liberalism worthy of the name will automatically get labeled as ‘socialism’ by those on the right and probably even by many mainstream Democrats.

Still, whatever label I go by, my general attitude will always be liberal. To me, being a left-liberal is the same thing as being a liberal left-winger. When looking at the non-liberal left-wing, it is often hard to tell it apart from much of the right-wing. The ideal of liberalism, not necessarily the label, is what is important to me.

The core ideal (or one might say archetype) of liberalism is generosity of spirit and mind. In practical politics, this means: reaching out with compromise instead of unbending willfulness, seeking sympathetic understanding instead of righteous judgment, aspiring to common good instead of mere self-interest, advocating peace instead of conflict, etc. Or to put in Christian terms, this is the difference between Jesus’ message of humility, love and forgiveness and Yahweh’s message of divine authoritarianism, awe-inpsiring fear and righteous judgment.

The anti-communist frame is the complete opposite of the essence of liberalism. It isn’t just opposite in terms of ideology but also in terms of methodology. To exaggerate like this is to portray one’s opponent as a caricature and thus turn him into a scapegoat. The liberal would rather turn one’s opponent into a friend or at least into a partner. The liberal wants to work together. The liberal’s tendency toward socialism is based in their faith in human nature, both on the individual and the collective level. Liberals want to believe people are not only good but capable and desirous of doing good. Conservatives, generally speaking, don’t have such faith and tend to criticize those who do.

This is why conservatives tend to ignore the North European countries with their social democracies leaning toward socialism. Such examples prove that that the ideals of liberalism and socialism are possible.

The opposite dynamic, however, doesn’t exist or isn’t as commonly found. A liberal or socialist may criticize capitalism as being ultimately good, but they won’t deny and dismiss certain successes of capitalist countries. For the those on the right, if socialism is economically sucessful, their entire argument falls apart. For those on the left, their argument isn’t based on mere success in terms of some people accruing great profits and so such capitalist success doesn’t undermine the practical and moral factors of their argument. The complaint socialists have is that capitalism often is very successful in oppressing and eliminating, often brutally, those who oppose the capitalist system and/or the plutocratic elite. Those on the left acknowledge that might doesn’t make right, that material success doesn’t equate to moral justification.

In order to make the argument for my position, I don’t need to use an anti-capitalist frame to caricature and scapegoat all laissez-faire capitalists. To me, it is counterproductive to conflate all capitalism with all fascism or, on the other hand, to conflate all capitalism with all free markets. There is definite connections and crossover. Capitalism tends toward monopoly which in turn makes fascism (or corporatism, i.e., soft fascism and inverted totalitarianism) possible and more probable. But socialists don’t need to dismiss free markets in the way those on the right feel compelled to dismiss the freedom of democratic socialism. In fact, socialists have a history of redefining free markets as an antidote to capitalism.

So, as a liberal-minded socialist, I wonder why many conservatives are unwilling or unable to treat me as fairly in this same manner.

Those on the right tend to think in terms of either/or. Those on the left, or at least the liberal-minded left, tend to think in terms of both/and. Examples of this are seen everywhere.

Let me use the abortion issue as a representative example.

For social conservatives, abortion is a conflict between civil liberties and moral responsibility. Conservatives say they want to eliminate abortions, but ultimately it comes down to moral principle rather than practical results.

Liberals point out that countries with abortion bans don’t have fewer abortions, some even have more than average. More importantly, abortion bans lead to more dangerous illegal abortion practices which leads to damaged fetuses and hence babies being born with deformities and brain damage, plus abortion bans lead to the mothers themselves often being harmed or dying (and if the baby survives it will grow up without a mother). The only policies that have ever proven to decrease abortions are libeal policies (promotion of women’s health centers, comprehensive sex education, easy availability of contraception and birth control, etc). So, to a liberal, they don’t see a conflict between civil liberties and moral responsibility, and in fact they see moral responsibility as not possible without protection of civil liberties.

The liberal doesn’t want to take away the conservative’s right to choose not to have an abortion and neither does the liberal want the conservative to take away everyone else’s right to choose. The liberal ultimately wants to decrease the number of abortions more than the average social conservative because the liberal sees the life of the fetus as being part of the civil liberties discussion. The liberal sees nuance and complexity, but the conservative sees only their own unbending principles. Doing the right thing for the conservative is more important than any practical result. Despite liberals wanting to work with conservatives in developing a compromise, conservatives see compromise as defeat for the reason that even they recognize that compromise is a liberal value.

It’s because of the liberal mindset that I can desire BOTH a socialist society AND a free market economy. The liberal’s broad thinking reaches toward inclusiveness and so seeks out great visions that are up to the task. It seems that at present the conservative movement as a whole is incapable of this type of thinking and so treating their opponents fairly is outside of their ability as a movement. That said, individual conservatives may have more liberal predispositions in this sense and so coalitions may be formed with certain segments of the conservative movement. However, such coalitions aren’t as likely with more typically mainstream conservatives such as my dad, although that may be changing as the old conservative frames are being challenged.