If you were alive during the cold war the words “communism” or “socialism” can easily bring back memories of the stories we heard of the bleak life behind the Iron Curtain. I think the words “democratic socialism” which we hear on the political scene quite a lot today call up those memories for a lot of people. Memories of stories of a system where you lived where the State told you, worked where the State told you, and the State took and doled out all the goods. During those days we heard the stories of the want, the poverty of both material goods and of spirit that was life as we heard about it within communist countries. But the democratic socialism being talked about today is not your father’s socialism. This picture sums up what we in the U.S. heard about socialism behind the Iron Curtain:
Does that look appealing to anyone? How could it?
In spite of all the efforts to equate democratic socialism as practiced in Scandinavia and as advocated by Bernie Sanders with the bleak conditions of life in the Iron Curtain countries, that comparison just isn’t reality. But the detractors from the messages from democratic socialists today don’t seem to be able to grasp the differences. Often the issue seems to be haggling over the word “socialism”. It would be great if a different word had been pulled up when ideas about universal healthcare, state funded (tax-payer funded) higher education and other current “democratic socialist” ideas began being espoused. But, as the ideas have to do with the well-being of our society, socialism seems a pretty descriptive term, even if the new socialism has only a distant relationship with socialism ala Marx/Lenin.
If someone has visited Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, (I don’t mention Norway because I haven’t yet visited Norway) and paid attention to how things were working, the term democratic socialism doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It has nothing to do with soviet Russia or communist China. It has everything to do with a healthy population, living in healthy communities. It’s not about the State owning everything, millions in poverty, having massive parades of tanks and missiles and turning in your neighbor for stealing bread. Come to think of it, substitute “predatory capitalists” for “the State” and that pretty much resembles what’s happening in the U.S., not Scandinavia.
What today’s Scandinavian democratic socialism is about is the majority of people who are engaging in capitalist, private enterprise businesses, of the workers in all the various industries, agreeing that there should be certain guarantees to protect the material well-being of all the citizens. This isn’t “warm and fuzzy” thinking. People in Scandinavia, from what I’ve seen, are expected to work to support themselves and contribute, via taxation, to the social benefits: universal healthcare, publicly funded higher education, public sports and music opportunities, pretty pervasive public transportation, and of course fire and police services to name a few. Along with that there are the unemployment and welfare benefits for those that need them. “Need” being the operative word. From what I’ve seen, thinking “I don’t want to work, take care of me.”, doesn’t qualify as need.
Democratic socialism, as practiced in Scandinavia, does mean people in towns and cities actually experience a substantial return for their tax dollars. What a novel idea. They don’t let their government spend it all on bonuses, extravagant salaries and retirements, extravagant “defense” and other government contracts and cronyism.
What I’ve personally seen this system deprive a people of are: bankruptcies from medical expenses, wasted talent because one can’t afford higher education, being trapped in a job because the one you really want doesn’t offer medical benefits, seeing people sleeping on the street and in doorways (for the most part). It seems that thinking in terms of having a healthy society (along with having a healthy personal life and bank account) shows itself in other ways also: people being more conscientious about not littering, people respecting each other on the street to name a couple. Little things? Not when they don’t exist within a culture.
The other thing the E.U. has brought to these countries are immigrants and refugees. Immigrants and refugees these individual countries may not have admitted before. Of course the immigrants and refugees are often coming from countries despoiled by western corporations. So…what can we learn from this? On a more recent trip to Helsinki I was saddened to see some people sleeping in doorways and much more litter in the street than I had ever seen before. It was kind of like seeing a beautiful woman show up to the party in a soiled dress.
However, western style cutthroat capitalism is insidiously finding it’s way into these countries, it seems especially since the formation of the E.U. Businesses are starting to “offshore” production, the idea of wanting to be a billionaire, as opposed to just having a really nice lifestyle, seem to be creeping in. “It’s all about me” thinking seems to be finding a foothold.
The insidious infection of “me, me, me, it’s all about me” being pushed by many in the movies, TV shows, music, magazines, even by sports celebrities is a particular challenge to democratic socialism in Scandinavia today. Are Scandinavians immune from contagious narcissism and greed?
As mentioned above, democratic socialism as being touted today is not your father’s socialism. There needs to be a new definition in the dictionary, and, in fact, that change is in process. I found this in Merriam-Webster online:
“In the many years since socialism entered English around 1830, it has acquired several different meanings. It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal. In the modern era, “pure” socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as democratic socialism, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.”
Of course even “extensive state regulation” is going to send some dyed-in-the-wool individualists into a spin. And, truth be told, “extensive state regulation” and “oppression” are cousins which are known to sometimes travel together.
This brings us to the inescapable reality that no matter what social/economic system a people employ in their attempt at creating and maintaining a civilization, ultimately whether that civilization succeeds or fails depends upon the wisdom and the intent of the people themselves.
Which, while wisdom, intent, and knowledge are not necessarily the same thing, it is still a pretty good argument for publicly funded higher education. Because, the more we learn about how things function here on this Earth, the more it is becoming apparent that our fates our interrelated. We ignore the well-being of our fellow humanity and our environment at our own peril.