For months, leftists have been pointing out the absurdity of the claim that Barack Obama is a socialist. But no matter how laughable, the claim keeps popping up, most recently in the form of the Republican Party chairman's warning of "a socialist power grab" by Democrats.
Within the past year, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has called Obama "the world's best salesman of socialism." Conservative economist Donald J. Boudreaux of GeorgeMasonUniversity has acknowledged that Obama isn't really a socialist, but warns that the "socialism lite" of such politicians "is as specious as is classic socialism."
Silly as all this may be, it does provide an opportunity to continue talking about the promise and the limits of socialism in a moment when the economic and ecological crises are so serious. So, let's start with the basics.
As with any complex political idea, socialism means different things to different people. But there are core concepts in socialist politics that are easy to identify, including (1) worker control over the nature and conditions of their work; (2) collective ownership of the major capital assets of the society, the means of production; and (3) an egalitarian distribution of the wealth of a society.
Obama has never argued for such principles, and in fact consistently argues against them, as do virtually all politicians who are visible in mainstream U.S. politics. This is hardly surprising, given the degree to which our society is dominated by corporations, the primary institution through which capitalism operates.
Obama is not only not a socialist, he's not even a particularly progressive capitalist. He is part of the neo-liberal camp that has undermined the limited social-democratic character of the New Deal consensus, which dominated in the United States up until the so-called "Reagan revolution." While Obama's stimulus plan was Keynesian in nature, there is nothing in administration policy to suggest he is planning to move to the left in any significant way. The crisis in the financial system provided such an opportunity, but Obama didn't take it and instead continued the transfer of wealth to banks and other financial institutions begun by Bush. Looking at his economic advisers, this is hardly surprising. Naming neo-liberal Wall Street boys such as Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury and Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council was a clear signal to corporate America that the Democrats would support the existing distribution of power and wealth. And that's where his loyalty has remained.
In short: Obama and some Democrats have argued for a slight expansion of the social safety net, which is generally a good thing in a society with such dramatic wealth inequality and such a depraved disregard for vulnerable people. But that's not socialism. It's not even socialism lite. It's capitalism -- heavy, full throttle, and heading for the cliff.
In reaction to the issues of the day, a socialist would fight to nationalize the banks, create a national health system, and end imperialist occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That the right wing can accuse Obama of being a socialist when he does none of those things is one indication of how impoverished and dramatically skewed to the right our politics has become. In most of the civilized world, discussions of policies based in socialist principles are part of the political discourse, while here they are bracketed out of any serious debate. In a recent conversation with an Indonesian journalist, I did my best to explain all this, but she remained perplexed. How can people take seriously the claim that he's socialist, and why does applying that label to a policy brand it irrelevant? I shrugged. "Welcome to the United States," I said, "a country that doesn't know much about the world or its own history."