27. Joseph Biden: Socialist?
President Biden has proposed a vast expansion of government programs strengthening infrastructure and family welfare. In a recent poll, 35 percent called Biden a socialist. Are they correct?
No. The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as "a theory or policy of social organization that aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole." No major figure in U.S. politics -- not even Bernie Sanders -- is currently advocating public ownership of the means of production.
So where does socialism exist? Such questions are a bit cosmic for a blog of a page or so. But if the questions are sufficiently simple-minded, simple answers are possible.
There are five Marxist-Leninist regimes that are explicitly socialist, though some private enterprise may be permitted. These are China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. All are also defined as "Authoritarian" by the latest Economist Intelligence Unit's annual ranking of democracy in the world.
Are there socialist states that are democratic? The World Population Review lists eight other nations in which socialist parties govern. Four of these, Iceland, Portugal, Ecuador, and Serbia, qualify as full or flawed democracies in the Economist's survey.
However, having a socialist party in charge does not mean that the government has taken over the means of production. The cases cited have "mixed" economies with a free market operating alongside strong government direction.
The same could be said of many states without socialists in the government. Some that once nationalized much of their industry and commerce, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, retreated from state ownership during the neo-liberalization trend of the 1980s-1990s.
So what works best? Sticking to the simple-minded approach, let's look at the UN Human Development Index, which ranks nations on an index that defines standard of living not just by income but also by such measures as health and education.
Clearly the Scandinavian nations have the most successful formula. They claim five of the first seven rankings on the UNHDI for 2020. Norway deserves special mention; it is first in standard of living and first in the Economist democracy ranking as well. One might suspect that prosperity and democracy go together.
The United States ranked 17th on standard of living and 25th on democracy (Israel was 19th and 27th). Americans may have a hard time adjusting to the thought that sixteen nations seem to be living better. What explains their advantage?
The higher-ranking nations, and the Scandinavian countries in particular, have mixed economies with a more robust government role and extensive welfare-state benefits. They all have, for example, comprehensive government-funded health-care systems.
Technically this in itself is not socialism. But whatever it is, it seems to be working. Are Americans capable of learning from the experience of others?
You are surely correct in saying that neither Biden nor Sanders are socialists in any meaningful sense of the word. However, the OED is a dubious source for understanding the meaning of socialism.
In general, the word has always been used in two different ways. In capitalist society it has been a label for any governmental attempt to restrain the ability of private capital to exploit labor, whether by law or by government ownership. However, capitalists have always supported government ownership of those parts of the economy that could not be constructed or operated at a profit.
Marx used the term to refer to a period of transition between capitalist society and a future classless (communist) society, during which the private ownership of the means of production for private wealth is terminated by force and social needs are prioritized. In Marx’s usage, there are no socialist countries in the world today, regardless of what leaders, parties, or states may call themselves.
Scandinavia is an interesting example of the misuse of the socialist label. The capitalist countries in Scandinavia exist at the top of the international food chain, without having to bear the military expense of defending a global capitalist suzerainty. That makes it easy to maintain welfare state capitalism while people of the Third World continue to suffer.
So what works best? That depends on who you are. If you are an actual capitalist, capitalism definitely works best for you. If you are a worker at Saab, Volvo or Bofors in Sweden, you are better off than 90% of humanity. But if you work in a sweat shop in Bangladesh or China, if you are a poor farmer in India or Kenya, or a miner in South Africa or Bolivia, your only hope—as well as that of humanity as a whole—lies with communism.