Socialism on the Rise, or Another Example of the Left’s Wishful Thinking?

There is some minor celebration occurring on the U.S. Left because of a recent Rasmussen Poll that shows only 53% of Americans clearly prefer capitalism over socialism.

The World Socialist Website declared that the poll results are “a stunning refutation of the official manufactured public opinion,” and that “[t]o the extent that socialism is understood as the opposite of capitalism, it is viewed favorably by substantial sections of the population.”

The Party for Socialism and Liberation claimed the results are “a very encouraging sign” that reveal “more and more workers, especially younger ones, are open to alternative ideas and are less infected by the mindless anti-socialist ideology that is promoted in the media and in social studies textbooks.”

The poll results surely reflect some form of disenchantment with this status quo. But what do they really signify? I don’t think they are that significant. There is the obvious problem that the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” were not defined in the poll. For the 20% who said they preferred socialism, we have no idea what they think “socialism” is. Fox News makes a national healthcare plan sound like socialism. If this is what a fraction of people polled support, it is not cause for celebration. Nor should we have such low expectations of Americans to be surprised by these poll results.

More importantly, the US Left is apt at reading progress into small-scale, symbolic things, whether this be a favorable poll result or a sporadic protest. But an economic crisis is not a political crisis; disenchantment with the current system is not the eroding of the current system. These poll results are meaningless, in practice, as long as there are no organized efforts that harness the growing disenchantment into a political force.

The Left only reproduces the wrong approach when it reads its big fantasies into merely symbolic ripples. There will be more economic crises, more sporadic protests, more symbolic reflections of dissatisfaction with capitalism. But as long as these are just that—symbolic or exceptional—they only signify a potential that we are miserably failing to capitalize upon. As Adolph Reed likes to say, the problem of the Left is not one of ideas, but of organizing.

Any thoughts? I have more to say, but I’m interested in what others have think. Does the Rasmussen Poll really matter for socialists? And if so, how? How can we translate broad disenchantment into a positive political force?

Know where to look

The point of a poll is to show a frozen-in-time snapshot of public opinion. They're instructive as an assessment of where we are at, and a clue as to how to proceed.

I have yet to see a complete poll results (the more granularized results are behind a for-pay firewall). The most complete results are for adults under 30. The results there are, in fact, encouraging: the population in that age group is evenly divided among those who favor socialism, those that favor capitalism and those that are undecided.

What such a poll tells you explicitly is that the population least exposed to the Cold War and Reagan is wavering in at least the most reflexive McCarthyist thinking. That is indeed a promising sign.

Dealing with a more nuanced fashion: the even division gives a clue for that generation, which is that there is at the very least a big pool of the population that are out there and at the moment something of a blank slate. They have not been won to capitalism or to us.

As such, I would say that the consolidation of the "socialist" segment of the population into something that shoots itself in the foot a lot less is a first step, but it is a part of a process of engaging with those who are not yet socialists.

Moving on to further segments of the population, reading between the lines, it's clear that while the older you get the more concerned one is about two things: the preservation of one's wealth in the markets (i.e., in one's 401(k) or pension) and the overall stability of the system (i.e., the basic security that tomorrow will be like today).

Thus far, I think the U.S. left has done precious little to allay the fear that socialism = equal impoverishment and wasteful bureaucracy. "Socialism" is being defined all too much by the government's share of the economy over basic class relationships, and further is being defined by private income taxes rather than social wealth.

Socialism on the Rise, or Another Example of the Left’s Wishful

Here's a slogan we might use: 'Wealth is political power, maldistribution of wealth is tyranny.'

Not to be sneezed at

This poll is not going to bring about an immediate mass revolutionary socialist force. But it's still significant, if for no other reason than it indicates that the word "socialist" is no longer box office poison right out of the gate. That's important in broadening our outreach. There's a ton of work to be done, but I think it means that the first steps are just a bit easier.

ideas and organization

dws says:
"The Left only reproduces the wrong approach when it reads its big fantasies into merely symbolic ripples. There will be more economic crises, more sporadic protests, more symbolic reflections of dissatisfaction with capitalism. But as long as these are just that—symbolic or exceptional—they only signify a potential that we are miserably failing to capitalize upon. As Adolph Reed likes to say, the problem of the Left is not one of ideas, but of organizing."

This seems to me partially right and partially wrong. I think that in times of crisis like this, it is indeed easy to read fantasies into events and this can result in serious misjudgement of the times. I will admit to being somewhat more pessimistic about the current conjuncture than those who feel that a repeat of the 1930s (in terms of left or labor organizing) is afoot though I won't deny that there are some encouraging signs such as this poll, the Visteon struggle, etc.
What I take issue with is your assertion that "the problem of the Left is not one of ideas, but of organizing." Yes there are problems of organization. But there are also problems of ideas. Moreover these are often connected. One of the reasons why the left is in such particularly pathetic shape in the US is that the left and the working class are beholden to the Democratic Party. Why is this the case? There are no simple answers, but it is not simply a failing of organization and any successful attempt to address this will have to go beyond merely organizational solutions. There is a slogan with a long history in this country, "Don't mourn, Organize!" that in a way reflects the longstanding anti-theoretical tendencies of the left in the US, the notion that all that is needed is just a little more organization, a little more activism and we can win. And sometimes we can. Sometimes, however the problems have an objective, systemic and political character that mere organization will not address and when we inevitably fail, we will not understand why or respond appropriately.

I agree!!!

Thanks to DWS for highlighting the incredible gap between popular disaffection with deregulated, neo-liberal capitalism, and the capacity of working people to actually mount resistance to capital. DWS is absolutely correct that the left ignores this gap at its risk. Two possible responses are likely among most leftist. A minority of the left that still describes itself as revolutionary, deludes themselves that the the masses will soon stream to the left-- if the left "keeps the red flag flying high." Most of the left is already proclaiming Obama's electoral victory as a manifestation of this embrace of "socialism" and is arguing that the left must support Obama to "stop the right."

Unfortunately, neither of these responses actually builds the capacity of workers, people of color, LGBT people, women, and immigrants to struggle. Both actually undermine our capacity to resist. In the absence of real collective movements of working people, a populist/nativist/racist right can capitalize on such "anti-capitalist" sentiments.

The key to making socialism a living political reality, as both Dan LaBotz (http://www.solidarity-us.org/crisisandsocialism)and Kim Moody (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090406/moody) have argued in THE NATION symposium, is rebuilding the capacity of working people to struggle!

Or a bit of both?

Socialism on the Rise, or Another Example of the Left’s Wishful Thinking?

Maybe a bit of both? I wasn't as taken away by the poll as some, and I agree with you about its limitations and such.

But I did also see it as a nice little bit of encouraging news.

Communications Gap

I think the poll shows a lot of public anxiety over the ill-effects of capitalism run amok. But the public's knowledge of socialism is weak and usually inaccurate.

You know, "Democrats" are against socialism just as much as Republicans are in the public sphere of communications - which means, news, TV, entertainment and all other communications.

Socialism suffers from a lack of public communication narrative. Imagine all the radio, TV and newspapers you browse - and more importantly that the public browses. How many brand name media personalities - of any kind - do you know who come on any media and flatly declare they are a "socialist?" Well, I can think of Bernie Sanders and then.......

I am not really sure if even Barbara Ehrenreich makes such declarations? I can't recall hearing them made, and I listen to very leftish media (by mainstream standards).

My observation is that socialism is still a four-letter word in America, unsuited for mixed company! After years of telling friends and family I was "very far left" - I decided last year to just say I was a socialist. I must say, there was a lot of shock and in the words of Ricky Ricardo, "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do!"

Somehow, socialism has to come out of the closet.

cause for optimism

OK, so the right-wing media hysteria around Obama means that for many socialism = Obama. The fact that socialism is so poorly understood is neither surprising nor terribly depressing given how marginalized the left has been for the past couple of decades. But why is the glass half empty? Can't we be encouraged by the fact that 47% of those polled rejected capitalism? In the belly of the beast no less.

Yes, this could go in a bad direction and I strongly agree with the need to "harness the growing disenchantment into a political force". It's like the fact that, while a majority of Americans oppose the Iraq war, the anti-war movement has struggled to stay alive. Lots of work to be done but no one is resting on their laurels because of this poll.

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