If you’ve picked up a newspaper or tuned into an Asheville City Council meeting in recent months, you’ve probably run into the word: socialism.
Council member Carl Mumpower frequently applies the term to proposals he opposes—everything from a living-wage initiative to affordable-housing grants. “I use it as an objective description of the behaviors that I believe are occurring,” Mumpower told Xpress, adding, “Socialism is not the system our mostly successful culture was built upon.”
The local conservative press has shown a similar fondness for the word. Just before the last Council election, the now-defunct Mountain Guardian newspaper ran a story with the screaming banner headline “Will the Socialists Win?” The article targeted Council member Brownie Newman as the coming “de facto socialist mayor of Asheville.”
“I think people who use the term often use it to caricature the progressive political agenda,” says Newman. “For the most part, it’s used wrongly: A visceral term is used to whip people into sort of a frenzy. Their arguments don’t stand up to reasoned debate, so they resort to using these inflaming terms.”
Nor is the word’s propensity to stir up controversy confined to city government. At UNCA last fall, passions flared when student senator Greg Goddard spray-painted inflammatory slogans such as “Kill All Socialists,” “F**k Socialism” and “Socialism Sucks” on a “message wall” a student-activist group had set up on the quad, and Campus Police officer Brandon Hunnicutt posted photos of the graffiti on his Web site (see “Say It, Don’t Spray It,” Nov. 8, 2006 Xpress).
“That anger is [left over] from the McCarthy era,” says UNCA junior Kati Ketz, who chaired the Socialist Unity League at the time of the incident. (The group is now the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.) “That’s really ingrained in a lot of people still, that it’s us versus them. … That’s incorrect: Socialism is for a better way of life. … Socialism is democracy.”
Indeed, in Europe and other parts of the world—including some of America’s closest allies—socialist parties are considered mainstream. At press time, French Socialist Ségolène Royal was in serious contention to become that country’s next president. And in many countries, May 1 is celebrated as International Workers Day or Labor Day.
Ironically, this is partly to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, when police violently broke up labor peaceful demonstrations in support of an eight-hour workday. Despite a lack of evidence, eight of the protest’s leaders were convicted of conspiracy in the murder of a police officer; four were hanged and a fifth committed suicide in prison. Seven years later, Illinois Gov. John Altgeld pardoned the surviving labor leaders, calling the trial a travesty.
In honor of International Workers Day, then, Xpress decided it was high time to shine the spotlight on a word that, more than 15 years after the end of the Cold War, still stirs up such powerful emotions in Asheville.
What do you mean?
Sometimes it seems as though everyone who uses the term has a different definition for it.
“Socialism is basically a government initiative to take money from one pocket and put it in another—and I simply don’t believe government does that well,” says Mumpower. “I think we do better when, through a system of liberty, opportunity and responsibility, we help people figure out how to put money in their own pockets.”
Newman, however, doesn’t think some of the issues branded “socialist” by opponents have anything to do with the term. “I don’t think annexation has anything to do with the degree to which the government will have a role in the economy,” which is what the word actually means, says Newman. He also maintains that it’s not an accurate description of progressive political agendas today.
“Most people who support a progressive political agenda accept the idea that the market is going to be the predominant factor that influences our economy,” asserts Newman. “But I think they also see that the market by itself doesn’t solve all our society’s problems, and they believe in the idea that we should have some basic standards to make sure people who work in our community can live in our community, and that’s why we support a minimum wage. It still means the market is the basic context, but you have some basic standards. If they think that having a minimum wage is socialism, well, that’s their opinion. But I think most people see it as a common-sense, very American idea.”
The UNCA students, meanwhile, had yet another approach. “Socialism, in this context, just means equality,” says Ketz, who’s now the regional coordinator for SDS. “Free from racism, free from sexism, free from economic exploitation. Beyond that, it was up to the individual members as to what their specific definition was. We made it very broad so we could have unity.” The focal point, she says, “has been opposition to the Iraq War. We’re all against economic exploitation, and we believe capitalism is at the root of all these evils.”
Ketz, who calls herself a “Marxist-Leninist,” says she defines socialism as a “change in the fundamental stratification of society to rule by the working class. I know my views are different from a lot of people.”
The multiple definitions come as no surprise to UNCA political-science professor Bill Sabo. “Oh my, there are literally hundreds of them,” he says with a chuckle. “The simplest way to understand socialism is how a collective makes choices.
“One way is to rely on the market: You let people freely choose. Whatever is the sum total is the preference. Socialism is towards the other end; it advocates collective ends. People will get together, debate and discuss, and the collective priority will emerge. The idea is when collective choices are made through government institutions, preferences are rated equally, instead of by how much money you have, which is clearly less equal. But the market puts a greater priority on individual liberty.”
In Sabo’s view, “There’s no ‘This certain thing is socialism.’ Whenever government interferes in the marketplace, it moves further towards that pole. Obviously, yes, setting a living wage could be defined as moving in that direction, though the market will still have a role. By the same token, the more government gets involved in trying to control drug traffickers, that’s collective—that’s socialism.”
You say you want a revolution
Critics often say that socialism has failed, but Ketz flatly denies that assertion. “There are five socialist countries in the world today: Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and China,” she notes, adding, “Cuba has one of the best medical systems in the world.”
According to World Health Organization statistics, Cuban life expectancy and health figures have been similar to those of most Western industrialized nation since data was first gathered in 1957. Those statistics, however, are collected by the various governments themselves, and articles in The Miami Herald and elsewhere have questioned the Cuban information. A 2004 WHO report also noted difficulties in getting accurate health information from governments throughout Latin America.
Asked about the lack of democratic elections, restrictions on speech, and accusations of human-rights violations in all of the above countries, Ketz counters that the United States “is not one to talk.” Here, she says, “We pretend that we have a democratic process, but every four years it’s a debate between two parties that look different on the surface but are really the same.”
Emphasizing that she’s speaking for herself, not her group, Ketz notes: “Freedom of speech … [is] used to justify a lot of different things, like the Ku Klux Klan rallies, that are really reactionary and not productive for society. I would say those kind of things don’t fall under freedom of speech, because that group, in utilizing that freedom of speech, is oppressing all these groups that have historically been oppressed.”
Mumpower, however, asserts that socialism has failed by not respecting individual ability. “People make poor pets—and I believe socialistic models treat people like pets and rob them of their dignity and independence,” he says. “Socialism puts my security and future in someone else’s hands. I believe more in empowering people to run their own destinies.”
Even in Europe, says Mumpower, socialism has not been effective. “I don’t think the European model is anything we want to admire or duplicate,” he asserts. “In almost all cultures where it’s implemented, you find problems with complacency, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. When you look at the depression indexes of the average European culture, I wouldn’t say we need to embrace their models.”
However, a 2004 study of depression in 14 countries, conducted by the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School, found the U.S. topping the list, with 9.6 percent of the population suffering from depression or anxiety. European figures ranged from 8.5 percent in France to 6.5 percent in the Netherlands, 6.2 percent in Belgium and 3.6 percent in Germany.
In any case, argues Newman, progressive politics in America today differ from the European model—having learned from what he considers its faults. “European forms of socialism embrace outright forms of ownership,” he notes. “Most mainstream progressive groups in our country are more seeing how we can [set] labor standards, so people can prosper in this economy. We don’t want the government to control the means of production, but we do think there’s a constructive role to play to support a strong economy and the people who work in it.”
His brand of progressivism, says Newman, aims to work within the overall market. “We don’t go out and create housing for workers, but we can create incentives for the people building homes to build some that are more affordable by low-income workers. You could look back and see in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when they started to do public housing—that’s a lot closer to a socialist program. But a lot of progressives today wouldn’t want to do it that way. There’s good criticisms from the left and right for why public housing, for example, didn’t achieve all it should.”
In any case, the United States “has no real leftist party,” Sabo maintains. “Communism, socialism never took root here. From an international perspective, the Democratic Party is regarded as centrist. We have no real tradition of collective action here. Throughout the Cold War, socialism became a loaded term that automatically smacked of communism, the end of individual liberty etc. As soon as a proposal was labeled socialist, it was doomed! People still package things that way.”
Still a shocker
Nonetheless, socialist ideas will keep arising—and growing—because people find them comforting, says Mumpower.
“They keep coming up for the same reason we all like fairy tales,” he notes. “It’s hard to function as a realistic, independent person; it’s tempting to buy into hollow promises and gifts from above.
“It just sounds good, and that’s the way most politicians get elected—promising to those that have doubts about their ability to build a good life.”
But what Mumpower considers socialist, Newman may see as simply common sense. “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to financially make it in our community and our country,” he asserts. “Some people on the far right might say government has no role except defending the country from foreign invasion. Most progressives take the view that it can play a constructive role. There are things it’s good at and things it’s not good at.”
Sabo, meanwhile, believes the word socialism is gradually losing its political significance in this country. “As we move further and further from the Cold War, it means less and less,” he maintains, despite the continuing erosion of middle-class incomes. “Socialist parties are more likely to emerge when there’s a notable discrepancy between the upper class and the lower class,” says Sabo. “It has less to do with the existence of the middle class [based on] raw income than with perception. Most Americans like to think of themselves as middle class. They may be way behind in wealth, but they still think they’re part of the middle class”—and vote accordingly, which discourages the rise of socialist movements.
Ketz, however, cites “the rapidly growing student movement throughout the United States … through the [Students for a Democratic Society].” And while the original, ‘60s-era SDS eventually splintered into various factions, she believes this time “is going to be different.”
Looking ahead, Ketz says: “I hope we can remain united against the war in Iraq and against oppression. With any collective, you’re going to have some infighting. … Hopefully we’ll be able to … keep the momentum going … and keep it growing.”
In any case, the S-word clearly remains a hot button here in Asheville. In March, opponents of a proposed annexation by the city sent out fliers grouping photos of Newman and Vice Mayor Holly Jones alongside an old Marxist propaganda poster. Titled “The Marx Brothers and Sister Holly,” the flier asserted that they “have openly embraced Karl Marx’s philosophy of wealth distribution.”
[Freelance writer David Forbes is based in Asheville.]