only thing most American know about socialism is they
don't like it. They have been led to believe that
socialism is something to be either ridiculed as
impractical, or feared as an instrument of the
- Leo Huberman
The above Huberman quote is one that rings very true of my experience with other American's perception to "socialism". For instance, when talking with an American about socialism (even in passing reference), their eyes squint, face contorts, and a scowl usually passes over their facial expression. Often a facial tick of some kind is elicited. In short, the average American's physically reaction to the mention of "socialism" appears to be the product of systematic, negative conditioning.
The United States is one of the few countries (if perhaps the only country) to have been primarily founded by joint-stock corporations. This unique origin contributes to an attitude and system that prevails today, with the emphasis of society on brash individualism and profit. Not surprisingly, the ideas of socialism have been thus smeared and downplayed in the US and, even if Americans wished to engage in a realistic discussion over the merits of socialism, the cultural environment and conditioning make such a discussion horribly lopsided and ill-informed.
In mentioning "socialism" to a foreigner, there is usually never the look of insurmountable horror that one receives from an American (which is often akin to profanity expressed in the presence of one's grandparents). People who are not born and raised in the United States have different impressions of socialism, and while this does not, of course, mean that they always agree with socialist ideas, they do not discount it out of hand, nor recoil in shock from its very mention.
Part of the reason for such shock on the behalf of Americans is the effect of years upon years of anti-communist propaganda. Ever since the rise of socialism as a formidable force in Europe and the growth of labor unions in the US, corporations have been fearful of their risks should the public at large decide that they want a complete overhaul of the economic system. The government propaganda, which often came from private sectors, such as the John Birch Society, accelerated when revolution hit Russia. This propaganda was primarily used to deflect the premise that there were other alternatives to capitalism that were legitimate and realistic. Many European states have popular Socialist or Left parties, with active welfare states and aborad, functioning social contract.
Although, later the US wouldn't need to bend the truth all that much when it talked of dictatorship and mass murder, immediately around 1917 the US was afraid that the example of overthrowing the wealthy and aristocratic classes of society was feasible and convincing. Thus they often made up the "evils" related to communism, and by association, socialism. There was a remarkable shift in the propaganda in the early 1940's, where the US was shouting about how Americans should unite together with their Russian brothers and sisters in fighting Hitler's Reich. Even though this campaign was short-lived, it speaks of the remarkable lengths that policy makers will go to (even in contradiction), to achieve a certain political end, international or domestic.
By 1945, the US moved in on Japan to force the end of the war, faster than expected, perhaps to prevent the Soviet Union's entrance to the theater. President Truman ordered a boat full of food to turn around as it approached a northern Russian port and tried to keep them out of the post-war spoils in Europe. These events have nearly nothing to do with socialism, but it was at this point, that the old propaganda picked back up at a feverish pace, leading directly into the hysteria of the McCarthy era.
The US correctly recognized that the USSR posed a significant threat (not economically, or perhaps not even militarily right away), but politically. The Soviet Union was in shambles after WWII, having lost nearly 20 million people, but as soon as it could, it started offering aid to other countries, to support their Marxist revolutions. After they recovered, the USSR began re-building its military, and although never truly on the same level as the US's military, they did develop nuclear weapons and began a space program.
This threat to the US role in the world was a great way to justify the redirection of citizen capital to private corporations, via the Military Industrial Complex (using tax dollars to develop new military technologies for companies, who would sell the weaponry to the US military). Starting in the later 1950's, but rapidly accelerating in the 1960's, the Civil Rights movement threatened the safety of the powers-that-be in the US; their general and specific demands for social change were ones that were not acceptable to businessmen. At this point, terms such as "reds", "commies", "pinkos", and the like were tossed around at anyone who displayed leftist tendencies or promoted ideologies which were opposed to mercantilist capitalism. With the advent of the Vietnam War, the entire system fell under direct attack by people who challenged US militarism, imperialism, social control, racism, sexism, and socio-economical inequity.
The CIA observed in the 1970's that the USSR was no longer an economic threat to the US (and thus could no longer remain a military threat) and predicted its downfall in the coming decades. But, the CIA did not widely publish its analysis until well after the Soviet Union had fallen. The US did not want the public to know that the USSR wasn't an economic threat, because then it wouldn't be able to justify any longer the huge military budget. Thus, the Reagnites continued the Red-paranoia in the 1980's, using it as a reason to intervene constantly in Central America; superficially to prevent communist takeover, but in reality to ensure that grassroot rebellions that would force out US business interests did not succeed. With this rhetoric, Reagan was able to outspend the Soviet Union into debt (which consequently made the US an enormous debtor nation as well), in addition to Gorbachev's programs of detente and glasnost, and cause its downfall.
With the Soviet Union gone, the idea that "socialism" and "communism" as theories are meritless has been rigorously circulated. Of course, this is analogous to saying that your younger brother got sick and died because you constantly beat him every day, but it proves you are a superior human being. That may be a harsh analogy, but it needs to be noted that it is a ridiculous premise to assume that "socialism" has failed because the largest country to adopt it has since changed its ways, regardless of the amazing duress, pressure, and tipped scales on behalf of the US.
It is also interesting to note that both the US and the Soviet Union benefited from their separate and unique interpretations of "socialism". The Russians used "socialism" as good thing, yet they largely did not practice it; rather they practiced state capitalism without nearly any worker input or control over his/her means of production. The Americans used "socialism" as a bad thing, yet it still didn't apply to the Soviet Union. Thus, both states were able to both deify and demonize the USSR with the same phrase, which was irrational and was inaccurately applied. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the general populations of both the Soviet Union and the United States were never allowed to know what "socialism" truly referred to.
Socialism is ridiculed in the US, an overwhelmingly business-run society-- and it makes absolutely no sense for the US to praise or accurately discuss it. As the country was firmly founded upon property rights and rights of corporations (which some may say are surpassing the rights of individuals), it finds little redeeming value in socialism, and only sees the destruction of the business way of life should it come to pass. Self-defense is a very real mechanism and it has been adamantly employed in this case. Huberman points out that it is libeled as "impractical"; which could, of course, mean relatively anything, or nothing at all. Impracticality could refer to economical efficiency or profits, social merit or moral practicality. When socialism is called impractical or contrary to "human nature", it means to deflect true argument of the ideas themselves. One could weigh the positive and negative aspects of "human nature" forever, yet it really is irrelevant in the end, since human beings can be whatever you want them to be, and viewed in whatever light you choose to portray them in.
Capitalism itself can easily be seen as "impractical", just as readily as socialism can be: it reduces the majority of the population to economic poverty and subsistence (even large portions of rich countries); it is subject to periodic and relatively unpredictable rises and falls in markets which can ruin entire portions of society; it ignores the worth and needs of the individual as it emphasizes the merit of profit over humanity and morality; it spurs on monopolies, labor abuses, high unemployment, and the like. In fact, it is just as easy to argue that the "human trait" of greed and self-centeredness, derives from capitalism and not socialism.
Yet, the idea of social Darwinism and the "human nature" myth of competition over cooperation still prevails, as it is openly emphasized in American society-- and it is easy to understand how, in a society that shuts down radically alternative viewpoints and marginalizes moderately socialist viewpoints, no one would even be aware, let alone remotely receptive to such ideologies. Yet, there are many people who openly appreciate such ideologies and attitudes. To me, this illustrates how, despite massive propaganda and educational structuring to the contrary, people see something fundamentally wrong with, if not the system itself, at the very least the system's side effects and symptoms.
The misconception of some that socialism could be an "instrument of the devil", is preposterous and brings on a great belly-laugh. This is nothing more than the logical extension of specific propagandists, such as Pat Robertson and the 700 Club who seem to think that capitalism is closely analogous to Christianity and holiness. Such religious fundamentalism (which isn't fundamental by any means-- in fact the whole point is horribly lost), serves to convince people, under "religious authority" (and big bucks) that socialism is something to be feared and that it is something to fight against, in a holy jihad, perhaps.
The rationale of this is, again, rather groundless, whereas Jesus Christ, as he is portrayed in the Bible was an individual of phenomenal moral conscious and selflessness. If anything, Christ was a much better communist than Pat Robertson is a "capitalist". Jesus was a man who gave up worldly possessions. He fought (non-violently) for the rights of the poor, diseased, women, children, and socially-ostracized. He taught and preached compassion, forgiveness, caring, understanding, humility, tolerance, and sacrifice for one's neighbor and fellow human being. In an act that seems to be rather Marxist, he destroyed a market place where he saw the insult of greed in place of religious respect for the holy day.
Since many "communist" and "socialist" countries removed official religions or declared official agnosticism (regardless of the religious affiliation or beliefs of its citizens), the US and other Western nations referred to them as pagans, atheists, and Evil. In fact, Reagan himself called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, spreading state atheism and the like. However, an honest analysis of what "evil" is supposed to be reveals that it cannot simply be pinned on states that do not claim official religions. For example, the USSR was said to be filled with satanic and devil-worshipping citizens. Discarding the small bit of trivia that most Russians were not atheist, some in the US however equated atheism to satanism. However, any atheist would instantly deny any "satanism" or "evil" on their behalf, since in their view they see no more reason for a Devil to exist than they do a God. Thus, the notions of "evil" and "devil" are invalid, because atheists do not believe in any supernaturality.
Apart from the religious connotations of being "evil", socialism is derailed early on in American children's lives. Through out primary school until even college, socialism is treated "empirically" as impractical, just as Huberman points out, although no such empiricism is ever applied to it (nor could it be, due to the unstable, highly complex, and chaotic nature of human-based society and interaction). Socialism, unlike economics, finance, and business administration, never gets discussed in a serious fashion (outside of Political Science 323, of course!) and thus, by non-mention, is discredited as a respect-warranting political and economic philosophy.
Outside of schools, other factors leave this gap of dialog, such as in the media. Newspapers in the US are highly unlikely to adequately describe or accurately portray the scenario in a foreign country which is communist, at least without mentioning first that the state is communist and implying that the problems are likely derived from that fact. The media has played its role of propaganda (being almost completely private, profit-motivated corporations themselves) by not fairly discussing the merits of socialism and condemning it as foolish and "impractical" at every possibly convenience. In addition to the mainstream media, such as newspapers, magazines, and radio, other mass-culture outlets such as movies and TV portray biases (however accurate they may be), ones that are just as lopsided as the Soviet Union's portrayal of American economics (however accurate they may be).
Thus, we can observe that average Americans know what they "know" about socialism from 1) what they are told, 2) what they assume (under influence from US society), and 3) what they conclude from looking and "analyzing" other forms and examples of "socialism". In such a closed environment it is as inconceivable for Americans to discuss and consider socialism as it is for the Citadel to consider female membership-- perhaps even more so.
When people's perceptions are molded in such an environment, it is understandable why the backlash in the 1950's was perhaps worse for someone not suitably anti-communist as it was for an actual socialist. Even, when socialism to someone means absolutely nothing to someone else, it is often the conventional wisdom that "overcomes" that heresy in public dialog, regardless of whether something intelligent is being said by either side. Prevailing dogma of this variety is almost impossible to overcome in such a structure. When someone is shown the oppressive Soviet system, they will predictably say "no way, not for me", but again, what should one expect? Similarly, when someone is shown the results of American-style capitalism in the US and its client states, an intelligent person will also predictably say "no way, not for me".
This is all not to suggest that elements of socialism do not exist in the US-- they do-- and they all originate in the 1900's. Starting with governmental regulations on corporations at the turn of the century, followed by some consumer protections and worker's rights. The largest effort in advancing socialist ideals in the US came with the New Deal under President Roosevelt. Social Security, progressive taxes, and programs like WPA and CCC pushed the country in this direction, in addition to "Food Stamps", Medicare, and Medicaid, not to mention later programs like WIC and affirmative action (through the Civil Rights movement). However, many of these programs have been incredibly scaled back, mis-managed, and actively attacked. It is also important to note that these programs do not begin to approach the comprehensive nature of programs in other industrialized nations; the US is, in fact, one of the most miserly countries, paying less in taxes than any of the so-called "First World" states.
It is also worth mentioning the other interventionary mechanisms exist in the US, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Communiations Commission (FCC), Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which are all agencies that work to protect consumers and regulate business.
In summary, it is a very believable hypothesis that Huberman offers forth, and there is lots of evidence and detail in society to show that. The obscuring propaganda and one-sided environment obviously cater towards the retention and stability of the American economic system. Socialism, being a dangerous threat to that system, is an idea that needs to be discounted by whatever means available, lest it come to pass and replace the current system. Thus, those with the power and money in the US have made sure that little clear truth gets through to both the educated and uneducated classes about socialism (at least without passing through a filter, that contrasts it in a poor, however accurate, light). The white-washing has not been a complete success, but, all the same, remarkably extensive.
This is not to say that some form of socialism is undoubtedly a better form of running society and managing its needs (although I may personally feel it is), but that it is no mystery why socialism hasn't replaced capitalism in the US, or in the world. Despite the benefits and problems with both ideologies, the emphasis on social needs and the emphasis on capital have never been rationally discussed on a national level in the US, due to the historic roots of the country, which are based in capitalism. So, as Huberman suggests, when all one knows about something is that they don't like it, they really don't know anything about it at all.