Despite the propaganda that NewsCorp subsidiaries such as Fox News are telling us on a daily basis, President Barack Obama is not a socialist. (Sorry, Glen Beck, your dreams must be dashed.)
If one understands the most basic aspects of politico-economic theory, one knows these claims are making some kind of fundamental mistake: they are using a word improperly in order to make another claim without actually claiming it. In other words, propaganda works better if it is subtle and deceitful.
This is a problem for several reasons. First, it is disingenuous. If you want to claim that our president will lead the country toward totalitarianism, dictatorship, and strife, simply say so, and don’t couch your claims in a misused term. This leads me to the second problem – because of this constant misuse of the term, many people don’t really know what socialism means. All of us engage in political discussions from time to time, and all of us are affected and informed by the discourse we hear from the news, our family, our friends, and even our teachers. Knowing what a word really means not only helps us communicate effectively and avoid mistakes, but it also empowers us.
With this in mind, I have decided to write a series dedicated to explaining oft-misused terms, especially those that are thrown about in a propagandistic fashion in political and social debates. This is the first in the series, and of course, the first term I want to tackle is “socialism.”
In order to understand what socialism really means, you have to understand two concepts: means of production, and public versus private ownership. The means of production are the things we use to produce items such as cars, pencils, food, and almost anything that can be exchanged. This includes factories, tractors, shovels, tools of all kinds, etc. You get the idea.
Public ownership is when a group owns something collectively. That is, everyone has a say in how the thing owned is controlled, used, or managed and they collectively benefit from that ownership. Private ownership is when only one person (or entity such as a corporation) owns something, which means that an individual controls it and decides what is done with it, and they personally benefit from owning it.
Now, with these two concepts we can define two other concepts: capitalism and socialism. Capitalism is when the means of production — the things we use to produce other things for consumption — are owned by individual people. Means of production are privately owned, and the benefit (read profit) goes to an individual.
Socialism, on the other hand, is when the means of production are owned publicly, or collectively by a group, and the benefit (read profit) goes to the group collectively.
So, what about Obama’s presidency so far would lead us to believe that he is in some way a socialist? The obvious answers are bailouts – of the banking industry and soon General Motors as well. Essentially, bailing out these industries relies on taking tax dollars, money that the public has earned, and using it to buy up shares of suffering companies, making the United States government part owner of the corporations bailed out. Now, one could assume, based on the fact that it is public money, money that every taxpayer contributed, that in this sense, these companies are partially owned by the entire community of taxpayers. If this is the case, then in some sense, these companies are partially publicly owned.
But of course, government money can come from several places, and it may be that the government has borrowed money from others in order to buy up these shares, and hence the money does not necessarily originate with taxpayers. So perhaps, because the government is democratically elected, and are supposed to represent us, these companies are partially publicly owned because the government represents the entire public.
If either of these situations is the case, then the ongoing bailouts could be construed as socialist. We are all part owners either because we contributed tax money, or because we are being represented by the government. But ownership is not only about representation or payment – one must ask “Cui bono?” or rather “Who benefits?”
Once these shares are bought up, and the companies (hopefully) get back on their feet, where does their profit go? Who gets the benefit? The answer is that it goes to private individuals, for the most part. The profit goes to the company. And remember, the bailouts rely not only on buying up shares, but also on cash injections, meaning we simply give them money, and don’t retain any ownership at all. This money is simply gone.
Then why is the administration doing this? Precisely to remain capitalists. We can quickly see that what Obama is doing, at least with regard to the bailouts, is not socialism at all, but simply a subtle but genuine form of capitalism. Private entities get public money, but retain the benefit in terms of profit, for the most part. Not only that, but the public has no say in how these companies are run, and what they do with themselves once the government owns their shares, defying yet another requirement for socialism. Strange then, the hysterical claims of Mr. Beck.
Rest assured, Obama is not a socialist. Now that you know the most basic requirements of capitalism and socialism, go out and use terms correctly, improve your conversations and heighten your understanding of the news.