Why Did Newsweek Say “We are All Socialists Now?”



Two weeks ago, the leading corporate weekly U.S. magazine Newsweek published a cover story bearing the remarkable title "We are All Socialists Now." The article was largely about the Obama administration’s economic recovery and bailout plan though it noted that "the U.S. government has already – under a conservative Republican administration – effectively nationalized the banking and mortgage industries." 


As this suggests, Newsweek equated "socialism" with just about any significant state intervention in economic life.  To support this provocative thesis, the magazine pointed to the "growing role of government in the economy," indicating that "we are headed in a more European direction.  A decade ago," Newsweek correspondents John Meacham and Even Thomas wrote, " U.S. government spending was 34.3 percent of GDP, compared with 48.2 percent in the euro zone…In 2010, U.S. spending is expected to be 39.9 percent of GDP, compared with 47.1 percent in the euro zone.  As entitlement spending rises over the next decade, we will become even more French."  (J. Meacham and E. Thomas, "We are All Socialists Now," Newsweek, February 16, 2009).





There were four key things missing from this remarkable Newsweek report:


1. Any remotely accurate understanding of socialism as it is grasped and advanced by its modern-day adherents: democratic workers’ and peoples’ control of economic and political life in the interests of social use, equality, and the common good instead of private gain and social hierarchy. As Lance Selfa, a left-Marxist American author, notes at the end of his recent critical history of the Democratic Party, a "socialist society" is one in which "human needs are not sacrificed to the profits of the rich. In a socialist society, workers would take control of the factories and offices.  The repressive apparatuses of the state – from prisons to the military would be brought under democratic control and then abolished." At the same time, daily life and social experience would significantly liberated from hierarchical dress, speech, and other cultural codes of class inequality, as was the case in revolutionary Barcelona in 1936, so wonderfully depicted in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History [Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2008], pp. 197-198). 


Consistent with their critical deletion of popular control and classlessness, Meacham and Thomas say nothing about the significant extent to which their purportedly new "socialist" (and "European") U.S. government is intervening largely on behalf of the nation’s wealthy Few, NOT  the common good and the working class majority.  They show no understanding that it’s largely about what leftists have long called "socialism for the rich."  They omit the rather important (one would think) fact that the "European" model of "socialism" (a more welfarist model of state capitalism) to which they claim "we are all" moving is much more comparatively weighted towards social welfare and equity than the U.S. model, which leans heavily towards corporate and Wall Street  welfare and a giant military budget (at least $1 trillion per year when honestly tabulated) that is itself largely a giant public subsidy to "private" high-tech U.S. industry.


2. Any survey or other opinion data showing that most Americans think of themselves as "socialists." No such data exists, thanks in part to U.S. cultural and ideological authorities’ longstanding success in identifying left-democratic and libertarian ideals with the arch-authoritarian, fake-socialist tyranny of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the like.


3. Discussion with a single solitary actual U.S socialist to get his or her take on whether or not the broad mass of Americans have now suddenly embraced a socialist world view and program. 


4. Any reasonable understanding of the fact that capitalism and capitalists have long relied on state protection, subsidy, and regulation – that supposedly "free market" capitalism has always been state capitalism. The profits system and its giant Frankenstein creation The Corporation would have collapsed – indeed they would not have gotten off the ground – without repeated and ongoing government interventions on behalf of concentrated wealth. For what its worth,  my copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary says that "capitalism" in "its latter phase" has "been generally characterized" by "increased government controls" (along with "a tendency toward concentration of wealth" and "the growth of great corporations"). The notion that we are no longer ruled by capitalism when government is heavily involved in economic life is simply wrong.





Newsweek‘s claim that "we are all socialists now" is transparently false and should reasonably strike many as bizarre. The interesting question (to me anyway) is why on Earth they would advance it.



To Sell Copies


Part of the explanation, I suspect, is simply that they wanted to sell issues with a spectacular title and story angle – something that might strike a chord amidst the deepening capitlaist economic crisis and in light of the Republican Party and right-wing media’s hysterical neo-McCarthyite claims that the Obama administration is introducing, well, "socialism." 


They Might Believe It


Another part of it may be that the story’s authors and editors are sufficiently uninformed and ideologically orthodox to actually believe that Obama and even Bush’s government interventions in the economy amount to some form of socialism.  The false idea that capitalism is a laissez-faire, "free market" economy — not another form of significantly state-enforced class rule — is widely disseminated and shared across much of the U.S. political class, including top journalists and news commentators.  Few of the sorts of folks who end up writing for journals like Newsweek have been favorably exposed to standard left analyses of state capitalism.



"Toxic Populist" Radical Potential


But I think there might be something deeper going on.  Pretty much by definition, corporate media (of which Newsweek is an integral part of course) hates and fears popular democracy and the prospect of radical change from the bottom up.  Dominant U.S. media’s owners, managers and top operatives have long and quite naturally (given their elevated wealth, income, and privilege) thought that real socialism – democratic workers control for social use combined with a rejection of harsh socioeconomic disparities and of the culture of class rule  -  would be a terrible thing. And they and their capitalist advertisers and other elite class brethren have increasingly solid reasons to fear popular movement toward such radical change in the wake of the long, polarizing, and arch-plutocratic Bush-Cheney nightmare and in the deepening trough of an epic capitalist "Great Recession."  Even before the current economic crisis kicked in, after all, most Americans supported a broad range of left-leaning, objectively social-democratic policies.  Thus, for example:


* 69 percent of U.S. voters agreed that "government should care for those cannot care for themselves" (Pew Research, 2007).


* 58 percent of Americans believed the U.S. government should be doing more for its citizens, not less (National Elections Survey, 2004).


* Twice as many Americans backed more government services and spending as the number of Americans who supported fewer services and reduced spending even it meant a tax increase (National Elections Survey, 2004).


* 64 percent of Americans said they would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens (CNN Opinion Research Poll, May 2007).


* 69 percent of Americans thought it was the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage of all its citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006).


* 80 percent of Americans supported a government-mandated increase in the minimum wage (Associated Press/AOL Poll, December 2006).


* 71 percent of Americans thought that taxes on corporations were too low ( Gallup Poll, April 2007). 


* 66 percent of Americans thought taxes on upper-income people were too low ( Gallup Poll, April 2007).       


* 59 percent of Americans were favorable toward unions, with just 29 percent unfavorable ( Gallup Poll, 2006).


* A majority of American voters thought that the United States ‘ "most urgent moral question" was either "greed and materialism" (33 percent) or "poverty and economic injustice" (31 percent). Just 16 percent identified abortion and 12 percent picked gay marriage as the nation’s "most urgent moral question" (Zogby, 2004). Thus, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the population thought that injustice and inequality were the nation’s leading "moral issues."


* Just 29 percent of Americans supported the expansion of government spending on "defense."  By contrast, 79 percent supported increased spending on health care; 69 percent supported increased spending on education; and 69 percent backed increased spending on Social Security (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, "Global Views Survey," 2004). [1]


Today, as corporate communications authorities know very well, America ‘s (not-so "free market")capitalist system is going through one of its greatest episodic failures.  Tens of millions of Americans are suffering the consequences of bad (but fairly standard and systemically rooted) capitalist behavior. Jobs, home values, retirement accounts, consumer confidence and economic security in general continue to fall as the U.S. economy recently plummeted to what The Wall Street Journal calls "levels far worse than previously thought."  By the Journal’s recent chilling front-page account, the nation’s gross domestic product fell at a remarkable annual rate of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 and an estimated 4 percent in January of 2009. Private investment plunged by 21 percent (!) as consumer non-durable spending declined by more than 9 percent in the last three months of 2008, leading Saks Inc. CEO Stephen I. Sandove to call the current landscape "perhaps the most challenging the company has faced in its 84 year history." 


More than 600,000 Americans made new filings for unemployment insurance during every week in February. 


Economists are expressing pessimism about the likelihood of recovery this or next year as the economy experiences its worst collapse since the lowest days of the 1982 recession (Conor Dougherty and Kelly Evans, "Economy in Worst Fall Since ’82," Wall Street Journal, February 28-Marh 1, 2009, A1-A2). Leading economist Nouriel Roubini (one of the few academic specialists to predict the financial crisis) notes that "today, as we enter the 15th month, it’s obvious that we are already in a painful U-shaped recession that has become global and will last at least until the end of the year – 24 months, the longest since the Great Depression…And things could get worse.  We now face a 1 in 3 chance that, if appropriate policies are not put in place, this ugly U-shaped recession may turn into a more virulent L-shaped near-depression or stag-deflation (a deadly combination of the economic stagnation and price deflation) like the one Japan experienced in the 1990s after its real estate and equity bubbles burst" (N. Roubini, "The L Curve," New York Times, March 1, 2009).


Despite Obama’s Inaugural Address claim that this deepening economic crisis is a result of "our collective failure," moreover, it seems fairly well and widely understood by Americans that the real cause was the reckless conduct and greed of a runaway financial industry and the related excessive power of the investor class


"We" are not (yet) "all socialists now" but a rising and significant number of us could well become a lot more radical and anti-capitalist as the majority’s progressive issue sentiments continue to confront the downward spiral of a truly striking capitalist crisis. U.S. political and media authorities certainly know how quickly economic crisis led to political and ideological reconfiguration (including the epic collapse of fake-socialist authoritarian regimes) in Eastern and Central Europe .  They have seen how U.S- led neoliberal capitalism has bred populist social movements and related Left electoral developments in Latin America over recent years.


When they are sufficiently dramatic and painful, quantitative economic changes can breed qualitative changes in mass political belief and behavior.  Already the militantly centrist Obama administration is being pushed by objective material circumstances and popular sentiments (including populist anger it rode to office) to move to (very) modestly temper the excessive concentration of wealth and to subject the economic system to a new level of government regulation and intervention.


This is an environment and moment fraught with potential for what U.S. defense" analyst Nathan Freier calls the "domestic enemy" – and national security "context threat" – of "toxic populism."  The "security" danger of "toxic populism" is Pentagon talk for left-democratic and egalitarian consciousness and activism, seen by military planners as part of why the U.S. Armed Forces (specifically the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, recently moved back from occupied Iraq to the imperial "homeland" under the command of the U.S Northern Command, or NorthCom) is now (amazingly enough) legitimately (those planners believe) engaged (contrary to the letter and spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act and the Insurrection Act) in domestic policing [2].


To make matters worse for capitalist elites, it is obviously much harder today than it was during the Cold War era to check majority progressive sociopolitical sentiment by linking it to the Soviet nightmare. "Since there are so few Communist regimes left today," that sentiment is much less subject to "the ready-made stigma" of "association with the Soviet-style socialism" (M. Leibovich, "‘Socialism!’ Boo, Hiss, Repeat," New York Times, March 1, 2009, sec. 4. p.1).



Preemptive Containment and a Down Payment on Obama’s Failure


As a leading corporate media outlet, one of Newsweek’s jobs beyond selling copies is to help contain the evolution of popular consciousness down the left-democratic path.  By saying that we’ve all become "socialists," Newsweek hopes to creates the illusion that a feared fully radical evolution has already taken place and that there is nowhere further left for the people and the government to go. It identifies progressive majority consciousness with demonized but fading legacy and bogeyman of authoritarian Soviet fake socialism and with such updated foreign pseudo-"threats" as Hugo Chavez and (comically enough) "France." It tries to check the centrist Obama’s potential leftward evolution by linking the new administration to such officially negative, "un-American" models, reinforcing the notion that there’s no legitimate space on the U.S. ideological and policy spectrum beyond the state capitalism of Obama/Summers/Geithner and Goldman Sachs, Inc.


And that’s not all. When Obama’s tepid, corporate-friendly brand of intervention proves inadequate to the task of economic stimulus and recovery – as seems likely given the severity of the current collapse – the wacky claim that his strategy was "socialist" promises an added dividend: the resulting failures can be used as "proof" that Left policy is a failure and must "never again" be permitted to interfere with sacred corporate and "free market" prerogatives (falsely conflated as always with "democracy" and "freedom" in the dominant ideology).  Calling the current administration’s economic agenda "socialist" is both an attempt to check its current progressive potential and a down payment on the prevention of future developments to the unimaginable left of the Obama administration.  




Sadly, seeing the "S-word" link made in the supposed (according to the still powerful U.S. right) "liberal media" outlet Newsweek, not just on Fox News or on the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows, feeds the ever-deepening paranoia and persecution complex of the arch-authoritarian, messianic-militarist, militantly patriarchal, and white-nationalist hard right.  That proto-fascistic element lurks and grows dangerously in the "red state" wings as Obama’s mythical "radical left" (numerous Republican commentators, politicians, and politicos claim) agenda confronts the harsh realities of a profit system he is charged to reinvigrate with tools that are likely too conservative and inadequate to succeed. 



Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical historian in Iowa City , IA.  Street’s books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008), which can be ordered at: www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987.





1. I am indebted for much of this opinion data to Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2008), pp. 67-75.


2.  Nathan Freier, "Known Unknowns: Unconventional Strategic Shocks in National Defense Strategy" (United States War College, Strategic Studies Institute, November 2008), is quoted at length in Matthew Rothschild, "What is NorthCom Up To?" The Progressive (February 2009): 17-20.

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