All of a sudden, some right wing online commentators are emphasizing that Scandinavian nations are “not socialist.” I am seeing this claim in many places of late. But for years, decades even, right wing commentators have called Sweden in particular and the others in general “socialist.” Some have gone so far as to call Sweden a new totalitarianism. Now suddenly this is stopping.
Is something interesting going on?
I think so.
Pretty much everyone able to read has easy access to evidence that, on balance, Scandinavian societies are much more successful than ours. The scary predictions of right wingers for decades that they would devolve into tyrannies has most obviously not happened. Further, Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians have spent more years than I am alive (71) denouncing every attempt to solve or ameliorate social problems with governmental action as “socialist” and tending to tyranny. But the countries they warned us about, mostly Scandinavian, are now glowing examples of success compared to us.
How do Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians hope to avoid people noticing what is now obvious to all that look at the facts? Confuse the issue. Make Sweden capitalist while describing its actual policies in an American context as socialist tyranny.
This trick is based on conflating two meanings of the word “socialism.” One, as with the Soviets, is government control of the economy through central planning. The second is government or non-capitalist ownership of businesses within a market economy. As libertarians will be the first to say, the Post Office and our highways are socialist- and they are in this second definition.
Both meanings are legitimate if the differences are kept in mind. I do this by distinguishing “state socialism” (meaning central planning) from a more generic “socialism” that accepts markets and even private businesses. But there is another wrinkle here. Today in common parlance “socialism” often means different things in Europe than in the U.S.
In Europe Social Democratic parties are often rooted historically in Marxism- but for many good reasons chose to go leave revolutionary goals aside and sought to work peacefully within the existing system. Revolutionaries still wanted to establish state socialism as on the road to communism. Consequently the term “socialism” for many Europeans means state socialism as contrasted to social democracy.
The U.S. never had a strong Marxist movement at the popular level, but we did have many socialist movements in the second sense. So terminology here is different than in Europe. The equivalent of social democratic ideas in the U.S. did not emerge out of struggles with revolutionary Marxists. They arose rather more spontaneously from our own cultural dynamics. So what is called social democratic politics in Europe is often called just socialist politics in the U.S. For example see this statement by the Democratic Socialists of America.
With the Soviet Union’s demise and communism’s general discrediting, there are no state socialist nations of the first sort to use as examples to scare us. Venezuela is a right wing attempt to replace the old USSR as a bogeyman, and it is a pathetic one. And democratic socialist nations are successes. More and more of the younger generation are not only not scared by socialism, they are attracted to it.
So, what are these right wing oligarchs and their servants to do?
Change the framing.
Sweden is now ‘capitalist’ because it has a market economy! Of course, it ALWAYS has had a market economy, but the right wing is seeking to dissociate Scandinavian success from socialism. But what about Swedish policies?
The right wing is now claiming all who call themselves socialist in this country want to abolish markets and substitute central planning when, so far as I know, there is not a single prominent American socialist who wants this. Socialism must continue to be demonized while changing its meaning to reflect the latest set of lie by capitalist oligarchs and their servants.
This is too sudden a change to be accidental, I think.