Frances Moore Lappe: socialism, capitalism, and confusion


Richard Moore

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Why are People Afraid of Saying “Socialism”?

Knee-jerk reactions to words like “socialism” and “capitalism” get us nowhere. We need to first define the terms.

March 30, 2010  by Frances Moore Lappe 

‘Socialist’ has become the new favorite term of derision–working its fear-making magic because, for many Americans, socialism equals the great’government takeover.’ It’s assumed to be not just un-American but downright anti-American. Tea Partiers at their round up in Searchlight, Nevada, told us that’socialist’ Harry Reid’hates America.’ Our national aversion to the S-word isn’t necessarily a problem. But the term’s rapid rise as a political pot-shot, points to a huge problem: our culture’s lack of a common civic language, words on whose meaning we at least vaguely agree. Without it, we can’t hope to talk to one another about what matters most. ‘We have a language of capitalism. We have a language of Marxism. But we have no language of democracy,’ historian Lawrence Goodwyn once remarked. And we need one. Capitalism and socialism. Imagine if we just got some clarity on these basic terms alone. First, capitalism. To most of us, it’s quintessentially American. Many of us assume it’s democracy’s essential partner. But what is it? Capitalism is an economic system in which the person or body owning capital productive resources like raw material and labor—has the power to make decisions as to the use of these resources and who benefits from them. The capitalist is in control, not the workers, not the community members, not the government. It is a system in which capitalists seek to gain for themselves the highest possible return on their investment.

Reduced to these elements, it’s no surprise that capitalism returns wealth to wealth, leading to a jaw-dropping chasm between rich and poor: In our country meaning that one percent of households now have as much net wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Given this common definition of capitalism–with no built-in civic accountability–it’s no surprise that subsidiaries of U.S. companies, for example, sign contracts to build up Iran’s energy industry, even while the U.S. government sees our national interest as putting the squeeze on that very same economy.

It is paradoxical, then, that we see capitalism and democracy as best buddies when in reality they are driven by opposing principles: Democracy is about the wide dispersion of power so that everyone has a voice. But capitalism, merely left to its own devices, inevitably concentrates wealth and therefore power, so’capital’s’ voice carries vastly more weight than citizens’.

Little wonder that capitalism is losing friends around the world. A recent BBC poll in twenty-seven countries found that on average only 11 percent believe it works well. In just two countries did more than a fifth of respondents believe that it works well’as it stands.’ One was the U.S.; the other — Pakistan.

Even more dramatic, almost a quarter of all respondents see capitalism as’fatally flawed, and feel a new economic system is needed.’ In France 43 percent hold that view, in Brazil, 35 percent.

And now to socialism. What is it? Maybe it’s harder to define. Hitler used the term’national socialism’ for his brand of fascism in Germany, which explains a lot about its bad name today.

But’democratic socialism’ or’social democracy’ is commonly used to describe the Scandinavian countries, France, or the Germany of today in which government plays an essential role in making sure that all citizens have the essentials to thrive: Unemployment benefits in Germany, to take but one example, offer about two-thirds of previous pay, compared to less than half in the U.S.; and they last much longer.

Americans see anything labeled socialism as restricting citizens’ freedoms.

So, let’s add’freedom’ to our list of terms that need our immediate attention.

For, if freedom means in part enjoying power over one’s destiny, workers in Germany arguably have much more freedom than U.S. workers.

How’s that?’German workers are at the table when the big decisions are made, and elect people who still watch and sometimes check the businessmen, they have been able to hang on to their manufacturing sector,’ unlike in the U.S., observes lawyer Thomas Geoghegan in the March issue of Harper’s.

They get to the table via widespread ‘works councils,’ giving clerks and other low-level employees a voice in management — deciding, for example, on store hours and who takes which shift, as well as on layoffs, and more.’Co-determined boards’ are another feature of German social democracy. Mainly in firms with more than 2,000 employees, clerks elect half of the members on these governing boards.’Clerks have all this power without owning any shares!’ notes Geoghegan.’In this stakeholder [rather than shareholder] model, they need only act on their interests as ‘the workers.’’ Unions also provide workers a greater say over their lives and almost half of Germany’s workforce are union members.

In all these ways, German workers arguably have more control over their work lives than any country in the world. At the same time, since 2003, and with less than a third of our population, Germany has held first or second place in world export sales.

What if, from now on, every time we read or hear someone use the terms capitalism or socialism, we simply ask: How do you define it? At least, we’d be igniting conversation that takes us beyond slogans. And, in the process, hopefully, we’d become better prepared to explore public policies that really could expand our freedom. 

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet. Find more on living democracy at