Is Obama a Socialist?

By William Van Wagenen

A popular topic among people in Utah these days is the subject of whether or not President Obama is a socialist. Strangely, they always reach the same conclusion (of course he is!). Maybe the topic comes up so much because a lot of people here in Utah combine their daily Bible study with watching Glenn Beck on Fox news. Whenever I get the chance, I always try to say that Obama is clearly not a socialist, after which everyone participating in the conversation immediately gives me a suspicious look. “Oh, no,” they think, “this guy is trying to defend Obama. He must be a Liberal! (which in Utah is an insult in case you were wondering).”

For a lot of people around here, denying that Obama is a socialist is like denying that the sun rises every day. Of course, I don’t like Obama any better than Republicans do, but by saying Obama isn’t a socialist, I’m not trying to defend him. It’s just the opposite. I’m trying to put in a good word for socialism.

Thinking Obama is a socialist is the result of not understanding the basic definition of socialism. Most people (and not just around here, it’s the same in just about any introductory economics textbook) think that socialism is when the “government owns most property resources, and economic decision making occurs through a central economic plan.” Actually, that’s a definition of Stalinism. But anyway, in America these days, if the government buys anything, like shares in a company like AIG, or Citibank, or gets involved in the economy in anyway, for example by giving a few hundred billion dollars of tax payer money to banks to bail them out, that means we supposedly have a socialist government.

The fact is then overlooked that the first stage of the bailout was initiated by the Bush administration (Republicans by definition can’t be socialists you dummy!). As is the fact that Obama nominated long-time proponents of capitalism and free-trade to run the U.S. Treasury and to be his economic advisors (Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers), and the fact that the business community and the banks have been clamoring for drastic measures from the government to save the financial system from complete collapse (though they have been annoyed at the very minor strings the government has tried to attach). Pretty soon the economy will stabilize, the government will sell their ownership of whatever companies they risked massive amounts of public money to save, and capitalism will be fine and well. Rich people can continue to make money from the system and rest easy with the knowledge that if they ever totally screw up our economy again, the politicians will be there with taxpayer money to save them and their profits!

At any rate, the government owns stuff and is getting involved in the economy, so that’s socialism right?. Now, even right-wingers know that socialism is meant to help poor people (that’s what’s so bad about it!), so even these people should, after a little thought, realize that Obama isn’t promoting socialist policies. Sure there’s some cheap talk about taxing big banks, or curbing bankers’ bonuses for one measly year, or maybe even raising taxes on the super rich, all for the sake of winning some popularity points (he needs to do something to get re-elected after all!), but at their core, Obama’s policies have basically helped the rich by keeping the capitalist system intact (more people keep losing their jobs, but who cares when the stock market’s up 70% and us rich people made back all the money we lost in 2008!). For proof, consider that every economic analysis published by Fidelity Investments (the biggest financial services firm in the world) since the beginning of the crisis has praised Obama’s policies, saying he’s on the right course.

So when right-wing propagandists like Rush Limbaugh or Beck start throwing the socialist label at President Obama, even when he’s doing all he can to help save the capitalist system, we know it’s just a tactic to win elections, since these days socialism is a dirty word.

Well if using tax payer money to save the capitalist system (so that the banks are reporting record profits for 2009!) isn’t socialism, then what is?

A pretty common definition of socialism is worker ownership and control of the means of production. That’s really different from the government just owning stuff and intervening in the economy to help a small, wealthy, elite sector of the population. It’s also different from the government just owning everything like in the Soviet Union back in the day. It means that workers own the plants, the factories, the banks, and the farms. It means that institutions are established to serve a social function, instead of just make profits. It means institutions would be established to provide health care, rather than avoid paying for surgeries and letting people die to maximize profits, or to make electric cars to help improve our air quality, rather than keep churning out cars that run on gasoline . It means institutions would be established to give small businesses loans to create jobs, rather than hoard cash, or give regular people loans they understand and can afford to pay back, to buy homes or other necessities, rather than preying on people with no financial education by selling adjustable rate mortgages, or burying them in credit card debt they can never get out from under.

In a socialist economy, institutions and companies would be run democratically, so that the workers would have a say in how the business is run, and the general population would have a say in how the wealth they generate is distributed. Workers would have control over the means of production, and as a result, would have control over their jobs and their lives.

So if Obama were a socialist, he could have used all those hundreds of billions of dollars of bank bailout money, or the hundreds of billions of dollars he’s spending to kill poor farmers in Afghanistan, to instead buy the banks, and the health insurance companies, and the oil companies on the cheap, when their stock prices were in the garbage bin. He could have bought some of these companies and made their ownership social, and structured them to serve social needs, and put them under the democratic control of workers, so that the wealth they generate benefits everyone. If he had done that, then Obama would be worthy of the title of a socialist, and I’d be the first to defend him if he were.