Socialism isn't a stranger to the public square these days. And the principal reason isn't because of the rantings of Glenn Beck and his ilk, although their invective actually may have boosted socialism's popularity. People figure if Beck doesn't like it then it can't be all bad.
The main reason explaining this growing interest in socialism lies elsewhere: Capitalism isn't working for most working people. This feeling isn't new, but it is keenly felt today in the midst of a protracted and deep economic crisis that has no end in sight.
That is not to say that the majority of Americans are ready to embrace socialism. They aren't. But they aren't dismissing it out of hand either. In this climate, alternative ways of organizing society and the economy can expect to receive a fairer hearing by the public.
I say this as someone who has had the chance to speak recently in public and private settings where thought-provoking questions about U.S. socialism and what it would look like are inevitably asked. My answer goes along these lines:
U.S. socialism will have distinctive features and characteristics, springing from our own history. It isn't imported from another country,
Nor is it a gift, bestowed by an energized minority. To the contrary, it will be the result of the organized actions of a majority of the American people.
It will complete the unfinished democratic tasks left over from capitalism, especially the eradication of racial and gender inequality. At the same time, it will preserve and deepen existing democratic freedoms, civil liberties and constitutional rights, breathe new life into representative democracy, uphold the rule of law, and support a multi-party system of governance.
Socialism USA will not be drab. It will have a modern and dynamic feel. It will dance to the beat and rhythms of our people. It will celebrate the best traditions of our nation and give patriotism a new democratic content. And, it will bring the social and democratic into the heart of our government, economy, media and culture.
In other words, the state in socialist society won't hover above society, and bureaucratic collectivism that reduces people to cogs, social relations into things, and culture to a dull gray, will not be a part of the socialist fabric.
Our socialism will embrace people-centered values - in place of profit-centered values - as we overcome divisions of class, gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. A community of caring, kindness, equality and solidarity will become the dominant reality of daily life. It will encourage new social arrangements to care for the very young (free, quality child care) and the very old. And it will provide collective alternatives to what today is still "women's work" - the unpaid pre-dawn to post-dusk household labor of cooking, cleaning and laundry.
U.S. socialism will insist on the separation of church and state, but it will also assume that people of faith and non-faith will be active participants in society.
It will also bring an end to exploitation of wage labor, not in one fell swoop, but over time. A mixed economy operating in a regulated socialist market and combining different forms of state, cooperative and private property will define the economic landscape, albeit with tensions, contradictions and dangers that will have to be struggled with.
Such a mixture of ownership relations and market mechanisms does not preclude economic planning or a national investment strategy. The longer-term task of a socialist state and society is to shift the logic of production from wealth for the few, militarism and limitless growth, to production for human need and economic sustainability. It is hard to imagine how such an enormous transformation can be successfully tackled without democratic planning and a society-wide investment strategy.
Unlike capitalist apologists who claim that private ownership by the few is the material basis of freedom and economic security, proponents of socialism will show in practice that socialist forms of property and economic organization are the ground on which freedom can flower.
Finally, socialism will give priority to sustainability and sufficiency, not growth without limits, not endless consumption. Socialist production can't be narrowly focused on inputs and outputs, nor employ purely and narrowly constructed quantitative criteria to measure efficiency and determine economic goals.
Moreover, the fulfillment of human needs cannot be reduced to constant expansion of consumer goods. Socialism isn't simply a "provision society." It is a society in which the wellsprings of human creativity, active engagement, individual fulfillment and solidarity find their full fruition.
Photo: A March 16 rally at the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing. buckdenton13 CC 2.0