After President Joe Biden earned the Democratic nomination to run for president, he seemed compelled to distinguish himself from his top competitor, Vermont Senator and self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, and to disavow any connection to socialism.
“I beat the socialist,” Biden reminded the media. “That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career — my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
Biden, no doubt, was moving to protect himself from a label that still provokes anxiety, even fear and antipathy, in many Americans, albeit they may have no clear idea of what constitutes socialism or what it would mean for their lives.
Ignorant of what socialism is, Americans have nonetheless been taught to fear it. The Cold War hard-wired “socialism” into the American lexicon as one of the dirtiest of words.
So, it made sense, to some degree, when Donald Trump and Republicans continued to paint Biden as a radical socialist, that Biden insistently repudiated the label. Indeed, the socialist tag arguably cost him Florida in the general election.
Of course, Republicans continue to try to brand everything Biden and the Democrats pursue as a radical socialist agenda , from the American Rescue Act that provided relief to tens of millions of Americans in dire need to Biden’s infrastructure plan that similarly plans to address the needs of Americans not just by building roads and bridges but by creating a cleaner and safer environment, improving access to healthcare and education, and making sure American’s children receive proper care, among many other elements.
What if this focus on meeting the needs of Americans is a little bit socialist?
Would that be so bad?
Let me take a little risk here and invoke the much-maligned Karl Marx, co-author of The Communist Manifesto.
Marx famously, or infamously, imagined a society that operated on and realized this principle: “From each to his ability, to each to his need.”
Since coming into office, I think it’s fair to say, one of Biden’s chief objectives informing policy has been to direct resources to those Americans most in need.
Just listen to how he talked about his infrastructure plan when he unveiled it, emphasizing need:
“Above all infrastructure is about meeting the needs of a nation and putting Americans to work and being able to do and get paid for having good jobs.”
Biden here conceives of infrastructure in terms of the principle “to each to his need.”
If such a principled approach is worthy of slander, we may have to reconsider how have been thinking about the role of government—or how our elected officials have been thinking about their role as government leaders.
Is the role of government not to address need but instead to play a role in determining who wins and who loses, who suffers and who thrives, who goes without and who has plenty? Or, to sit back and watch as the current capitalist economy, aided by government policy, abets ever-increasing inequality?
If addressing people’s needs is “socialist,” maybe we need to stop looking at the label as an accusation, as a dirty word, but as a noble and humane title.
Listen as Biden elaborates on the needs-focused project of infrastructure, and see if it sounds so bad:
“We need to start seeing infrastructure through its effect on the lives of working people in America. What is the foundation today that they need to carve out their place in the middle class to make it. To live, to go, to work, to raise their families with dignity. To ensure that good jobs will be there for their kids, no matter who they are or what zip code they live in.”
Meeting people’s needs, which is what Biden stresses and how Marx defines socialism in part, is not about giving away “free stuff.” It’s about ensuring that people can contribute to the world, that they can work, and thereby earn a dignified living.”
Indeed, Biden stresses aligning the work people do with meeting people’s basic needs:
“Plumbers and pipe fitters replacing those literally thousands of miles of dangerous led pipes. They’re still out there. Everybody remembers what happened in Flint. There’s hundreds of Flint’s all across America. How many of you know, when you send your child to school, the fountain they’re drinking out of is not fed by led pipe?”
Does this sound so evil—making sure people have clean drinking water and our children are not being poisoned?
And we know it helps the economy to promote people’s health and help them fully develop so they can contribute to shaping and making our world and doing the work necessary to enable or collective lives. Biden emphasizes this point:
“Talk to folks around the country about what really makes up the foundation of a good economy. Ask a teacher or a childcare worker if having clean drinking water, non-contaminated drinking water in our schools, in our childcare centers, is part of that foundation. When we know that the led in our pipes slows a child’s development when they drink that water.”
This is a very different way of measuring the effectiveness of our economy than, say, the way Barron’s does in a recent article headlined, “This Just Might Be the Best U.S. Economy Ever,” in which the economy was evaluated in terms only of manufacturing growth and stock market performance, not on how well it was serving people’s basic needs, such as providing clean water.
Maybe this working-class perspective offers a clearer way of understanding how well our economy is doing.
After all, it’s hard to deem this economy the best ever when, as Alicia Adamczyk reports for CNBC, “Almost 30% of Americans couldn’t cover all of their household expenses in late March, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data collected March 17-29. About 18 million adults are still going hungry each month.”
We may be ready for this discussion as a nation, especially if Biden were to stop eschewing the socialist label and proudly embrace his goal of an economy designed to meet need rather than just produce profit.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.
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