The new favorite term of derision in politics is “socialism” – working its fear-making magic because, for many Americans, “socialism equals the great ‘government takeover,’ ” writes Frances Moore Lappe, author of “Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want.”

“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 can vaguely agree. Without it, we can’t hope to talk to one another about what matters most.” Lappe adds.

The word “socialism” has a complex history. Originally the term was linked to Eugene Victor Debs, a locomotive fireman, labor and industrial union organizer, and, in the late 1800s, president of the American Railway Union and founder of the U.S. Socialist Union.

Years later, socialism would become conflated with Russian communism, following the emergence of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (or Bolsheviks), that in 1917, formed the Communist Party and seized power in the Soviet Union.

Since then, terms such as “communism” and “Bolshevik” have been loosely used to refer to any group deemed to be radical or hostile.

The expressions “socialism” and ‘capitalism” have been branded by the American political machinery, in such as way that many right-wingers can call something socialist and thereby make it sound like a very bad thing.

Conversely, even fewer people argue that capitalism is a very good thing for all of us. Capitalism, of course, is primarily an economic system, not an ideology, certainly not one that embraces the common woman or man.

In this country, we tend to intermingle the terms “capitalism,” “freedom,” “free enterprise” and “democracy,” when in reality they are each distinctly different concepts, allowing much room for their meanings to be distorted and manipulated.

Socialism, which is too often erroneously associated with the dirty “c” word, “communism,” has even in its worst applications been a more inclusive economy, one that attempts to take into account the welfare of entire communities.

The word “democracy” has always implied a fundamentally wider distribution of power and giving equal voice to all its adherents. Well, we pretty much know that it has, so far, been little more than a pipe dream, don’t we? Historically, the U.S. Constitution was established by privileged white males, who helped to establish the primacy of private property, including slaves, and yet were masters at conveying populist rhetoric.

Even though many of our amendments establish individual rights, our economic system favors an economic ruling class. The rights of a person of financial means far exceed those of an average citizen. And, all of this was no accident of fate.

History has shown us that government cannot effectively serve people and businesses and industry and be fair to both. It must serve one and regulate the other. I prefer that our government serve average American citizens and regulates industry for the benefit of all.

It is interesting to note, for example, that the phrase “free enterprise” sounds terrific on face value, implying two positive concepts, freedom and having the willingness and initiative to take on challenging projects.

What the words don’t immediately reveal is that, at least in America, the primary criterion for success is making profits above all else.

Our economic system allows an individual or body owning capital and productive resources, such as raw materials, equipment, land, and labor, to have the power to make decisions and use these resources to their exclusive advantage.

The capitalist is in control, not the workers, not the community members, or even the government, for that matter. The system is designed to reward the highest gain in return for the investment.

“Reduced to these elements, it’s no surprise that capitalism returns wealth to wealth, leading to the jaw-dropping chasm between rich and poor,” Lappe writes. “It is paradoxical, then, that we see capitalism and democracy as best buddies when, in reality, they are driven by opposing principles.”

Jeremy Bentham, an early 19th-century English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer, characterized a “right” as “the greatest good to the greatest number.”

That is what we need to keep in mind before we use terms that only serve to distract and divide us.

We should also bear in mind that many words and phrases that address ordinary people wanting equal rights are somehow made to seem bad.

 

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

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