Socialism is the least understood and the word most frequently used as a pejorative in our present political rhetoric.

It is most frequently heard in conservative and Republican circles as a metaphor for hell and damnation. Candidates with progressive or liberal — two words also misunderstood — policy themes are seen as heralds of socialistic American destruction.

There are at least 50 forms of socialism throughout the world. It is perhaps in the Nordic countries that we might find some successes of a mild form of socialism.

However, if you ask the average Joe for his views on socialism, either run or duck because you will get a barrage of invective for even asking the question.

Of what is this negative emotion composed? Is it intellectual, a full understanding of the history and forms of socialism, or is it a catch-word to use to damn a competing political party? I suggest it is the latter.

Socialism has been conflated with Russian political systems and with other enemies of democracy. Ergo, it has an even more sinister meaning for those who use the catch-word.

In the United States, the word is used to refer to a state or government-operated industry or service, while the proper denomination would be “nationalized.” It has also been incorrectly used to mean any tax-funded programs, making no differential between those privately or government-run.

The strangest contradiction in the use of the word as a pejorative is the attributed meaning of the word to describe a government takeover. Actually, socialism would be the opposite. It is the social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange as well as worker’s self-management.

I am no fan of socialism. In fact, I have only a faint idea of the organization of socialistic societies in the almost 100 countries in which it is used. However, my greater interest is in avoiding nonsensical uses of the word by folks who have no idea of what it means.

It is true some of our contemporary politicians and candidates seek to implement programs that seem to have the odor of socialism. A closer look would reveal that even these people do not seek a socialistic state. Most, in fact, have an antipathy toward the abuses inherent in capitalism. To list a few — high tuition for students that impedes pursuit of higher education; tax structures that do not help the middle and poorer classes but offer substantial benefits to the wealthy; income inequality between men and women; voter suppression of minorities; health care for all of us, and so on.

Perhaps we all would embrace various means of correcting these problems. That would seem reasonable, but not socialistic. It would require far more hard work and cooperation between parties and politicians, and, for that matter, all of us.

The rhetorically hugged line, “if you work hard, are morally balanced and patriotic, you will succeed” sounds great, but, if no higher place is reserved for you, you won’t rise. If you lack education, you will not rise. If you are in an environment where pay is unequal, you will not rise. If you work where gender equality is not pursued, you will not rise.

Since socialism is divided into non-market, market, democratic socialism, and many other forms, it is ridiculous to boil it down to sagely nodding one’s head and attributing the worst to those who try to do well by folks who, despite grasping for upward social movement, are defeated by an unregulated capitalistic society.

I suggest we scroll back a bit and spend some time trying to understand what we’re talking about. Words have power.

Lee Rosenberg is a Santa Ynez Valley resident.

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