For the first time since Merriam-Webster began tracking the most looked-up words on their website back in 2003, they have settled on two words instead of one word for the top word searches in 2012: socialism and capitalism. This, just days after a new Gallup survey showed an increase positive views of the word “socialism” among both Republicans and Democrats. Both of these notable developments fall almost exactly a year after a Pew Research Center poll showed that a plurality of young adults aged 18 to 29 favor socialism over capitalism.
USA Today gives the following reason for Merriam-Webster’s decision to highlight two words this year: “Thanks to the election, socialism and capitalism are forever wed as Merriam-Webster’s most looked-up words of 2012.”
While the elections may very well have had an impact on the results, as Marxists we know that there is more to the story than this. We look at the big picture and study history dialectically. We look at trends, and their interconnectivity, in order to assess the big picture. Looking at as many pieces as possible can give us clues to the “zeitgeist,” the current collective consciousness of humanity. Millions of pin pricks by capitalism (or maybe more accurately, knife wounds, for many people!) over the past several years have taken their toll on people’s consciousness.
Possibly even more interesting than the Merriam-Webster result was the survey released by Gallup on November 29 that showed significant increases not only with Democrats/Democratic leaners, but also in Republicans/Republican leaners’ positive impression of the word socialism. Over half of Democrats—53%—now view the word socialism positively. Among Republicans, a surprising 23% view it positively! This is up 6 percentage points from the same survey done in 2010, when 17% of Republicans had a positive view of the word. Now, nearly one in every four of your Republican friends likely have favorable views on socialism.
Again, while this is good news for Marxists, we must keep a realistic perspective—what exactly these respondents’ definitions of the word socialism are, leaves much to the imagination. There would likely be myriad different answers if this question were asked. The key point is that the word socialism is beginning to shed some of the baggage and misconceptions that have been piled upon it over the past century. It would probably be safe to assume that at the most basic level, the people who answered this poll positively understand socialism to mean working together to provide more for the common good of all.
The age of austerity is upon us, and people are beginning to question the integrity of the system that rules their lives. Why else, in the most capitalist country on Earth, would so many people be looking up the word “capitalism”? And right alongside it, “socialism”? How is it that more and more people now view the word positively? Haven’t we been told over and over that this is the best possible system on Earth, that socialism and communism were defeated when the Berlin Wall fell? It would seem to indicate a genuine questioning of our current socio-economic system and a search for an alternative.
This collective questioning of capitalism and the parallel increase of a favorable opinion of the word socialism stem from the material conditions that exist today. This is a vastly different world from five years ago, as capitalism has graphically entered a period of profound decay. These trends do not come as much of a surprise to those who study dialectical materialism, as we know that it is not a matter of if, but when, the veil will be lifted off of capitalism and the majority of workers of the world will see it for what it truly is. This is because the very source of capitalism’s early historic dynamism—its ability to generate wealth and advance technology by exploiting others—is also its biggest Achilles’ heel.
As Marx pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” What he meant by this is that by exploiting the workers to make profits, while at the same time aggregating the workers together into ever-larger industrial and commercial centers, the conditions are created whereby at a certain point, the workers will have had enough of being exploited by the bosses and, working and learning together, will collectively rise up against the system and will fight to replace it with socialism.
People want answers. They are angry and disoriented after living through the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. They are seeing revolutions unfold in country after country, and hints of unrest are bursting to the surface in their own country, the “richest country in the world”. All of this can be traced back to the inherent instability and contradictions of capitalism. People are realizing that capitalism’s promise of infinite growth within the finite limits of capitalism is just not physically possible.
Our task is to connect with and educate those who are beginning to question the current system, and to patiently explain that there is an alternative: the picture does not have to be this bleak! We must explain what socialism is, and what it isn’t, and that includes explaining what capitalism is—and what it isn’t. Only when the workers band together against this failing system behind a clear working class program will they be able to abolish capitalism and replace it with a more sophisticated, humane, and stable system—socialism.