America Has Never Been So Ripe For Tyranny

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This spring, fast-food workers at the Burgerville chain in Portland, Ore., unionized under I.W.W. auspices. They professed to want what most people who join unions want — a raise; “affordable, quality health care”; “fair and consistent scheduling” — but also adopted some of the I.W.W.’s swashbuckling radicalism, proclaiming that their workplaces should run “for the benefit of workers and communities rather than for a handful of bosses and executives.” At a moment when American unions seem to be in free fall, this revival of radical aspirations might be viewed as a nonevent — a handful of millennials playing revolutionary in a true-blue town. Or, like the victory of a single primary candidate in New York, it might be seen as the first hint of a coming “red” wave.

That second interpretation was easier to embrace at the start of the 20th century, when socialists believed that history was on their side and that the tide of human progress would move inexorably in their direction. The Bolshevik Revolution seemed to confirm this in 1917, creating a home for “actually existing socialism” in a hostile capitalist world. But association with the Soviet Union quickly became a political liability in America, where “Communist” and “Socialist” were all but interchangeable — shorthand for tyranny, disloyalty and treason. The end of the Cold War produced reams of self-satisfied commentary about how capitalism had won, socialism had lost, ideological struggle had ended and the glory days of human freedom lay ahead.

In retrospect, though, rather than foreclosing talk of socialism for good, the end of the Cold War seems to have opened up space for a new debate, with new terms of argument. When today’s leftists talk about socialism, they point to places like Sweden and France (home to robust maternity leave and universal health care) or even to lost relics of America’s recent past (stable jobs, union power, a collective investment in human welfare). On the right, the great socialist specter is not a hostile superpower but Venezuela, currently in the throes of hyperinflation, food shortages and mass misery. These disparate reference points can produce genuinely bizarre miscommunications. In a notorious 2018 interview, an Infowars reporter cornered a woman outside a Sanders appearance to ask, “Why is socialism good?” Soon the reporter was warning that in Venezuela, “a majority of the country is currently eating rats,” while the perplexed interviewee maintained that “I just want people to have health care, honey.”

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