My 2011 copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the word socialist is a derivative of the term socialism: ‘a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole’.
There are other definitions in other dictionaries, some filtered by cultural context and/or language, some substituting the agency of ‘community as a whole’ with that of government or state, and some omitting the slippery ‘or regulated’ option. This option seems to allow the term socialist to be applied accurately to the most neoliberal, lightest-touch-possible regime, so long as it enforces some regulation, even if that is simply the outlawing of theft and fraud.
And, while I’m taking issue with the lexicographer, why is the qualifier ‘as a whole’ shackled to the word community? Is not ‘as a whole’ implied in the collective?
Ho-hum, I ought to know better. For, as a journalist, I have for decades chosen my vocabulary more for its feel than its dictionary definition. In later life, as an academic, I have consciously tried to correct this heresy. But now, as a depth psychologist, I realise that, in many ways, I was right the first time: sociopolitical terms are best assessed by their affect which is always, of course, culturally—and subculturally—modified. But that modification has to be understood, and applied, by everyone in the conversation.
When my fellow, right-on, liberal, leftish boomer peers declare themselves to be socialists, I automatically discount any literal intent. For I know that none of them (well nearly none) wants the ‘community as a whole’—whatever that is—to become the manufacturer of their TV or smartphone. They support sensible regulation, but then, up to a point, so do my drip-dry, ultra-conservative pals (echochambered or not, I still have a few).
But what do my mates mean by socialism then? I think they feel decent, inclusive and progressive and are happy to wave a socialist banner bearing an almost invisible watermark obscuring the exemption: ‘not literally’. But the problem is that gens Y and Z, particularly those beatific disciples of Momentum, do not share our argot or our politico-cultural backstory. They do not see the watermark.
In an age of populism, of left-behinds, of elites, of Trump, of Brexit, the term socialism is now unhelpful. Despite its psychological sincerity, it smacks of the melodramatic, passive-aggressive language of my weekend-hippy youth: ‘When I say “kill the pigs” I don’t mean it, like, literally, man’.
There was a time when I spent hundreds of words examining the difference between the terms social democracy and democratic socialism. It seemed to matter then. It certainly does not now, because both terms are as anachronistic and useless to us progressive democrats as the word socialism is.
That last may express our boomer or Gen X, feeling about life the universe and everything, but I suggest it is no longer fit for discursive purpose.
I may still feel like a socialist, man. But I am not one. And neither are you.