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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2008

“Socialism” and “Big Government” as Orwellian doublespeak

Ellen Russell

It’s not the size of your bureaucracy. It’s how you use it.

Onward, Stephen Harper: lead us to the socialist utopia! If you follow the right-wing punditry you’d think comrades Harper, Obama, Brown, and the like are leading us along that slippery slope to—gasp—socialism. Not that any of these leaders has a nice word to say about socialism; they don’t. But the more alarmist fringes of the right wing depict the government response to the economic crisis as a Trojan horse. As the government becomes involved in forestalling economic calamity, they say, opportunists will exploit this crisis to promote a creeping socialist agenda.

This whole hysteria stems from one of the most bizarre, but effective, misconceptions the right wing has been able to perpetuate in public discourse; the idea that “big” government is a left-wing agenda.

In their backlash against the welfare state, right-wingers reviled government as a stultifying force that smothered good old capitalist ingenuity with taxes, regulations, and social programs. Downsizing government became a neo-liberal mantra. Thus a perniciously convenient equation was promoted: big government equals socialism, while small government equals capitalism.

But “big” government is not easily categorized as a left or right agenda. The size and range of activities of government oscillate for lots of reasons. Sometimes government gets bigger in response to popular demands (say, the creation of new social programs). But sometimes government gets bigger to pander to business. Business elites love government programs that provide cheap loans (so many of which never seem to get repaid), train workers, subsidize research and development, or promote exports on the government’s dime. Ironically, the patron saint of big government is arguably Ronald Reagan, who enormously increased government spending (and left a legacy of public debt) to feed the military machine.

The term “big government” persists as a schizophrenic double standard. New programs that help the bottom line of business are endorsed by the business punditocracy as wise investments in competitiveness. Government programs that help the bottom lines of the rest of us are pejoratively denounced as “big government.” Hello, Orwellian doublespeak! What is good for business is in the public interest, while what is good for anybody else is just the self-serving whining of special-interest groups. The current economic crisis has shifted rhetoric, but this wacky double standard persists. Card-carrying opponents of big government have squeamishly conceded that government must intervene big time before capitalism hits the fan.

These crusaders against big government are now obliged to do some fancy rhetorical footwork. Their new lingo focuses on “where to draw the line.” Judicious government intervention is supposed to reinstate the previous economic status quo—okay, maybe with a few new regulations to prevent further corporate shenanigans from making a bad economic situation worse. Just make sure nothing permanently shifts power away from business.

What is the right’s ideal fiscal stimulation plan? Use public money to rescue business, while imposing painful concessions on workers. Of course, this requires the überOrwellian feat of deflecting any blame for the economic crisis from management to workers. (Unbelievably, spin doctors have proven remarkably successful in their attempts to blame auto workers for Detroit’s problems). Better yet, attack unions. If unions are on their knees, workers will be much less likely to win back some of what they have sacrificed if their employers recover.

But if government action extends beyond restoring the former economic status quo to embrace some notion of a greater public interest, it is deemed to have “crossed the line.” If you argue that public money carries with it the obligation to pursue something beyond a narrow pro-corporate agenda (say, dealing with economic inequality or meeting environmental goals) then get ready to be unfavourably compared to Josef Stalin.

The Harper stimulus plan is crafted to steer well clear of “crossing the line.” Sure, under intense pressure from the opposition, the Conservatives increased spending (although not as fast, or as much, as Conservative spinmeisters would have you believe). But what is the government spending money on? Things like infrastructure. Business groups are okay with that: they have been crying out that aging infrastructure is hampering Canadian competitiveness. But making meaningful repairs to the gaping holes in unemployment insurance is the last thing Harper wants. After all, a stingy EI system helps keep the balance of power tilted in favour of employers.

Since Harper has been able to spend money that supports his corporate allies, his right-wing credentials are intact. But any government that dares to spend money that really helps those who are suffering the most is castigated as “socialist.”

We need to move beyond labels that have hidden and unhelpful political meanings. Rhetoric is a funhouse mirror (seriously— does anyone really believe that Harper’s last budget means he has moved to the left?). The key is to analyze who benefits from government action—not to get mesmerized by buzzwords the pundits and public relations war machines are throwing around. This is not about big versus small government, or more versus less spending. It’s about looking at each policy to see the real agendas behind the labels.

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