There are obvious historical reasons why “Socialism” became a scary word in the US. The first reason is that the country was founded on the appropriation of territory and the dehumanizing exploitation of labor—slavery. Of course, Socialism is staunchly opposed to such appropriation and exploitation. The second reason was McCarthyism and the Red Scare. A mere accusation meant you were branded as an infiltrator or a collaborator with those who partook in a foreign ideology. Needless to say, reputations and lives were ruined. The third reason was the economic ineptitude—central planning—and the repression—Stalinism—of the USSR. Socialism was forever linked to the USSR. Despite all this, Socialism was a powerful force in the US’s domestic history and has seen a favorability resurgence amongst Millennials and younger generations.
Director Yael Bridge’s documentary The Big Scary “S” Word traces the long history of Socialism in the US, the arguments in favor of Socialism, and interviews self-proclaimed Socialists in an attempt to demystify the concept for the uninitiated and misinformed. Intellectual heavyweights such as Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Eric Foner, Richard D. Wolff, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor offer their insights into a very distinctive brand of American Socialism. We are reminded of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s openly Socialist mayor, the influence of trade unions, Roosevelt’s welfare programs and the New Deal—essentially, Socialist ideas—and Martin Luther King’s later focus on class inequality—a chapter of King’s life conveniently ignored by the mainstream American media and other disseminators of ideology. We are also reminded of the interest Karl Marx took in the US Civil War and the newspaper articles he wrote regarding that watershed moment in US history.
Bridge does a wonderful job balancing the history offered by academics with the real-life stories of everyday Americans. We are introduced to a single mother who is a teacher and is barely able to pay her bills even while working two jobs. She joins other striking teachers in Oklahoma demanding higher wages and smaller class sizes. We are introduced to an employee in a worker cooperative and how being a worker with an actual say in the direction of the cooperative changed his perspective on the labor he performs. We are also introduced to Lee Carter, a former Lyft driver in Virginia who is injured on the job and decides to run for state office as a Socialist. After winning office, Carter faces stiff opposition from Republicans and even Democrats in Virginia’s state legislature.
The Big Scary “S” Word is at its best when giving an overall history of different economic phases, even if that history is very broad. Again, this is a documentary intended for those who are likely uninitiated in topics such as economics and Socialism. A segment involving the move from hunter gatherer clans, to agriculture, to feudalism, on to the Industrial Revolution; puts in perspective the short period of time Capitalism has been on the scene in terms of human history. And in that short period of time, boy has it wreaked havoc. The standard move in US mainstream media is to point out the faults of Socialism—again, usually by pointing the finger at something that essentially was a perversion of Socialism, the USSR. But, The Big Scary “S” Word does a solid job of pointing out, in the words of Naomi Klein, Capitalism’s “addiction to growth and profit.” It is this addiction that has led to its greatest faults and sins—environmental destruction, exploitation, unequal access to healthcare, subpar education for most, non-livable wages, and one-dimensional personalities. If there is a complaint to be made about The Big Scary “S” Word, it is that it starts lagging toward the end. One wishes that Bridge would have spent less time on the Bank of North Dakota and more time on Socialist work models such as worker cooperatives or Richard D. Wolff’s workplace models.
It must be emphasized that Bridge’s documentary is not a deep dive into Socialism; but that is not a bad thing. It is a fitting introduction for those who wonder why something that is essentially an alternate system of organizing society is so derided on one side and so championed by growing numbers of young Americans. There are tidbits in Bridge’s documentary that hopefully linger with the viewer and lead to further investigation. One such tidbit is the idea raised by the documentary that the burden of debt—education, rent, etc.—incurred by most of us is perhaps strategically—or coincidentally—left in place so as to deter solidarity and further atomistic/survival thinking. Another idea raised is that of the tensions between reform and revolution. Socialist advances in welfare or safety-net programs—especially in democracies—are weakened or eliminated by capital over time. Perhaps reform is not enough. These tidbits are worth exploring if Bridge ever makes a follow-up project. Let us hope that Bridge will pursue such projects or other projects revolving around the possibility of a better world.
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