Five Things Francesca Fiorentini Gets Wrong About Socialism

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 11: Journalist Francesca Fiorentini attends The 8th Annual Shorty Awards at The Times Center on April 11, 2016 in New York City.

By David Marshall Published on July 6, 2018

New Testament scholar James McGrath recently posted a video by Francesca Fiorentini touting the virtues of socialism. McGrath seemed pleased that Fiorentini had spiced her piece with slap-stick. “There are lots of good arguments in favor of socialism,” he claimed, “but they aren’t always presented in this entertaining a format … .”

Entertaining enough to be viewed more than two million times so far. That’s about one view for every 60 people killed by radical socialists in the last century.

Fiorentini says you can’t trust what an old cold warrior like me says about socialism. We right-wingers like to “demonize” the “s word.” First we treat communism as a bogeyman. Then we conflate it with “real” socialism — which one can find in Denmark and places north, apparently. Plus, we aren’t too big on books.

For a model of socialism, Fiorentini points us not to the old Soviet Union, but to Scandinavia.

It’s true I didn’t get all of my information about socialism out of books. I’ve seen quite a bit of it with my own eyes. But I also studied the history of Marxism under a leading expert in the field, at the University of Washington. So let me correct a few of Fiorentini’s errors.

Fiorentini cites (and defends) Wikipedia’s definition of socialism as “democratic” and “social” control of the “means of production.” She implies that socialism is “something like generosity.” In fact, sociologist Arthur Brooks has shown that Americans are many times more generous with their own money than are people in any other country studied. Religious Americans, mostly conservative, are especially generous. But no doubt “generosity with other peoples’ money” is what Fiorentini had in mind.

Scandinavia?

For a model of socialism, Fiorentini points us not to the old Soviet Union, but to Scandinavia. “I have seen the (frozen) future, and it works!”

Bernie Sanders himself points America to the same Valhalla. But citing the Nordic countries to explain socialism is weird, for at least five reasons:

(1) Scandinavia isn’t socialist. Not by the definition she cited. Yes, it includes a few socialist elements. The Norwegian state oil company is a prime example. And it includes high taxes and welfare spending. But most factories and shops are privately owned. Fiorentini’s favorite source, Wikipedia, notes:

The Nordic model is underpinned by a free market capitalist economic system that features high degrees of private ownership with the exception of Norway, which includes a large number of state-owned enterprises and state ownership in publicly listed firms.

Of course Norway struck massive amounts of oil, too. That’s another viable path to riches, if you can swing it.

(2) The Nords did not get rich by giving away other peoples’ money. Their welfare states were built on a solid base of existing wealth.

(3) A millennium ago, Norsemen made money by raiding. They pillaged, raped and stole. Finally their victims organized under a common Christian faith under leaders like King Alfred to end it. Then Vikings converted to Christ themselves. They gave up human sacrifice and raiding, and developed institutions to care for the neglected.

Clearly, neither “socialism” nor skepticism explains fully whatever positive outcome all those years of Lutheran potlucks wove into the Viking social fabric.

Read the Cambridge History of Scandinavia. Peruse a biography of Norwegian reformer evangelical Hans Hauge. Or talk to many skeptics in the Northland yourself. Often you will hear Christ’s teachings used to explain how modern Scandinavian cultures formed out of that pillaging Norse subplate.

The conversions started with the kings and slowly worked their way down to the masses. Then the pietist movement taught Beowulf and kin to read the Bible, quit fighting and start small businesses.

All this while the spirit of Karl Marx raged in impotence, like Grendel beneath a German swamp.

(4) Or meet the Scandinavian Americans. They came to America long before their homelands turned into welfare states. They haven’t lost their Christian faith as quickly and thoroughly as their cousins among the glaciers and fjords. (My Norwegian grandfather, a longshoreman, came to faith in old age, listening to Chuck Swindoll on the radio.) Scandinavian Americans in rural North Dakota or north Seattle (where Grandpa retired) seem no more beset with social ills than their kin in the old country.

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Clearly, neither “socialism” nor skepticism explains fully whatever good outcome all those years of Christianity wove into the Viking social fabric.

(5) But there remains yet the oddest facet of this exaltation of the “Scandinavian model of socialism.” It ignores an entire fetid jungle of human misery elsewhere in Europe, Asia and South America. Why do we train our eyes on Nordic countries, which combine capitalism, social welfare and the vestiges of their Christian past? Why do we ignore a herd of crop-trampling pink elephants in the room?

Communism and Socialism

“Okay, here it comes! These right-wingers always bring up communism to muddy the pure waters of socialism! Straw men! Bernie Sanders and his followers aren’t advocating any sort of Marxist-Leninist revolution. They want an evolution toward a more kindly country. They want to build an equitable society through democratic means.”

OK, Francesca. But you’re the one who cited Wikipedia. About half the material in that socialism article is about the “communism.” This is the actual Marxist-Leninist strand that almost conquered the world, and left a hundred million dead bodies behind.

Most of these states didn’t call themselves communist, but socialist. Cities across China still display thousands of posters proclaiming the “Twelve Core Socialist Values.” The full name of the “Soviet Union” was the “Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics.” Even that little party in Germany that put black spiders on their flags called itself “National Socialist.”

As far back as 1949, George Orwell, left-wing but famously honest with words, recognized this clearly enough. The party of Big Brother in his dystopian novel 1984 was entitled “Ingsoc,” or “English Socialism.”

So let’s pause and wonder about this “socialism” of hers. Why would anyone give their movement the same name these mass murderers preferred?

I first arrived in China in 1984. The “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” — with all their killings and imprisonments — had not yet receded from memory.

The Transformation of China

Beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” economic zones were opened to outside investment. Peasants were allowed to buy and sell their products. Factories began pumping out consumer goods. Workers were paid pennies per hour, which was better than pennies per day as in the countryside.

In the 34 years since then, I have watched China grow rich before my eyes. The port city of Shenzhen, for example, was once a few grey buildings scattered across a ditch, with a large statue of Chairman Mao welcoming visitors. Now it’s a glistening city of skyscrapers and parks, comparing well in many ways to American cities.

Ignorant Americans tell me on Facebook how inland Chinese peasants are still starving. I answer, “This afternoon I walked by a farmhouse in central China, and the peasants were outside washing their car and having a water fight. Maybe they’d better conserve their energy.”

China still speaks of “socialism” to preserve the legitimacy of its elite. But the means of production are either controlled privately or by entrepreneurial government officials. It may be crony capitalism, but the “means of production” are not generally in the hands of street-sweepers.

When the “means of production” are given to “the workers” in socialist fashion, in practice that always means that it’s given to bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, all of Scandinavia combined contains some 26 million people. That’s a fraction of some Chinese provinces. So why is it that when sophists like Fiorentini ring the bell of “socialism,” we think of the little post-Lutheran Valhalla of Denmark?

Democratic Socialism?

“But what about socialism in a democratic state?”

Again, look at the forest.

Leave aside Venezuela, where democratically-elected socialism has destroyed a nation more completely than bombs.

India was heavily influenced by various kinds of socialism from its founding until the early 1990s. Of course no one can blame the Congress Party for India’s poverty. Indians often blame the British for that. Some blame might also go back to Muslim invasions, or to the caste system.

But by the time I arrived there in 1984, it was not progress, but the stench, that took my breath away.

I was shocked at the size and sheer insolence of the rats in Bombay. They, at least, seemed to thrive under the system. The slums smelled awful; the concrete was crumbling. But what horrified me the most were the beggars, especially those who had been maimed, I was told, to elicit pity and cash from passers-by.

Millions in India now work for foreign tech giants, contributing tens of billions to a new and growing economy.

Can the many failures of socialism be counted as “betrayals?” No. Failure is baked into the cake. When the “means of production” are given to “the workers” in socialist fashion, in practice that always means it’s given to bureaucrats. If they think themselves wise enough to apportion labor and wages properly they are fools. If they consider themselves so pure as to seek power only for the good of others, they are even more foolish.

George Orwell posited an English Socialism that knew itself well enough to see it desired power for the sake of power itself. But that was maybe just a literary device to allow his villain to explain the ugly truth clearly.

The American system of government is founded on the notion that none of us is an angel. Week by week, the radical left displays the dangers of despotism. We see it with every conservative beaten and shoved off campus. It shows up in every quasi-legal lynching of a flower shop or bakery owner. It’s there with every Google employee fired for speaking subversive thoughts.

“Democratic socialism?” From this crowd? I don’t think so.

From any crowd? No, thanks.

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  • Kevin Carr

    If you believe in socialism or any of its variants, you have to believe in slavery. Forcing someone to work for the benefit of another.

    • Trilemma

      That’s what America has right now.

      • Dave

        No one is forced to work

        • Trilemma

          No one is forced to work under socialism. What’s your point?

          • Dave

            It’s not slavery

      • Kevin Carr

        Yes, I know, we are not a fully capitalist country.

  • James

    If someone wants what Scandinavia has, and not what Venezuela or China has, in the United States, what should they call it, then?

    (FWIW, Scandinavia in America would probably look a lot like Minnesota.)

    • David Marshall

      “Scandinavian-style social democracy,” maybe.

      But you can’t get Scandinavia without Scandinavians, as I explain.

      • James

        Are Scandinavians better than Americans?

        • David Marshall

          Cultures differ in their virtues and vices, yes. And Scandinavian culture, while once predatory and cruel, was transformed by Christianity over the centuries, as I explain above. It is a mistake to think that changing government forms will utterly transform a cruel culture into a benevolent one, for instance.

  • Jed

    Melania Trump was born and grew up in communist Yugoslavia …

    I have no idea why she (and other immigrants from socialist states)
    don’t speak up loudly and often about the dangers of socialism …

  • Ben Welliver

    As Thatcher said, the core problem with socialism is that you run out of other people’s money.

  • Trilemma

    If socialism is simply public ownership of the means of production then the United States is already largely socialist. Most corporations are publicly owned through the stock market. The government owns the means of production for many services such as national defense, postal service, and public education.

    • Nothing

      That’s not really true. Socialism typically involves “nationalizing” industries i.e. the government seizing control of businesses. The stock market is made up of private citizens owning portions of a company. “Public” ownership, as you put it, is actually state ownership. As for the postal service and national defense, those are powers granted to Congress by the Constitution (Article I, Section VIII), but they’re not exclusive powers (see UPS, FedEx, private military contractors, and private schools).

      • Trilemma

        Socialism is public ownership of the means of production which can include government ownership. The government can get ownership by seizing companies or they can get ownership by buying a majority of a company’s stock. If the government is a dictatorship, I personally don’t consider that socialism because a dictatorship is not accountable to the public.

        Yes, the Constitution established non-exclusive socialist powers.

    • Sapient

      Not really. When you own stock you own an interest in the company. You in effect loan that company money to grow the business and make more money. Your reward is that your money grows as the company does well. But, you aren’t making any corporate decisions, etc. And, control of the company remains in private hands.

      • Trilemma

        When you own stock, you own a small percentage of the company and can vote your stock. When a company sells stock to raise money, they are selling ownership of the company and are not borrowing the money.

  • Dave

    The fact is that we can’t have a discussion of issues anymore. The writer of this piece spews just as much biased drivel as the person he writes about. There is no objective analysis of issues

    • Montjoie

      Says a guy spewing biased drivel.

    • David Marshall

      I’d call that biased drivel. Or explain what I get wrong. Something has to be wrong first before it is “drivel,” right?

  • Nothing

    The problem I have with articles like these is that they completely ignore any problems with capitalism. If I try to point out the ruthless “survival of the fittest” mentality of capitalism, I’m labeled a socialist and reminded of all the failures of socialism. I don’t even support socialism, but I’m starting to wonder if caring for the poor and downtrodden is now considered a socialist position. Discussions about capitalism/socialism turn into a false dichotomy where if I don’t support a completely unrestricted free market, I’m therefore a freedom-hating Marxist.

    • Nathan James

      Caring for poor and downtrodden people happens easily in a country with a free market system. Generous individuals use wealth generated in the free market to help others. Generosity and free markets are not even in tension, let alone conflict.

      Socialism is about taking property from owners. Compassion is just an excuse. It’s away of avoiding the obvious fact that Person A want to spend Person B’s money. “Well, yes, person B owns the money, of course, but I would be so compassionate and generous! And look, poor people!”

    • Sapient

      You’re wondering if caring for the poor is considered a Socialist position? Really? If you put your mind to it and consider the facts you must conclude that Socialism CREATES poor and downtrodden—at astonishing levels of misery. Capiltalism is uniquely responsible for lifting millions out of poverty. My experience is that questions like the one you’re contemplating are usually the product of propaganda assaults, which today come at us from every direction (ie, Hollywod, Major media outlets, etc.). The capitalist system ABSOLUTELY FACILITATES people’s ability to care for the poor. Better to take a look at why those in poverty are in poverty…It’s not because I’m not paying enough taxes, nor is it because the State doesn’t own the means of production.

      • Nothing

        Okay, how about this – should there be ANY limits to the free market? If so, how do we tell the difference between a legitimate regulation and a socialist regulation?

        If Planned Parenthood is making money hand over fist by providing abortions and selling body parts, shouldn’t that be celebrated as the triumph of the free market? Cecile Richards found a (supposed) need, and catered to that need as any capitalist would, right? Planned Parenthood did become quite profitable under her reign.

        How about YouTube? Why should a private company be coerced by the government to host conservative videos it doesn’t like? Even if that alienates conservative customers, it allows YouTube to satisfy its desired target audience of liberals.

        My point is that capitalism is not a perfect economic system. It’s better than socialism, of course. But whenever I point out that capitalism is imperfect, I’m branded an Ingsoc-loving socialist.

        • Nathan James

          You’re probably “branded an Insoc-loving socialist” because you’ve absorbed a non-trivial amount of socialist propoganda.

          If you dig into socialism a bit more you’ll find that it isn’t about taking care of poor people at all. It is about denying people the right to own and direct the use of productive property.

          • Nothing

            Oh forget it. When you get fired for being too old or sickly, you’ll come crawling to the government begging for other people’s money.

          • Nathan James

            That’s pretty dumb.

          • Kevin Carr

            Is slavery okay with you?

          • Trilemma

            Socialism can be about whatever the decision makers want it to be about whether it’s taking care of poor people or directing corporations.

        • Kevin Carr

          All are imperfect as they are run by imperfect human beings. I don’t think YouTube should be forced to carry conservative content. If enough people quit the site or someone develops an alternative, the free market will decide if it survives. As for PP, that is a genocidal organization, it murders for profit, in my view it shouldn’t exist but since it does why does it need government funding? It must not be able to sustain itself. If a business cannot sustain itself it should be allowed to take its natural course and wither away.

        • Sapient

          You are right to say Capitalism isn’t perfect. We’re in a fallen world. Perfect is impossible. Given some of the examples you gave above I’ll say this also. ALL laws represent a moral judgement. We as a Christian Constitutional Republic have drawn certain lines we call laws. And, whether our society today wants to accept this next premise or not, it is correct to say that—our laws were predicated on Biblical teachings. The Bible and Christianity served as the basis for our Constitution at its founding. So, the answer to your Planned Parenthood question is, “ no”. Would we celebrate the hiring of hit men, as long as they turned a healthy profit? Leftists today tell us we must celebrate diversity. They worship at the trough of diversity. But, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that too much diversity destroys any common philosophical framework from which to legislate. Compare us to a private club, for instance. And, with respect to your YouTube question I say this…Some things have to be looked at as public utilities. You wouldn’t deny electrical power, water, gas, etc., to all Democrats, would you? Our Country adopted that approach a long long time ago. And, some decisions are based on a weighing of Constitutional principles and protections and our best understanding of economic laws, etc. But, we are not in a perfect world and we are not in a perfect Capitalist society. And, having said all that I have to say I’m not sure YouTube meets the requirements of a public utility. It may be that it just stays as is.

    • Chip Crawford

      Or is the problem with how your views comport with logic on paper as opposed to how they play in your mind

    • Kevin Carr

      Caring for the poor is a good thing, when done voluntarily it is charity. When done by force of government it robs some of their freedom.

      • Starlord616

        I would disagree if the government voted on it. The reason is we pick who represents us.

        • Kevin Carr

          They do, they attach entitlements to bills and vote to pass legislation.

        • Kevin Carr

          Forcing others to work for someone else’s benefit is slavery.

          • Starlord616

            The state helping people isn’t t that because everyone benefits even if it isn’t directly.

          • Kevin Carr

            Where does the State get its money?

          • Starlord616

            It gets its money through taxes . Everyone pays a tax. We might as well you our tax dollars to help people who need it.

          • Kevin Carr

            Not everybody needs it, politicians by votes with it. they keep the those on the bottom there. So, you believe slavery is good?

    • BrokenPriest

      I don’t think reasonable people think you’re an extremist. We just simply look at the freedoms, wealth, and highest level of success human civilization has ever had and wonder why other system in history has matched that without creating genocides, more inequality, and penury. Socialism always says it will cure these ills, but frankly, does the opposite wherever its truly implemented.There are things wrong with capitalism, but far less than going with another ideology.

    • David Marshall

      What did I say about capitalism in this article that you think is incorrect?

      No, I don’t consider “carrying for the poor and downtrodden” a socialist position. As I point out, conservatives do more of that with their own money than liberals do.

      And as a traditional conservative Christian, of course I neither here nor elsewhere deny that government should seek justice and the welfare of the marginalized.

      Neither did I name “Nothing” in this article.

      Please read more attentively: it does no good to simply argue past one another.

  • LaMan

    Communism is Communism.

    • Starlord616

      Socialism isn’t communism . Because in socialism you have private property. In communism you have no private property.

  • Montjoie

    Pretty good for a white boy.

  • Marbles471

    I’m impressed, Marshall. That was a new achievement in sloppy, lazy, addle-brained, irrelevant blithering. The level of discourse in this country, particularly among self-styled conservatives, continues to be an international embarrassment. Marshall is jumping all over the place like a hyper-caffienated gerbil to appear as though he’s got some well of wisdom Fiorentini and the rest of us in the real world don’t have access to. All he’s doing is just being the latest person to confirm how hollow and substanceless American conservatism has become.

  • William Thom

    Hmm. Public Schools, Police Departments, Fire Departments, Public Utilities, The US MILITARY!…all mostly supported by public money/taxes/etc. and run by Government Entities…Sounds like democratic socialism. Which of these do many of you want to get rid of first.

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