What’s in a name? Forget Socialism with a capital S
Labels: we love them, we hate them. Ultimately we can’t seem to get away from them.
I was having a conversation with a new acquaintance yesterday. When he learned that I am from Sweden, he asked me what I thought about bringing “socialism” to America. He referred to how left-leaning newspapers cite Sweden as a positive example of how “socialism” works in practice, adding that he thought this was a moronic thing to do since what works in Sweden, an arguably much more homogenous country of a mere nine million people, will never work in such a vast and diverse country as America.
I thought about this for a moment. What seemed to give this new acquaintance such ammunition was the label: socialism. As though there is one way in which socialism can and does work in the world. I gently pointed out that though Sweden is a social welfare state, our political system is one that mixes a strong public sector with market economic principles (hence the famed Swedish “Third Way”). In fact, our current government is a right-wing coalition (Granted, right wing in Sweden is very different from right wing in America. But still, the Social Democratic Party is not in power at the moment.).
My point was that things are rarely as simple as pundits or their labels make them seem. Sweden’s political system cannot be accurately defined as the perfect embodiment of Socialism with a capital S. And I don’t think anyone, not even the most left leaning of American politicos, is advocating for a total adoption of another country’s political or social model just because they reference them in newspaper articles. As is usually the case with shaky assertions, they’re just too simplistic. No, America will never become a Socialist State (whatever that means). But perhaps America would benefit from adopting certain aspects of policies or attitudes prevalent in other countries.
I happened to be holding a two-month old baby in my arms at the time of this exchange (the sleeping babe of my boss who is about to return from a miserably short maternity leave) and so I thought parental leave was an appropriate place to start. I mentioned to my conversation partner that America offers the most bare bones parental leave policies of any industrialized nation (the Families and Medical Leave Act guarantees Americans who work at companies with fifty or more employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave), while Sweden offers some of the most generous (18 months of paid parental leave, split between the two parents as they see fit). I then mentioned that from my experience, Americans assume that they will be penalized, especially fathers, for taking any time off when they have a baby. As one ambitious twenty-something man once told me, he would love to take paternity leave if it was offered but: “I just know that none of the guys that I have worked with have done it and I wonder what the back room chatter would be if I chose to do that.” And he’s right. The majority of large employers in the US consider it inappropriate for men to take any kind of parental leave. When my colleague Liz and I spoke to Swedes, on the other hand, we found quite a different attitude. Men expected to take advantage of the paternity leave they knew was available to them. One management consultant told us his boss, a man, was on paternity leave and had been for several months. When we asked if that was frowned upon, the consultant looked surprised, like he didn’t understand our question.
The multi-national companies that operate on American and European soil adapt their company policies to the policies prevailing in each country. For instance, European workers will get their five weeks of vacation, because it’s the law, while their American counterparts within the same corporation won’t necessarily enjoy the same privilege because America doesn’t have a similar vacation law. The same applies to parental leave. When in Rome, right? Does that mean Major Corporation X’s American office is a lot more efficient than its Swedish one? I doubt it. If giving workers vacation and parental leave messed up a company as much as American attitudes seem to suggest, it’s likely that Major Corporation X wouldn’t invest in having an office in a country with such policies in the first place. And yet they do.
So, no. I don’t think Socialism with a big S will ever be a reality in America. But I do think it is possible to change prevailing attitudes about specific issues, like how much parental leave people should get, what a reasonable amount of vacation is, and who has the right to health care.
Forget the labels. But remember that norms change— and so can policy.