Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault
The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin
AN INTERNATIONAL MISUNDERSTANDING
"CAPITALISM is evil. The United States is the leading capitalist country. Therefore the United States is evil." It would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that this line of thinking has done. In the Soviet Union and Communist China it sustains attitudes and actions on which support for war can be based. In the non-Communist world, although the general picture of America is in many countries more favorable than some of us have supposed, our "capitalism" is often seen, like our treatment of Negroes, as a major blemish on that picture. In the minds of tens of millions it appears as a valid reason to suspect the motives of our foreign policy (e.g. in Viet Nam and in the Caribbean area) and to refuse coöperation with us in activities that, from our point of view, are designed to build a healthier, more prosperous, more democratic world.
To many Americans there is something quite baffling about all this. In the first place, we seldom think of our society as "capitalist." To us it is a democratic society, or a free society, more than a capitalist society. And in the second place, when we do think of our economic system as capitalism (most of us prefer the term "free enterprise"), we seldom think of it as evil. Even the liberals among us usually accept and approve the idea of free enterprise. Why, then, do tens or hundreds of millions in other countries believe that we are capitalistic villains, or are "ruled" by capitalistic villains?
One obvious answer is, of course, Communist propaganda. Throughout the world there has been an organized Communist campaign to discredit capitalism and the United States as the leading exponent of capitalism. In the Soviet Union, Communist China and other countries with a near-monopoly of the means of communication, the idea has been systematically inculcated. But in the parts of the world not Communist-controlled this explanation seems too simple. Millions who are not Communists or even Marxists have been receptive to this element in Communist propaganda, and millions of others have come to it without much exposure to Communist propaganda as such. We are still faced, then, with the question: Why are people so receptive to the idea that the United States is the epitome of evil capitalism? Unless we can answer this question we shall not be effective in our effort to convey to them, through words and deeds, our own conception of what our country actually is like.
This article poses two answers: (1) There is a vast ignorance of the ways in which the United States, at least since 1933, has been extending the scope of government regulation and social-welfare legislation,, (2) The words themselves, "socialism" and "capitalism," are ambiguous in a way that has helped this vast ignorance to continue.
It is now possible to support both of these propositions on the basis of several different kinds of evidence, including systematic public-opinion surveys, many of them sponsored by U.S.I.A., in various parts of the world.
For example, the first proposition-that there is a vast ignorance of social- welfare legislation and other New Dealish aspects of American life-is supported to a striking degree by a series of opinion studies conducted in 1962 in four major West European countries: Great Britain, France, West Germany and Italy. As there is no reason to suppose that West European thinking on this point has changed substantially since 1962, the main results probably are still valid, within a certain margin of error. And, since on this question the results were similar in all four countries, the findings can be legitimately combined and presented as a single composite picture.
The 5,146 persons interviewed were asked to place the United States on a scale extending from 0, representing a completely capitalistic economy, to 10, representing a completely socialistic economy. Leaving aside those who had no opinions, the results are shown in Graph I on the following page.
In order to appreciate fully the negative implications of these findings it is necessary to understand something of the meaning of the words socialism and capitalism in the minds of the persons interviewed. Evidence to be presented later indicates that to most of these people socialism does not mean primarily government ownership of industry (which of course is at a minimum in the United States) but rather government regulation of industry and social-welfare legislation. The great piling up of responses at the extreme left side of the graph therefore means, primarily, a nearly total denial of the existence of government regulation of industry, and of social- welfare legislation, in the United States. Among the more well-educated West Europeans, it may be added, the one-sidedness is slightly, but only slightly, diminished; 54 percent of them place the United States at 0, and 19 percent place it at 1 on the scale.
There is no quantitative evidence as to whether the same image of an extremely capitalistic America exists in the minds of most of the politically conscious people elsewhere-in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia-but there are many indications that it may be stronger there. For instance, Bryant Wedge's study[i] shows that visitors from the developing countries on State Department "leader grants" are in many instances startled by the extent of our socialism (i.e. social welfare and government regulation of industry).
To what extent does the capitalist label imply disapproval? How many believe also that "capitalism is evil?
The answer is not as one-sided as some have supposed. There are many millions, especially in Western Europe, Latin America and Japan, who do not see capitalism as essentially evil. To them it has connotations of high productivity and abundant opportunity for individual advancement (and perhaps also of continuing privileges for people like themselves), outweighing its negative connotations of exploitation and unfair distribution of wealth. Also, in many of these countries the people tend to see American capitalism as better, more efficient and less exploitative than their own. Nevertheless, the survey evidence shows that even in Western Europe the negative connotations tend to predominate in the mind of the average citizen, to whom capitalism is on balance a slightly dirty word. And for large numbers of his compatriots (especially in France and Italy) it is a very dirty word. For these anti-capitalist millions, therefore, the prevailing assumption that America is extremely capitalistic constitutes a black mark-probably the major black mark-against it.
It should be noted too that in most of the world the word socialism is more unequivocally positive than the word capitalism is negative. Except in the United States, liberals tend to embrace the word socialism and proudly identify themselves with it. Approval of the word has been found to predominate in literally every country for which survey evidence exists, including Great Britain, West Germany and Japan as well as France, Italy, a number of Latin American countries and some in Africa and Asia. Among students, and in most of the developing countries in Africa and Asia, the predominance of approval is especially great. It follows, then, that when these people see the United States as being at the opposite pole from socialism, some degree of disapproval is implied.
These views contrast sharply with what most Americans feel about the word socialism, and also with their conception of where the United States stands on the scale from capitalism to socialism. In the United States, even liberals often dislike the word socialism and disclaim any association with it, emphasizing thereby their preference for free enterprise as opposed to government ownership and their unwillingness to go to the extreme which in their eyes the word socialism represents. As to American opinion of where the United States stands on the capitalist-socialist scale, the writer has conducted an informal investigation of his own, with surprisingly uniform results. Among 12 different American groups, including businessmen, college students, government employees and social scientists, the answers tended to cover a broad range in the middle of the scale, from a low of 2 or 3 to a high of 7 or 8, with the largest number (the "mode") at 4 or 5 or 6. Usually some member of the group asked for definitions of both terms, and this led to a discussion of the semantic problem. It is noteworthy, though, that in judgments made before such discussion no one has ever placed the United States at 0 on the scale, and not more than one or two placed it at 1. By any definition of socialism, and regardless of whether they like the word or not, most Americans assume that their country has made at least a few steps toward it, and the average person thinks that we have gone about halfway.
Who is right? A more critical question might be whether we Americans really differ from the rest of the world on this subject as fundamentally as we seem to. Is this perhaps one of the many disagreements that tend to dissolve when words are carefully defined? Before asking who is right, there is need to examine the meanings that we and our foreign friends attach to our two key terms, not with a view to establishing any "true" or "correct" meaning but simply to explore the nature of the ambiguities in these terms.
Even, within the United States, the meaning of the word socialism varies widely. In my own investigation, when the person who made the lowest estimate of the extent of socialism in America was asked to defend it, he usually mentioned the fact that most of the business of the United States is in private hands. The person who made the highest estimate usually spoke, with much distaste, of such things as social security, minimum-wage laws, government regulatory commissions, Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the continuing trend toward more government regulation and more welfare legislation-"creeping socialism."
Clearly, then, opinion on this issue is shaped not so much by different perceptions of the conditions as they exist in the United States as in different value judgments resulting in different usage of the two key terms. Some are interpreting socialism as meaning primarily outright government ownership of the major means of production, and capitalism as meaning free enterprise or private ownership of the means of production. They are the ones who see the United States as nearer the capitalistic end of the scale. Others are interpreting socialism as meaning primarily government regulation of business and also various forms of social welfare or concern for the economic underdog, usually at the expense of the upper dog. They are the ones who see the United States as nearer the socialistic end of the scale.
A fair degree of consensus, then, develops around the proposition that if we define socialism as government ownership of industry, the United States is at some low point on the scale (say 2). In other words, if it is defined in this way, we ourselves are not far from agreeing with the West Europeans who see us as being at 0 or 1 on the scale. On the other hand, if we define it as government regulation or as social welfare, it is more or less agreed that the United States stands somewhere near the middle of the scale or a little on the socialist side (say at 5 or 6).
It is significant that most of those interviewed (except, perhaps, conservative businessmen) are fairly content with the intermediate degree of government regulation and of social welfare (5 or 6 on the scale) that they attribute to the United States at the present time. If someone in another country wanted to know "what America stands for," this would be a fair, empirically based answer: in addition to political democracy (which these groups took completely for granted), the United States stands for a minimum of government ownership and a moderate amount of government regulation and social welfare.
An encouraging fact must now be recorded: when these issues are reduced to more concrete terms, and abstractions such as socialism and capitalism are avoided, most politically conscious people in other parts of the world seem to want something not very different from what Americans want. What others call socialism differs only in emphasis, and not very greatly, from what middle-of-the-road and liberal Americans want: political democracy, a mixed economy with a pragmatic decision as to how much industry should be in government hands (but with a preference for free private enterprise), and a medium-to-high amount of government regulation of industry and of social welfare.
This generalization has so many implications that it calls for fuller documentation. The evidence is of several types:
(1) The 5,146 West Europeans who were asked about the degree of socialism in America were also asked to indicate, on the same scale, how much socialism they wanted for their own countries. The results are shown in Graph II on the next page.
The avoidance of extremes is striking. Only 3 percent say "we should be completely capitalistic" (as most of them think the United States is), and only 9 percent say "we should be completely socialistic." By far the most frequent single choice is 5-exactly in the center between the two extremes- and the other choices are distributed fairly evenly throughout the entire range. True, there are more on the socialist side of the center than on the capitalist side, which is what might be expected on the basis of other evidence that West Europeans tend to favor the word socialism and oppose capitalism. More important, though, is the fact that just about two-thirds (65 percent) are within the middle range, from step 3 to step 7. Within their frame of reference (which may be somewhat different from ours), what they want does not seem very different from what we Americans want, or from what we think we have.
The graph also illustrates a rather general finding with regard to public opinion in the world as a whole: there is usually a strong tendency to pull toward the middle, and to avoid extremes, in any frame of reference. It is often assumed that the natural human tendency is to view the world in stark black-and-white terms; this thing is all good and that is all bad. There is such a tendency, but it is continually counteracted by another tendency to try to combine opposites and to seek a middle ground.
In recent years we Americans have become especially aware of this middle- seeking inclination in ourselves. What many have not realized is that in many other countries there is also a tendency to take it for granted that mediums are usually happy, that means are usually golden, and that the middle of the road is the best place to be. People differ not so much in their preference for a middle position as in their conception of where the "middle" is and in their beliefs as to who occupies that enviable spot.
The existence of this tendency can give some legitimate encouragement to those who want to avoid a final division of the world into two warring camps, and also to those who distrust the Marxist premise that our historical epoch is characterized, necessarily, by a struggle to the death between capitalism and socialism. It may well be that the ordinary citizen in other countries reflects the pervasive influence of Marxist thinking in the very fact that he accepts these terms as appropriate in describing his world. Even so, his tendency to seek a middle ground may cause him to resist the further Marxist insistence that he must, logically, be on one side or the other.
In any case, it is only against this background that we can fully understand the feelings of those who imagine that the United States is an extremely capitalistic country. It is not necessarily our capitalism as such that they object to; most of them would probably object nearly as much to extreme socialism. What is more objectionable to them is the extremeness, as they conceive it, of what we appear to be.
(2) Like Americans, most people in most other countries are against Communism.
Perhaps because we have been afraid of thinking wishfully, we have seldom allowed ourselves to appreciate fully the extent to which at least the word Communism is disliked and rejected outside the U.S.S.R. and Communist China. Throughout most of the rest of the world a sharp distinction is made between socialism and Communism, with prevailing approval of socialism and disapproval of Communism. This contrasts with the situation in the United States, where the two terms are often used more or less interchangeably. Paradoxically, the Communists do somewhat the same. In their propaganda, Communism is often given the special meaning of a stage of abundance following the stage of socialism, but the two terms are also often used without distinction.
For most of the world, even where there is nearly unanimous approval of socialism, the word Communism has negative connotations of dictatorship, violence and atheism that outweigh its positive connotations (which to some extent it shares with the word socialism) of social justice and help for the poor.
To be sure, this does not mean that the developing countries are immune to seizures of power by Communist-led groups, Recent history has shown that it is only too possible for leaders in such countries to conceal their Communist allegiance and climb to power under more innocuous labels such as scientific socialists, nationalists or simply socialists. Nevertheless, the fact remains that great numbers of people outside the Communist blocs share our belief in political democracy (with some vagueness as to how that term should be defined), our distaste for dictatorship (at least on the conscious verbal level), and our belief that the political system in the Soviet Union and Communist China is a dictatorship. We should not allow our own tendency to confuse socialism with Communism (or the similar Communist tendency to use the two terms interchangeably) to lead us to ignore or underestimate the importance of this common ground. Their approval of socialism does not mean that they are pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese or "soft on Communism."
(3) In the minds of most of the politically conscious people in the world (excluding the Communist countries, the Communist parties elsewhere, and perhaps the United States) the primary meaning of socialism is not government ownership of industry but government responsibility for social welfare. For instance, in many countries where a majority favors socialism, a majority also favors private ownership of industry. To many Americans these terms are opposite by definition, and only loose thinking could cause one to favor both. Yet in Great Britain, West Germany and much of Latin America, for example, both are favored. And if to them socialism means what the New Deal means to us, it is not illogical for them to favor both socialism and private ownership of industry. Here too they are only agreeing with liberal and middle-of-the-road Americans.
When people in other countries are asked, "In your opinion, what does socialism mean?" they do not often speak of government ownership. Among the illiterate campesinos of Central America, for instance, replies in terms of "brotherhood," "equality" and "helping the poor" were frequent, while replies in terms of government ownership were almost nil. When West Europeans were presented with a choice between "social welfare" and "government ownership" as a definition of socialism, about 70 percent of those with opinions said "social welfare."
Not only ordinary citizens, but also political leaders who call themselves socialists emphasize brotherhood and social welfare much more than government ownership. This has been true of Nehru, Nasser, Bourguiba, Sukarno. Ne Win, Sihanouk, Senghor, Nyerere and many others. Bourguiba, for instance, links socialism with the brotherly traditions of Islam:
Our method is that of solidarity and association as members of one family united under all circumstances. This is Neo-Destourian socialism. . . . These qualities are not foreign to us. They were the characteristics of the Prophet's companions in the first century of Islam, who were socialists before the invention of the word. . . . They were not individualists; not one among them sought enrichment at the expense of others.
There is no mention here of government ownership. Similarly Nehru, who favored a "socialistic pattern" for India, did not insist on anything like complete government ownership of industry, but rather a common-sense, pragmatic criterion of how much industry should be nationalized. In Parliament he said:
The idea which is sometimes put forward by some honorable members opposite, that a general scheme of nationalization would bring about great equalization, is incorrect. Drastic equalization in that way means simply equalization of the lowest stage of poverty.
(4) A large amount of similar evidence leads to the conclusion that the prevailing meaning of the word capitalism is not private ownership of industry (which is by no means generally opposed) but a society in which rich men (capitalists) are believed to have entrenched themselves in positions of political power (through their ability to pay campaign expenses, control newspapers, bribe legislators, etc.), and are believed to be therefore in a position to block the social-welfare measures that the majority of the people want and need. In brief, capitalism to them means excessive power for the rich and absence of social welfare for the poor. All of this actually makes more astonishing their rnisperception of the United States as an extremely capitalistic country, in contrast with the moderate socialism that they attribute to themselves.
In fairness, a great many of them (again excluding the Communists) have a general image of America that is more fair and favorable than some of us have supposed. They know from many sources that the average American lives comfortably, and that our system has achieved very high productivity, with much opportunity for individual advancement. They generally think of American democracy as having created a high degree of individual freedom. It is granted that, except for the excessive power of capitalists, the United States is one of the more democratic countries, and this weighs heavily when they compare it with, for example, the Soviet Union or Communist China.
Nevertheless there is a problem here, since picturing the average American as comfortable is not inconsistent with thinking that he gets much less than his share of what a highly productive economy, lavishly endowed with natural resources, is able to produce. The prevailing picture seems to be that while the American economy is highly productive (i.e. there is a large pie to be divided), it also permits exploitation (in the sense that the pie is divided unfairly). Also, it is apparently widely believed that the reason for this unfair division is that capitalists in America wield excessive political power, and it is widely assumed that because of this there are an excessive number of economic casualties (the old, the sick, the unemployed and most of the Negroes) who suffer real privation. Finally, it appears to be widely assumed that the power of capitalists within the American government has a great and unfortunate effect on our foreign policy, leading us (as some think) into a crusading anti-Communism that endangers peace, or (as others think) an indiscriminate opposition to socialist as well as Communist governments.
This is a somewhat more recognizable picture. Many liberal observers in America are likely to feel that it contains substantial kernels of truth. If we want to face up to the facts and purge ourselves of complacent self- delusion, we are bound to examine these possible truths. Perhaps we are still, in spite of the New Deal, "behind" those nations of Western Europe which spend a larger proportion of their national product on government- administered social services than we do. Perhaps we should take a fresh look at the relationship between our economic philosophy and our foreign policy. Certainly, from this standpoint, the War on Poverty and the civil- rights movement are not only right and necessary for their own sake, but for the sake of America's relations with the world, and our ultimate security.
Even so, there remains a strong case for the proposition that the prevailing foreign image of evil capitalism is mainly a misconception. We Americans know for example that in the twentieth century America has accepted, and both major parties have come to take more or less for granted, the progressive income tax (enforced, as it often is not in the newly developing countries), workmen's compensation laws, child-labor laws, social security, public assistance programs, minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation, unemployment compensation, government support of labor's right to bargain collectively, regulation of utilities, regulation of the stock market, government action to ward off depressions, state-supported higher education on a scale unequaled elsewhere. We know that, whatever the elements of unwisdom in our foreign policy may be, they reflect the unwisdom of the majority in all classes rather than the excessive power of any one class. But it is precisely these concrete things that most of those who look at us from abroad literally do not know.
It seems clear, too, that this vast ignorance is in part based on the ambiguity of the two key words. Since the United States is undoubtedly "capitalistic" in the private-ownership sense, this fact serves to sustain, by illegitimate association, the assumption that the United States is also "capitalistic" in the other senses of the word-which it is not.
What can be done to communicate to some three billion human beings a more realistic understanding of what America is and what it stands for in its relations with other countries? Certain possibilities are at least worthy of consideration:
To tell them often, officially and unofficially, about all the ways in which the United States has moved in the direction of social welfare. Even the conservative American businessman who feels that his country has gone too far in this direction can perform a constructive service by expressing this opinion frankly and frequently in conversations with foreigners.
To inform ourselves (especially Americans working or traveling overseas) so that we can talk about these things concretely and accurately.
To promote enlightened social-welfare policies on the part of American companies doing business overseas-many of which do in fact now have such policies.
To bring more foreigners to the United States to see for themselves.
To make sure, in case a desire to avoid a Communist takeover in a developing country leads us to consider intervention on behalf of a group that is generally regarded as reactionary, that proper weight is given to the probable repercussions in other parts of the world, and to recognize that these repercussions are likely to include not only condemnation of our intervention as such but also a stiffening of the assumption that the United States is capitalistic and that capitalism represents reaction.
To recognize that the "high middle ground." in the world as a whole, is occupied mainly by people who see themselves as democratic socialists; to avoid alienating them by confusing socialism with Communism and condemning both in the same breath; to avoid needless emphasis on issues in the area of socialism that we and they may disagree on, and to emphasize instead the principles of democracy that we and they have in common.
To treat the question of how much government ownership is desirable in a given country as a practical rather than a moral question. The practical arguments against it are often strong. Nevertheless, the political élites in many developing countries tend to believe that they have a special need for government planning and government investment at the points in their economy where the need for development is great and private investment is not forthcoming. Most of them, as Nehru did, are seeking a happy medium between the extremes of all-private and all-government ownership of industry. If we express blanket disapproval of government ownership as if it were for us a matter of principle, we necessarily appear in their eyes as doctrinaire capitalistic extremists and as opponents of what they want most, which is economic progress.
To reject completely the Communists' effort to define the conflict between us as primarily a conflict between socialism and capitalism, rather than between totalitarianism and democracy or between conflicting national orientations.
To avoid needless use of the words socialism and capitalism. Both are full of semantic pitfalls. Both are obstacles to clear communication and mutual understanding and their use perpetuates the worst misperceptions of what America is. We can then define what America stands for unambiguously as a maximum of democracy, a minimum of government ownership, and a medium-to- high amount of social welfare. This would promote not only clearness of thinking and of communication but also good will toward America and mitigation of the conflict between East and West.
[i] Bryant M. Wedge, "Visitors to the United States and How They See Us." Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1965. See especially p. 99-115.