The Film About Socialism the GOP Doesn’t Want You to See
Yael Bridge’s “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” examines the history of socialism and why so many Americans have been conditioned to reject a philosophy that’s in their best interests.
Just yesterday, Bloomberg News reported that data from the first half of this year shows that the 50 richest Americans are about as wealthy as the poorest 165 million Americans, or 50 percent of the population. Still, in the United States, “socialism” is a funny word. Its mere utterance tends to get the capitalist leadership in both major parties all riled up. Yet, polling shows that Americans throughout the country, especially younger ones, seem to be unfazed by the -ism and in fact energized by its basic premises.
The Big Scary “S” Word, a documentary directed by Yael Bridge, explores the legacy of socialism as an economic system as well as its U.S.—rather than European or Latin American—roots, which experts in the film argue spring forth from democratic ideals.
What’s most useful about “S” Word’s framing is that it identifies the dominant American political ideology—freedom—while arguing that socialism is the only economic system fit to bestow it in the country. Capitalism is more suited to oligarchy and, as we’ve witnessed lately, can easily make a friend of fascism. Talking heads like Princeton professors Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Cornel West, and subjects like Representative Lee Carter focus on both Republicans’ and Democrats’ failure to uplift poor and working people while happily advocating for private corporations.
The history that much of the film explores—from Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential platform to the ideas of his challenger, socialist Eugene V. Debs—is less emblematic of pure socialism than social democracy, currently instituted throughout Europe. Single-payer health care, free and well-funded education from kindergarten through college, paid family leave, free childcare, and more are the social programs that could very well lift people out of poverty if provided universally and without prejudice. In the Global South, several countries have fought to institute actual socialist and communist systems, yet been violently challenged by U.S. intervention. “S” Word seems to rest on the notion that while the U.S. may never be truly internationalist in its fight for economic justice (the Green New Deal’s continued reliance on extracting precious metals from vulnerable countries tells us as much), it is certainly able to create livable and even joyful conditions for its inhabitants, by its inhabitants.
Socialism, however you look at it, is a collaborative project. And as Taylor points out, it’s very unlikely to spring forth from electoral politics. People will have to decide, through worker and community solidarity, that they’ve had enough and that it’s time to do something about it. The film follows Stephanie, an Oklahoma teacher and single parent who decides to strike with her union for better funding and pay—in the process, she becomes curious about socialism and gets more involved in organizing. It’s so easy for powerful politicians to stir up fear around socialism—through red-baiting and rhetorical backhandedness—because its very terms are revolutionary. Unless left authoritarianism (rather than the right authoritarianism we currently have) suddenly becomes popular in the U.S., there will be no savior to sweep us out of our wretched conditions and supplant us onto a socialist path. So, many experts in the film argue, we’ll have to fight for democracy as the basis of socialism, as its only viable manifestation.
The dominance of capitalism is driven less by dreams than by illusions. It’s about what you think you see, but was never really there. Anyone with even a bit of sense knows that capitalism is a big part of why they’re miserable or anxious, but its false promises can be compelling. If I just score this executive job, get this windfall, come up with this lucrative idea, I, too, will benefit from corporate tax breaks. If it were a dream, it would be a depressing one; the illusion allows you to cut out the public program defunding, labor exploitation, rent collecting, and state violence that makes capital possible. With capitalism, you are only ever an individual, never dependent on anyone or anything but your own ability—an impossible premise that so many Americans like to believe because, ironically, it makes them feel safe.
The Big Scary “S” Word tries to make the case that real safety and personal achievement is in the kind of society where we recognize our interdependence and collaborate to make the best of it for everyone. The film shows how worker and food cooperatives do small-scale versions of this, reimagining supply chains as mutually beneficial links between communities and individuals rather than production lines designed for the benefit of property owners.
I still wonder, though, how cooperative Americans are ready to be. Will a socialist (or even social-democratic) economic system be thwarted by xenophobia, racism, ableism, and transphobia? Will anti-woke leftists continue to scold those who consistently raise these concerns, saying that the (white) working class is so overwhelmingly intolerant yet fundamentally indispensable (to me, an obvious paradox) that anti-bigotry is not a viable demand for a socialist movement? Or will the people, in our small and big ways, find a common path based not in concessions but in dreams made real?