If you haven’t noticed that capitalism is killing us, you aren’t paying attention. Heat domes in the Northwest, hurricanes in the South and Northeast: human-induced climate change has made deadly weather events commonplace.
And where’s the incentive to do things differently? As long as the 0.1% are shielded from the consequences of their environmental predation, their lobbyists will ensure business continues as usual.
If you’re feeling systemic upheaval is needed in American society, Yael Bridge’s documentary may help persuade you that democratic socialism is a practical alternative to the status quo. The Big Scary ‘S’ Word trots out the usual inequality numbers – five plutocrats have hoarded as much wealth as the world’s 3.5 billion poorest, the US working class carries more debt than any working class in history – but focuses its energy on contending that socialism is deeply American and “the ultimate expression of democracy.”
Did you know the Republican Party was founded by socialists? That Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Presidential platform was farther left than Bernie Sanders’ proposals? That FDR stole from the Socialist Party’s platform for his first Presidential run? Me either. Bridge’s documentary superbly demonstrates how socialism is baked into US history. Much if not most of our communal progress – slave emancipation, workers’ rights, universal education, healthcare for the poor and elderly – has emerged from socialist movements.
The Big Scary ‘S’ Word argues for democratic socialism’s current relevance by following two individuals. Stephanie Price is a school-based speech therapist in Oklahoma City. Tired of working two jobs to make ends meet, in the state ranking 48th in per-pupil spending, she joined the teachers’ protests at the state capitol in 2018. Disgusted by the spineless capitulation of her spokespeople, she’s inspired to take a more active role in advocating for educators’ rights.
Lee Carter is a USMC veteran who experienced Virginia’s failed safety net after suffering a workplace injury. With a state legislature populated solely by the privileged classes, he pays the bills as a Lyft driver while running for office as a democratic socialist. Once elected, even his fellow Democrats in the House of Delegates mock and shun him. Nevertheless, he persists.
Besides corralling an esteemed gaggle of talking heads – Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Eric Foner – The Big Scary ‘S’ Word takes us around the country to show us socialism in action. A trip back in time to Milwaukee introduces us to pragmatic “sewer socialism,” where decades of socialist mayors made it America’s healthiest metropolis. A bustling present-day laundry cooperative in Cleveland demonstrates the happy outcome when workers are also the owners. (It’s curious how we aspire to one person, one vote in our political system, but accept feudalism in our workplaces. Just saying.)
Bridge’s documentary bangs the “American as apple pie” drum a little too heavily for my liking. Its repeated assertions that democratic socialists aren’t looking to recreate Venezuela or the Soviet Union may not be xenophobic, but they feel xenophobia-adjacent. A change in phraseology, pointing out instead that democratic socialism is not totalitarian in nature, would’ve eliminated this unpleasant aftertaste.
Nonetheless, the case is potently made that universal healthcare and equality in education aren’t going to happen by trusting in the benevolent condescension of trickle-down capitalism. We need more democratic socialism, and it may be the only hope for saving our planet.
(The Big Scary ‘S’ Word is now playing in theaters, with streaming options available here.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )