Barack Obama is not a socialist. It's not surprising that people call him one: to the typical voter, "socialist" is often just shorthand for the next step leftward on the political spectrum from being an ordinary liberal, and people need a vocabulary to express their sense that they see in Obama a further left turn from Mondale-Dukakis-Kerry liberalism. To this day, the Democrats' caucus in the Senate includes one self-described socialist, but the rest of the party flees the description. The fact that Obama's political supporters react with horror when you call him a socialist is, at least, a concession that everyone - even actual socialists - agrees that the label is political poison with most American voters.
Nor is the label especially unfair: Obama's own biography is full of close associations and alliances with actual socialists and even Communists (his acknowledged teen mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA). In 1996, when he was first elected to public office, he signed an agreement to run on a left-wing third party's ticket and platform to signal to voters that the Democrats weren't far left enough for him. In 2000, the newsletter of an organization of actual socialists - the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America - wrote: "When Obama participated in a 1996 UofC YDS Townhall Meeting on Economic Insecurity, much of what he had to say was well within the mainstream of European social democracy."
A more accurate description of Obama, however - and of the Democratic party under his leadership - is that of collectivist, just as socialists are; but that this collectivism takes the form of corporatism. A review of both rhetoric and policy under Obama illustrates this. To understand why, you must first consider the meaning and history of collectivism and corporatism.
I. Collectivism and Corporatism
Collectivism is a philosophy, which can manifest itself in a number of different ideologies; socialism, corporatism and Communism are all different examples of collectivist ideologies. Collectivists may diverge widely on their view of the good society - Nazis and Communists have different values - but the common theme in collectivism is taking a commonplace cliche ("we're all in this together") and transforming it into a governmental imperative to act always and only in pursuit of the "common good," regardless of the varying desires of different individuals. Collectivists pursue policies that are 'universal' and mandatory across all of society; they believe not only that society as a whole has obligations to some of its members (the sick, the elderly) but that everyone's fate must be lashed together whether we like it or not. The true hallmark of collectivism is not that it is against anyone failing on his own, but that it is against anyone succeeding on his own. The advocates of the collectivist state demand that every citizen feel that he did not build his success on his own - and, specifically, that all successes are indebted to the state and contingent on its continuing favor.
The need for a collective common good is, to some degree, true in any society short of anarchy; government provides goods like national defense and law enforcement on a collective basis. But collectivists extend that view to economics, education, health care, urban planning, retirement...the collectivist approach is to enroll everyone in a single policy or program, to enforce universal participation out of fear that if the majority of the people are left to rise and fall on their own, they can not be convinced to support their neighbors. The enemy of collectivism is the free individual, the person who needs no financial assistance from the state. The idea that individuals might take care of themselves and care for each other voluntarily is alien to the collectivist mind.
The opposite of collectivism is individualism, the philosophy in which people take responsibility for themselves and their families. Individualism does not, whatever liberals may tell you, necessarily lead to a callous disregard for one's fellow man; the individualist may choose to give generously to charity, as many do. But to the individualist, charity is a voluntary choice, perhaps a moral obligation; it is not a mandate of the state.
Communism and socialism, which to varying degrees make the state a thing all people and property belong to, are the most familiar forms of collectivism. But corporatism has an equally long pedigree. This is a fairly concise explanation of the political-economic system of corporatism and a little of its intellectual history:
The basic idea of corporatism is that the society and economy of a country should be organized into major interest groups (sometimes called corporations) and representatives of those interest groups settle any problems through negotiation and joint agreement. In contrast to a market economy which operates through competition a corporate economic works through collective bargaining. The American president Lyndon Johnson had a favorite phrase that reflected the spirit of corporatism. He would gather the parties to some dispute and say, "Let us reason together."
Under corporatism the labor force and management in an industry belong to an industrial organization. The representatives of labor and management settle wage issues through collective negotiation. While this was the theory in practice the corporatist states were largely ruled according to the dictates of the supreme leader.
One early and important theorist of corporatism was Adam Müller, an advisor to Prince Metternich in what is now eastern Germany and Austria. Müller propounded his views as an antidote to the twin dangers of the egalitarianism of the French Revolution and the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith. In Germany and elsewhere there was a distinct aversion among rulers to allow markets to function without direction or control by the state. The general culture heritage of Europe from the medieval era was opposed to individual self-interest and the free operation of markets. Markets and private property were acceptable only as long as social regulation took precedence over such sinful motivations as greed.
Coupled with the anti-market sentiments of the medieval culture there was the notion that the rulers of the state had a vital role in promoting social justice. Thus corporatism was formulated as a system that emphasized the postive role of the state in guaranteeing social justice and suppressing the moral and social chaos of the population pursuing their own individual self-interests. And above all else, as a political economic philosophy corporatism was flexible. It could tolerate private enterprise within limits and justify major projects of the state. Corporatism has sometimes been labeled as a Third Way or a mixed economy, a synthesis of capitalism and socialism, but it is in fact a separate, distinctive political economic system.
The crucial distinction between corporatism and socialism is that socialism demands public ownership and operation of businesses and other major institutions, whereas corporatism tolerates private ownership while insinuating pervasive government control.
It's almost impossible to find real-world examples of a pure laissez faire economy; in practice, all states that are not wholly Communist have adopted some elements of the corporatist approach, but the degree to which corporatist thought and policy trump free-market ideas can vary widely in practice. Historically, the classic corporatist systems have operated in fascist states such as Mussolini's Italy and, yes, Nazi Germany, but the United States also followed a heavily corporatist policy during World War I under Woodrow Wilson and throughout FDR's New Deal. Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism presents one of the more detailed-yet-accessible histories of this strain in American politics since Wilson, covering its intellectual common ground with the European fascist economic and social-policy systems.
If the natural enemy of the collectivist system in general is the free individual, the natural enemy of the corporatist system is the free institution - the private business (from small businesses to large corporations), the free church, the independent trade union, the private civic or charitable organization (e.g., the Boy Scouts), the private hospital, the homeowner's association or neighborhood watch, the unregulated newspaper, TV channel or political action committee - in short, any way in which individuals can associate with each other or participate in the life of their communities without the intermediation of government telling them how to do so. These are what Edmund Burke called our "little platoons," the non-governmental civil society that Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America identified as central to the American experience. And while respect for such institutions is especially critical to the American way of life, they are central to civil society anywhere: even the proverb "it takes a village to raise a child," appropriated by Hillary Clinton and other liberal Democrats in support of collectivist enterprises, need not necessarily imply government, but rather community - neighbors and families looking out for each other.
Corporatist systems do not seek the abolition of these institutions - the fascists, unlike the Communists, did not reflexively ban Christian churches or private corporations - but rather to co-opt, compromise and control them, to ensure that a combination of financial enticements and regulations saps them of their independence from the state. The same impulse, in the American federal system, extends even to the independence of state and local governments; as long as things like health and education are the province of many and varied governments, corporatist systems fear that they will not be able to impose their policies universally and must contend with competition from approaches that may prove more attractive in practice. Few Americans are pure Rugged Individualists or Randian Objectivists, committed to the Hobbesian every-man-for-himself; moreso even than the size of government or the imposition on the individual, it is the assault on private organizations, community groups and local government that brings corporatism into conflict with fundamental American values and traditions.
Corporatism's focus on collective bargaining inherently promotes bigness - Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor. The national leader can sit at a bargaining table with a handful of CEOs and union heads, and determine what price is needed to buy off their support for a particular policy, or what threats are required to keep them all in line; he cannot do the same with thousands of small businesses and local school boards. (This is, ironically, why corporatist systems took root more easily in Catholic countries, as the Catholic Church is a much larger target than a profusion of tiny Protestant congregations. It is also why it's easier to control urban populations than diffuse rural ones). Large organizations can more easily absorb and accommodate themselves to gradual increases in state control without noticing, as the burdens of an administrative state squeeze their smaller competitors out of business. And large organizations can also more easily conceal in their large balance sheets the washing of the other hand - the campaign contribution, donation to a favored cause or outright bribe needed to persuade the corporatist political leader to look upon the organization with the favors the state can dispense, and not withhold them.
Socialism has a role in the corporatist state: it's the bad cop. The corporatist leader can always implicitly, or explicitly, threaten that his followers - or his political adversaries or neighboring states, for that matter - are the mob that wants to demand a wholesale takeover, which only he can hold back, so you had better play ball. This is where corporatism's philosophy is married to the practical tactics of the urban political machine, nowhere in America more entrenched than in Chicago.