Republicans and the political right generally have routinely characterized President Joe Biden’s social and economic agendas as “socialist,” hoping a residual Cold War anti-communist hysteria will resonate with and terrify American voters, turning them reflexively and unthinkingly against policies and practices that would actually serve their interests and well-being.
This tactic succeeded significantly in Florida’s Dade County in the 2020 presidential election where the electorate played a large role in handing that state’s electoral votes to Donald Trump.
At the same time, Republicans and the political right have also demonized science, a phenomenon we see quite clearly in the dangerous prevalence of climate change denial and in the resistance to COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the overall downplaying of the seriousness, if not outright denial, of the pandemic.
While, in my voracious consumption of American political discourse, I have seen really no analysis at all that links anti-socialist and anti-science political rhetoric as mutually reinforcing, as working cooperatively, it is more than a little compelling, as I’ll analyze below, to understand the damaging way anti-socialism validates, even fuels, the anti-science worldview that has been responsible for so much death and division in the United States.
Beyond compelling, though, recognizing this connection between anti-socialist and anti-science politics is crucially important not just for helping us share an understanding of reality but also for advancing a progressive political agenda designed to be responsive to our pressing human needs by addressing the facts of the shared material reality in which we live.
We still see, indeed on a routine basis, elements of the Democratic Party, including self-identified progressives, distance themselves from the term “socialism.” Biden, of course, despite the progressive content of his agenda, eschewed the term in trying to differentiate and distance himself from Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He has since boasted, when accused of being a socialist, that, “I beat the socialist.”
Arguably, though, a belief in science supports a socialist philosophy and worldview, and to slander or dismiss socialism may very well undermine the advocacy for believing in science that is so crucial to the health and well-being of American, indeed global, society on so many levels.
A key and ever-developing branch of physics, quantum mechanics, has posited that the atomic and subatomic particles of which we and the world around us are composed do not exist or behave so much as discrete entities but in relation to one another. Physicists began developing what has come to be called wave-particle theory in the 1920s, as some observed that light, conventionally understood as a wave, behaved also like a particle, and that electrons, thought to be localized particles, existing “here” or “there,” actually also behaved like waves, constantly interacting with other particles.
Some have linked these propositions of quantum mechanics to a theory of oneness, suggesting we are all made up of the same material and exist not as separate entities but in constant relation to and dependence on one another as a unified entity.
As physicist Carlo Rovelli has stated, “20th-Century physics is not about how individual entities are by themselves. It is about how entities manifest themselves to one another. It is about relations.”
In his view, “We are made up of the same atoms and the same light signals as are exchanged between pine trees in the mountains and stars in the galaxies.”
Albert Einstein similarly dismissed any notion of our separateness, writing, “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”
It may be no surprise that this understanding of the physical world developed by scientists seems so consistent with Einstein’s understanding of insights into the operations of humans in society.
He wrote in a 1949 essay published in Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?”:
The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.”
Like particles that exist only relationally, so do humans. The problem Einstein saw, though, was that people are afraid to embrace this reality, refusing to see it as a benefit, instead fearing it. He writes,
The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate.
Recognizing our dependence would logically entail valuing the lives of others.
Take “essential workers.” The phrase suggests a recognition of our dependence on these workers for our lives, and yet as a society and political economy we also flee from that recognition, mandating they work in unsafe environments and making little to no effort to insist they are remunerated with at least a living wage.
And those who oppose vaccination, asserting their “personal freedom,” again misconstrue the reality of their interdependence, that they exist only and necessarily in relation to others. There is no merely “personal.” They reject socialism and science.
Efforts to create a social safety net and to distribute the collective wealth more equitably to support the lives of all are challenged with pejorative name of “socialism.”
Anti-socialism and anti-science have come to work hand in hand. It is time for those who pretend to support science, but still engage in anti-socialist rhetoric, to understand this connection. In trying to beat socialism, they inadvertently discredit science.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.