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Recently I see more and more posts on social media (mainly FB) in which people advocate socialism (and sometimes communism) or are anti capitalist.

When mentioning examples (after being asked or when trying to make a point) of nations where it is successful they often mention European nations (or sometimes the EU as a whole) as socialist/non-capitalist nations (mainly Denmark, Norway and Sweden but also Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland have been mentioned by them).

None of these nations are socialist, and they all have capitalist economies. Sure, compared to the USA these nations have more "socialist" policies then the USA but that doesn't make them socialist nations.

So my question is: Why do so many North Americans (mainly USA, but I have also seen Canadians) think/claim on social media that Western/Northern Europe are socialist states?

Is it because those nations are, by comparison, more social then the USA? Or is it just a lack of understanding of socialism/Europe? or is it from propaganda efforts? The fact that those nations have socialist political parties? or... what?

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    This question seems pretty broad, but at the same time doesn't seem to have a real answer - you already acknowledge that several European countries have policies that are more socialist than those in the United States, what more are you expecting to find?
    – Zibbobz
    Jul 22 at 15:33
  • @Zibbobz well it seems to be a lot of misinformation, where does it come from? And why?
    – A.bakker
    Jul 22 at 15:36
  • @A.bakker That's where it could get fairly broad - for one, there are a lot of news outlets and even politicians that would characterize those nations as being Socialist, and considering they have strongly socialist-leaning policies one could argue this isn't misinformation either. But there are also political ideologies at play - with different groups having different hard-line opinions on whether 'socialist' policies are favorable or not, which determines how they choose to characterize different countries, which could be seen as misinformation. It gets messy very quickly.
    – Zibbobz
    Jul 22 at 15:44
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    I'm not sure it's possible to objectively answer a question asking about the beliefs of random individual social media users. The Nordic countries are often described as "social democracies" or an example of "democratic socialism" in a capitalist system. Are the people you're talking about thinking of it in that context? Are they just misinformed? How could we know that if we don't know the people you're asking about?
    – divibisan
    Jul 22 at 16:29
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    You haven't provided a working definition of capitalism or socialism. When is a country socialist and when is it capitalist? After all, most countries have mixed economies. In Scandinavia, large sectors of the economy are state run. In fact, approximately 36% of Norway's economy and 41% of Russia's economy is run by the state. Does 50% plus one means a state is socialist? Jul 22 at 17:05

11 Answers 11

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The Word Has Become Political Shorthand

The Pew Research Center examined how people in the United States were using the word and what they meant by it. Regardless of the term's academic definition, the term has seen aggressive use by both self-identified supporters of 'socialist' policies, and detractors.

Negative Connotation

'Socialism' has become something of a political slur among the political Right, and even among Centrist Democrats. The rise of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in both prominence within the politics of the Democratic Party and in visibility due to their support for (and oftentimes organization of) various protests that have captured mass media attention, has bonded the term 'Socialist' to the term 'Democrat' in the minds of many - on both the right and the left, in ways that are viewed favorably and not.

Once a word's, any word's, definition becomes fluid in this manner, it will often see broad use to sweep any and all objectionable objects under its umbrella. See also 'terrorist' being used to refer to any person engaging in high-visibility acts of violence, and 'Nazi' which has gone from referring to members of the National Socialist German Worker's Party, to anyone you disagree with online, to somewhere in between.

A key part of American political thought is American Exceptionalism, which holds that there is something distinctly better about the United States and its experiment in democracy. An implication of this is that anything which closely emulates or resembles policies in place elsewhere must necessarily be inferior. This creates a special place for isolationism in United States' politics, and suspicion of policies in broad use throughout Europe - this makes such policies, and the nations which select them, ripe for scorn.

Positive Connotation

On the side of those who use the term loosely but with positive association, it's become an umbrella term deemed agreeable by those who view the current economic status quo as odious. These groups will often misuse the term 'Capitalist' in much the same way as their opposites misuse 'Socialist.' Groups like the DSA legitimize this use-case as well.

TL;DR -

The strict meaning of words in impassioned discourse is often of secondary importance to their meaning among certain audiences. They're not actually saying European countries are socialist governments, or even that they select socialist policies - instead they're saying either that they believe European policies to be generally pro-equality (if they mean it as a compliment), or that they believe European policies are anti-liberty (if they mean it as a slur), and 'Socialist' fits far better in a tweet or exasperated breath than does their actual meaning.

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    Yes, a lot of people say policies that promote equality and welfare are socialist with little regard for what socialism actually is, but to say that they consider anything that's different from what they know socialist seems to be a stretch that needs some serious citation. But I probably shouldn't expect too much nuance when you seem to consider someone calling someone else a "nazi" for just disagreeing with them to not just be an absurd and generic insult (or insane ramblings), but rather a valid redefinition of the word.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 24 at 12:30
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    @NotThatGuy I think you missed the whole point of my answer (I'll give it a lookover to see if I can re write it more clearly) - using "Nazi" as a general insult actually changes the use case of the word - which is what a definition is. Using 'Socialism' in the negative connotation here is the same thing - it's just a generic insult for people they don't agree with. (At least in their eyes). Jul 24 at 16:56
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Americans have been fed a constant diet of propaganda about how evil Socialism is, especially seeing it as a "gateway to Communism". The definition of Socialism is so loose that almost anything can be labelled that way.

Among the things that Americans consider "Socialist":

  • Virtually anything government funded or government organized is "Socialist". Healthcare, broadcasting, transport, housing, libraries, are all particularly Socialist if government funded or organized.
  • Government regulation is "Socialist". Anything that restricts a business' ability to pollute, destroy the environment, make deceptive advertising, underpay its employees, fire its employees, impose restrictive contracts on customers, overcharge, etc. are "Socialist".
  • Welfare is Socialist, if it is above minimal poverty level.
  • Any policy designed to modify people's behaviour is Socialist. Gun control is Socialist, promotion of vaccines is Socialist, subsidies to electric cars are Socialist, carbon taxes are Socialist.
  • Government ownership of businesses is Socialist.

If you add to this the unheard of state that some political parties actually claim/admit being Socialist, you see where they get the idea.

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    On the other hand, government subsidies to coal companies, oil companies, pharma companies, companies in general -- those are not socialism, particularly if the subsidies were provided by Republicans. Just in case it's not obvious, this was written very sarcastically. Jul 23 at 1:42
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    @DavidHammen You are missing the point. By definition, everything about the American Way Of Life is the best possible system than can exist. Socialism was invented somewhere else, Therefore Socialism is self-evidently BAAAAADD, and it is logically impossible for anything that is done in America to be Socialism. </more sarcasm>.
    – alephzero
    Jul 23 at 18:56
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    @user4012 You've made exactly the error that the answer talks about - you're using "socialist" to mean "communist". Most European countries follow the "social democracy" model. The fact that bankruptcy due to medical bills is unknown in Europe, there are no blackouts due to poor planning of electricity generation, and there is some concept of employees having the right to bit be abused, makes non-insular Americans think there could be better ways of doing it.
    – Graham
    Jul 25 at 8:48
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    By the way, it is truly hilarious to have an answer "there was a lot of propaganda so that they have an allergic reaction to the word 'socialism', even when it has nothing to do with socialism" - and then some people just straight up prove you right by immediately having the taught reaction "I will now give you the reasons why socialism is bad"
    – R. Schmitz
    Jul 25 at 10:40
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    @NeilMeyer That's an interesting statement, because I'm not aware of any European country for whom that's happened. The closest you could get is Greece, whose economic woes were almost entirely due to failure to collect taxes combined with widespread corruption and waste in the public sector. I wouldn't disagree that centralisation can enable corruption/waste in public organisations, but that doesn't mean full deregulation is better. Without regulation, you get even worse corruption elsewhere. (Enron as a classic example.) Do you have examples of this?
    – Graham
    Jul 25 at 11:02
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A lot of political terms are used very differently in the US vs in Europe.

We can debate for a long time whether the Americans just misuse these terms or not, but that does not seem to be very productive. Instead, we can simply concede that words such as socialist or liberal have different meanings in a US context vs in a European context.

While no European country is socialist-in-a-European-sense, and socialist-in-a-European-sense parties tend to be rather fringe; the fact that European countries tend to have universal health care, some measure of gun control and meaningful workers rights is sufficient to qualify them as socialist-in-a-US-sense.

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  • "Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead..." - youtube.com/watch?v=uAXtO5dMqEI - Sorry, not sorry. This is the first thing that popped into my head as I read this Answer. :-) And it kind of fits, too. Jul 23 at 23:04
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    Would you mind defining socialism-in-the-US-sense, then?
    – einpoklum
    Jul 25 at 8:11
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    @einpoklum Socialism-in-the-US-sense seems to be a rather vague notion, and not one I would personally use. I am confident in the claims I made about it in my answer, but beyond that it gets difficult.
    – Arno
    Jul 25 at 8:44
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    @Arno "socialism" is a dog whistle - it means one thing to one group and something else to others.
    – Spencer
    Jul 25 at 23:37
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Europe tends to have electoral systems which foster more than two parties. This leads to a split of the left-of-center groups into Communists, Socialists, and Social Democrats, and more. The distinctions can become fuzzy, and historical inertia causes some groups to use their traditional name even if their modern policies would astound their namesakes. People in Europe would be aware of the meanings within their own area, but only a few experts could tell offhand if the PSD in Romania was to the right or to the left of the PvdA in the Netherlands -- or if either one was Socialist by any reasonable definition of the term.

Couple that potential confusion with the fact that even many conservative parties in Europe have embraced (near-)universal healthcare and employee protection laws, and the tendency in the US to use "socialist" to describe anything left of the speaker, even if that speaker was Attila the Hun ...

On average, societies in Europe embrace policies which are labeled as Socialist by some Americans, even if they are not exclusive to Socialist parties in Europe. That might be interpreted as Socialists having hijacked the political debate in Europe to such an extend that their ideas have become mainstream. In other words, Europe is Socialist by some definitions of the word. (Personally I'd highlight the distinction between Socialists and Social Democrats and call say that Europe is Social-Democrat, but such fine differences might not always translate to another continent, even if people there speak the same language.)

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    Also you have welfare states which like in Norway is basically a way for goverment petro-gas companies to divi up the wealth the land produces among citizens. How that fits in to socialism IDK
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 25 at 10:29
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    @NeilMeyer state-owned companies are very close to the academic definition of Socialism, which is "social ownership (of means of production)". From that point of view Norway is about one third socialist state. (The government controls around 35% of the total value of publicly listed companies on the Oslo stock exchange)
    – blues
    Jul 26 at 13:17
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In lots of Western European countries, one of the two biggest political parties is a Democratic Socialist party (often with a Christian Democratic party as the other party in the top two). Moreover, for much of post-World War II history, this was the case, and left an impression on North Americans, even in cases where it isn't true now. Also, political scientists often refer to political parties with agendas similar to Democratic Socialist parties as "Socialist" or "Democratic Socialist" even if neither of those terms appear in the actual name of the political party.

For example, political scientists sometimes call the Labour Party in the U.K. to be a "Democratic Socialist" political party when context calls for lumping parties of the moderate economic left together across national lines or across different time periods.

Democratic Socialist parties in Europe shared the broad outlines of a common agenda, often hammered at at international Democratic Socialist conferences.

Often Democratic Socialist parties had legislative achievements while they were in power that furthered their stated agenda. Specific elements of this agenda were successfully implemented more often in Western Europe countries, than in the United States.

Given all of this preamble, it is hardly surprising that the policies of countries that adopt part of the Democratic Socialist agenda are called "Socialist" policies.

But, this isn't entirely innocent, as in the United States, unlike Europe, especially among older people who lived through the Cold War, the use of "Socialism" to mean Eastern European Communist countries and their policies (or Nazi policies, because this fascist party had the world Socialism in its name) had become common place before many people in the U.S. were familiar with Democratic Socialism. So, using the word "Socialism" is a rhetorical trick to associate moderate economically left policies with extreme Stalinist-Leninist policies or Nazism, even though the person using the term often knows that this is misleading, and that "Democratic Socialism" is relatively benign.

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European political parties all tend to support some socialist ideas (such as universal health care, welfare systems) to a much greater extent than the two US parties do. The fact that one US party has become practically rabid in it's opposition to even the mildest forms of social politics just makes this seem far more extreme.

The US also has a historical tendency to equate socialism with communism. The two are completely different and no mainstream European party with a hope of gaining power supports communism.

The US is as close to a pure capitalist system as is possible. It has always been driven by a model without socialist elements. This is culturally embedded in the US psyche. The Cold War meant that any socialist concepts were equated to communism, and this has colored US thinking since.

Europe, which developed from the fall of European monarchies, already evolved some socialist principles even before the monarchies fell (look at e.g. Germany pre-WW1). Socialists in Europe were never quite equated to Communists. Socialism in Europe is seen as more related to the struggle for social justice and workers rights. Rather than been seen as some sort of foot-in-the-door for communists, it is seen as a cornerstone of the development of political parties that supported union rights, workers rights, freedom of political action, welfare and universal health care.

The fact that US politics is extremely polarized and has evolved to a two party system driven by what, by European standards, are simplistic black-and-white principles, means there is practically no middle ground in the US. Workers in the US never united in parties like the Labor Party (in the UK and Ireland). US politics has become confrontational and the label "socialism" is avoided by both sides. In Europe politics is not as confrontational - collation governments are common. working politics, even between superficially opposing groups, means a lot of middle ground compromise politics is done to keep things working.

So the atmosphere of European politics combined with the less-negative view of socialism means socialist politics are not seen negatively. The benefits are tangible and real.

In the US, socialist policies have never really been tried. There is a confrontational bi-party system that is deeply entrenched and no movement that challenges this. With no experience of socialist policies there is only the negatives of communism (and failed communism at that) to gives a false impression of negativity to socialism.

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  • "The US also has a historical tendency to equate socialism with communism. The two are completely different" That's false/linguistic prescriptivism. Jul 26 at 0:22
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    @Acccumulation You are free to hold your opinion. Your viewpoint seems to be dictionary definition based, rather than an observation of real world politics. Again, in Europe socialism is very much differentiated from communism. Socialists do not identify as communist and, as I point out in my answer, in Europe socialist policies are mixed into all mainstream political parties' policies. I think you are obsessing over a book definition of the terms rather than the real world use of them. You won't understand European politics thinking that way.
    – StephenG
    Jul 26 at 1:00
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Socialism - Capitalism is not a binary state, but a spectrum, so for example one could say that US is socialist compared to Singapore and that France is socialist compared to Switzelrand.

Also most of politics is based on shouting simplified statements, so socialist for some people is a short way to say "high taxes, a lot of welfare, etc.", for some it is a short way to say"high taxes, stagnant economy, no free speech"...

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  • Hmmm. I'm not sure it is continuous, because, you see, there is a transformation (a revolution) that changes things both qualitatively and quantitatively.
    – ajbg
    Jul 24 at 20:48
  • @ajbg which revolution are we talking about? (since the question is about how countries in Europe are labeled "socialist", typically Denmark, Sweden, ...)
    – njzk2
    Jul 25 at 19:03
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I agree with you, EU is capitalist; thus, not socialist. Some of these states do vindicate certain social rights (e.g., social/public health system, free education, etc.), but that doesn't imply a change of their socio-economic system and relations. To answer the question you asked, this is due to conservative misinformation and propaganda. Conservatives in the US propose a small government (which imply minimum cost and minimum tax to maintain), where individual rights and freedom are sufficient and enough condition to achieve success and happiness; to them, social programs/rights equates to a welfare state for the lazy...

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    This is just wrong. Many European countries DO have, or have had in the past (e.g. Britain post WWII) economic and social policies that are much more socialist than those of the US. So the perception is due to ACCURATE information. I suppose you could stretch a point and call that information propaganda :-)
    – jamesqf
    Jul 22 at 16:46
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    I disagree. The fact that social-democrats may have introduced some “socialist” measures (for the 8 hour labor, etc.) doesn't make that society socialist. Properly speaking, when was private property or the bourgeoisie abolished in England or any other European country (not talking bout soviet satellite countries)?
    – ajbg
    Jul 22 at 16:53
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Jul 23 at 21:17
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    The lengthy discussion, hence moved to chat, just proves my point. The actions of certain European governments may not be socialist by a strict, socialist definition of the term, but they look socialist by the definitions employed by some other people. In Germany many such policies were introduced by Bismarck, hardly a revolutionary himself, to undercut the labour movement.
    – o.m.
    Jul 24 at 4:41
  • @o.m.: Re "strict, socialist definition", is it really reasonable to use the socialists' own definition? That would seem to get you into the Animal Farm definition of equal, if not the Alice In Wonderland one :-)
    – jamesqf
    Jul 24 at 17:40
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"Socialist" can be defined in a variety of ways and can be used as a relative term rather than an absolute one. The days of pure laissez-faire capitalism are over, and almost every country in the world, including Switzerland and China, practices some mixture of capitalism and socialism. Europe's political center of gravity lies to the left of the US, so Europe is correctly described as more socialist than the US.

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  • 1) Europe is socialist compared to USA. Therefore, Europe is socialist. 2) Europe is extremely capitalist compared to theURSS. Thus, it must be capitalist. 3) Well, I arrive at a contadiction...
    – ajbg
    Jul 25 at 23:25
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The reason is that everybody can use words any way they like. You can call your main course "appetizer" (entrée), you can call the list of available dishes "meal" (menu), and you can call capitalist nations "socialist" (socialist).

It doesn't matter that many regulations in the U.S. are stricter than in Europe; it is the home owners association that decrees that you cannot paint your own house on your own property any other color than the color of shit, it is not the federal government — if the Federal Government dared infringe on the inalienable rights of the American people that would cause an armed raid of the Capitol. Socialism! SOCIALISM, I say!

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  • So, if you define levitation as the force that makes you fall onto Earth at 9.8m/s^2, what's the practicality of it? Language must have some commonality of terms to serve as a practical mean of communication. If I say taxes is wages, and wages taxes, that'll be very confusing... I think.
    – ajbg
    Jul 24 at 20:31
  • @ajbg All you say is true and supports what I wrote. Jul 24 at 21:04
  • @Perter - Reinstate, I forgot to say all this "contradiction in subjects" makes the discourse very entertaining and funny... :)
    – ajbg
    Jul 24 at 21:14
  • @ajbg Entertainment while we are learning is why we are here ;-). Jul 24 at 22:34
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1 Because American politicians call themselves this.

It doesn't help that the U.S has politicians which call themselves (Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez for examples) which calls themselves a Socialist. In general, the American left creates blanket terms, which in turn creates a general unity and confusion for a clear definition of the group. Unfortunately, the American Right follows suite and punishes the entire created group on the atrocities of the real definition.

2 Americans do NOT know the difference between Socialism and Social Democracy.

Socialism is the middle stage of the step towards Communism. It is also the abolition of capitalism and private ownership of the means or production. I have defined this cleanly here Why was the USSR Socialist and what are the steps to this

Bernie Sanders and the types are actually Social Democrats and the government type is a Social democracy. This primitively defined considered a high tax welfare form of capitalism.

3 Americans think any Social program means it is socialist

Despite the belief of many Americans, a Social program doesn't make the government Socialist. In fact, most countries have what is called a mixed economy. You can argue that there are social programs which exist which wouldn't exist in a Socialist mode of production.

At which point does a government become Socialist is a question for debate, considering some countries will have a large portion of state owned businesses.

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  • Some people decided to downvote without a comment. Perhaps an explanation rather than being passively offended by my words would be more helpful.
    – LUser
    Jul 29 at 7:39

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