‘The Big Scary “S” Word’ Review: Defanging Socialism as Capitalism Trumps Democracy

A lively, engaging overview of what a much-demonized concept might have to offer our era of escalating economic inequality.

The Big Scary “S” Word
Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

“Economic inequality” is a phrase that not long ago was seldom heard outside various ivory towers. But in recent years, the proliferation of billionaires, contrasting shrinkage of the middle class and livable wages, not to mention Big Money’s ever-increasing political clout, have all dragged that concept into popular awareness. Conservatives have fought back by renewed demonization of their old nemesis, “Socialism.” But not everyone is buying that scare tactic anymore, or accepting that unfettered capitalism remains a reliable path to the American Dream for any but a privileged few.

Yael Bridge’s concise and engaging “The Big Scary ’S’ Word” provides a persuasive analysis of the topic, as well as considerable argument for the notion that the basic principles of socialism are (as one interviewee here puts it) “as American as apple pie.” Greenwich Entertainment will release the documentary to theaters on Labor Day, Sept. 3, following nearly a year on the festival circuit. Its lively, accessible argument should also translate well into broadcast and other platform sales in other territories.

After hearing from a construction worker who wonders how we’ve come to a point where he can labor 10-12 hours a day and “at the end of the week I’m broke,” we get a cacophony of voices having contradictory (or no) opinions about what socialism is — with Fox News commentators naturally screaming loudest about its perils. But the word wasn’t always so fraught. Harry Truman is seen in 1948 opining, “Socialism is a scare word they’ve hurled at every advance that people have made in the last 20 years. … Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Two decades later, Martin Luther King Jr. added, “We too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor.” In an era of popular reform, Teddy Roosevelt ran for president on a platform one latter-day observer calls “to the left of Bernie Sanders.” Such widely approved institutions as the minimum wage and free K-12 public education owe much to socialist thinkers.

Yet today the five richest Americans possess more wealth than the entire global population’s poorer half, while despite record corporate profits, many of their fellow citizens struggle to stay afloat. Among proletarian protagonists incorporated here are a single-mom elementary school teacher who has to work two jobs and pay for classroom supplies herself due to Oklahoma’s incessant education-funding cuts. There’s also a freshman Virginia state representative disgusted by the corrupt clannishness of his colleagues, one of whom “jokingly” holds up a hammer-and-sickle image behind him when he urges the body to address some basic constituent injustices. These people have become activists because they feel our system leaves them no other recourse.

Other wealthy nations expect overall resources to support such broadly beneficial programs as universal health care, improving infrastructure, and so forth. But since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, “the bargain has been broken on so many levels” in the U.S., as author Naomi Klein says. The various tax breaks and loopholes that drastically escalated under President Trump have nearly exempted companies from contributing to the society they profited from. Unions and worker-protective regulations were eroded, benefits whittled, jobs sent to cheaper labor overseas, as once-flourishing Americans sank into personal debt. When the Great Depression struck due to Wall Street malfeasance, FDR bailed out the country with the socialistic public-benefit programs of the new New Deal; when the Great Recession struck for similar reasons, our government bailed out Wall Street. Turbo-charged by Citizens United, shareholder interests have become the primary engine behind U.S. policy decisions, impacting many but benefitting a small elite.

All of this is illustrated in a colorful assembly of news clips, archival footage, pop culture errata, vérité content and occasional animation (by Phlea TV), while a chorus of talking heads deliver savvy soundbites. Academics point out that socialism has much deeper roots in American history than generally admitted, including the Republican Party’s own origin in a midwestern commune and other absorbing little-known-facts. It is the natural inclination of capitalism to protect profits, not people. Only vociferous dissent led to things like the 40-hour week, let alone safety regulations that curtailed some 35,000 annual workplace-accident deaths in the 1890s.

While tipping hat to such high-profile Democratic Socialists of today as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bridge focuses more on grassroots efforts at leveling the playing field, such as a collectively owned Cleveland manufacturing company, and that Oklahoma teacher’s protest march to the capitol. While such small victories and uphill struggles may appear minor in impact, it is noted the stakes in wresting runaway capitalism back within citizens’ control could scarcely be higher: Sociologist Vivek Chibber reminds that “unceasing pursuit of profit, no matter what the ecological cost” has created a climate-change “planetary strain” that threatens our species’ very existence.

Throwing in everything from a Jimmy Durante song to a cartoon illustrating mankind’s economic evolution over millennia, “The Big Scary ’S’ Word” manages to make a potentially dry or angry subject more fun than you’d expect. Playful title aside, it doesn’t dwell on conservatives’ often deliberately misleading use of the term, beyond briefly clarifying that Democratic Socialism really bears no connection to the authoritarian Communist regimes they encourage associating it with. A minor miracle of cogent editorial compression (it’s an hour shorter than 2003’s similarly engaging and informative “The Corporation”), the documentary is first-rate in all tech and design departments.

‘The Big Scary “S” Word’ Review: Defanging Socialism as Capitalism Trumps Democracy

Reviewed at Hot Docs (online), San Francisco, May 2, 2021. (Also in AFI, DOC NYC, Mill Valley film festivals.) Running time: 82 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Greenwich Entertainment release of a Flat Five, Meercat Media, Wayland production. (World sales: WME, New York.) Producers: Yael Bridge, Morgan Spector, Eden Wurmfeld. Co-producer: Sasha Leitmann.
  • Crew: Director: Yael Bridge. Camera: Eric Phillps-Horst, William Haugse. Editor: Christie Herring. Music: Osei Essed, Giosue Greco.
  • With: Kate Aronoff, Nicole Aschoff, Eric Blanc, Lee J. Carter, Vivek Chibber, Eric Foner, Donna Haverty-Stacke, Mike Jacobs, Dicarlo Johnson, Brett Jones, Rozanne Junker, Matt Karp, Naomi Klein, Aims McGuiness, John McMicken, Ricardo Nunez, John Nichols, John Pearson, Stephanie Price, Kshama Sawant, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adaner Usmani, Cornel West, Richard Wolff, Anita Zeidler.