Friday, August 24, 2018

Liberal Democratic Socialism

Socialism in not a moral theory which offers a particular vision of the good life, instead it is a theory about how the good life is possible. It is, in short, a theory about the conditions necessary for creating a society in which our lives are shaped by moral valueswe defer to the authority of the goodrather than a society in which our moral traditions have been erased by forces inimical to the moral life. And part of this theory about the conditions necessary for the good life proved the leading critical aspect of socialism. That part is the claim that it is capitalism which has been largely responsible for the destruction of the conditions necessary for the good life. — Michael Luntley

There exists, within both what is commonly called the classical and later “reconstructed” Liberal tradition (which, as a political philosophy, is related to but not identical with the ‘liberalism’ of contemporary politics used to describe the ideology of the Democratic Party in the U.S.), a preference for socialism beginning with John Stuart Mill. Consider, for example, the reasons Mill the younger viewed “the increasing impact of [capitalist] economic interests on public life and popular morality as a serious threat to liberty” in his normative critique of capitalism. Democratic principles of self-government, in the end, are not consistent with nor do they cohere well with capitalism. Mill “believed that a consumerist ethic and pervasive class interests were responsible for the moral and political weaknesses of capitalist society” [the converse of Bernard Mandeville’s defense of capitalism]. In the concise and exquisite summary provided by Nadia Urbinati, “Mill was a Marxist in reverse [this part is not wholly accurate, but we’ll leave that aside]. He interpreted socialism as an extension of self-government in the social realm to break the chain of fear and poverty that prevented individuals belonging to ‘the subordinate classes’ from enjoying liberty as both security and autonomy.” See Urbinati’s treatment of this topic in her book, Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

After Mill, and across the pond, we have the quintessential pragmatist American philosopher, John Dewey, whose democratic sensibilities were impeccable. Dewey’s “reconstructed Liberalism” invokes democratic values, principles, and practices by way of overcoming the constraints and constrictions of “capitalist democracy” (be it the liberal, corporatist or social democratic welfare state) in an argument for socialism. Capitalist democracy, over time, becomes more capitalist than democratic in both structure and ethos, as the imperatives and power of capital (hence capitalists) begin to intrude into every nook and cranny of personal and public life.* Only a consistent and coherent democratic socialism can resurrect the core values of Liberalism, as it gives meaning and expression to a democratic way of life which is essential to enhancing our individual and collective welfare and well-being. It may also prove conductive to personal fulfillment and widespread opportunities for self-realization if not eudaimonia.

Finally, we arrive at John Rawls, whose conception of “justice as fairness” translates, in his later work, into a preference for liberal democratic socialism, trumping both welfare state capitalism and what he terms (after the British economist James Meade) “property-owning” democracy as evidenced in his book, Justice as Fairness: Restatement (Harvard University Press, 2001). For a reconstruction of the basic argument, see William A. Edmundson’s John Rawls: Reticent Socialist (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

In pointing out this socialist stream within the Liberal tradition, we need not deny the progressive features of capitalism, historically speaking, features which Marx famously appreciated in his critique. What it does say is that should we care to expand the sphere of human freedom in a way that does justice to our potential for and capacities of individuation, self-realization, and general emancipation, as well as enhance our attempts to provide for the general welfare and well-being of everyone (what used to be termed the ‘common good’), perhaps even considerably increase the likelihood of achieving individual self-fulfillment and eudaimonia (in the deepest sense), then we run up against the intolerable, unjustifiable, and inequitable conditions and constraints of capitalism. By way of overcoming these conditions and constraints, we discover the myriad reasons that political philosophers and theorists, activists, utopians, communitarians of yesteryear, anarchists, and untold others have proffered on behalf of a viable alternative, namely (liberal) democratic socialism, a socialism that extends not only the methods and processes of democracy, but also its ethos, principles, and values throughout social realm (thus well beyond the realm of conventional liberal politics).

 * With regard to contemporary critiques, there is a large body of works one might cite, but I’ve chosen just a few notable examples below that have strongly influenced my understanding of the inherent weaknesses, limits, and constraints (the latter can be both constricting and enabling) of capitalism when viewed from the vantage points provided by social justice and the paramount principles of freedom, equality, and fraternity (the last in a non-gendered sense: although the term ‘solidarity’ is sometimes used in its place, it lacks, I think, the affective dimension and implications of fraternity). Hence the idiosyncratic character of this list. The authors do not, in toto, make for a strictly consistent critique, as they may disagree on this or that matter about something in Marx’s oeuvre, say, interpretive or methodological issues, normative priorities, what have you. In short, their accounting of what is living and what is dead—or what represents a proper separation of the wheat from the chaff—in the Marxist corpus is not a matter of consensus:

  • Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  • Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press, 1994 [1974]).
  • Chibber, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013).
  • Chimni, B.S. International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2017).
  • Cohen, G.A. History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx (Oxford University Press, 1988).
  • Cohen, G.A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  • Cohen, G.A. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense (Princeton University Press, 2000, expanded ed. [1978]).
  • Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race, and Class (Random House, 1981).
  • Elster, Jon. “Self-realization in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future (Arcade/Little, Brown & Co., 1989).
  • Harvey, David. Limits to Capital (Verso, 2006 ed. [1st ed., 1982]).
  • Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism (Open Court, 1990).
  • Offe, Claus. Contradictions of the Welfare State (MIT Press, 1984).
  • Offe, Claus. Disorganized Capitalism: Contemporary Transformations of Work and Politics (MIT Press, 1985).
  • Peffer, R.G. Marxism, Morality and Social Justice (Princeton University Press, 1990).
  • Przeworski, Adam. Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • Przeworski, Adam and John Sprague. Paper Stones: A History of Electoral Socialism (University of Chicago Press, 1986).
  • Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Zed Books, 1983).
  • Schweickart, David. Against Capitalism (Westview Press, 1996).
  • Shaikh, Anwar. Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010).
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 2008 ed. [1989]).


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