Monday, February 10, 2020

What is socialism? (part 1)

Socialism meme
While the possible motivations behind this meme (our picture above) are likely sincere and well-intended, the meme itself is misleading because inaccurate and confused. As Chris Maisano explained in short contribution to The ABCs of Socialism (Verso and the Jacobin Foundation, 2016) when similar memes circulated the last time Sanders ran for President, we find listed policies, programs, and institutions as “ostensibly socialist programs whose only commonality is that Uncle Sam carries them all out:” 

“Some directly serve social needs and involve some measure of income redistribution (public libraries, welfare, the WIC program [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children], Social Security, food stamps). Some seem thrown in for no good reason…. Others are basic operational activities that any modern government, regardless of its ideological orientation, would carry out (the census, fire departments, garbage and snow removal, sewers,1 street lighting). And still others involve the vast apparatus of coercion and force (police departments, the FBI, the CIA, the military, courts, prisons and jails).”

Several of the items listed in this meme do serve to remind us that a number of significant institutionalized programs and entitlements we now take for granted were once advocated by socialists (and social democrats), both here and abroad. In the words of John Nichols, “Socialist ideas, now so frequently dismissed not just by the Tories of the present age but by political and media elites that diminish and deny our history, have shaped and strengthened America across the past two centuries. Those ideas were entertained and at times embraced by presidents who governed a century before Barack Obama was born.”2  Maisano continues: 

“In a country as deeply and reflexively anti-statist as the United States [of course there are contradictions here, as the military-industrial complex and the criminal justice system attest], the identification of socialism with government is perhaps the worst possible rhetorical strategy the Left could adopt. ‘Like the DMV? Then you’ll love socialism!’ isn’t a slogan that will win many converts. More importantly, conflating all government action with socialism forces us to defend many of the most objectionable forms of state activity, including those that we would want to abolish in a free and just society.”

More harmful and insidious in both intention and effect is the recent “red-baiting” by putative liberals who should know better. The most appalling instance of this comes courtesy of recent comments by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, as reported here by Peter Wade for Rolling Stone, (February 8, 2020): 

“MSNBC’s Chris Matthews’ fear of socialism sparked an unbelievable post-debate rant about a possible Bernie Sanders presidency where he suggested the candidate might have cheered socialist-led executions in Central Park during the Cold War. Matthews began by praising Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Friday debate performance but then veered off by warning viewers and a live studio audience about his personal views on socialism. The host suggested that Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders might have supported the violence of past socialist leaders. Matthews said he’d keep his opinions on socialism to himself, but quickly reversed himself.

‘I have my own views of the word “socialist” and I’d be glad to share them with you in private. They go back to the early 1950s. I have an attitude about them. I remember the Cold War,’ he said. Matthews continued, ‘I have an attitude towards [Fidel] Castro. I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering, okay?’ Then Matthews made the connection to Sanders, claiming ignorance about whether or not the candidate did, in fact, support violence and public executions. 

‘So, I have a problem with people who take the other side. I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years,’ Matthews said. ‘I don’t know what he means by socialist.’ When MSNBC’s Chris Hayes interrupted saying that Sanders is ‘pretty clearly’ in favor of the type of socialism found in countries like Denmark, which Matthews had said was harmless, Matthews again suggested Sanders might have supported violent regimes, asking, ‘Is he? How do you know? Did he tell you that?’” [….]

This is the kind of ranting and raving rhetorical bullshit we’ve come to expect from Republicans, their devotees, and the President, but to hear it from a longtime liberal is quite disconcerting, to put it mildly. While Sanders has avowed identification with democratic socialism, his actual political views and policy proposals—as well as his record as a politician—are more accurately characterized, as Chris Hayes insinuated above, as social democratic, which is too often mistaken for or confused with democratic socialism in contemporary American politics (social democracy of course had its origins among democratic socialists on European soil). 

And to make matters worse, or at least adding insult to injury, we now have another MSNBC veteran, Joe Scarborough, nodding his head in agreement when former Democratic strategist James Carville screams about the “leftward lurching” of the Democratic Party (having conveniently forgotten how far to the Right the party has moved across the political spectrum over several decades), a lurch that’s made him “scared to death” of the November 2020 election. Carville doesn’t like Sanders’ policy proposals and is frightened by what he tendentiously describes as his “ideological purity.” Carville is shrewd enough, however, to state he’ll vote for Sanders if he’s the party’s nominee: “Look, Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat. He’s never been a Democrat. He’s an ideologue. And I’ve been clear about this: If Bernie is the nominee, I’ll vote for him. No question. I’ll take an ideological fanatic over a career criminal any day. But he’s not a Democrat.” There is a robustly conservative and calcified wing of the Democratic Party (its contribution to neoliberalism) that has dominated the national political scene for some time now, and today it is compulsively chanting “Sanders can’t beat Donald Trump” and “He’s not electable” in the hope that it will act as a self-fulfilling prophecy or culminate in successful wishful thinking.

It is painfully clear that neither the principal hosts of MSNBC or CNN, nor their typical talking head guest pundits, have any knowledge whatsoever of liberal democratic socialism

*       *       *

In a future post, I will recommend a short list of books I believe essential to thinking carefully, thoughtfully, and critically about what socialism has been, should be and yes, can be. For now, I will provide an all-too-brief synopsis that, for me at any rate, gets to the heart and soul of what socialism means. Minimally speaking, it takes us beyond “capitalist democracy,” that is, beyond the Welfare State in its three principal forms: liberal (including its most tenuous form: ‘neoliberal’), corporatist, and social democratic. Under socialism, the commodity logic, vagaries and ‘predatory nature’ (G.A. Cohen) of markets will no longer rule (directly and indirectly) our lives. 

Socialism endeavors to instantiate the sundry benefits (with corresponding burdens) of representative, participatory, and deliberative democracy throughout all sectors of society (in the first instance, the commanding heights of economic production, corporations, banking, and other institutions of political economy). It is especially important with regard to principles of planning (at all levels of government or governance) and investment decisions, neither of which should be the institutional or structural prerogative of any de facto or de jure economic or political elite. The principles of egalitarianism and notions of community (as the late G.A. Cohen argued, one fundamental requirement of which is that ‘people care about, and, when necessary and possible, care for, one another, and too, care that they care about one another’) are paramount, the former an attempt to correct for disabilities, disadvantages (class and otherwise, including all those for which the person cannot be held reasonably responsible, be they natural or social) and (eliminable) vulnerabilities, while simultaneously enhancing a person’s capabilities and possibilities for individuation and self-realization (or what some term‘ self-actualization,’ the latter depending in the first instance on the former) as indicative of progress in individual freedom and moral autonomy.3 

Socialist modes of organization depend on clarity with regard to principles of socialism. And before we spell out such principles, we should state forthrightly that socialism involves presuppositions and assumptions about human nature (e.g., that are, as we say, open-ended and ‘perfectibilist’ in the sense intended by both Godwin and Condorcet, in other words, this does not entail the achievement of ‘perfection’) and psychology as expressed in a number of different worldviews throughout history and around the globe. This does not imply anything heroic or especially virtuous on the part of everyone in a would-be socialist society, given that things are organized so as to take advantage of the better parts of our nature.

By way of conclusion, I quote from Jerry Cohen: “Any attempt to realize the socialist ideal runs up against entrenched capitalist power and individual human selfishness. Politically serious people must take those obstacles seriously. But they are not reasons to disparage the ideal itself. [....] The socialist aspiration is to extend community and justice to the whole of our economic life [where the ‘economic’ is understood in the sense of Marxian political economy, thus a much richer conception than that which dominates conventional economics].” 

1. Yes, it is true that there was once something christened “sewer socialism” in this country, as socialist mayors in Milwaukee fought for sewers, among other things for the poor and working class. “Local political opponents dubbed these mayors ‘sewer socialists,’ a term that was soon embraced by them and their supporters. ‘Some Eastern smarties called ours a “Sewer Socialism,” wrote Emil Seidel, the first of the mayors, in office from 1910 to 1912. ‘Yes, we wanted sewers in the workers’ homes; but we wanted much, oh, so very much more than sewers.’ He and his successors, Daniel W. Hoan (1916–40) and Frank Zeidler (1948–60), sought to clean the city—both literally and metaphorically—tackling corruption while improving public works system and public health. [….] Seidel, who won the 1910 mayor’s race by a landslide, perhaps spelled out the platform most clearly in his memoir: ‘We wanted our workers to have pure air, we wanted them to have sunshine, we wanted planned homes, we wanted living wages; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational education; we wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness. And, we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music dance song and joy for all.’” From Linda Poon’s article for CityLab, “Who Were Milwaukee’s ‘Sewer Socialist’ Mayors?” (March 13, 2019).
2. John Nichols, TheSWord: A Short History of and American TraditionSocialism (Verso, 2011): xii.
3. It perhaps cannot go without saying, but it appears that many socialists, at least those with an intellectual disposition or philosophical bent, and others more intuitively or inchoately, believe that socialism can contribute to human happiness or eudaimonia (see the passage from former Milwaukee mayor Emil Seidel in the first note above), that it is capable of providing a necessary (thus not necessarily sufficient) condition for self-fulfillment and meaningful moral autonomy. Indeed, I would argue that socialism is a species of what David L. Norton defines as “eudaimonism,” which in turn, is a variety of moral individualism, and “unlike some forms of individualism it does not conceive of individuals as ‘atomic,’ that is, as inherently asocial entities [I happen to think such forms are fairly rare, at least in political philosophy, so this may be a straw man, although solipsistic ‘bootstrap-pulling’ and ‘self-made man’ ideological myths obdurately persist in conservative and libertarian circles]. [….] [E]udaimonism recognizes persons as inherently social beings from the beginning of their lives to the end but contends that the appropriate form of association undergoes transformation. As dependent beings, persons in the beginning of their lives are social products, receiving not merely material necessities but their very identity from the adult community. The principle of association is the essential uniformity of associates, usually expressed in terms of basic needs. Subsequent moral development leads to self-identification and autonomous, self-directed living, but is associative as an interdependence based in a division of labor with respect to realization of values. The principle of this form of association is the complementarity of perfected differences. Accordingly, the meaning of ‘autonomy,’ if the term is to be applicable, must be consistent with interdependence. … [It thus] means, not total self-sufficiency, but determining for oneself what one’s contributions to others should be and what use to make of the values provided by the self-fulfilling lives of others. [In such cases,] [t]o follow the lead of another person in a matter he or she understands better than we is not a lapse from autonomy to heteronomy but a mark of wisdom. [….] [M]oral development leads to self-identification and autonomous, self-directed living, but is associative as an interdependence based in a division of labor with respect to the realization of values. The self-fulfilling life of each person requires more values than he or she personally realizes and is dependent upon other for these values. The principle of this form of association is the complementarity of perfected differences. Accordingly this meaning of ‘autonomy,’ if the term is to be applicable, must be consistent with interdependence. [This] means, not total self-sufficiency, but determining for oneself what one’s contributions to others should be and what use to make of the values provided by the self-fulfilling lives of others. To follow the lead of another person in a matter he or she understands better than we is not a lapse from autonomy into heteronomy but a mark of wisdom. [….] [T]he self here is conceived of as a task, a piece of work, namely the work of self-actualization. And self-actualization is the progressive objectivizing of subjectivity, ex-pressing it into the world. This recognition exposes as a fallacy the modern use of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ as mutually exclusive categories. Every human impulse in subjective in its origin and objective in its intentional outcome, and because its outcome is within it implicitly from its inception, there is nothing in personhood that is ‘merely subjective,’ that is, subjective in the exclusive sense. Narcissism (with which individualism is sometimes charged) is a pathology that tries to amputate from subjectivity its objective issue. It is real enough, and was a propensity of some forms of romantic individualism that judged experience by the occasions it affords for the refinement of the individual’s sensibilities. But the supposition that individualism is narcissistic subjectivism represents (again) a failure to recognize divergent kinds of individualism. For eudaimonistic individualism, it is the responsibility of persons to actualize objective value in the world.” Socialism expands both the range and type of opportunities individuals acting alone and in concert (as members of civic groups and communities) have for fulfilling their responsibility to realize or actualize objective value(s) in the world.” Please see David L. Norton’s Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (University of California Press, 1991).


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