Friday, May 1, 2009

Right, that's not socialism (but neither is that)

As noted earlier in these pages, bedrock conservatives seem obsessed with the need to tar, first, candidate, and now President Obama with the brush of "socialism." Sociologist Alan Wolfe comes to Obama's defense (well, sort of). In the April 1 (can one hope that there was at least a hint of irony?) issue of The New Republic, he offers us an analysis entitled, "Obama vs. Marx. Hint: One of them's not a socialist." [partial/talkback link; the TNR website is undergoing a restructuring, so I cannot link directly to the full article at the moment]

Well, that's certainly true. For all of Obama's emotional attachment to the left and its ethos, most of his concrete policy positions, as we have remarked, and as should have been clear to anyone with eyes to see, were actually more conservative than Hillary Clinton's to the extent that he was more inclined to rely on private initiative and the market.

At any rate, citing the widespread predictions of socialism in the cover stories of magazines from right to left--National Review's "Our Socialist Future," Newsweek's "We Are All Socialists Now," and The Nation's "Reinventing Capitalism, Reimagining Socialism," Wolfe wisely challenges the more simplistic of these arguments on a number of grounds. It should be obvious to anyone, for example, that our tax rates--whatever we may think of them when we get out the checkbook or look at the paystub--are far lower than those in most advanced industrialized countries (which, by the way, provide far greater social services to their citizens), and that it is a little bit mysterious why an increase of government spending as a share of GDP from 20 to only 22 percent should signal the red apocalypse. Fine. Likewise, he correctly points to the temporary rather than permanent nature of the planned government involvement in the banking and automotive industries, as well as the private sector-oriented approach to health care and climate change.

He thus argues,
What these ideas have in common is, first, an attachment to economic freedom that no self-respecting socialist would countenance. In fact, most of Obama's measures are designed to save, not destroy, the instruments of capitalism--businesses and the markets in which they compete. Should liberals get everything they want, liberals will once again--as has happened so often in the United States--gone a long way toward rescuing capitalism from its worst excesses.
True indeed, especially the latter part, which ought to count as the real parallel to the New Deal, to refer to that dreadfully overworked and overwrought comparison. The former, however, is more debatable, for Wolfe, who ought to know better, trots out the old and simplistic notion that liberalism is about freedom and socialism about equality, and that the two are irreconcilable. To be sure, there is a kernel of truth in that, but an acorn is not an oak.

Thus, he logically continues,
Moreover, it has for some time now been established that the moderate use of government to improve the lives of large numbers of citizens, while producing minor increases in equality, is primarily about giving citizens more liberty. People who, with the help of government, need not postpone medical care or can avoid going into lifetime debt to pay for it are freer people. Progressive taxation, especially the way Obama talks about it, is not about confiscating the wealth of the rich bit about giving those at the bottom of the ladder more opportunity. Modest enhancements of what has been called 'positive liberty' do not come anywhere close to socialism; they instead make liberalism's benefits more widespread.
Well, yeah, if you think so. Here's where things get illogical in the larger scheme of things. Only Wolfe's latter two statements make real sense. I'm sorry, but for most people, access to health care is about equal rights. Call it freedom, if you will, but freedom without practical opportunity is meaningless. I am "free" to shop for any house I like in the age of anti-discrimination laws, but if I can't afford the mortgage, then that "freedom" doesn't mean a hell of a lot in practice. And what is freedom, after all? It certainly is not absolute. Professor Wolfe has no doubt read Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. (For that matter, even Aristotle believed in unequal but limited property.) The moment we agree to live in society, we relinquish some of our liberty, and it is by and large a good thing. The issue has to do with the price, not the fact.

Wolfe thus manages to be right and wrong about a lot of things. He's right to say that "In the United States, liberalism is the alternative to which we turn when conservatism fails" (neither the church nor traditional statism appeals, he says) and to identify liberalism with "dedication to human rights" that "conservatives such as Bush and Cheney were prepared to dispense with." He is right to say that "Socialism was born in conditions that no longer exist," and that "The story of socialism's decline is essentially a European story," and to note the stepping back from collectivization and class struggle on the part of New Labour (for others of us, the turning point was the German Godesberg Program of 1959). Fair enough. But to say, "In its most radical form, the one associated with Marx and Engels, it [socialism; JW] had far more in common with European romanticism than with the moderate reformism of a John Stuart Mill. . . ." Sure, if you set the comparison any way you want. The late Michel Foucault famously said that, by his lights, both Marx and Mill were playing in the same wading-pool. Most analogies to Romanticism are meaningless and concocted by those who have no concept of the term. The only reason an educated and rational person could nod assent to the equation of Marx and Engels with Romanticism--which they despised and associated with reactionary politics--should be extreme fatigue or excessive imbibing or both.

Maybe the problem is that Wolfe is a sociologist rather than a historian. He begins by talking about common origins of liberalism and socialism in the era of the Peninsular War in 1812 (one could quibble with that, too). The point is: why should we owe any more fealty to the term or concept of liberalism of 1812 than that of the socialism of 1848? Both ideologies and movements have undergone drastic changes with various local variations. Why is New Labour's reformed social democracy any less authentic than Obama's updated liberalism? Neither Mill nor Marx would recognize his heirs today. That should be neither surprising nor entirely bad.

Wolfe concludes,
We cannot at this point know what his [i.e. Obama's; JW] legacy will be. But we do know what it will not be. Eight years of Obama, and the United States has its best chance to return to the liberalism that has long defined its heritage. There would be no greater blow to socialism--in America, in Europe, or anywhere else--than for this venture to succeed.
Striking a blow at socialism? I didn't realize that was his chief job, and if Wolfe really believes what he is saying, then it is flogging a dead horse.

John B. Judis, writing a week later, responds, "Socialism Lives":

Noting that the old new left in the '60s used to argue about how soon socialism would arrive and that he was counted a dire pessimist because he postponed the blissful future until the mid-'70s, he cites a new poll showing that Americans prefer capitalism to socialism by 53 to 20 percent, although people under thirty vote for capitalism at 37 percent and socialism at 33 percent, while 30 percent "are weighing the alternatives." (Of course, as I regularly tell my wide-eyed students: people who favored a "third way" between "socialism" and "capitalism" in the 1930s were called either naive or: "fascists.")
Instead, what those 30 percent of under-thirties probably mean by "socialism" is a much greater degree of government--and public--control of private corporations and of the market. That would put the United States closer, say, to Sweden, France, or Germany, but would not put it anywhere near the old Soviet Union, which tried to abolish the market itself. Most of all, I imagine, it's an expression of extreme disillusionment with the magic of the market as preached by Republicans and some Democrats as well.

It's also, I think, not an incorrect understanding of socialism. As a political philosophy, socialism predated Marx as any reader of "The Communist Manifesto" or of "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" is aware. In America, too, there were Christian socialists like Walter Rauschenbusch, who was an important influence on Martin Luther King, and prairie socialists in Kansas or Oklahoma who never envisioned giving up their farms for socialism. The point that runs through all these many varieties was not collectivism, but instead the subjection of large banks and businesses to social priorities: "people before profits," as Bill Clinton said in 1992. And that's what those 20 percent of Americans in the Rasmussen Poll seem to be opting for.
Not unproblematic, either. Still, subjection of private interests to social priorities: shorter and smarter than Wolfe's analysis, in my humble opinion.

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