While I’m working on some other pieces, here’s something about Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent WaPo column, “It’s time to give socialism a try.”
As you might imagine, the reaction from the right was basically, “No thanks.” HotAir’s Ed Morrissey, for example, provided the standard economic and historical arguments against socialism. I find myself in general agreement with them, as far as they go.
But there are two related points Bruenig raises which are worthy of a response.
First, she observes: “Contemporary supporters of liberalism are often subject, I think, to what I call ‘everyday Fukuyama-ism’ — the idea, explicitly stated or not, that the end of the Cold War really signaled the end of history, and that we can only look forward to the unceasing rise of Western-style liberal-democratic capitalism.”
Second, she observes:
“In fact, both [Andrew] Sullivan’s and [Yascha] Mounk’s complaints — that Americans appear to be isolated, viciously competitive, suspicious of one another and spiritually shallow; and that we are anxiously looking for some kind of attachment to something real and profound in an age of decreasing trust and regard — seem to be emblematic of capitalism, which encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing.) Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.”
Morrissey responds to this second point by noting Bruening “provides absolutely no evidence for her conclusions that capitalism causes shallowness, isolation, and a lack of ‘public morality’,” which again is true as far as it goes… but importantly, that doesn’t meant the claim is unique to “prior socialist thought,” either.
I’ve been making my way through Jonah Goldberg’s upcoming book, Suicide of the West — and enjoying it a lot — and it speaks to Bruenig’s points at length, from a variety of angles. The book is apparently still on embargo (Hugh Hewitt notwithstanding), so I will be a bit general in my response here, based on the Amazon description of the book, related things I’ve already written and things Goldberg has discussed in Liberal Fascism and on The Remnant.
What we think of as classical liberalism, including economic freedom, emerges from the philosophy exemplified by English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. It tends to think of people as a species where individuals act in their self-interest. It seeks to create a space where people can pursue their own happiness (or meaning), but creates institutions that diffuse power to mitigate the malign influences of self-interest and faction (for more on that, I recommend the Constitutionally Speaking podcast hosted by Jay Cost and Luke Thompson).
However, both before and after the Enlightenment (and in the French Enlightenment and its descendants), there is a view that runs in the opposite direction. It views human beings as essentially noble savages who find meaning in the tribe. The impulse in human nature to find meaning in unity has gone by any number of names in different vessels — romanticism, nationalism, communism, socialism, fascism, collectivism, populism, etc. And since the Enlightenment, whatever label it has taken, it is sold in part as a response to individualism, as a response to the alienation people can feel in any system that seems to privilege the individual over the tribe. (Alienation predates the Enlightenment, but that’s a much longer story, and it’s why I and others have noted the similarity of identity politics to religion.)
If you are looking for evidence that modernity contributes to alienation, one need look no further than the periodic eruption of the various movements or philosophies grounded on the idea. Or, to put it bluntly, to the fact that people like Bruenig would still look to socialism in the face of the historical evidence Morrissey compiled. People gravitate to these movements (sometimes ideological, sometimes not) because they are based on exploiting that sense of alienation among a swath of the public at any given moment. The tribal desire for unity is such that the historical record of totalitarian systems doesn’t matter to them.
Classical liberalism — and capitalism — are, in the vast sweep of human history, relatively new concepts. And they have improved the lot of humanity on countless dimensions, as noted in Steven Pinker’s useful (if flawed) Enlightenment Now. But as Goldberg (among others) has noted elsewhere, there is no impersonal force of History that we will inevitably move toward. If humanity wants to preserve and improve on the gains we have made under a regime of classical liberalism and capitalism, we will have to work for it. Those who believe in the End of History have been too lazy and too often incompetent. (If only there were more Morrisseys running our institutions.) There will always be people like Rousseau or Marx or Mussolini who want to overthrow the regime in favor of some form of totalitarian subjugation to the will of a tribe.
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