It’s Time to Give Socialism a Try

By Elizabeth Bruenig/ Washington Post/ March 6, 2017


In the United States, we’ve arrived at a pair of mutually exclusive convictions: that liberal, capitalist democracies are guaranteed by their nature to succeed and that in our Trumpist moment they seem to be failing in deeply unsettling ways. For liberals — and by this I mean inheritors of the long liberal tradition, not specifically those who might also be called progressives — efforts to square these two notions have typically combined expressions of high anxiety with reassurances that, if we only have the right attitude, everything will set itself aright.

Hanging on and hoping for the best is certainly one approach to rescuing the best of liberalism from its discontents, but my answer is admittedly more ambitious: It’s time to give socialism a try.

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. (As the leftist scholar Mark Fisher recounted: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”) This assumption is reflected in the blindsided, startled unease of liberals in the era of President Trump: “There are moments when everything I have come to believe in — reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation — seem as if they are in eclipse,” Andrew Sullivan recently lamented in New York magazine. “For the foreseeable future, nationalism is likely to remain a defining political force,” Yascha Mounk fretted this weekend in the New York Times; “liberals should strive to make nationalism as inclusive as possible,” he warned. 

Against this backdrop of liberal disquietude, the notion that everything either will be or already is all right, granted the correct attitude —  that “we’re better than this,” as Joe Biden confidently declares on his newly launched political action committee’s website — appears particularly frail. It’s hard to square the late-Obama-era insistence that “America is already great” with the palpable sense that something — in the climate, in the economy, in society, in politics, in the wellspring of American ideas — is going badly wrong. What to do? Sullivan’s solution to liberalism’s peril is contemplative “self-doubt and self-knowledge”; Mounk’s is to “domesticate [nationalism] as best we can.”

But my sense is that while Sullivan, Mounk and all the other concerned liberal observers are right that something is wrong with the state of American liberalism, the problem is much deeper than they allow. I don’t think business-as-usual but better is enough to fix what’s broken here. I think the problem lies at the root of the thing, with capitalism itself.

In fact, both Sullivan’s and 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. 

That capitalism is inimical to the best of liberalism isn’t a new concern: It’s a long-standing critique, present in early socialist thought. That both capitalism and liberal governance have changed since those days without displacing the criticism suggests that it’s true in a foundational way.  

Not to be confused for a totalitarian nostalgist, I would support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture.

I don’t think that every problem can be traced back to capitalism: There were calamities and injustices long before capital, and I’ll venture to say there will be after. But it seems to me that it’s time for those who expected to enjoy the end of history to accept that, though they’re linked in certain respects, capitalism seems to be at odds with the harmonious, peaceful, stable liberalism of midcentury dreams. I don’t think we’ve reached the end of history yet, which means we still have the chance to shape the future we want. I suggest we take it. 

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2 Responses to It’s Time to Give Socialism a Try

  1. List of X says:

    Well, I lived in a country that pretty much got rid of all capitalism. Although that country was also famous for a totalitarian government, I don’t think the experiment with 95% socialism would have been a success even with a democratic government. First of all, even a fully socialist state still uses money as the means of paying for labor and goods, which means that the capitalist tendencies of people to accrue more wealth to buy more comfortable living are still determining the people’s behavior. And when the government pays everyone’s salary, as the monopolist of the labor market, it feels less pressure to pay decent salaries, since it’s not going to lose it’s best workers to anyone. So, as the joke of that time went, “they pretend what they pay us is a salary, and we pretend that what we do is work”. As a result, quality of work and productivity was terrible and led to constant deficits, black markets, corruption (you have to know a connected someone to get certain products) stealing from workplace was widespread – and I doubt all this was a sole result of totalitarianism.
    What we need is a balance between socialism and capitalism – there are things where competition is useful, like consumer goods or services, and these are the ones capitalism should handle. But there are things that are either not practical to involve competition (utilities), or unethical to rely on a profit motive, such as healthcare, military, judiciary, or the need tp provide certain service to as many people as possible, not just to those where it’s profitable, such as schools and roads – all those could be the domain of socialism.

    • What you say makes total sense to me. Both capitalism and socialism have their pros and cons. A balance between the two is the answer, it’s just a question of how much of each. All countries are a mix of both capitalism and socialism. In the U.S. there is too much capitalism (especially the crony kind). Steering the U.S. toward a more balanced economy (more socialism) is called for in order to repair the aristocracy we have become, and return us to more of a democracy. Getting there will not be easy, maybe damn near impossible. But that is a goal I would support.

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