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Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic

Back in early March, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes’ snide declaration that California’s “ban” on plastic straws (or, more accurately, the rule that they may no longer be handed out by default but must be specifically requested) was the result of a creeping “Socialism” drew a great deal of (fair) criticism and (justified) derision from the political left.  As one small part of that criticism, Jason Harris, a high-school classmate (from back in the days of the Ancien Regime that pre-dated the ascension of the demon/saint Reagan), issued the following challenge on his Facebook page:

Okay, we’ve just learned that Republican leaders in Congress do not understand what “socialism” means. Do any republicans with little “r’s” in their name know the meaning of socialism enough to be able to explain to Mr. Nunes why he was so wildly wrong in his use of the term?

It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means.  But, it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.  For those reasons, I had been noodling for a while with the idea of writing a piece on the topic of what “Socialism” is and what it is not.  I had not yet, however, taken the time or made the effort to do so and it didn’t seem likely to reach the top of my to-do list any time soon.

Jason’s challenge spurred me to action.  Alas, it took me a while to get my vague and disorganized musings on the topic into some semblance of order (and to augment them with a bit of remedial research to fill the holes in my own thinking).  And, having finally done so, I was pleased enough with the result that I decided to make an attempt at formal publication, first at The Atlantic, then at National Review — not a likely outcome (the essay is, among its many other shortcomings, probably too long by a significant amount to meet their standards), but worth a shot.  Since both, as expected, declined to publish, I am now (finally) posting it here, more than 3 months after Jason’s original challenge.

As noted above, the piece is rather long, so I am also making it available as a .pdf for download to those who would rather read it offline.  It is organized into a brief introduction followed by five sections on different aspects of the overall theme:


[Update, 10/8/2019]: Based on a conversation with a reader, I’ve added a clarifying sentence in the  paragraph that follows the question, “What is Socialism?”   The intent was to provide better context for my (somewhat unconventional) framing.  If you downloaded a copy earlier, the current iteration is slightly different.

[Update, 4/12/2020]: Split the discussion of the Social Compact and “Nominal” Capitalism (and “nominal” Democracy) into two different titled sections.  Neither the text nor its ordering has changed (with the exception of a short ‘connecting’ paragraph that more properly belonged on the other side of the split); its structure has merely been bifurcated for emphasis and clarity.  As part of that, some of the heading titles have been updated, the better to reflect the subject matter of the sections.


24 June 2019

[Download in .pdf format: Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic]

Bernie Sanders, currently among the front-runners of Democratic Presidential primary candidates, is, and has been for many years, a self-declared Socialist (of the “Democratic” variety).  The same is true for freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the current darling of the American political Left and of political reporters across the country, and the villain du jour for the American political right.  Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other Democratic candidates for the Presidency, declare they are “Progressives”, not “Socialists”, but champion policies that are characterized, with some plausible rationale, as “Socialistic” by various self-declared ‘conservative’ political opponents.  And it has been recently reported that polls show a generally favorable attitude toward Socialism among so-called “millennials” and, even more so, among members of “Gen Z”.

Socialism, it seems, has – despite the colossal failure of the primary and prototypical Socialist state in the 1980s, despite the irrefutable evidence of the ongoing toll its predictable devolution continues to take in places like North Korea, and despite the recent disastrous collapse it has wrought upon once-prosperous Venezuela – been rescued from the “ash-heap of history” to evoke once more, in the voguish imagination, a promise of hopeful and populist rebellion against an unpalatable “Capitalist” status quo.

Or, perhaps, not.  Notwithstanding Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez’ willing and enthusiastic embrace of the Socialist label, there has been a concerted effort among other people on the Left to distance themselves and the Democratic party from that label by various declarations and demonstrations that their preferred policies are not “Socialist”, but something else.  Their primary argument is thus: Socialism prescribes that the “state” – meaning the government – “own” the means of production.  None of the proposals coming from the Left – even, at least so far, from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez – advocate directly for the government taking such ownership.  Q.E.D.  No nationalization of industry.  No Socialism.

So why do people like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez describe themselves as Socialists?  Why do they hesitate to acknowledge the failures of – and in many instances still defend – the self-described Socialist proclamations behind the authoritarian policies of the Venezuelan government, even amidst its dismal economic and cultural collapse?  Why do they, and many of their “I’m not a Socialist” colleagues, cite the most obviously Socialistic aspects of Nordic “Democratic Socialism” as their vision for the way society and government should be organized?   Are they wrong about what Socialism is and requires?  Or is that narrow formulation – Socialism equals government ownership of capital – too restrictive to capture the full breadth of the Socialist vision?

And why, at this juncture in American politics, is the question in play?  Is Capitalism really the root of all that ails us, or is there some deeper cultural source for our woes?  Is Socialism really a reasonable alternative to Capitalism?  Are either, or both, as incompatible as their critics claim with a pluralistic democratic polity that values individual dignity and personal autonomy as much as it values social justice and cultural concordance?

Next: What is Socialism?

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