Friday, 10 August 2018

Libertarianism and Revolutionary Socialism: Hostile Twins?

Earlier I suggested a tepid acceptance of the Democratic Socialists of America - or at least of some of its proposals. But I grow less sure of this as time goes on, and the emergence of a tendency within the DSA that should be all too familiar to long term students of the American left. Your friend and mine, Vox, recently ran an article on the DSA, following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's surprise victory over before longtime establishment Democrat Joe Crowley in the primary for the 14th Congressional District in New York.

What Vox revealed is genuinely concerning:
Like most socialist organizations, DSA believes in the abolition of capitalism in favor of an economy run either by “the workers” or the state — though the exact specifics of “abolishing capitalism” are fiercely debated by socialists. 
“The academic debates about socialism’s ‘meaning’ are huge and arcane and rife with disagreements, but what all definitions have in common is either the elimination of the market or its strict containment,” said Frances Fox Piven, a scholar of the left at the City University of New York and a former DSA board member. 
If the concept has yet to have an agreed upon definition, despite nearly 200 years of being in existence in its modern form, perhaps there's some wisdom in reserving our support?
In practice, that means DSA believes in ending the private ownership of a wide range of industries whose products are viewed as “necessities,” which they say should not be left to those seeking to turn a profit. According to DSA’s current mission statement, the government should ensure all citizens receive adequate food, housing, health care, child care, and education. DSA also believes that the government should “democratize” private businesses — i.e., force owners to give workers control over them — to the greatest extent possible.
Yikes.
But DSA members also say that overthrowing capitalism must include the eradication of “hierarchical systems” that lie beyond the market as well. As a result, DSA supports the missions of Black Lives Matter, gay and lesbian rights, and environmentalism as integral parts of this broader “anti-capitalist” program.
Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations; democratizing the political sphere to get genuine participatory democracy; democratizing the schools by challenging the hierarchical relationship between the teachers of the school and the students of the school,” said Jared Abbott, a member of DSA’s national steering committee. “Socialism is the democratization of all areas of life, including but not limited to the economy.
So, it's the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers and the early Radical Feminists all over again, is it?  Rule by the women's studies department?

God help us all.

It's important to stop right here and make some things clear. I'm all for socializing certain essential services, so as to guarantee their universal access to the population. Health care is a good example. Social housing, food supplements and so on for those who need them I'm likewise 100% in favor of. I'm iffy on a universal basic income, but an expansion of the earned income tax credit to help out low income people is something I'm completely down with.

Unions or some other institution that advocates for the working class, both in the workplace and in the halls of power are absolutely vital, and the unions in America are, with some exceptions, generally much weaker than they need to be, at least in the private sector. I likewise have no quarrel with worker and consumer owned enterprises. I've lived in tenant owned cooperative housing most of my life and have been well served by it. Worker owned enterprises like the Mondragon Corporation in Spain are good examples of workable alternatives to typical American corporate structures. I'd applaud any scheme to launch such experiments closer to home.

That said, management over large manufacturing and distribution organizations is an incredibly complex undertaking, and one for which I wonder if "the workers" as a collective whole are adequately qualified, especially if governance over the cooperative is to be direct rather than via an elected body of professional directors with a fiduciary duty towards the worker/shareholders. We should expect direct democratic governance to be the preference of the American left, given its historical propensity for utopian idealism.

Professional, executive levels of management require many years of rigorous education to qualify a person for, and not simply to keep the rank and file out of those positions. One wonders whether "the workers" actually even want the added degree of responsibility and work load that comes with doubling as management, especially under the more utopian ideals of direct democracy so beloved by the American left. The practice of co-determination - labor being able to elect representatives to corporate boards of directors is another matter, and one I'm generally in favor of.

Likewise, a strong case can be made that wealth and capital are too strongly concentrated in America at present, but the idea that those who take the risk to invest capital in a business venture are all completely evil parasites who feed off the blood of the workers is much more revolutionary romanticist mythology than reality. This can be true if your economy lacks sufficient protections for the rights of workers, borrowers, tenants and the like and capital is permitted to accumulate into increasingly few hands due to a lack of at least some redistributive measures, but it's not necessarily true of all capital investment. Without some kind of capital markets, economic growth and expansion would be severely hamstrung and I suspect this is a big part of why successful economies based solely on mutualist or socialist principles are non existent both at present and throughout history.

Besides, why throw away so wonderful a tool when you can make it work for the benefit of all, via something like a sovereign wealth fund in which all citizens could have equal shares, or that the state could use to supplement public finance?

When there's serious talk of "abolishing capitalism" or "ending the private ownership of a wide range of industries" or "elimination of the market" or "forcing owners to give workers control over" private businesses, this is when, in my humble opinion, things have gone too far. Untrammeled socialism is no better, and may even be worse, than untrammeled capitalism, we just have far less experience with it in the west. While the need for regulatory safeguards should be obvious, the capacity of individual citizens to own productive capital and to buy and sell goods and services on a free market are crucial to human liberty and essential for social prosperity, and failing to recognize this has been a very grave failing of regressive leftism during its history.

By itself, the capacity for consumers or workers to "vote with their feet" as it were and find another product or employer is a capacity that libertarians and fiscal conservatives make far too much of - with little capital or purchasing power, working and middle class individuals have little influence this way and it would take an organized move of this sort - a strike or boycott essentially - to truly influence the policies of a large and powerful corporation, and such organized efforts have never been things that conservatives and libertarians have been fans of.

But historically, neither have been authoritarian socialists, at least while in power. And socialism, past a certain point, tends to default to authoritarianism, whatever the initial intentions of its theoreticians may have been. Transforming societies to the extent they propose naturally requires a government with very far reaching powers. The capacity to buy from or work for the competition is a right a lot of people died for back in the dark days behind the Iron Curtain, and not without good reason. It is one tool with which the working and middle classes can hold business accountable, and this option would be lost in the absence of the market as a means of distribution. Why would the defenders of worker's rights want that?

Will the DSA take things to such extremes? Not likely. America's constitutional system of checks and balances and libertarian tradition would likely mitigate the worst excesses. The greater likelihood is that they'll end up being the Libertarian Party of the left: a loud, tight and small ideological grouping too obsessed with internal purity spiraling to become a serious contender for political power. But their rhetoric does concern me, and if you really are a believer in the rights of workers, consumers and above all individuals, it should concern you too.

The Vox article continues:
Examples may help clarify the difference. While both DSA and some left-wing Democrats agree that the government should provide universal health insurance, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize hospitals, providers, and the rest of the health care system as well. While both will work toward higher taxes on Wall Street, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize the entire financial sector. While left-wing Democrats believe in criminal justice reform, some DSA members are calling for the outright abolition of the police and prison systems. While both DSA and left-wing Democrats support reforms to get money out of politics, some in DSA see capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with genuinely free and fair elections. In practice, however, the two wind up ultimately taking the same positions.
If the DSA would go this far, it goes too far. The DSA may see capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with free and fair elections, and I agree there's a lot of tension between the two now and corporate influence in politics is far too great in America at present, I also see the above description of the DSA as being fundamentally incompatible with a free and democratic society. What would happen, after all, if the majority of voters actually wanted some semblance of a free market preserved, and wish only for protections against the predatory excesses of robber baron capitalism, as opposed to having their own capacity to make money be completely hamstrung?
Further confusing matters is Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist” but supports a policy program that would essentially leave capitalism intact. His candidacy spurred a dramatic growth in DSA membership, and DSA backed him, but the Vermont senator has also referred to himself a “New Deal” Democrat who views Lyndon Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt — rather than Karl Marx or American socialist Norman Thomas — as his true ideological predecessors.
Let's hear it for Bernie Sanders then, and the kind of New Deal Democrat he professes to be. While I do believe Marx had some useful insights into the flawed nature of capitalism, revolutionary overthrow of it by either the ballot box or the gun carries its own huge set of problems, and there are certainly far better examples that we could be following.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes
Not what you expected out of me, perhaps? Maybe. But don't misunderstand me: I'm not channeling the spirit of Ayn Rand here. I merely point out that the equal and opposite stupid extreme to what Rand stood for is, well, also stupid. What's unfortunate is that the language of economic freedom has been appropriated by libertarians, and deployed to defend the equally misguided notion that "individuals" (read: capital) be above legally constituted sovereign organizations entirely. A useful line of rationale if one's intent is to protect capital from any and all populist demands for protection against its abuses.

What is very crucial to understand is the necessary role of the state in regulating and limiting institutional power so as to protect individual rights and freedoms from both private and public abuses.

Limited government does not necessarily equal small government. It means government that is subordinate to law, and insures that non governmental actors in society are also subordinate to law. It doesn't mean that government can't regulate or even own capital. However, it does mean that the government cannot stop individuals from owning capital all together, either alone or in tandem with other individuals in some or another kind of corporate entity. It may decide to nationalize and thus own some particular enterprise or industry or another. This is no violation of anyone's rights, since nobody has any right to any share in ownership of any business or industry, as any libertarian worth his salt would be more than happy to tell you. But it absolutely must not forbid its citizens any ownership over its productive capacity whatsoever. It's crucial now that these nuanced distinctions be properly grasped.

It means that whatever government does, it does via a procedure that is transparent and respectful of predetermined limits on its power, as set forth in a constitution or similar document. It means that those who hold government office must face the voters on occasion, and step down if defeated in elections. It means that what was once nationalized may also be privatized, and vice versa. Which is the better option is by no means consistent, and it's worth noting that the kinds of people and regimes that hew strongly to one extreme or the other tend to be violent and authoritarian. Having looked at both Castro's Cuba and Pinoche's Chile, I can say that I don't relish the thought of living in either one. The fact that just about every avid Marxist and avid Randroid I've ever engaged with personally are also horribly unpleasant and peevish people doesn't help either cause much either.

By using the mantle of "freedom" and "individual rights" as a moral rationalization for delegitimizing any role for the state in engaging in some regulation or even ownership of capital, redistribution of wealth and protection of the population from the harmful effects of untrammeled capitalism, the libertarians have opened the door for the 21st century's relegitimization of untrammeled capitalism's ugly socialist twin, and the far left's own equally spurious claims that individualistic conceptions of freedom and rights are mere apologetics for the power of wealth and privilege.

I'd like to think the excesses of the DSA can simply be chalked up to the sudden and dramatic reemergence of economic leftism - socialism even - into the mainstream of public discourse in the US body politic following Bernie Sander's 2016 presidential bid. Hopefully, the more extreme and untenable positions will be dropped from the program over time. This is what happened with other laborite and social democratic parties outside the east bloc during the 20th century, after all. One can only hope.

What this should make even more clear than it has been thus far why something akin to another New Deal is so gravely needed. It would be a huge mistake to think that the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes were crypto-communists hell bent on bringing Soviet central planning to the free world by democratic means. They weren't. Their interest was in saving the public from the excesses of capitalism. Because if that doesn't happen, there will be nothing to save the public from the excesses of socialism.

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