A Real World Democratic Socialism


Washington Post opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig recently offered a philosophically rich and polemically unapologetic defense of socialism in a debate at LibertyCon, a conference in Washington D.C. for young libertarians. She followed up on her debate contribution a few days later with a column in the Post entitled “It’s time to give socialism a try.” I find myself in warm sympathy with much of Bruenig’s argument, and with her wise concerns about some of the pernicious features of our current economic institutions and practices. But a few aspects of her critique of contemporary capitalism give me pause. Some of the problems Bruenig identifies, it seems to me, are problems endemic to complex, modern economic life as such, problems that might therefore be inherent in any economic system that modern humans are likely to find acceptable. These are then problems that no politically realistic socialism can promise to fix.

But there certainly are large and important problems that a move in the direction of some form of democratic socialism can fix, or at least so I believe. In this piece, I want to address, critically and constructively, some of the issues raised by Bruenig’s discussion, before offering some thoughts of my own about the promise and potential of a politically realistic democratic socialism.

What exactly is the socialism that Bruenig wants to defend? She recognizes that “socialism” denotes a broad spectrum of thought, but lists her own priorities as follows:

  1. To de-commodify labor, and as many other domains of life as possible;
  2. To reduce or eliminate workers’ alienation from their labor, society, and themselves;
  3. To reduce or the vast social and political inequality brought about by capitalism;
  4. To diminish or destroy capital’s control over politics, society and the economy.

I will have nothing to say about the third item, because I have no reservations of any kind about it. So, yea and amen to that one. I also don’t want to challenge the fourth item, other than to add the clarification that Bruenig almost certainly means to refer to privately owned capital by “capital” in this this context. In a socialist economy, there would still be plenty of capital, but much or all of it would be held in common and controlled democratically, rather than held privately.

I want to focus mainly on problems raised by the first and second items on Bruenig’s list. Bruenig frames her own defense of socialism around a critique of capitalism, and she has several interesting things to say about the moral and social harms inflicted upon us by contemporary capitalist society. But some of the most important harms she herself cites are, it seems to me, not redressed by the four socialist action items on her list.

Bruenig does not define “capitalism.” But perhaps we can start with the idea that capitalism is an approach to economic organization based on (i) the private ownership of productive enterprises and the capital resources they employ, (ii) extensive entrepreneurial liberty in the employment of those resources, (iii) socioeconomic relations defined – outside the small circle of family and close friends, at least – by economic contracts among private individuals and firms, and (iv) a reliance on market pricing and exchange for both the distribution of the goods and services produced, and the contracting and employment of labor. Bruenig ingeniously opens the argument in the LibertyCon debate piece, which is addressed to a libertarian audience, by identifying the damage contemporary capitalist society inflicts on human liberty:

It seems very fitting to me that we should discuss these matters at LibertyCon, as I do agree that we are currently facing a crisis of liberty. The great authors of the Western tradition, the ancients and the late antique and medieval luminaries who laid out the foundations for what remains true and beautiful in our culture, would look see [sic] us as profoundly unfree.

As Bruenig sees it, capitalism is responsible for our enslavement to the baser and more impulsive elements of our natures, and for the reduction in autonomy and freedom that follow from that enslavement. She approvingly cites Plato’s analogy in the Phaedrus of the two horses of our natures: one “the lover of honor with modesty and self-control” and the other “a companion to wild boasts and indecency.” She inveighs against our “mad appetites” and invokes St. John Chrysostom’s warning to the rich that they should be masters of their possessions, not enslaved by them. She argues that this inversion of proper values is no longer an affliction of the rich alone; but instead characterizes our entire social order. And she concludes the opening salvo of her essay by placing the responsibility for this phenomenon with capitalism:

Capitalism itself sits at the center of a web of mutually reinforcing ideological and material structures which, taken together, diminish human freedom from the inside out, and militate against human flourishing.

The complaint is apt. We denizens of modern capitalist societies often find ourselves awash in a sea of loud, garish and annoying – but enticing – commercial speech, and our minds cloyed with the dissipating diversions and addictions of consumerist culture. But how exactly is capitalism responsible for this problem? What would prevent worker-owned firms from engaging in similarly aggressive hawking of wares to satisfy proliferating consumer appetites? Why couldn’t an economic democracy based on public capital ownership fall prey to a similarly depraved, philistine consumerism? Bruenig doesn’t really say, and the items on her list of socialist goals don’t really address the issue head on.

So a hypothesis: What seems to foment the problem of addictive, freedom-crushing consumerism is the second item in my rough initial definition of capitalism: the extensive economic liberty capitalist societies allow their members to produce and sell more or less whatever the want, with only minimal restrictions imposed at the outer limits of outrageousness, subject only to their ability to command as much labor and capital in the market as they need to produce these things, and limited only by the producer’s success in finding enough customers desirous of purchasing what is produced. Capitalist societies also tend to allow people a great deal of latitude in the kinds of messages they may publish and broadcast to arouse the required market desires. Finally, capitalist societies tend to promote a value system that extols the relatively boundless and energetic pursuit of material wealth and success, an energy which drives all this manic producing and selling ever onward. Capitalist societies prey on our baser instincts, perhaps, simply because they both encourage and permit entrepreneurial agents to engage in such preying for the sake of anticipated profits.

So, the issue Bruenig raises here is ultimately about a conflict of freedoms: our abundant individual economic freedom in the making, marketing and selling of goods and services of all kinds can lead to a commerce-saturated social environment conducive to a decline in the inner freedom that is dependent on temperance, self-control and self-possession.

But it doesn’t seem to me Bruenig does much to address the problem she is identifying. The de-commodification of labor she seeks would play some role in ameliorating this problem, perhaps, since if labor power were not sold in markets, the would-be capitalist entrepreneur would have a far more difficult time organizing a large productive enterprise. But even a voluntarily organized firm created by worker-owners might engage in the production of addictive consumer goods, and the noisy and aggressive marketing of those goods. To really reduce these phenomena, and substitute an approach based on a more enlightened and substantive understanding of the human good and human flourishing Bruenig desires, would probably require much more than the de-commodification of labor, and include significant restrictions on economic liberty as well as widespread cultural changes in mores and morals.

Many others have recognized the problem Bruenig raises here about liberal capitalist society. The problem has always been what to do about the problem, since the cost of reducing the harm is restriction of liberty – which carries its own cost. How might alternative institutions work? How are decisions to be made about which activities are most conducive to human happiness and flourishing? Who makes these decisions? How would they be implemented, and institutionally stabilized against corruption? How would we assure that all voices are heard and all relevant differences in human likes and preferences taken into account? How would we leave room for ingenuity and creative innovation? How could we structure things so that the outcomes produced are more likely to be morally wholesome than the outcomes that would otherwise emerge from what we have now: the decentralized and largely self-organized individual groping after happiness expressed through market desires and private entrepreneurial production? Hard problems!

Some of Bruenig’s subsequent discussion suggests that her worries about modern economic life go beyond capitalism itself to encompass much of what we would consider economic “modernism” along with its rationalizing and materialistic tendencies. In several places in her discussion, Bruenig seems to suggest that the problems of capitalism spring from a combination of “utilitarian calculation” and the rationalized and alienating division of labor inherent in a large, complex economic society. Bruenig quotes a famous passage from Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: Whenever the bourgeoise class gains control, they claim, “… it has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Bruenig then adds:

Capitalism demanded rationalization: the weighing and measuring and ordering and specifying of everything, not least because capitalism simply isn’t possible without rigorous and extensive bookkeeping. The objective of capitalism is the generation of profit, and to maximize that end it helps to be thoroughly, coldly calculating about things. It wasn’t as though no one in the Western world had ever thought or behaved this way before: “Rather,” the late Christian socialist scholar John Hughes wrote, “it is that this practice came to be differently evaluated, and this novel interpretation of capitalism as moral came to a new dominance.”

She says that “morally neutral, self-interested utilitarianism came to displace all that had come before” and cites Hughes’s charge that “the spirit of modern capitalism appears to be utterly value-free, without substantive commitments, neutral with regard to the question of human flourishing. This follows from its pure instrumentality; it is a concern with methods regardless of goals, means not ends.” Capitalism, Bruenig says, fosters an obsessive focus on material well-being, and treats the pursuit of that well-being as an unqualified moral good. She says it is preferable, for capitalists, that “we do not spend any time shaping or educating our wills,” thus keeping them “simultaneously weak and tyrannical.”

There is something quite compelling in these worries about the expansion of the role of the calculating mind in modern economic and social life. And yet, it seems to me that there is a contradiction in asserting that capitalism both treats the satisfaction of material well-being as an unqualified moral good and is at the same time utterly value free. Also, the utilitarian tradition is not on the whole committed to the idea that mean-ends reasoning should be, or even may be, value free or morally neutral. One of the most famous of the utilitarians, G. E. Moore, thought many states of affairs were intrinsically good, and provided the ultimate ends and standards by which merely instrumental goods should be valued. He argued that, “by far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.”

But we can assume that by invoking utilitarianism here Bruenig means to assert only that capitalist societies encourage and demand a lot of means-ends reasoning, while their authorities take no unified position on which ends are to be pursued for their own sakes. Capitalist societies tend to leave such decisions up to individual agents.

Now this might be true. But a great deal of utilitarian, means-ends calculation – in that sense – will be present in any economically complex society. It is impossible to organize societies of any size, and approaching anything close to our present degree of prosperity, without such calculation. That calculation might be carried out within firms by owner-appointed managers, and in the evaluation of small and large market decisions by consumers and firms. But it might also be carried out by worker-owners attempting to organize their own worker-owned firms and manage them efficiently. Or it might be carried out by armies of bureaucrats attempting to coordinate all of the any food, energy, transportation, housing, education health and retirement subsystems that make the society run. The more complex a society is, the less the reasoning in that society can be carried out by applying the teachings of folkways, or by the direct and immediate achievement of obvious ultimate ends, assisted by a minimum of calculation. High degrees of material prosperity depend on interconnectedness, systematized communication, an efficient division of labor, the logistics of storage and distribution, and an elaborate system of coordinated production. That coordination must be achieved somehow, and intricate means-ends reasoning and planning are required. Democratically planned economies would presumably also possess utilitarian calculators in abundance.

Bruenig ultimately turns much of her discussion to a favorite theme of many socialist critics of capitalism: alienation. Alienation was a prominent theme in the writings of the early Marx, and in some of his non-Marxist predecessors and contemporaries. According to the Marxist take, the transition to capitalism was accompanied by the rise of a labor market and an economic class system, and a division of labor in which the immediate output of a worker’s labor is only some limited, routinized contribution to a complicated economic production process, a contribution which is often quite remote from the worker’s own personal needs and most important wants. The worker is a cog in some social machine she doesn’t fully understand, produces what she produces only to acquire the money she can receive by selling her labor power, and only uses that money later to purchase the things money can buy … and that presumably satisfy the actual wants that motivated her willingness to labor. This kind of activity is often contrasted with some earlier, more authentically human and less complex system of laboring in which people hunt, gather or plant food so they can eat it themselves, fashion the tools and weave the clothes they use and wear themselves, build the homes they and their closest neighbors actually live in, etc. It might be argued that humans had a more natural and psychologically fulfilling relationship with their work in these earlier societies, and that the alienated modern system of labor can lead to depression, loneliness, and feelings of confusion, worthlessness or meaninglessness.

Bruenig also relates the issue of alienation to worries about is the lack of consent in modern capitalist societies. These societies promise their members freedom, and officially treat economic decisions as voluntary. But people don’t always feel free in capitalist society, or experience their lives as filled with an abundance of realistic options. “The illusion of consent only emerges, in this context,” she says, “to conceal the fact that the average person under capitalism does not really control much of his or her own economic activity, much less his or her own destiny. The basic fact of capitalism is that the vast majority of people in society will work toward ends that are not their own, and are in some cases barely even known to them.”

The problem I see with this line of reasoning, again, is that these problems are necessary adjuncts of economic complexity. The rise of capitalism might be coincident with the rise of industrialization, and the alienating division of labor, but the two phenomena are not identical. Labor in socialist planned economies was just as rationalized, divided and alienated as in the capitalist ones. And I’m pretty sure people just as frequently resented their work, and sometimes were bored and depressed by it. Nor do I think the contemporary social democratic and democratic socialist societies are free from this kind of alienation.

The elimination of alienation would require tremendous economic simplification and social fragmentation into smaller autonomous units. Now some are attracted to this ideal. Some even choose it for themselves, and take steps to reduce their wants, detach themselves from the broader economy and strive for some individual or small communal self-sufficiency. But it is hard to see this getting much traction politically as a general solution to the problems of economic and social life in the 21st century, or to the planetary-scale problems that now afflict our heavily populated world. Nor is it easy to imagine that powerful states and owners of capital, or even majorities of ordinary people accustomed to the prosperity of modern life, would stand by for a devolution of modern society back into a more primitive economic state. A world in which most people feel they are in “control” of their economic activities and destinies is a radically simplified world in which many of our complex systems of economic interdependency have been dissolved. And would such a world really be a socialist world? Is the aim of socialism the maximization of individual economic autonomy and control?

Bruenig also endorses the goal of the de-commodification of labor: that is, the elimination of a market for labor in which workers are compelled to sell their labor for a share of the society’s output (or rather, the money needed to purchase that share.) Now certainly, if markets were eliminated altogether, and distribution were handled in some other way, then there would be no market for labor. But even in that kind of pure, market-free alternative society, it is hard to imagine that the alternative social arrangements would not generally require people to contribute labor in exchange for their share of the productive output. After all, that output is being generated by a lot of human labor. Why would a society based on solidarity and cooperation, in which most people are doing a lot of work they don’t necessarily enjoy, democratically agree upon rules that allow everybody to choose their own labor contribution, and make the provision of income independent of the level of contribution chosen? Recall that the communist ideal was “From each according to his ability, to each according to is need.” It was not “From each according to his whim, to each according to his need.” And the Communist Manifesto, to take one example, called for the “equal liability of all to work.”

So, I don’t think we can expect that in a realistically achievable democratic socialist society, people would feel any more free than now to tell everybody else they work with to “take this job and shove it.” They will have to work for their share of what society produces with its labor. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the possibility that people might find their work more psychologically rewarding if they were involved in democratic management of their workplaces.

Capitalism didn’t invent the disutility of labor. Work is hard and often unpleasant. It always has been, and so people have almost always resented their need to labor, complained to the gods about their incessant toils, and fantasized about relief in the form of miraculous provisions from the heavens. It seems that human beings, gifted with brains that can imagine better alternatives, and dexterous hands and muscles that can fashion those alternatives, have to work in order to elevate their standard of living to a level they themselves find tolerable. But at the same time they find this work onerous and burdensome, even if they accept its necessity as the cost of acquiring greater goods or preventing worse evils.

People have often hated their work so much that they expended much initial labor, cost and risk to enslave or otherwise subjugate others to do the work for them. The best socialists should hope for is a reduction and elimination of this kind of exploitation, and a society in which, whatever aggregate labor burden is required to produce the level of prosperity the society chooses, that burden is divided as equally as practicable among the society’s members, with the fruits of all that work are also distributed as equally as practicable.

Capitalism also didn’t invent all the obnoxious aspects of social life. Human beings are naturally social animals who are built for, and require, social living in order to thrive and be happy, and who crave relationships with other human beings. But they frequently chafe under the very same relationships they need and crave, resent the obligations that have been placed upon them by their families or other members of society, and dream of a blessed and peaceful solitude. There is, perhaps, an ineradicable tension in our natures. Socialism can promise only more equality, less hierarchy and subjugation, and less anxious, competitive hustling and fear. It can’t promise a thoroughgoing liberation of the human spirit from onerous social impositions, and from the tedium of material needs or the obligations of social life.

With these somewhat pessimistic reflections out of the way, what can we still be optimistic about? A lot! We can envision several ways of changing our economic institutions, in the process making our lives much better – at least for most people. Changes in our mores and economic arrangements can make our societies less angry, cruel and violent. We might experience much less anxious competition and wasteful, vainglorious striving for transient heaps of goods. We might suffer less fear of devastating and unpredictable losses, less pollution of our habitats by the noisy and importunate din of capitalist marketing, less unfairness, less brutality and less oppression. Democratic socialist reforms can help bring these things about. But they cannot cure the fundamental existential problems of human life.

But perhaps we are dwelling too much on eternal philosophical verities, and not enough on the contingent challenges of our own time, and the solutions these challenges demand. We are faced with several pressing problems contemporary capitalism isn’t solving, and probably can’t solve. Going forward, we might have to get used to, and embrace, more outright economic planning than we needed in the recent past. Our planetary environment needs to be managed. We might even have to manage our populations. This requirement for more planning is a consequence of our own success as a species. We are no longer faced with an endless frontier of possibilities for land acquisition and resource exploitation. The resource of our own intelligence is becoming much more important as the availability of other resources grows more constrained, and the costs of carelessly exploiting those resources continue to rise.

One thing Elizabeth Bruenig leaves out of her critique of liberal capitalism is its oversold faith in the spontaneous emergence of optimal, or even minimally acceptable, outcomes from the decentralized economic decisions of individuals and firms. It seems increasingly unlikely that we are going to solve the problem of protecting our planetary environment, and of preserving biodiversity and natural beauty and livability on the Earth, through capitalist innovation and marketing, because the level of restraint and global coordination needed are greater than liberal capitalist institutions seem likely to achieve with only some market incentive-based nudging.

Capitalist society allows for the use of intelligence in the making and sale of products, and in prioritizing purchases, but it generally eschews planning and direction on a large scale – except during wartime. This deference to markets, consumption whims and private enterprise has resulted in a dispiriting and disempowering fatalism about the future. The future, under contemporary capitalism, is whatever the decentralized, madcap, acquisitive groping of individual consumers happens to make of that future. That is no longer good enough. We need to employ more organized intelligence and forethought in choosing the path of our future via institutions of governance and collective decision-making. The older recipe of lightly-regulated economic liberalism, set loose to develop and plunder the planet under the direction of ambitious profiteers and competing, violent state machines, no longer serves – if it ever did.

Domestically, in the US, we have even more that has to change, because our very success and rapid growth in the 20th century sowed seeds of public sphere neglect, and we have now fallen behind many other countries in important measures of social health and welfare. Major public investments are needed everywhere. Health care, education, and retirement systems need to be more intelligently organized and socialized. Increased wealth taxes, inheritance taxes, and higher top marginal income tax rates need to be adopted to level social inequalities and build solidarity. Capital needs to be directed intentionally toward devastated and underdeveloped areas of the United States, which now increasingly resemble third world nations. Worker bargaining power and control in the workplace need to be restored and extended, and experiments with increased democratic control over capital and its movement need to be tried.

Because I support these moves toward a more rationally planned economic society, I am happy to think of myself as a democratic socialist. Some might disagree with that self-assessment. I don’t, it is true, favor the complete abolition of private property, or the elimination of private enterprise. I think the provision of most consumer goods and services should still be in the hands of private businesses, many created by entrepreneurs, employing creativity and ingenuity to figure out what people want – although subject to the discipline of publicly operated financial institutions and the strategic, democratically determined policies those institutions are organized to pursue. And despite my leveling instincts, I accept that there must remain some income differences to provide the incentives for people to work hard and create value for others. But a realistic democratic socialism for our time, including the socialization of many important economic subsystems, the assertive leveling of wealth and income gaps, and strategic economic planning aiming at a chosen future, is now a necessity.





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