How The Left Has Won
February 13, 2013 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Or, why is there still socialism in the United States?
Why, then, would we look for evidence of socialism only where a state seized by radicals of the Left inaugurates a dictatorship of the proletariat? Or, to lower the rhetorical volume and evidentiary stakes, why would we expect to find socialism only where avowed socialists or labor parties contend for state power? We should instead assume that socialism, like capitalism, is a cross-class cultural construction, to which even the bourgeoisie has already made significant contributions – just as the proletariat has long made significant contributions to the cross-class construction we know as capitalism. What follows?
posted by the man of twists and turns (45 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Is this some sort of Turing test? If so, it fails.
posted by scottatdrake at 1:41 PM on February 13, 2013 [15 favorites]

A lot of really interesting points brought up here. I don't agree with all of them, but I'm still digesting it. The premise is simple enough and, at the very least, is a good starting point for having a real discussion on what "the Left" is doing in America these days; not as a monolithic entity, but as a myriad of different groups with different courses of action and goals - within which, maybe we can find tools we never used before.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:47 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

That Tags sidebar is a perfect analogue to the linked article. You have been warned.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:47 PM on February 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

Please note, this is an article about socialism, not about Socialism.
posted by dhartung at 1:55 PM on February 13, 2013

Why do we think that socialism is, in this sense, the economic effect of political actions? We typically assume that socialism is something signified by state command of civil society, rather than the other way around. Why? Why do we assume, in other words, that markets and socialism don’t mix, that private enterprise and public goods – commutative and distributive justice – are always at odds? And why do we think, accordingly, that socialism must repudiate liberalism and its attendant, modern individualism, rather than think, with Eduard Bernstein and Sidney Hook, that socialism is their rightful heir?
Someone tossed out a net and caught a whole school of red-herrings...

also, this treads pretty close to Tea PartyTM territory, looking for something, anything to stamp the red 'S' on. I mean, even Kristol, the arch-neocon, ex-Trotskyist is actually a stealth socialist despite himself. Could the extreme ideological confusion in the Tea Party be not the result of contradictions within right politics, but actually a symptom of a larger intellectual derangement endemic to Americans in general? Is the post-spectacle media society actually a totality incapable of rational discourse at all?
posted by at 2:02 PM on February 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Many conservatives don't seem to underestand that socialism existed during America's post war economic boom. But it wasn't 'Socialism'. Instead it was what one could call 'American socialism'. Many conservatives also don't understand what 'American socialism' really is and that the economic boom would not have happened without it. Let's start with the GI bill, which helped build the middle class.

In short, what socialism has done for America is help build and bolster the middle class. That is pretty significant. A Milton Friedman / Ayn Rand / Libertarian type model would not work except maybe in some fantasy lab somewhere.

Where America goes in the 21st century remains an interesting question. But the Tea Party route is not one anyone should take seriously.
posted by Rashomon at 2:11 PM on February 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

There's some tendentious stuff in here, to be sure, but the basic point is actually pretty sound. From the perspective of an ideal laissez-faire capitalist state, the US economy is rife with what are clearly great socialist institutions (Medicare, Social Security etc.). The US left does have a tendency to simply discount all the victories it has won and frame its supposed "impotence" and "irrelevance" purely in terms of the battles it sees itself as still unable to win (this goes hand in glove, of course, with the US left's tendency to wildly overstate the difference between politics in other Western states and US politics; the whole ridiculous "the US left is identical to the [fill in the blank] far right!" meme). This was remarkably clear during the transition into the first two years of the first Obama administration, when Obama's enormous victory in the socializing of healthcare costs immediately came to be seen by the left as simply a "failure" to achieve a complete socialization of healthcare costs.

I think the last paragraph of the article is particularly telling and helpful:
So conceived, socialism no longer functions as an ethical principle with no bearing on the historical circumstances of our time, which is about as useful as a crucifix when the real vampires approach. Instead of a pious wish that things should be better – an “ought” with no purchase on the “is” – it begins to feel like the fuller expression of an actually existing social reality, something we can live with, build on, and build out. It begins to look like a usable past.
posted by yoink at 2:12 PM on February 13, 2013 [12 favorites]

For my part, rather than getting caught up in the endless process of defining and redefining what "The Left" is, has been, or should be to fit certain specific ideological commitments some of us might have, I'm just going to stick with my relatively modest pet project of trying in some small way to reclaim the original sense of the term "Left" as a term for describing a political orientation aligned with the interests of ordinary people (or opposition to the existing political status quo). We don't really have a useful political concept for talking about the shared interests of those who aren't wealthy or politically powerful in the US anymore. For me, that's all "Left" means or will ever mean: if you aren't already politically or economically powerful enough to meaningfully influence the political process all by yourself, you're on the Left, like it or not. From there, of course, there are a million different political ideologies some might want to identify with the Left, but historically the term never really described a particular set of fixed political ideas, and I think it has far more practical value in its original, more flexible sense than how it's used now.

tl;dr version: I don't like the title. The article's fine, but too jargon-heavy to read like more than another joyful sermon to the congregation. If socialists want to capture popular opinion, they should speak in more universal language.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:14 PM on February 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

By the way, you guys do all realize that Jacobin is a lefty journal, right? This is by no means a Tea Party "OMG, the socialists are AMONG US!" piece.
posted by yoink at 2:15 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Of course small 's' socialism is a part of capitalism, and an essential part at that. It keeps the system stable, so that it's not overthrown by your favorite group of revolutionaries or reactionaries. Does anybody actually think that pure capitalism (whatever that means) would work, free of some elements of socialism?

As someone already suggested, there are a lot of red herrings in these waters.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:21 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

also, this treads pretty close to Tea PartyTM territory, looking for something, anything to stamp the red 'S' on

Jesus, no it doesn't. It's a careful, somewhat provocative academic argument from deep in the Marxian (not Marxist) historiographic tradition about how the limited definition of socialism as something that happens after certain kinds of social movements win revolutions has perhaps blinded us to other ways that socialist ideas have permeated capitalist institutions.

It's worth reading just for the thought-provoking argument that the US military is America's most socialist institution (which is not meant as an epithet, merely a descriptor).

People who are not Tea Party-affiliated talk about what socialism is and how it works too. People have made whole careers on it. In fact, when Tea Partiers rail against academic elites poisoning young minds with socialism, they mean guys like this who teach it in context at Rutgers.

posted by gompa at 2:30 PM on February 13, 2013 [22 favorites]

I actually agree with you on saulgoodman, I think that fundamentally it's not a bad thing to show people where socialism functions on a daily basis. You could easily make a case for its importance in ways that don't fall at all along party lines.
The essay's rhetorical style really undermines that point, in my opinion. It's almost impossible to get through the thing.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:31 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's worth reading just for the thought-provoking argument that the US military is America's most socialist institution (which is not meant as an epithet, merely a descriptor).

Yeah, I thought that was charming. I don't entirely agree, but I see where the author is going with it.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:32 PM on February 13, 2013

This article is kind of dumb, but I guess Jacobin's whole raison d'être is to peddle some kind of watered-down Marxism for public consumption. Okay.

The article short-sightedly adopts the same strawman conception of communism, socialism, whatever that was imposed on who we now consider angry Bolsheviks implementing their program of revolution -- and then argues against it. Fairly easily, naturally.

Socialism isn't a pre-fab list of policies that we only need to read out on the eve of revolution, and no one (certainly not Marx) who ever advocated for socialism has ever thought it was. It's a heuristic through which we move from an unjust society to a just one operating with the understanding that a just society is impossible where people do not control their own means of subsistence and capacity to flourish.

It also makes the fundamental error of assuming that capitalism or neoliberalism isn't planned. Of course it is. That's why we can change it.
posted by Catchfire at 2:33 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks. The article was slightly too hard for me (means I must be really stupid since Catchfire thinks it is kinda dumb but hey what can I do) but the themes were thought provoking.

I clicked a little on the links in the site and found this: Resenting Hipsters, which I thought was interesting, too.
posted by Riton at 2:46 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Socialism We Can Believe In
But perhaps we need to rethink socialism. For what differentiates socialism from both left-liberalism and civic conservatism is, at bottom, its focus on the character of work, the day-to-day labor by which we produce both the world around us and, in the end, ourselves. And in and of itself this entails nothing about the state. Once socialism is distinguished from statism, it can also be liberated from it, both practically and theoretically. If we can find a non-statist mold into which to cast the core ideal of socialism, it might be possible for us to forge a politics of fraternity that is transformative without being utopian. And in this respect, I believe, our best guide might turn out to be a theorist described by Hayek himself as “a very wise man” and “a sort of socialist saint”—the inimitable R. H. Tawney (1880-1962).[link added]
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:46 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

That's a really interesting piece, and I thank you for posting it, since I wouldn't in the ordinary course of events find myself reading Jacobin. As others have said, it's unlikely anyone will agree with everything in the article, but it's a noble attempt to rethink Marxist ideas from the ground up and it's full of interesting ideas that will spark off useful thoughts if you're not the sort of person who freaks out at the very mention of names like Hegel and Gramsci. Here are a couple of paragraphs chosen more or less at random (I kept running across bits I wanted to quote):
The upshot of these changes, which I would summarize as the decomposition of capitalism, is a situation in which the extraction of surplus value from labor by capital has lost its investment function, and the production of value by labor has lost its income function. In short, capitalism has stopped making moral sense because it has stopped making economic sense. It’s not a technical issue. Capitalists and their political functionaries continue to extract surplus value from labor however they can – these days by fierce assertion of their prerogatives, as if they’re Charles I defending the divine right of kings against a dubious Parliament, as if the rights of property as such are at stake – but the profits that result have no purpose, no outlet, no investment function. Growth will happen with or without them, whether they’re invested in goods production or not, and so they pile up, waiting for another bubble 
to inflate.

Meanwhile, proletarians of all kinds continue to go to work because they know that if they don’t their incomes will disappear. But as they buy the right not to die on a daily basis, they also know that the hours they spend on the job are a waste of their time and talents: unlike the “aristocracy of finance,” they know that their incomes have no relation to the value they create while at work, because they know that their increased productivity has gone, literally, to waste. They know that what the functionaries of capital call “entitlements” and “transfer payments” are justifiable supplements to or substitutes for income that can’t be earned by working for it, either because there aren’t enough good jobs or because there aren’t enough labor unions. These supplements or substitutes have been the fastest-growing components of labor income since 1959; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the New York Times, they now account for one of every five dollars of all household income.
> This article is kind of dumb

No it's not, actually, but thanks for confirming my expectations as to the sort of knee-jerk comments I'd find in the thread. Fortunately, there are very few of them.
posted by languagehat at 3:18 PM on February 13, 2013 [10 favorites]

An astonishing preview of this line of reasoning can be found in the work of a very obscure Russo-Jewish-American socialist named Harry Waton. Waton argued in 1939 that the United States was a fascist state-capitalist dictatorship like Germany and Russia, but not as crude, and that this was the precursor to socialism. Here is just one short passage from his remarkable work:
Fascism is the political form of state capitalism, and this means the beginning of socialism. For nearly a century, socialists demanded government ownership and control of the land and the means of production and distribution, but the socialists did not realize that this means state capitalism and fascism. And now that they see their ideal realized, they do not recognize it and hate it.
A fascinating read for those interested in this subject.
posted by No Robots at 3:23 PM on February 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't think my comment was "knee-jerk," since I (tried to) justify it, and I don't think what I said means that people who liked it or didn't quite understand all of it are dumb. My point was that its starting point is refuting a caricature that is true only to Cold-War era American perceptions of communism, and not an idea of socialism/communism/revolution to any communist or social justice advocate I know. So I find the crux of the argument kind of bizarre.
posted by Catchfire at 3:29 PM on February 13, 2013

My point was that its starting point is refuting a caricature that is true only to Cold-War era American perceptions of communism,

I'm confused because I can't find a "starting point" in this piece that has anything to do with "Cold-War era American perceptions of communism." The "starting point," on my reading was Werner Sombart's long-pre-Cold War book Why is there no Socialism in the United States?.
posted by yoink at 3:42 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes of course that is the rhetorical move at play, but the socialism Sombart was looking for is not the socialism this essay says we're looking for in all the wrong places. If you're arguing that this essay is a response to Sombart, I'm not sure what to say except that it's probably 100 years too late.
posted by Catchfire at 3:51 PM on February 13, 2013

If you're arguing that this essay is a response to Sombart

No, I'm arguing that the essay starts as a response to the frequent lament on the American left that socialism somehow passed America by--a lament that often takes the form of evoking Sombart's title. I guess I'm also saying that I can't figure out what "Cold War era American perceptions of communism" you are thinking about or how they would be relevant to his argument.
posted by yoink at 4:04 PM on February 13, 2013

Oh. Weird. I guess I thought that because he keeps saying it:
We also typically assume that socialism requires the seizure or overthrow of the state, as in a Bolshevik “war of maneuver,” rather than a cultural revolution, as in the “war of position” Gramsci proposed as an alternative to the Leninist template. Why do we think that socialism is, in this sense, the economic effect of political actions?

We typically assume that socialism is something signified by state command of civil society, rather than the other way around.
And so on.

The "we typically think" he refers to is not what "we typically think." It's what Cold War propaganda, which I was using as a shorthand for all American (and sometimes British) propaganda against any anti-capitalist movement, has told us to "typically think."
posted by Catchfire at 4:10 PM on February 13, 2013

Allow me to summarize this longwinded article so none of you have to waste your time. The author is essentially asking, "Why do us conservatives hate the term socialism so much? Why don't we philosophically dilute its defining principles to the point where we can use the term comfortably?"
posted by Perko at 4:28 PM on February 13, 2013

Jacobin is a quasi-Marxist publication, so I'm not sure that's an apt tl:dr.
posted by Catchfire at 4:34 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trust me, that author is a conservative; he just hasn't realized it yet.
posted by Perko at 4:41 PM on February 13, 2013

The "we typically think" he refers to is not what "we typically think."

Oh, I see. The confusion here was your expression "Cold-War era American perceptions of communism." You meant, I take it, something like "Cold-War era American conflations of socialism and communism"?

I still think you're misreading him slightly--that is, the "we" in that sentence is "we economic historians" and you're reading it more as "we lefty Americans."
posted by yoink at 4:47 PM on February 13, 2013

Trust me, that author is a conservative; he just hasn't realized it yet.

Oh, dear lord.
posted by yoink at 4:48 PM on February 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

I don't think I'm misreading him, but at any rate he's asking for trouble when he plays the rhetorical move "Why are we all doing this?" when all of us are not doing this. It's also weird since he mentions Gramsci, because anyone who has read Gramsci, or interpreted Marx in a similar way to Gramsci, would not think of socialism as a state-run program. Even Fidel Castro, before his victory over Batista, told Herbert Matthews that he was not fighting for socialism or communism, but for democracy and an end to dictatorship.

I didn't expect so much pressure to put on my usage of the word "dumb," so maybe I should change it to "too big for its britches." The fact is that anti-capitalists have been looking for decades for evidence of socialism in capitalist institutions. Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault--shit, even Marx lauded the revolutionary prowess of capitalism in The Manifesto of the Communist Party and cited it as part and parcel of whatever Communism would look like (he didn't offer a guess).

So I was rather turned off by an academic-sounding article which ignored the entire history of Marxist/leftist cultural criticism. Maybe it's only that he didn't cite his sources and assumed the reader hadn't read them, but it comes off as dumb too big for its britches.
posted by Catchfire at 5:07 PM on February 13, 2013

If this is winning, I'd hate to see losing.
posted by Renoroc at 5:07 PM on February 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Trust me, that author is a conservative; he just hasn't realized it yet."


I guess under some "Everything is actually its opposite" rubric, but this isn't Slate.
posted by klangklangston at 5:45 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does anything ever make you not trust someone more than them saying "trust me"?
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:38 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm impressed that so many of you could make any sense out this at all. I don't think that I understood a single paragraph. I couldn't even tell if he was trying to say that socialism was good or bad. Is he an especially opaque writer or am I just kinda dim?
posted by octothorpe at 6:41 PM on February 13, 2013

No, it's poor writing to just spam rhetorical questions. There's some interesting, contrarian stuff in there, but it's written for people who read neo-Marxist mags for fun.
posted by klangklangston at 6:58 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a socialist, because I believe that, as a citizen, it is my obligation to help "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
posted by SPrintF at 7:11 PM on February 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

The author asks at one point "Who cares whether or where socialism actually exists anymore? Or rather, what is the point of caring?"

Which political viewpoint do you think would seek to frame the question this way-- a liberal or conservative?

Or let me put it to you this way, what kind of liberal writes a book called Against Thrift:
Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul
(a damn conflicted one, I tell you)
posted by Perko at 8:51 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Which political viewpoint do you think would seek to frame the question this way-- a liberal or conservative?

Why are there only two choices, neither of which is socialism?
posted by RogerB at 9:49 PM on February 13, 2013

That seems to be a rhetorical question he's using to set up his conclusion. If I read him correctly, he's asking 'why should we care that there exists a history of socialism in the United States?'. His answer, in his words is that "So conceived, socialism no longer functions as an ethical principle with no bearing on the historical circumstances of our time." Hardly a conservative viewpoint.
posted by Sheila Nagig at 9:54 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Worth reading for some interesting ideas, but unfortunately the writing is unnecessarily difficult: points of insight interspersed with wordiness and jargon. Without knowing too much about the author, it almost does sound in some places through his fog of words that left and right could become interchangeable - not what I think the author necessarily means, but again another reason why he should have been clearer. Another post on economics asked if it wasn't possible to have a textbook without it being filled with nothing but equations; it would have been nice if this article had used language to communicate and develop clearly the thesis rather than being more concerned with impressing others in the group. (And his habit of quoting from Marx as if from a sacred text does not make it any better).
posted by blue shadows at 10:28 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

let’s stop assuming that socialism is a systemic totality that necessarily appears and operates as a closed, national, political regime – Cuba is a socialist country, the US is not – and start thinking of it as a constituent element of centrifugal social formations and international relations.

And let's reinvent the wheel as well! This is very basic Politics 101 stuff, no?
posted by jokeefe at 10:39 PM on February 13, 2013

I only scanned this, but I couldn't see any reference to the NFL. Why not ?
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 8:39 AM on February 14, 2013

Sorry, but everything in this article is something Chomsky had said more clearly and succinctly and from a more coherent standpoint. But then, I'm an anarchist myself and find Marxism (Marxianism?) pretty silly.
posted by cthuljew at 8:42 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey there, I'm still in the middle of this piece, but I love it and Jacobin is the only magazine I've ever read to where every article I've read is outstanding.

The magazine is particularly good as what you might call creative politics--a re-imagining of what we might mean by socialism (in this case) or as the goals of leftist activity (for example, in their response to the Baffler's critique of Occupy, where they talk about the importance of joy). Hence, when they talk about the military as a great argument for socialism (basically, an Imperialist New Deal), it's counter-intuitive, deconstructive criticism. Obviously, he tells you, for example, that Kristol is an arch-neocon and also a socialist (!)--this is the far left at its most playful, unrestricted from strident horse race-style politics. That Metafilter peeps think this is a right-wing tea party article is telling and may suggest what happens when Dems (who by most measures are right-wingers) come up against real leftists, who wish that the Tea Party would actually be right when calling conservatives like Obama socialists.

The backdrop he's responding to is the left's self-abnegation, the left's perpetual sense that it's failed because we didn't have a revolution in the US and institute a somewhat abstracted workers' utopia. Rather then pining for this revolution, instead look at the more gradualist, incremental features we have of our own economy which could serve as seeds for a future socialism. This is a really interesting alternate future genealogy of American Marxism--think of it as a kind of political speculative fiction, a structural future account of markets a la Hari Seldon.

To address the idea that this guy is conservative, this is the blurb for his book AGAINST THRIFT that is linked to upthread:

Since the financial meltdown of 2008, economists, journalists, and politicians have uniformly insisted that to restore the American Dream and renew economic growth, we need to save more and spend less. In his provocative new book, historian James Livingston—author of the classic Origins of the Federal Reserve System—breaks from the consensus to argue that underconsumption caused the current crisis and will prolong it. By viewing the Great Recession through the prism of the Great Depression, Livingston proves that private investment is not the engine of growth we assume it to be. Tax cuts for business are therefore a recipe for disaster. If our goal is to reproduce the economic growth of the postwar era, we need a redistribution of income that reduces corporate profits, raises wages, and promotes consumer spending.

Not only is this redistributionist, it's one that he spells out on the article, where he asks: if socialism is not going to be revolutionary in nature, then what kind of markets do we want for socialism? In the essay, he says that markets can work to support outliers in the economy to actualize their individuality. To again translate this for Metafilter, think of the rise of an often leftist nerd consumer culture. A traditional left critique would simply call this another kind of consumerism, base commodity fetishism, but Livingston says, because markets can satisfy anyone, it allows the growth of small alternative cultural pockets that can influence civil society which then infects the state with these same values.

That said, I can see how this guy can just seem like a left neoliberal or a proponent of left economism, which is unsatisfying if you want a Leninist restructuring of society.
posted by johnasdf at 9:01 AM on February 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'll give you that his idea of redistribution is socialist in theory, but as you say,

"Livingston says, because markets can satisfy anyone, it allows the growth of small alternative cultural pockets that can influence civil society which then infects the state with these same values."

And earlier, Livingston asks, "Why do we think that socialism is, in this sense, the economic effect of political actions?" And answers that it's not.

So as Livingston would have it, the free market redistributed would be a sufficient cultivar for any and all forms of social reform. This viewpoint (put into hypothetical practice) doesn't just seem neoliberal, it flat out is. In effect, it's no different than anyone who espouses the sole power of a free market to propogate the universal rights of man. Bam. Pow. Conservative.
posted by Perko at 12:41 PM on February 15, 2013

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