Some months ago, back in 2019 (feels like years ago), City Journal carried a fine essay by Harvard professor and Manhattan Institute fellow Edward L. Glaeser on how to talk to millennials about capitalism and socialism. Dr. Glaeser was reacting to widely noted polling data (especially a March 2019 Harris Poll) concerning the rising popularity of socialism and the falling popularity of capitalism among folk born after the fall of the Berlin Wall—so too young to remember what actually existing “hard” socialism looked or smelled like.
Dr. Glaeser’s explanation for the polling data turned in large part on the great likelihood that, with the aid of semi-educated but willful political spinners to the left and to the right, the meaning of socialism had become so debased that equally semi-educated young people didn’t really understand the questions pollsters were asking them. He concluded that “many young supporters now think that it just means a cuddlier, more equitable government.” It’s not associated in their minds with government control or anti-entrepreneurial policy impulses, which the data suggest would turn them against socialism “if only they knew.” Socialism is therefore associated, reasoned Glaeser, with much milder trade-offs like higher taxes in return for more generous benefits, a deal more appealing to many confronted with the gig economy in the aftermath of the Great Recession shocks of 2007-09. All this seems to me correct.
Professor Glaeser did venture one other, more abstract and less data-bound, possible explanation for “new socialist” thinking, or what passes for thinking. He was referring not to mere millennialist impressions that could be captured by pollsters, but to higher-order thinking among a minority of activist intellectuals. To express it he quoted an August 2018 New York Times essay entitled “The New Socialists” by Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College political scientist, as follows:
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
Glaeser interpreted the point by noting that Robin’s “characterization does not suggest a slightly more generous Medicaid program or higher capital-gains taxes. It represents a wholesale rejection of the market and its purported cruelties.”
Here Glaeser missed his mark. Robin’s observation reports no mere millennialist rejection of markets, or even a caricatured perception of markets. The idea that capitalism alone, or even mainly, compels hierarchy in human relations is bizarre, of course—the idea that socialism equates to freedom even more so. Might as well do away with families of every description if we want to get rid of all bosses, all logic on behalf of politeness, small talk, and a need for persuasion skills. The millennialist urge has less to do with economic and more to do with cultural developments by way of origin. It rejects authority on principle in the service of a radical, undifferentiated equalitarianism; but more importantly, it expresses an unmitigated loathing for any disturbance, for any reason whatsoever, of one’s absolute right to a life of expressive individualism. Life must never be difficult or unpleasant, and if it becomes either it’s certain that someone or something is going to be blamed for it.
In 2019, the last pre-COVID year and the 40th anniversary year of Christopher Lasch’s publication of The Culture of Narcissism, the millennialist tilt toward socialism expressed the downstream development of the extended-adolescent narcissism Lasch and others described. But the exertions of the Esalen Institute, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Theodore Roszak notwithstanding, real existing expressive individualism could never have become so distended, and so derange normal life expectations, except in a carnival funhouse-mirror environment provided by bizarre levels of sudden affluence, and addled mightily, it need be added, by the reality-smothering techno-novelties experienced since the turn of this century. The iPhone, just to cite techno-novelty’s most dramatic example, was introduced into the market in 2007, reaching saturation in Western societies by around 2012-13. The massive switching out of unmediated for mediated image intake characteristic of screen addiction, with all its attendant neuropsychological-social effects, has skyrocketed since.
So most of the kids are not all right anymore—the richer, more privileged ones, anyway. Their default sense of entitlement has reached galactic levels, and any remnant of a work ethic has fallen beneath the floorboards for a great many. They expect to be given things, because they always have been.
Specifically, the kids think, for understandable reasons, that if the U.S. government is giving things to people all the time—social security checks to the old and infirm, welfare payments and food stamps to the poor, subsidies (or tax exemptions, same thing) to farmers and selected corporations, underwritten guaranteed loans to great legions of college students—then it also is empowered to be the source of more abstract things, like rights: a right to healthcare; a right to free college educations; a right to shelter from unpleasant or anxiety-producing speech and opinion.
The U.S. Constitution stipulates precisely the opposite, of course, that it is the people who give rights to the Federal state as a core aspect of self-government. The very idea is almost completely opaque to civics-instruction-denied millennials. Some lowest-common-denominator definition of socialism as natural and desirable has thus become taken for granted; all someone had to do to evoke it was to give this lived perceptual reality a label. That is what the Harris pollsters and others of their ilk more or less have done.
The tendency for young Americans to “like” socialism—and no, the social media language is not an accident, since “friendship” itself has been debased for the screen-addicted and made superficial, along with the whole repertoire of human emotion itself—also reflects at least two other developments that neither Lasch nor anyone else in 1979 could reasonably have seen coming, and that Glaeser neglected to raise. The first concerns a shift in the normative environment.
Socialism may be more popular among the young partly because a bigger social idea has evolved in the United States as the population has become not only more diverse but also more urbanized, interdependent economically, and less attuned to pioneer-minded developmentalism. The U.S. population is not as homogeneous as Denmark’s, and anyway, America’s is a mainly civic as opposed to a bloodline nationalism. But we as a nation are much less exclusionary of minority groups than we were when I grew up under segregation in Virginia—and that includes not only ethnic and racial groups but also lately applies to gender and sexual orientation group markers as well.
The heinous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the evening of May 25 does not disprove this judgment. On the contrary: Despite the clickbait-seeking exaggerations natural to the mass commercial electronic media nowadays, there have been many, many more peaceful protests than there have been riots, and most of the riots seem to have been propelled by “accelerationist” Antifa, or in a few cases white supremacists, moles come from outside the neighborhoods. Moreover, the large majority of the protests have been not only peaceful but racially integrated. This is a very far cry from the mass public reaction to, say, the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963: There was none.
The changes I have witnessed in my lifetime are far on balance a good thing, and, obviously, more tolerance, kindness, and interracial mutual support still would be an even better thing. But that’s not germane to the point in this context, which is that it’s easy to discount the scope of this gradual normative shift, and also easy to overlook one of its major downstream cultural impacts: the unfortunately overbalanced form of the aforementioned doctrine of radical egalitarianism.
It inheres in the spirit of democracy in its immoderate, adolescent form that people will jump to certain shallow associational conclusions: the notion, as Aristotle put it “that those who are equal in one respect”—in the case of the civil rights movement, equal in dignity and equal before the law—are or should be “equal in all respects,” including at least rough equality of material station and equality of political opinion regardless of educational or autodidactic intellectual attainment.
It is the growing prevalence of this doctrine, which now covers all kinds of minority groups, that has contributed to the creation of the blurred, denatured but now common understanding of socialism. And this is true despite the obvious rear-guard backlash we see rising against it now on several fronts, the most odious form being that of the Trumpista struggle to substitute an ethnic form of “dirty white” nationalism for the fragile, revolutionary civic nationalism ever at the heart of the American experiment. It is that inchoate “dirty white” ethnic nationalism that has led the President to deliberately fuel and politicize the George Floyd events, hoping to stoke the fires and warm his re-election campaign by them. Anyone who thinks that Trump’s polarizing and militarizing the response to the protests is just an accident of his twisted personality still fails to take the full measure of his political skills.
Second, beyond the shift in the normative environment, and the rear-guard effort to arrest and reverse it, near-universal screen addictions reduce millennials’ capacity to slow down long enough to connect dots and learn deeply about any abstract or difficult subject. That certainly includes political philosophy and political economy topics. So even were civics and government being competently taught at the high school or undergraduate college level, many millennials would still not be able to detect a clue about what socialism and capitalism actually were and now are. The fact that American society is habitually disposed to not taking history seriously doesn’t help, but that, at least, is nothing new
All that, in turn, is why the Harris pollsters needed to ask their questions in an especially careful way, if getting a valid social science answer was the actual intention. As anyone who ever studied statistics en route to getting a social science Ph.D. knows, a poll can result in any conclusion the pollster likes if the questions are posed a certain way. Might the Harris pollsters have sought the results they got for the expected attention it could bring to their products? It is a business, after all.
As for resisting “submission to the market,” as Robin put it, this is not easily dismissible by passing over economics to culture. It matters critically that the world of small shopkeeper, Adam Smith-like capitalism has long since given way to plutocracized and newly financialized forms of venture capitalism. There is an entertaining cyberworld video called “You have two cows” that expresses this difference vividly.
After characterizing flippantly but fairly accurately what “You have two cows” means in communist, socialist, fascist, and bureaucratic settings, the narrator describes what is labeled traditional capitalism as follows: “You have two cows, you sell one and buy a bull, the herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.” Next comes what the video writers call venture capitalism:
You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.
This is hilarious, but not just hilarious. It shows how those ensconced in the supposedly meritocratic overclass provinces of the financial world can manipulate the system to gain anonymous but hardly trivial power over ordinary people with ordinary jobs. This kind of capitalism does make ordinary people less free in a way, because the labor market necessarily gets distorted along with the distortion, or suborning, of markets in general. Labor markets have never been entirely free, any more than the efficient market hypothesis writ large has ever truly existed outside of economics texts. But the new turbo-capitalism constrains the options of ordinary people far more starkly by narrowing the flex-points of markets to funnel leverage to those relatively few who know how to shape them through a range of techniques running from marketing to lobbying.
The mention of lobbying is not incidental. As was the case during the first Gilded Age, circa 1870 to August 1914, when concentrations of wealth and hence power produced a rigged playing field, political capture and other unanticipated complications often ended up causing government attempts to manage “the malefactors of great wealth” (as Theodore Roosevelt called them) to result in making some things worse. That is still the case with government-abetted rentier behavior festooned all over the American political economy, which helps explain why we have experienced massive cost disease in health care (including but not limited to insurance prices), education, housing, and transportation in recent decades.
This, in turn, is the main reason why inequality between the upper and middle quintiles of the U.S. economy has worsened. It is not because middle-class income levels have declined in absolute terms—that’s a myth based on the widespread inability to properly read economic data, or on an ideological disinterest in doing so. It is because many costs, including some key ones like education linked to social mobility indicators, have risen much faster than modestly rising income levels. (Inequality measured by both wealth and average life-span has also increased, but that’s two other stories.)
“The kids” sense the politically manufactured unfairness of plutocratized venture capitalism, which is the only form of real existing capitalism they have ever experienced. Glaeser is right that the Great Recession brought it all into sharp relief. But they’re too young to remember the sins of the real existing “hard” socialism of the gulag and too ignorant to understand the dilapidation of the social-democratic welfare states of western Europe due to the double whammy of gradually undermined entrepreneurship and aging-heavy demography. So having no basis against which to compare their airy understanding of socialism with any type of the real thing, they are left with a hurtful disappointment in market systems (a.k.a. “capitalism” when one wishes to disparage them).
The unfavorable contrast has been magnified, too, by millennials’ exposure to simplified and often simply erroneous rhetoric about socialism from Bernie Sanders and assorted garden-variety university professors out to save the world with book knowledge, and protected by almighty tenure. For example, Sanders and the generic left have enjoyed holding up Sweden as a model for their dreams realized, which must mean that none of them has ever lived in Sweden.
Sweden’s political economy is best characterized as a kind of feudal corporate capitalism layered on top of a well-educated high-trust society, with government playing the role of convener, manager, and mediator of overlapping interests between capital and labor. The idea that such an arrangement, which in some ways actually resembles the U.S. political economy of the post-World War II “iron triangle”-era described in John Kenneth Galbraith’s New Industrial State, could be replicated in present American circumstances is a real stretch—in my view regrettably. But the “kids” cannot possibly know that. Under the circumstances, then, it’s a wonder any American millennial has a kind word for capitalism.
As intimated above, there is a deeper issue at play here, one that combines shifts in the normative environment with the deterioration of language arts. In essence, the normative shift has overshot its target, and the erosion of language rigor has made it hard to point out and correct the overshoot.
Again, there is nothing wrong and a lot right with the trajectory of the past 70 years when it comes to the social and moral inclusion of minorities in the American social idea and ideal. But like everything of this sort, one can take things too far in some ways even as we have not gone far enough in others. Everyone who has successfully sat through a graduate-level statistics course is aware of both Type I and Type II errors. Put more appealingly, as James Thurber wrote, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards.”
The basic insight is much older than that—indeed, it’s downright Greek, making it among the hoariest jewels of political wisdom we have. Socrates is the star in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic in laying this out, and here is a rare case where no blue sky between Plato and Aristotle can be detected. Socrates argued that every pure regime type holds up an ultimate value, and that it is excess zeal in pursuit of that value, not a lack of loyalty to it, that ultimately dooms the system. So in a democracy, too much freedom destroys civil order and social trust, leading to the desire for a strongman—the tyrant—to restore order.
One could hardly ask for a clearer account of what has gone wrong with American political culture in recent decades. Enlightenment values insist that all members of a society are equal before the law, and deserve to be accorded basic human dignity. That translated in American culture into the principle of equality of opportunity—a level playing field—in sharp contradistinction to the norms of the European 18th century, which were predicated on dynasty, aristocracy, division into class-estate categorizations vestigial from feudal times, and all of it legitimated if not sanctified through the vehicle of an established church. Enlightenment innovation in political philosophy was plenty revolutionary for the final quarter of the 18th century, and the equality principle then strained in the West to expand throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
But nothing fails like success, and it was in the wake of the aforementioned signal successes of the civil rights movement, and then the feminist rising of the 1970s, that equality of opportunity, basic dignity, and equality before the law morphed into something very different. The core concept of what democratic politics aspires to was changed. What had been understood from the Founding as basically a procedural process turned into one with a definite teleology. American politics and law shifted away from being understood as means to adjudicate conflicting interests and claims for public attention and toward being means to produce a specific good: greater equality. But that good is an open-ended good, or very nearly one, so failure can be ascribed to any situation short of perfection. That’s a formula for excess, imbalance, and imprudence in an adolescent-idealist cultural context.
Over time, too, ideally equal, and color- and gender-blind, individual rights turned into special rights for identitarian group associations. Again, excess ruled the roost: Too much regard for otherness and for victims’ suffering and presumptive earned rights therefrom had the effect of fracturing the American democratic community into factions of competing claimants. A major source of the excess over time was partly the infusion of determinist, materialist Marxoid thinking in sociology and elsewhere in the academy, whose theory of the case denied agency or free will in social life. Notions like “structural violence” and “white privilege” presumably explained why no underling of any description could be held responsible for any untoward behavior. This transformation was aided mightily by the triumph of the therapeutic metaphor in the culture, as Philip Rieff predicted it would as early as 1966, the denouement of traditional religious thinking with it.
The next two developments followed ineluctably: Since no one is responsible for their shortcomings, even if they affect others negatively, it follows that no one should suffer disadvantage. This came to mean in some febrile minds that no one should enjoy advantage, either, since success in any walk of life has to be a matter of some combination of luck or exploitation, not merit or character. It is an easy stroll from there to the notion that equality of opportunity needs be replaced by equality of station or outcome. Then de-nationalize that assumption, an increasingly popular left-leaning millennial hobby, and you get, for example, a natural advocacy of open borders. It’s all very logical if one starts with a set of invalid premises.
Finally in this regard, let it be added against the agonies of the moment that lumping the legacy of bigotry against African Americans with other alleged victims of white racism, so that blacks are just one out of a dozen or two “marginalized” groups, has always struck me as misleading, unwarranted, and very, very unhelpful. This lumping began in earnest in the early 1970s with radical feminism, even though the supposed analogy between “oppressed” blacks and “oppressed” women never made much sense, but it has since widened its girth with no obvious limit yet in sight.
But the experience of African Americans is singular. It is not like the experience of any other group in the history of the United States. No other group started its American journey as objects of chattel slavery. No other group had its families torn apart by systematic design. No other group was kept illiterate for generations by law. No other group experienced the systematic emasculation of its men. It is morally obscene to banalize the experience of African Americans by diluting it with the experiences of others. It is the attempt to do so, and the relative success this attempt has achieved, that should be the real operative definition of white-skin privilege. What chutzpah!
One way to describe the basic polarization of American political culture at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, then, is to contrast the “new socialist” ideological catechism, based on the postmodern epistemology just described, with what it wishes to overtake, namely a more tempered Scottish Enlightenment view of human social possibility. The hoary nature-nurture dichotomy comes in handy here as a way to set the stage.
The “new Socialists,” let’s call them, believe that nurture, analogous to the socio-political environment, is a prison, with no room for maneuver for having been locked down by “hegemonic narratives” of the powerful and wealthy, but that nature is open to limitless malleability since all identities are constructed and no fixed biological constraints operate or shape us. The “old Enlightenmentals,” let’s call them, believe the opposite. Nurture, the socio-political environment, is an arena responsive to human agency that moves it, if sometimes slowly, according to the Whig theory of history, demonstrating an arc pointing toward greater justice and toleration. Nature, on the other hand, is more than not a prison: Biology is not fate, but it does set limits on the possible.
So in the old Enlightenmental dispensation, people are equal before the law, and that obviously includes equality of treatment by police, not because they are equal in nature, but precisely because they are not. Individuals are clearly not all equal in technical capacity and dexterity, “book” intelligence, humor and wit, physical beauty, artistic and musical skill, athletic prowess and propensity to good health, emotional sagacity, and more besides. The law is the predicate of fairness and dignity despite such natural differences. In the new Socialism dispensation, people are equal in nature but not equal in fact before the law, because the law is a twisted tool of unearned class privilege lorded over by a greedy elite.
Stated as extremes, neither position makes much sense. The socio-political environment is hardly open in an unlimited way; constructivism, while certainly real, does not apply to everything biological. It is anyway something between incoherent and insane to claim that constructivism applies in a virtually unlimited way to intrinsic nature but never to man-made social/environmental nurture: If one can change people, can create the “new man,” how could doing that en masse have no effect on the socio-political whole? It is far more logical, and plausible based on the evidence of history, to contend that free people are a species capable of, as Erving Goffman once put it, “taking up and freezing into social reality their own conceptions of it.”
No reasonable person would insist on an extreme version of either position, of course. But ideological thinking is not reasonable; it is utterly impervious to Socrates’ and Aristotle’s warnings against intemperance. It doesn’t have to be logically consistent. It has only to be expansively aspirational, emotionally evocative especially in the sense of conjuring enemies, and simpleminded enough to attract mass-public attention. That disposition more than qualifies as a schematic for an engine of excess, and its doleful consequences should surprise no one with even elemental knowledge of the subject.
Ah, but knowledge is not democratic; one must work to acquire it. So the circularity inherent in the millennialist problem becomes obvious. One needs knowledge of some philosophy and arguably some history to know how to parse the key vocabulary of political discourse. But if everyone’s opinion in a world of undifferentiated egalitarianism is deemed of equal value—if every contestant wins a trophy—no knowledge is required to have one. One can instead simply acquire opinions from others, such that most don’t actually have political ideas, but rather other people’s political ideas have them. So no real parsing occurs; truth gets crowdsourced instead in accordance with the applicable peer-group pressures and incentives. This is why uncountable dorm-room and prol-tavern bull sessions about capitalism, socialism, inequality, and the like these days are built on nothing more solid than foul wind. Hardly anyone knows what the words mean, or where they came from. So a rectification of brains depending on a rectification of names, as the Chinese say, becomes impossible.
If we drill down to the naked essence of the disagreement between new Socialism and old Enlightenmentalism, we can construe a crisp correspondence between two ideal types of inequality, two types of socialist ideology, and two types of capitalist ideology.
To an Enlightenmentalist, there are two kinds of inequality: natural inequality and artificial inequality. Natural inequality speaks to the “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson wrote to Adams. Anyone who denies human inequality in this respect is simply delusional. Society at any given time privileges some kinds of human skills and proclivities over others, and people are differentially endowed in them. Again, we esteem the principle of equality before the law not because people are equal but precisely because they are not. Artificial inequality is the result of plutocracy, corruption, and “fixed” systems.
Two kinds of socialism correspond to these two types of inequality: soft/sane socialism and hard/utopian socialism. Sane socialism understands that we’ll never get rid of natural inequality and arguably should not want to, but that we can and should mitigate if not eliminate artificial inequality. Small shopkeeper market capitalism reveals, if it does not produce, natural inequality; corporatized and financialized venture capitalism, which distorts existing markets as well as shapes new kinds of markets, tends more to produce artificial inequality layered on top of natural inequality.
Sane socialism, in the form mainly of European social democracy, is about collectivizing or socializing the distribution of production, not the means of production, in order to mitigate artificial inequality via the regulation of post-shopkeeper capitalism. There is less urgency in regulating small-shopkeeper capitalism because the diffusion of agency and the very imperfect transparency of information allows the “invisible hand” to work more or less tolerably. Sane socialism is fundamentally reformist in tone, not revolutionary, and sits at ease in democratic political frameworks. It is also patient, reposing faith in the hope that education can be cumulative and decisive in the path of human moral/political progress. That progress, presumably, is what enables soft socialists to persuade democratic majorities to elect them to rule.
Utopian socialism denies that natural inequality exists. It seeks the collectivization of the means of production in order to obviate profit, class differences, and hence all inequality. Since this is impossible save for a headlong return to impoverished hunter-gatherer existence, utopian socialism invariably resorts to brainwashing and coercion if it gets power, and even to class genocide as in the Khmer Rouge case. It is not about reform, but rather about revenge and revolution that democratic frameworks by definition cannot accommodate.
In that sense, utopian socialism ratifies its identity as a creedal system much closer to a theology than to anything remotely like a liberal political ideal. It rejects the faith in education and gradual human progress; it holds more like Augustine did in that famous 5th-century argument: It would impose the true faith on an unwilling majority, as the universal Church did de facto as a matter of course. Utopianism empowered by force of arms thus always devours its own children, and sometimes its contemporary colleagues too, as the progression of the French Revolution from the Bastille to the guillotine so colorfully demonstrated.
As it turns out, these distinctions are very much germane to the current racially driven social unrest in the United States. “New Socialist” ideology holds that everyone is equal and in an undifferentiated sense. That means that all manifest inequality pertaining to African Americans must be a result of racism and outright prejudice. Alas, it’s more complicated than that.
There certainly is still some explicit skin-color based racism in America, but there is also what sociologists refer to as structural bias that may be residual from older racist attitudes but that bears no conscious connection to them. A good example is zoning ordinances that by default, not intention, define the borders of inner-city ghettoes and trap their inhabitants in them. Probably more important is the fact that, outrageously, most public school budgets are still based on property taxes, which guarantees massively unequal educational opportunities for poor children. We may not like the legal fictions of suburbs, or real estate moguls and the soulless lawyers who do their bidding, but that doesn’t make them all avowed, frothy-mouthed racists.
We must deal honestly and diligently with all the aforementioned impediments to African-American equality of opportunity, which account for at least 98 percent of any variance in outcomes. All told, it took since roughly 1680 for these structural impediments to equality of opportunity, never mind equality of station, to be built up, and expecting some post-Civil War constitutional amendments, Sixties-era civil rights laws, and a few dollops of affirmative action to make it all come to rights was always very naïve.
I know it sounds contradictory to say both that we have not been doing all that badly in recent decades, despite a shameful falloff in government effort to push the envelope toward a better place, and that things are still pretty bad. It’s still the truth anyway, no matter how it may sound. It’s an issue that’s just exactly as embedded and complex as it seems.
Now, it happens that there are also sane and utopian forms of capitalist thinking. Sane forms understand the need for political frameworks and regulation, both within polities and among them in the larger international environment. They understand that money exists only because government creates it and stands behind its value. Libertarian (or what some call neoliberal) ideology does not credit this. It holds that the “laws” of supply and demand are independent of politics and prior to it, that they fell from the sky one day about a week after the expulsion from Eden, and that their ontological status is on a par with the “laws” of natural selection.
Both utopian socialism and utopian capitalism are forms of ideological thinking, meaning that both are trans-empirical faith-based systems. They are, to use a term convivial to political thinkers from Eric Voegelin to Mark Lilla, political theologies. They are a priori enemies of Socrates’ moderation and balance. They differ, however, in temperament and hence sense of tactics. Both are equally dogmatic, but under the banner of “zero tolerance” the utopian left invariably purges dissent from its midst; the utopian right simply ignores it.
Sane socialism and sane capitalism may be infused with ideology and faith to some degree too, but they are inherently more open to the liberal temperament, which values humility in the face of uncertainty, tolerance for dissent and debate, patience in the face of practical difficulties, and sensitivity to the legacies of historical and cultural differences between people within and among societies.
The strategic impulse of utopian socialists inclines to authoritarianism. Anyone who cannot detect this impulse in American social justice warriors’ fealty to politically correct language codes, in their performative virtue-signaling behavior, and in their designation of anyone who may disagree with them as “deplorables” to be shouted down and ridiculed, cannot have been paying close attention lately. They would aggrandize state power so long as that power lay in their hands. Some believe in arguing for power in a democratic framework; others believe no such democratic framework can truly exist and so argue for seizing power. None believe in returning power once acquired under any voluntary circumstance.
The strategic impulse of libertarians, contrarily, is to destroy the state. Libertarianism inclines to an individualism so radical than even the term “society” is derided, as famously illustrated by Margaret Thatcher. It is ethically austere to a fault, and the apotheosis of faith in the infallible utility of markets. If it has a theory of revolution, it is the assumption that the radical deconstruction of the existing soft-headed misorder will ultimately yield the proper default order of humankind. What that is we don’t have any way of knowing, since such a beginning position never existed. Most libertarians make do with poorly written fantasies based on long tedious speeches in Atlas Shrugged.
Ideological radicalism occasionally refuses to stay in its lanes. Rather than the spectrum of radical thought being best thought of as lying along a straight line, it sometimes helps to see it as a horseshoe, where an occasional flashing synapse of connectivity is possible at the gap in the metal. Thus anarchists share utopian socialists’ rejection of any distinction between natural and artificial inequality and their disdain for existing conditions, but not their love affair with the large authoritarian state. They share utopian capitalists’ hatred of concentrations of state power, but not their anti-communal hyper-individualism and cold-blooded materialism.
Sane anarchists—and some do exist—prefer the smallest feasible state combined with the largest feasible degree of natural social trust. Since they can and do distinguish between natural and artificial inequality, they end up, like it or not, sitting next to Burkean conservatives on the trolley to the future, cherishing the “little platoons” of social life, and seeing both radical individualism and avaricious states and giant corporations alike as threats to the best of all possible social worlds (with apologies to Voltaire).
All of this is simple when you get right down to it. What it means in practice is not, however. Why? Because while we can bracket culture and history for the sake of developing clear heuristics, we cannot ignore them in solving real existing problems. Again to keep matters simple, consider only two ways of several as illustration.
First, it is easy to distinguish in theory between natural and artificial/structural inequality, but, as illustrated above in the discussion about African-Americans’ burdens, it’s not easy to pick out any such distinctions in real existing social orders. Why is Danny Dragbutt unemployed, abusive to women, a crappy parent, and an ecumenical substance abuser? Because “structural violence” over which he never had control made him that way, because he’s a stubborn ass who refused to take the abundant good advice he got while coming up, or some hopelessly raveled combination of the two? Danny himself doesn’t really know, but for obvious reasons, unless he is completely dishonest with himself, he’ll lean toward door number three.
Second, it is easy to disparage the potential depredations of excessive concentrations of power, whether state or mega-corporate or some weird “Diamond Age” synthesis thereof, but not easy to say what or where the limits ought to be for the United States, or any state, in a competitive international environment.
There are inevitable tradeoffs. If Americans want to be competitively engaged in a new post-COVID era of globalization reconstruction, for the material affluence it promises if nothing else, they will have to accept that massive concentrations of power will continue and even perhaps grow—with all that implies for what remains of the Founders’ vision of a small-government, pro-liberty political order. A neo-Jeffersonian American political order could not successfully compete with a still-Leninist China. If Americans prefer instead to rekindle or seek anew in altered circumstances that original late-18th century liberal vision, they will have to acknowledge the material costs of an autarky-heavy international economic policy, and the potential security dangers of an attendant neo-isolationist foreign/national security policy strategy as well. I am romantic enough to be sympathetic to that choice, but I am realist enough to know that I am in a tiny minority in that respect.
Can’t we have both, an expansive, prosperity-prone and benign international engagement and a cozy nest of old-fashioned domestic bliss all at the same time? Certainly not if we insist on pure ideological positions, one way or the other. We can perhaps get some of both simultaneously, but only if sane socialists and sane capitalists, with perhaps a few sane anarchists sprinkled in for good measure, learn to work together in a democratic framework at the expense of utopian ideologues of all types. The aim would be to minimize artificial inequality through stricter regulation of plutocratized corporate capitalism. It is not possible to eliminate all inequality, but since we don’t know where the dividing lines are with any surety, it is incumbent upon us to privilege acts of kindness and dignity where and whenever necessary. To do that will take creative forms of forgiveness, some thawing of frozen atavistic dogmas, some dumping of delusional ideological deadweight, and some reinterpretations of history.
It will also almost certainly require a new domestic political basis on which that vision can be hammered out and put into practice. That is because the existing two-party monopoly, which is dysfunctionally polarized and selfishly insular at the same time, is a non-starter in that respect.
The Republican Party has been reduced to a cult of personality with no coherent political program short of plutocratic fawning to corporate interests at the top of the income ladder, improbably combined with the cautious exploitation of illiberal impulses at the bottom of that ladder. The Democratic Party is ideologically diffuse to a fault, so manifestly unable to devise policy initiatives that are both bold and sensible and have the support of the party as such. As bad, it seems utterly unable to think in terms of structural reform, notably of the Federal system itself.
So the two sides cannot agree on what to do; they only agree that no one else should get to do it. This is polarization without a prayer, since neither side, were it to gain the more or less unfettered power to move the nation—defined as control of the Executive and Legislative Branches (House and Senate) simultaneously—knows how to think its way out of the back of a 7-Eleven.
The rise to responsibility of a new political generation, in the context of a likely fourth major historical realignment of the U.S. political party structure, is therefore probably a precondition for progress. Meanwhile, anyone who would trust the current weather-beaten political class to do a better job next time than the failed cadres of Davos Men did last time around hasn’t yet internalized Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
We are at a propitious moment in American history—or could be if we want to be badly enough. The coming of the current Administration has shattered a great many untenable pretensions and violated a great many norms erected over time to guard against irrationality and flows of violent disorder. As a result, not at all surprisingly, we now witness a harbinger (or more) of violent disorder. Many mirages have dissipated but the new clarity is frightening to many as a hopeful prophet’s meaning has at last become clear: “But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate; so let us stop talking falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
The net result of the Trumpian wrecking ball, now with the COVID-19 and George Floyd crises dumped on top of the demolition heap, has been to send the Overton Window careening down the street. We live in suddenly molten times. As always, opportunity lurks in crisis, for one obvious but narrow example getting rid of “limited immunity” for police.The question is: Who will see and seize the greater ones?