So what about those liberals—by which I mean, those socialists—by which I mean, those communists?
Thus far in this little series (which starts here), we have tackled some terms whose definitions may be obscure to many readers: postmodernity, Critical Theory, and Cultural Marxism.
This week, let’s look at terms everybody thinks he or she understands: liberalism, socialism, and communism. Spoiler alert: most people don’t, in fact, understand them. And we must.
It’s true that the term “liberal” has undergone definitional alterations over the last several centuries. But if we remember that “liberal” comes from liber, Latin for “free,” we will see that mainstream North American political life is entirely liberal.
The political scientist Louis Hartz published an influential volume in 1955 called The Liberal Tradition in America. In it, he convincingly argues that American politics (and, I would aver, Canadian politics also) ranges almost entirely within the liberal part of the political spectrum: respect for the freedom of the individual that entails the protection of basic human rights, the rule of law treating everyone equally, constitutional constraints on power, governance by elected officials, and so on.
Few Americans, that is, call for a return to the divine right of kings or would like to be ruled by a charismatic priest or prophet. Not many Canadians advocate communism, or fascism, or governance by a military junta. If we consider all the political options thrown up by history around the globe, all of ours are pretty close together on the spectrum.
Indeed, it makes more sense to think of our politics as contests and arguments among various “conservative liberals” and various “progressive liberals.”
Conservatives want to keep most things the way they were—even if their vision of the past is clouded somewhat by nostalgia and self-interest. Change, if change there be, should come slowly and piecemeal.
Progressives want to change most things things for the better, even if their vision of the future is clouded somewhat by utopianism and, yes, self-interest. Change, at least on certain subjects that seem obvious to them, should come ASAP.
Both sides are very happy to employ the state to get certain things done. Don’t believe the “small government versus big government” talk. The American federal government has dramatically increased under both Republican and Democratic administrations pretty consistently. And we haven’t seen much self-restraint by Liberal or Conservative governors up here in Canada, either. Where the two sides differ is mostly over what issues the state should govern.
Conservatives are happy for the government to constrain people’s liberty on issues of, say, abortion and euthanasia. Progressives want the government to constrain people’s liberty on issues of, say, workplace safety and wealth distribution. (The history of which issues are championed by which side is a complex and interesting one. Progressives nowadays promote legalized marijuana, but they used to support Prohibition.)
Paradoxically, both conservative liberals and progressive liberals should, and normally do, favour antitrust intervention against monopolies and cartels in the marketplace. Why? Because such concentrations of economic power prevent the working of a truly free market. And only the government is a big enough player to stand up to Standard Oil…or Microsoft…or Wal-Mart.
Socialism is an extension of this logic. Left to itself, the market can, and often does, produce dysfunctional disparities of power such that the market itself can no longer function as a free arena of innovation. (Think of searching for something Google doesn’t want you to find or trying to buy something Amazon doesn’t want to sell you. Now think of trying to start up a company to compete with Google or Amazon.)
Socialism extends this concern by having the state, empowered by each citizen casting a vote to appoint those who will govern, not only rein in or even break up anti-liberal situations, but permanently administer sectors of society too important to be left to the machinations of the marketplace.
Socialism has dozens of varieties, but essentially socialism says that the major forms of power in a society must be kept in the hands of all citizens through democratically elected institutions. Only responsible government can be counted on to act for the common good. Left to the law of the jungle, power will inevitably concentrate in the hands of a single class (capitalists, those who own large things) who are free to advantage themselves to the disadvantage of everyone else.
Communism is therefore a variety of socialism: it’s governmental control of pretty much everything. But communism is the most extreme form of socialism. To insinuate that all socialism is communism, or even that it tends that way, is nastily ridiculous—although opponents have been summoning up the spectre of communism against all forms of socialism for a century or more. To tar socialism with the brush of communism is as wrong as saying that all capitalists are enthusiastic about child labour, the abolition of unions, and the removal of all workplace and environmental safety standards.
Socialist governments of various hues, we might observe, thus have dominated much of western European politics since the Second World War, as well as forming the government of most Canadian provinces at least once since the CCF/NDP was formed in 1932—without communism, we might add, ever emerging as a serious option.
To be sure, the competitive pressures and open possibilities of a free market have proven vastly superior to all competitive economic alternatives (including socialism and communism) in producing wealth and fostering innovation. No serious person is entirely against capitalist economics nowadays.
Moreover, we all recognize that governments themselves are inevitably corrupt to at least some extent, and many so badly as to be dominated by the wealthy and unresponsive to the electorate. Governmental oversight sometimes makes things worse and sometimes makes things better, but never perfectly better.
“Capitalism vs. Socialism” is therefore a gross oversimplification of our current political and economic choices. Our actual arguments are over more or less government supervision of this or that sector of our society to produce the best possible outcome in a world compromised by selfish power.
Let’s tie all this back to Critical Theory and postmodernism. In any given case, either of those views might opt for a socialist process or a free-market one: however the conversation of all citizens comes out. Critical Theory’s basic politics are hopefully democratic, while postmodern politics (at least in theory) would be skeptically democratic. Their economics could be either socialist or capitalist in regard to any particular sector: utilities, say, or elementary schools, social media, hospitals, or whatever.
So now we come to our original question. If democracy is consistent with both postmodernity and Critical Theory, and a contest between “pure” socialism and “pure” capitalism isn’t the issue in real economic discussions today, why are we hearing so much nowadays about the clearly antidemocratic “cancel culture”—the latest antiliberal variety of “political correctness”—as if it is a symptom of increasing socialism . . . and even communism?
One answer is that people are confused—even people who assume the task of explaining these things to other people! I trust this series has helped us sort out what are and what are not actual links among these various terms.
Another answer, however, is that something is going on that does indeed draw on both postmodernism and Critical Theory, while something else is going on, much more broadly, that makes every conversation about difference much more difficult.
Next week, that is, we’ll talk about Critical Race Theory—and also what I call “the New Moralism.”