Sunday, December 12, 2004

What socialism is

Below is my email response to centurion O'Keefe of two weeks ago, you will see his queries in the post that precedes this one. All by way of introducing the topic of socialism, which I try soon to decipher--like, in ten minutes--by addressing the Twit-in-Chief, David Brooks, who, for reasons no one can fathom, is now treated as if he has real ideas as opposed to deep feelings about, say, Iraq, or social security, or, shoot, anything that requires more than partisan positioning. Why in the world is this nincompoop writing a column for the NY Times? We all knew that the dreaded Safire, another hack, was going to retire soon, but why replace him with a guy who makes Mark Shields look like a genius? With a guy who makes everyone, even William Kristol and Bob Novak, sound insightful? And come to think of it, why isn't Novak being indicted by the federal government and attacked by the press? Because he's the J. Edgar Hoover of the moment: another moral monster who escapes scrutiny because he's got power. Well, he ain't got any clothes, either. Why doesn't Al Hunt stop saying, "Well, He's a good guy, he's my friend," and say something more accurate and productive, viz., "He's a coward and a traitor"?

Yes, I'll want to see your piece, and mine will be in today or tomorrow morning. As for your "questions," here are my answers:

Define socialism; has a socialist system ever existed? In theory, socialism entails the collective ownership of the means of production and an allocation of resources consistent with the common good (consistent with distributive justice, which includes commutative justice); in this sense, it is the movement under modern-industrial conditions which acts upon the idea that animated the early Christian church, i.e., the criterion of need (the slogan of 19th-century socialism was "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"). You might say, following Jane Addams, that socialism is a way of transposing the principles of representation and consent from the domain of politics to the larger society, so that, for example, workers can represent themselves as workers, and must consent to the conditions under which they work. But only the sectarian few would insist that socialism is the exclusive property of the working class. Understood as an order of events as well as an order of ideas, it is a cross-class construction--just like capitalism, liberalism, or republicanism. So conceived, a socialist SYSTEM has never existed (by the same token, neither has a capitalist SYSTEM, simply because it has always been penetrated by feudal remnants and socialist harbingers), but socialism has been a significant component of every 20th century civilization, including that found in the USA. So conceived, socialism does not require statist command of markets; indeed I would insist that socialism can't work in the absence of markets, and works best when modulated by capitalism (as in the USA).

Define postmodernism. It depends on where you are in the debates. For my considered opinion, see the preface to the paperback edition of my Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution. Jose Ortega y Gasset, a philosopher you should admire, once wrote: "But suppose that this idea of subjectivity which is the root of modernity should be superseded, suppose it should be invalidated in whole or in part by another idea, deeper and firmer. This would mean that a new climate, a new era, was beginning." At the turn of the last century, every sentient being understood that modern subjectivity was receding, changing, eroding--most artists, writers, and intellectuals designed their work to address this fundamental transformation, from Dreiser to Proust, from Picasso to Hartley, from James to Heidegger. I don't like the term postmodernism because it is too elastic, but I'm willing to speak of a post-modern era, and in view of the intellectual revolution registered in this pantheon, I'd date it from 1905-1915.

The US comes closest to successful socialism because it remains a weird hybrid of capitalism and socialism, a site where each can contain and modulate the other.



At December 12, 2004 at 7:11 PM, Blogger Dr. (Mrs.) Maryam Abacha said...

Question: If the U.S. "comes closest to successful socialism," then how is it that the U.S. is the most nationalistic of the so-called western democracies?

I think you'd have to include internationalism as a basic component of anything called socialism.

At December 12, 2004 at 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long Live the International Workers Socialist Revolution!

(Formerly controlled and operated out of Moscow, right next to the camps that housed people against the revolution (or as the West would argue, anyone that disagreed with the socialist regime),Lenin's grave, and the offices of the porcine corrupt bureaucrats serving humbly the great and glorious proliterat)

Sorry but when talking of socialism and internationalism I couldnt hold it in. It just cracks me up too much. :)

At December 17, 2004 at 7:08 AM, Blogger James Livingston said...

I agree fully that socialism has, and must have, an international component--a point very well taken. I don't believe, however, that US nationalism is the antithesis of a socialist (or any other kind of) internationalism. In fact, I think that federalism as designed and enacted in the USA is a good model for a post-imperial world order, and those maniacs Hardt & Negri agree with me: see pp. 165-82 in their EMPIRE (1999). For further remarks on why American-style nationalism is not such a bad thing, see the Appendix to Chapter 4 of my PRAGMATISM, FEMINISM, AND DEMOCRACY (Routledge, 2001), where I use Alfred Kazin and James Madison to tease Richard Rorty.

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