American Socialism and the Sovereign Self

In his essay, “The Strange Rise of Bourgeois Socialism,” Nathan Pinkoski correctly describes the current iteration of socialism that has taken root in the United States. Save for a few old academics who still sing the praises of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, there is little Leninist or Marxist about how people, especially youth, think socialism ought to look today—little, that is, other than their ultimate propensity for violence as a means of achieving their goals. Today’s socialists are not idealists, as we might expect the youth to be. They’re not walking around with the copies of The Communist Manifesto, enthralled by Marx. Rather, they rely on brute force and aggressiveness in order to perpetuate ideas that are at root Marxist. They are violent activists who have nothing in common with socialists of the distant past, who protested by day and argued ideas in intellectual salons by night.

As Pinkoski states, socialism has turned into a form that champions identity politics. It seemingly attacks capitalism, but in reality, “American socialism does not defy but rather kneels before the bourgeois. It may criticize individual autonomy in the market for producing inequality, but its concern is mainly that inequality infringes on the autonomy of other individuals, their capacity for self-creation.” In fact, current proponents of this brand of socialism, “zealously promote individual autonomy.” Of course, their idea of autonomy does not extend to those who may disagree with them. Their perceptions and if we can call them that, principles, are more along the lines of “autonomy for me, but not for thee,” especially if the other is deemed inadequate in some arbitrary and meaningless way. They set the rules, which, like most ideologies, constantly change to suit the moment’s political and cultural mood.

According to Pinkoski, this kind of socialism “deepens individualism and statism.” On one hand, this is correct. An overabundance of individualism can lead to an extreme form of narcissism. But is individualism inherently wrong or perhaps even immoral? Shouldn’t we defend the individual? Isn’t the individual as a concept and a real entity the very thing that statism demands to be annihilated? If we are defining individualism as self-centeredness, then Pinkoski’s conclusion is completely logical. What is missing from the socialist ideological construction of the world and society is a person, and given Pinkoski’s arguments in the entire essay, my guess is that he would agree.

As Pinkoski implies, the deepening of individualism is part of this new form of Marxism that we have before us. The constant turn inward and away from the concerns of one’s fellow man leads to the denial of community, as well as its creation. In addition, the shallowness of this individualistic trajectory coupled with ideology, as presented by Pinkoski, changes people into barely two-dimensional characters carrying socialist slogans. Essentially, they are owned by the ideology, and this is what Pinkoski is alluding to when he writes that American socialism “is not the rival but the patsy of state capitalism.” It is a mutation of Marxian socialism precisely because it relies on the capitalist system (individualism) in order to feebly promulgate its tenets. It can only resort to violence because it lacks reason.

This kind of behavior is destructive of liberty. The objective of ideologues like those Pinkoski describes is to take away freedom of others. However, the irony which they fail to see is that they have chained themselves to ideology so much that the notion of their own freedom has been long lost. But it isn’t only the freedom that is at stake here. Since coercion is the modus operandi of this ideology, then we must be aware of a threat to sovereignty, especially when directed at particular groups of people.

Although Pinkoski does not explicitly write about the idea of sovereignty in his essay, the question of whether sovereignty plays a part in this strange new world of mutated Marxist ideology is important. Superficially, we might assume that the protesting and violent bourgeois Bolsheviks are acting out of their own sovereignty despite the fact that they are engaging in harmful behavior. But this is not the case.

Usually, when we talk about sovereignty, we are only referring to the state. Nations are sovereign but human beings are generally not understood through that lens. Yet so many of our actions, so many of our decisions that are made on a personal level are often analogous to the state. This does not mean in any way that the human person derives his or her meaning from the state. Rather, it means that there is a political form (i.e., sovereignty) that runs parallel to an individual human being.

The Bourgeois Bolsheviks that Pinkoski describes in his essay are acting on the impulses purely based on individualism—impulses that lead them into a bizarre construct of socialism that dominates them, and serves their interests in turn. This self-centered autonomy is not at all the same as sovereignty because the primary aim is not creation but destruction. They are not acting as persons because they have given away the last shred of their own existential constitution and interiority to the symbolic, tyrannical overseer, and they have sacrificed their personhood for ideology. Strangely enough, they have chosen to not choose, and thus have suspended, if not eliminated the possibility of being a person who doesn’t simply follow the orders. This choice bears the practical consequence of destroying their conscience.

Both freedom and sovereignty are difficult. As implied above, to be free and sovereign, it does not follow that a person can do anything he wants. On the contrary, sovereignty calls for an even bigger amount of responsibility, something that does indeed go beyond the notion of individualism. In this case, then Pinkoski’s claim about individualism would be correct because sovereignty as opposed to extreme individualism is not a given thing and not something we can take for granted either. Rather, sovereignty is something, which is realized and accomplished.

Like liberty, sovereignty must enforce limits in order to, paradoxically, remain viable. The political theorist and philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013) defines sovereignty in terms of limits. A person’s sovereignty is very much similar to the sovereignty of the state. According to Elshtain, a state is considered sovereign when “it demonstrates its ability to be independent from the protection of another state, to treat its citizens decently, and to foster a vibrant civil society: sovereignty as responsibility.” Similarly, a sovereign self is also something accomplished in a human life rather than assumed, and “being a mature member of society does not entail complete independence from everybody else but, instead, requires a willingness and ability to sustain rich relationships with other people.”

First, this means that a person understands the difference between being a force of creation and a force of destruction. Political agitators (such as those described by Pinkoski) are hardly interested in a society in which everyone has the possibility of success. Chaos and division are their primary modes of being.

Second, by understanding the difference in actions of creation and destruction, a sovereign self is aware of his own failings that are particular to human beings. In other words, a person understands that his or her actions have consequences, particularly if they involve a destruction of someone’s life. We have certainly witnessed this in our current climate of ‘doxxing’ or total humiliation of a person, especially in the public watchful eye of social media.

Elshtain’s point about the limits of sovereign self is very important because it takes us to the center of what Pinkoski argues. The reason why there is a rise in this mutated version of socialism in America is precisely because we have lost the way we understand and enact our freedom. Our sovereign selves are not merely “autonomous” but rather selves that relate to other selves, and thus (hopefully!) form a community. Bourgeois Bolsheviks are hardly interested in authentic relationships with other people, which is why they often rely on protests, violence, and of course, a strong dose of ideology. An authentic relation with others is one that recognizes the inherent dignity in another human being. Out of this relation, civil communities are built, and they are stronger than ideologically based collectives. On the other hand, without ideology, Bourgeois Bolsheviks would cease to exist.

Like any ideology, this too has no limits, and hence it will be incompatible with sovereignty of the self or the State. This is the hallmark of any leftist thought: push for more changes, more so-called progress, and more fragmentation of society—true to the radical principles and approaches of Saul Alinsky. The strange part about this is that Bourgeois Bolsheviks do not even fully comprehend this precisely because they have been blindly following the directives without any need or desire to ask why. In this sense, American socialism (that Pinkoski describes) is very much the same structurally as socialism of our not so distant past—it abhors the sovereign self because it has no purchase on it. American socialism, like any ideology, revels in fragmentation of identities for the purposes of making everything the same.

In his 1993 New York Review of Books article “The Post-Communist Nightmare,” Václav Havel wrote that “The greatest enemy of communism was always individuality, variety, difference— in a word, freedom.” By individuality, Havel, of course, does not mean self-centered individualism but rather, the singularity of a human being. In other words, a sovereign self that deliberates, judges, enjoys, helps—all the aspects of being a person relating to a community.

Another aspect that is woefully missing in the theoretical structure of current (and past) socialism is human dignity. Our public square is filled with career politicians, like Bernie Sanders, that want to impress upon us the importance of human dignity in work. Of course, for a socialist like Sanders, the only way for human dignity to be visible is through state ‘help’ to which a person is rendered completely dependent. The mighty state (whose meaning can be changed willy-nilly to suit a variety of socialisms) can and should impose the definition of human dignity. The State is the only bringer and giver of dignity or any other higher meaning and purpose in life. Ironically, only a few are allowed to have this dignity, because the socialist State determines who should be rewarded and who should be punished. This is the clearest manifestation of the denial of the sovereign self.

Pinkoski only alludes to this in his essay but it is a worthy point. Although they claim differently, it isn’t clear that socialist ideologues truly view themselves as beings with dignity. Nor does it seem that they view others as such; if they did, they would not be so eager to reduce people to their artificially created identities that are deemed worthy only when they advance an ideology. For socialist ideologues, neither inherent human dignity nor the act of being a dignified person have no bearing on the question of what it means to be a human being.

Elshtain deems the sovereign self to be the self that:

seeks meaning and dignity and finds a measure of both not in total liberation from nature, nor in some utopian attunement and at-oneness with nature but, rather, in growing to become a full person according to our human natures. Because that nature is intrinsically social; because we are persons, not individuals; we must refrain from doing everything of which we are capable. If we refuse to observe a limit, we are destroyers, we become death dealers.

Elshtain’s definition here provides a constructive and logical connection to what Pinkoski means by individualism, particularly since he sees it as a negative quality in relation to current socialists. In the small but somewhat potent mix of bourgeois socialists, there is only room for the conservation and propagation of ideology. Indeed, they are destroyers, living in the decadence of a pseudo-socialist system that only exists in their minds. The question of being human is lost on them but no amount of purposeful disintegration of the civil society will eradicate the human nature that is oriented toward a civilized realization of personhood and the creation of a community, in which both the person and society are able to flourish.