Americans should argue with Madison, but we should also take his words seriously when we do so.
Bhaskar Sunkara’s new book is not a serious scholarly account or defense of democratic socialism, nor does it pretend to be. It is the work of a self-proclaimed activist, and is designed to provide what its title says it is: an intellectual or theoretical framework (handbook) for activists who are not communists and not social democrats but democratic socialists.
Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin and of a new publication called Tribune and Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Practice, is to the best of my knowledge a very bright but young intellectual without academic, political (other than activist), or entrepreneurial experience. He does not address the vast literature that is critical of socialism; rather he moves wholly (also smoothly, and even learnedly) within socialism’s own intellectual silo.
The author is inspired by and hopeful about Anglo-American politics due to the recent rise to prominence of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain’s Labor Party and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, in the Democratic Party here. The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality is very much aimed at a young audience. For those not sympathetic to its agenda, it is useful to the extent that it illuminates the collision within the Democratic Party of genuine democratic socialists (typified, he says, by Sanders) with those he considers to be social democrats. The latter, typified by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, are described here as the “more humane face of neoliberalism.”
Some Modest Proposals
One sees in the author’s recommendations the blueprint of current activism within the Democratic Party. The list (which appears in Chapter Nine) includes: “a politics of rupture,” confrontation with elites, and “mass mobilizations and political strikes”; hegemony in unions (the new working class consists of professionals in the knowledge economy, for example healthcare, education, supply and logistics); the creation of a mass third political party that would secure majorities in the legislature and then proceed to a proportional unicameral legislature; elimination of the filibuster from the U.S. Senate; reform of the Constitution’s amendment process to allow the document to be amended by national referendum; abolition of the Electoral College; an updating of identity politics that would see it shed its inclusionary neoliberalism so it can be a broader workers’ movement.
This is not a philosophical work focused on trying to understand political practice but, conversely, an attempt to turn policy debates into theoretical language in order to channel practice in a specific direction. Hence it skips all the really interesting philosophical issues: Can practice be fully theorized? Can practice be entailed by theory? Are there significant fundamental truths about human beings?
Rather than address such questions, Sunkara operates with a set of assumptions: that 1) there is a universal yearning for community and equality (understood as occupying an unassailably significant social role) that transcends any impulse toward individuality; 2) government is omnicompetent if properly organized; 3) pure democracy is the only acceptable form of government; 4) markets and independent legal institutions can only obstruct democracy; 5) history has an ideal pattern and end state.
According to Sunkara, “at their core people want dignity [and] respect.” They cannot get them in a capitalist market society, for private property creates a class society (owners versus workers) and an oppressive one that exploits race, gender, and sexuality. Reforming America requires public ownership by an omnicompetent government (no discussion of what this means or how it is possible). This agenda will work because it is truly democratic (for example, it entails industrial democracy). Finally, history shows that we are moving in this direction.
Sunkara presumes that relevant political activity begins with the rise of capitalism, so all previous political practice and political writings can be safely neglected. Moreover, capitalism can be completely theorized (Karl Marx allegedly did it) and, therefore, politics can be completely theorized. History really begins with the rise and success in England of capitalism’s ability to create new wealth, freedom, and power. (There is no explanation of why, other than it happened “by virtue of a few distinctive facts about [England’s] agriculture.”) But capitalism gives rise to exploitation and crisis (Friedrich Engels is cited) and produces “macro-irrationalities in the form of social and environmental destruction.”
The proper response to the new power is democratic socialism. This is distinguished from Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, which came a cropper primarily because they tried to introduce socialism (understood as omnicompetent government) from the top-down. Social democracy in Sweden and elsewhere failed as a result of “recurring problems of collective action,” which led to compromising with markets and allowed for capitalist push back.
What is there to say in response to this?
First, what is socialism? Technical definitions are of no help. Historically, socialism is a political theory that maintains that the proper office of governing is human perfection (Eric Voegelin’s gnosticism) made possible by modern industry and technology, not divine providence. Insofar as it implies governmental control or direction of the economy, it mimics an economic theory, but economists miss and misunderstand the messianic roots. Efficiency is not perfection. Human perfection is at best an abstraction—some would say an illusion. The problem is that perfection is an empty vessel into which anyone can pour any number of private agendas that inevitably provoke irresolvable conflict and soon degenerate into tyranny. Human shortcomings are dismissed as products of the environment, and hence there is a preference for (government programs of) prevention instead of punishment/deterrence.
Second, Sunkara presumes that we don’t need to know exactly what the end state will look like (how society will be structured after the revolution or who will, for example, collect the garbage), but we know for sure how to get there: through omnicompetent government.
The Sole Right: The Right to Participate
What allegedly makes and keeps the government omnicompetent is democracy. That is, if we keep talking (negotiating) long enough, we shall achieve a consensus. It is, of course, easier to mobilize opposition to the imperfections of the present (“extreme” inequality) than to gain future agreement. Legal formalities (for example, the rule of law), as well as precedent, are only obstructions. The sole inviolable right (and obligation) is the right to participate. Thus does every activity, even artistic production, become a form of politics.
Sunkara seems not to realize that this means artistic and intellectual activity devoid of a political message will become impossible. Our entire vocabulary/culture becomes politicized/moralized (as George Orwell wrote in 1984). “Informed citizens will have to watch out for new forms of exploitation and oppression and small inequalities spiraling into bigger ones,” he writes. Watch out for all that watching out, Orwell would have said.
Sunkara envisions a form of market socialism in which there will be public financing of different sectors that will compete “with successful experiments emulated.” He presumes that innovation will be the product of discussion within a democratically controlled organization—no purely private initiatives. He gives no historical examples, and it is obvious he has never worked within a bureaucracy.
The author sets great store by democracy but does not explain why. He notes correctly that the Founders were opposed to pure democracy, but he does not examine why. The Founders (see Federalist 10) presumed that there is not an objective collective good (the religious wars of the 17th century taught them the dangers of that); that there would be factions or different interest groups; that government could, at best, manage or minimize conflict, not eliminate it. Not everyone welcomes every policy; sometimes—in fact, often—we merely acquiesce.
One picks up here a faith in reason that is reminiscent of the French philosophes. This underscores in my mind the importance of epistemology in political debates and perhaps the politicization of epistemology.
I raise (though I cannot explore at length in this book review) the question of why technicians—IT and AI types, perhaps non-Austrian economists, accountants, administrative lawyers—would be attracted to democratic socialism even though they own or work for large private tech companies. Is it because they share Sunkara’s naïve epistemology? People attracted to this vision of a democratic socialist government tend to be intoxicated by the absence of limits and the chance of doing big and clever things. What tempts them is power, success, domination.
Real Marxists, Though, Haven’t Much Use for Democracy
Marxists have, for good reason, dismissed these democratic pretensions. Democracy obstructs long-term planning as voters are swayed by their misguided short-term personal interests (in, for example, absolving those who owe money on their student loans) and by fashions. In any case, the populace needs to be re-educated—hence the inevitable drift to tyranny and the suppression of academic freedom.
Contra Sunkara, social democrats keep accommodating market economies not in response to pushback by capitalists, but because it is always necessary to repair the damage of the previous set of misguided socialist policies and respond to the latest social fashions in order to be re-elected.
The worst thing about socialism is that it is self-destructive. The search for perfection is incapable of self-limitation; nor can there be alternative forms of perfection. Omnicompetent government is all-powerful government, and it demands submission. Bereft of any countervailing force, individuals find themselves in the end without any real personal security. Inevitably, this leads to a demoralizing and weakening of exertion and a lower level of well-being—to, as the saying goes, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”