No Minister

American Socialism and its Discontents

In looking at where Socialism is going in the USA I took note of an article that explored how the Chinese Sinus Rot disease might be laying the basis for The Pandemic Road to Serfdom.

Here’s another take on this question, The Strange Rise of Bourgeois Bolshevism. It’s lengthy so I’ll try and provide a synopsis of it.

American socialism is distinct from traditional European socialism, and rejects essential tenets thereof. It is a new, home-grown ideology, a made-in-America socialism.

They define socialism not by government control of the economy or by state ownership of the means of production, but rather in terms of an open-ended commitment to equality. This shift shows how American socialists are punting the elimination of capitalism—supposedly the goal of the “party of opposition” to capitalism—to an ill-defined future.

It points out that this can be seen in Bernie’s rapid evolution from 2016, where he focused on the traditional idea of economic redistribution and class struggle – to 2020, where he connected that with a focus on the concerns of minorities, naming “women, people of color, immigrants“, and “members of the LGBT community.” Following the edicts of later generations of American progressives, Bernie accepted that Class Warfare is a struggle on behalf of an open-ended, ever-growing category of minorities. In America this has distinct advantages:

The most important consequence of de-emphasising class struggle is that socialism becomes much less hostile to the bourgeois.

Well yes. But the biggest problem with the new approach is the huge gap between the struggle of various minorities and the old class struggle, even though this American movement is trying to pass off the former as the latter.

The old traditional socialist logic was that if you eliminate class you eliminate economic inequality. But if the barriers are sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth, that’s just multiplying the challenges. But more than this, such things are really talking about individuality being thwarted:

The task American socialists have set themselves is to achieve and sustain a culture of free self-creation. But this culture, the culture of individual autonomy, grows out of the bourgeois.

It cannot escape its bourgeois origins. What emerges is the bourgeois-bohemian, the “bobo”: the champion of freedom as self-expression, self-determination, and self-creation, whose social condition is inescapably bourgeois.

As the article points out these “bobos” attack the bourgeois from within, as was the case as far back as the French Revolution when the same types denounced their class for politically conservative attitudes that screwed any revolution. The thing is that what is now being denounced are any “conservative” thoughts and practices that stop the new victim groups from achieving equality by being hostile to individual autonomy and self-creation. And worse, a lot of these “isms” and “phobias” are found more in the traditional working class than the new bourgeois. What fun eliminating those things while still ploughing on toward socialist utopia. And so…

Meanwhile, the working class – the people who left-wing political parties congratulate themselves for representing – are electorally homeless. Fewer and fewer of them bother to vote. When they do they increasingly vote for the right…

As Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and others well know.

I’ll summarise three points the article makes about how the American Socialists are trying to fit these new ideas into the old working class fight, and the main problem with each tactic they’re using:

  • The bourgeois are teaching the working class these terrible attitudes. But the social and political attitudes of “Fortune 500 CEOs and the propertied denizens of New York and San Francisco” make that claim a joke.
  • Make the fight between the Super Rich, the 1%, and the rest of us. But that doesn’t attack the system of profit at its core, and what if it’s not the 1% vs the 99% but the 10 vs the 90? Ten percent of us get to wax radical – but not radical enough to fuck up our way of life.
  • A new multi-ethnic, multi-minority working class becomes the focus. We need to overcome the ‘isms’ because they’re what hold back minorities within the working class. Except that is another way of saying that some portions of this working class are more equal than others. And also “We cannot have working class solidarity when half the working class is potentially racist.”, (or homophobic, transphobic, …..). Is it any wonder that Obama’s “Rainbow Coalition” turned to nothing once the great man departed.

The following line is brutal:

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.

Which presents a bit of a problem given that our post-industrial economy is more geared to individual autonomy than ever in history, as anybody using Tinder and Spotify could attest. Those are not corporate entities that any of the “youf” want to tear down or nationalise in the name of class warfare, even as the same economy pushes them into the non-unionised “gig economy” of Uber and Lyft, which rely on the same basic model of connecting individuals.

The article then delves into the history of religion mixed with the American Left, which it argues is key to this Bourgeois-Bohemian world being expanded and the denouncing of anybody hesitant to do so.

Furet had observed that the bourgeois had a “guilty conscience” at their core. In the American landscape, theology provoked it. The practice of civil rights leaders, notably King, was far from the secular public reason that a later generation of liberalism tried to extract from the era. Read through the Bible and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Declaration of Independence became a text in civic theology, a hope for racial equality, a call to action, and a faith in the power to heal America’s wound.

And as the memories of the 1960’s have faded, every new Left movement in the US has tried to recast itself as the Civil Rights fight of its time – except they’ve never managed to pull off the same trick of turning an elite cause into a mass movement.

By endorsing the open-ended struggle on behalf of the minorities, American socialism uses the language of the civil rights era to project its limitations onto an impersonal “system”—here, the systems of minority oppression that characterise American life. This echoes traditional socialism’s crudest determinisms, but with new content. Human beings are no longer passive objects of determined economic processes; now they are passive objects of determined racialised-sexualised processes.

Which is just not mass-movement stuff. As a result the gains have been made via law being changed through the Supreme Court, not voter-driven legislation, as we’ve just seen with the SCOTUS decision on expanding the 1965 Civil Rights act into the world of transgenderism. It notes that the Christian notion of victimhood and its moral authority remain, but they’re increasingly shaky in these new contexts:

Moreover, if not one but many American minorities wear the crown of thorns, then its application now diminishes the unique significance of its initial application to Black Americans. They become just more victims of oppression.

And that limitation shows up in other ways too:

But there is no moral agent at hand to remove this system, no messianic “proletariat” at hand to break the chains. The best one can do is become aware of one’s place within these systems by listening to those with victimhood status. Moral agency only appears as guilt, with no opportunity for pardon

And the trouble with endless amounts of guilt is that the human soul cannot carry it. There’s no future down that path, whatever thrills of moral superiority it might provide to the likes of Antifa, BLM and the rest of the Left. In fact it could kill their movements:

Faced with so many victims and so many claims to moral authority, the bobo vanguard, who often share the characteristics of the villain, are left not with hatred of the other who wounded the victim, but with their own guilt—and without forgiveness, they are left only with self-hatred.

American socialism intensifies this passion for self-hatred across all political and social life. Its clearest manifestations are self-hating American bobos who channel their hatred toward the institutions of American democracy.

He makes four observations as to where this will go with the bobos employing another new twist on socialism – a new Leninism.

  • “Leninist nomenclature is appropriate because the very concept of the “woke” is a carnival mirror of Bolshevism”. Lenin contended that only an intellectual elite endowed with superior knowledge could start the revolution. “The very concept of “woke” is explicitly this invocation of superior knowledge that the many do not possess“.
  • Leninism is subsitutionist politics.. one substitutes a real unanimous will not yet agreed upon with the will of a vanguard minority.” In this case there are many minorities but only one vanguard – the “woke”. But the response is the same in enforcing unanimity; “the vanguard deploys its activists, media-adjuncts, and ultimately the power of the state not to persuade but to destroy opponents“. Destruction is needed because persuasion involves compromise and when that happens you’re back to boring old reformism. “The vanguard cannot allow this. A revolution permits no obstacles, delays, or scruples.
  • Leninism’s revolutionary character now derives from “a consequence of understanding freedom as self-determination or self-creation. The aim is to create a world in which individuals can recreate themselves out of themselves” – and that means destroying anything standing in the way of that, which means a lot of cultural destruction.
  • Leninism serving “the goal of self-creation: libertine-Leninism“. But again this equates to nothing more than the individual autonomy that is the goal of bog-standard American Liberalism. Once the social restrictions are swept away it’s back to fighting about economic management – just like any good socialist and just as American Liberalism has argued all along.
And in that fight about economic management the writer notes something rather strangely old about this new American Socialism and its rejection of “government control of the economy or by state ownership of the means of production“. That certainly fits with the older Socialist argument that wanted to end capitalism and thus attacked Liberalism’s focus on economic reform through technocratic, managerial methods:

Norman Thomas criticized the New Deal and contended that “we do not mean to turn socialized industries over to political bureaucrats,” criticising the bureaucratic centralisation of the managerial, administrative state.

Not an argument specific to the USA of course; an American Bakunin, arguing that such approaches would just entrench state capitalism – which it has! So yay for Anarchism in CHAZ, with the bobos as the driving force? Perhaps not, at least in actual elections. For all of his talk of being a real Socialist independent of the Democrats, Bernie Sanders actually wants a bigger and better New Deal.

Sanders cleaves to the state capitalism that socialists once spurned. The political program American socialists propose—from free college and cancellation of debt, federally funded day-care, mandatory single-payer health care, and new federal agencies—is unreconstructed statism, a colossal extension of the power and size of the federal government.

So far, so normal. But the same thing is happening as a result of the bobos joining with Bernie and company; their new concept might sound like it could twist Socialism on to their individualistic path to win political power, but they’re going to find themselves stuck with Bernie’s traditional approach on how to use political power:

To be sure, there are American socialist nods toward an “anarchist tradition” to refute the charge that socialism must aim for state ownership of the economy, as well as advocates for “Progressivism localism” and for “democratizing the economy.” But the agent for these proposals remains the centralized state, and none dare disown that. 

Just like Bernie and FDR the bobos are also “punting the elimination of capitalism—supposedly the goal of the “party of opposition” to capitalism—to an ill-defined future“, which puts these Bourgeois Bolsheviks stuck right back with… Managerial Liberalism.

These contradictions are likely not anything new at all:

Toward the end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that whenever Marxists had to take moral stances, they fell back into the moral language of liberal individualism. Marxists came to exemplify “precisely the kind of moral attitude which they condemn in others as ideological.” Moreover, the closer Marxists came to power, the more they became zealous defenders of the centralized administrative bureaucracy.

And that bureaucracy now has the additional problem of crashing into that modern, networked, decentralised economy mentioned earlier: working within an Uber / Spotify world, with the added problem of having a bunch of your own team who love the Spotify world, even as they bitch about the gig-economy of Uber world.

This seems to be American socialism’s fate. It deepens individualism and statism. It is not the rival but the patsy of state capitalism. It does not resist but serves managerial liberalism. American socialism is neither Marxian-inflected socialism nor Marxism, but it parodies their defects.

Or as stated earlier: American socialism does not defy but rather kneels before the bourgeois.

See Also:
Class War
Middle Class Warfare
The Pandemic Road to Serfdom

9 Responses

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  1. Tom,You are not surely suggesting that anyone left of Trump is a socialist, or that all the young people on the street are socialists. Because as you well know, based on your experience of the US, it is not about to become socialist, not even in the West European sense of that term. All this quoting of late nineteenth and early twentieth century communists is blinding you to that reality.The CHAZ is a complete distraction. It covers 6 city block and probably a thousand or so people. It is not going to be occur in any meaningful way anywhere else. It is not the Paris Commune.When Biden is elected, with I predict Kamala Harris as his VP, neither are going to usher in a socialist revolution. And nor do young people expect (or want ) that. Their biggest demand is free tertiary education, or something approaching that. In practice not all that different to the NZ tertiary system.

    Wayne Mapp

    June 20, 2020 at 11:52 pm

  2. O M G Tomas, even for you, this is so far over the top. Did you need an extension ladder or cherry picker to get there?

    Anne Tiffa

    June 21, 2020 at 12:13 am

  3. @Wayne MappYou are not surely suggesting that anyone left of Trump is a socialist,ߙİߙİߙİߙİߙİߙİߙİߙĀTrump actually has several elements of Socialism about him, as witnessed by his ideas of a mercantilist America and 100% support for the already crippling programs of Social Security and Medicare / Medicaid, as well as Big Government in general.or that all the young people on the street are socialists…\”All\” is a straw man, but the fact is that various surveys of young people in the USA have shown much higher support for Socialism than in decades. We're not looking at an Alex Keaton is not about to become socialist, not even in the West European sense of that term. All this quoting of late nineteenth and early twentieth century communists is blinding you to that reality.The point of those quotes, and indeed the original article, is to precisely make that point, as well as support your claim in the previous sentence: that for all the noise about Bernie Sanders and his support by increasing numbers of American youth, and for all the MSM coverage of CHAZ, the USA is indeed not going to become Socialist – at least in the traditional economic sense.When Biden is elected, with I predict Kamala Harris as his VP, neither are going to usher in a socialist revolution.Leaving aside responding to your predictions, Biden will simply be a shuffling frontman for whoever staffs his Administration, and they will be more radical than those of Obama's or Bill Clinton's administration, judging by the state and city governments controlled by Democrats – all of whom secretly allow capitalism to continue (they're not that stupid) – while hamstringing it and scapegoating it wherever possible. And while I agree that their Socialism will not be of the traditional type – the whole point of this article that you seem to have missed – it will be a \”new\” Socialism focused on pushing back boundaries on individual limits and going full Leninist (or perhaps Maoist) on their enemies, while yielding to the old-fashioned \”reform\” of Managerial Liberalism on the economic side.Their biggest demand is free tertiary education, or something approaching that. In practice not all that different to the NZ tertiary system.The primary desire is to wipe all student debt, something that is very different to NZ's approach.

    Tom Hunter

    June 21, 2020 at 12:27 am

  4. Anne Tiffa said…O M G Tomas, even for you, Oh don't worry Anne Tiffa. While you'll get screwed on the economic front by the Democrats again (they love money too much to kill the Golden Goose), they'll give you all the room in the world to take out your rage and frustration in struggle sessions inside academia and the MSM while pulling down statues in public and assaulting the Police.Mind you, if the Democrats lose control of your lot it will rebound on them economically, so there's that.Minneapolis, Chicago and Seattle are indeed visions of what will happen to the rest of the USA with a Biden Administration.

    Tom Hunter

    June 21, 2020 at 12:35 am

  5. TL/DR. Trump’s doing well though. He got a standing ovation for successfully drinking a glass of water at his latest half-filled rally (I wonder how long he had to practice?). The bulwark against the communists is therefore holding.


    June 21, 2020 at 4:46 am

  6. In Hunters world there is no middle. There is the far right and everything to the left of that is unbridled socialism carefully disguised as communism. Reading these cut and paste jobs gives my arse a headache.To summarise, vote democrat and get communism or vote republican and get strong stable government with christian values….yeah right. We are not ten year olds.Lisa


    June 21, 2020 at 5:41 am

  7. Snowflake, did you notice that Trump could not put the glass down? He had to throw it away, because the glue used to keep it in one hand could not otherwise be removed without using both hands.But he sure is a stable genius – telling his worshipers how much of their money he is wasting on TVs for airforce dunce.

    Rex Mundi

    June 21, 2020 at 5:56 am

  8. There is the far right and everything to the left of that is unbridled socialism carefully disguised as communism.If you actually read the article you would find that it is making the argument that the New Socialism that is rising in the USA bears little relation to the sort of socialism you undoubtedly support and is far short of Communism in terms of economic class struggleIt is however, taking on distinctly Leninist aspects in terms of fighting the \”oppression\” of these new classes, especially the bits about destroying the past and destroying their opponents today.

    Tom Hunter

    June 21, 2020 at 6:42 am

  9. Whatever. You sound like Mein Kampf and I found that a tedious read as well.Lisa


    June 21, 2020 at 3:58 pm

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