What We Talk About When We Talk About Socialism

From Jim Carrey to the Chapo Trap House to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the "s" word means different things to different people. Here's how libertarians should engage.


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These days you can't swing a dead kulak without hitting someone who's really, really into socialism, or at least giving it a longer look. On Real Time with Bill Maher last week, movie star Jim Carrey emphatically said, "We have to say yes to socialism, to the word and everything….We have to stop apologizing."

The current It Girl of American politics, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. The crew behind the popular Chapo Trap House podcast have a widely discussed book out that purports to be a "Guide to Revolution" and "A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason." Corey Robin, a professor at CUNY and author of The Reactionary Mind, explains in The New York Times "why the pitch from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders resonates in 2018." Politico asked a range of mostly left-leaning activists and analysts, "What Would a Socialist America Look Like?" (The answer: pretty much unicorns and rainbows, apparently.) Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist who pushes national single-payer health care, more funding for Social Security, and a tax on Amazon, still makes the progressive crowd swoon.

And the endorsement of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who like Sanders is widely considered a likely candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is highly sought even after she admitted, "I believe in markets and the benefits they can produce." (More on that later.)

According to Gallup, 51 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 29 have a positive view of socialism while just 45 percent have a positive view of capitalism. A recent Fox News poll (Fox!) found growing support for the statement, "Do you think it would be a good thing or a bad thing for the United States to move away from capitalism and more toward socialism?" Now 36 percent say it would be a good thing; seven years ago, only 20 percent did. More worrying, just 51 percent think it would be a bad thing, down from well over 60 percent over the same time period.

What are libertarians to make of all this? Is this the moment when the curve of history starts bending left, even as (or maybe because) actual socialist countries such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela dwindle to zero? I don't think so, but it would be foolish for anyone who believes in "Free Minds and Free Markets" to write off the current moment as merely a symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome or just a pre-midterm outpouring of limousine liberalism. The financial crisis, the bank and auto-company bailouts (which all good libertarians opposed), the slower-than-molasses recovery, declines in the labor-force participation rate, non-stop war, and more have helped drive confidence in the old ways of doing things through the floor. People are rightly looking for alternatives, and "socialism" is one of them.

That said, a good chunk of socialism chic can be chalked up to semantic or definitional vagueness. To the extent that socialism is equated with being kind or fair, it's easy to see the appeal. This is especially true with younger people, who have no memory of what life was like in the old Warsaw Pact countries. When Reason polled Millennials back in 2014, 42 percent said they thought socialism was a better system than capitalism, a finding consistent with many other subsequent polls. But when we asked a follow-up question, it became pretty clear that most respondents didn't define socialism as a system where the government owns or heavily controls the means of production. Asked whether they would prefer a "government-managed economy" or a "free-market economy," only 32 percent wanted the first option while 64 percent wanted the latter. When even "communist" China is practicing at least a version of capitalism, the horror stories coming out of Venezuela are easy to ignore. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may rail against the gig economy, but just like Bernie and Warren she uses Uber every chance she gets.

We may be arriving at a period Joseph Schumpeter warned about in his 1942 masterpiece, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Marx believed that capitalism would "immiserate" proletarians so badly that workers would finally gain true class consciousness, revolt, and commandeer the means of production. Schumpeter thought that was empirically wrong—"the capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls," he wrote—but he was convinced that capitalism would defeat itself by creating a society that took wealth creation and rising living standards for granted. Capitalism would die not because of its failure to deliver the good life but because of its success at mainstreaming general wealth.

Capitalism, Schumpeter famously argued, was built upon "the gale of creative destruction…a process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." Such nonstop "turmoil" causes all sorts of social, cultural, and economic dislocations, is constantly upending established interests, and wears people out until they vote to straitjacket economic change in the name of social calm. You can hear echoes of that today, and not just from Bernie Sanders and other self-proclaimed socialists. Even Donald Trump spoke for the "forgotten American" left behind by "globalists" who cared more about the poor in foreign countries than the poor in the upper Midwest. There are good reasons to doubt that we're living in a particularly volatile global labor market, but the reigning narrative on both the right and the left is that we're in the thick of a period when whole industries rise and fall on an almost hourly basis. That sort of panic makes socialism, which promises to smooth out, control, and direct things to a greater or smaller degree, attractive. At least someone (other than Rich Uncle Pennybags) will be in charge, right?

The Chapo bros are actual textbook socialists bent "on seizing the billionaires' money, socializing their wealth, and handing the keys of production over to workers," all in the interest of creating a utopian three-hour workday. But most of the new era's socialists are not so old-school. Bernie Sanders has admitted that he doesn't want the government to run everything as much as he wants it to run or regulate more stuff. The details aren't all there, but even his Medicare-for-All pitch doesn't involve making all health-care professionals public employees. He's not really far from Warren, who denies being a socialist and is at pains to say that she really, really likes markets—as long as they are tightly regulated so, in her view, they perform more equitably. As she recently told The Atlantic,

What excites me about markets? I was telling you that gains-from-trade argument, but really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we've got a set of rules that lets everybody who's got a good, competitive idea get in the game….We need to make capitalism work for your family and we need to make democracy work for your family.

Writing in The New York Times, CUNY's Corey Robin demotes economics to secondary importance for today's socialists, arguing:

The socialist argument against capitalism isn't that it makes us poor. It's that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

Listen to today's socialists, and you'll hear less the language of poverty than of power.

Robin's emphasis is also evident in some of the contributors to Politico's symposium, such as the head of the Democratic Socialists of America, who writes that under socialism "we will have true freedom, not just survival—the choices available to us now that depend on the whims of the few." In significant ways, many recent calls for socialism echo the early issues of the anti-Soviet socialist magazine Dissent, which got started in 1954. Like National Review, which got going a year later from a right-wing perspective, the founders of Dissent were first and foremost promoting individualism in an age of perceived conformity. The differences between Big Government and Big Business were less important perhaps than maintaining one's unique identity in a world of mass commerce, mass culture, mass warfare. The editors even invoked the adjective libertarian in their statement of purpose:

We shall try to reassert the libertarian values of the socialist ideal, and at the same time, to discuss freely and honestly what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified….We share a belief in the dignity of the individual, we share a refusal to countenance one man's gain at the expense of his brother, and we share an intellectual conviction that man can substantially control his condition if he understands it and wills to.

There is some of that, however submerged, in today's calls for socialism. It's not a bad ideal, to want individuals to be able to flourish however they see fit. In fact, that corresponds almost perfectly with the ways most libertarians talk and think about social organization. What system is most likely to allow individuals to become whomever they want to become? In this sense, socialism and capitalism (to use incredibly oversimplified terms) are both part of the liberal Enlightenment project that begins with autonomous, equal individuals.

What remain vastly different, of course, are attitudes and understandings of economics and of power differentials. Contemporary socialists will insist that regulating more and more of economic life at all levels will improve outcomes, though from a libertarian perspective, all that does is create the sort of hassle factor that drives barbers, tattoo artists, and gig-economy contractors out of business. Sanders and the rest complain endlessly about the high price of education, health care, and housing without noting that these are sectors either monopolized by or heavily regulated by government. How do computers, cars, and cell phones, not to mention food, clothing, and entertainment keep getting relatively cheaper and better over time?

Libertarians rightly point out that market forces have been mostly pushing things in a positive direction, especially for the poorest and least-connected among us. Historian Nancy MacLean can generate a fanciful and error-ridden book arguing that school choice is a diabolical plot designed to resegregate America, but those of us who look seriously at what choice and competition can do for K-12 education have a strong argument that such market-like forces improve outcomes, especially for low-income Americans of color. A smaller, more limited government that ends cronyism in the public and private sectors, replaces traditional welfare with unrestricted cash grants to people in need, ends the drug war and a thousand other petty means of social control, and opens borders to trade and people is a libertarian program that I suspect would interest many people who are looking at socialism as a possible answer to today's problems.

I don't expect to ever change the mind of a committed socialist. But libertarians can't expect to engage, much less persuade, anyone flirting with socialism if we simply invoke Stalin, the Great Leap Forward, or even Hugo Chavez every time socialism gets mentioned.