Socialist vs Liberal Websites

Socialism according to an idiot conservativeI’ve noticed something recently. I’m not very happy with liberal websites. It’s not that I especially disagree with them, although I often do. It is more that it is mostly really boring. I find myself more and more gravitating to straight up socialist websites. Primarily, they understand the fundamental problems with capitalism — especially the way it is practiced in the United States and Europe. What I never find on socialist websites, as I discussed earlier, are things like Jonathan Chait’s rejoicing about Obama pushing for state and local governments to access the usefulness of barber licensing. Read the article for my take on it. The main point here is just: who cares?

But this is what we get from liberals. It reminds me of something I heard a long time ago. When I was in college, I saw a talk by Jeff Cohen. He noted that the PBS NewsHour would bring in two conservatives to talk about a subject. They would be presented as center-left and center-right. But if it was a discussion of the military, it would doubtless be Sam Nunn — generally a conservative southern Democrat — very conservative when it came to the military. He would be joined by some Republican who was on the far right. And they would have a “Yes, but…” conversation. For example, “Yes, I agree that we must build the Mx Missile, but I think we should build 40 rather than 100.” Because what we really needed in 1985 was more ICBMs and the only possible debate was the number that we needed.

Things really came to a head during the discussion of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Like most people, my first reaction was disgust at the attack. But then it became a cause. But a cause for what? The cause of freedom of speech? Was that really a discussion we needed to have? After all, this wasn’t a question of the government stifling speech. This was a couple of thugs with guns who killed a bunch of people for their own reasons. But it did cause the French government to stifle speech as a result of it. It wasn’t the liberal blogs that were all over this hypocrisy. It wasn’t even much of the libertarian blogs. They were mostly interested in self-congratulation for just how committed to freedom they all were.

I also noticed just how widespread a certain strain of casual Islamophobia is around in the liberal world. It kind of goes along with the whole Jonathan Chait PC article brouhaha. I have this feeling that simmering below the surface of American liberalism is a kind of hatred and intolerance for anything that is socially acceptable to hate. Muslims are fine to hate, as long as you speak carefully like Sam Harris. Uppity transgender people are fine to hate, as long as it is their “intolerance” and not gender that you claim to hate. The primary difference between liberals and conservatives seems to be how much time it takes to move them kicking and screaming into the future.

The funny thing about all of this is that I don’t really consider myself a socialist. I believe in robust market economies. But because I am relatively conservative in the traditional sense of the work, I think a strong state is essential. And anyone who doesn’t see that is just not paying attention. Not only is a strong state necessary to take care of those thing that the market economy does not (social order, healthcare, guaranteed minimum income), we need it in order to make the market economy function correctly. But in the United States, politics is so screwed up that a conservative believer in robust market economies is well to the left of the traditional left.

But my increasing interest in socialist thought really doesn’t have to do with agreeing with it. I don’t agree with it any more than I agree with liberal thought. But I wonder what good liberal thought is when it doesn’t really counter the status quo. It is very much arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We will fight endless wars in foreign lands regardless who is president, and the liberals will grumble. We will see the working class fall further and further behind regardless who is president, and the liberals will murmur. The poor will die much younger than the rich regardless who is president, and the liberals will whimper. But they won’t say that something is fundamentally wrong with the system, because they are as committed to the status quote as the conservatives.

Afterword

None of this means that my thinking on politics has changed. I’ve always been on the “radical” side of liberal politics anyway. But I am still a Democrat — because there is no better choice. And ultimately, I’m a pragmatist. But there are only so many hours in the day. And what am I going to spend them doing? I could read stuff with the same old boring points of view that don’t much enrich my thinking. Or I would challenge myself. Prepare for some changes to the links on the right.

14 thoughts on “Socialist vs Liberal Websites

  1. Of course you can be in favor of robust markets and not be in favor of corporate-controlled economies. The world had markets before capitalism; it could have them after.

    One thing I always think about when “free market” types wax poetic about our current system is how really skewed our markets are towards transferring wealth ever-upward. (It’s not “trickle-down,” it’s “sucking up,” in more ways than one!) The “market” they love (the stock market, essentially) doesn’t reward innovation and spread wealth, just the opposite. Mostly our system rewards corroboration and confiscation. Banks keep their rates mostly similar and make more money off fees than they do productive loans that stimulate growth. (Consider credit cards.)

    That’s what essentially caused the last crash and will cause the next one. Up to a point it’s profitable for lenders to see borrowers go under; you collect more interest and fees. Of course at some point the effect snowballs and too many borrowers go under at once, but then, hey, bailout time, amirite?

    In a more sanely designed market system it would be in the interest of lenders and borrowers both to see these investments produce more wealth for the borrowers (new business ventures, etc.) While the occasional loan that failed would harm the lender more than the borrower, therefore tending to transfer wealth slightly downward rather than upward. Ideally the benefits for loaning/borrowing would outweigh the risks of default for both sides and result in real growth instead of asset bubbles.

    I imagine it would be very possible to construct such a system. I don’t know what name you’d call it. But Chris Hedges is right; the liberal class has failed us almost entirely these last 35 years, and with their failure goes the constraints on capitalism that keep it from running amok.

    Isn’t austerity just another version of the war reparations that pushed Germany into fascism? After all, those reparations were basically extortion for the benefit of bondholders who financed the winning side’s war costs in WWI. That ended well.

    The notion of rich people investing in new ideas, even if the democratic public doesn’t see the benefit, and letting the investors be rewarded when their investments pay off is a good one. Maybe there could be a limit on how long this investment is rewarded. (Patent reform!) The notion that rich investors should ever have a say in governance is a disaster that keeps happening again and again. The best argument socialists have (and I’m not sure I’m one of them, although I’m definitely no friend of capitalism) is that liberalism keeps promising to rein capitalism in. And every time, it fails more spectacularly. At what point do we acknowledge it’s a beast that can’t be contained?

    • I think the problem with limiting how much pain could be inflicted on borrowers would cause the banks to greatly limit loans. Of course, during the 2008 crisis, they did that anyway. Clearly however, there are tons of ways to make the system better.

      “Suck up economics” is brilliant.

  2. The majority of the 20th Century was a prolonged war between democracy, capitalism and individualism on one side and autocracy, socialism (real socialism, where the state owns all of the capital) and collectivism (perfume, jokes, blue jeans, tobacco and pets really were illegal under Mao). Thankfully, liberalism defeated the illiberal forces. We had WWI, WWII and the Cold War and at the time, it was not at all clear that Monarchism, Fascism and Communism were ultimately destined for the ash heap of history.

    Despite my falling out with libertarianism, I still respect Milton Friedman, Frederich Hayek and even crazy ole’ Ayn Rand who, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, said that state run economics and central planning were not the wave of the future. In time were learned that there was no such thing as a “new socialist man” and that blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll were more enticing then gray jumpsuits and military parades.

    Here in the early 21st Century, many people, many very smart people say that the great clash of civilizations is between the West and Islam. I disagree. A few centuries hence, the 21st century will be seen as a clash within the West. Social Democrats are on the one side and Plutocrats are on the other side. Islam and even China are not the great threat to the democratic, capitalist, individualistic west. Objectivists, reductionist libertarians and radical corporatists are our biggest threat. Well heeled, Ayn Rand reading businessmen in bespoke business suits may do to us what well armed, Marx reading commissars in military garb could never do.

    We already are in and for decades we shall be in a Wars of the Roses scenario. The ideal of the liberal West is our Edward III, the shared ancestor. Social Democracy carries the red rose and Business Oligarchs carry the white rose. The 21st Century’s dominant political theme will be the clash of ideological cousins, two competing notions of what it means to be liberal and Western.

    • Colin: I believe those who state that the primary current conflict is between the West and fundamentalist Islam are those (on both sides) who want this to be the primary conflict and don’t want either side to have to confront its own internal difficulties. (Such a conflict would be ideal for avoiding internal difficulties, as it’s a conflict that cannot be won by either side.) When Muslim-controlled nations have been allowed by the West to prosper a bit, they’ve tended to liberalize socially, which can’t make the radicals on either side happy. The same goes for Muslim communities in Western nations that haven’t instituted extreme anti-Muslim persecution, a rapidly diminishing list we amazingly still occupy. We have nut jobs with guns attacking Muslims, but not extreme government persecution besides profiling and torture of many innocent individuals; we don’t have nationwide laws on the level of internment camps, not yet.

      The funny thing about blue jeans and Walkmans (now iPads) winning the day is that in the 1980’s, we used to poke at the Soviets, not for their gulags and thought police, but for their shitty apartment buildings where nothing ever functioned properly and their reams of paperwork everyone had to go through to get a wart removed. (We barely mentioned the gulags and thought police; our consumer awesomeness was much more of a rah-rah rallying call.)

      Well, now in our society, for many people, you live in a shitty apartment building where nothing every functions properly and you have to go through reams of paperwork to get a wart removed. You also have thought police monitoring your every communication (thankfully, they seem just as incompetent as the Soviets were) and jails which, unfortunately, imprison far more people in far harsher conditions than the gulags did. In many essential ways, being poor in America today is just as bad if not worse than living under one of those drab Soviet satellite states.

      • That’s an excellent point. I am always uncomfortable when people start talking about freedom, because they usually are talking about the freedom to buy stuff. And that means it is simply the freedom to really enjoy being rich. That doesn’t much matter when there are largely invisible institutional barriers to maintain the power of elites.

    • I completely agree about your overall point. I would push back against a couple of things.

      I think the vast majority of the left in the US turned against the USSR after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. So I don’t see Rand and the many others as brave truth tellers. Also, look at how all these people vilified FDR. I’ve always maintained that people who believed in liberal democracy should worship the man, because there was a very real threat of revolution — FDR is probably responsible to keeping capitalism going in the US. But instead, Rand, Hayek, von Mises countered the ridiculousness on the left with their own form of paranoid, purity obsessed authoritarianism. I don’t really disagree with you on this point, it is just that one could say roughly the same thing about the Nazis, who also had a problem with communism. And let’s face it, Rand’s utopia would end up as something very much like fascism.

      I don’t agree that “real socialism” means that the state owns everything. That’s too limited. By that definition, even the Soviet Union wasn’t real socialism. And that would mean that the US isn’t a real capitalism because the government does own some things. What’s more, Marx didn’t discuss collective ownership of everything — just capital. The only reason I bring it up is because the real question is how we are going to partition ownership in a country, because there is always a partition — all economies are mixed. The problem we have in this country is that any partition that moves to the left is called socialism. It’s all that end of history garbage: the status quo is always the way things out to be.

      Otherwise, I quite agree. In fact, one of the most troubling things on the right over the last decade is how common arguments against democracy itself turn up. The oligarchs want ever more power, and they see that their past efforts have played out. The only way forward is to limit democracy itself. And one of the two great political parties is entirely on board with that.

    • What were they like. I wasn’t willing to dig. I just saw some about technical details. But the truth is that the editors that the WSJ and NYT really aren’t that different.

      • That’s what made it a fun waste of time. Some of the comments were highly technical and interesting (in a “how do airships work” kind of way.) While the majority involved speculations that Obama/Clinton would sell out this great military secret to the Chinese/Russians because they hate ‘Murica. Pure lunacy. I thought WSJ readers were supposed to be bright rich people!

        One I hugely enjoyed was someone pointing out that this thing’s supposed to be fired from a boat. Because it requires a massive power source to work, and naval vessels often have nuclear power. So the gizmo’s going to have a range of 100+ miles. But it’s fired from a boat! News flash; boats bob in the water! If the targeting is off by a millimeter, over 100+ miles it’s not going to be close to accurate. So the gizmo is basically useless. No big surprise, but I did enjoy reading how dipshitty the average WSJ acolyte is.

        • Regarding WSJ readers: not really. I’ve run into many idiot conservatives who have told me that they think WSJ is a great newspaper. At first, I agreed with them. It has long been a great paper. But it eventually occurred to me that they were actually talking about the WSJ editorial page, which is a total loony bin. They like the paper because Rush Limbaugh’s entire daily show is based on the editorial page. They aren’t interested in news at all. And it is so bad that the editorial page does a lot of its own “reporting” because the news section won’t go along with reporting their loony conspiracy theories.

          • The thing is, in a way, I admire this stuff. They made a giant artillery cannon that uses electromagnetism instead of gunpowder to launch a cannonball. That’s an impressive feat! A few years ago I visited a national monument site in South Dakota where they had a 1960s missile silo (staffed by two guys who worked 12-hour shifts together behind soundproof doors, so 100% not-gay.) Those things were deep underground on humongous hydraulic cushioning systems so they’d withstand a direct surface-level nuclear explosion. (Theoretically. It’s hard to imagine that actually working.) That’s amazing! An underground rocket base on springs!

            Unfortunately this stuff begs the question of “why, exactly?” and is a deeply immoral waste of money. It’s still clever as hell, though. And when we do it for “because we want to try” scientific purposes, like “let’s see if we can land a probe on a comet” it’s spectacularly cool.

            • This is part of why I worry about humanity. There’s a weak link problem. We always have to worry about what the worst of us will do and that means that we all because the worst of us. We are just lucky that it isn’t all about technology.

          • Sorry, I went off on my own tangent. I do that a lot these days!

            I’ve never read the WSJ editorial page, not once, but I believe you. WTF were they doing hiring Thomas Frank as a columnist for a few months? Did someone think it’d be a personnel coup if they converted him to the Dark Side with money? That sure didn’t work.

            • He wasn’t on the editorial page; he was on the opposite-editorial page. But he did serve a purpose. Being very liberal, they could paint all liberals the same way. But ultimately: he’s a very interesting writer. I think David Brock discusses the WSJ in Blinded By the Right.

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