When in my late teens/early 20s (very much Peak End-of-History), I desired that the name socialism be affixed to my political ideas or those that I agreed with. You know the gist: “this is what socialists should do”, or “this is what communists think”, and so on. That the stamp of political identity be inked onto a defined set of progressive or radical ideas.
But why? Why the insistence on the label?
After all, most people don’t identify as socialists. Some of the people you’re trying to reach may even have relatively negative views of ‘socialism’ (or other cognates). Speaking in the name of socialism might only exclude people by signalling that “what follows is not for you”: Well, I’m no socialist, so your argument about migration or public goods or political parties is not relevant to me. I’ll accept that it can be useful if speaking to – or wanting to reach only – a defined audience of activists and intellectuals who self-identify as socialists. Most of the time, it isn’t; certainly not in our times. But of course, the revival of interest in and identification with ‘socialism’ in the US does prompt the question (about which more below).
It’s important work, growing support for socialism. But how much energy do we want to dedicate to fighting over and for specific political terms? It might be instructive to look at what the new ‘populist’ Right is doing.
The emerging new Right have given the name of “socialism” to all the corruptions of capitalist society. To most of the oppressions too.
- Politician using state funds illicitly? That’s because of statism, ergo socialism.
- Liberal cultural elites condescending to you? That’s socialism.
- High taxes and poor social services? That’s socialism.
The basic recipe is to conflate cultural liberalism, moral and political corruption and the left. In some cases, the Left is also burdened with abandoning the working class, with the Right coming in as its true defender; in others, the new nationalist Right uses ‘libertarian’ arguments against state spending.
This latter is the case of the AfD in Germany or Bolsonaro in Brazil, where economic liberalism is smuggled in. In Germany, ordoliberalism may run contrary to the interests of AfD’s plebeian supporters; in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s core vote may be a relatively comfortable middle class that feels weighed down by a corrupt state, but he also drew significant support from precaritised workers, for whom cuts to state spending (such as pension reform) is damaging to their economic interests. Nevertheless, the chain socialism<->state<->corruption is thereby established, and the Right stands in as the true defender of ordinary folk.
Elsewhere, the Right’s nationalism is more consistent. Bannon (at least the thoughtful face he presents, which this article characterises as ‘Oxford Bannon’, as opposed to the spectacular-fascistic ‘Media Bannon’) presents a populist alternative that has economic nationalism at its core:
Bannon confounds the Left because his economic populism turns out to be pretty progressive—if you’re a Bernie Sanders fan, Bannon seems to “get it.” But that can’t be right—Media Bannon couldn’t possibly be worth listening to. So, when Bannon opens his Oxford speech by lamenting that none of the bankers that caused the Great Recession were prosecuted, and explains how he fought for increasing the tax rate on top earners to 44 percent, and expresses outrage that the middle class hasn’t had a wage increase in 35 years and that 50 percent of Americans can’t scrape together $400 in an emergency, this constitutes a giant inconvenience. The Left quickly gathered that it would have better luck debating Media Bannon.
Similarly, Marine Le Pen promises lower taxes and more welfare spending. Is this not the diametric opposite of the crumbling parties of social democracy who pose as defenders of working class interests but only administer austerity? Who herald the virtue of paying taxes but deliver poor services and privatise public goods?
Whichever economic tendency the populist Right expresses, its main contribution is to tar socialism with the crimes of liberalism. Brazil’s foreign minister captures this thrust well – probably because of his absurdist disconnection from any moderation of political discourse, as detailed in full here. Some choice quotes from his blog, written prior to his appointment:
“I want to help Brazil and the world to liberate themselves from globalist ideology. Globalism is economic globalisation that came to be piloted by cultural Marxism.”
“It’s not by chance that today’s globalist cultural marxism promotes at the same time a dilution of gender and a dilution of national sentiment: they want a world of made up of ‘gender fluid’ and cosmopolitan people with no homeland, thereby denying the biological fact of every person’s birth into a specific gender and specific historic community.”
“Hijack and pervert, that is the main motto and tactic of the left since always: they have applied it to the concepts of liberty, equality, justice, and many others, and today are desperately trying to hijack and pervert the concept of democracy.”
Of course, this is in some ways an old game, the reactionary fantasies of a Judeo-Bolshevik undermining of traditional society. For more on the history of ‘cultural Marxism’, see this article on the ‘Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment’. Taken from that article is this (contemporary) charge sheet it cites:
- The creation of racism offenses
- Continual change to create confusion
- The teaching of sex and homosexuality to children
- The undermining of schools’ and teachers’ authority
- Huge immigration to destroy identity
- The promotion of excessive drinking
- Emptying of churches
- An unreliable legal system with bias against victims of crime
- Dependency on the state or state benefits
- Control and dumbing down of media
- Encouraging the breakdown of the family
At least numbers 2, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11 can be directly attributable to the movements of Capital, to neoliberalism, rather than to any conscious agency exerted by left activists. But in eliding distinctions between socialism and liberalism, the Right is trying to conjure up an enemy in the popular imaginary that is many orders of magnitude more powerful than that which currently exists; feverish Cold War fantasies turned up to 11, Commander Jack D Ripper made real. Actually hegemonic neoliberalism and a weak Left, all in one neat bundle.
The Left, on the back foot and with a hair trigger, compounds the issue, by jumping to the defence of liberalism for fear of the Right. Refer back to the bullet points above. Corruption? Well the state is basically good, and our corruption was less bad. See Hungary 2006 or Brazil 2015. Yes, media liberalism might be condescending but attacks on them are sexist/racist/homophobic, so we should defend them. Yeah, public services have declined, but that’s not our fault. High taxes are a good thing.
In any one case, there may be a tactical reason for this positioning (and, yes, high taxes on the rich are necessary and racism must be combatted), but the overall consequence is it rather makes flesh the ghoul conjured by the populist Right: an alliance of cultural liberalism – which of course includes swathes of the political class, finance capital, the tech sector – and the left. And, as ‘the Left’ is often most visible in the form of academics and intellectuals, it makes it all to easy to conclude that, more than an alliance, liberals and leftists are actually the same gang.
A self-confident Left would let the liberals hang. Socialism has no horse in a lib-con race. We’re witnessing in slow-motion a change in the ruling class. We might, for good reasons, prefer the soft whip of neoliberalism to the rightist bludgeon. But it’s debatable whether rule by the former is more propitious for socialism than the latter. More importantly, trying to bolster aspects of the liberal edifice will only result in the whole thing crashing down on the left. Economic liberals will survive – they’ll join up with the national-populists. Cultural and political liberals will be homeless and vulnerable.
So why hand-wring over this? Liberal elites abjure authority and deny power. That makes them hard to challenge. How can you tax someone with responsibility for the state of the world if they renounce any responsibility for anything? How can their word be challenged if they never command? In contrast, the emergent Right has no such compunctions. In fact, I would wager that this its main appeal.
I’m going to build a great wall and have Mexico pay for it.
We’re going to [do action] and we’re going to make [Other] pay for it.
We’re going to create a Green New Deal and raise taxes on the rich.
We’re going to transition to socialism and expropriate the expropriators.
It’s not such a leap, is it?
So, back to the question of political identity. Sure, defend the integrity of ‘socialism’ as a word and a concept. But if your actions are seen to be complicit with the dominant liberalism, you make the job easy for the populist Right. We will have our terms stolen from us. Socialism will mean all the corruption and oppression of the world. Rather than liberation.
This is an especially sensitive issue in our times. For two reasons. The prevailing mentality is anxious and sectarian. It is the identity politics of cleaving to groups rooted in authentic essence, rather than forward-looking commitments. This is who we are, rather than this is what we do/this is what we want. Secondly, the left is weak and its institutions can be easily overwhelmed by liberal ones in the public eye. This leads to the defensiveness I referred to above.
The point, then, is not to fight tooth and nail for the political purity of ‘socialism’. What if you’re not part of that gang? What appeal does that hold? The important thing is to focus on your arguments. These are or have the potential to be popular. Be it a minimalist notion of state investment, higher welfare spending, etc., or a maximalist of one of personal and political autonomy, of liberation. Closing off spaces and boundary policing is a reflection of left weakness. The ‘socialism’ inheres in the arguments that you make that are genuinely socialist, not in the label that is attached. Working-class power and autonomy, for instance, is not something that could be (a) coopted by liberalism or (b) identified by the right-populists as complicit with liberalism. The self-confidence to raise that banner – rather than defend that of liberalism – is what is required.