On Tuesday, The Washington Post ran an op-ed from Elizabeth Bruenig touting the possibilities of a new economic system in the United States: socialism. That’s not a complete surprise, given the mainstream media’s sudden interest in Marxism again – The New York Times has run a series of pieces over the last year praising Marxism from the perspective of women’s rights, “inspiring” Americans, the Harlem Renaissance, even from the perspective of having better sex. Bruenig’s piece, however, is a masterpiece of silliness, a veritable cornucopia of evil ideas repackaged in the mildewed bows of revolutionary optimism.
She begins by complaining that capitalism has hollowed out the “liberal” movement — liberals want to praise capitalism for its benefits, but ignore its downside. Instead, Bruenig suggests, “It’s time to give socialism a try.” Why, pray tell, would we try a system of government interventionism that has ended, every time, in heartbreaking poverty and mass death? (No, Sweden and Denmark aren’t socialist countries — they’re capitalist countries with redistributionist tendencies.) Because, says Bruenig, the ills of our society are almost entirely the result of capitalism. She excoriates Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine for embracing capitalism while lamenting the rise of nationalism. She complains about Joe Biden, whom she says whines uselessly about America being “better than this.” She says that Americans are “isolated, viciously competitive, suspicious of one another and spiritually shallow; and that we are anxiously looking for some kind of attachment to something real and profound in an age of decreasing trust and regard,” and that all of this is “emblematic of capitalism.” Never mind that America’s social bonds remained strong while capitalism was ascendant; never mind that government interventionism has coincided with a breakdown in social cohesion; never mind that government-enforced conformity has a rude way of destroying “attachment to something real and profound.” No, it’s that we shop around for our products at the local grocery store. That’s the problem, obviously.
It gets worse. According to Bruenig, capitalism “encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing.)”
This is pure nonsense. Of course capitalism promotes individualism. So does liberalism, the root of human rights. And even the most ardent capitalists, like Ayn Rand, forcibly reject the idea that we should resent voluntary economic arrangements — in fact, believers in free markets see such resentment as the root of socialism, not capitalism. Furthermore, everyone gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing. In fact, that’s the only way to get rich. If you screw someone, you can’t very well have a repeat economic transaction with them. This zero-sum mentality only applies to socialistic misapprehensions about the nature of free and voluntary exchange.
But Bruenig continues:
Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.
Now, this is a critique frequently made by social conservatives, who suggest that virtue is a necessity to preserve freedom, and that Judeo-Christian values and communities that spring from those values must be the underpinning of capitalism. But socialism doesn’t resolve those problems. It merely redistributes them: all relationships are now reduced down to numbers, and if those numbers don’t fit, people are made to fit the numbers. If alienation is the product of capitalism, then subjugation is the product of socialism.
Bruenig quickly skips over the totalitarianism of socialism, instead suggesting a “kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture.”
That’s a lot of buzzwords in a row. There is no way to “democratize” socialism — there is always a boss at the factory, whether it’s a government bureaucrat or an owner who has a stake in the success of the factory. You cannot decommodify labor, because labor is by its nature a commodity — it is a tradeable good to be bought and sold. And capitalism may create inequality, but it also creates prosperity for everyone, including those on the bottom end of the economic spectrum.
Bruenig continues nonetheless:
I don’t think that every problem can be traced back to capitalism: There were calamities and injustices long before capital, and I’ll venture to say there will be after.
Well, yes. Before capitalism, there was feudalism, monarchic tyranny, mercantilism, and bloody war with complete lack of economic progress. So there’s that. But Bruenig concludes:
But it seems to me that it’s time for those who expected to enjoy the end of history to accept that, though they’re linked in certain respects, capitalism seems to be at odds with the harmonious, peaceful, stable liberalism of midcentury dreams. I don’t think we’ve reached the end of history yet, which means we still have the chance to shape the future we want. I suggest we take it.
Bruenig’s path has already been taken. It leads to the gulag, to the prison camp, to the starvation of children. It leads to centralization of power and it leads to destruction of the individual. The fact that Bruenig can repeat the discredited nostrums of Lenin and Mao without even realizing it shows how our capitalist system has failed to educate its beneficiaries about just why they’re able to write garbage editorials for pay in the freest, most prosperous country in world history.