On Monday, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig penned her latest ode to socialism — a column in which she pointed out the vagary of the “socialist” label, then utterly failed to define it while simultaneously touting the term. Now, Bruenig is right that people have applied the label in spotty fashion; I’ve been guilty of that myself, without a doubt. But Bruenig is similarly guilty of vaguely applying socialism to stuff she likes, while disowning stuff she doesn’t. She’s guilty of the “no true socialists” fallacy — thus, Venezuela, Cuba, and the Soviet Union aren’t truly socialist, but Norway and Sweden are.
Bruenig begins by pointing out the rising popularity of socialism once more among Democrats. And she rightly discusses the problem of defining socialism:
The United States doesn’t have a familiar, established socialist history to look to for guidance on what socialism might mean in this country. But that doesn’t mean socialism is hopelessly nebulous, or that Americans who are interested in the idea are wandering dabblers. It just means that socialism, like any sophisticated term, warrants thoughtful consideration. Socialism has meant different things to different people in different times and places, while maintaining a stable core of themes and objectives: social (as opposed to private) control of the means of production, and of all the societal, humanitarian and political-economic changes that entails, especially where the freedom and autonomy of working people are concerned.
All of this would be fine, except that Bruenig doesn’t exactly define her terms. Is she in favor of large-scale nationalization of resources — and are there any industries she’d exempt? If so, why? Is it possible for her to be any less specific when she talks about the “societal, humanitarian and political-economic changes that entails”? What level of compulsion is she discussing? What would the legal framework look like? All we’ve heard so far are buzzwords.
Unfortunately, that tendency continues for Bruenig:
For the non-Marxian English socialists of the 1840s, socialism mainly meant opposition to the competitive, dehumanizing effects of liberal economics, local experiments with communitarianism and cooperatives, and demands for the privileges of freedom, autonomy and participation in government to extend to the lower classes. Meanwhile, Marxian socialism focused on the conditions of production — who owns what, the relationships between wage-earners and owners, and how stuff gets made in a society — and the kind of politics those conditions produce. Even when “socialism” was a relatively new term, in other words, its exact meaning was disputed.
All of which is true — but unhelpful. Most free-market people wouldn’t oppose the notion that social fabric must be strong to support a free market (see, e.g., Russell Kirk), or the notion that people should vote, or the belief that private collectives have the capacity to start co-ops (see the religious co-ops that now predominate in America in the medical sphere). Yet, Bruenig would go further, as would democratic socialists.
How far would they go? Bruenig never explicitly says. Instead, she merely posits confusion:
The profusion of disparate historical examples of socialist governments can understandably cause confusion about what socialism looks like on the ground: Soviet Russia or modern-day Norway? One may as well ask if the United Arab Emirates or the United States of America is really capitalist. The answer, in both cases, has to do with varieties, degrees, democracy and methodology.
True! But where does she draw the line? Nobody knows. Yet she maintains that the support for socialism isn’t actually a support for vague notions of fairness — it’s a term with content, even if she can’t really define the content:
Clarifying exactly what “socialism” means once and for all likely won’t happen anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that voters who are attracted to democratic socialist politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t know what they’re getting into. Proposals to wipe out so-called right-to-work laws, to make college tuition-free or to provide universal health care are resonating with those supporters.
All of that is true, too, but too broad: embracing certain socialist programs like universal health care isn’t embracing full-scale socialism as an economic system, and Bruenig knows it. And part of the appeal of both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez is that they refuse to spell out precisely how they wish to achieve their socialist plans with regard to education and universal health care. But it serves her purposes to use Norway and Denmark as examples of the socialist state, even if they’re built on capitalist foundations. Bruenig decries the level of vagueness surrounding the term socialism, but then just says the popular stuff is socialist, and as for the rest . . . well, radical change is necessary isn’t it? So long as we don’t get too specific about it, that is.
At the heart of the democratic socialist vision flowering on the American left is the recognition that more than policy tweaks will be needed to empower everyday people to participate meaningfully in society and democracy.
So, which is it? Is socialism a radical program of change, or is it just piling a few redistributionist programs atop a capitalist infrastructure? Bruenig won’t say, because in the end, it’s all just about mouthing platitudes:
Working Americans deserve a say in how the country’s vast wealth will be used, and that will be possible only when inequality is reduced, corporate and big-money donors are banished from politics, and lawmakers are truly accountable to the people. It’s not so much to ask. But democratic socialists are the only ones asking.
This is utterly false. Working Americans have a say in the rules by which wealth is generated — it’s called a republic. It’s quite difficult to claim that only democratic socialists are asking about making lawmakers accountable to the public, when the Tea Party was pushing just that accountability long before the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders. Most of all, it's assuming the conclusion to suggest that workers only have a say when they agree with Elizabeth Bruenig, and when the system reflects Elizabeth Bruenig's preferred policy prescriptions.
Bruenig seems not to be sure whether she’s upset about socialism’s vagueness, or pleased by the fact that it’s a rubric that can be applied at will. In the interests of clarity, it would be nice for democratic socialists to actually say what they believe, rather than picking and choosing from the world’s various systems without applying much systemic analysis at all.