Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Comments on Further Thoughts

Russell Arben Fox and "Pym" have left good and thoughtful comments in defense of a certain understanding of socialism, in response to my post "Further Thoughts." I've replied to them there in the comment section, but since it's MY blawg (note the assertion of ownership), I reserve the option of turning a comment into a posting. Which I do here, below:

Russell and Pym raise good questions here: it's very easy in modern America, and particularly in the wake of the catastrophe of the Soviet experiment, to dismiss socialism as an evil not worthy of consideration. Russell is right that Marx was a keen observer of the destruction that capitalism wrought upon traditional society, as expressed most eloquently in the opening passages of the Communist Manifesto (one of my favorite passages in all of political theory). Still, we need to understand that Marx was not so much lamenting this destruction (as Russell and I might) as recognizing that capitalism succeeded in obliterating traditional cultures and thereby opening the possibility of the awareness of an internationally shared interest of workers (proletariat) - and hence the opening line, "Workers of the World, Unite!" The destruction of cultures and traditions was the necessary first step that preceded the possibility of true communism, and thus we can see even more clearly that Marx relies upon, even as he rejects, the work of Locke, Smith and other early modern liberals.

[I would note that one can see great evidence for such post-Lockeanism in the thought of some contemporary political theorists who ardently embrace the label of socialism, understanding it to be a post-liberal condition. Thus, in our common opposition to liberalism, we share some eerily similar views that can at first glance be confused. For instance, in the same way that people like me reject the notion that Republicans can be considered to be conservative, such socialists similarly reject the notion that Obama can be regarded as a man of the Left. There is actually a high degree of agreement with those of us outside the current liberal configuration that what is needed is a politics that goes beyond the classic liberal conception of human nature as self-interested and driven by appetite. Still, further reflection helps one see why distinctions between Left and Right remain important for all those similarities, since just such contemporary socialists look ardently to the State to become the voice of the people - to make us one, and in and through the State we will achieve a transcendence of our self-interest. Traditionalists, particularly those based in the Christian tradition, soundly reject this notion - though they are more accepting of the idea of law and morality that restrains the full blown freedom of the markets - because they accept the fundamental Christian understanding that the State can no more be an idol than the market, and we are best served by moderating our appetites in moderate political and social settings. For a telling example of this Left socialism, see some of Jodi Dean's online writings, such as here and here , some of which echoes similar concerns that a traditionalist/Distributivist might express, but which goes in a very different direction. Indeed, she condemns a turn toward localism here, which she considers to be "deeply anti-socialist, anti-collectivist, and anti-cooperative. It's another version of every man for himself, in effect, a deeper, more estranged distillation of neoliberalism"].

"Pym" (and I assume Russell) are rightly drawn to an alternative understanding of socialism, mainly its pre-modern Christian form. I can't really object to that either, though I think it's one thing to admire these forms of small scale local communes (based on common ownership), and another to enact them. Efforts to enact them (particularly in modernity) have proven to be fanciful and short-lived. Indeed, it could be argued (and I would argue) that truths articulated by Christianity itself point to the impossibility of achieving a truly selfless small-scale commune: even on such a small scale, we still tend to prefer our own, and ultimately ourselves. That is simply part of being human after the Fall. Recognizing this, there is a strong justification for ownership and private property (for much the same grounds suggested by Aristotle - we care more about that which is ours, and that care will be manifested publically), centered largely around the family and small-scale ownership. The model here would be along the lines of Chesterton's and Belloc's Distributivism, that is, widespread ownership in the form of small-scale family-based and community-centered businesses, and mainly based in agriculture. I think this combines the insight of capitalism that we work hard when a form of personal satisfaction is possible (we work on behalf of "our own"), and socialism, that we need to attend to the concerns and demands of the common weal. Modernity set these two options at odds with each other (in the forms of Locke and Marx); our task is to bring them more closely together.


Pym said...

Prof. Deneen,

You are doubtless well acquainted with the economic hurdles confronting distributism. But have you considered the possibility that the theological underpinnings of distributism have been superseded by something rather more radical -- something that attacks the theological roots of the West's arguably excessive individualism?

If, as I suggested, "socialism" is best understood not as an agenda but rather as an aspiration, then one encyclical like "Spe salvi" that collectivizes our hope of redemption is far more radical than the encyclicals at the root of the distributist tradition, namely those about social justice and the role of labor from 1890 to 1990 ("Rerum Novarum," "Quadragesimo Anno," "Populorum Progressio," "Laborem Exercens," "Centesimus Annus").

"No one is saved alone," aruges Benedict XVI in "Spe Salvi," drawing on the "communio" school of theology and in particular on the work of Henri de Lubac. Read de Lubac in depth and you will discover that he follows Origen in arguing that salvation is not only collective but universal. These are notions long suppressed, and their implications are hard to understand.

Nevertheless, my sense is that the basis of distributism has been replaced by something far more profound, for which the Jesuits silenced de Lubac and some imputed heresy to him and even to Ratzinger in the 1950s. Is it heresy?

"In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional mortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked."
-- The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 12, p. 96 (online)

Apparently the West has been unusually individualist since at least early Christian times. Perhaps this is part of its residual paganism. How comfortably it blends with our worship of Mammon! Hobbes and Locke came late to this party, I fear.

Joel Dietz said...

Perhaps part of the instinctive reaction against 'socialism' relates to 'freedom' as the central American value, although with conflicted and frequently contradictory attached definitions.

I believe one must first answer the question 'What is human freedom?' before one can productively speak on optimal societal ordering -- which of course will involve a statement as to the true nature of community.

Contra Pym, it seems to me that the question hangs not on universalistic or individualistic notions of salvation, but on how the 'salt of the earth' can retain its saltiness in a variety of differing political environs.

papabear said...

If, as I suggested, "socialism" is best understood not as an agenda but rather as an aspiration, then one encyclical like "Spe salvi" that collectivizes our hope of redemption is far more radical than the encyclicals at the root of the distributist tradition,

God is the Common Good of the Universe. Any sort of 'implication' is drawn from God as the object of charity, not hope.