Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Arguing with a child

I realize it's stupid, and I shouldn't do it, but I just can't help myself. Jonah Goldberg (yeah, that's right, the chickenhawk par excellence) today asks a question about the difference between European socialism and American liberalism which he claims is serious rather than rhetorical:
What exactly differentiates the goals, ambitions and/or philosophical drives of, say, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from European social democrats? Is there anything fundamental to social democracy that Nancy Pelosi (forget Obama for the moment) disagrees with because she is a liberal and not a “socialist”? Is there anything Nancy Pelosi believes about the role of the state that would cause the average Swedish or British social democrat to object?

I am sure that there are some cultural differences to account for. Swedes are culturally different from Belgians who are different from San Francisco liberals. But are they philosophically all that different?
OK. Let me try to explain this very slowly, using no big words.

American liberals believe that the government should offer a "social safety net," including elements such as unemployment benefits; cash transfers; food stamps; price subsidies for "essentials" such as food, electricity, public transport, or housing; public works; public subsidies for health care; public education; and so on.

"Socialists" (European or otherwise) believe in all that, too, of course. But what they also believe in is the collective or common ownership of the means of production, at least for major industrial components ("the commanding heights"). [Aside: there are important debates about how this should be implemented -- through state ownership, worker cooperatives, or what have you.]

This distinction is what sets off American liberals from European socialists. The belief in collective ownership is held by very sizable minorities in most European countries, and in fact is a programmatic element of the party platforms of many European social democratic parties. By contrast, in America, almost no one believes in collectivizing the means of production; and it's certainly not a view propounded in any fashion by Pelosi, much less Obama.

On the basis of this distinction, it is clear that the recently-passed health care bill, despite the Luntzian claims of a "government takeover," was a perfect example of non-socialism: yes, the federal government put into place mandates and subsidies (e.g. liberalism); but what it did not do was to nationalize (e.g. to collectivize the ownership of) the health care industry (e.g. socialism).

Either Goldberg understands this distinction, and chooses to ignore it because it would collapse his ability to red-bait, or he really is incredibly stupid.

(Update: OK, maybe not "stupid," but at minimum willfully obtuse.)


Matt said...

The tactic of calling American Liberals socialists, and their policies socialist is just name calling. It has nothing to do with making an argument or persuading by reason. It is a purely emotional tactic, it does not need to be correct to be effective as an emotional appeal. It sounds better than just saying "Pelosi bad."

Anonymous said...

European socialists ? Goldberg is talking about social democrats, which is not quite the same thing.

Leaving that aside, your information appears to be a bit dated. A few examples:

At the 1959 Godesberg Conference the German social democrats (SPD) gave up on public ownership and they have never even gone near it since. Are they socialists in your book ?
Labour under Blair didn`t nationalize key industries either as far as I recall. The same goes for the PSOE in Spain under Felipe Gonzales. Again, are they socialists?

The French socialists (PS) did have a go in the early 80s which resulted in a major disaster and have kept away from that sort of thing ever after.

Worker cooperatives have gone out of fashion since the death of Tito, btw., quite a few years ago.

So where does that leave your contention that (in 2010) European socialists or social democrats believe in the public ownership of major industries?

That incidentially, does not mean that the man Goldberg is right.

However a bit more research would do you no harm either and assailing a weak argument with a superficial one may not get you very far.


Anonymous said...

FMC, whomever you may be: I will note simply that Goldberg asked whether there was anything "philosophically" different about European social democratic parties and the US Democratic Party, and the answer is clearly yes.

Worker control over the economy - that's the essence of socialism. And I just don't see how any nonconspiratorial reading of the Democratic Party's positions - present or past - could come to the conclusion that this, programmatically, is what they are promoting. Even at the height of the New Deal, with the NLRA, the Democrats never came close to demanding that workers determine management policy.

Now, obviously many contemporary European Social Democratic parties have given up on various maximalist policy ambitions concerning common ownership of the means of production (to say nothing of social revolution); but the critical point here is that these parties have these philosophical roots, and that these are not at all the same roots as the US Democratic Party's.

This question or origins is particularly important to emphasize with respect to Goldberg, who has literally written a whole book that attempts to connect contemporary US liberalism to fascism by pointing out supposedly shared philosophical roots.

Anonymous said...

Very briefly:

1. "Worker control over the economy - that's the essence of socialism." Exactly. And that is what the parties I have named have given up on. The legislation on worker`s participation which exists in Germany and France is just a fig leaf and a small one at that if one knows the law in these countries.

2. "...many contemporary European Social Democratic parties have given up ... common ownership of the means of production..." I ve cited the UK, Germany, France and Spain. Which socialist parties still cling to their ideal in your opinion (limiting myself to Europe, outside we still have Chavez and the Castro brothers) ?

3. Quite agree as to the origin, however, their philosophy has changed and the question was about philosophy as it is today and not as it was in the 50s.


Nils said...

This post was about socialism, and whether the Democrats are "socialists," which was Jo'berg's central contention. Goldberg's question specifically brackets narrow issues of policy, and asks about "philosophical" differences between "socialism" and "liberalism" - which he claims do not exist. (Indeed, he also claims that these two are also identical with "fascism," which is even more bewildering.)

If the question is one of "philosophy," then the issue of origins and fundamental sympathies is important - as I think Jo'berg would agree. The question, in other words, is: Is the US Democratic Party really, ultimately (e.g. "philosophically") a "socialist" party? In other words, do the Democrats favor of worker control over the industrial system?

My argument is that such a claim is either philosophically confused about the definition of socialism, or it's historically wrong about the records of US Democrats. The Democratic Party has NEVER demanded that workers control the industrial system; nor has there ever been a party-majority constituency for such a belief. Indeed, America is famous for its lack of socialism.

By contrast, imagining a desire for worker control over the industrial system on the part of European social democrats is easy, since they either continue to hold such positions, or held those positions in the recent past. Despite whatever "Third Way" compromises the political leadership of European social democratic parties may have made of late, it's historically accurate to point out that these parties grew out of ones with more militant socialist roots.

That's the key point: it's the European social democratic parties that changed, not the US Democratic Party, and not the definition of socialism. So, to repeat: the word "socialism" means something specific, and what it means has nothing to do with what the US Democrats are now or ever have been. In other words, the way Jo'berg uses the word "socialism" to describe the US Democrats is just philosophically stupid and historically illiterate.

So let's say this: if you're willing to concede that the American Democrats have nothing to do with socialism, in any "philosophically" or "historically" meaningful sense of the term - in other words, if you'll concede the central point of my original post, namely that Jo'berg is a philosophically illiterate red-baiting partisan hack - then I'll gladly concede that many contemporary European social democratic parties have migrated their policy platforms toward a mild center-leftism that has little to do with socialism.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of discussion that tied the European left into knots from the middle of the 19th century to the demise of the Soviet Union and "the old Left." Blah blah blah, bumperstickers and empty labels. Save for a few wild-eyed hooligans, what passes for "the Left" in America would be mostly centrists in Europe, and as an intellectual proposition, Louis Hartz was surely closer to the truth than most other American commentators in arguing for the practical implausibility of a serious socialist movement in the United States, not just because as a country or region we didn't pass through feudal relations (okay: the plantation states of the Confederacy came close, in Hartz's book) but because this is THE place where the principal of individual liberty was enshrined in founding documents (and of course not, as the most extreme Donkeys of the Right would have it, to the exclusion of collective - re. government - action on behalf of a defined public good).