Why not neosocialism?

Sometime between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Obama-McCain election campaign, socialism disappeared off the radar screen of American political culture. The justifications were many. Defeat of the Evil Empire/Arrival at the End of History/Failed Experiment to Improve Humanity, etc. Of course, “disappearance” is exaggerated. But discourse on socialism, let alone socialism itself, didn’t have a lot of political relevance in this country for over 15 years.

Today, however, there’s a discursive specter on the move again. In the last 18 months or so, talk about socialism, specifically about Obama’s and the DNC’s alleged work to turn America into a socialist power, has become a veritable staple of the opinionsphere, from more-or-less serious editorial commentary to general rightist crazytalk. Even though it appears in pejorative form 99.9% of the time, it somehow warms the heart of a Marxian to see “socialism” back in the public cultural mix again :)

The aspect of this discourse that most intrigues me, frankly, is the resuscitation of the term “neo-socialism,” a term which as far as I can tell has been around since the 1930s, ironically (or maybe not so much) originally linked to fascist politics in France (see Marcel Déat). In November 2009, the Conservative Wahoo suggested popularizing “neo-socialism” as a complementary baiting tactic to the left’s use of the term “neo-con” and pithily defined the qualities of “neo-socialism” as follows:

  1. A belief in the concept that capitalism has failed, but can be resuscitated by a new partnership between government and business. This new partnership will be inherently more fair to more people.
  2. A belief that competition isn’t necessarily bad, and that government can and should be permitted to compete with private industry.
  3. A belief that big government isn’t necessarily bad; what is bad is BAD big government. Big, effective government is desirable.
  4. A belief in the transcendent quality of the world community while de-valuing national interests. A sense of American relative and actual decline in the world, one that demands of us a more compliant approach to problem solving. A perception that American decline is not necessarily a bad thing.”

I’ve heard of worse doctrines. But, of course, that’s the point. The strategy here is to bait the left into saying, “gee, that actually does sound pretty reasonable; I guess it’s OK to call myself a socialist as long as you stick that neo- in front of it.” The Wahoo’s next move, of course, will be to argue that the path of neo-socialism is inevitably going to produce a neo-Stalin, neo-Gulags, and death-panels-for all. Crafty late liberal subjects that they are, Obama and the DNC are never going to fall for that one. Invoking European style social democracy is already taboo enough that only economic czars without portfolios like Paul Krugman feel safe to go there.

But meanwhile, I’ve seen neosocialism (I prefer to lose the hyphen) develop more diagnostic or at least descriptive purchase over the past couple of years, being used in a variety of journalistic and para-academic venues to describe the policies and politics of everyone from Hugo Chavez to Kevin Rudd. There’s even a “Neo Socialist Alliance” on Facebook (all 41 of them, good luck comrades!) dedicated to “the overthrow of the capitalist state” (ironically for neosoc Rudd, their primary target seems to be Australia).

Unfortunately, none of this talk of neosocialism is being reflected in the anthropological literature. To take a selective but not unrepresentative example, Anthrosource content searches on “neosocialism” and “neosocialist” turned up precisely 0 and 0 hits. Parallel searches on “neoliberalism” and “neoliberal” meanwhile turned up 56 and 112 hits respectively. “Neoliberal,” I don’t need to tell you, is one of those eyeglazing stock adjectives that seems to pop up in every anthropological grant proposal and conference paper on the planet. But what about neosocialism? Why don’t we think neosocialism has any analytical value? I think this is a missed opportunity.

Which brings me to my main point. If you look back on the entanglement of liberalism and socialism in modern European social theory and political philosophy, it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about the one without the other. If we think there’s something neoliberal out there then by goodness (!) there’s bound to be something neosocialist loose in the world as well. I admit that this is counterintuitive. We’ve all been schooled (not least by liberal and socialist theorists) to assume that liberalism and socialism are antithetical to one another. And, at some level, of course, there’s oppositionality there. But I’d argue there is also a strong relationship of complementarity between the two.

Boiling them down to their respective bones, liberalism posits individuality as the natural state and positive disposition of humanity. Social relations exist, liberalism can’t deny that, but it says that meaningful, positive social relations are familial and at most communitarian. Like Margaret Thatcher, liberalism is ultimately skeptical that something like “Society” actually exists, especially as a meaningful reference for politics. Once beyond families and communities, liberalism offers us zones of exchange (e.g., markets), a discourse on individual rights, and political institutions for the remediation of incommensurable interests and differences (in other words, pluralism).

Socialism, by contrast, assumes sociality as the natural state and positive disposition of humanity. Individuality exists, socialism can’t deny that either, but the idea is that human life is determined ultimately not by the wills of selves but by the necessary condition of human interdependence. By the facts that human beings are not born alone, that selves do not nourish and educate themselves, that all of the great achievements and terrors of humankind have been generated through assemblages of social action. Socialism thus judges politics and interests naturally societal in character and it is for this reason that socialism has indeed been prone, much as liberalism accuses it, of looking to states and bureaucracies as the best political means available of guaranteeing certain basic standards of human life.

Despite their varying political emphasis, there is no antithesis here. I would say that liberalism and socialism reflect the crystallization of political ontologies around two experiential poles of (modern) human experience: for simplicity’s sake, let’s call these two poles: autonomy and relatedness. In a very basic way, liberalism sacralizes the experience of individual autonomy, the fact that to some extent we modern subjects can always believe ourselves to be unrelated beings, experiencing the world through individualized senses, consciousness and bodies. Socialism meanwhile sacralizes the phenomenological experience of transindividual relatedness, the recognition that no matter how much we experience human life as an island of selfhood, experience constantly reminds us that our selfhood is in every way constituted through and contingent upon interaction with these other selves and with broader societal institutions.

So, in a nutshell, liberalism acknowledges relatedness but valorizes autonomy; socialism valorizes relatedness but acknowledges autonomy. Both liberalism and socialism can only move so far without getting entangled in the interests of the other. After all, without autonomy, what is relatedness? And without relatedness, what is autonomy? And if you look closely at liberal and socialist theory you’ll see that this plays out in the way that both “sides” often contain within their philosophical and political arguments an embryotic version of the other, a kind of philosophical vanishing twin. For example, Adam Smith, that great liberal thinker, found it necessary to develop a theory of sympathy and moral sentiment adjacent to his dominant model of the human propensity to “truck, barter and exchange” as individuals. And even Marx argued in his pre-Manifesto days that the entire point of the communist movement and the negation of bourgeois relations of capital and alienation was to unlock the full potential of human individuality. If that isn’t a liberal position, I don’t know what is.

So, now, back to anthropology, which sees neoliberalism everywhere and neosocialism nowhere in the world. Whether we want to call this “neosocialism” or the less politically-charged and therefore infinitely less interesting “contemporary relationalist thinking” I think we should name neoliberalism’s silent twin and start taking its political discourses and cultural forms seriously too. Because they are out there in abundance already, in China and Venezuela sure, but not only there. The odd mergers of ecoliberalism (individual rights, free expression, political participation, sometimes economic growth) and ecosocialism (communal rights, social justice, global sustainability) in green politics across the world come immediately to mind. Or, similar hybrids in the anti-free-trade, clean energy and digital commons movements. Actually, I think that if we begin looking closely at many of the events and processes currently being offered as evidence of the relentless march forward of the neoliberal world order, we’re going to discover that there are a lot of political ideas, cultural practices and social institutions that would be better described as “neosocialist.”

Which is also to say that neosocialism need not represent one set of ideas, practices and institutions any more than neoliberalism should. It is better to take the “neo” more seriously and to think about neosocialism and neoliberalism as the work of political ontology to constantly adapt autonomial and relationalist thinking to the exigencies of contemporary experience and thus to guarantee a steady stream of new neoliberalisms and neosocialisms. As an anthropologist, I think it’d be fun to splash around in that stream for a while.

30 thoughts on “Why not neosocialism?

  1. Thank you for the citation of my piece on Neo-Socialism (or neosocialism, if you will). You’ve got a smart, insightful site here. I hope that you’ve returned to my site/read more than just the one post in order to see for yourself whether your prediction “The Wahoo’s next move, of course, will be to argue that the path of neo-socialism is inevitably going to produce a neo-Stalin, neo-Gulags, and death-panels-for all” came to pass. I’ll give you a hint….it didn’t.

    I was indeed baiting with this post. You got that part right. And I think your view of my summation of Neo-Socialism is also very well done. But perhaps I wasn’t eloquent enough in this treatment to ensure readers got what was an important point–that there are clear distinctions between socialism its neo-cousin. And that for conservatives (neo and otherwise) to be intellectually armored for the debates ahead–just yelling “socialist” every time Mr. Obama made another move seemed to me to be idiocy. He’s NOT a socialist. He’s just a lot more comfy with government and government/business than I or many of my readers are.

    Continued good luck with your well-designed and informative site!

    Bryan McGrath, The Conservative Wahoo

  2. Wow, thank you very much for this. The struggling fetus of my doctoral thesis is infected with the word “neoliberalism”, which I’ve taken to spelling out as “the new liberalism” in order to soften the cliche a little — but really, I’m trying to account for the survival of the social in governance in Canada, why and how people still articulate it inside and outside the “architecture” of the state.

    The idea of neosocialism gives me a lot to think about.

  3. I think you miss a huge opportunity here in not pointing out that the right, by defining neo-socialism, is laying the ground for co-opting much of the territory held by liberals and socialists. Where conservatives have failed is in not defining ‘society’ except in terms of individual rights and autonomy. But there are conservatisms of the past which embrace the idea of society, albiet under nationalist ideologies. But in a post-modern world were localities and localized populations have greater agency, conservatism needs to address these people without threatening imposing a universalizing politics on them. In other words, conservatives realize that pro-life, big business, libertarian ideals only go so far. By harking back only to Reagan and Thatcher, you miss the point that conservatism is redefining itself, not just in America but around the world. Rethink conservatism in terms of Angela Merkel, or Sarkozy, or my Prime Minister, Steven Harper. Seeing conservatism around the world (and it is a world phenomenon) only through American ideas is not only narrow, but, dare I say it, universalist and conservative. In the end I am not hopeful of “neo-socialism”. In many ways are we backing up towards Leo Strauss rather than Ayn Rand with the concept of neo-socialism?

  4. My comment got erased the first time, so hopefully both aren’t going to suddenly pop up…

    Thanks very much for this essay, I really found it good food for thought. I’m writing up my doctoral thesis and it’s infected with mentions of “neoliberalism”, though I have taken to trying to soften the cliche by calling it “the new liberalism” (haha! they’ll never be clever enough to see through /that/).

    But seeing as what I’m trying to account for is the “survival” or “adaptation” of the social in Canadian governance, maybe this is an idea I need to take a look at. The idea of society/social services isn’t even close to dead in Canada, but those who participate in such things sure have to be nimble to network, negotiate, incorporate, justify, etc. their continued existence.

  5. Dominic,

    You are, in my view, spot on when evaluating the weight given to autonomy and relatedness by liberalism and socialism. I also share your distaste for the mindless proliferation of “neoliberalism” as an all-purpose descriptor for whatever it is that an author doesn’t like about the current global reach of free market ideology. But I do have to ask about the virtue of adding “neosocialism” to an other, already bastardized, term and setting up one of those binary oppositions to which _les pensees des hommes_ are so prone to substitute for serious reflection.

    Given what we know about previous generations of left enthusiasms for the Russian and Maoist revolutions, shouldn’t we be taking more seriously the notion of social democracy? What is the point of fueling old Red scares, if there is no serious analytic or explanatory end in sight?

  6. Dominic,

    Thanks you for this. I whole-heartedly agree with both your point that liberalism & socialism (whether in their classic or “neo” forms) are so intimately connected as to be analytically, politically and practically inseparable and your concern that anthropologists, with our now calamitous focus on neoliberalism, have failed to investigate the forms of “living together” that such a thing might also imply.

    I’m not sure, however, that this question has been completely unexplored by anthropologists. One place to look, might be for people who are trying to make a point similar to yours but haven’t made use of the beautiful neoliberal/neosocial symmetry… I’m thinking here of people like Karin Knorr Cetina, with her concept of the postsocial, or Bruno Latour with his work on social analysis “after the social,” or Nikolas Rose and his exploration of the “death of the social.” What all of these people are pointing to is not that all of a sudden we live in an epoch were people are completely individuals devoid of any social contact, but that the form of sociality which we’ve become accustomed to is undergoing something particularly “neo”…

  7. bq. It is better to take the “neo” more seriously and to think about neosocialism and neoliberalism as the work of political ontology to constantly adapt autonomial and relationalist thinking to the exigencies of contemporary experience and thus to guarantee a steady stream of new neoliberalisms and neosocialisms.

    Or perhaps it would be better not to reinvent the wheel and engage, in a serious way, in an ongoing policy debate over the nature and funding of public goods. See, for example, Robert Kuttner, _Everything for Sale_ or George Soros _Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism_.

    Might not be as much fun as “splashing around.” Might be more useful to learn how to swim.

  8. Government plus business? We’re already seeing this with the rise of what I call the “public-private compact”. I argue that we have to liberate ourselves from the straightjacket of only thinking in terms of public and private. We need a new politics beyond both state and market. The key battle today isn’t between public vs. private (which informed old notions of right vs. left), but between the public-private compact and the commons.

  9. Woops, I posted that last comment before I had read the blog-post in full, and mistakenly thought that what you listed as Conservative Wahoo’s perspective on neosoc was actually what you were arguing. My apologies! I’ll read things properly before opening my mouth next time!

  10. Honest question; how is this not the study of the political economy that has been at the center of our discipline since the early 80′s?

  11. Hi there. Tried to post a reply a few days ago but couldn’t. If others were turned away by the server as well, things seem to be working now so please try again!

    Meanwhile, thanks, Andrew, I agree that the collapse of welfarism has been massively overstated in most countries in the world. Canada is an excellent case in point. The broader conclusion here may be that the liberalism/socialism dyad is just not always the most helpful set of analytical coordinates for understanding contemporary political formations. Marco makes a good point that this is increasingly true for the public/private binary as well. Rick, can you expand on your point? It’s not clear what you mean by “this.” But, can we really say that political economy has been the center of anthropology since the early 1980s? I think of anthropology as being pretty thoroughly pluricentric and I’m sure the symbolic/semiological anthropologists wouldn’t want to concede the center of anthropology to the political economists (and more than the phenomenological crowd or the S&TS folks would want to). So, please say more about what you have in mind…

  12. My previous post seems to have been lost to the aether. Anyway, I thought I should point out that the “Neo Socialist Alliance” Facebook group that you mention are actually fascists, of the neo-Nazi Strasserite current associated with the Russian National Bolshevik Party. Outside of Russia they are extremely marginal and usually end up trying to parasitise left-wing anti-capitalist movements, thankfully with minimal success (see also: National Anarchists). For them socialism = national socialism, autonomy = racialised national autonomy, and capitalism = the Jews.

    While not necessarily closely connected with the kinds of social democratic ‘neosocialism’ you talk about in your post (except maybe for Marcel Déat), this does raise the issue of nationalism, which I think also needs to be taken into account when discussing the relationship between socialism and liberalism. So many socialist movements—especially if they come into government—end up simply managing or re-aligning the relationship between the nation-state and capital. So we get ‘neosocialism’ in response to the crisis of neoliberalism, redirecting social and labour struggles into salvaging some of the gains capital made through neoliberalism while socialising the costs of the crisis.

    I’d much prefer a form of socialism that overcomes and negates both liberalism and nationalism, thus actually realising the autonomy and community that these ideologies seem to promise but always fail to deliver.

  13. when I hear the word neosocialism, I reach for my credit card.

    Actually, I always think of Wal-Mart. The greater part of the discourse about capitalism vs. socialism in the 20th century was devoted to debates about production and centralization (peaking with the famous Austrian economic critiques in the 30s), and the question of whether a centralized governing body could actually effectively run a huge economy. People like von Mises & Hayek made a strong case for the negative. Wal-Mart makes a strong case for the affirmative. Wal-Mart employs something like 2 million people, and by controlling distribution, controls production. Regardless of how you look at it, Wal-Mart has no real competitors, and even if it did, they would all carry the same goods as Wal Mart. There are lots of other horrible things to say about WalMart, but I think they make a good case for the feasibility of centralized control over production+distribution.

    In reality of course, everyone seems to think WalMart is the triumph of capitalism, but I think Dominic’s right… maybe we should think of this as a species of neosocialism and see where that leads?

  14. Why is it that my posts aren’t posting, and yet I’m being told that I’ve already posted something when I try to repost?

  15. Ok, so that posted, but now my other post isn’t. One more try.

    “Rick, can you expand on your point? It’s not clear what you mean by “this.” ”

    Anyway, I means that you are saying that there is a dearth of socialist or neosocialist talk in the journals, but the inclusion of Marx in political economy is very common; so much so that it is often implied and I’d have to say that most anthros. are very sympathetic to socialism in its various forms, if not socialists outright. I don’t think it’s our jobs to advocate or generalized economic structures beyond existing criticisms or instances. If we do that, then we don’t really do it within the academy, rather we do it as anthros. that are also for socialism, or neosocialism.

    While many academics tend to center themselves on a particular paradigm, probably more are comfortable in many. Escobar, Tsing and others encapsulate many theoretical streams. The use of Marx or political economy isn’t limited to an Opus like “A People Without History.”

    What do you mean by this: “Canada is an excellent case in point. The broader conclusion here may be that the liberalism/socialism dyad is just not always the most helpful set of analytical coordinates for understanding contemporary political formations.”

    I think that when it comes to welfare context matters. Here in the US welfare, in the form of AFDC, was a part of a radical socialist agenda in the 1960′s, which assumed that since poverty was a natural condition under capitalist economies, the only way to end poverty was to guarantee an income to everyone. The hope was that it would bankrupt the system so that a kind of financial revolution could take place. This was spearheaded by two socialist sociology professors at Columbia, who wrote a position paper on it.

    It didn’t bankrupt the system, but it did help to turn many of our minority communities into war zones. All of my field work is in the US, and much of it is in low-income, urban, minority communities. I found that none of the standard sociological reasons for urban decline made any sense by either my data, or common sense. It only makes sense if you never actually visit ghettos, or study their history. This left me scrambling to connect the dots, and I came across John McWhorter, who has laid out a case which explains all of my data. I went through archives, oral histories, census records, and all the records you can get working in US cities that you can’t get in the poor South.
    The funny thing was that went I went back to my local colleagues (informants) this was all common sense to them. Apparently this is known and talked about among people in these communities, but completely unknown in academic departments. I think anthropologists have an extreme bias to automatically view people as victims of the Man, and who have to be protected.

  16. Sometimes posts go to the spam queue and have to wait for review. Posting again will only convince the software that you are, indeed, a spammer. Because of some server problems we are behind in reviewing the SPAM queue, as we do on a daily basis. Things should be better now, and your messages have been posted. Sorry about that.

  17. In order to be socialist, wouldn’t Wal-Mart have to be trying to use its centralized power to build some form of value other than capital? In fact, it occurs to me (appropos of a SeanMI/ckelty mashup interpretation of Wallmart) that the “capitalist command economy” is often put forward as a defining attribute of fascism.

  18. “Rick, can you expand on your point? It’s not clear what you mean by “this.” ”

    Ok I’ll try this again.

    Anyway, I means that you are saying that there is a dearth of socialist or neosocialist talk in the journals, but the inclusion of Marx in political economy is very common; so much so that it is often implied and I’d have to say that most anthros. are very sympathetic to socialism in its various forms, if not socialists outright. I don’t think it’s our jobs to advocate or generalized economic structures beyond existing criticisms or instances. If we do that, then we don’t really do it within the academy, rather we do it as anthros. that are also for socialism, or neosocialism.

    While many academics tend to center themselves on a particular paradigm, probably more are comfortable in many. Escobar, Tsing and others encapsulate many theoretical streams. The use of Marx or political economy isn’t limited to an Opus like “A People Without History.”

    What do you mean by this: “Canada is an excellent case in point. The broader conclusion here may be that the liberalism/socialism dyad is just not always the most helpful set of analytical coordinates for understanding contemporary political formations.”

    I think that when it comes to welfare context matters. Here in the US welfare, in the form of AFDC, was a part of a radical socialist agenda in the 1960′s, which assumed that since poverty was a natural condition under capitalist economies, the only way to end poverty was to guarantee an income to everyone. The hope was that it would bankrupt the system so that a kind of financial revolution could take place. This was spearheaded by two socialist sociology professors at Columbia, who wrote a position paper on it.

    It didn’t bankrupt the system, but it did help to turn many of our minority communities into war zones. All of my field work is in the US, and much of it is in low-income, urban, minority communities. I found that none of the standard sociological reasons for urban decline made any sense by either my data, or common sense. It only makes sense if you never actually visit ghettos, or study their history. This left me scrambling to connect the dots, and I came across John McWhorter, who has laid out a case which explains all of my data. I went through archives, oral histories, census records, and all the records you can get working in US cities that you can’t get in the poor South.
    The funny thing was that went I went back to my local colleagues (informants) this was all common sense to them. Apparently this is known and talked about among people in these communities, but completely unknown in academic departments. I think anthropologists have an extreme bias to automatically view people as victims of the Man, and who have to be protected.

  19. I think I figured it out. If I don’t quote someone then it seems to go through. So this is to Dominic:

    I mean that you are saying that there is a dearth of socialist or neosocialist talk in the journals, but the inclusion of Marx in political economy is very common; so much so that it is often implied and I’d have to say that most anthros. are very sympathetic to socialism in its various forms, if not socialists outright. I don’t think it’s our jobs to advocate or generalized economic structures beyond existing criticisms or instances. If we do that, then we don’t really do it within the academy, rather we do it as anthros. that are also for socialism, or neosocialism.

    While many academics tend to center themselves on a particular paradigm, probably more are comfortable in many. Escobar, Tsing and others encapsulate many theoretical streams. The use of Marx or political economy isn’t limited to an Opus like “A People Without History.”

    What do you mean by this: “Canada is an excellent case in point. The broader conclusion here may be that the liberalism/socialism dyad is just not always the most helpful set of analytical coordinates for understanding contemporary political formations.”

    I think that when it comes to welfare context matters. Here in the US welfare, in the form of AFDC, was a part of a radical socialist agenda in the 1960′s, which assumed that since poverty was a natural condition under capitalist economies, the only way to end poverty was to guarantee an income to everyone. The hope was that it would bankrupt the system so that a kind of financial revolution could take place. This was spearheaded by two socialist sociology professors at Columbia, who wrote a position paper on it.

    It didn’t bankrupt the system, but it did help to turn many of our minority communities into war zones. All of my field work is in the US, and much of it is in low-income, urban, minority communities. I found that none of the standard sociological reasons for urban decline made any sense by either my data, or common sense. It only makes sense if you never actually visit ghettos, or study their history. This left me scrambling to connect the dots, and I came across John McWhorter, who has laid out a case which explains all of my data. I went through archives, oral histories, census records, and all the records you can get working in US cities that you can’t get in the poor South.
    The funny thing was that went I went back to my local colleagues (informants) this was all common sense to them. Apparently this is known and talked about among people in these communities, but completely unknown in academic departments. I think anthropologists have an extreme bias to automatically view people as victims of the Man, and who have to be protected.

  20. @ckelty and Prudence: I think some relevant terms are ‘monopoly capitalism’ and ‘state monopoly capitalism’.

    Anyway, socialise the costs and privatise the profits is pretty much standard operating procedure for state-capital relations. The audacity of neoliberalism was to present the second part as an explicit goal, and to get so many people to accept this (even if it was often with a degree of cynical resignation).

    But I’m not sure we should be welcoming a shift back towards the legitimation of ‘socialise the costs’ forms of state intervention as a turn to socialism, neo or otherwise, especially when this socialism is framed pretty exclusively in terms of the national interest. I really don’t see much evidence that the accumulation of capital is being displaced from its central position.

    I doubt it’s going to go to the extremes of fascism—the political crisis of capitalism is not nearly that severe—but shifting the burden of the crisis onto working people is not going to be pretty. Especially given the ways in which the seemingly contradictory political association of neoliberalism with social conservatism and national chauvinism has primed people to find scapegoats. There will be—and is—resistance to this, but the sorts of movements and policies that people here have been labelling as ‘neosocialist’ have little to do with that.

    I do hope that these developments will lead to many more anthropologists engaging critically with political economy (and, yes, with Marx, whose critique of political economy has a lot to offer anthropology). But I’m not especially optimistic about that. Anthropologists were decades late, and for the most part not very sophisticated, in how they adopted the concept of neoliberalism. Sometimes it serves as a euphemism for ‘capitalism’, which is of course a terribly unsophisticated word which is best avoided in polite academic company. Even more often it is simply an empty place-holder, following in the footsteps of such terms as globalisation, postmodernity, modernity, and (to a lesser extent) colonialism as “that wider structural-historical context we need to make a half-arsed gesture at positioning ‘local culture’ in relation to”.

  21. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the additional comments and for not letting the server problems completely disrupt the conversation. That spam queue is a good reminder to be vigilant about defending our digital-liberal freedoms. Under socialism it would be spam queues galore :)

    But seriously, thanks, Sean, for the clarification about the neo-socialist alliance and for bringing nationalism into the mix. The political fusions of authoritarian socialism and nationalism are often about the scariest political ideologies out there even if there are pretty scary fusions of liberalism and nationalism too. But you are right that nationalism is an important part of this story too, especially at the juncture where political philosophy hits political movements and efforts at popular mobilization.

    Chris, your point about Wal-Mart is a really interesting one. It made me think, for example, about whether the pursuit of ‘shareholder value’ as a legitimizing principle could be considered as a socialist politics in the sense of ‘socialism’ that I’ve developed here. I’m inclined to think that it is in the sense of advancing/valorizing a kind of entrepreneurial communitarianism (which is certainly a politics of relatedness, however minimally cast) that we see throughout ‘late liberalism.’ This isn’t to say, of course, that Wal-Mart isn’t a wonderful example of the monopoly/expropriative tendencies of sovereign markets as well. But you’re showing here precisely how the traditional liberal/socialist duality may not be up to the task of doing anthropological analysis of contemporary economic and political institutions.

    Hopefully, that answers part of your question, Rick. But I also want to emphasize that I am not asking for anthropology to go (neo)socialist. This isn’t a political intervention so much as an analytical intervention. The problem is that, regardless of an analyst’s motivating politics, the model of (neo)liberalism we are often working with in anthropology is usually pretty one-dimensional and misleading. As though liberalism contained no suppressed internal dialogue with socialism. And that is the omission I’d like to see addressed. I suppose you could even blame that gap upon an overreliance upon classical Marxism or on an overly literalist interpretation of Marx. But I think contemporary anthropology is pretty comfortable with a postpolitical liberal subjectivity too. The white-knightism is still there of course but I’m not sure it’s the dominant orientation of most field researchers these days. Maybe that’s another conversation for another post. Thanks for the clarification. I don’t know what kind of research on US welfare you’re doing but I don’t think AFDC can be written off as a part of “a radical socialist agenda in the 1960s” since it was created in the New Deal. I’m also deeply skeptical that it did more damage to low-income, urban minorities than, say, the many faces of American racism.

    D

  22. Making a mash-up of my life, which includes thinking about Chris’ Wal-Mart provocation and attending a lecture by Laura Nader, I’m left asking: what’s the difference between socialism and corporatism? Or, throwing in one of the other terms that has been floating around in the comments: what’s the difference between The Social, The Nation and The Corporate as ways to think about “togetherness”?

  23. Rick, social welfarism goes back much further than the 1960s, to the 19th century at least, and while it was — and is, in modified or reduced forms — universal in the West, the kind of violent, isolated and racialized neighbourhoods seen in the core of many American cities are not.

    Of course, it’s pretty hard to take anyone seriously who claims with a straight face that “radical socialists” have ever been in charge of the US government. Do you have a list? A list of /names/? Perhaps we could summon them before a Committee of some kind to explain themselves.

  24. @Dominic: “As though liberalism contained no suppressed internal dialogue with socialism.”

    I see, thanx for clearing that up. I agree, I think that symbolic and linguistic anthropology can play a large role here. The language and symbols for socialism, capitalism, markets, democracy, communism, etc… are both convoluted together in a messy way, and co-opted consciously by various interests in order to gain political advantage and cultural capital.

    “I’m also deeply skeptical that it did more damage to low-income, urban minorities than, say, the many faces of American racism.”

    Right, and this is what is commonly taught, and what I was taught, but it simply isn’t historically accurate, or what you see on the ground.
    (I have to say that I can’t speak for every low-income, minority community in the U.S. I think that there has been too much homogenization already.)

    The other aspect of socialism and neosocialism that is completely absent in any anthropological literature, as far as I know, is the role of the dueling intelligence services. The cold war was fought in poor states, but we don’t look at the various propaganda campaigns which were extremely prominent. Anthropology would do a great service deconstructing the themes and effects of this propaganda. In looking at the effects in the the North America and Western Europe, the KGB was most prominent, and then in Africa, Asia, and South America you can see the clashing. Much of the support for, and themes distributed by, student socialist groups, for example, can often be tied to the KGB. The CIA did the same thing on the other side, but I don’t think was nearly as good at it.

    I think it is important to emphasize that determining the validity of either propaganda (war?), is not where we can be most helpful. We very well were acting like imperialist, capitalists in many instances. That is not the issue. The issue is how the narratives were introduced and utilized to create predetermined behaviors. The Soviets, for example, created leaflets that were dropped on American soldiers in Vietnam that told the soldiers that if they wanted to go home, they needed to write and call home to their friends and family, and give them certain messages. Messages like the unlawful nature of the war, the killing of women and children, etc… They were asked to tell their people in the US to write their congressmen and protest, etc… The messages created by the Soviets can be directly seen in the socialist narratives and protest songs at the time.
    Again, I am not saying that they weren’t right or wrong, simply saying that this is something we really need to look into.

  25. You have got to be kidding me! Ok, I’m gonna have to wait for one reply to get out of the spooler, before I can give Andrew a “list of names.”

  26. Hi,

    It’s hilarious to me that this is the only post facing this spam blocker problem — how not to take that as a mystical/conspiratorial sign? One of the slightly surreal things about this problem is that every time Chris or Kerim clear out the spam queue, new early posts appear and later posts begin to take on new meanings. Sort of the like the old Eastern European joke that no one has to fear the future under communism because it’s only the past that keeps changing.

    Anyway, just wanted to thank a few folks for hitherto buried posts and points. Bryan, thanks for taking my post in the spirit it was intended and my apologies for underestimating where you were heading with your analysis of ‘neo-socialism.’ I think your read of Obama’s position is pretty spot on.

    John, very sorry to have missed the first half of your post. I probably don’t need to reiterate this so late in the game but I’m less interested in creating some kind of a ‘neosocialism’ analytical bandwagon then in suggesting that we take a fresh look at all the forms we are labeling ‘neoliberal’ today. We could do away with both as far as I’m concerned. But if we want to keep writing/talking about ‘neoliberalism’ I’m going to insist we talk about ‘neosocialism’ as well because at least it will give the former some more accuracy and nuance.

    Fred, couldn’t agree more that the ‘neo’ in neo-con should be taken more seriously (and plurally) as well.

    Kevin, I definitely see the kindred move in the theories you mention. But what I sense in Rose and Latour is a strange and largely unspoken animus against mid twentieth century social welfarism which I don’t share. That they want to reveal that ‘the social’ is itself a political-historical-epistemic construct is fine as far as it goes as is their criticism of various ontologizations of ‘the social’ (e.g., Latour’s constant bashing of French sociology from Durkheim to Bourdieu). But, particularly with Latour, I always sense some deeper distaste for/skepticism of the endless political trench warfare of social democracy motivating the theory too. ANT is definitely a liberal method of social analysis (the actant is the autonomous liberal subject gone wild (and thing-like)) even if it plays around with some interesting models of cybernetic relatedness. The Latourians recent fascination with American pragmatism is a good tell in that respect. So, long story short, I’m more skeptical about Latour as a social theorist than you are. He’s a liberal philosopher at heart. But maybe these days, who isn’t.

    D

  27. Agree with much (though not all) of your perspectives and theses. I agree that socialism is making a comeback of sorts though, as you have shown, there is no single definition. As for neosocialist (or ism) I also prefer to drop the hyphen, that’s why I registered ‘neosocialist.org’ (no hyphen) in 2009. Let’s see how things develop. For me it’s about evolution into a world that embraces individuality but also agrees a social floor from which no one can slip below. Untapping the genious of the best and brightest everywhere (without regard for family wealth or pedigree) could make the technological gains we’ve witnessed from the best and brightest of the minority seem insignificant. But for sure there will need to be incentives for the individuals who excel – so that’s my new (neo) socialist baseline. People are born with brilliance or they are not – IQ is not gained from daddy’s wallet. In a way isn’t that what “competition” is all about? No artificially restricted marketplaces? From politics to the classroom – no sacred cows.

  28. Dominic,

    I will read your article in its entirety tomorrow but I literally saw this one sentence and highlighted it immediately.

    I would say that liberalism and socialism reflect the crystallization of political ontologies around two experiential poles of (modern) human experience: for simplicity’s sake, let’s call these two poles: autonomy and relatedness”

    Actually I am going to bed and we will deal with this tomorrow. The following is what I have to say to that one thing. As a matter of fact, the idea that anyone could think Why Not Neosocialism, I suggest you pick up a book on Methodological Individualism which what coined by Karl Menger but expounded by Ludwig Von Mises.

    Anyway, FUN!

    First, economically the opportunity cost of crystallizing political ontologies through experimental socialism is to high as it adversely affects other peoples lives due to widespread poverty resulting from the inefficient allocation of resources. Do not forget that one end of that experience spectrum resulted in over 40 million dead Russians. I mean seriously, 40 million people less than a hundred years ago. I think you have to under that to get my point. The verdict is in, capitalism is good as a matter of fact this quote might interest you:

    Kors (2009) explains, “In 1951, Ludwig Von Mises warned us not to confuse competition among various statists, with the deeper ideological conflict of our age: the struggle between supporters of a market economy, and the supporters of totalitarian government control” (p.2)

    Human thought cannot be isolated in a laboratory, such as the forces of gravity or magnetism. The course of human history is complex and requires good theory in order to be understood. The inadequacy of positivist procedures necessitates that praxeological axioms be derived from irrefutable premises. Therefore, a praxeological proposition ought to be inconceivably falsifiable, and pertain to a universal inner experience. Rothbard (1957) asserted that from, “the existence of human action […] can be spun almost the whole fabric of economic theory. […] It is this crucial axiom that separates praxeology from the other methodological viewpoints – and it is this axiom that supplies the critical ‘a priori’ element in economics” (p. 317). Such strict methodology is necessary in regard to fiscal and monetary policy, because arbitrary axioms are economically devastating.
    The collapse of the Spanish empire was anticipated by both the ‘French Physiocrats’ and ‘Spanish Scholastics’. These scholars provided the insight that increasing a hoarded stock of gold through force and plunder ultimately made Spanish (Mercantilist) policy self-defeating. When individuals in Spain began to realize an increased quantity of gold in circulation, upward pressure was placed on domestic prices. In short, Spanish enterprises became uncompetitive internationally. The result was nothing less than the collapse of the empire. Smith (1971) documents that contributions from individuals at the University of Salamanca during the seventeenth century, “pointed out the evils which led Spain to the economic recession of the seventeenth century: vagabondage, primogeniture, too numerous clergy, national disdain of work, monetary chaos, and high taxation” (p. 2). These scholars also provided, “judicious proposals for preventing the economic stagnation of Spain,” which, “embraced technical education, immigration of skilled workers, monetary stability, irrigation projects, and improvements in communication” (Smith et al, 1971, p. 2). The relevant insight is that economic policy which fails to adhere to an a priori deductive methodology is never inconsequential. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the federal government combated socialism through ever more aggressive foreign policy. Ultimately, communism was combatted internationally through the inefficient allocation of domestic resources by the state.

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