All posts by Dominic

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.