This is probably the most widely propagated misunderstanding in modern times about Aristotle’s thinking — a longstanding misuse of what Aristotle wrote in Politics about the different forms and flavors of democracy. You can read a translation of what Aristotle actually wrote here: The Internet Classics Archive. Basically, Aristotle is most critical of certain manifestations of democracy, and actually praises other variations, though of course he places his vision of polity above them all as the best form of government to serve the common good. But the gross generalization one often hears today that Aristotle disdained all democracy as “mob rule” is not accurate. Aristotle’s thinking on democracy is nuanced, and he often will answer his own objections about it.
I’ll offer just two sections in Politics for consideration. The first is this, from Book Three, Part Eleven, in which Aristotle seems to extoll the benefits of “the wisdom of the multitude,” as long as special knowledge isn’t required to make a judgement — or, alternatively, if those who vote are well-educated! — and the crowd making the judgement isn’t “utterly degraded” (i.e. mindless brutes): (my emphasis added below)
“The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is one that is maintained, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth. For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses; that is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole. There is a similar combination of qualities in good men, who differ from any individual of the many, as the beautiful are said to differ from those who are not beautiful, and works of art from realities, because in them the scattered elements are combined, although, if taken separately, the eye of one person or some other feature in another person would be fairer than in the picture. Whether this principle can apply to every democracy, and to all bodies of men, is not clear….For a right election can only be made by those who have knowledge; those who know geometry, for example, will choose a geometrician rightly, and those who know how to steer, a pilot; and, even if there be some occupations and arts in which private persons share in the ability to choose, they certainly cannot choose better than those who know. So that, according to this argument, neither the election of magistrates, nor the calling of them to account, should be entrusted to the many. Yet possibly these objections are to a great extent met by our old answer, that if the people are not utterly degraded, although individually they may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge — as a body they are as good or better.”
Later on, in Book Four, Part Four, Aristotle opines that the rule of law and equality of participation permit a successful constitutional democracy to flourish. The problem arises when there is no justice — no supreme rule of law — and the will of the majority begins behaving like a monarch. Aristotle further warns that, in such conditions, demagogues tend to rise to power. Of special note is the following section — please read it carefully:
“At all events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarch, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honor; this sort of democracy being relatively to other democracies what tyranny is to other forms of monarchy. The spirit of both is the same, and they alike exercise a despotic rule over the better citizens. The decrees of the demos correspond to the edicts of the tyrant; and the demagogue is to the one what the flatterer is to the other. Both have great power; the flatterer with the tyrant, the demagogue with democracies of the kind which we are describing. The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, by referring all things to the popular assembly. And therefore they grow great, because the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their hands the votes of the people, who are too ready to listen to them. Further, those who have any complaint to bring against the magistrates say, 'Let the people be judges'; the people are too happy to accept the invitation; and so the authority of every office is undermined.”
Sound familiar? This is, after all, what has been happening in the U.S. of late: the rule of law has been undermined, there is no equality of democratic participation or representation, and a flatterer has been enabled by a popular assembly to exercise despotic whims and override a more deliberative democracy subject to the rule of law.
With Politics having been available for the past 2,370 years, perhaps we should have seen this current devolution coming….?
First, I think this speaks directly to the fundamental failures of both a medical system focused on profit, and the diseases of consumerist society that externalizes is agency and happiness into commercialized dependencies (on technology, pharmaceuticals, titillating self-distractions, self-medicating behaviors, etc.). Not only can we lay the epidemic levels of unhappiness at the feet of these causes, but also the horrific mishandling and counterproductive treatment of both serious and debilitating genetic or epigenetic psychological disorders (bipolar disorder, various personality disorders, schizophrenia, etc.) and what we could describe as more environmentally exacerbated or triggered conditions (PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc.). For-profit medicine and a culture of commoditized well-being have been disastrous amplifiers of mental illness in the modern world. To understand these impacts, check out:
So part of the answer to this question is addressing those underlying amplifiers: if we attenuate or eliminate these causal factors, there will be less mental illness in society — both in terms of stress-induced phenotypical expression of genetic disease, and crippling cognitive behavioral responses to stress. The principles of what is basically a preventative approach to mental illness have been demonstrated by a number of success stories. Check out 'Care BnB'- the town where mentally ill people lodge with locals and Soteria (psychiatric treatment) - Wikipedia, both of which essentially replace a transactional, commercialized model of treatment with a relational, community-centric one.
In addition, in my own L e v e l - 7 proposals, access to mental health resources is treated the same way as access to physical health resources: it’s integral to civil society and part of a “Universal Social Backbone” available to everyone without cost.
This is similar to a left-libertarian approach to criminality in society: by reducing the incentives to criminal activity, diffusing and reversing dysfunctional cultural norms that promote violence and coercion (including, and perhaps most especially, the concept of private property — see Private Property as Violence: Why Proprietarian Systems are Incompatible with the Non-Aggression Principle), and strengthening community-centric civil society at the same time, we may not be able to eliminate criminal behavior altogether, but we can greatly reduce it to the point where enduring interpersonal relationships and strong expectations of prosociality have a greater regulatory effect than policing ever could.
That said, the issues of personal agency and selfhood are also at the center of this question. I lean in the direction of personal agency trumping societal or institutional impositions of will. At the same time, I have a right-libertarian friend who was institutionalized and medicated under a 5150 (involuntary psychiatric commitment here in California), after planning and nearly executing his own suicide. I helped him through that time and afterward, and he has been thriving ever since and has been very grateful that others intervened as they did. He had been on the wrong medication (another consequence of a profit-driven medical system) that worsened his depression, but during his 5150 stay he received much more competent assessment and a much better treatment plan. Even as a lifelong libertarian, he has no problem with his involuntary commitment, because he knows he was not in his right mind at that time. In such cases, sanity is a more critical standard than agency, even (by most accounts) according to the perspective of the personal deemed “insane.”
This is a perfect example of a significant problem endemic our modern world, and that is that “easily explained” theories are usually inadequate, and do not capture reality — even partially.
There are sometimes notable exceptions, where gifted presenters capture fairly complex ideas using simple analogies, word pictures, graphic illustrations, etc. But these instances are pretty rare (for example, I’ve seen only a handful TED talks that actually pull this off), and usually limited to fields of study that can be communicated in a “concrete sequential” way. Particularly dynamic or fluid areas of study with many competing or conflicting dimensions and interdisciplinary dependencies really can’t be represented well in infographics — or, when they are, those representations can end up overly abbreviated and inadequate.
Economics is one of those complex and multifaceted areas of study. It is nearly impossible to shoehorn the complex thought of many accomplished economists’ theories into a simple, easily-grasped infographic. To do so would simply be an injustice to the original ideas. And this is becoming more the case, rather than less so, because so many disciplines have come to intersect with economics. Consider attempting to summarize how Marx, Keynes, Rawls, Veblen, Schumacher, Sen, Picketty, Ostrom, and many others who have contributed to “progressive” economic theory interact with and amplify each other’s observations and proposals! It would be a daunting task…and likely a fruitless one if we attempt to keep things “easily explained.”
At the other end of the spectrum (i.e. conservative/neoliberal economics), we have the Laffer curve, drawn on a napkin in a restaurant, which had no empirical basis or application but “made intuitive sense” in the political sphere, and so became part of an easy sell for trickle-down, supply side economic theory (which has since been debunked by real-world evidence). And we have catchy phrases like “rational actors” in the Austrian School, also without empirical basis, which nonetheless folks can easily grasp and agree with. In fact the list is pretty long for neoliberal economic tropes that have broad popular appeal, but no real-world evidence to support them.
This fundamental problem — what we might call the “pop-psych dilemma,” because it results in similar pseudoscientific consequences — can be found in many different disciplines. Some complex concepts are just really difficult to understand and communicate, and as our scientific framing of the world (or a particular area of study) becomes more and more complex, the ability to effectively communicate those concepts and their supportive evidence becomes increasingly difficult…certainly for anyone who wants simple, easy answers, and doesn’t want to spend time learning the subtleties of something new.
And that’s why sound bite emotional-appeal political discussions rarely go beyond the superficial catch phrases for a given topic. A sales pitch is hardly ever substantive — and that’s really all such policy discussions in mass media, social media, and the political sphere usually are.
Do you see the problem? The minute we make an “easily digestible” explanation of a complex topic (in economics, climate science, epidemiology, etc.) we are almost certainly going to get it wrong. We are going to distort truth to shoehorn complexity into an easily appreciated talking point.
Which is of course precisely what the champions of conservative/neoliberal economic policy tend to do: they convey simple, watered down word pictures of a worldview that is persuasive and sells well, but is ultimately just misleading and false. Milton Friedman was perhaps the greatest master of this technique: he just kept lying and distorting reality — passionately and entertainingly — until a lot of folks just started to believe him and parrot his words.
With all of this said, there are a few “progressive economists” who have tried to provide simplified representations of economic theory. I’m not a tremendous fan, for the very reasons I’ve just outlined here, though I do still find them entertaining. Some examples would be Ha Joon Chang and Robert Reich. Here’s a pretty good sample:
IMO what we somehow need to do is encourage people to enjoy learning, enjoy being “intellectual,” enjoy rich and complex language and ideas — as part of our cultural norm. Then we might actually be able to make decent democratic decisions about these complex issues. Until then…well…we’re likely to just be hoodwinked by the slickest salesman.
First off, it’s much worse than this question supposes. Majority Republican states in the U.S. are by far the largest beneficiaries of ALL government programs. There are some exceptions to this pattern, like New Mexico (which is more of a swing state), but in general it is Republican-majority “red” states who rely the most heavily on socialized support systems. Some detailed recent data on this can be found here: Most & Least Federally Dependent States. There are many simple comparisons you can find around the web, and here’s an example:
Now, many of the posts in this thread quibble over what “socialism” actually is. In short, it is widely acknowledged by everyone who studies political and economic systems and history that there are many different forms of socialism, and the strict and narrow “dictionary definition” of socialism (or capitalism, for that matter) that folks like to use in their arguments simply isn’t sufficient. The fact is that the U.S. and most other affluent, developed countries in the world are “mixed economies” of both socialism and capitalism. I’ve broken things out into a bit more detail here: What are the different forms of socialism?
So the reality is that, yes, Republicans who claim to be opposed to “socialism” regularly depend on socialism to survive and thrive.
BUT — and this is a pretty major caveat — those same Republicans are also constantly working to dismantle and/or privatize any and all forms of socialist institution in the U.S.A. Whether it’s Obamacare, Medicaid, Social Security, or the U.S. Postal Service, Republicans have been trying to obliterate many manifestations of socialism in the U.S. as a central plank of a conservative political agenda. But why are they doing this, if the vast majority of the Republican rank-and-file voters rely on these programs…? Well because what Republican leadership (and think tanks, and wealthy campaign donors, and right-wing propaganda media outlets) really want to do is eliminate what they call “the halo effect” of any successful government programs, a positive perception among voters which — horror of horrors — threatens to make “socialism” look attractive! You can read about this here: Opinion | Covid-19 Brings Out All the Usual Zombies
So we’re left scratching our heads…Is all of this a sort of disjointed, self-contradictory hypocrisy without any guiding principles at all? Or does U.S. conservatism have an ideological anchor? Some core values that steer its ship? Well…there really is only one central theme that aligns with all Republican praxis, and that is a devotion to socializing risks and costs, and privatizing benefits and profits. That is, distributing costs and risks across all of society (i.e. all taxpayers), while concentrating profits and benefits in a select few (i.e. wealthy owner-shareholders), with horrific consequences for civil society. You can view videos of Noam Chomsky interviewed about this here: Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges discuss the history of neoliberalism and Chomsky's new book "Requiem for the American Dream" And also read more about this here: How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic.
There is, of course, another way to describe this behavior, and that was a phrase Adam Smith coined in his Wealth of Nations: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
So, in essence, conservatives love and support socialism when it benefits them, and vehemently dislike socialism when it benefits anyone who doesn’t vote Republican.
The question behind your question is, I think, really about hierarchies and the abuse of those hierarchies via concentrations of power. Once a hierarchy is in place, it just tends to be abused to accumulate power, and then either used for direct oppression and exploitation, or becomes corrupted/captured — as with crony capitalism, clientism, etc. So all traditional forms of left-anarchism and left-libertarianism (which are the same thing btw) have sought to minimize hierarchies, and replace them with diffusions of power — direct democracy, nested councils, subsidiarity, and other form of highly distributed self-governance — and diffusions of wealth (i.e. no private property rights, the commons, public ownership, etc.). There are many historic and present day examples of such left-libertarian experiments, all of which have worked pretty well.
Right-libertarianism, on the other hand, creates inadvertent hierarchies by allowing corporations, monopolies, and concentrations of private property ownership and wealth that ultimately behave just like State institutions (in terms of capacity for oppression and exploitation). Which is likely why there aren’t as many right-libertarian real-world examples — and certainly none on a large scale.
Now even when the objective is to avoid hierarchy and potential tyranny, some left-libertarian and right-libertarian proposals have included minarchist systems. The idea is to create dual systems of power that check-and-balance each other. And we actually see such dual systems working fairly well, even where the State is large — such as in the semi-direct democracy of Switzerland. Really, all that matters is that a political economy be designed so that power and wealth cannot concentrate anywhere, and will always be countered by democratic will.
One such hybrid option is my own L e v e l - 7 proposal. Eventually, the goal would be to attenuate the power of whatever vestigial State is left in place to coordinate things like infrastructure, technology standards, essential goods and services, etc., while strengthening direct democracy and localized civic institutions. But guarding against concentrations of power will, I suspect, always be a perpetual concern…..
Personally I appreciate the simplicity of Raworth’s model (pictured below, from https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/). There are undoubtedly nuanced variables within her “shortfall” and “overshoot” trajectories that require much more detailed elaboration, but this is really about vision IMO — and the ability to project that vision out into collective consciousness. The doughnut graphic is really helpful in that regard. So, as a fundamental re-framing of socioeconomic activities away from “infinite growth” (inherently unsustainable) to “living within our planetary boundaries,” I think this makes perfect sense.
So there are a number of facets with the OP’s question: “Why did the left follow Marx and not Bakunin? Wouldn't the world have been better off if a stateless form of socialism had been tried instead of a totalitarian one?” I’ll attempt to address those facets as we examine some possible answers….
1) The “Left” is not monolithic now, nor was it ever…from the very beginning. There were (and are) many forms of socialism — and many of them have been (and are being) tried in different parts of the world, and on different scales. This includes many forms of left-anarchism/libertarian socialism that aligned itself with the stateless vision that Bakunin promoted. In particular, societies inspired by Proudhon and Kropotkin fall into this category. For some of the many successful stateless examples of these, see: List of anarchist communities.
2) The thinking of these two influenced each other — there was a lot of cross-pollination between them. Much of Bakunin’s thinking is reflected in Marxism.
3) As to why Marx was generally more popular that Bakunin during their lifetimes and thereafter, there are a number of compelling theories, and frankly I don’t know which of them is correct. It could be that Bakunin was over-invested in leveraging the “educated elite” of his day to start a revolution and tended to ignore the working class, whereas Marx appealed more directly to the working class instead. It could be an issue of personal charisma. It could be that it was difficult for folks to envision Bakunin’s stateless society (as it still is today), but much easier to entertain the more gradual transition to communism that Marx proposed, along with his very catchy “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It could be that Engels’ eloquent and persistent championing of Marxism furthered it in ways with which Bakunin’s legacy and alliances simply couldn’t compete. Again, I don’t know. There has been much written about this…so perhaps doing more extensive research on this will help.
4) Yes, the world would be better off with stateless socialism. For a glimpse of that world, take a look at the list of anarchist communities in the link above. Some of them are still around and going strong.
Absolutely and without question, YES, as Marx was arguably one of the most important and influential thinkers of the last 200 years.
That said, I would recommend beginning with some of his shorter pieces of writing, just to get a flavor and overview of his thought, prior to attempting Capital. And, when approaching Capital, I would take it in small chunks, rather than all-at-once.
But yes, for anyone who wants to understand much of what the past couple of centuries of human history — and especially the impact of industrial capitalism — are all about, Marx is an essential read. To not read him (or discount him, as some have done in posts here) is simply to remain ignorant and/or deceived about both the nature of capitalism and the nature of Marxism.
Interestingly, in reference to Adam Smith, Smith raised many of the same concerns about unfettered capitalism that Marx addresses in his writing — Marx just did so to a much more detailed and rigorous degree.
As to where to begin, I recommend the following links (to be read in the order they are listed). I think anyone who reads them with an open mind will be duly impressed with Marx’s clarity and accuracy of insight:
Lastly, for a well-organized collection of — and access to — Marx’s work, I recommend this link: Marx & Engels Selected Works. It includes “a short list for beginners” which covers a lot of ground. However, I would still begin with the above-listed links first, before diving into anything else, as they provide helpful context for everything else.
Here is an excerpt from my latest essay exploring the incompatibility between conservative Christianity and the New Testament's central Christian values and ideals.
"...my current thinking about this has distilled the primary dichotomy down to underlying contrasting views about freedom and equality. This may be just one more oversimplification, but here are the basic propositions:
1. Progressives view freedom and equality as collective agreements, supported by evolving cultural norms and the rule of law, that facilitate the most comprehensive collective benefit possible for everyone in society. In other words, progressives view equality between all citizens, and the maximization of freedom for each individual, as a consequence of mutually agreed societal expectations. And why are those agreements important? Because they can achieve egalitarian outcomes across all of society. Importantly, the equality and freedom of all people are predetermined assumptions about both ideal individual rights and the ideal conditions in which they ought to live. Therefore, progressivism tends to view itself as inherently aspirational, aiming for “life as it could be,” in perpetual opposition to a flawed status quo.
2. Conservatives view freedom as a natural right of every person that facilitates their ability to pursue beneficial outcomes according to their skills, aptitudes, and capacity to compete with others. Equality is likewise viewed more through a lens of merit – it is less a predetermined assumption about all people being equal, and more a possibility of achieving equal standing in society that can be earned through demonstrated effort. And what is the presupposed outcome? That some people will be winners, with a greater experience of equality and freedom, and some people will be losers, with less of that experience –but the conservative accepts this as the natural and somewhat fixed order of things. Therefore, conservativism tends to view itself as inherently pragmatic, embracing the status quo of “how things are” – a static view of cultural norms that benefit those who achieve privilege and position – and defending ways those norms can predictably continue.
Much time and effort could be spent appreciating the subtleties of this topic – details like equality of outcome verses equality of opportunity, facilitation of agency verse extinguishment of agency, positive verses negative liberty, and so on – but it seems to me that this boils down to different approaches to ending poverty, deprivation and oppression in their many forms. The conservative views the world as rich with opportunities, with the only major barriers to actualized freedom and equality – and the consequent attenuation of poverty, deprivation, and oppression – being interference or competition from other individuals, and interference or competition from civic institutions. The progressive, on the other hand, views the world as encumbered with many structural and pervasive cultural barriers (racism, sexism, classicism, ageism, tribalism, etc.) that need to be removed through collective agreements –most often embodied in civic institutions and the rule of law – in order for freedom and equality to be actualized, and for poverty, deprivation, and oppression to be vanquished. At its core, therefore, this remains a diametric opposition.
But which approach does the New Testament endorse? What does Jesus promote? For me this is where things get really interesting. Because the New Testament consistently presents very much the same contrast we see embodied in progressivism and conservativism. With regard to “the world as it is,” there are frequent reminders in scripture that the world cannot be changed, that its machinations, power structures, oppressions, arrogance, striving, and injustices must be accepted and its burdens dutifully borne. At the same time, the kingdom of God is promoted as “the world as it should be,” full of compassion, forgiveness, kindness, humility, generosity, and mutual aid. Christians are encouraged again and again not to conform to the world’s values, priorities, and divisive norms, but instead to evidence the fruit of the spirit of Christ (Gal 5:22) by reforming personal priorities and values – and the collective priorities and values within the Church – to reflect a new way of being. In fact, such reformation is itself proof of the kingdom of God’s establishment in the world. And what characterizes that new way of being? The virtues of righteousness, peace, trust, and agape that we explored in the earlier table (see below), and which are embodied in progressive praxis.
This contrast between the way of the world and the way of the spirit is really the central drama of all New Testament scripture. As Jesus personifies the way of the spirit in all of his interactions and pronouncements, he is confronted with antagonism from the status quo – from those who wish to preserve the way of the world and their own places of power and privilege within it. Jesus and his Apostles become ambassadors of a more egalitarian ideal, an aspirational vision of “life as it could be” in the kingdom of God, and thereby encounter tremendous resistance and resentment from those who currently benefit from the status quo, and therefore feel threatened by anything that challenges its power structures. This is why the Pharisees and Sadducees were enraged by Jesus’ pronouncements, why the Romans were concerned by Jesus’ rise in popularity, and what ultimately resulted in Jesus being condemned to death by crucifixion. Jesus was the radical progressive visionary of his time, while the pragmatic and entrenched conservatives were, in fact, the ones responsible for his death."
Here are some of the many ways a capitalist view of “wealth” (as the accumulation of capital) is created, many of which have actually become much more common than “adding value with labor” in today’s highly financialized economy:
1) Buy cheap and sell high — without adding any value, but simply by timing the selling and buying the right way (this includes holding for a time, so that time does the work), or by exaggerating (persuading, cajoling, deceiving, “selling”) the value downward when purchasing, and then upward when selling.
2) Use leverage and debt — borrow against existing assets and invest(or lend out) at a higher rate of return than it costs to service the debt.
3) Lend money.
4) Charge rent for something that is already owned — this is income creation without adding value, and can occur over many generations after initial ownership (by a family or business) is established.
5) Gate-keeping — charging for access or the right to use anything, including someone else’s knowledge or innovation, some unimproved land, a road that was paid for by others, high speed Internet vs. low-speed (there is little difference between the two in provisioning — it’s merely a software setting), and so on.
Those are the biggies IMO. There are others that do require a little bit of labor for a disproportionately high return, and they are equally common today. These include creating artificial demand (direct consumer advertising by pharmaceuticals is a common locus for this), opportunistic market entry, privatization of publicly held resources, regulatory capture, etc. But any reasonable standard, these are all nefarious, unethical ways of creating wealth.
Here are some of the reasons socialism is poorly understood — especially in the United States.
1) First, there is a lot of anti-socialist propaganda. The Red Scares after WWI and WWI, and then McCarthyism, generated some profound misinformation about socialism that has persisted to this day. Mainly, this propaganda was invented to protect wealthy owner-shareholders who were (and still are) terrified of losing control over the exploitative, extractive wealth creation that they benefit from. It’s why there is also anti-science propaganda, anti-education propaganda, anti-intellectualism propaganda, anti-expert propaganda, anti-government propaganda…it’s pretty endless. The idea is simple: maintain the status quo that funnels capital to the rich at the expense of everyone else. It’s a pretty strong motivation to dissuade people from looking at other ways to do things.
2) General ignorance about history and the positive models and impacts of socialism is another reason. There are many socialist countries that were never authoritarian communist like the U.S.S.R. or China. But folks don’t learn much about those in U.S. schools or from corporate controlled media. Some of those countries still exist. If an “anti-socialist” attempts to argue that socialism has never succeeded, I simply ask them to name some of the thriving examples of municipalism, anarcho-syndicalism, social democracy, and anarcho-communism that have existed and still exist, and explain why they think those countries are failures. But of course they never can, because all of the “anti-socialist” propagandists I have engaged (really without exception) are completely ignorant of those countries.
3) Ideological fervor and blindness. This is a pretty common problem among vocal anti-socialists who are deeply committed to capitalism. The discussion rarely centers around facts or evidence, and anti-socialist arguments quickly devolve into logical fallacies (straw man arguments, red herrings, false equivalence, confirmation bias, whataboutism, etc.). Just look at many of the posts in this thread, where the level of vitriolic frothing-at-the-mouth is fairly extreme. It’s hard to help such folks understand where they are mistaken. Generally, when I share corrective facts and narratives about socialism with “true believer” market fundamentalists (neoliberals, laissez-faire, Randian objectivists, Austrian School fans, Chicago School fans, etc.) the anti-socialists usually fall silent, dwindle into passive-aggressive sarcasm, or morph into sociopathic ranters.
4) Here there be trolls. Social media provides ideal hunting grounds for folks who just want to provoke and engage in rhetorical combat.
So the OP is definitely onto something here. For one, direct and semi-direct democracies do exist where people continue to have a say in their own governance on nearly any issues they choose to engage on. Examples range from Switzerland (semi-direct) to Rojava and the Zapatistas (direct). And those systems work surprisingly well.
So why do we have representative democracies instead of direct or semi-direct democracies?
Well, the history of U.S. democracy provides a very good example of how this came about. Most of the Founding Fathers were, frankly, terrified of direct democracy, and echoes of those fears remain today when Quorans use terms like “mob rule” to characterize such a system. Instead, the Founders decided that the best way to moderate the “mob” of the electorate was to ensure only educated, wealthy, ostensibly white, landed gentry (men of course) could be appointed by states to the Senate, to act as a firewall against any overreach of the will of the people. Kinda funny, isn’t it? Not really democracy at all…but that non-democratic system remained in place in the U.S. until the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913. So for nearly the first century-and-a-half of U.S. “representative democracy” the voters couldn’t even elect their own representatives (senators in this case).
In short, the primary answer is fear that people wouldn’t be educated or world-wise enough to make good decisions. And we hear that same argument from many conservatives today. So who gets to decide, then? As it was in the beginning, so it remains today in the U.S.: Because of issues like corporate lobbyists such as A.L.E.C, massive amounts of dark money funding election campaigns because of Citizens United, and imbalanced corporate control of media messaging after the Fairness Doctrine was ended by Ronald Reagan, those with financial means and social capital and status have ended up making a lot of the most important decisions about who gets elected and what legislation gets passed. This is why the U.S.A. has always been a mix of democracy and plutocracy — with the balance leaning more and more toward plutocracy in recent election cycles.
Again, there are many direct and semi-direct democracies around the world that demonstrate how an engaged, thoughtful, and well-informed electorate can make excellent governance decisions about their own lives — both locally and nationally.
Democracy has always been pretty fragile, but it has some natural enemies. I think we can easily observe four categories of those enemies to democracy:
1. Some enemies can be characterized as those persons or groups who do not wish to cede power or wealth — or those who wish to accumulate more power and wealth than others in society. We might call these “active external antagonists.”
2. There are the inherent characteristics of the electorate, which are what we might call the “passive internal barriers,” such as apathy, ignorance, low intelligence, immaturity, or gullibility.
3. There are then “passive external barriers” such as the lack of adequate or reliable information to make complex voting decisions, or logistic or institutional difficulties in voting or registering to vote.
4. And finally there is “active internal sabotage,” where voters remain willfully ignorant on issues that require their vote, actively shun voting as a consequence of conspiracy beliefs, adopt an ideology that opposes democratic institutions and practices, or consciously abdicate their own agency through misplaced faith in an individual or political party (and just vote in lockstep conformance with that party).
So the “first step to losing democracy” can really be any of these enemies gaining a sufficient foothold in society to undermine its democratic institutions. More alarmingly, there might be combinations of these enemies occurring at the same time. As a worst-case-scenario, we would see ALL of these enemies converge on democracy in the same period of time. Unfortunately, that appears to be the condition of many democracies around the globe right now.
As an example, I can speak to what is occurring in the U.S. in this regard. Here is how those enemies have been rearing their ugly heads over the past few election cycles:
1. Active external antagonists: On the one hand, we have special interests with enormous wealth who have captured election campaigns, lobbying efforts, and consequently control legislation and regulatory agencies. This group can broadly be characterized as “neoliberal crony capitalists.” On the other hand, we have the “active measures” from Russia and other state actors who seek to confuse, disrupt and distort democracy in the U.S.
2. Passive internal barriers: This has been a pervasive downward spiral in the U.S. for many decades — apathy, ignorance, low IQ, immaturity, and gullibility have been hallmarks of the American electorate across all parties and affiliations. This may be cultural, it may be a consequence of Americans “relaxing” into relative affluence and comfort, it may be the result of a passive consumer mindset that is conditioned to be “sold” on every idea or decision, or all of these things.
3. Passive external barriers: Although logistic and institutional difficulties have increasingly been engineered by the GOP (through voter disenfranchisement, reduced voting locations and times, barriers to voter registration, gerrymandering, and other strategies, etc.), there is also the issue of real and exponential complexity in voting decisions. Also, although there is good, reliable information available for voters, it is increasingly challenging to differentiate it from the much louder noise and distraction of propaganda media outlets.
4. Active internal sabotage: Certain ideologies and beliefs have taken root in the U.S. that amplify pessimism, disinterest, and even despair and hostility regarding voting and democracy. These can be found across the entire political spectrum, but seem to be concentrated (and much more aggressive) in the far Left and far Right. Sometimes, the aim of these ideologies is to dismantle democracy and democratic governments entirely. Somewhat ironically, a common theme among these disaffected voters is that they would like to have “more freedom” than the current system affords them, but of course by not participating in or undermining democracy, they are self-oppressing: reducing their own agency and freedom to pre-democracy levels.
So we aren’t in a great place right now. To restore democracy — which after all is the greatest collective expression of human freedom that has ever arisen in the world — we all likely need to a) re-engage in democracy as actively and thoughtfully as possible, and b) forcefully oppose and reform the internal and external “enemies” to democracy described above. If we can do this, I think there is hope. But we may genuinely be running out of time….
First, that’s already happening. Established movements/practices like P2P and Open Source, for example, as well as the democratization of knowledge and creative sharing via the Internet, and efforts to return economies to a commons-centric model. The “trigger” has simply been the desire to create and collaborate, while sidestepping an obsession with ownership and profit, often with very specific and pragmatic ends (in the real world). So in both the digital realm, and the material realm, “spontaneously collaborating and sharing without coercion” is a fait accompli.
In terms of “how we get there,” well, certainly educating ourselves (and helping educate others) about the current models is an important part of the mix — and, perhaps more than that, creating a positive vision around them. At the same time, encouraging folks to question the destructive aspects of capitalism is also important — to help them recognize that we do, in fact, need to change our systems and philosophy of production and distribution in order to survive as a species.
There are also forms of activism that can help “trigger” a change. I cover some of those here: L e v e l - 7 Action. There is a lot to take in on that web page, but the essential idea is a multi-pronged approach to change that addresses many different levels and arenas of engagements. Please consider spending some time there and following the links to more in-depth discussions of many topics.
In a very real sense, the current COVID-19 pandemic may help folks reevaluate the inherent flaws of our global economic system, and perhaps consider some of these alternatives.
The roots of progressive ideals can easily be traced to the Enlightenment in Europe, where increased understanding and knowledge through reason and scientific inquiry were intended to bring about improved conditions for everyone in society. This was in contrast to the established “traditions” of that time, and so the idea of progress for the betterment of humanity became associated with the Enlightenment itself. And since two core tenets championed by Enlightenment thinkers were liberty and equality, the process of social reform (and revolution) to upend the old traditions and social order also became associated with the Enlightenment.
Now the initial inspiration for the progressive movement in the U.S. was a response to the rise of industrial capitalism, along with its abuses of workers and concentrations of wealth in a small elite, initially during the Gilded Age. In a way, the power of large corporations became a stand-in for the social hierarchies and abuses of old that the Enlightenment sought to address: capitalism replaced feudalism but mirrored the same oppressive power structures as the wealthy owner-shareholders took the place of aristocracy. In this sense progressivism echoed socialism’s response to the same challenges — and with many of the same proposals (worker solidarity, civil rights, etc.). But it is really only at that thirty-thousand-foot level that we can draw parallels between those two movements — or track their evolution over time — but we can see inclinations of the Enlightenment reflected in both. Progressives were primarily interested in returning “power to the people,” and having representatives of local and federal government be much more responsive to the electorate than to special interests like the wealthy elite. Initially progressives focused primarily on empowering and protecting white, working poor folks and their families in this way — and included women’s suffrage in that mix. While socialism of that time also shared this focus, only some socialists advocated advocated as vehemently for strengthening democracy overall.
Today, although it not as coordinated or clearly defined a movement, the central tenets that continue to guide progressives is strengthening civil rights and civil society in opposition to plutocratic oppressions, and continuing to champion liberty and equality. So we can say that these have remained the “traditional values” of progressivism since its beginnings.
Interestingly, what has also persisted in progressive ideas and strategies since the beginning is an almost ridiculous (in terms of effectiveness) diversity of approaches. There has never really been uniform agreement among progressives about how to solve the wealth concentration problem, worker empowerment problem, or improving our elected representation problem. Which is why someone might indeed ask the question of whether “traditional progressivism” has really ever existed. So we can say that the intentions — the goals and aspirations — of progressives have always been the same, and unifying in that respect. But methods…no, that’s always been a hodgepodge of tactics and proposals. In fact, sometimes these have been contradictory approaches — for example, some have emphasized centralized federal government solutions, while others emphasized more localized or distributed solutions (via community organizations, NGOs, etc.); some have emphasized collective solidarity (in unions, civil rights movements, etc.) while others have seemed more individualistic (individual freedom of choice, abortion rights, etc.). These differences probably owe themselves to different conceptions of both liberty and equality.
Lastly, there are some reliable commonalities between most, if not all, modern progressives. The original emphasis on liberty and equality is still present, but it has expanded considerably since the Enlightenment. Today these values are championed not just for white working poor, their families, and women’s suffrage, but also for expanding the same rights and protections to people of color, to animals and the environment, to the sick and elderly, to the LGBTQ community, and so on. And the approaches to championing these interests still rely on reason and scientific inquiry to a substantive degree. The ultimate aim? To improve conditions for everyone — this is still how progress is defined — in opposition to those who would prefer to retain the old hierarchies and concentrations of wealth and power. Fighting plutocratic oppression with democracy and strong civil society is really still the heart and soul of progressivism, and what makes it a longstanding “tradition” in almost every respect.
First I would encourage everyone not to listen to anything Trump says…ever. Any sensible person with an average IQ can observe that Trump can’t stop lying and contradicting himself. At every turn, he has downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and its impacts. Trump is, by almost any measure, an incompetent idiot. So instead, we should all become a bit more educated about the details of the novel coronavirus ourselves. Here is a page with helpful links and a frequently-updated overview: COVID-19 Overview
As to the impact on those under a “stay-at-home” order….
The potential negative impacts are both economic and psychological. Some people (like me, to be honest) are natural hermits who are perfectly happy spending time alone, and can keep themselves occupied and entertained without a lot of social interaction. Others are wired to be much more social, engaged, and entertained through interactions and activities that involve many people. This latter group will undoubtedly suffer a great deal during this period of social distancing — in particular I’m thinking of young people whose entire self-concept and self-esteem may be grounded in their social interactions. So having online activities and ways to connect virtually may be very important, and it seems as though there is already recognition of this and attempts to increase such online activity options. Nevertheless, depression and anxiety may be real battles for large numbers of highly social people right now. To address that challenge, I recommend folks take a look at the thirteen dimensions of nourishment (there is a free overview and self-assessment on the Integral Lifework website), and see if they can add some activities that nourish parts of themselves they may be neglected.
On the economic side of things, the situation could get very dire for those who have lost all of their income. There are several efforts at the state and federal levels to help people — from direct monetary payouts, to temporary debt and recurring bills forgiveness, to free medical care for COVID-19 tests and treatment. The benefits of these efforts will become clearer in the coming weeks, and they will certainly help cushion the blow. But they will only be effective for the short-term. The more permanent solution will be a) a COVID-19 vaccine, which is likely 12–18 months away; or b) a more successful and reliable COVID-19 treatment than anything tried so far — which could arrive much more quickly than a vaccine. Once either or both of these are in place, then economic recovery can begin in earnest. At the same time, this may also be a helpful moment in human history to reevaluate whether neoliberal crony capitalism — with all of its inherent resource depletion, worker exploitation, negative externalities (like climate change), and economic inequalities — should remain our primary global political economy. It just might be time for a change that would help us be better prepared for future crises like COVID-19. To that end, here is a link to an alternative political economy that is more equitable, sane and sustainable: L e v e l - 7 Overview.
There are a few factors in play I think. First, there is a fair amount of research that shows differences in right-leaning an left-leaning people — both in terms of the values (or “virtues”) that are most important to them, and in the emotions with which they most frequently operate and are motivated. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which from the lists below. Of course, there are also folks who are closer to the middle, sharing characteristics of both groups. But in times of crisis, polarization tends to be even greater, so for now we’ll just look at the two extremes….
Characteristics of Group A:
1. More closed-minded and reactive to things that are new or “different”
2. Strong fear-based reasoning, often centered around losing status (both personally and for their group)
3. High tolerance of cognitive dissonance (when facts don’t match beliefs) and rejection of evidence that contradicts their beliefs — sometimes to the point of rather stubborn stupidity
4. Strong sense of loyalty to own tribe and traditions, resulting in reflexive “Us vs. Them” reasoning
5. Highly skeptical of science, government institutions, genuine altruism, collective concerns, leveling the economic playing field for everyone, and the importance of civil society itself
6. Insists that private enterprise is “more efficient” than government in providing public goods (healthcare, utilities, etc.)
Characteristics of Group B:
1. More open-minded and accepting of things that are new or “different”
2. Strong inclusive and compassion-centered reasoning, sometimes to the detriment of their own status and the status of their group
3. Low tolerance for cognitive dissonance, and fairly frequent updating of position based on new evidence
4. Hardly any loyalty to own tribe and traditions, and so sometimes creating “circular firing squads” within leadership
5. Strongly motivated to embrace science and justify positions and policies with scientific evidence; more trusting of government institutions; confident that altruism is real and important; and generally more invested in collective concerns, leveling the economic playing field for everyone, and the importance of civil society itself
6. Is skeptical of the profit motive’s efficacy in navigating or providing public goods
Now inject a new crisis into the situation: a previously unknown and highly contagious virus that requires close coordination between all governmental institutions; demands reliance on scientific data to plan an effective response; is indifferent to status and partisanship (i.e. doesn’t favor one group over another); and reveals profound weaknesses in privatization of public goods, where the profit motive simply doesn’t work for the scale of response required.
I think when we break down the political spectrum to these kinds of characteristics, it quickly becomes evident why left-leaning folks tend to respond one way, while right-leaning folks tend to respond in an opposite fashion.
The right-wing propaganda machine has finally lost some of its momentum and, as embodied in the idiocy of Trump, is being abandoned as a farce. The echoes of that propaganda still persist in the fear-mongering around a Sanders nomination — from media on the Left and the Right — but folks are beginning to see through the supposed “moderate” critique to what it really is: the decades-long disinformation campaign of right-wing think tanks, ideological politics, and thought leaders that strives to reject all socialist ideas. This started all the way back with the Red Scare of WWI, was amplified by the neoliberalism of Hayek, Mises and Friedman, came to a head in the era of McCarthyism, resurged in the 1970s after the panicked Lewis Powell Memo (a reaction to the populist revolts of the 1960s), resurged again in the “trickle down” economics of Thatcher and Reagan, was championed even more when the Tea Party movement was coopted by crony capitalists like the Koch brothers, and has now come to a ludicrous climax in the election of an impulsive, megalomaniacal fool as POTUS.
To understand why this conservative “anti-socialist” movement has persisted for so long, just follow the money. The U.S. has had a mixed economy — with elements of both socialism and capitalism — for over a century, but wealthy owner-shareholders always want more. And that means they strive for weaker government and “less interference” from pesky regulations, human rights, environmental protections, etc. This has always been about the rich wanting to get richer, and the only answer to Adam Smith’s “vile maxim” (i.e. “all for ourselves, and nothing for other people”) has been the stronger, more democratic civil society championed by socialism (see How Socialist Contributions to Civil Society Saved Capitalism From Itself). To appreciate just how hard neoliberal conservatives have fought to control and consolidate wealth, I recommend perusing this web page, and then following some of its links: L7 Neoliberalism
In essence…young folks are becoming better educated about what democratic socialism really is. However…stay tuned for the right-wing propaganda machine to begin spouting lies about how socialism “always fails,” etc.
What a delightfully inane question. Thank you for the opportunity to entertain.
Some questions that we might ponder to burrow down to the heart of this matter, run along these lines:
What have you contributed to society that makes you believe you have the right to expect your neighbors to be obligated to pay for…
1. Firefighters to save you from a burning building while you sleep?
2. Roads for you to drive to work on?
3. A standing army to defend your community from foreign invaders?
4. Police officers to answer a 911 call when someone breaks into your home, threatens your family, or mugs you in the street?
5. Government funded research into vaccines for deadly diseases that would otherwise never be developed?
6. Emergency disaster assistance when a tornado, flood or fire wipes out your entire town?
7. Medical facilities to treat you if you are “out of network,” don’t have adequate insurance coverage, and don’t have enough money to pay out-of-pocket?
And so on…
There are so many things we take for granted as a “right,” when really they are the privileges that societal organization affords us because we have all agreed to cooperate in that society and abide by its rules. In reality, we are all just entitled “freeloaders” when we expect civil society to function at all on our behalf. After all, what have we, personally, done to contribute to the structures, agreements, benefits, protections, and rights of that society? What have we, individually, done to build up or maintain any of privileges society grants us? Usually absolutely nothing…except pay taxes, and conform to the rule of law, both of which many people only do grudgingly.
Really, there are just a few central questions that we need to answer for ourselves:
1. Which civic institutions do we wish to prioritize as the most important, and which members of society do we want to primarily benefit from them? (These are really two sides of the same coin IMO)
2. In whom do we wish to vest the power to make decisions about the prioritization of civic institutions and who benefits from them? In other words, do we want a democratic process, an autocratic process, an oligarchic process….?
3. How do we wish to pay for these civic institutions, manage them, and maintain them?
To say that rule of law that prevents people from randomly murdering each other without consequence is somehow different from young children having unfettered access to healthcare is really an arbitrary distinction — as human beings will die if either consideration is neglected. Until most of society substantively agrees on answers to the three questions above, the rejection of one benefit over another is equally arbitrary, and often based on selfish advantage or consideration. For example: “Why should I pay school bonds when I don’t have any kids?” If everyone thought this way, societal cohesion would quickly disintegrate (and perhaps that is what we see happening in the world right now…).
That said, I am a libertarian socialist, so I’m not really a big fan of large central government. I like diffused, distributed solutions. You can read about my ideas here: L e v e l - 7 Overview
Venezuela’s decline gets discussed quite a bit, and there are wide ranging opinions about it — many of which seem to contain both kernels of truth, and evidence of bias. It’s difficult to find a balanced assessment.
That said, I’ll offer what I believe to be the chief elements of Venezuela’s destabilization and decline, in their rough order of impact and importance:
1. Decades of pervasive and severe corruption — in both government and business independently…and as a “crony capitalist” combination of the two.
2. The predictable course of “the resource curse,” as a consequence of huge oil reserves, the country’s over-dependence on that single source of wealth, and the unreliability and decline in profitability of those reserves.
3. Authoritarian mismanagement and incompetence — Chávez, and then Maduro, could have ruined any form of political economy with their heavy-handed incompetence, but in this particularly case it was clearly a megalomaniacal, utterly failed implementation of a socialistic state-directed economy. (see T. Collins Logan's answer to What are the different types of socialism?)
4. Amplification of problems by sanctions — although there is substantive debate around both the extent of this amplification, and the efficacy of sanctions in achieving intended aims, the sanctions certainly aren’t helping the people of Venezuela in the short run.
I have included some links below to support each of this assertions.
But why is Venezuela’s form of political economy such a “hot topic” right now? Mainly, it is because of right-wing propaganda that has sought to demonize anything that opposes or constrains free market capitalism, or in any way disrupts the gravy train of corporate wealth generation and accumulation that pro-capitalist policy provides. Calling anything that fails “socialism,” and anything that succeeds “capitalism,” has been a favorite conservative tactic since the first “Red Scare” after WWI. In reality, most successful economies in the world are mixed economies that have both socialist and capitalist elements.
The U.S., along with most of the rest of the developed world, has already proven that “mixed economies” (mixing socialism with capitalism) can be very productive, as long as corporate power and wealth can be moderated by civil society (civic institutions, democracy, the rule of law, regulatory enforcement, etc.). Most other experiments (including those with socialism) have succeeded most when democracy and actual diffusion of power and wealth were strong. So really, what the U.S. needs to “try” is a return to this sensible balance. Right now, big money and big corporations pretty much own the U.S. outright — the voice of the people, and any real distribution of power and wealth, has been defeated by relentless neoliberal policies, leaders and politics…since about the time of Reagan. But if we can take a clear, propaganda-free look at the negative externalities of capitalism (like climate change), and work hard to rein in the influence of the owner-shareholder class, then the U.S. just might be able to regain a healthy trajectory. Does this mean “more socialism?” From the perspective of conservative, free market fundamentalists — it sure does seem like a bit more public ownership and control over things the plutocrats would rather keep for themselves. In terms of enacting Soviet-style Communism, absolutely not. Fear of that outcome is pure propaganda. But those wealthy owner-shareholders just don’t want to let go of the control and influence they have right now…and that could in fact bring the U.S.A. to its knees.
1. You can easily have lots of freedom without equality — if you are rich, or if you exit society altogether. So a society that places “freedom” first, without establishing equality, could just be an oppressive, classist, plutocratic society that alienates all the poor people into running away from it.
2. Although it is much more difficult, it is possible to engineer a society that has a lot of equality, but a lot less freedom — to the point of being oppressive. This is what science fiction novels about dystopian futures warn us against, and what propaganda about former Soviet countries has harped upon.
Yes. The key to understanding why is something called “counter-cyclical fiscal policy.” Basically, if there is a sudden economic downturn (recession), a government can decrease taxes and increase deficit spending to “counter” the downturn. But, if tax revenues are already so low that deficit spending is already a runaway train (as in our current situation in the U.S.), there isn’t a lot of wiggle room, if any, to enact counter-cyclical policies. Eventually, perpetual deficit spending also tends to crowd out private investment over time, as interest rates begin to rise as a natural consequence of all that deficit spending. And this further contracts growth.
So although cutting taxes is an attractive short-term stimulus tactic, it generally is more of a “placebo” effect on economic expansion…and the economy will almost inevitably swing in the opposite direction (i.e. contract) over time. Which means that, as a rather nasty amplifying effect when recession inevitably arrives, the government will abruptly be saddled with a massive debt burden that now costs more and more to service (again, as interests rates rise as a consequence of constant deficit spending) — the debt servicing will become more and more a preoccupation of future budgets, which will cast around for cuts to anything and everything else, thus further weakening the economy. Alternatively, the federal government can become insolvent — which may actually be the irrational aim of certain neoliberal conservatives who dislike government “interference” in markets, and seek a purer laissez-faire economy.
In any case this is why “procyclical” policy (i.e. what the Trump administration is engaged in now) is pretty reckless.
This is a really great question — and one that is particularly relevant to the challenges we face on planet Earth.
Here are a few of the top considerations:
1. Any approach must be multi-pronged to address the many different stimulators of change (and many different resistors to change). We cannot rely on one, simplistic approach — no matter how attractive it may seem. This has always been true to a certain degree, but it is especially true in today’s complex, highly interconnected and interdependent, massively scaled society.
2. It is also important to appreciate that culture, more than any other factor, is probably the strongest driver of both the status quo, and potential change. Unless we address culture as a primary part of the mix, change may occur briefly, but it will not “stick.”
3. In dealing with ideology specifically, it is helpful to understand how that ideology came to prominence, and attempt address the same drivers with alternative ideas. One of the more effective ways of doing this is to evaluate the “values hierarchy” involved — that is, which values is a given ideology appealing to first and foremost, and what are the cascading values that support the primary values — that create the deeper foundation. You can read about this idea here: Functional Intelligence. The idea is that any new ideology will need to be essentially better satisfying and reifying that values hierarchy.
4. But being “better” actually isn’t enough. Any new idea must also be “stronger” (I mean in the memetic, cultural sense), more compelling, and more persuasive than the old idea. Being “better” (more efficient, more rational, more effective, more grounded in evidence) is an important starting point — but the new idea also has to “have legs;” it has to be able to self-perpetuate, self-propagate, and endure. It has to sell itself.
5. Once these prerequisites are met, the next step is to implement a plan of influence, disruption of the status quo, and change — and this plan must include specific, well-defined goals for an outcome. This is the piece that many “idealists” completely miss: they believe that ideas will stand on their own. But human beings learn best through imitation, through following a demonstrated example, and look to the reenforcement of peers, media and culture to maintain the momentum of any set of ideals. So any new direction has to demonstrate its merit…and this is really the hurdle that keeps many new ideas from ever taking root.
I will provide an example of what I am talking about. Please visit this site: L e v e l - 7 Overview. It attempts to provide many of the pieces to cultural change described above. For example:
1. On the home page there are seven “Articles of Transformation” that embody the values hierarchy of Level 7 proposals, and some specific goals for the reification of those values. Those values — and the philosophy that supports them — are more carefully laid out in the “Design Principles” outlined in each of those Articles.
2. Then there is a L e v e l - 7 Action section on the site. This defines the multi-pronged approach necessary to migrate away from status quo ideologies and practices to more sustainable and equitable ones. It includes these fronts of change activism, with resources to support them:
a.Constructive grass-roots populism
b.Disrupting the status quo
c.Exposing misinformation and pro-corporatocracy PR campaigns
d.Recruiting elite change agents
e.Community-centric pilot projects
f.Individual development and supportive networking
g.Socially engaged art, and visionary art that inspires transformation
If I myself had infinite time, infinite resources, and infinite personal talents to do so, I would attempt to be involved in all of this. I believe that, if I could write a novel that illustrated the Level 7 vision, that might be very persuasive on a memetic, cultural level. If I could establish “Community Coregroups” in different cities, as described on the site above, this would also be extremely helpful. If I could design and champion demonstrative pilot projects (Land Trusts, NGOs, citizens councils, etc.) in multiple localities, this also would be ideal. And so on. But I’m not really at liberty to do any of those things in my current situation. Some of the other “prongs,” however, are things I can accomplish, and I’m attempting to do that. But no one can take this task on alone.
This presents both a profound difficulty and a profound opportunity: this can’t be a one-person effort, not in today’s world, but we also now have unprecedented ability to connect and coordinate within society — in ways we never had before. This new connectivity is really how movements like the Arab Spring were able to happen. However, just as one person cannot save us all, one single idea cannot save us all, either. What we are really talking about — and what the OP’s question is inadvertently alluding to — is that “ideology” has become a sort of snowballing memeplex of many different ideologies glued haphazardly together. Sometimes that memeplex can even be full of internal contradictions, and so tangled up in values hierarchies that seem to oppose each other, that it is impossible to tease it apart or “fix” from within. So an entirely new memeplex must be presented to replace nearly ALL of the existing, status quo tangle of ideologies. A new cohesive vision that integrates the best parts of previous ideologies, which is what Level 7 attempts to be. And this, too, requires multiple layers of expertise, multiple prongs of engagement, and multiple avenues of exemplification and mimesis to understand, advocate, and implement.
Calling Thomas Sowell a “public intellectual” strains that term to its limits — so I’m not sure why he is being compared to Noam Chomsky at all. Sowell, like Chomsky, does offer public opinions, so that is where they intersect. But only fairly uneducated, uninformed or ideologically brainwashed people would ever take Sowell’s incoherent musings seriously — as virtually every position he holds has been undermined by overwhelming evidence over and over again, and for many years now. Sowell has basically parroted neoliberal groupthink in everything he has written or said — so of course he’s received honors from the likes of the American Enterprise Institute. But I’m sincerely bewildered that anyone could believe Sowell actually “thinks” very much at all…let alone “intellectually…” as the arc of his work is basically elaborate rationalizations of borrowed regurgitation (of Friedman, Hayek, et al).
That said, Sowell has made some salient and seemingly carefully considered observations over his many years of opining (his criticisms of Donald Trump, for example). But these have been the exception rather than the rule, as most of what he believes is utter nonsense.
Thus Chomsky wins this comparison by default — because even if you don’t agree with Chomsky’s views, his thinking is at least well-researched, original, and indeed “intellectual” in its breadth and depth…a level to which Sowell simply has not yet risen.
One way to approach this question is to ask: “Do outcomes differ based upon available resources, opportunities, conditions and relationships?” And the answer to that is an unequivocal “Yes!”
Okay, then if we aim to “level the playing field,” so that everyone in society has (roughly) equivalent quantities and qualities of resources, opportunities, conditions and relationships, will this result in a greater “equality of outcomes?” Well, it will — and does — tend to provide a higher probability that more people will achieve the same fulfillment of personal agency in measurable accomplishments. Essentially, it helps remove barriers that otherwise would — and do — exist. At the same time, this aim is a rather herculean task in the context of deeply persistent cultural racism, classism, sexism, ageism, and tribalism. It is, frankly, nearly impossible to “level the playing field” when any of these cultural prejudices are in play — because they will override and negate any and all “equality of opportunity.”
So then the question becomes: how can we encourage attenuation of these deep-seated prejudices? And for me, that is the much more interesting (and relevant) question.
First of all, capitalism is already striving mightily to end itself — by being inherently unsustainable, extractive, exploitative, and fraught with negative externalities that seem to balloon exponentially with each passing year — so we may not need to take active steps to end it.
That said, plenty of folks have offered viable alternatives to traditional capitalism, and proven that they work quite well. These include:
Really capitalism hasn’t been around that long — it was a natural evolution from feudalism and mercantilism, and has never been entirely free of crony capitalist corruption. Mixed economies that combined capitalism, socialism and strong civic institutions offset some of the worst abuses of capitalism in most of the developed world for a few decades, but even those efforts are now failing. So again…capitalism is already ending itself.
The real question, IMO, is whether we will be able to arrest the free fall and introduce something new before everything crashes and burns.
If by “intellectual inquiry” you mean critical, evidence-based evaluation or scrutiny, then I honestly don’t know of a single, current “right-wing” idea that stands up to it at all. There are a few left-wing ideas that falter as well, but far more that have been validated by the test of time. Most right-wing ideas are not just on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of science — they are also on the wrong side of common sense. A very brief list of right-wing concepts that have proven to be disastrously wrong-headed include such central tenets as:
1. Trickle-down (supply-side) economics — an utter failure.
2. Economic austerity measures — also an utter failure.
3. Free-market solutions can solve any problem — no they can’t; for example: healthcare.
4. Corporations can be left to self-regulate — another epic fail: e-cigarettes; Boeing 737-Max; savings and loan crisis; mortgage-backed securities meltdown; Oxycodone; coal mining deaths; etc.
5. Opposition to teaching children sex-education or allowing them access to birth control — STDs and teen pregnancies abound everywhere this has been tried.
6. Climate change isn’t caused by people — yes it is.
7. Cigarettes don’t cause cancer — yes they do.
8. Good jobs are being stolen by immigrants — no they’re not, they’re being stolen by outsourcing and automation by companies that wan’t to increase their profits instead of pay decent wages.
9. Gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry — that’s just dumb…and oppressive.
10. Black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote — also stupid and oppressive.
11. Women shouldn’t be allowed control over their own bodies — um…well, just wow.
12. Invading Iraq was the best way to fight Islamic extremism — LOL.
13. Obamacare has been a disaster — nope: it’s doing pretty much everything it promised to do (though it didn’t fare as well in Republican States that resisted Medicare expansion, and Republican efforts to sabotage Obamacare are weakening that success further).
14. Innovation comes from private enterprise — nope. Most “outside the box” thinking that has lead to major innovations was the result of academic or government-funded research (think the Internet, GPS, bar codes, microchips, wind energy, touch screens, etc.). Oops!
15. Capitalism lifts people out of poverty — wrong again: civil society (civic institutions, the rule of law, democracy, etc.) lifts people out of poverty in capitalist countries…in countries without strong civic institutions, the “capitalists” are just brutish thugs who keep all of the wealth for themselves.
16. Socialism has always failed. Really? The U.S. Postal Service? The Federal Reserve? The U.S. Highway System? The U.S. Military? NASA? K-12 Education? Public Lands? Public utility companies? Public transit? Social Security? Medicare and Medicaid? The FDA? Are all of these socialist enterprises failures…?
We could go on…and it would be exhausting…but this is why it so difficult for progressives to find common ground with American conservatives. Conservatives are just…well, unable to get their facts straight or clearly see the actual causes of the problems they want to solve.
Thanks for the question. In no particular order, these writers explore many of the same problems that Chomsky identifies, and with a similar level of complexity and supportive evidence:
- Naomi Klein
- Chris Hedges
- Yanis Varoufakis
- Greg Palast
- George Monbiot
And here are some folks who also explore these problems, and offer some remedies — mainly on the economic side, in answer to what could broadly be called “neoliberal, crony capitalist oligarchy:”
- Thorstein Veblen
- E.F. Schumacher
- Thomas Picketty
- Amartya Sen
- Elinor Ostrom
- Alec Nove
Here are some writers who look more deeply at the systems-level problems of industrial capitalism, and propose some ways out of the mess:
- Howard Odum
- David Holmgren
- Peter Pogany
And here are two folks who recognize many of the challenges described or addressed by many of the above authors, and offer their own unique take on either the nature of the problem, or a route to positive transformation of what is broken:
- Paulo Freire
- Paul Piff
And then their are the origins of the libertarian socialism that Chomsky subscribes to — the names and ideas of whom you will hear Chomsky reference from time-to-time:
- William Godwin
- Murray Bookchin
- Peter Kropotkin
- Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
- Mikhail Bakunin
- Rudolph Rocker
Lastly, there are my own writings and proposals, which you can find available for free on this website: L e v e l - 7 Overview (https://www.level-7.org).
The really humorous thing about this dynamic (i.e. stereotyping “intellectuals” — or subject experts — as elitists who are out of touch with common experience) is that the folks usually using that stereotype it are even more out-of-touch with reality than “intellectuals” are. The anti-intellectual sentiment coming from right-wing propaganda is quite deliberate in this respect: it wants to villainize anything that is grounded in critical thinking, science, evidence and data — usually in favor of ideological principles that are routinely undermined by that data. Hence climate crisis is a left-wing conspiracy invented by academics to get grant money; solid historical economic data that shows how “trickle-down” theory (supported by the laughable “Laffer curve”) and austerity policies fail utterly can likewise be dismissed as “elitist” fabrication; statistics that prove how abortions decline wherever Planned Parenthood has a well-funded presence is crushed by hateful vitriol from pro-life folks who fervently believe Planned Parenthood should be defunded; science that proves cigarette use is linked to cancer becomes part of a “liberal anti-business agenda;” and so on ad nauseum. Such has been the relentless drumbeat of conservative think tanks since the early 1970s.
But can you see the problem? The folks who attack intellectualism (and/or left-wing elitism) have to do so to defend their completley-detached-from-reality beliefs and distortions of fact. Which is of course advantageous to the wealthy conservative owner-shareholders who benefit the most from voters, politicians and talkshow hosts parroting right-wing lunacy. Hence voting Republican in the U.S. has become synonymous with supporting unicorn policies and practices that maintain plutocracy and insulate the wealthiest elite, while effectively knee-capping scientific counter-narratives that could actually benefit everyone else. Critical thinking and actual evidence-based approaches simply cannot be allowed!
So I will proudly say “Yes, I tend to trust well-educated experts who’ve spent their lives researching and testing ideas with real-world data.” You say these are “intellectuals?” I say they are simply competent — much more so than armchair bombasts who believe in unicorns.
As to why folks who decry intellectualism are so confident in their armchair fantasies, I recommend reading up on the Dunning–Kruger effect.
An interesting question but an odd one, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. But I’ll give it my best shot….
1. Socialism is really about moral maturity. A mature person can have self-interest, while also caring about others. They can promote their own position and advantage, while also desiring to lift others up at the same time. Their “primary concern” can be “the good of All,” without necessarily sacrificing their own well-being.
2. Socialism is also about sharing both responsibility and benefits with everyone. It recognizes that there is no “individual right” without the agreement of the collective to support that right. “Self-interest” without civil society is just thuggery, but self-interest in the context of civic responsibilities and privileges that everyone shares becomes collective self-interest. In other words, “self-interest” becomes less individualistic/atomistic.
3. Socialism aspires to pure democracy. The most successful socialist experiments are those with the most vigorous democracy — because the more distributed power becomes, the more inherently equitable society (and wealth distribution, etc.) becomes.
Socialism is often misunderstood for two simple reasons: First, because of pro-capitalist propaganda that attacks straw men that socialism isn’t; and second, because socialist implementations occur across a spectrum — including intersections and combinations with capitalism.
Thanks for the question. A positive relationship between corporate tax cuts and “encouraging investment” that leads to economic growth is a fairy tale unsupported by data. It is, in fact, very similar to the fairy tale regarding supply side “trickle down” theory, which has also been soundly debunked (see The IMF Confirms That 'Trickle-Down' Economics Is, Indeed, a Joke).
Just let the data speak for itself. Take a look at Corporate tax rates and economic growth since 1947. Although there is a superficial correlation between higher(not lower) corporate tax rates and better GDP growth, there is not much evidence that lower corporate tax rates increase GDP growth. The net effect is statistically pretty neutral.
However, how those tax dollars are spent (and when in the business cycle they are spent) can result in highly variable impacts on the economy — which is why there is such a wide range of “multiplier” estimates for government spending (frequently between 1 and 3). In general, government expenditures during recession have a much larger positive impact than during an economic boom. Expenditures on infrastructure may provide an immediate boost to certain industries, but then a much longer and more gradual multiplier as new business expansion is built upon that infrastructure. In the same vein, government spending that results in free education can have a substantial impact on economic growth many years after those students graduate and become productive contributors to the economy.
But probably the highest “multiplier-friendly” activity the government can do is research: there is lot of research the private sector simply won’t do — and hasn’t done in the past — which leads to new innovations, technological advances, and even entire new industries. Many of the things we rely on today (cell phones, the Internet, computers, life-saving drugs, etc.) were mainly the consequence of government research that was then used to deliver products to the marketplace by private companies. And of course whenever government programs are able to put more money into the the hands of consumers, while at the same time government is directly spending on goods services, this can stimulate aggregate demand (and, consequently, GDP) much more than business investment alone ever could.
At the same time, there are of course lots of things government spends money on that aren’t really all that great in the multiplier department. A good example is defense spending. Some research (see Mercatus Center study at George Mason U) suggests that the multiplier impact of defense spending on the U.S. economy is less than 1. The hypothesis is that in defense industries specifically, government spending “crowds out” private sector spending. So again it does make a difference how the money gleaned from corporate taxes is spent.
But if government doesn’t have money to spend, then clearly either there is going to be less of a multiplier, or there or going to be government deficits. Now the impact on deficits on the economy is a bit more complex, so I’m going to duck that one for now. But suffice it to say that long-term deficits can actually mess up the economy in a number of unsavory and dramatic ways.
It depends on the form of socialism. For libertarian socialism, it’s pretty simple, really: Democracy runs everything. Democracy governs the workplace. Democracy governs how the economy is structured and run. Democracy determines what is most important to society — at the community level, for the priorities of research and development, regarding whether or not to build national infrastructure, etc. And so on. And this is all done via consensus, direct democracy, nested elected councils, or a similar diffused form of democratic decision-making.
Of course, that is only one form of socialism. Here are some of the others, for which the answer would be different:
It’s a challenge, I think, for anyone to pick passages out of Smith’s work that apply exactly to today’s context of modern capitalism. Those who are friendly to classical liberalism and neoliberalism have made many errors doing so, and those who feel modern capitalism is problematic have also made errors picking-and-choosing from Smith’s work. With that caveat, here’s what I think might be relevant to this question:
1. The problem of business interests being at odds with public interests, and business having too much influence over both commerce and government. Smith touches on this frequently in Wealth of Nations, and uses the argument to encourage vigilant and thoughtful governmental oversight of business so that the public’s interests may be protected and business influence be reined in — Smith calls this “good government.” Without good government, Smith warns, the purveyors of commerce gain too much power. Why is this problematic? Because Smith observes that this particular breed of folks cannot be trusted with the public good; he writes of them: “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” (Bk 1, Ch.11) Further, Smith observes that such men often come to operate according to a disturbing principle: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” (Bk 3, Ch.4)
2. The “absurd tax” of monopolies, and — once again — the dangers of their influence on government. Also not serving the public’s interests are monopolies that eliminate competition — which Smith warns are a natural objective of business, in order to maximize profits. “To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.” (Wealth of Nations, Bk 1, Ch.11) In addition, monopolies can gain inordinate coercive influence over government itself: “like an overgrown standing army, they have become formidable to the government, and upon many occasions intimidate the legislature. The member of parliament who supports every proposal for strengthening this monopoly, is sure to acquire not only the reputation of understanding trade, but great popularity and influence with an order of men whose numbers and wealth render them of great importance. If he opposes them, on the contrary, and still more if he has authority enough to be able to thwart them, neither the most acknowledged probity, nor the highest rank, nor the greatest public services, can protect him from the most infamous abuse and destruction, from personal insults, nor sometimes from real danger, arising from the insolent outrage of furious and disappointed monopolists.” (Wealth of Nations, Bk 4, Ch.2)
3. The lack of representation of worker interests and needs. “In the public deliberations, therefore, [the laborer’s] voice is little heard and less regarded, except upon some particular occasions, when his clamor is animated, set on, and supported by his employers, not for his, but for their own particular purposes.” (Wealth of Nations, Bk 1, Ch.11) Smith does seem to think laborers aren’t always capable of constructive input to government — because of their lack of education, information and time — but he clearly doesn’t trust businesses to represent worker interests either.
My 2 cents.
Please note: excerpts from Smith’s Wealth of Nations in the above answer can easily be found via a full search string in quotes.
No, I don’t think individualism writ large is the motivating force of capitalism. I would break down capitalism’s motivations this way:
1. Acquisitiveness towards property, wealth and power seems to be a primary driver — especially in order to gain social position and prestige, and to exercise such collected power and wealth independently of government, society, or even moral expectations. In essence, we could say this is “selfish accumulation,” which is a rather ugly facet of individualism, especially when combined with lording it over other people. But individualism has other, more positive aspects — such as freedom of thought, creative freedom, expressive freedom, freedom of choice, etc. — for which capitalism falsely claims to provide advantages. In reality, capitalism deprives most people of most individual freedoms — through coercive marketing, addictive products, titillating groupthink, wage slavery, debt slavery, and so on — so it can’t claim the more positive benefits of individualism at all.
2. A mistaken but widespread belief that capitalist markets provide the best solutions to human challenges. In reality, capitalist markets provide profitable products and services to people by persuading them that those products and services solve certain challenges — even if they really don’t. Think of pharmaceutical products marketed to treat a certain condition that don’t outperform placebo or cheaper treatment options (this happens a lot). In fact, capitalism is quite ingenious at inventing “needs” that never existed, then synthesizing demand for products and services that fulfill those previously nonexistent “needs.”
3. A mistaken belief that wealth itself solves human challenges. Sure, lifting folks out of poverty is great, and capitalism has been pretty good at that. But at what price? This is the faulty reasoning of the capitalist, who tends to ignore the importance of strong civic institutions to sustain society over time; or the need to consider and plan for negative externalities (i.e. pollution, carbon emissions, destruction of ecosystems that support all life, etc.) created by rising standards of living in the industrial age; or how wealth in excess can make people childish, callous and disconnected from others (see Paul Piff’s research on this). In other words, wealth alone doesn’t solve some very important fundamental challenges…and in fact can make them worse.
4. A sort of anthropocentrism and egocentrism — a belief that humans are entitled to do anything they want, both collectively and individually. Again, this isn’t really “individualism,” it’s more akin to a mental illness like Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Unfortunately, many discussions around this topic reflect a profound, heart-stopping, mind-boggling ignorance about a) the nature of the current existential threats to humanity, and b) the nature of what “far left” represents. This ignorance goes a long way toward enabling the worst human habits and systems of our status quo to continue its dazzling downward spiral. In part, this appears to be ignorance stemming from right-wing misinformation (or disinformation/propaganda, as the case may be), and in part this ignorance seems just a reflection of poorly educated people trying to grapple with problems they don’t understand — and don’t have the discipline to learn about or carefully consider. The rest of the mix just appears to reflect a sort of native abject stupidity, and we can’t do much about that. But for those who are open to learning and self-improvement — or who are willing see through the propaganda — I’ll try to offer some clarity.
Nearly all of the “existential threats” to humanity — and planet Earth for that matter — are a consequence of a snowballing nexus of these global factors:
1. A style of extractive capitalism that is rapidly exhausting natural resources, while grossly polluting and destroying ecosystems necessary for the survival of life at the same time, in order to prop up a modern first-world lifestyle of overconsumption and excessive waste. The industrial and technological revolutions of the past two centuries have made this extractive capitalist engine so powerful (and the overconsumptive lifestyle so entrenched) that it has become extremely efficient in its destructive capacities — and very difficult to stop.
2. Rapid population growth coupled with equally rapid and expanding economic growth that has amplified these negative impacts in exponential ways…with no obvious end in sight, outside of eventual chaotic collapse.
3. Pro-capitalist sentiments and political forces (i.e. market fundamentalists, plutocrats, neoliberals, right-Libertarians, traditional conservatives, corporate investors, etc.) that have tirelessly sought to protect the extractive capitalist engine that generates their wealth, even while seeking to destroy or cripple countervailing influences that could moderate their self-serving greed or mitigate wantonly destructive consequences of that greed. Part of that self-protective strategy, it should be noted, is the advocacy of unproven or disproven economic theories (Austrian School, etc.), conspiracy theories, weakening of government oversight, “science skepticism” bolstered by fake research, and social and systemic approaches that have not been proven or are not evidence-based.
The “far Left” is comprised mainly of the following groups — who consistently attempt to support their positions with actual science and evidence-based approaches:
1. Left anarchists/libertarian socialists
2. Social progressives
3. Social democrats
4. Democratic socialists
It should be noted that these groups do not support Soviet-Style Communism — the bogeyman that many posts in this thread stand up as their straw man to tear down. In fact, most groups mainly aim to gentle the toxic strain of capitalism that dominates the global economy today, reining it in with democratic controls, worker empowerment, a strong bulwark of regulatory oversight, and a shifting of ownership away from wealthy owner-shareholders who have been such poor stewards of corporate power, and into the hands of public control. Essentially, the “far Left” is all about increasing economic, political and environmental democracy — a strengthening of civil society — and eliminating plutocratic corruption of civic institutions.
As such, the “far Left” is almost certainly the best bet — as a starting point at least — for reversing our current descent into self-destruction.
However, there is one small problem with the “far Left” as so defined being the savior of humanity and planet Earth: none of its constituent groups have addressed the issue of population very vocally or aggressively. Some environmentalists will meekly raise the issue…but that’s about it. Most other groups equivocate, downplay concerns, or hold a false optimism about global populations leveling themselves out over time. So although the “far Left” gaining more influence could soften the toxic impact of extractive capitalism, and perhaps delay the “existential threats” we face for a time, unless and until the population crisis is actively engaged as well, the far Left’s salvation will be tenuous at best.
This question reveals the destructive tendency of capitalism to condition folks to falsely believe they require “external” motivations to do things. It really is a profound disconnect from how humans actually operate, which is mainly from intrinsic motivation — at least until that spark is repeatedly discouraged, snuffed out, and replaced with external drivers and addictions. Capitalism’s primary self-perpetuating mechanism is persuading and coercing consumers to consume, and that means creating dependency on such consumption — a process I call infantilization or toddlerization — and annihilating all self-sufficiency and self-directedness in the process. Ironically, this is often “sold” as freedom of choice…a sort of appeal to individualistic gratification. But it’s actually quite the opposite, because it removes the only substantive choice available to liberate oneself from addictive cycles of craving and buying.
So, to the contrary, people don’t need “society” to promote self-motivation and personal drive. It pre-exists and is hard-wired into most people. All any “non-capitalist” society would really need to do is to is resist interfering with this intrinsic capacity. Humans are quite ingenious about inventing things to do, as well as the reasons to do them — think of every folk tradition that predated capitalism, every creative act (symphony, painting, sculpture, poem) that wasn’t done for profit, every idea that was written down and shared because its author thought it was compelling, every invention and scientific discovery that occurred from the the pure joy of researching and experimenting. Really…human existence is mostly about such natural inspiration. Capitalism just commoditizes this output for a buck…and then perpetuates the myth that the only reason we do anything is for personal gain. It’s quite laughable.
Of course, capitalism isn’t the only system that exploits people or aims to interfere with self-sufficiency and create habitual dependence — that’s a longstanding goal of many systems of social enslavement, from dogmatic and controlling religious institutions, to political tribalism and purity testing, to authoritarian and plutocratic governance, to fear-mongering disinformation campaigns. It’s all basically about the same thing: an attempt to control masses of people for the benefit of a few ruling or affluent elite.
Which means that simply removing capitalism is not sufficient…we must also remain vigilant toward the many other faces of oppression.
What’s really interesting about this question is how folks in different economic strata (and different disciplines) usually think they have some unique take on “entitlements” — a definition or locus that is entirely separate from other definitions and framing. In reality, however, most are really all talking about two sides of the same coin: either the feeling of “being entitled to” something, or receiving some benefit or advantage that other people view the recipients “feel entitled to” (whether they actually do or not). What this all seems to circle around are feelings of jealousy or resentment from those who aren’t receiving some benefit or advantage someone else is receiving, or feelings of self-righteous certainty about ownership or deservedness of a benefit or advantage. In reality, folks of all walks of life — and across all disciplines — can and do experience both of these feelings at one time or another. These are common human reactions, easily tracing back to the sibling and peer rivalries of childhood. And, really, no one is immune.
So the rich or lucky may feel entitled to the profits from money they inherited or stumbled upon by chance; the poor or unlucky may feel entitled to charity; the addicted or chronically ill may feel entitled to care and support; the academic researcher may feel entitled to data that aids in their research; the professional journalist may feel entitled to “the truth;” a customer may feel entitled to receive a reliable product or courteous service; a company may feel entitled to disregard the interests of stakeholders when distributing profits; the oppressed and exploited may feel entitled to speak truth to power; a parent may feel entitled to lord it over their own children; one child may feel entitled to hit another child when they feel wronged by them; and so on. And, from the outside looking in, all of these instances can appear to be “entitlements” that aren’t necessarily earned, just, reasonable or fair. They are instead merely negotiated arrangements or cultural habits within an ever-evolving status quo — transactional usurpations of relational trust that societies of scale tend to deploy — and nothing more.
As I mull this over, it seems as though both accusations regarding the entitlements for others, and presumptions of entitlement for ourselves, are both just really primitive, immature and unproductive responses to the messy economic and status arrangements of what is admittedly a pretty dysfunctional society. They are much like a dog barking and whining when we are eating a piece of meat…or that same dog biting our hand when we try to take a piece of meat out of their bowl. It doesn’t really matter how either we are the dog came by that meat…the sense of “entitlement” is really just a variation of “I want…gimme now…you can’t have!”
No, taxation is not extortion — at least not in mature democracies, because folks get to vote on what the taxes are used for, and how much they are. In places like Switzerland, which has semi-direct democracy, the electorate can assert direct control over the national budget and spending priorities with only 100K votes. In the U.S., such a level of direct influence is restricted to referenda and initiatives at a more local or state levels. The feeling that taxation is extortion or theft often stems from folks who either don’t agree with how tax revenues are being spent, or who aren’t involved enough in their own governance to know how decisions get made. There are also, among many anti-tax movements I have observed, strong sentiments regarding not wanting to help the poor, minorities, immigrants, etc. And of course there is also dissatisfaction with mismanagement or inefficiency that can occur in any large bureaucracy — be it the federal government or a large corporation.
In terms of morality, the agreements around taxes are grounded in the most basic notion of reciprocity — about things that otherwise wouldn’t get done at the scale and consistency required for a functional society. Roads, physical infrastructure, national defense, the rule of law, social safety nets, regulation of industry, and many other aspects and institutions of civil society would simply not be accomplished without centrally coordinated systems and standards. So, in order for that society to function — for it to create the foundations for liberty that can be shared by all — folks agree to pay taxes. It’s a relationship that is outlined in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8), in terms of what federal government is supposed to provide for the taxes it collects. Simple reciprocity.
Now one could nit-pick that these aren’t nation states…but they are certainly self-contained autonomous regions, some of which being quite large. One could also argue that many didn’t endure for very long — but that wasn’t a consequence of any inherent lack of viability, but instead most often the result of violent, authoritarian rulers who didn’t want them to exist. So either argument would be splitting hairs IMO.
In any case, these and many other examples throughout history (such as the Paris Commune, which Marx himself admired) demonstrate that communism (and socialist anarchism) are not incompatible with democracy…at all.
First, let’s remember that regulations are usually put in place when a problem has already been identified: when worker or consumer health, wealth and safety have already been jeopardized by business practices already in play. With that said, some of the worst examples of how deregulation (or not implementing or enforcing existing regulation…which is essentially the same thing) hurts consumers and workers:
1. FDA “delayed review” of e-cigs (2017): Vaping deaths and latest wave of teen nicotine addiction.
2. Trump rollbacks of OSHA and other worker safety regulations (2017): steady increases in worker fatalities and injuries, especially in the mining industry.
3. Rollback of FCC oversight (2017–2018): allowed carriers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) to sell geolocation data of customers to bounty hunters, stalkers and other nefarious surveillance.
5. Deregulation of airlines (1978): loss of rural routes and service frequency to remote areas and low-volume airports (with the remaining service at much higher prices); decline in consumer safety; “sardine can” seating; nickel-and-dime-you-to-death pricing on everything (luggage, food, drinks, etc.); longer average travel and wait times; many lost jobs; etc. [Something very similar happened with the deregulation of railroads in 1976 and 1980, which likewise led to the abandonment of passenger rail service to rural areas.]
6. Deregulation of banking industry (repeal of Glass-Steagall 1999; deregulation of savings and loan industry in 1982) and lack of SEC oversight: the 2008 economic crash; the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s & 1990s.
7. Deregulation of energy industry (1990s): higher cost of energy; more interruptions and outages with supply; awe-inspiring financial misconduct and fraud (Enron); lack of innovation and new energy sources development.
8. Ending the “Fairness Doctrine” (1987): opened the door to highly biased, inaccurate and deceptive “news” organizations (mainly right-wing like FOX News), that helped deepen polarization and paranoia in America, and eroded trust in journalism.
9. Deregulation of telecommunications (1996): Rapid consolidation of media ownership into just a handful of companies (Clear Channel, etc.) who standardized content across all regions — leading to the loss of local news, local arts and entertainment performers and programming, and a general homogenization of broadcasts into identical, nationwide programs that, consequently, homogenized thought across America as well. The 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulating cable also led to much higher prices across the cable industry.
The list goes on…but these are some of the obvious ones. We will very likely have even more data on negative consequences of deregulation in the years after the Trump Presidency’s aggressive agenda has played out. In particular, the promised deregulation of the FDA approval process on medical products will likely have a devastating effect on human health.
We have learned an important lesson from history: whatever characterizes a revolution will tend to manifest in the new system at some point. So violent revolutions almost always result in an oppressive system, and nonviolent revolutions almost always result in a peaceful, more egalitarian one. We even see this reflected in political campaigns and leadership: the strategies and rhetoric that a given politician uses to “win” are often reflected in their leadership style. Basically, then, the ends never justify the means…instead, the means inhabit the ends. Many have spoken to this idea in politics specifically in “prefigurative politics.” I have expanded the principle into something I call Revolutionary Integrity.
If this principle is true, then it is very important to carefully think through what characteristics will dominate a given social movement or “revolutionary” change. In the link above I have provided several links that outline varieties of nonviolent activism. My own proposals regarding activism and revolutionary methods that avoid overtly harming human beings, and attempt to conform (for the most part, at least) to the principle of revolutionary integrity, can be found here: L e v e l - 7 Action
Individualism and personal liberty can intersect, but they can also contradict and interfere with each other. So this can be a complex subject to parse. If I insist, for example, that my individual liberty always outweighs my social or civic responsibility, then I may end up interfering with other people’s liberty (and, consequently, invite interference with my own liberty, if I support such a society). Maybe I want to drive on the wrong side of the road, or take things from stores without paying for them, or pee in my neighbor’s fountain. To assert that I have the “right” to do these things despite social agreements not to do them is an extreme individualistic assertion.
In reality, no personal freedom would exist at all unless everyone else in my community or society agrees that it should — this is the error of much individualist thinking. When individualism places personal agency above everything else, it defeats the conditions that permit freedom to exisst at all.
At the same time, if I sacrifice all of my personal agency in service to collective systems and expectations, then I have also extinguished my personal liberty. By denying any importance of my own individuality — and supporting such a view as the status quo of my community and culture — I have done just as much harm to freedom as if I overemphasized my individuality.
So perhaps you can see the conundrum.
There is a balance between too much individualism and too much collectivism — both of which can extinguish personal liberty at their extremes — and a correlation between too little personal liberty and too little collective agreement.
My take on what most undermines a democratic society:
1. An uneducated electorate.
2. An electorate with a “consumerist” mindset that — even if they are well-educated — waits to be “sold” on a candidate or legislation, rather than actively participating in self-governance.
3. Crony capitalism (i.e. revolving door politics, regulatory capture, dark money funding political campaigns, etc.) and its handmaiden, neoliberalism.
4. Huge concentrations of wealth — which lead to huge concentrations of power (i.e. plutocracy, corporatocracy, kleptocracy).
5. The weakening or active destruction of other civic institutions that support democracy (i.e. corruption or capture of the justice system, legislature, executive, election system, etc.).
At this juncture, ALL of these undermining factors have advanced fairly far in the U.S., which is really pushing democracy to the brink of collapse here. It’s a shame, but it’s also pretty obvious to anyone who has been paying attention, and has been advancing for many decades.
Here are the top five reasons why there is a wave of right-wing governments across the globe:
1. Global corporate capitalism, as coordinated and directed by the wealthiest owner-shareholders around the world, is creating huge wealth disparities, increasingly destructive negative externalities (climate change, unbreathable air, undrinkable water, rapid species extinction, etc.), and exaggerated economic instability (boom/bust cycles that are increasingly extreme). This trend understandably frightens people, and they want a scapegoat for their fears. The far-right rhetoric blames progressive social policies, recent waves of immigrants, and “government interference in free markets,” in simplistic, polemic rhetoric. None of these are the real causal factors behind what so frightens right-leaning folks…but they sure are easy targets for polarizing propaganda. It’s really easy to get scared people to vote against their own best interests, and ignore the real “man behind the curtain” (i.e. those wealthy owner-shareholders) who doesn’t want to be held accountable.
2. The actual solutions to many of these modern challenges are complex, nuanced, contingent, dynamic and abstract. To even fully comprehend some of the problems humanity faces requires an advanced understanding of specialized disciplines that take years to learn (i.e. economics, climate science, biology, medicine, genetics, etc.). Consequently, it’s difficult to explain how to move forward to “the average voter,” and much easier to hoodwink them. And the conservative, right-leaning voters around the world have often had an uneasy relationship with evidence-based, scientific approaches, often mistrusting experts and academia on a fundamental level. And yet, these same conservative “average voters” feel empowered by misinformation they find on social media, in sensationalist journalism, on conspiracy websites, and through other unreliable sources. This creates a false sense of confidence (see Illusory truth effect and Dunning–Kruger effect), which combines with tribalistic “Us vs. Them” emotional reactivism, and in turn leads to mass movements that are highly irrational and easily manipulated. Unfortunately for those who gravitate towards the far-right end of the political spectrum, nearly all of the most strident, deceptive and manipulative propaganda today is housed in their media. So instead of becoming educated with real evidence or persuaded by rational reasoning, the right-leaning person becomes increasingly deceived and deluded.
3. Some rather unsavory folks with self-serving agendas have decided to double down on this ongoing deception. Whether it’s the fake science and science skepticism (such as climate denial) funded by the Koch brothers and neoliberal think tanks; or the “active measures” of Vladimir Putin aimed at dividing, angering and confusing folks all around the globe; or the strategic social media influence campaigns from Cambridge Analytica; or the lies and exaggerations of a mentally unstable President Trump — all of these sources are just engineering and promoting their own accumulation of wealth and power. It’s a pretty simple and transparent strategy…just “follow the money.” And social media platforms have now provided a powerful, dopamine-addiction-driven tool to entrain mindless conformance among targeted groups of users. For more discussion of this pernicious pattern, see The Opposition.
4. Progressives and technocrats are generally TERRIBLE at explaining their positions and the rationale for approaching complex problems a certain way. To them, the situation and its solutions are painfully obvious…but very few have the gift of translating that “obviousness” into clear, easily shared memes on social media, or humorous quips on talk shows, or simplistic black-and-white tropes that uneducated folks can latch onto. This is one reason I have proposed creating a Public Information Clearinghouse to help the “average voter” understand complex issues and appreciate evidence-based solutions.
5. I think…and this is perhaps the hardest thing to accept, let alone articulate…that humanity is getting dumber. Perhaps as a consequence of a combination of things — stress, pollutants, reliance on technology, poor diets, fast-paced lifestyles, etc. — or epigenetic changes that have been amplified by this same combination of factors, human beings aren’t thinking very clearly or cleverly. And there is also an increase — especially among conservatives and the far-right — to actively suppress their own intelligence. It’s quite disturbing to witness the extraordinary levels of cognitive dissonance conservatives must sustain to hold onto their most cherished but misguided beliefs. And this “cultivated stupidity” has a collective snowball effect, which again is just amplified into lockstep in-group conformance by the mass media that crafts these deceptive narratives and perpetuates them.
So don’t allow yourself to be hoodwinked by the right-wing propaganda about why there is a wave of right-wing movements. Over many decades, socially conservative, market fundamentalist, greed-centric crony capitalists have created the conditions that now make them so fearful and unhappy. But they are not willing to take responsibility for what they have done, and instead seek to blame others. It's a very human failing, but promises to be particularly disastrous in this situation — because it avoids engaging the actual causes for impending calamity.
Historically, there have been many variations of proposed and realized socialism – so many, in fact, that you could write a lengthy book about them and still likely not be able to include them all. In addition, socialist philosophies have evolved considerably over time. What holds all of them together is, I think, a fundamental belief that capitalism must either be reigned in or eliminated in order for inequality to be reduced, and for individual and collective freedoms and well-being to be ensured.
That said, I would probably break down socialism in its current forms into these categories:
1. Authoritarian State Socialism – such as Marxism-Leninism as widely implemented, with strict central planning of the economy, all productive enterprise owned by the State, and the State controlled by the select few of a single party.
2. Democratic Socialism – a democratic and decentralized version of socialism that opposes authoritarian forms like Marxism-Leninism, and where more open democratic controls manage the means of production and economic planning, with worker self-management as a key feature. This form of socialism has traditionally relied on representative democracy to further socialist reforms.
3. Market Socialism – is socialistic in that all free enterprise is publicly owned and managed, and workers and society benefit from all productivity; is market-based in that competition exists between free enterprise, and the economy tends to be less centrally planned.
4. Mixed Economies/New Deal Socialism/Social Democracy – free enterprise co-exists with central regulation of the economy, some socialized production, and welfare programs, with markets ultimately subject to representative democratic controls.
5. Libertarian Socialism – a broad umbrella in itself, this includes many proposals for non-State-centric (minarchist or anarchist) socialist political economies that emphasize highly distributed collective and egalitarian solutions, worker self-management, attenuation or elimination of private property, and governance via direct democracy, nested councils, etc. (rather than representative democracy). An example of libertarian socialism that has gained popularity and real-world examples in recents years is municipalism (see Which municipalism? Let's be choosy).
6. Anarcho-Communism – a form of Libertarian Socialism that has been implemented at various scales throughout history, and differentiates itself mainly in that it seeks a more complete, Stateless anarchy and facilitates individual agency above collective or communal concerns.
There are actually many other forms of socialism as well. The chart below plots what some of these look like in relation to more capitalist or "proprietarian" traditions of political economy.
This has always been a pretty humorous issue to my thinking, mainly because of the source — and because it’s part of a pattern. Consider what’s really going on here:
- Extracting natural resources from the planet — which is really held in common and belongs to everyone — and then selling them for private profit isn’t theft…but taxes are.
- Exploiting workers — their time, their effort, their creativity — in order to, once again, accumulate private profit that is not shared with those workers isn’t theft…but taxes are.
- Property ownership (think of patents or land ownership in particular) that excludes everyone from using or sharing in the benefits of that property — even if the property isn’t being used at all by its owner — isn’t theft…but taxes are.
Using services provided by the government, but not paying for them, isn’t theft…but taxes are.
Can you see the pattern here? It’s really a sort of childish, selfish, whiny entitlement — and it is utterly hypocritical, along the lines of “everyone else should have to pay ME for things I think are important, but that same standard shouldn’t apply to ME…I should not have to pay others for something just because THEY think it is important…”
This mindset embraces an utterly perverse and unworkable conception of freedom, a la adolescent pseudophilosophies like that of Ayn Rand. Why is it unworkable? Because it corrodes the prosocial foundations of civil society itself, where we collectively and democratically agree to limit our own selfishness, acquisitiveness and self-indulgence for the sake of societal stability and collective thriving. We relax I/Me/Mine for the good of All. That’s what adulthood looks like.
Of course, if enough folks don’t agree to given tax, and want to vote it out of existence, they can do that. But that means — in the context of the State — that they will need to give up something in return. A protection, a privilege, or possibly a perceived right. Not appreciating this leads to…well…soaring deficits.