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On Socialism / Against Ideology

Goodbye Gray Friday, joining Democracy Seminar 2.0

Ideology undermines democracy. It was the cultural foundation of the horrors of the 20th century, as Hannah Arendt highlighted in the final chapter of The Origins in Totalitarianism, “Ideology and Terror.” I believe, this pernicious form of political culture continues to damage our public life. Yet, I have had a hard time convincing most of you: readers, colleagues, students and friends, especially those of you who have not had direct contact with the horrors.

It’s frustrating. I see this clearly. I want you to see it. But you just can’t, or is it you won’t? I know my judgment goes against the grain of the prevailing social science and popular opinion. It requires a specific understanding of ideology that comes out of bitter experience, but the understanding points to political promise. You may think about ideology as any political idea or system of ideas, or as such ideas and systems as they are connected with power and interests. But I think of ideology in a much more specific and historically grounded way, informed by Arendt. Ideologies posit a key to history, be it class struggle, race theory or some other master idea. From the key everything is deduced and enforced, concerning the past, present and the future. History is re-written. A social order is constructed. And the future is known with great certainty before it happens: Communism, the Third Reich, the West, or the Caliphate. Extreme versions of ideology, as they are linked with terror, are totalitarian, but there are less extreme versions, a kind of everyday ideology, that I see challenging democracy today.

For me, this is commonsense. Indeed, it’s about using commonsense to inform commonsense. It’s a simple matter. I first perceived it when I lived, and then regularly visited, East Central Europe, “behind the iron curtain,” and observed and acted with my friends and colleagues there, and read their writings and the writings of their teachers, including Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Jerzy Szacki, and Jan Strzelecki, among others, along with my New School senior, Hannah Arendt. And then there was my pivotal professor during my college days, Alicja Iwanska, who introduced me to Poland, from whom I first learned what I later called post-totalitarian insight. I see more of this in Agnieszka Holland’s TV series, 1983, and then of course there is the author of 1984.

Along with George Orwell, I worry about “Politics and the English Language,” about politics and language. I see magical investment in clichéd thought, concretized in deadened political speech, newspeak in Orwell’s imagination. I had hoped it would stop circulating in 1989, but it’s alive and well across the political spectrum. It is an authoritarian language of sharp contrasts, of blacks and whites, based on certainty, which not only doesn’t confront complexities. It’s used to destroy them.

Somehow I fear that I can’t get you to understand. I feel alone, though I know I’m not. I joke about it (“I’m against all “isms”). I have written books about this (Beyond Glasnost: The Post Totalitarian MindThe Cynical Society, Civility and Subversion, and Reinventing Political Culture ), and many essays. I lecture and try to teach my critical concerns about the ideologies of the left, right and center. My latest attempt at presenting my position has been this “Gray Friday” series. Today, I’m closing this attempt and turn to Democracy Seminar 2.0, as I won’t give up trying to convince you. I plan that my contributions to the seminar will be around the problems of political culture, about how I see the relationships between power and culture as they support and undermine democratic prospects.

I’ve made one big theoretical mistake in my life. I thought as of 1989 that the totalitarian temptation, and the language that supports it, had lost their power. I thought that the conflation of thought and power, in its most extreme form the conflation of ideology and terror, was an exercise of the past. I was wrong. The problem concerns the way specific words and terms are being used. It’s not these words and terms, as such. It’s not that these words don’t have meaning apart from a politics: it is about how they are deployed to empower politics. The new newspeak is turning politics into a simple struggle between friends and enemies, and undermining the capacity of the politics of concerted actions among people who share principled commitments and treat each other as equals, while recognizing their differences, i.e. politics as understood by Carl Schmitt is prevailing over politics as understood by Hannah Arendt.

Consider socialism. I don’t think that socialism is a positive viable systemic alternative to “capitalism.” All the evidence, it seems to me, suggests that every attempt to construct such an alternative has ended in failure, including the disasters and atrocities of the Gulag in the Soviet Union and of the Cultural Revolution in China, along with unsuccessful socialist schemes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I know many of you disagree. But I do appreciate, on the other hand, that democratic socialist projects opposing the negative effects of capitalism have had successes around the world, and still have much promise. Socialism and socialists work to control and even eliminate the poverty and inequality of an unfettered market. Socialism and socialists work against the ways that the market sustains and expands xenophobia, racism and sexism. They work against environmental degradation, and defend cultural activities that can’t be reduced to market exchange, from education to the creative development of the arts and sciences, In this way I am a socialist, even as I am against the notion of socialism as a system substituting for capitalism as a system.

Informed by this orientation, I am struck by how the term “socialism” is being used in American political life. It is used to demonize and celebrate one political program or another, one politician or another. The political right has long been using it to purposely confuse democratic socialist projects with totalitarianism. The latest variant of this is the seamless move from a criticism of and opposition to the authoritarian dictatorship in Venezuela to criticism of and opposition to ambitious democratic proposals concerning the environment, healthcare and racial justice, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and Reparations. Trump clearly intends to use the socialist label in his reelection campaign, but even intelligent conservatives, such as Bret Stephens in The New York Times, make this move. It is a way to dismiss any attempt to use the democratic state to address the fundamental problems of our times, while ignoring the problems.

You, my readers, colleagues, students and friends, I imagine, wouldn’t do this. Yet, the term socialism has magical meaning for you too, to my dismay. While the conservatives use the term as a devise to demonize, you invest positive value in it and use it to make strong distinctions between the “democratic socialism” of Bernie Sanders, the “progressive liberalism” of Elizabeth Warren, and the purported “neo-liberalism” of the Clintons and Barack Obama, or as my friend and colleague Nancy Fraser does, you make strong distinctions between progressive democratic socialists and retrograde progressive neo-liberals. Self identified liberals use it to caution against their colleagues to their left, while self identified democratic socialists use it to oppose colleagues to their right. By imagining that the term reveals a project about the purported relationship between past, present and future, revolving around ideas about the systemic qualities of the political economy, I fear, that we may effectively divide ourselves so that we will be conquered. We may divide between those who fear socialism as an alternative to capitalism, and those who celebrate the alternative, when that, in fact, does not summarize the problems of our times.

In the coming weeks and months, I intend to explore how my critical approach to magical political thinking and opposition to clichéd thought and the grand narratives of ideology, can be applied toward an critical analysis of debates concerning, “reparations,” “anti-Semitism,” “free speech,” “the Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All,” and much more. I hope that as I go along, contributing to Democracy Seminar 2.0, I will convince you to be a bit more critical of ideology, which I hope will end some time in the not too distant future, at least among committed democrats of the left, right and center.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar. 

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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