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Is ‘Cultural Socialism’ A Thing?

The phenomenon is real -- but is 'socialism' the best way to describe it?

Longtime readers know that I use this blog as a notebook in which I sometimes work out ideas for my books. My last three books all started as blog posts here. I don’t have a contract (yet) for my next book — which will be about lessons we desperately need to learn from the experiences of people who grew up under socialism — but I like being able to bounce ideas off of you here.

I have been using this week the term “cultural socialism” to describe what I’ll be writing about. Some of you have objected strongly to that term — both on the blog and in private e-mails — saying that it makes no sense to confuse political economy with whatever the SJWs are doing with identity politics.

Looking at the chapter titles in the proposal (sorry, I can’t share them here with you now), I see that most of them have to do with identifying and rejecting the left-wing totalitarian mindset. The first couple of chapters will be talking about factors that make left-wing totalitarianism feasible and attractive today, and will urge conservatives to take seriously the structural economic problems that make strapped people interested in socialism. If they don’t engage in some kind of serious reforms, we’re going to end up with the real thing.

Jamelle Bouie has a NYT column today saying that the more Trump runs against “socialism,” the more attractive he makes socialism sound. Excerpt:

It’s worth comparing what conservatives call “socialism” to actual models for it, like this one proffered by the Czech thinker Radoslav Selucky and quoted by the American social critic Irving Howe in his 1985 book “Socialism and America:”

The means of production are owned socially and managed by those who make use of them. Social ownership of the means of production is separated from the state. Producing and trading enterprises are autonomous from the state and independent of each other. They operate within the framework of the market which is regulated by a central indicative plan.

The institutions which provide health, education and welfare services are wholly exempt from the market. The right to participate in direct management of the work units operating in the market is derived from labor. The right to participate in direct management of the work units exempt wholly or partly from the market is derived proportionally from labor, ownership, and consumption of the provided services and utilities.

No one in or around the Democratic Party has proposed the radical changes that might lead to such a state. No one has called for nationalization of major industries or creation of what the American democratic socialist Michael Harrington called “social property” — worker-owned firms and cooperatives governed by “the direct participation of the actual producers.”

What we actually have are ideas like the “co-determination” plan proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, which would give workers a significant say in corporate governance — a major change from the status quo of shareholder-driven capitalism but a far cry from abolishing capitalist ownership itself. Similarly, the Medicare for All Act introduced by Bernie Sanders would move every American onto a new government plan but would also permit supplemental private insurance and retain the present system of privately owned hospitals and other medical providers.

He’s got a point. But we have to look past 2020, and deeper than mere economics. As Bouie goes on to say, the Millennials and those behind them have no memory of the Cold War, so the word “socialism” is not a scare word to them. Plus, they have been groomed by the institutions and customs of liquid modernity to accept and affirm a way of thinking about our culture that incorporates Marxist analysis. Find me an American who affirms socialist economics but who does not also affirm the Social Justice Warrior vision. It’s pussyhats, rainbow stickers and racial scapegoating all the way down.

I’m going to need to think more deeply about Augusto Del Noce and his insights. Here’s a must-read Commonweal essay from Carlo Lancellotti, about Del Noce’s thought and Catholicism. Excerpts:

Nonetheless, after World War II Marxism experienced a resurgence in Western Europe, not only among intellectuals and politicians but also in mainstream culture. But Del Noce noticed that at the same time society was moving in a very different direction from what Marx had predicted: capitalism kept expanding, people were eagerly embracing consumerism, and the prospect of a Communist revolution seemed more and more remote. To Del Noce, this simultaneous success anddefeat of Marxism pointed to a deep contradiction. On the one hand, Marx had taught historical materialism, the doctrine that metaphysical and ethical ideas are just ideological covers for economic and political interests. On the other hand, he had prophesied that the expansion of capitalism would inevitably lead to revolution, followed by the “new man,” the “classless society,” the “reign of freedom.” But what if the revolution did not arrive, if the “new man” never materialized?

In that case, Del Noce realized, Marxist historical materialism would degenerate into a form of radical relativism—into the idea that philosophical and moral concepts are just reflections of historical and economic circumstances and have no permanent validity. This would have to include the concept of injustice, without which a critique of capitalism would be hard, if not impossible, to uphold. A post-Marxist culture—one that kept Marx’s radical materialism and denial of religious transcendence, while dispensing with his confident predictions about the self-destruction of capitalism—would naturally tend to be radically bourgeois. By that, Del Noce meant a society that views “everything as an object of trade” and “as an instrument” to be used in the pursuit of individualized “well-being.” Such bourgeois society would be highly individualistic, because it could not recognize any cultural or religious “common good.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the power of the bourgeois worldview to dissolve all cultural and religious allegiances into a universal market. Now, ironically, Marxist ideas (which Del Noce viewed as a much larger and more influential phenomenon than political Marxism in a strict sense) had helped bring that process to completion. At a conference in Rome in 1968, Del Noce looked back at recent history and concluded that the post-Marxist culture would be “a society that accepts all of Marxism’s negations against contemplative thought, religion, and metaphysics; that accepts, therefore, the Marxist reduction of ideas to instruments of production. But which, on the other hand, rejects the revolutionary-messianic aspects of Marxism, and thus all the religious elements that remain within the revolutionary idea. In this regard, it truly represents the bourgeois spirit in its pure state, the bourgeois spirit triumphant over its two traditional adversaries, transcendent religion and revolutionary thought.”


Del Noce also reflected deeply on the political repercussions of the advent of such “post-Marxist bourgeois society.” He believed that, ironically, the enduring influence of Marxist ideas would leave the left ill-equipped to correct the excesses of capitalism. If values like justice and human dignity do not have an objective reality rooted in a metaphysical order knowable by reason, then social criticism becomes purely negative. It can unmask the hypocrisy and contradictions of ideals like religion, family, and country, but there is no conceptual ground for new ideals. Secondly, Del Noce thought that the left itself was doomed to become “bourgeoisified,” by losing its ties to the working classes and becoming focused on causes broadly linked with sexuality. By doing so it would end up embracing an essentially individualistic and secular idea of happiness, which French sociologist Jacques Ellul had called the bourgeois trait par excellence. Conversely, politics would no longer be the expression of a fabric of social life organized around families, churches, ethnic neighborhoods, trade unions, etc., because all of them were being undermined by the individualism of the new culture.

Indeed, Del Noce said, if a society’s only ideal is the expansion of individual “well-being,” the left faces two equally bad options. One is to embrace what he calls the “reality principle,” and to compromise with the realities of late capitalism. Then the left must necessarily become the party of the technocratic elites, and end up pursuing power for power’s sake, because in the vacuum of ideals left behind by Marxism there is no common ground between the elites and the masses. This “realistic left” can only organize itself around two principles: trust in science and technology, and what Del Noce calls “vitalism,” sexual liberation, which provides a “mystified,” bourgeois replacement of the revolution. The second option is what Del Noce calls “unrealism”: dreaming the impossible, rejecting existing reality altogether, and embracing political extremism in various forms, all of which are destined for defeat. Unrealism “becomes an accomplice of the first attitude in the global rejection of all values.”

Read the whole essay. 

Last night, I was messaging with a friend in academia, in a STEM field. He was telling me about the failure of a particular program meant to draw more racial minorities into STEM by tossing out entrance standards. It’s been in place for a few years, and the results have been dismal. These students can’t do the work. They’ve been set up to fail. You can’t fake lab work, after all. My friend said he has been startled to discover that the young progressive STEM academics who pushed this stuff really did think that the problem was structurally racist standards. What’s interesting about this (to my scientist friend) is that his Millennial colleagues really believed their own propaganda. The older scientists knew it wasn’t true, but also knew better than to object (they would have been denounced as racists).

So, I ask you: if this is the form that Marxism takes in a thoroughly bourgeoisified culture, what do we call it? “Totalitarianism” won’t work; though there are clear elements of totalitarian thought buried in this stuff, the term itself calls to mind secret police, gulags, and the forced cheerfulness at May Day marches. “Cultural Marxism” works, but that term by now has been thoroughly colonized by the alt-right, and has lost its force.

I keep coming back to “cultural socialism” for lack of a better choice. To be clear, I do not think that the division between economic socialism and the cultural manifestations of the socialist mentality are clean. I think it is vitally important for Americans to realize that if they vote for socialist economics, they will get the social and cultural aspect too.

Here’s a comment one of you posted to an earlier thread:

I’m rereading 1984, which I last read 20+ years ago. It’s a lot more eerie now, as terms like “thoughtcrime,” “doublethink,” and “unpersoning,” seem like daily realities.

Though the book gets mentioned a lot these days, I’d forgotten that everywhere Winston Smith looks is a poster that says “INGSOC.” It’s short for English Socialism, the culture in which 1984 is set. There’s little about economics in the novel (though knowledge workers like Winston live in shabby apartments in deteriorating cities and get government coupons for clothes), so what Orwell is describing is the power and language systems of socialism, cultural socialism.

AMSOC (#amsoc) seems all too plausible a slogan in 2019.

Someone else posted this 1970s-vintage quote from the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, directly linking socialist economics with liberation from “the tyranny of the biological family”:

Just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and…their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility—the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would not longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality—Freud’s ‘polymorphous perversity’—would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labor would be ended by the elimination of labor altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.

As Ryszard Legutko points out, Marxists of all stripes always have the same enemies: religion, the traditional family, the idea of the nation, moral conservatism, and private property. Our friend Russell Arben Fox is a religious family man who is, I’m pretty certain, a moral conservative — and he identifies as a socialist. (Not sure how he feels about the nation and private property — Russell, feel at liberty to chime in.) So Christian socialists do exist. But how many people in America today who are attracted to socialism, and who say it’s a good idea, are also serious Christians? Do traditional Christians and moral conservatives honestly believe that a socialist government would be better for people who hold our beliefs?

A third reader e-mails:

Just wanted to chime in with some support for the idea of “cultural socialism”. It’s a reasonable description of what the Left is trying to build.

Anthony Giddens (a super-famous/respected British sociologist) points out in a book on Emile Durkheim (called Durkheim, though I’m sure he said it elsewhere as well) that communism and socialism are not synonyms. Communism – the collective ownership of property and the divorce of politics and economics (so that those with political power are not tempted by the corruption of wealth) – has re-appeared as a utopian vision throughout history, from Plato to the present day. Communism has quite rudimentary, dare I say primitive, ideas about the division of labor in society.

Socialism, as a matter of historical fact, arose to solve what some at the time called “The Social Question” – the increasing disruption, tension, and violence industrializing societies faced as capitalism remade social relations. Socialists held that some kind of coordination was necessary to rein in or balance these forces. Socialism embodies a more sophisticated analysis of the division of labor in society. (Historically, Marxists were thus both communists and socialists, and in some ways socialists first. But you can be a communist without being a socialist, and vice versa. anyways).

I think the cultural socialist program addresses this kind of response to the broader cultural sphere. Inequalities of access, status, prestige, voice, representation etc. are creating social tension, and so must be righted, not only as a matter of justice but also for the sake of social peace and development. Now, while I think that (unlike the original, economic socialists) their analysis of the Social Question is largely in bad faith, I think that that is actually an important part of the story. Why should, why must cultural actors work to right these inequalities? The actual impacts are so slim that justifications must be generated – bullying, suicide, “mental health”, rampant discrimination, assault, etc.

In short, if economic socialism is about the redistribution of wealth or welfare to alleviate the social pressures of late capitalism, cultural socialism is about the redistribution of access, status, prestige, voice, representation, and “privilege”, for the same end. There is actually a deeper connection though: in some ways, cultural socialism acts as an alternative to economic socialism. Rather than meet the social needs of the working class (often white, uneducated, poor, “conservative”), delegitimize them and redistribute their “privilege” to minority groups that may act as allies. In addition, cultural socialism is cheaper and less economically threatening to major corporations (hence woke capitalism). In some ways, it is the opposite of what Marx worried about – that capitalists would use conservative culture and national identity to generate “false consciousness” amongst the working classes so that they would ignore their oppression.

Interesting. All the things I have sketched out in my proposed book’s outline can happen, and are happening, in spite of our economy’s not being socialist. Yet they are all things that are recognizably socialist, in the sense Del Noce identified.

Alan Jacobs says, nope. Excerpt:

If Rod places a lot of emphasis on this term, then here’s a preview of the first review of his forthcoming book: “We’ve already read this book, under a slightlydifferent title: Jonah Goldberg wrote it and called it Liberal Fascism. This is just Goldberg’s idea but with a hat-tip to the alt-right’s cries against ‘cultural Marxism.’”

Rod absolutely right, and right in a very important way, that the strategies that Christians and conservatives and, in general non-socialists used to survive under Soviet-sponsored socialism are likely to become immensely relevant to many American Christians and conservatives in the coming years. (I may say more about that in another post.) But that doesn’t mean that what we’re battling against is a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market — a kind of metaphysical capitalism.

In his addendum, Alan says that metaphysical capitalism is “fundamentally incompatible” with a socialist political economy, but “if the left can find a way to combine metaphysical capitalism with a socialist political economy it will sweep all before it.” See, my worry is that they will make a serious attempt to combine these things. If I’ve read James Poulos correctly, this is what he calls the “pink police state,” described like this by Pascal-Emanuel Gobry:

In a democracy, the pink police state is what happens when people start to value their interpersonal freedoms more than their political freedoms. When that happens, people enlist the state to help them achieve their interpersonal goals, even if that means curtailing their civil liberties. The role of government is no longer to secure political rights, but to secure personal flourishing — a striking departure from the vision of government inherited from the Enlightenment on which our governments are supposed to be based.

Contemporary progressivism fits the pink police state bill pretty well. Perhaps the paradigmatic example is ObamaCare’s contraception mandate, which Clinton fully supports. Even though America had no discernible problem with contraception access, it was still deemed necessary to turn contraception into an entitlement. And if in the process you had to cut corners into the First Amendment, well, so be it.

In the pink police state, Poulos says, the most important defining line in our society is no longer the line between public and private, but the line between health-safety and sickness-danger. What citizens demand from the state is health and safety, and that means the state must be involved in our private lives. And if the state must guarantee our safety at any cost, well, it must do so.

The pink police state, in Poulos’ telling, is the product of a culture where people have given up on governing themselves and their impulses and turn to technocrats to shield them from the consequences of inevitable bad behavior.

As long as we can get porn, pot, and polyamory, and “diversity” schemes as a form of moderating our guilt over privilege, preserving freedom of speech, thought, and religion aren’t that important.

Anyway, I’m still thinking about it. If you have something constructive to add to this conversation, no matter how critical, please, let’s hear it. If you only want to repeat what you’ve already said before, no thanks.

UPDATE: Y’all, please keep in mind that the basis for this book is the stories of people who grew up under Soviet communism and who today see particular features of life in those societies manifesting now on and from the political and cultural left. The book is about them, and their strategies for how to recognize this stuff and resist it. And keep in mind that I’m writing a book for a popular audience, not an academic paper.