Freedom and Socialism

The New York Times asked me to write something on socialism and its current appeal. I did, and it’s running as this weekend’s cover story in The Sunday Review. Here are some brief excerpts:

The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

The stories of these candidates are socialist for another reason: They break with the nation-state. The geographic references of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez — or Ms. Tlaib, who is running to represent Michigan’s 13th District in Congress — are local rather than national, invoking the memory and outposts of American and European colonialism rather than the promise of the American dream.

Ms. Tlaib speaks of her Palestinian heritage and the cause of Palestine by way of the African-American struggle for civil rights in Detroit, while Ms. Ocasio-Cortez draws circuits of debt linking Puerto Rico, where her mother was born, and the Bronx, where she lives. Mr. Obama’s story also had its Hawaiian (as well as Indonesian and Kenyan) chapters. But where his ended on a note of incorporation, the cosmopolitan wanderer coming home to America, Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez aren’t interested in that resolution. That refusal is also part of the socialist heritage.

And of course, there’s overlap between what liberals and socialists call for. But even if liberals come to support single-payer health care, free college, more unions and higher wages, the divide between the two will remain. For liberals, these are policies to alleviate economic misery. For socialists, these are measures of emancipation, liberating men and women from the tyranny of the market and autocracy at work. Back in the 1930s, it was said that liberalism was freedom plus groceries. The socialist, by contrast, believes that making things free makes people free.

It’s also important to remember that the traffic between socialism and liberalism has always been wide. The 10-point program of Marx and Engels’s “Communist Manifesto” included demands that are now boilerplate: universal public education, abolition of child labor and a progressive income tax. It can take a lot of socialists to get a little liberalism: It was socialists in Europe, after all, who won the right to vote, freedom of speech and parliamentary democracy. Given how timid and tepid American liberalism has become — when was the last time a Democratic president even called himself a liberal — it’s not surprising that a more arresting term helps get the conversation going. Sometimes nudges need a nudge.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the main critique, from conservatives, of my claim that making things free makes people free is that they aren’t free to read my piece because it’s behind a paywall and is not free.

Not owning the means of production, I can’t do much on the paywall thing. But if you’ve got money and can breach that wall, here’s the piece.


  1. klmccook August 25, 2018 at 3:56 pm | #

    Those with a library card (free) can log into their public library website to access paywalled sources. The public library is a tax-funded common good.

    • sanford943 September 5, 2018 at 12:19 am | #

      So not every library has a digital subscription to the New York Times. Can I log into your library.

  2. Frank Wilhoit August 25, 2018 at 4:36 pm | #

    The argument against capitalism is that accountable capitalism is an oxymoron.

    All of the multifarious economic or ethical harms that have been alleged against capitalism come down to the fact that capitalism can only function if it is effectively immune to legal or political accountability. They are second-order effects at best, often third- or fourth-order. It is a mug’s game to try to mitigate them from the bottom up, to adduce hypothetical models of conscientious or consensual capitalism. All such are oxymora.

    There cannot, in principle, be any ground of mutual benefit between a capitalist and his employees or between a capitalist and his customers. The game is rigidly zero-sum. All of the incentives — 100% of the incentives of every business — are perverse and the reasons for that perversity are not topical but structural. The apparent exceptions are simply manifestations of the slop and noise that must attend any real-world endeavor on any scale.

    “Socialism” is the sound that the trap makes when closing upon persons who do not grasp the foregoing, whose understanding of capitalism is confined to its most obvious and most trivial effects.

    The alternative to capitalism is not a different model of ownership or a different perspective upon the value of human effort. The alternative to capitalism is the rule of law. An economy effectively under the rule of law is an economy in which no one makes any money. That is why it is a good thing, but the corollary is that there are no incentives for private enterprise. Therefore, disinterested entities must take over responsibility and authority for the economy. In practice, disinterested entities must be social institutions and social institutions must manifest as organs of government. This is what is sloppy thinkers call “socialism”, whether the word comes from their mouths as an ideal or an imprecation.

    • Tom August 25, 2018 at 6:11 pm | #

      There is a lot of sloppy use of the word “socialism.” It is used broadly, to refer to a range of political-economic systems, generally supporting equality and economic security, from social democracy to full state ownership of means or production. It is used cynically, to criticized social democratic programs as either a slippery slope or manifestations of communist totalitarianism. And it is used incorrectly, to refer to government intervention to support or bail out business as “corporate socialism.”

      I am not sure whether it is better to use the word “socialism” or the word “progressive”. The former has some imprecision and ambiguity that makes it an easy political target. “Progressive” has perhaps a little more reputability; about two-fifths of House Democrats are in the Progressive Caucus, and there is no Socialist caucus to the best of my knowledge.

      Even though Socialist and Progressive are not synonymous, given the imprecision in both terms I would go with “Progressive” and waste less time on semantic reclamation of the word “Socialism.”

      • Chris Morlock August 25, 2018 at 8:38 pm | #

        I agree with Tom, the use of the word “socialism” has little meaning. A recent Bernicrat who won office had the right answer when he was asked by a fox news reporter if he was a “socialist”. He said “Are you f—ing kidding me?”. It always seems to boil down to a sophomore high school poly sci debate about Capitalism and Socialism, which seem to be two things American politics and economic least resembles. If you call this a “free market” then you have to have your head examined.

        The questions keep coming up recently and I have been unimpressed by the answers, both from Cory and Ocasio-Cortez. “The socialist, by contrast, believes that making things free makes people free.” is a similar idea to Ocasio-Cortez’s recent comments where she basically said Democratic Socialism was about all people having a good standard of living. I’m not against these sentiments but it’s not a deep analysis by any means, and it’s not going to be popular. Real Socialism and Marxism to me is about economic justice, wherein workers are given their fair share of what their labor produces. It’s not about “free” anything, rather it is rewarding people justly for the product of their own work. Does anyone actually think “free education” is free? Or that when magically getting on medicare all medical bills disappear? How is any of this “free”? It is paid for by society as a representation of societies commitment to economic justice of their own people. People are “free” when they work honestly and are remunerated justly for their work. I see a road to ruin during the midterms and in 2020 if we simply revert to the “free” this and that argument. I have been impressed by Bernie’s sticking to the New Deal script and convincing people that they are being taking advantage of, which they are, and setting up a system based on economic justice.

        • Jon Johanning August 26, 2018 at 2:43 pm | #

          “Socialism” is notoriously a word with many meanings. There is no official meaning; it means whatever anyone wants it to mean, like other labels for political ideas and movements.

          The word “freedom” has even more meanings. It is very funny, and no surprise, to see right-wingers complaining that Corey’s NYT piece isn’t “free” because of the capitalist price the paper puts on reading it. They’re just too stupid to understand the difference between different meanings of the word.

          I do agree that, if one wants to use words like these, and “liberal,” “conservative,” etc., in the political arena, it helps in promoting clear thinking to define what one, as an individual, means by them. But debates in the political arena are not discussions of political philosophy on an intellectual level which demand clear thought, so there is no need to argue about such technical definitions. And in fact this is no use in such arguments because most political debates are basically slugfests in which people choose up sides and try to beat the other side bloody at the polls or on the streets, or both. What you need is the most effective political strategy, not accurate semantic or philosophical disputations.

  3. Lichanos August 26, 2018 at 3:09 pm | #

    Thank goodness we can vote on the issues rather than on how we define socialism!
    Good show, Corey!

  4. Ed Dupree August 27, 2018 at 12:28 pm | #

    Regardless of what leftish politicians mean by “socialism”, for me the word does have one broad, clear, historical meaning: social (rather than private) ownership of the means of production. Of course that can mean anything from central state ownership to the most decentralized network of anarchistic workers’ councils (and a drastic revision of the concept of ownership). I myself would favor the latter. But either way, the negation of private ownership is clear, no? Leaving the intra-socialist debates for later, the word still seems useful to me, more useful than the squishier “progressive”, because it evokes class conflict, and that’s the name of the game.

  5. jonnybutter August 27, 2018 at 1:03 pm | #

    Leaving the intra-socialist debates for later, the word still seems useful to me, more useful than the squishier “progressive”, because it evokes class conflict, and that’s the name of the game.

    Hear hear. It is funny to argue that ‘socialist’ is too vague so we should instead use a word far more vague: ‘progressive’.

    In the US there is a solid core of civil libertarianism (please note the crucial ‘civil’) which will be hard to extinguish, thank god, although not for lack of trying. ‘Freedom’ is exactly the correct rhetorical move, because a.) it’s true, and b.) it’s good politics.

  6. Eric Apar August 27, 2018 at 3:10 pm | #

    For me, the utility of Professor Robin’s conception of socialism as principally concerned with freedom is precisely that it distinguishes socialism from the Progressive vision of the welfare and regulatory state. From a programmatic standpoint, socialism and Progressivism (as that term was understood by its progenitors at the turn of the 20th century) have much in common. But their programs rest on different ideological foundations. Socialism aims to assuage human suffering, to be sure, but it does so with the ultimate goal of empowering people to determine their own fates through democratic control of society’s productive potential. It might push programs of social amelioration (e.g., Medicare for All, free college tuition, affordable housing, etc.) together with the Progressives, but its vision is ultimately one of democratic and individual agency. In the traditional terms of the labor movement, socialism seeks both bread and roses–bread first, but always with roses in mind. It pursues social welfare as a means of achieving authentic freedom and democracy, rather than for its own sake (while acknowledging that pursuing social welfare for its own sake is still a massive leap forward in historical terms). For this reason, socialists will never be satisfied with the technocratic vision of the welfare and regulatory state of which the Progressives were so enamored. For socialists, the welfare and regulatory state, no matter how successful it is at providing bread, can’t provide the roses. The roses come with meaningful self-determination, and that in turn means liberation from subservience to others–even to those with whom the Progressives, with their infatuation with technocratic expertise, sought to vest power in the name of social progress.

    • Ed Dupree August 27, 2018 at 4:56 pm | #

      Well said, Eric. Your “liberation from subservience to others” gives a nicely immanent critique of the liberal notion of negative liberty. Real liberation, not merely from the intrusive state but from the boss, as the condition for self-development. For me the desire for real freedom is a necessary utopian moment in socialist thinking. Without it, how can we even know what we want?

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 28, 2018 at 10:52 am | #

        “Real liberation, not merely from the intrusive state but from the boss, as the condition for self-development.”

        I am going to use that sentence in debates with others. My comments here have often deployed a phrase that I came up with years ago: “Boss Politics”.

        In early October a good friend and co-worker will host a meet-and-greet with a Democratic candidate for Congress at her and her husband’s home and she invited me and my wife to attend. Of course, we will. I will not press our candidate to commit to a socialist agenda (given his previous job, it is unlikely that he would).

        But I will question him on “Boss Politics”. I won’t characterize the nature of my question as I am still formalizing it as to make it as short as possible. Ed Dupree’s very pithy statement gives me a great model for my question and Eric Apar’s comment will provide the larger theoretical parameters for it. I wish to express my gratitude to both of you for that. You both really helped me out.


        Wish me luck…

        • Ed Dupree August 28, 2018 at 12:34 pm | #

          I do wish you luck, Donald! Your upcoming adventure reminds me of the first question I’d want to ask any congressional candidate: May I please have a complete list of your donors, and the dollar amounts? –Just so I know who you’re working for. And the second question: What’s your net worth, and how did you come by it?

  7. Nqabutho August 31, 2018 at 8:39 pm | #

    In a different NYT op ed (30 Aug 2018) Pankaj Mishra mentions Hannah Arendt’s observation about the marriage of convenience between plutocracy and the popular primordial ethnic identity- based fear- hatred mentality characteristic of European cultures (which idea I take to be enfolded in the little word “mob”):

    “For fearful ruling classes, political order depended on their ability to forge an alliance between, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “capital and mob,” between rich and powerful whites and those rendered superfluous by industrial capitalism.”

    Can you tell me, where did she say this? In any case, socialism aims to cut across these categories and gives priority to the unified interests of the non-powerful. Socialism is simply the application of the fundamental ethical principle of equality to the organization of government and economy (government opposing the power of money, as ethical principles are by definition opposed to the power principle), and a practical programme of redressing the imbalance.

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