The Two Socialisms

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When I was in college, the selling point of socialism, communism, revolutionary activism, all of that, was something called “participatory democracy.” That’s what the mighty SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) stood for. That’s what the neo-Marxists stood for. That’s what all the “community organizers” stood for. The idea, endlessly reiterated, was that “decisions must be made by the people affected by those decisions.” No one talked about Medicare for all, or government-funded preschools, or government-mandated revisions of the environment. The idea was that centralized “state capitalism” was wrong, not primarily because it was inefficient, or even inequitable in its effects, but because its decisions were not “democratic.” They had not been made by the people affected by them. If it was inequitable or “slow” (i.e., inefficient), that was why.

Now we are witnessing an immense revival of “socialism,” led by Democratic Party opportunists and hacks. And it is all about laws that need to be made to increase the power of the centralized state. It is about giving professional politicians sole power over healthcare, housing, education, transportation, employment, qualifications for voting, and the possibility of self-defense — and all this without the tiniest hint that anyone except the Philosopher Kings who compose the Democratic Majority in the House of Representatives should be consulted. Participation? What’s that?

American “socialism” has shifted, in our time, from a demotic and “participatory” style to a rule-from-the-top dogmatism.

I have to be honest. I am a foe of “participatory democracy.” I do not believe it is optimal, in any sense, to give power over the individual’s existence to whoever happens to be a coworker, a fellow student, or just a guy who happens to turn up at a meeting. I find myself unable to decide whether a regime of little Red Guards is more repellent than a regime of Bernie Sanders bureaucrats arrayed, rank on rank and cube on cube, to decide what the width of my bathroom door should be.

But I think it’s worthy of notice that American “socialism” has shifted, in our time, from a demotic and “participatory” style to a rule-from-the-top dogmatism, constantly twisting in response to the whims of the politicians but always determined to enforce those whims.

I wonder whether any of the socialists have noticed this. Perhaps they are as ignorant of their own traditions as they are of economics or sociology, or respect for anyone except themselves.




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Thomas L. Knapp

Direct from the House version of the "Green New Deal" resolution ...

"... a Green New Deal must be developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses ..."

"... ensuring the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization ..."

"... obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous people for all decisions that affect indigenous people and their traditional territories ..."

So no, the "participatory democracy" talk hasn't gone away.

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