In a recent lecture, Dr. Richard Wolff lamented his status as a public intellectual advocating for revolutionary change. In disposition, he notes, he is much more amenable to a less disruptive politics. Ideally, he’d like to be a left-wing social democrat, pointing to countries like Norway and Sweden as idyllic models to emulate. His socialism comes not from his guttural feeling about the world but from the scientific method.
This perfectly describes my own temperament. I’m an academic and policy nerd, shaped by the language of the institutions from which my own discursive rhetoric draws on heavily. I can rant about neoclassical realism and the imperial presidency and bureaucratic inertia and constructivism until I’m blue in the face. In fact, these were the conversations I was most interested in having until relatively recently.
Academia pushed me to the left but within a very constrained set of parameters. I read many works by social theorists and critics of American empire. I also got a fairly extensive education in comparative politics, which reframed my thinking about American politics. Massive gun violence isn’t normal. No one else bankrupts those who don’t have the money to pay for insulin. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are Tories. Bernie Sanders is on the center left.
Yet academia has in place an implacable leftist border that no one is permitted to cross. They’ll allow you to read those on the far right, like Hayek and Friedman, if for nothing else but to pick apart their vacuous argumentation. But they never go the next step. I never read the words of Gramsci in school. Or Polanyi, Lenin, Ricardo, or Žižek. Marx was a name caricatured in passing as the symbol of radicalism. Inherent in this brushing aside of one of the most important men of the last two centuries was an assumption that it wasn’t worth learning why I heard his name 50 times in class but never even a 10-minute discussion on his theses. But, of course, Adam Smith was required reading.
It took me a long time to step out of this bubble. Academia is a soft cult. It exposes you to all kinds of new ideas, many of them genuinely interesting no matter your politics. But while you know you’re being educated, and think you’re being radicalized, you never see the trenches that are being dug. The intellectual fire is burning but the smokejumpers know you are contained.
One of my favorite quotes, and the way I would pretentiously describe myself before I learned such things weren’t cool, is credited to Albert Einstein, who supposedly said “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” That is how I see myself. I have been labelled smart my entire life and while flattering, a smart person wouldn’t have to read as many books as I do to understand the world. But I’m always digging. This is what made me an academic in the first place, and it also turned me into a technocrat. If I never expanded the frontiers of my mind, as so many unfortunately never do, I would have been Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Fortunately for me the same curiosity, and indeed the same principles, that made me a bookish technocrat when I was 21 also made me a radical socialist at 24.
Like Richard Wolff, my socialism is empirical. That’s not to say my proscriptions hold objective truth, any good empiricist knows the limitations of objectivism. It is to say, however, that I reached my conclusions based on the evidence of the world as I have measured it, not as a presupposition of my moral or ethic worldview.
As Rosa Luxembourg’s famous polemic goes, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” I don’t interpret this as a moral judgement, or even conjecture. I regard it as empirical fact. The terms “socialism,” “regression,” and “barbarism” all have experimental meanings, although they can of course be quantified differently. As I have come to comprehend their import, I find the statement to be factually accurate.
Let’s define our terms. Socialism is an economic and political system in which workers own the means of production and democratically decide the just distribution of said production. Regression means a reversion, or a return, to a less developed state. Barbarism is defined as a state of social and intellectual backwardness, usually associated with physical brutality.
Let’s elaborate on Rosa Luxembourg’s idiom with the definitions provided. “Either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” In my words, either we evolve to a system in which workers democratically own the means of their own production or we return to a world of backwardness and cruelty. What is Donald Trump if not backwards and cruel? What is fascist immigration policy, economic austerity, military interventionism, racial resentment, gender inequity, and authoritarianism if not backwards and cruel. Most importantly, what is destroying the planet and human life as we know it if not backwards and cruel?
It’s socialism or barbarism. That’s not a statement of morality or utopianism. It’s a statement of fact.