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socialism: defining terms, pulling back the curtain on our war of words, and following this uniquely dangerous political ideology to its logical conclusion
Bonus piece this week, and it’s a flashback. The only way to normalize socialism was to redefine it in popular culture. This redefinition (“we just want healthcare!” or “pay people more!” etc.) wouldn’t matter if the loudest voices pushing socialism, from our organized socialist political parties to influential politicians like Bernie Sanders, didn’t actually believe in the real thing. They do, and so it’s worth taking the real thing seriously. As I’ve been writing about this topic quite a bit, I wanted to throw a spotlight on a piece I published back in 2019, which is the foundation of my thinking here. In Conquering Cerberus I define terms, explore the present war on language, and follow the implementation of socialism to its logical conclusion: political corruption, immense value destruction, and human misery.
A little serious for a Friday read, and it’s been a long week, but I figured I’d give you the choice. Something a few of us actually still believe in.
Socialism is a theoretical system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned collectively, by a society, from the scope of a community to the scope of a state. No industrial civilization has developed from a socialist state, nor can it, as socialism requires an industrial host. From inception, in an attempt to perpetuate itself at scale, the socialist nation necessarily matures into a state of slavery and collapses. But the destruction of socialism’s 20th Century hosts has not prevented its survival. Politicians, celebrities, and a class of wealthy elitists again evangelize the faith, and in some cases openly fight for its adoption. If widespread adoption occurs, everything important in this world will end. Socialism is a suicidal ideology. It must be named, examined, and eradicated. The first and likely most important test of the new, American generation is our self-conception. Do we value our lives enough to assume our natural freedom, to assume its associated responsibility for life, and to fight for such liberty, or will we pass the torch to despots and let the fire die? Freedom is a choice. I believe we must fight for it, and I believe it is a fight we can win.
While capitalism emerges naturally and can then be considered in abstract terms, socialism is not an instinct. Socialism begins in abstract terms, as an idea. From conception it must be formed into a plan, and the plan must be implemented and maintained in a society by force. While certainly in conflict, capitalism and socialism are not opposites. Capitalism is an economic system. Socialism, a specific prescription for force, is primarily a political system. Only in part, and only in theory, does the socialist political system encompass an economic system — the centrally-planned economy. The proper contrast to socialism is therefore the liberal government, an altogether different prescription for force, which protects the individual as he operates freely in a market economy. In any sufficiently industrial society, the force applied in order to maintain socialism must be considerable, and in practice every attempt at such application has resulted in catastrophic, multi-generational human misery. But while the tremendous failure of socialism is well-documented, the threat persists. This is in part because logical arguments against socialism are increasingly made impotent by the corruption of our language. But even were the logic of the ardent liberal conveyed in perfect clarity, it could not alone defeat socialism, because socialism is also a faith. Our Cerberus is a beast with three heads — a twisted logic, a fraudulent language, and a dark morality. Each must be conquered.
Over a century in conflict, free men have developed powerful if not perfect antibodies to socialism in abstract reasoning, in rhetoric, and in a meticulous, historical documentation of the socialist fruits, from the largest-scale mass murders ever recorded to the psychotic institution of Dead Hand, and mankind’s closest brush with actual apocalypse. But our guards in rhetoric, reasoning, and history are coded entirely in language, and the natural, largely-beneficial flexibility of our language has been exploited. Where the malicious definition of socialism as some form of capitalism is now occasionally accepted in contrast with corruption, itself now defined as capitalism, where freedom is defined as chaos, and where democracy is defined as freedom, what use is an argument in any direction? The rules of language in popular culture have been distorted in such a manner as even arguments ostensibly in favor of liberty can only by their structure lead away from liberty. So we necessarily begin our defense of the liberal state with terms.
Government is a compromise among men in which some measure of individual freedom is exchanged for security. It is formed of many constituent compromises, or policies, of which there are two kinds: liberal and illiberal. Where a policy exists in service of protecting the individual’s liberty, it is a liberal policy. Where a policy exists for some other purpose, no matter its intention or fruit, it is an illiberal policy. Socialism is a system of many illiberal policies enforced in stated service of a moral proposition: individual freedom is traded for an abstract “social good.” Essential to this “social good” is equality, and not the widely-valued liberal ideal of equal opportunity, but a total material equality of outcome. In order to refute the merits of a system designed for such a value, no malicious intent need here be ascribed to its proponent. Assuming the socialist does earnestly believe equality of outcome a moral good, the reasoned refutation of socialism need only concern the policies in question, as they are clearly self-negating. Equality of outcome is logically impossible in a socialist state.
Under socialism, from its inception, the individual’s right to property and trade is necessarily suppressed by force. This component of the system is essential. There can be no version of socialism where individual freedom is protected because every means of production, distribution, and exchange that is captured or produced by the socialist state is in theory owned collectively, by everyone. Now, in keeping with the moral proposition of total equality, it follows every decision concerning production must be made collectively, by everyone. As the human is individual in nature, rather than hive-oriented as are some species of insect, true collective decision making is beyond our biological ability. The compromise is democratic. While it is impossible for “everyone” to be happy with some course of production, a majority can decide with a vote. In a way, the outcome of such a vote is immediately unequal, as some are left satisfied and some unsatisfied with the use of collective property. But this is something of a philosophical quibble. Let us focus instead on a state that necessarily matures from a system of abstract collective ownership and democracy, which is unquestionably unequal, and utterly dystopian.
The phrase “democratic socialism” is redundant. All socialism is democratic. It is also despotic. The paradox exists because socialism is a logically fallacious system, which is why every incarnation of collective ownership at scale has collapsed. For decisions to be made concerning collective property while maintaining the chief value of total equality, leaders of a socialist state must be democratically chosen. But endemic of every socialist state is the same fatal problem: outside the motivating context of an existential threat productivity diminishes and people starve. With no claim to ownership on what one produces, the individual’s incentive to produce is greatly eroded. One may not like this fact of human nature, but one cannot deny the fact: our chief concerns are ourselves and our loved ones. In order to maintain production without the incentives of a market economy, the individual must therefore be compelled to produce. While the institution of compulsory labor for a minority of men in a democratic state might be technically possible, if both less productive than a state of freedom and absolutely immoral, compulsory labor for a majority of men in a democratic state is obviously impossible. The individual naturally votes against such compulsion. The people strike, and production stops. From here, a language or aesthetic of equality may be maintained for purposes of propaganda, but the only way to perpetuate the socialist state is to abandon democracy in the name of the democratic good. A despot rises — incredibly, on behalf of democracy — and inequality of power is metastasized. Proximity to the despotic head of state naturally affords benefits. These benefits form social currency, an abstract, political medium of exchange that can be traded for anything from legal favors to physical goods. The socialist state, still operating under the language of equality, is now plainly, materially unequal.
Confronted by the logical conclusions of his favored system, the committed socialist now often redefines socialism as a form of liberalism that moderates capitalism for the social good. This is a lie. If a nation protects individual liberty, private property, the rights to own and produce property, to trade, and to industry it is a liberal nation. It is specifically in vogue among proponents of socialism to label prosperous European states in favor of high taxation socialist. But of course while socialist political parties do exist in many prosperous European states — where they grapple for power among many other political parties committed to freedom — no prosperous European state defines itself as socialist because no socialist party has yet re-achieved the goal once realized throughout much of Eastern Europe, which remains the absolute subversion of individual liberty in favor of social good. Despite all enthusiasm for the much-loved myth of American socialists, the political systems of Scandinavia are not so different from the American political system. Not only are Scandinavian legal protections of the individual similar to legal protections of the individual in America, but capital raised by liberal Scandinavian governments, per capita, is comparable to capital raised in California and New York. American critics would not be wrong to cite a more effective social welfare state in some liberal nations abroad, but this is not because European nations raise more money, and it is certainly not because they have adopted socialism. The American government is simply less effective.
The aggressive re-framing of prosperous European states as socialist is a rhetorical tactic employed to make more palatable the redefinition of liberty as anti-social. This is a belief that must precede any grab for industrial power by a state, which is of course the socialist aim as evidenced not only by the actions of every socialist state in history but by the socialist’s own refusal to distance himself from the word. Proponents of liberalism are often asked why rigid commitment to political language is important. If in saying “socialism” people mean “liberalism with high taxation” why not accept the new definition? But one must only turn the question around on the socialist to understand why such concession must never be made. Why, given its deadly history, would the socialist not himself be disenamored of the word? The truth is he believes, despite its tremendous failure, that the morality of socialism is still beyond reproach. Imagine an advocate of “true Nazism” struggling to redefine the word as some middle way between freedom and racist, militaristic despotism. No reasonable person would accept such a redefinition because the motivation of a “true Nazi” would be clear — the only person who could possibly care enough about Nazism to make it more palatable for a disapproving, liberal audience would be a Nazi. The desires of socialism are, despite a changing language, constant. Total material equality is a moral tenet of the socialist’s faith, and morality must be confronted by morality.
Societies of free men have produced new ideas, technologies, and discoveries at a rate far in advance of any society under socialism. At a time when even the poorest American drove to work, it was considered an incredible luxury to own a car in the Soviet Union — a favorite fact of American school teachers. But creative output, while incredibly important, is not a morality. In opposition to socialism, the case for freedom is often made in material accomplishments: medicines, access to food, disposable income. Poverty is down. Energy production is up. Lifespans are increasing. The internet! Are you happy yet? What is never illustrated by the materialist defense is a compelling definition of goodness. The human creative capacity is not our purpose, it is only the means by which we achieve our purpose. The contemporary socialist isn’t selling cars. He’s selling morality, and a vision for the future. For this, America once turned to God. Today, the practice of formal worship is in steep decline, but the human desire for purpose will never be. This is why, despite clear, powerful, logical refutation, socialism persists: it is a religion.
In myth, Cerberus guards the gates of the Underworld to keep the dead in Hades. Christ rejected this morality in favor of love and life-everlasting. This was a revolution: the dead are meant to resurrect — physically — and “thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” In Christianity, perfection is not only to be sought in spiritual ascension; perfection is meant to be manifest in our material world. We are by nature imperfect, but we must always improve. In morality we call this growth, and that is also the sign of a healthy economy. Perfecting is our moral good. God is a direction.
There are many possible reasons for the decline in Christian potency, from an incompatibility with liberalism and the more socially restrictive interpretations of the Bible to scientific advancement and the perception of overt religious faith as anti-rational. Fortunately, the Christian metaphor has been a profoundly successful vessel. The message of life now permeates our world. We need only look to our history, and to the stories we tell, to observe it in the direction of our creative fruits. Can the Christian prayer for Heaven on Earth not be observed as a moral call for the technological construction of a perfect world? Is the work of Robert Heinlein, and life-everlasting as we love our way across the universe in fusion-powered starships, or Arthur C. Clarke, and the perfect city, not the morality of Christ?
Material abundance. Biological immortality. A march through the galaxy, and beyond, as we carry the precious phenomena of life and learn the secrets of the universe. These are our goals, with an immediate goal of building a high-energy civilization. This is a compelling, powerful goal, against which — when effectively communicated — no socialist vision can compete. Historically, the committed socialist did not even try. Before the failures of central planning were well-documented, socialists did not believe equality and growth at odds. It was Nikolai Kardashev, a Soviet, who first proposed a scale of civilizations and defined our final stage, the “Type III,” as galactic in nature. It is only now, after the failure of growth under socialism and the decline of faith under liberalism, that the socialist has made stasis a morality. But stasis isn’t a formidable vision. It can only succeed where no one else is fighting.
Since Marathon the west has met existential threats on the field of battle and triumphed. But the despotic foreign tyrant has never been so great a threat as the free man’s willingness to concede natural law, and to himself assume the chains of bondage. Where our language is guarded, and with the application of some little bit of courage, it is not difficult to illustrate how such bondage leads invariably to catastrophe. This illustration should be made, and it should be made often. But to the question of what we are fighting for, it must ever be remembered our right to ourselves and the physical world — our right to capitalism and freedom — is innate of us, and its protection essential, but it is not our destiny. To that end: self-perfection, immortality, and the stars.