There is no socialism in the singular

There is a long history of efforts to combine the advantages of competition and planning. They range from speculative and theoretical analysis of “market socialism” to cooperatives, mutuals and efforts to combine an open economy with a socialist state that began in the former Yugoslavia. There is also a tradition that Stuart White calls “alternative liberalism”, which dates back to John Stuart Mill and which is liberal but not neoliberal, in that it refuses to give the values ​​of capital a defining role in society.

All of this suggests an inherently participatory and democratic ideal. If so, it must be the project of new socialists, not new socialism. The difference is crucial. It is essential to grasp that there is not a singular future nirvana awaiting us on the other side of capitalism. Others made the same warning. Its significance is that historically the feeling structure associated with the idea of ​​socialism promised an escape into the future that must not be “betrayed”, which then often allows, or has certainly been associated with, very oppressive in the present.

The dream is old and wants to be emancipatory. In its denunciation of the division of labor in German ideology, Karl Marx evoked a “communism” where one can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”. OK, he was just in his late twenties, he rushed, himself, never published it.

But we don’t just take care of the cattle “in the evening”, any more than raising a child. Real life demands a positive distribution of attention and engagement. Instead, Marx expresses a passion for a realm of plenty that often haunts the notion of socialism: a longing for a future in which politics has been abolished, the state has withered away, all are equal, and the state of right can be thrown into its bourgeois dustbin. No socialist might openly advocate such a caricature, but the dream encourages contempt for any “concession” to the present, as it idealizes a future uncontaminated by our mortal history. Thus, the dreamlike work of revolutionary thought has contributed to an intrinsically disempowering depoliticization.

We must do better than the hyper-unequal capitalism that really exists with its nation states, their corporations, the violence, corruption and militarism, which is currently destroying the world. In our different societies, the economy must be governed by priorities set by vigorously democratic governments, hopefully motivated by solidarity, compassion and cooperation. We must deliberate and act holistically, prioritizing the values ​​of humanity. This is the lesson that the COVID-19 syndemic teaches us. Whether or not this leads to socialisms across the world matters less than the need for politics here and now to become synergistic.

In Memory of Julian Pear Robinson