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7/19/19

Socialism isn't the opposite of liberalism - and it isn't liberalism 2.0, either.

Ideologically, capitalism relies on one simple proposition: that property can be held privately. As Marx put it, all criticism of capitalism "is ultimately reducible to criticism of private property as a barrier and obstacle" to collective management. It is the right of private property that the bourgeoisie exercises in its control of the means of production, and in its accumulation of capital; it is the right of private property that denies the rest of us access to the commonwealth. With private property, capitalism inevitably follows; without private property, capitalism cannot survive.

In one sense, then, bourgeois ideology is quite simple. Historically, however, private property has never stood on its own - instead, it survives at the core of a whole regime of ideas that support it and defend it from attack. Some are so intimately caught up in our ideas of private property that they seem almost impossible to disentangle. Others are so peripheral, and seemingly unessential, that one can only tease out their relationship to capitalism by carefully reflecting on their historical role. All of them, taken together, make up the broader ideology that has historically been known as liberalism.

My belief is that, as capitalism collapses beneath the weight of its own contradictions, the ideological reign of private property must come to an end. When this happens, the broader regime of liberalism will be dramatically transformed.

Consider for example liberalism's theory of political agency: that every individual has essentially unlimited agency to, as John Galt put it, "stop the engine of the world." This proposition is ideologically necessary because it allows us to feel a sense of freedom and power in a world where almost everything is privately owned and controlled by someone else; that is why it has survived politically, even though empirically it has long seemed plainly untrue. When private property collapses, there will be no more need to maintain illusions about unlimited individual agency; as socialism emerges, we should expect to emerge with it an understanding that our individual agency is shaped and constrained by the world around us.

Consider next liberalism's notion of freedom. Historically, freedom has often been defined in contrast with the exercise of state power; the two have been placed in zero-sum relationship, and it is generally understood that the government is the primary source of political oppression. It is not particularly difficult to understand how this, too, is entangled with capitalism's core ideology of private property - for within capitalism, freedom is simply the exercise of private property rights unconstrained by state power. But again: when capitalism collapses, we should see a dramatic reconfiguration of this idea of freedom to encompass economic freedom as well. In this new ideological regime, the state will be understood as both a source of potential oppression and as a force for liberation from the power of private capital.


Quite often, socialist perspectives on liberalism veer between two odd simplifications. On one hand, liberalism is conceptualized as the opposite of socialism - and socialism, in turn, as simply the opposite of liberalism. It is in this tendency that socialism becomes an exercise in vulgar contrarianism, or in dissociative fantasy. On the other hand, however, we encounter another simplification: that socialism is simply liberalism 2.0, a simple extension of liberal ideology towards its logical conclusion. It is in this tendency that socialism loses its radical character and devolves into little more than a slightly more ambitious liberalism.

But in the two examples I've given here, I think we can see that socialism's relationship with liberalism is far more complex. Insofar as liberalism means things like private property, it is indeed directly at odds with the socialist project, and it must be overcome. Insofar as liberal ideology imagines the individual as an omnipotent political agent, this too will change: instead of John Galt we will have a character from a Zola novel, a person who both makes and is made by history. And instead of liberalism's notion of freedom, we will have something quite new: a freedom from material oppression, exploitation, and want.