A Civil Lack of Discourse

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Civil discourse, I would argue, is largely dead. One could of course point to the bombast, blustering, bromides, baloney and ballyhoo that accompany any political cycle, or the chicanery, duplicity, equivocation, folderol, grandiloquence, humbuggery, inanity and jabberwocky which encrust the space like barnacles on the hull of a sunken galleon.

However, that is all low-hanging fruit, and while perhaps indicative of what often ails attempts at civil discourse, I will argue that such things are more symptomatic of a deeper problem. Rather, our failure at civil discourse isn’t largely in the things we say, but that we are often quite unable to actually talk about the things we talk about, and instead tend more to talk around them.

I came across a blog post that I saw going around Facebook earlier in June, and only now have had time to put some thoughts to it. The blog post itself is very civil in tone, but unfortunately falls largely into talking around the subject at hand by means of not really substantially defining what is being talked about, as I will demonstrate. The end result is that it is not something that actually engages in civil discourse because it doesn’t really end up talking about what it purports to talk about, which is something I notice on all sides of any debate with alarming frequency.

The blog post in question is Why I’m a Socialist, a Christian, and Voting for Bernie Sanders. My intent here isn’t to necessarily form a critique of socialism, any particular political system, party or candidate, or even of the author’s position, since it is still not clear to me what the author means by “socialism” or even why that is a philosophy, economic model or whatever else (again, since I’m not sure exactly what she means) she embraces.

Instead, I want to demonstrate how a lack of definition and specificity creates barriers to true discourse.

Original in quotes, my comments below.

I consider myself a socialist.

That’s a sentence that can create awkwardness at dinner parties, and suspicion and confusion in political conversations.

Which, of course, is why it’s incumbent to clearly define what one means by such things.

Case in point: think of all the times that Barrack Obama has been accused of being a socialist in the past seven years, As if that is some grave insult.

It will, of course, be noted that the author here recognizes that the use of a term can be used devoid of content (and often inappropriately) in at least one direction (that of opposition); unfortunately, in what’s to come a similar error will be employed in the other direction.

Because of the stigma around socialism, it is curious to me (and encouraging to me) that Bernie Sanders, a vocal and proud socialist, has gained so much traction in this year’s election. I feel like people are finally beginning to understand that socialism is not as scary as some would have us believe.

I will note two different things going on here. Firstly, the author is absolutely correct that there are many who bandy the term “socialism” about as a rhetorical cudgel. Such a use may be as a scare tactic (as the author implies) or for other reasons. Such use is wholly inappropriate in the realm of civil discourse, and to save time in the future I will take that principle as read.

However, there is a certain irony here in that the author engages in a similar (albeit less acerbic) form of rhetorical cudgeling by reducing much of the opposition to socialism to this scare tactic. Granted, the statement is qualified by “many” so as to not be necessarily exhaustive, but given some of the perceptions to be named later, it’s not entirely clear that this doesn’t form the bulk of the critique.

I wanted to take an opportunity to talk about socialism and explain why there is a growing support of socialism in the United States right now. I also want to dispel some of the myths around socialism.

The extent to which this goal is accomplished will become important.

I think some people still view socialism as synonymous with communism. I think some people think socialism is a group of godless liberals. I think some people believe that socialism is a system in which the government takes your money, controls what you can do, and punishes the wealthy arbitrarily.

I will grant the author this – it is true that this is a fairly accurate view of how some people see “socialism.” I see plenty of memes and come across plenty of articles and blogs which decidedly play into this caricature.

However, as will become apparent, the exact content of “socialism” is crucial here for the purposes of potential civil discourse.

I believe it is none of these things, and I want to try to offer a simple explanation of my personal views around socialism, in order to demystify the whole thing. This is not an attempt to sway anyone else to socialism. Rather, I want to reduce the misunderstanding around it, and provide a simple explanation for why a rational Christian would lean in this direction.

There is an interesting dissonance here. The author wishes to demystify socialism so as to construe it as something that isn’t as scary as it is caricatured, which presumably would require peeling away the misconceptions, half-truths and such surrounding socialism, which would further presumably require that some sort of working definition of socialism be established. But then in the next breath she states that she is going to share her personal views around it, which means that those views may or may not comport with any particular critique of socialism as a political system.

The difficulty here is that while offering personal views about what any particular thing is is fine, it is vital to clearly delineate exactly what those views are and how they have consonance or divergence from the thing in question so as to avoid equivocation.

Socialism as a term of course gets used in lots of ways with varying degrees of precision. A classical definition of it purely in respect to economic organization would be one in which the means of production and distribution are owned collectively, usually by means of a centralized state. With respect to government it tends to entail the state achieving some sort of common welfare by means of the aforementioned economic system.

As will become clear, it is not at all clear that this is what our author means by socialism, and thus it’s not clear that the demystification and such refers to much more than the caricatures offered, which cuts to the heart of my overall critique.

I resonate with the philosophy of socialism because of my wider philosophy in regards to how humans can best organize and live with one another in a civilized society…

What I am referring to here, when I talk about a society being “civilized,” is the idea of human beings working together to a greater good. I’m going to call this being “pro-social.”

One thing that should be noted is that while “socialism” (or whatever she means by “socialism”) may be compatible with this “pro-social” philosophy, it is also neither identical with it nor exclusive to it. Other political and economic philosophies could just as reasonably be termed “pro-social,” which makes this a curious argument for “resonance.”

Of course, the “good of a society” is a subjective thing, which is why I am a democratic socialist. I still believe that the individuals in a society should choose their leaders. I still believe that our government officials should represent the views of the people they are serving. I don’t believe that our government should be swayed by big businesses, money, or other personal interests. Unfortunately, in our current system, this is all too prevalent.

This is another curious argument, and one I think that deserves a little attention. It is certainly true that different people, societies, etc., have differing conceptions of the good and how the good relates to society. However, that in and of itself is not tantamount to the “good of a society” being a subjective thing, as that would entail- if taken to its logical conclusion- that our author’s preference for her understanding of socialism is on the same level as a preference for a bean burrito over a steak burrito.

On the contrary, her previous statement about how her resonance with socialism flows out of her understanding of her philosophy of being “pro-social” actually belies the fact that she thinks this as a good of society is something that is objective since it can (presumably) be argued for, articulated, demystified and cleared of misunderstandings. If this good was only subjective, this entire blog post would be a meaningless effort, and the articulation of the supposed wrongs (gov’t swayed by big business, money, etc.) would be pointless and antithetical to this thesis.

One important aspect of truly civil discourse is recognizing that good is objective, that people can have very real differences in their conceptions of the good, even to the point of them being antithetical. This will, as a corollary, entail the possibility that some conceptions of the good are simply wrong, rather than a mere difference in subjectivity.

That being said, what often is understood as a difference in the conception of what is good for society is often not an actual distinction in the understanding of the good, but rather in the prudential means by which the good is accomplished.

For example, from an economic point of view, nearly all modern and (classically) liberal economic theories would likely decry crony capitalism (that is, the gov’t being swayed by big business, cash, etc., of our author’s example). However, each would have somewhat (or even radically) differing prudential conceptions of how to structure an economic system to eliminate or best mitigate the effects of that potentiality or reality. That is, each might have a substantially similar conception of the good (i.e., crony capitalism is undesirable) but differ in the means to achieve it.

From a more Christian POV, one would be hard pressed to find Christians who categorically deny that helping the poor is a Christian virtue. However, in the prudential working out of this ideal there can be radically diverging ideas on what constitutes the best means of achievement. This is further complicated by the fact that differing means are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Another further complication is that since prudence is a cardinal virtue, it means that any situation in which the virtue of helping the poor is accomplished has to be approached in the concrete situation itself with all of its mitigating factors so as to best determine what means will accomplish that virtue and pertain to the good. This entails that categorical solutions to the shared good of “helping the poor” are not actually in keeping with a well synthesized Christian approach in which all the virtues work together to approach any given situation.

(It should be noted, of course, that the explicitly Christian example given therefore has no political philosophy which can be its sine qua non.)

All of this is to merely point out that in having these sorts of discussions, it is- as is hopefully obvious- absolutely crucial to ensure that we are actually talking about the thing we are intending to talk about, instead of around it.

Socialism, in my opinion, is a healthy balance between individualism and collectivism.

Much of the legitimacy of this statement would of course be dependent on exactly what is meant by “socialism,” which as of yet hasn’t been defined. After all, if we are talking about socialism in the economic-cum-political sense, it would hardly seem true that on an economic level it is a balance between individualism and collectivism, as on the economic side all means of production and distribution would be owned collectively by means of the centralized state.

Most socialists hold to the value that an organized government works towards the good of both the individual and the society at large.

This statement is likely true enough as it goes, but the difficulty is that- much like the case of the resonance of socialism with a “pro-social” philosophy from earlier- there is nothing specific to socialism (at least as has yet been defined) that makes this statement any more applicable to it than to other political or economic philosophies. It thus becomes an empty way of non-describing socialism (or nearly any other political philosophy).

After all, I am not a socialist (in the classical economic-cum-political sense), yet I think government- albeit a necessary evil- has a role to play in the good of society and the individual. If I were to be more specific, some of its legitimate functions entail protecting its citizens’ natural right to life, preventing the curtailment of their natural liberties, and ensuring the inviolateness of private property. In each of these broad categories there would be both positive and negative imperatives; for example, one positive (by which I mean “something it does”) role of the government would be to collectively provide for its citizens’ defense (which would touch on all three categories in some ways) against external threats; another would be to ensure that another citizen, corporation, or even the government itself cannot curtail or infringe upon another citizen’s natural liberties. A negative imperative might include avoiding unnecessary interference in economic activities (which would touch on liberty and property).

A practical outworking of that (which would eliminate classical socialism as compatible with this prudential attainment) would be a rejection of the government owning the means of production, which would normally preclude (as an example) the nationalization of industries.

At any rate, all of those things would be ways in which the government works towards the good of the individual and society as a whole, as I would consider such prudential actions as aiming towards the fulfillment of the good of society. There might of course be large disagreement with both the conception of the good of society and the prudential means of aiming towards that, but statements like the aforementioned don’t further the discourse since they don’t tend towards the substantive.

As I have visited or studied other societies, I have observed a wide variety of ways that humans can be civilized towards one another, and uncivilized towards one another. I think this has very little to do with the economics of a country, and more to do with the values of a particular people group.

I would say that my point is largely proved here, in that the author admits that the “pro-social” philosophy which guides her in this manner has little to do with economics, which would seem to entail that not only is socialism (in its classical sense) not something to which her philosophy would necessarily lead her, but could be consonant with other politico-economic systems, which would either seem to undercut her earlier reason for finding resonance with socialism, or would mean that what she means by “socialism” is something different than the economic-polticial definition of socialism.

In either case, I’ll admit to not yet experiencing the demystification promised.

I have observed tribes in Africa in which a woman who has recently given birth is able to rest for upwards of a month as the women in her village care for her every need. In this aspect of society, this African village is more pro-social than our own. There are Asian cultures in which filial piety and deference to elders are a huge value . . . this is pro-social behavior that makes our treatment of the elderly look barbaric.

The author is right in that there is no necessary economic system that pertains to these examples of “pro-social” behavior, which again would seem to further buttress my point. I will also take this moment to point out (and expand upon later) that this sort of “pro-social” behavior is indicative of what has been classically termed subsidiarity; that is, addressing societal issues on the lowest possible level.

The United States is already a country that has many socialist programs. Many of these programs would be examples of how our country’s government embodies pro-social values.

It is here that we are finally getting at some understanding of what is meant by “socialism” in the author’s sense. Rather than the classical sense of the means of production being collectively owned, she seems to be generically referring to “common welfare,” which- importantly- may or may not exist within the framework of socialism as a political or economic philosophy.

This is one area of frustration for me in respect to general public discourse, and one in which some of the author’s earlier caricatures sometimes are closer to the mark. For those who are opposed to socialism, it is absolutely true that many tend to take this watered down version of socialism and equivocate on it in respect to full bore socialism or in opposition to an ideal like the free markets. (For example, any “common welfare” provision is conflated with full-bore socialism).

However, as many countries (including the United States) demonstrate, one can have differing levels of free markets while having differing levels of “socialism” (that is, in this example, “welfare”). The relative position each holds will be determinate on a number of factors. For example, the United States has purportedly free markets, but also has relatively high corporate tax rates, often onerous regulations regarding the establishment and running of a business, while also having massive welfare programs making it effectively the largest single consumer of the GDP, which has a further economic impact. Yet the United States is not socialist in the classical sense in that the businesses and industries are not owned collectively by means of the federal government.

For example, we offer free education to every children through high schools. We have a public library system. We have beautiful state and federal parks. We have sufficient sanitation services, a reliable postal system, and competent fire and rescue services in most places. Are there areas for improvement? Absolutely. There always will be. But our country has agreed that these are basic ways that out government provides for its citizens.

There seems to be another bit of cognitive dissonance occurring here, as illustrated in the final phrase: “ways that our government provides for its citizens.” This phrase would seem to be antithetical to the “pro-social” philosophy articulated earlier, especially in the proposed ideal of democratic socialism aforementioned in that there is a distinction drawn between the citizens and the government. Naturally, we all make this distinction to one extent or another, but the “pro-social” philosophy would seem to necessitate that- if we are truly working together towards a greater good- then it is not the government providing for its citizens but rather the citizens as a whole providing for themselves collectively. Of course, since the “pro-social” philosophy is admittedly not much related to economics, it is still difficult to pin down exactly what is meant by “socialism” and how government thereby actually provides for its citizens apart from a particular economic system (which, as was noted, does not necessarily entail socialism in the classical sense.)

On the other hand, given that almost any political philosophy will enumerate some legitimate goods that government provides for its citizens (see above), it’s hard to see how this is a description that is necessarily related to socialism, and thus why it would have any actual consonance. The specific provisions articulated may seem necessary or superfluous depending on the political or economic philosophy, but in and of itself the notion of government providing for its citizens doesn’t really offer a description of what “socialism” is or is meant to entail.

It’s my opinion that a civilization is better when basic needs are provided to its citizens. That is one of the reasons I resonate with socialism.

Unfortunately, this is another phrase that is rather devoid of any substantive content, as any political or economic philosophy would agree with this statement. The sticking point, of course, is exactly the means by which citizens are provided with basic needs (which of course need not be the government).

Of course, we could argue all day about what “basic needs” are, but in general, a socialist would tend to think that it’s in the country’s best interest when the collective works together.

Again, the content of the collective “working together” is the sticking point, since again nearly any political philosophy would agree with this. (Even a hard-core individualist would likely assert that by allowing individuals more personal and economic freedom, they have more opportunities to work together towards common, agreed upon-bottom-up goals that advance the good of society as whole through the efforts of individuals.)

I did, however, want to touch upon the previously raised issue of subsidiarity. The author raises fine examples of this in practice, and ways in which smaller units of societies can work together toward greater good. In classical Christian philosophy this is a principle in which matters, problems, etc. should be handled by the lowest or least centralized authority possible. The idea behind this is to secure and guarantee as far as possible the dignity of the human individual so that all forms of society in which the individual participates- from the highest to the lowest- can tend to his good. Part of this arises from the virtue of prudence, which recognizes that the good is realized in the concrete, and since each individual is in his own particular circumstance, the good must be assessed concretely, which happens most effectively at the lowest level of authority or competency. Thus, this principle would see social units like the family, the neighborhood, the community, the church, etc., as vital places in which the good is actualized in society and in the individual through varying levels of collective action.

This principle also aims at avoiding the subordination of the person to the state, which occurs more readily without the buffering social structures such as the aforementioned. The principle of subsidiarity would see “working together” in this context as certainly having some pertinence to the government in some matters, but would reject flattening out the relation between the individual and the state by allocating all the “working together” to the centralized government, which would actually have the effect of dismantling the “pro-social” aspect of this goal since there would be little to no social structures remaining between the individual and the state.

Granted, I doubt the author actually advocates this sort of flattening out of relations, authority and provision, but without actually articulating the content of the “socialism” being advanced, many of the examples provided would seem to lead to that conclusion.

My convictions around socialism basically boil down to the philosophy that a society is best when all members contribute to the good of the whole.

I will probably sound like a broken record, but this statement is neither exclusive to socialism (in either the classical or the still-vague-but-definitely-modified sense used here) nor even necessarily indicative of it.

At the end, the description of socialism offered here is this:

  1. It resonates with a pro-social philosophy, which is about humans working together to a greater good.
  2. It values an organized government that works towards the good of the individual and society at large
  3. Civilization is better when basic needs are provided to its citizens
  4. Government provides for its citizens
  5. Society is best when all members contribute to the good of the whole

 

I have already noted how all of these could easily be applied to almost any politico-economic philosophy, thus rendering this not really an explanation of “socialism” at all, but rather an ideal of the government’s relation to society. The crucial part is how that relation is realized, which is where actual differences in political and economic philosophies come into play.

To be honest, I am still unsure of what the author actually even means. There seems to be a vague sense of some sort of common welfare, but since that is not necessarily related to any particular economic philosophy (nor even to “socialism” in its classical sense), it’s quite difficult to pin down what is being conveyed here.

While there are certainly many atheists who hold to this philosophy, for me it is my Christianity that points me to these convictions. The bible has a lot to say about taking care of the poor and caring for the “least of these.” In Acts, we see the early church living out socialist ideals:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

This exegesis offers some fairly marked difficulties for the piece as a whole, and which I suggest further develop my critique. If we are to understand “socialist” principles as being lived out here, then there is a major equivocation underlying this entire blog post regarding the use of the term “socialism” (not to mention a major anachronism in applying modern politico-economic categories to ancient community structures).

After all, socialism in its classical sense refers to the collective ownership of the means of production and distinction, and when hashed out politically are accomplished by means of a centralized government. However, there is certainly no collective ownership of the means of production in this passage; as we see in the account of Aquila and Priscilla, it was acknowledged that the ownership of their holdings (and the income produced thereby) belonged to them and was theirs to do with as they saw fit. One might argue that there was collective distribution occurring, but since the production was not collectively owned, it would be inappropriate to describe this in classical “socialist” terms.

Rather, what was occurring was a relatively small group of individuals coming together for a common purpose and using their funds and resources to further that end. In many ways this was not even unique to Christians; many pagans of the time had similar associations attached to guilds which collectively funded its members’ burials, which is why many pagans in the era of nascent Christianity thought that they were a sect or guild with similar burial provisions, especially given the Christian penchant for visiting the graves of the departed and marking their deaths and martyrdoms.

It should also be noted that while there is an economic aspect to this, it is not an economic system per se.

What we seem to be left with when all is said and done is that “socialism” and “socialist” principles in the author’s understanding seem to generically refer to people working together for the good of society as a whole. This definition, of course, is overly ambiguous and, as I think I have demonstrated, has no necessary connection to “socialism” in its classical sense, thus making its use herein largely an equivocation.

While this was specific to a church, I think that there are plenty of passages in the bible that suggest that taking care of others should be a priority, and so I prioritize that both in my personal life, and in the way I hope to see our government shaped.

Of course, as I have noted repeatedly, taking care of others as a priority is not necessarily exclusive to socialism. Instead, it is the prudential way in which that is accomplished (on all levels) which brings any particular political or economic philosophy to bear, and which unfortunately is precisely what hasn’t been explained or demystified.

As such, what we are left with is largely talking a lot about something without actually talking about it.

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Jason Watson

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