The Left That Dare Not Speak Its Name

by Henry on July 7, 2009

I’m still writing a long, substantive-ish piece responding to Larry Lessig’s “twin”:http://lessig.org/blog/2009/05/et_tu_kk_aka_no_kevin_this_is.html “posts”:http://lessig.org/blog/2009/05/on_socialism_round_ii.html on the dangers of confusing socialism with collaborative stuff on the internet, but it may be no harm to try to expel the less substantive stuff from my system in the meantime. And I do have some stuff to get out. I usually like Lessig’s stuff, even when I don’t agree with it, but these two posts are a horrible, _horrible_ mess.

Post the first:

It is completely unreasonable to call [Kevin Kelly’s argument] “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” … The thing that Smith was pointing to (and Hayek too), is not “socialism.” It is not reasonably called socialism. Because “socialism” is the thing Smith was attacking in the 6th edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people. … Coercive government action is — IMHO — a necessary condition of something being “socialism.” It isn’t sufficient — there is plenty of coercive governmental action that doesn’t qualify as socialism, like raising taxes to fund national defense, or to pay the police. … I’m not an opponent to all things plausibly called “socialist” … A graduated income tax could properly be called “socialist,” because it is coerced … But all of the examples of proper “socialism” begin with pointing to coercion by the state. A conservative Baptist church is not “socialist” when it voluntarily collects money to give to the poor, even though the result is similar to the result of a “socialist” plan to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. … sloppiness here has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement “socialist,” that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. Again, see Helprin. Or Andrew Keen.

Post the second:

There’s an interesting resistance (see the comments) to my resistance to Kevin Kelly’s description of (what others call) Web 2.0 as “socialism.” That resistance (to my resistance) convinces me my point hasn’t been made. … It is not even that never in the history of “socialism” have people so understood it (there have of course been plenty of voluntary communities that have called themselves “socialist”). Instead, my argument against Kelly was about responsibility in language: How would the words, or label, he used be understood. Not after, as I said, reading “a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term.” Rather, how would it be understood by a culture that increasingly has the attention span of 140 characters? … In reading the reactions to my argument, however, I realize that in using the term “coercion” I was committing the same error that I was accusing Kelly of making. People associate the word “coercion” with Abu Ghraib or Stalin. And certainly, the “coercion” of socialism isn’t necessarily (or even often) that. That’s fair. By “coercion” I meant simply law — that “socialism” is a system enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate. … So I didn’t mean anything necessarily negative by the term “coercion.” … Again, if you doubt that, think about American critics of “socialism”: None of them are complaining about people voluntarily choosing to associate however they choose to associate (except of course if they are gay). They are complaining about people being forced to associate in ways they don’t choose to associate.

Now, I’ll note a few peculiarities of Lessig’s argument in passing. Item one: the fact that under Lessig’s definition, when the Young Socialists League of the Socialisty Socialists of America organizes its volunteer commune in Ann Arbor, this commune isn’t a socialistic one, because no-one is being forced to join. Item two – that if you are to deplore your critics for having mysteriously misinterpreted you as associating coercion with Stalin, you probably shouldn’t have been arsing on about Stalin, collective farms _und so weiter_ in your original post. This class of rhetorical maneuver is what we call running with the hare and coursing with the hounds in the country where I grew up. Item three: that the account presented of decentralized emergent order is even more … interesting … in some ways than the account of socialism. I really hope that when Lessig suggests that Hayek saw civil society as the product of “masses of people who own the means of production [and] work toward a common goal and share their products in common, [people who] contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge,” this is just sloppy writing – Hayek certainly had vigorous and forceful opinions on civil societies where masses of people worked together towards a common goal, but they did not point in the direction that Lessig suggests.

But I’ll leave the detailed exegesis to y’all in comments if you want to dive in. What I want to talk about is the more general phenomenon here – the reflexive cringe that many Americans who are identifiably on the left (and Lessig, who started as a moderate conservative, _is_ clearly is on the left) have when they are identified as leftwing, or, much worse, possibly having anything to do with socialism. And Lessig, in fairness to him, stops the guff about the ‘interesting resistance’ fairly quickly in the second post, and fesses up to the real problem – it is politically problematic for him (and others) to have Creative Commons etc be identified as socialist in any way, because it will lead to these projects being barracked and pilloried. This may be correct as a matter of practical politics (my personal instinct is that American ‘lefties’ should grow some and see what happens – some survey data suggests that people aren’t as “het up”:http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/just_53_say_capitalism_better_than_socialism about socialism as they used to be). But it also seems to be partially internalized too – Lessig’s original post seems to intimate that the suggestion that one may share some views with socialists is not only politically inconvenient, but morally offensive.

We also saw this a few months ago in a “thread”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/02/26/netroots-lefties/ here at Crooked Timber, where commenters were quite outraged that I suggested they were left wing because they adopted left of center positions on pretty well everything under the sun. I think that they might actually had been less upset if I had accused them of kitten-torture. Instead, (they claimed) they were merely adopting commonsensical views on politics – after all, everyone sane and sensible knew that the Iraq war was a bad thing, and that abortion should be legal. Again, this seemed (as best as I could interpret it – and the arguments were sometimes opaque to me) to be less a canny grab to define the center ground of politics than a presumption that there was something un-American about being on the left. Perhaps this is a kind of generalized Stockholm syndrome – the left in this country has been ground under the heel of conservatism for so long that it has adopted much of its view of the world (and of what ‘real’ Americans think). Perhaps something else.

In any event, I propose that this institutionalized cringe is based on refusal to deal with the propositions below, which I believe to be obviously true.

(1) There is a left in this country (I imagine most of our readers are on it, including perhaps some of the readers who consider themselves to be mildly conservative or libertarian).

(2) There is nothing incompatible between being on the left and adopting ‘sensible’ positions on political controversies. If you are on the left, you will usually (but not invariably) believe that the left wing positions _are_ the sensible ones.

(3) Leftwingers tend to be reasonably consistent in their beliefs across issues – believing in more redistribution _and_ abortion rights _and_ gay marriage _and_ usw. There are a couple of corollaries to this. First – leftwingers tend to thus differ from moderates at the muddled center of politics, who may believe in some of these values, but far from all, as well as, more obviously, differing from rightwingers. Second, even if there are majorities in favor of many ‘leftwing’ positions (such as access to abortion), this does not mean that the majority of Americans favor _all_ of these positions. In fact, the opposite is true – survey data tells us that only a relatively small number of Americans are consistently leftwing on reasonably inclusive sets of major political controversies. Third, it is reasonable to say that someone who favors abortion _and_ Creative Commons, _and_ higher taxes on the rich is more leftwing than someone who is against abortion, but favors Creative Commons and higher taxes on the rich. This is the underlying basis of ideological scaling, which for some unexplained reason make many people’s heads explode – see the earlier thread

(4) People who are on the further left reaches of the scale actually have a _lot in common_ with real life socialists and social democrats, who, contrary to popular belief, don’t usually tout Molotov cocktails and armalites. Socialism these days, for better or worse, seems mostly to have gone with meliorism rather than revolutionary fervor.

(5) It is most likely a mistake to adopt the ideological framings of your enemies (viz. extremist conservatives) when seeking to understand your own bit of the political spectrum. Pretending that these framings reflect the universal understandings of ordinary Americans only makes the problem worse.

So have at this – but NB – since we have our own automechanical hang-ups around the word ‘socialism’ (it contains the letters ‘cialis’ which our spam filter picks up on) I propose that commenters use the German term _Sozialismus_ to refer to the political tendency in question. This will have the side-benefit of making your comment look more erudite and profound.

{ 72 comments }

1

The Raven 07.07.09 at 6:28 pm

So have at this – but NB – since we have our own automechanical hang-ups around the word ‘socialism’ (it contains the letters ‘cialis’ which our spam filter picks up on) I propose that commenters use the German term Sozialismus to refer to the political tendency in question. This will have the side-benefit of making your comment look more erudite and profound.

Hee.
You’re right–not being able to say the word distorts the discourse. It’s hard to even think about it, if I am constantly self-censoring. As if that’s not enough trouble, knee-jerk anti-socialism cuts people off from a broad literature and many historical ideas.

2

Keith 07.07.09 at 6:35 pm

Lessig is wrong on 2 points: 1) that socialism is necessarily coercive and 2) that collaborative ‘web 2.0’ish activities aren’t socialism. They are socialism, but of the good, non-coercive kind that people engage in all the time. Like pot luck suppers and barn raising and co-op day care. That Americans don’t think of these activities as socialism (or bad things) has more to do with our own peculiar style of social branding than anything. ‘Socialism’ is that scary thing weird, pinkos do. If good ol’ Americans do it, casually and without much thought about it, then it ain’t socialism is the conventional wisdom. That so much of our conventional, middle of the road thinking and habits amount to what US Conservatives would label as ‘Socialism’ is why they are such mutton-headed idiots.

3

Jason Kuznicki 07.07.09 at 7:15 pm

The Sozialismus of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Bellamy, and many others was voluntary, non-violent, and nearly anarchic. Compulsion had almost nothing to do with it. Utopian Sozialismus was all about technology, reason, material progress, and the liberation of men and women from the shackles of traditional, arbitrary authority.

This is pretty easy to forget, given later history.

The utopian Sozialisten were (to my libertarian mind anyway) just very, very naive in thinking that they could do away with the market. Because they could see no role for it, they assumed it was superfluous or malicious. It took later economists, like Hayek, to give a more robust account of why markets are so persistent, and how they coordinate complex social activities.

Take utopian Sozialismus, decentralize it, and add Hayek’s appreciation for markets, and you have a pretty workable libertarianism. But I find that one a pretty tough sell among libertarians, too.

4

Phil 07.07.09 at 7:21 pm

Socialism these days, for better or worse, seems mostly to have gone with meliorism rather than revolutionary fervor.

Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling describes himself as “an extremist, not a fanatic” – he holds (some) beliefs which are off the scale in terms of mainstream politics, but he doesn’t start from the position that they’re the only permissible beliefs or that policies based on them should be imposed on everyone else. I think it’s a useful distinction – meliorists in terms of strategy are a much broader group than meliorists in terms of goals.

5

Phil 07.07.09 at 7:22 pm

Sozialismus these days, for better or worse, seems mostly to have gone with meliorism rather than revolutionary fervor.

Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling describes himself as “an extremist, not a fanatic” – he holds (some) beliefs which are off the scale in terms of mainstream politics, but he doesn’t start from the position that they’re the only permissible beliefs or that policies based on them should be imposed on everyone else. I think it’s a useful distinction – meliorists in terms of strategy are a much broader group than meliorists in terms of goals.

6

the teeth 07.07.09 at 7:32 pm

I pretty consistently take leftish positions on all of the subjects you mention, and have to admit that I instinctively bristle whenever anyone labels me a ‘leftist’ or similar term. I think that part of this is a sort of juvenile “you can’t put me in a box, I’m more independent in my thinking than you think” sort of response … a bigger factor, though, is probably that a large portion of the people I’ve met in this country who actively consider themselves leftists (or, much worse, ‘socialists’), are shrill and humorless and not very empathetic for folks who disagree and just rather unpleasant. This definitely has something to do w/ the right’s supremacy these last 30 years, and it’s definitely unfortunate, but I’m not sure what can be done about it.

7

Paul Gowder 07.07.09 at 7:33 pm

I have sometimes described my personal ideology as “vaguely anarcho-socialist,” so I think I can safely comment untainted by fear of being called a left-winger. (On the other hand, I am a little biased, since I’ve known Larry well for over a decade, have been involved in countless of his projects, etc.)

Larry’s right. Not necessarily because of the coercion point — I think that’s a little inapt just because of the existence of concepts like anarchist socialism. (Though, at the same time, it’s insightful, because, as Larry points out, the public meaning of “socialism” is “the government is going to send guys with guns to take your stuff and make you stand in line for six hours to buy bread,” and that version of “socialism” is quite coercive indeed. Perhaps we should call that “socialism” and call what actual socialists support “schmocialism.”)

But he’s right for two different reasons. First, Kevin Kelly’s notion of what makes something socialist is bizarre and ridiculous. Here’s what he says:

I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience.

I mean, are you serious? Under that definition, the Champagne Trade Fairs were arguably socialist. Or, for that matter, the Hayeckian information-aggregating function of the marketplace. Ditto informal reputation-based systems of contract enforcement.

In the next paragraph, Kelly utters the statement everyone’s been focusing on, about people who own the means of production sharing and stuff, but it’s clear from context that the reason that people who own the means of production sharing and stuff equals socialism is because of this general fuzzy-headed notion that every kind of interaction that relies on social interactions for its power constitutes socialism.

Second, even though socialism need not involve coercion, I submit that socialism is essentially about how government, and law, and property rights, are to be organized. If the Young Socialists League of the Socialist Socialists of America is entitled to that name, it’s because its members believe not only that they should make communes, but that the state should be organized on a non-market basis (i.e., dumping property rights). It might be that both a) “we should make communes” and b) “private property should be abolished” coincide a lot, likely because both beliefs follow from the same premises about human motivation, economic equality, etc. But they’re socialists in virtue of their holding belief b) not a).

That is why Larry is right in his point that a religious charity is not “socialist.”

8

Hidari 07.07.09 at 7:34 pm

Can I just ask one question?

To quote (what else? The Wikipedia). ‘(Jimmy) Wales cites Austrian School economist Friedrich von Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, which he read as an undergraduate, as “central” to his thinking about “how to manage the Wikipedia project”. Hayek argued that information is decentralised – that each individual only knows a small fraction of what is known collectively – and that as a result, decisions are best made by those with local knowledge rather than by a central authority. Wales reconsidered the essay in the 1990s, while reading about the open source movement (which advocated that software be free and distributed’.

But my understanding is that this is wrong. Did Hayek not think that markets were the only way in which this ’local knowledge’ could be distributed? Indeed, did he not think that the price mechanism was primarily a method of information exchange, such that the market could ’harness’ this local knowledge?

But if this is the case then Wales is just wrong isn’t he? The Wikipedia is not a ‘libertarian’ or ‘Hayekian’ project. Is this right, or have I misunderstood something about Hayek/libertarianism? Because this would seem to cut to the chase about whether the Wikipedia, and open source stuff generally, is ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’.

9

Ralph Hitchens 07.07.09 at 7:35 pm

Huh?? I seem to recall from Political Science 101 that socialism is, principally, state ownership of the means of production and distribution. “Coercive government action” has been an adjunct characteristic of some socialist regimes, to be sure, but it’s not — from a theoretical standpoint — at the top of the list.

10

Michael Dewar 07.07.09 at 7:36 pm

The Open Source software people have a similar knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’ – see for example Eric Raymond’ response in the film “Revolution OS to the idea that Open Source software might be socialst in any way…

11

Righteous Bubba 07.07.09 at 7:36 pm

Sozialismus is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.

All lobbyists are struggling to be the best Sozialisten they can be.

12

Rob 07.07.09 at 7:47 pm

Hidari @ 3:

I don’t think that Hayek necessarily believed the views that you attribute to him (based on having read The Use of Knowledge and various bits of The Constitution of Liberty over the last few years). Hayek believed that people often encounter great difficulty in expressing the knowledge that they posess; either because it consists of “gut feelings” which cannot be verbalised, or because taking the time and effort to express a view (e.g. by publishing it somewhere) isn’t always possible. Wikipedia greatly lowers the costs associated with adding one’s knowledge to everyone else’s – the cost of expressing one’s knowledge falls.

Hayek’s argument in favour of the price mechanism was not predicated on any belief that prices are the best means of transmitting information, but that they are a particularly simple one. Choosing to buy, sell or abstain from either at a given price point does not require any effort beyond buying, selling or abstaining. No explanation is needed. This is most obviously seen in prediction markets, where people might buy a contract on an outcome occurring because they privately believe that it is likely (or more likely than the present consensus), even if they would not be willing to give an explanation of why they believe this to others (fear of ridicule, fear of upsetting those with differing opinions, the cognitive and communicative cost of verbalising the belief). The virtue of the price system is its simplicity.

Hayek’s view is that knowledge about many things is dispersed, such that it’s impossible for a central authority consisting of a limited number of people to have the monopoly on truth. He believed that it would be to the benefit of society if we found simple, easy-to-use mechanisms that allowed everyone to express their knowledge/beliefs. Wikipedia does sort-of follow this pattern, in that anyone can make a page slightly more accurate than it was before at a fairly minimal cost – certainly a lower cost than that of undergoing the education necessary to become a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example.

13

Jason Kuznicki 07.07.09 at 7:53 pm

Did Hayek not think that markets were the only way in which this ’local knowledge’ could be distributed?

No. Hayek also observed that common law systems, social customs, and language were the products of local knowledge, and that they developed by allowing local discoveries or inventions to be disseminated to the extent that they proved useful. I feel fairly certain he would have welcomed new ways of discovering and propagating local knowledge.

14

Stacy 07.07.09 at 7:55 pm

You might also consider your reader’s point of reference. I live in the “Deep South” and consider myself a “Lefty,” if you took a survey of the people around me I suspect they would agree. If you put me in a room with a group from Berkley, CA they would probably come to the conclusion that I’m a conservative. While I have never been in a room with the theoretical group from Berkley I’ve been in rooms of people from different areas of the country and I’m always impressed with how much the region you live in forms your view of the political center.

I also don’t have problems with social things or whatever else you want to call them.

15

Paul Gowder 07.07.09 at 8:04 pm

(Why is my defense of Larry Lessig awaiting moderation?)

16

Righteous Bubba 07.07.09 at 8:06 pm

(4) People who are on the further left reaches of the scale actually have a lot in common with real life Sozialisten and social democrats, who, contrary to popular belief, don’t usually tout Molotov cocktails and armalites.

Speaking only for myself, I have a real aversion to being on somebody’s ideological team. That’s pretty weak and unhelpful to the political process I know, but a variety of other reasons I can muster don’t seem to cover the fact that I’d feel creepy raising a glass with my fellow Sozialisten for the sake of Sozialismus rather than swell raising a glass with the folks who helped raise the welfare rate – despite the fact that we may all be open, secret, or de facto Sozialisten.

I’m pretty sure if I felt a kinship with the policies of the Democratic or Republican parties that I’d feel icky celebrating the parties themselves rather than an achievement or a candidate I liked.

17

alkali 07.07.09 at 8:22 pm

@Paul Gowder #6: Did you spell Sozialismus in the English fashion, such that it includes within it the name of a pharmaceutical that is marketed on the Internet by spammers, etc.? That may be the reason your post is caught in the moderation filter.

18

John Quiggin 07.07.09 at 8:22 pm

One fairly general phenomenon is that for X= right or left, lots of people prefer “center-X” or “X of center” to “on the X”, or “X-wing”. The latter terms carry connotations of extremism that people don’t like.

19

Paul Gowder 07.07.09 at 8:26 pm

Oh dear. Yes, I used that word numerous times. It’s quite amusing that the word lands in the comment filter, but a warning would indeed be great for inattentive people like me…

20

Paul Gowder 07.07.09 at 8:27 pm

(And now I feel like a moron for just scanning over the parenthetical in the last paragraph of Henry’s post…)

21

John Quiggin 07.07.09 at 8:28 pm

Actually, there was a warning at the end of the post. I skipped over it too, but I already knew about this problem.

I plan, one day soon, to create, and spam for a medication called “Servati”.

22

Bloix 07.07.09 at 8:52 pm

Of course people with sozialist political beliefs can form projects that involve collective ownership, but the projects are not “sozialism” any more than a model of a steamship is the Queen Mary.

23

Henry 07.07.09 at 8:54 pm

Paul – your comments touch on Actual Matters of Substance in Lessig’s views, which I hope to turn to in my proper post, when I get the damn thing finished. This was more by way of an initial throat-clearing (with associated expectoration of phlegm) of the things that I thought were annoyingly stupid about Lessig’s rhetorical stance (and a broader body of opinion it is representative of) so that I could talk about the substance in a separate post without it getting mired in the bile.

24

Henry 07.07.09 at 8:56 pm

Bloix, _Sozialismus_ please, not sozialism, which falls horridly between two stools.

25

The Raven 07.07.09 at 9:14 pm

I seem to recall from Political Science 101 that [s-word] is, principally, state ownership of the means of production and distribution.

That’s a definition of [s-word] written by scared capitalists. It ignores the anarchist side of sozialismus entirely–people like Emma Goldman, for instance. I would expect a new US popular sozialismus, should it ever arise, to contain major libertarian and anarchist elements. There is also a new arts and crafts-like movement, based on new technology (see Boing-Boing, Make magazine, &c.) The sozialismus of the Arts and Crafts movement was reactionary, and failed due to economic problems, but with new technology, this might go somewhere, though it seems to me that the movement’s cheerleaders are deeply politically naïve.

26

Bloix 07.07.09 at 9:15 pm

Test: how about soc’al’sm?

27

The Raven 07.07.09 at 9:20 pm

Bloix–glo’al stop, anyone?

28

Dwight Furrow 07.07.09 at 9:21 pm

“This is the underlying basis of ideological scaling, which for some unexplained reason make many people’s heads explode – see the earlier thread”.

In the U.S., not only is there a knee-jerk reaction to “socializmus”, but a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of ideology. The ideological battles and excesses of some people on the left and the right have convinced many that it is better not to be aligned with a systematic belief system at all. A pragmatic “tackling each problem on its own merits” seems to be the new normal. (Note the rapid growth of Indendents in the U.S.)

That is a real problem if it turns out that there really are systematic connections between issues that can best be identified by hypothesizing systematic connections. You gain rhetorical flexibility but lose a whole lot of explanatory power.

29

minneapolitan 07.07.09 at 9:46 pm

While I agree broadly with the OP, I’m not sure I can sign on to the idea that “socia/ism is not necessarily coercive”. That really depends on what type of socia/ism we’re talking about. If you’re talking about a socia/ism that’s non-coercive, we’ve got a word for that that offers a much greater degree of specificity: anarchism. Non-anarchist socia/ism, which seems to be what most people here are discussing, is coercive, to the extent that it involves hierarchy, domination and the state. You may argue that this coercion doesn’t rise to the level of brutality, but it’s still coercive.
To the larger point, that people in US political discourse are over-wary of being associated with the left, of course that is the case, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum. We’ve seen what happens to leftists: Palmer Raids, McCarthyite witch hunts, Kent State, COINTELPRO, the Green Scare, etc. To declare yourself a leftist is not merely to put yourself beyond the bounds of reasonable harumphing political discourse, it is also to invite a shitload of repression down upon your head. If you’re white, middle-class, educated, etc. I think you should invite that consequence a little more often, but it is hardly surprising when people demure.

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novakant 07.07.09 at 10:15 pm

What is gained by calling stuff ‘sozialistisch’ that pretty obviously isn’t?

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The Raven 07.07.09 at 11:46 pm

Physical reality is coercive: there is only so much of any physical thing to go around. Complaining that one or another economic philosophy is “coercive” is pointless.
All prescriptive economic theories are or contain ideas of how to engage the coercive reality of the physical world. I suggest that the people who argue that so’al’sm must be coercive take it up with Emma Goldman.

Us corvids have a different take on the matter: we’re all eventually food!

32

protected static 07.07.09 at 11:54 pm

@novakant: What is to be gained? In the US, political leverage. Red-baiting, while becoming less effective, is still a useful tool for Democratic and Republican politicians alike…

33

Steve LaBonne 07.07.09 at 11:54 pm

That does it, I’m inventing and spamming for ED medications called “Conomic”, “Ociol” and “Litical”. THAT will be the end of commenting on CT! [evil laugh]

34

Matthias Wasser 07.07.09 at 11:59 pm

All property regimes are neccessarily coercive. A capitalist regime will say these people have rights to these things based on these reasons and a sozialistisch regime will say these people have rights to these things based on these reasons, but in either case some people will still want more and institutions will have to move in, violently if not necessarily brutally, and prevent them.

This is true for theoretical anarchist systems as well, mind. They just rely on institutions other than the modern state. (N.B. that Somalia, despite having no state to speak of, still has a society governed by coercive institutions. Not just “warlords,” either.)

So “coercion” is a meaningful concept to speak of; we can describe who coerces whom to do what, but I don’t think its mere presence can distinguish any society from another.

35

engels 07.08.09 at 1:09 am

I’m with Henry. The concept of socialism doesn’t have anything to do with coercion. All kinds of socialists, including anarchists, Marxists and reformists, aspire to a social order free of exploitation and coercion, ie. the abolition of the state. This is in contrast to liberals of all stripes, including libertarians, who defend a social order founded on coercion: the liberal democratic or minimal state. The difference between them is in the means they are willing to use en route: whereas Marxists are prepared to take over and use the coercive power of state as an instrument for bringing about socialism, anarchists aren’t and wish to destroy it.

36

engels 07.08.09 at 1:18 am

Everybody who hasn’t seen it should look at the survey as well. It seems that many ordinary Americans, who have been told for God knows how many years by the wingnuts that the stuff they quite reasonably want, like universal health case, is equivalent to soc1alism, have decided that soci1alism sounds pretty good. As David Harvey remarked, this explains the wingnuts change of tactic, to labelling all these things fascism instead….

37

bad Jim 07.08.09 at 1:56 am

Back in Berkeley in the ’60’s, I learned that I couldn’t call myself a leftist because I wasn’t a Marxist. If I have an aversion to the term “left wing” it’s because it’s generally used as a pejorative.

To the right, sociaIism is synonymous with communism, which can make communication difficult at times.

38

drm 07.08.09 at 2:40 am

@21

What wondrous properties should ‘Servati’ offer?. Increased height, for looking down on others? Minimisation of the effects of the sympathetic nervous system? Suggestions, please…

39

Joe S. 07.08.09 at 2:44 am

I’m not sure that the fear of the “socialist” tag has anything to do with socialism, however you want to define socialist.

The political right has been consistently correct on one issue, although it has been wrong on most others. Conservatives fear what Oakeshott calls “rationalism”–the intellectual heirs of the French Revolution and the more dogmatic strands of Marxian socialism. I’m not a con myself, but there’s much to this fear. (I think a better term is “political eschatology,” but I won’t push it.) Rationalism is a traditional weakness of the left–the right had good antibodies to it, until their recent adoption of right-libertarianism and market worship. We don’t see much dialectical materialism anymore, but the left has its share of folk whose political theories are hard truths, rather than fallible guides to a tentative understanding.

I think a lot of people use “socialism” as a sort of stand-in for rationalism. “I’m not a socialist but support X” sounds mighty like “I’m not a feminist but support Z”. They don’t really mean that they’re not socialists; they mean that they are Burkean socialists. Which isn’t a bad place to be, if you ask me.

40

alex 07.08.09 at 7:37 am

The correct spelling is of course that iterated by SWP paper-sellers: ‘Soshulist’. And people like that, as various commenters have already pointed out, have made soshulism a bad word, by being dicks. Stalin couldn’t do it – 20 years after his death, soshulism was still perfectly respectable. It took a profound global coalition of pointless wankers to ruin the arguments for soshulism. Zizek, anyone?

41

Ginger Yellow 07.08.09 at 7:50 am

A conservative Baptist church is not “socialist” when it voluntarily collects money to give to the poor

Yeah, there’s nothing at all coercive about a church that believes in a fiery hell collecting money from its congregation by saying that giving pleases God. Still, I wouldn’t call it socialism either.

42

socialrepublican 07.08.09 at 8:22 am

The state as a tool for socialist emancipation was not really part of socialism until War Communism took its lead from the Grey Dictatorship. Socialisation, which the SPD anxiously proposed before being slapped down by the Ebertists, was a different kettle of fish. It involved self management by those who worked the land, factory, concern etc, injecting democratic control into decision making. Even in revolutionary Russia, the Soviets had originally been independent of state and represented wither a locality or an individual workplace. The destruction of the other political parties and the massive upheavals of the growing civil war and break down allowed the Vanguardists to reduced them to rubber stamps and mere motifs

After 1917-18, the state seemed a magical panacea to every stripe of the political spectrum. Socialism was not alone in its fetish for the transformative state.

‘the right had good antibodies to it’ – Joe S, I don’t see it myself. Political eschatology (good term) might be a trend in leftist thought but one you find in extremes of both left and right. The sheer absolutism of nationalism on the right, cunningly labelled Patriotism, is based on a conception of ongoing struggle, via which the nation must be preserved. Its manichean forms are just as absolute as any post hegelian narrative

43

mpowell 07.08.09 at 10:56 am

I am going to have to offer a qualified disagreement with your claim that you can take a laundry list of views like abortion, gay rights, tax distributions, and call anyone who ends up on the left side on all of those issues left wing. I don’t have any personal aversion to being described as leftwing. But even though I am certainly leftwing by the measure that you propose, I still don’t think it’s a very accurate description.

One problem with your thesis is that it seems to assumet that the political spectrum is some kind of single axis. While we know that is true of Congress at the moment, it is also possible for some people to distinguish between issues regardinng personal freedom and economics. On the personal freedoms issues, I would agree that I am leftwing. On the economic issues, not so. Of course, I think the United States needs higher income taxes on the top brackets and more and better social spending. But the US is extremely right wing on that issue. I also think its abhorrent than many European states absorb 50% or more of the gross GDP on state spending. That is just a huge waste of money, in my opinion (and note those numbers don’t count social security spending). If you dug down into my views on class and economics you’d find stuff that any decent communist would find utterly revolting (and maybe a decent socialist would, too). I’m not going to project my views on those others who’d rather not be called leftwing as well, but I imagine this is largely the problem. For the proper socialist or communist, economics is the key identifier of a leftist. They are far more likely to tolerate disagreement on drug policy than the value of wage differentiation. On economics, I’m just not very far to the left.

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mpowell 07.08.09 at 10:58 am

I’m reposting this removing phrases that are likely to get the post flagged for ‘moderation’.

I am going to have to offer a qualified disagreement with your claim that you can take a laundry list of views like abort1on, gay rights, tax distributions, and call anyone who ends up on the left side on all of those issues left wing. I don’t have any personal aversion to being described as leftwing. But even though I am certainly leftwing by the measure that you propose, I still don’t think it’s a very accurate description.

One problem with your thesis is that it seems to assumet that the political spectrum is some kind of single axis. While we know that is true of Congress at the moment, it is also possible for some people to distinguish between issues regardinng personal freedom and economics. On the personal freedoms issues, I would agree that I am leftwing. On the economic issues, not so. Of course, I think the United States needs higher income taxes on the top brackets and more and better social spending. But the US is extremely right wing on that issue. I also think its abhorrent than many European states absorb 50% or more of the gross GDP on state spending. That is just a huge waste of money, in my opinion (and note those numbers don’t count social security spending). If you dug down into my views on class and economics you’d find stuff that any decent commun1st would find utterly revolting (and maybe a decent soc1alist would, too). I’m not going to project my views on those others who’d rather not be called leftwing as well, but I imagine this is largely the problem. For the proper soc1alist or commun1st, economics is the key identifier of a leftist. They are far more likely to tolerate disagreement on drug policy than the value of wage differentiation. On economics, I’m just not very far to the left.

45

Joe S. 07.08.09 at 12:10 pm

Socialrepublican at 42: I stand corrected. You’re correct–the fascist right is every bit as eschatalogical as the doctrinaire left: maybe more so. The fascists don’t really have an ideology, because they’re anti-intellect. But you don’t need an ideology for an eschatology. The Burkean right has good antibodies to political eschatology, but so does the Burkean left. And these days, most lefties are tolerably Burkean.

46

A. Y. Mous 07.08.09 at 1:17 pm

Well, OK. I am a Sozialist. Or a Social1st. Maybe even a “Socialist”. Do I get the money or what?

47

A. Y. Mous 07.08.09 at 1:18 pm

Well, OK. I am a Sozialist. Or even Social1st. Do I get the money or what?

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Jason Kuznicki 07.08.09 at 1:43 pm

All property regimes are neccessarily coercive. A capitalist regime will say these people have rights to these things based on these reasons and a sozialistisch regime will say these people have rights to these things based on these reasons, but in either case some people will still want more and institutions will have to move in, violently if not necessarily brutally, and prevent them.

Is there no moral difference, then, between North Korea and Canada? Surely there are degrees of coercion, and surely some instances of coercion are more justified than others. Perhaps justified coercion might even be called something different — like justice. I don’t want to threadjack or be pedantic, but saying that all regimes are coercive sweeps an awful lot of dirt under the rug.

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andthenyoufall 07.08.09 at 2:21 pm

Is there no moral difference, then, between North Korea and Canada?

There may well be! But it is unlikely to be the case that the moral difference is the metric volume of coercion per capita, or something like that. First, Canada coerces people to do better things than North Korea coerces people to do. Second, Canada’s coercive apparatus is probably more limited than N. Korea’s in the tools at its disposal (for example, Canada doesn’t have the death penalty or torture, like all civilized countries). But it won’t be sensible to do something odd like tally the total number of prohibited acts, or the gross weight of all the criminal statutes, because those are not going to connect cleanly to our intuitions of “moral difference”.

You could call justified coercion something else. (Since “justice” is already taken, I suggest “oercioncay”.) But this doesn’t help get Lessig’s argument off the ground.

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Jason Kuznicki 07.08.09 at 2:39 pm

But it is unlikely to be the case that the moral difference is the metric volume of coercion per capita, or something like that.

It’s a pretty good approximation. One of the very, very frequent (and I think damning) criticisms of the United States justice system is that so many people are behind bars. This is a simple, direct metric, and while it’s not perfect, I think overall there is a strong correlation between our intuitive moral sense and our intuited degree of coercion. I think the U.S. justice system is vastly too coercive, and this is the first point I’d offer in making the case.

We can and should argue about definitions, and about which forms of coercion are worse than others. There are possibly infinite disagreements here. (Is taxation coercion? To many libertarians, yes. To virtually all others, it’s not. Although it’s curious that in this discussion, taxation would appear to be coercion after all. Go liberals!)

But I don’t think it would be wrong to say that a country with a routine and arbitrary death penalty, vast secret slave labor camps, and prison terms for political dissent, is more coercive than a country with none of these features. Of course, someone might disagree, but I think they’d have to rely on a tenuous definition of “coercion.”

In any event, I’d say nearly all of our disagreements here about Sozialismus resolve to disagreements about the degree of coercion that Sozialismus entails, and whether that coercion is justified or not. There may be other disagreements at work here, but they seem a lot less important.

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Chris 07.08.09 at 3:14 pm

@46: There’s something odd about being in Sozialismus for the money.

@47: Indeed, by that standard, any solution to free-rider problems is coercive. So is any solution to tragedy of the commons (including private property ownership).

On the other hand, there is a lot of dispute about *which* instances of coercion are justified, so saying that justified coercion isn’t really coercion sweeps an awful lot under the rug, too. The government in most countries coercively enforces private property ownership and contracts. Assuming that that in itself is justified, how much of that property and the fruits of those contracts is the same government then justified in coercively extracting from the property owners as the price of securing the remainder and/or providing various public goods? Obviously, this is a highly disputed question.

@44: I also think its abhorrent than many European states absorb 50% or more of the gross GDP on state spending. That is just a huge waste of money, in my opinion

ISTM that whether or not spending is government-mediated and whether or not it is wasteful are orthogonal questions. All four combinations of possible answers regularly occur in the real world.

Is the government systematically more wasteful than the private sector? I’m not really sure – on paper it may appear more wasteful that *the most successful businesses* in the private sector, but that’s not a fair comparison. When averaging in all the waste of startups that quickly go bankrupt (don’t forget to count the part of the cost externalized through limited liability), the private sector might not look so good. The private sector also often engages in several kinds of Red Queen races and cost-shifting exercises that the government generally avoids as pointless or counterproductive (advertising and risk segmentation come to mind), which ought to be counted toward its wastefulness.

In any case, there are some things where private-sector provision has problems much more serious than inefficiency, e.g. law enforcement.

Furthermore, these comparisons can be misleading. A nominally private sector, but actually closely regulated utility looks very different from an explicitly state-owned one, but aside from profit to the shareholders, it may function very much the same. Do its operating expenses count as “state spending” and the rates charged per liter, kilojoule etc. count as “taxes”?

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Chris 07.08.09 at 3:21 pm

Oops – should be “more wasteful than the most successful businesses”.

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Matthias Wasser 07.08.09 at 8:52 pm

Are there different levels of coercion involved in “do this, or I’ll clock you in the nose” and “do this, or I’ll shoot you in the face?” I don’t have any good intuitions about it, but the question doesn’t seem to be terribly germane to the coerciveness-of-Sozialismus discussion. You could have a basically liberal property regime with incredibly brutal enforcement mechanisms, like early modern England, and so on and such forth. Partisans either system(s) like to fashion abstract arguments proving that the enemy’s neccessarily leads to awful enforcement mechanisms, but that’s just what we partisans do.

On another note: “Sozialismus,” the English word, is a really awful term, and not merely for its inclusion of a certain fell string of characters. There are very few contexts where it wouldn’t be improved by something more precise, and for whatever reason, it – more than any other word I can think of – turns discussions into semantic debates.

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Phil 07.08.09 at 9:36 pm

Matthias – agreed. For some time now I’ve called myself a Marxist and avoided the S-word altogether, for two reasons. One is that Marxism gives me a critique of Kapitalismus and a vague notion of a better systemic alternative, without obliging me to commit myself to any of the actually-existing variants of Sozialismus and Sozialdemokratie (although I do prefer most of them to most forms of un-sozialdemokratisiert Kapitalismus). The other is that the Left is in such bad shape these days that calling yourself a Sozialist doesn’t actually mean that you belong to anything, least of all the organised working class – at best it means you belong to one of a number of voluntaristic micro-parties, most of which don’t have anything to do with the organised working class.

55

andthenyoufall 07.08.09 at 10:02 pm

Jason – I agree that carcereal archipelagos blight the societies that they dot, and require a great deal of coercion to maintain, but still incarceration can’t possibly be a perfect proxy for coercion by the cubic meter: if someone were to tell me that DPRK actually has no prisons because everyone is too scared to commit crimes, I would conclude that DPRK was even more coercive than I had previously thought. (Broadly speaking, when you need to punish someone, you have already failed to coerce her.)

That aside – it’s a non sequitur, if we are both interested in whether Lessig is being wrong-headed, to concede that maybe we have different ideas about the degree of coercion that Sozialismus entails. Surely these differences would be empirical differences, ultimately settled by reference to the actual practice of coercion in more and less sozialistisch societies, and cannot be the same as differences about which sorts of societies are more or less sozialistisch.

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StevenAttewell 07.08.09 at 11:06 pm

Ooh, good topic. Will respond to the thread in a sec, but first to the OP:

Larry Lessig is center-left and Larry Lessig doesn’t really get socialism. None of this is or should be surprising.

Because Larry Lessig is an American liberal, and American liberalism hasn’t really been good in terms of its understanding of political ideology and/or socialism for the sixty-odd years since the end of WWII.

For American liberals, there’s the issue that, unlike their European peers (if we were just measuring what they support), they generally haven’t had much contact to organized, mainstream, socialist/social democratic politics. Then you throw in the cumulative effects of the Cold War, the New Right’s use of “socialist” as a club against what was really moderate liberalism, and the generally sloppy use of the term in the U.S to refer to universal health care (or in the 2008 elections, tax cuts for working class Americans). Moreover, liberals after the war really were down on ideology, and promoted themselves as pragmatic, rationalist, scientific, moderates. (Ciepley’s Liberalism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism is really good on this).

This wasn’t always the case – American liberals of the New Deal era, or even earlier, Progressives at the turn of the century were familiar with socialism and socialist ideas, interacted with active socialist movements in the United States, and were more in touch with international political currents, at least an elite level.

As for Lessig, he’s always been something of a left-libertarian, spiritually kin to the Brandeisians He doesn’t like big corporations, he doesn’t like monopolies, but he’s not comfortable ideologically with government intervention (if he is down with it as a policy matter).

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Matt Austern 07.09.09 at 4:14 am

The reason I don’t like to call myself left-wing is basically the “wing” part. I’m a liberal. (In the American sense.) I’m probably about as far left as mainstream politics goes in the US, i.e. I feel best represented by the most liberal Democratic members of congress. But I also recognize the existence of people who are further left than I do, and who disagree with me as fundamentally as I disagree with the right. If I call myself “left-wing”, then what name do we have for people who think that we need a revolution to overthrow capitalism?

Mostly what I’m remembering is that when we did have a movement that unapologetically called itself Left, regardless of whether we’re talking about the Old Left of the 1920s or the New Left of the 1960s, those people were absolutely clear that they weren’t liberals and that they saw liberals as their enemies. There aren’t many leftists of that sort around anymore; it’s an underpopulated part of the political spectrum. But I don’t think we should forget that that political space exists, if only so we can have some perspective on the rest of political opinion.

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derek 07.09.09 at 1:04 pm

We don’t see liberals as the enemy. We see liberals as collaborators with the enemy.

59

Walt 07.09.09 at 1:44 pm

We see liberals as the sub-boss that occurs in the middle of the video game, rather than the big boss at the end.

60

Walt 07.09.09 at 1:46 pm

We see liberals as Mothra to the enemy’s Godzilla. Sure, maybe sometimes Mothra and Godzilla fight, but Tokyo still gets wasted.

61

Walt 07.09.09 at 1:55 pm

We see liberals as Saruman to the enemy’s Sauron. We see liberals as Silver Surfer to the enemy’s Galactus.

62

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.09.09 at 2:32 pm

Yes, the concept of property. If you’re an ordinary middle-class person, the idea that, say, a bunch of squatters are being kicked out of your summer house by the police doesn’t feel like violence, but the idea that the summer house can be taken from you and given to squatters does. And as far as the squatters are concerned it’s exactly the opposite.

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Jason Kuznicki 07.09.09 at 2:38 pm

Jason – I agree that carcereal archipelagos blight the societies that they dot, and require a great deal of coercion to maintain, but still incarceration can’t possibly be a perfect proxy for coercion by the cubic meter: if someone were to tell me that DPRK actually has no prisons because everyone is too scared to commit crimes, I would conclude that DPRK was even more coercive than I had previously thought. (Broadly speaking, when you need to punish someone, you have already failed to coerce her.)

It’s certainly not a perfect proxy. I don’t believe I’ve said otherwise. I’d suggest that we reduce coercion also when we rationally convince people that the social order is just. A voluntary commune isn’t coercive, almost as an analytical truth. A regime of private property, in which all infractions are punished by death, would be obviously more coercive, and even as a libertarian, I’d be totally unable to support it.

That aside – it’s a non sequitur, if we are both interested in whether Lessig is being wrong-headed, to concede that maybe we have different ideas about the degree of coercion that Sozialismus entails. Surely these differences would be empirical differences, ultimately settled by reference to the actual practice of coercion in more and less sozialistisch societies, and cannot be the same as differences about which sorts of societies are more or less sozialistisch.

I’m not so sure about this. Lessig is basically saying “look, free culture can’t be sozialistisch because free culture isn’t coercive.” And I’m saying that many forms of Sozialismus were never intended to be coercive either. Reference to societies is important, but the intellectual historian in me wants to reach for the theorists to settle the question instead.

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Phil 07.09.09 at 2:43 pm

American liberals of the New Deal era, or even earlier, Progressives at the turn of the century were familiar with socialism and socialist ideas, interacted with active socialist movements in the United States, and were more in touch with international political currents, at least an elite level.

Researching a capsule biography of Helen Keller, I was amazed to find how much of a crossover there was between Wobs, Debsian Sozialists, what we’d now call liberals and the Left of the Republican Party. Keller was all of the first three, and she was personally funded by Andrew Carnegie (who knew she was a Sozialist but obviously thought she was the harmless kind; he once threatened to spank her for it). Planned Parenthood, NAACP and the ACLU were all good Republican causes – and they all brought those pencil-necked city libruls in contact with rather hairier Leftists.

The failure of the Progressives did a lot to change that; the Great War did a bit (the far Left was pacifist) and Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare finished it off. Eheu.

(Obama: Progressive Republican. Discuss.)

65

novakant 07.09.09 at 4:04 pm

Yes, the concept of property. (…)

So Sozialisten allow squatters in their summer houses? Cool! Any of the Sozialisten here got nice summer houses, preferably in the Mediterranean or anywhere in France? I’ll be in touch.

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StevenAttewell 07.09.09 at 5:08 pm

Henri –

I wouldn’t characterize a middle class person in the American context with having a summer home. Given that the middle quintile of income is about $33-55k, that’s not really enough to afford a second residence.

Now affluent college professor Sozialisten, on the other hand…

67

Pete Tiarks 07.09.09 at 5:24 pm

Is your longer post is going to target the public goods issue?

Because that seems to me to be the sticking point here. The reason Kelly’s argument is unhelpful is that we usually think of sozialismus as the redistribution of scarce resources. By saying that sharing information is sozialismus, he’s implicitly conceding the idea that there’s no real difference between property rights in information, and other sorts of property. Given that Lessig’s spent a good deal of his professional life trying to explain why that simply isn’t so, you can see how he might get a little tetchy.

And isn’t it fair enough to say that Hayek was perfectly into the idea of “masses of people who own the means of production [and] work toward a common goal and share their products in common, [people who] contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge”, so long as all they’re producing and sharing is information? The point of “The Use of Knowledge in Society” is precisely that markets are a great way of sharing information. and he also had some very unkind things to say about the idea of intellectual property (somewhere in Individualism and Economic Order).

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Henri Vieuxtemps 07.09.09 at 6:41 pm

Sure, it could come naturally because you’re an upper middle-class or rich person; or it could be that you’re a lower middle-class or poor person brought up, educated, and otherwise conditioned in such a manner that contemplating a different concept of property is unimaginable and feels like a sacrilege. In this sense s-lism does amount to violence, indeed. Sorta like in the medieval paradigm refusal to serve the king would count as violence.

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Anarcho 07.10.09 at 8:09 am

Obviously some people have never heard of anarchism and other forms of libertarian socialism (such as council communism, Situationism and such like). In fact, the word “libertarian” was first used by communist-anarchists in 1858 to describe their anti-state form of socialism:

150 years of libertarian

Ah, well, I guess it is easier for the right (and the authoritarian left) to paint the libertarian left (radicals such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, etc.) out of socialism…

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David Harmon 07.12.09 at 11:48 am

Definitely an interesting discussion — I mostly agree that the Republicans, especially the neocons, have succeeded in seriously warping the terms of debate, and the Democrats really shouldn’t be accepting their frames. Beyond that, I tend to judge political positions by the fruits of their labors, and the modern neocons flunk that test.

As an aside, do you suppose you could provide a proper definition for that phrase you used, “running with the hares and coursing with the hounds”?

Also: “we have our own automechanical hang-ups” — that’s one heckuva Scunthorpe problem, dude! Do you not have a whitelist back there?

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Matthias Wasser 07.12.09 at 12:18 pm

But anarchosocialism is clearly coercive! You can’t run around murdering people, or hoarding things to yourself, or whatever. The governing institutions that accomplish this are (as under feudalism) simply other than the state.

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j h woodyatt 07.13.09 at 7:03 pm

“Perhaps this is a kind of generalized Stockholm syndrome – the left in this country has been ground under the heel of conservatism for so long that it has adopted much of its view of the world (and of what ‘real’ Americans think).”

“Stockholm syndrome.” Ouch. If I’m not mistaken, the more erudite phrase you are looking here comes from Antonio Gramsci: cultural hegemony. It would be interesting if the Creative Commons and Open Source people were to get serious about advancing their position in the cultural mass media but it’s all pretty pointless unless it goes to preparing the field for [hmmm, what’s the euphemism I’m looking for…] vigorously assertive reformation.

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