Obama and Socialism Revisisted

| | Comments (10)

I received an email with the title, "How You Can Tell Obama is Not a Socialist". The basic argument is that President Obama didn't implement full-blown government ownership of the banks and industries relevant to the economic problems that it has been calling a crisis. A true socialist, so goes the argument, would have seized the opportunity to, you know, implement socialism or something. A few instances of the government seizing control of something that's belonging to the private sector, trying to control your media appearances, and painting the opposition media as illegitimate nevertheless don't amount to taking over industry and the media entirely. So President Obama isn't really a socialist.

There's certainly something to the argument in this email, but it's not as straightforward as that, and there are ways that I think it's fair to describe President Obama's views as socialist.

1. A committed socialist might think we should engage pragmatically in incremental steps to reach an eventual socialist goal. If President Obama has a socialist theory of justice (as I think he does) and a pragmatic and incrementalist approach to realizing it (as I also think he does), then he's picking his battles so he can do as much as he can to move in that direction without trying to accomplish too much in a way that will end up just frustrating his final goals too much. So this at most shows that he's at most a pragmatic, incrementalist socialist. But hardly anyone who is informed and honest is claiming that he's more than that, and lots of people are claiming exactly that.

2. There are also distinguishable components of socialism. President Obama might have a socialist theory of justice in terms of what counts as a just, equal world without having a socialist view of who should own property or the means of production. I'm not sure what his view is about the ideal government and ownership of the means of production. So I don't know if he's a socialist in that sense, although at most he'd be a pragmatist, incrementalist socialist about such matters. But he could be completely a capitalist about those issues and be a socialist about justice in thinking there's a moral imperative to equalize pay and benefits of employees to a point where complete equalization is an eventual goal. That's a socialist theory of justice, and the way he uses the term 'just' makes the most sense if he thinks merely unfair or unequal distribution is unjust (as opposed to saying that it's unjust to implement policies or practices that ensure such unequal distribution, which a much greater number of people would agree with). Since he does seem, to my mind, to hold such a view, I do think he's working from a socialist theory of justice.

Surely there's a sense in which Obama isn't a socialist, but there's also a sense in which he arguably might well be.

10 Comments

Couldn't one also argue, on this basis, that an evangelical who thinks a truly perfect society would require direct rule by God is a "theocrat," even if this evangelical has no apparent intention of using theocratic means to achieve a perfect society in America?

In other words, I'm not sure your clarification is particularly relevant to the discussion the email author is weighing in on.

Yes and no. Yes, you could argue that, and I think you'd be right to. I consider myself a theocrat in that sense, actually. I also consider myself a monarchist in that the only ideal government would be a monarchy with a perfect ruler. This is the sense in which Plato supported totalitarianism. He didn't think it could be achieved and thus argued that it shouldn't be tried, but he insisted that the ideal government would be like that.

But I'd also say no, and that's because there's still a difference between these cases and the one I was talking about. Assuming Obama does think we ought to move in the direction of government ownership of the means of production (which I've said I have no idea if he actually holds), then he is a socialist in the sense that he would like us to move toward having such a government. The theocrat, monarchist, and totalitarian in the first paragraph do not think we should attempt to move in that direction. It's idealism without the gradualist move toward such a society, whereas I was talking about idealism with the impetus toward eventually reaching such a society. One believes in an ideal not worth even trying to reach. The other accepts the ideal as worth shooting for but considers there to be pragmatic reasons to go slowly to avoid frustrating the process in the long run.

I should say that, in certain contexts, it's very misleading to call someone of this sort a socialist. But what I'm saying is that there are other contexts in which a properly-qualified statement classifying the person as a socialist is straightforwardly accurate, which means there's something that some of these people are saying about him that may well just be true, even if there are plenty of people saying this who mean something else and are thus flat-out wrong.

Jonathan,

It depends on whether that Evangelical considered a perfect human society on earth to even be a possible outcome of anything other than the creation of a new world.

Afterall, even with Christ ruling on an earthly throne for 1000 years there are enough folks at the end to make for a pretty sizable final battle between good and evil.

However, socialists of whatever stripe tend to believe that human social evolution (forced or unforced) can lead to human designed social institutions that can achieve the same level of peace and social fairness envisioned by scripture with Christ on His throne. That idea that humanity can be perfected by human action has led to the worst bloodshed ever known.

Jeremy,

Are there ways that it is fair to describe Bush's views as socialist?
(http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20013452-503544.html)

1. If Bush's goal was not short-term results but deliberate steps in the direction of government ownership of the means of production, then he is a pragmatic or incremental socialist in the same way that Obama is if that's Obama's goal. I don't know for sure if this is true of either of them, but I find it much more likely in the case of Obama.

2. This doesn't touch the justice issue, which I think is the clearer element of socialism for Obama. I see little evidence that Bush is a socialist in that sense and plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Jeremy,
I'm not entirely clear on what you think the evidence is for taking Obama to be a socialist. It's not the, "full-blown government ownership of the banks and industries" in response to various crises because that was Bush's program that Obama continued. I read your previous post on the topic and didn't find any real evidence of Obama's socialism there apart from a remark about spreading wealth around with little context that is the sort of thing that Rawlsians, utilitarians, egalitarians, and possibly left libertarians would all say.

I'm saying that there are two different things people mean when they describe some system or person as socialist. The first involves the ownership of the means of production. Obama may or may not hold to such a view in terms of what he thinks the ideal government would be. He certainly doesn't in terms of what he thinks we should implement in the United States right now, but what he's done is consistent with the view that we should move toward such a system. He does seem to be a gradualist pragmatist. It's just not clear to me how far he'd go if he thought he could get away with going much further than he has. If he could implement the ideal government, would it be socialist or something not as far to the left? I don't think we have the information to decide that, at least on the question of the ownership of the means of production.

But I think there's a second thing that ordinary people (as opposed to philosophers who make finer distinctions) mean by saying someone is socialist. They mean simply that justice is taken to be a state of equal distribution of goods and opportunities. Most of the views you list do hold to such a view, but that only means that they all share this theory of justice that's commonly called socialist, even if you can distinguish among a number of political views that hold to it, many of which resist socialism in the first sense.

As far as I can tell, the only differences between Rawls and socialism involve the first issue (the ownership of the means of production). In terms of justice as equality of all people, Rawls holds to a socialist theory of justice. All social goods should be distributed equally, unless a particular unequal distribution is to the advantage of every single person involved. That's basically socialist justice. He just doesn't think that can be achieved by socialist methods. For all I know, Obama is a Rawlsian and not a socialist in terms of the issue of ownership of the means of production. But if so, then for that very reason he's a socialist in his theory of justice, because that's what the theory of justice that Rawls defends basically is.

For any of these views, insofar as justice is construed as requiring equal distribution of goods, it's a socialist theory of justice in the second sense. Maybe you're just insisting that philosophers are willing to distinguish between different political philosophies that all share such a view of justice. I have no problem with that. But they all seem to me to share a common view of justice that's basically the socialist view of what's just, and this is one very common thing that people mean when they call something socialism, at least in the circles I've run in.

I don't think this is true of utilitarianism, though, at least as standardly construed. It does take justice to be about mere outcome, but it isn't about distributive justice. The usual utility calculus will treat an outcome with 10 hedons for one person and 100 for the other as equivalent to both of them having 55 hedons. Obama certainly isn't a utilitarian, anyway. He thinks there are deontological moral prohibitions, e.g. on torture. I even think he's an absolutist about some of these. But for all I can tell (without a long period of reflection), Obama may hold any of the other views in your list. I don't think that means he doesn't have a socialist theory of justice, though. I think it rather means he does.

Interesting, but I'm still not persuaded. The popular use of "socialism" is often intended to conjure up the horrors of life in communist Russia, but look how far your second notion of "socialism" is removed from that. On the view you suggest, "socialism" would seem to include people like John Locke. Why would you want to use that word in that way? It seems to only help perpetuate serious confusion and misunderstanding.

"Obama may or may not hold to such a view in terms of what he thinks the ideal government would be. He certainly doesn't in terms of what he thinks we should implement in the United States right now, but what he's done is consistent with the view that we should move toward such a system."

Hmm. Well, everything you've done is "consistent" with the view that we should move towards such a system since, trivially, you have done nothing in elected office. Do I get to run around and say that Jeremy "may/might/could be" a kind of pragmatic socialist?

"I think there's a second thing that ordinary people (as opposed to philosophers who make finer distinctions) mean by saying someone is socialist. They mean simply that justice is taken to be a state of equal distribution of goods and opportunities. Most of the views you list do hold to such a view, but that only means that they all share this theory of justice that's commonly called socialist, even if you can distinguish among a number of political views that hold to it, many of which resist socialism in the first sense."

As a philosopher, don't you feel some obligation to correct them?

"As far as I can tell, the only differences between Rawls and socialism involve the first issue (the ownership of the means of production). In terms of justice as equality of all people, Rawls holds to a socialist theory of justice. All social goods should be distributed equally, unless a particular unequal distribution is to the advantage of every single person involved. That's basically socialist justice."

What???? You started by defining a loose form of "socialism" (which I think socialists would reject, by the way) according to which, "justice is taken to be a state of equal distribution of goods and opportunities". You then point out rightly that Rawls rejects this conception of justice precisely because he is not an egalitarian about the distribution of goods. But, then, against logic, you've just stuck him back in the socialist camp.

As for utilitarians, most utilitarians will care about the distribution of goods and see many redistribution schemes on which wealth is spread around as good because of facts about human psychology and diminishing marginal utility.

Anyway, I think since you talk to lots of people who have no idea what socialism is (really) and you have their ear, you could do everyone a service by correcting them rather than letting them abuse the language and support the absurd thought that there's some deep philosophical connection between policies put in place by Bush and continued by Obama by virtue of which Obama and Marx are playing for the same team.

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. It's been a lot more busy lately than I'd like, and I haven't had much chance to do anything on the blog.

I'm with you that there's confusion. That's why I was insisting that anyone who uses the term this way should be clear what they mean. Those who aren't are either being irresponsible or aren't doing a good enough job to understand all the information. I'm not defending Glenn Beck and company here. All I'm saying is that something of what they're saying is true and something of what they're saying might be true, even if something of what they're saying is not true or at least very misleading. I've been quick to correct people on both sides of this issue, so I don't think it's fair to criticize me for saying something that obscures the issues. I'm trying to be explicit about what I mean and about exactly what sense I mean these terms, and I do that in the conversations I have to correct people.

Also, I'm not going to rely on academics to decide what terms mean when they're used at the popular level in a different way. If we did that with race terms, we'd have to be eliminativists about the existence of white people or black people, because academics have basically come to a consensus that there are no such things as races. Yet the way these terms are popularly used doesn't track with academics' assumptions about what they mean.

There's a difference between me and Obama on this. I'm on record stating views that conflict with thinking government should own the means of production, and he's not (as far as I know). Also, he did seem to identify with socialist-style community organizing, because his job entailed that. He did explicitly distance himself from such methods in one of his books, but he did so in a way that didn't distance himself from the goals, just the methods. It was particularly because he was disillusioned with the possibility of success by doing such things that he decided to pursue his political goals by entering government. So I have no reason to think he's abandoned Alinksy-style socialist goals and some reason to think he hasn't, although it's possible he has in the time since that book came out.

How is stating an exception clause a denial of the general thesis that it's an exception to? Your resistance on this point makes sense only if you think general statements have to be necessary and sufficient conditions and can never admit of exceptions, but people stating political views almost never mean them that way.

Leave a comment

Contact

    The Parablemen are: , , and .

Archives

Archives

Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff

    jolly_good_blogger

    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible


    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)





  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04