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Category: James Livingston

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis

“Individualism isn’t the antithesis of community or socialism. To think so is to assume that attaining autonomy as an individual requires the denial of all tradition and solidarity, whether inherited or invented, or it is to assume that economic self-assertion through liberty of contract is the path to genuine selfhood. We know better – we know without consulting Aristotle that selfhood is a social construction – but we keep claiming that our interests as individuals are by definition in conflict with larger public goods like social mobility and equal access to justice and opportunity.

“We keep urging our fellow Americans to ‘rise above’ a selfish attachment to their own little fiefdoms, whether these appear as neighborhoods or jobs, and their cherished consumer goods. In doing so, we’re asking them to give up their local knowledge, livelihoods, and identities on behalf of an unknown future, a mere abstraction, a canvas stretched to accommodate only the beautiful souls among us: we’re asking them to get religion. Either that or we’ve acceded to the anti-American fallacy cooked up by the neoclassical economists who decided in the 1950s that liberty and equality, or individualism and solidarity – like capitalism and socialism – are the goals of a zero-sum game.

“By now we know what the founders did: that equality is the enabling condition of liberty, and vice versa. There were two ‘cardinal objects of Government,’ as James Madison put it to his friend and pupil Thomas Jefferson in 1787: ‘the rights of persons and the rights of property.’ Each constitutional purpose permitted the other, not as an ‘allowance’ but rather as a premise. One is not the price of the other, as in a cost imposed on and subtracted from the benefit of the other. Instead, liberty for all has been enhanced by our belated approach to equality, our better approximations of a more perfect union; for example, by the struggles and victories of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement. By the same token, democratic socialism enhances individuality. By equipping more people with the means by which they can differentiate themselves, if they choose, from their origins – income and education are the crucial requisites here – socialism becomes the solvent of plainclothes uniformity and the medium of unruly, American-style individualism.”

– James Livingston, “How the Left Has Won”

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The webs we weave

“Social democracy is impossible without political and cultural pluralism, but such pluralism is inconceivable in the absence of markets geared toward decentered consumer choices, which are in turn dependent on price systems, advertisements, novelty, and fashion; in other words, on the bad taste, bad faith, and bad manners that come with ‘reification,’ aka consumer culture. When the economic future is left in the hands of the oligarchs – the best and the brightest, those who know what’s good for us, whether they’re from the Politburo, Harvard, or Goldman Sachs – the political future will be theirs, too. Like capitalism, and like democracy, socialism needs markets to thrive, and vice versa.” – James Livingston, “How the Left Has Won”

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Power to the people

“Socialism resides in and flows from markets as modulated and administered by corporations, trade unions, consumer associations, and other interest groups as well as from public policy, executive orders, regulatory agencies, court decisions, or five-year plans. In its original nineteenth-century definitions, and in later translations by Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, “socialism” signified a demand for the supremacy of civil society over the state; it thus carried profoundly liberal, pro-market, yet anticapitalist connotations. It meant the “self-management” of society as well as the workplace – the sovereignty of the people – and by the late twentieth century it was profoundly realistic in view of new thinking about markets and new intellectual capacities enabled by universal education and mass communications.” – James Livingston, “How the Left Has Won”

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