• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Socialist Chic: Part II

July 2018

Look around the political and cultural landscape and you’ll see that socialism—like a vine on a trellis—is spreading. Once subtle, it’s become as of late positively chic. Or, as the French might otherwise say, it’s a la mode, du jour, de rigueur. Affected synonyms aside, it’s not for my love of that country, which—lest we forget around this time of year—loaned to us in our time of need the military geniuses of De Grasse, Lafayette, or Rochambeau, nor for my latent francophilia and love for all things Proust that I recall to these lines the French and their words. Rather, it’s to the French, originally and ultimately, we must turn if we’re to examine this insidious and tempting concept of socialism. It’s through their soil we must dig if we’re to uncover the seeds of the philosophy as we know it, or rebuff it, or embrace it today.

It’s there, spanning the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, across the countless and restless salóns and chateaux, that we find socialism’s germinal ideas. Not its applications, mind you, as they would be made to wait their turn. But at the very least, in the thinking of Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Blanqui, and the inestimable Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the bedrock was laid out under the coming century’s feet. Formalized, it certainly was—or at least more so than ever it had been before—but that didn’t hamper the idealized, the illusory, and the utopian from creeping in. These anarchists, proto-communists, futurists, and zealous philosophes were bent on re-building the world in the palms of their hands—all while flinging their gloves in the old order’s face.

Fourier was most determined to make viable the utopian and wed it to the real. He was famous above all the others mentioned for his charmingly laughable, if not wholly chimerical dream of growing socialism in situ rather than in the test tubes of his ideas. He dreamt of a society in which a small collective of agrarians and egalitarians could live and work amongst one another in harmonious peace. There would be no competition, only genial and eager re-distribution—no cupidity, only charity. Abolished would be avarice and in its place would be warmth, generosity, and mutual gain. Calling it a “phalanx”, these proto-communists would number no more than 1500 and their labor would be one of dignity, rapture, and love. They’d find relish and fulfillment in their work, pursuing it rather as an end than a means. Crafted for export, Fourier’s concept eventually took root in the one country always willing to experiment with all things novel, liberal, and equal—that country being, of course, the U.S.

Being endowed with space but constricted by fresh ideas, many Americans took to Fourier’s socialist utopia in haste. They loved the concept and it seemed every bit friendly to their homespun Transcendentalism that was ruffling the Puritan clergymen and gaining steam. From Massachusetts to New Jersey, Illinois to Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and even so far as Texas, a dedicated legion of Yankees and Longhorns set out to establish their communes. Best known are those of Brook Farm, Spring Farm, Sodus Bay, Raritan Bay, and later—though not of Fourier’s founding—the sweetly-named Fruitlands on the Massachusetts coast. Of the last on this list, little else need be said beyond its name; it was, to put it mildly, a fruity situation. This much was sure, but it was a community in whose soil the ripened literary mind of Louisa May Alcott sprouted forth. For this reason alone, our judgment of it can’t be too severe.

It’s clear, then, that socialism and utopianism (both of which persisted for years under the eponymous term Fourierism) have relatively deep roots in America’s soil. Roots, one might add, that had entrenched themselves even before Marx’s emergence on the scene. Many of the communities had sprung forth before the publication of his famous manifesto for the London Communist Party in 1848. Of course, Marx was a thinker sui generis, but he wasn’t born nor did he develop in a vacuum. Far from it. His comrade and benefactor Friedrich Engels had introduced him to the aforementioned French socialists, of whose work—while working as a journalist in Paris—he was completely enamored.

While it’s important to know whence socialism came to America, it’s just as important, if not more so, to know whither it shall go. As it’s become oh-so chic—capturing the attention of everyone from the moderate Democratic middle to the furthest fringes of the left—it risks becoming contagiously popular once again.

I say “contagious”, because there’s very little about it that is, in practice, innocuous. Above is a condensed history of the quaint and incipient days of socialism in America. At first glance, it’s endearing. It almost paints a type of halcyon, well-neigh hippie image of how we might’ve lived—had we not devolved into the crass capitalists we’ve so shamelessly become. But beneath this lies a darker truth. This early attempt at socialism speaks nothing to what in the twentieth-century the philosophy would become. To outline here this turn toward the worse would be to risk losing the attention-span of a charitable reader. Suffice it to say, that an all-pervading combination of state intervention, wealth re-distribution, exorbitant taxation, and the nationalization of business interests will never end well. Neither will compulsory work nor a centrally-planned economy. Toss into that pot such unsavory toppings as corporatism, egalitarianism, totalitarianism, usufructuary laws, and secret police, and you’re well on your way toward a sequel to Stalinism or a second-coming of Castro.

Portentous though this all should appear, the American left seems committed to taking the earliest steps down this very path. As shown, it’s a path that’s been trodden (from Brook Farm to Bucharest and Fruitlands to gulags) time and again with the worst of results. To call it a primrose path would be to waste a cliché, for we know full well exactly where it leads. Nevertheless, the left seems ready to carry on this way.

Which evokes in me the fundamental question—namely, why is it that the political left in America thinks of socialism as being so intoxicatingly chic? I think the answer is twofold: for one, there’s simply a profound lack of education on the topic. The typical American student, at least in his high school days, might hear of socialism and its ill-effects only passingly, if at all. There might be a brief foray into McCarthyism, perhaps a short clip of the first stones tumbling off of the Berlin Wall. But that’s about it. Few are the public-school graduates who can even tell you what the initialism “U.S.S.R.” means. Fewer still are those who can explain why it’s so deserving of our reproach. That said, it’s not entirely their fault; the teaching on the subject is jejune and incomplete. There’s no meat on the bones—let alone enough flesh for an exegesis into the basic scriptures, or a deeper dive into the core tenets.

In the university setting, this same student’s exposure might broaden, but even of this, one can’t be entirely sure. If he’s pursuing a liberal arts degree—as most of his age are—he’ll likely hear of socialism and its destructive capacity only peripherally. That’s assuming, of course, that the teaching he receives on the subject is honest—which too often, it’s not. From the most prestigious of ivy-clad universities to the humblest public community school, the majority of academicians shaping the minds of our inquisitive youth align themselves to the left, and staunchly so. This is especially true in the fields of the social sciences, under whose umbrella Marxism and socialism live (though as for the former, it’s increasingly considered by economists to be outside of their scope. Marxism is, they’ll rightly contend, the study of man rather than of money, which is why it’s now largely ignored by economists and courted by sociologists). That’s not to say, however, that all university professors are card-carrying fellow travelers, Trotskyites, or neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt ilk. Not in the least. It is to say, though, that they might have a propensity to look with greater sympathy upon Marx, and to ignore some of the more insalubrious effects of his ideas.

If not for lack of education, though, the other reason for the left’s vaulting esteem for socialism is its want to be contrarian. It’s a vital urge to push back against the quotidian and the base. There’s nothing romantic nor revolutionary about the capitalist status quo. It’s stodgy and it’s tired. It’s callous, and complacent, and oppressive. It’s instituted in such a way that speed bumps are not only ineluctable, but completely necessary. They’re not a bug to the system, rather a chief component. Capitalism, thus understood, succeeds in sheltering a pre-determined patrician class, into whose ranks scant few will ever realistically ascend. Social mobility is stuck while the concept of the “middle class” continues to be—if not an outright myth—captured in a morass. All this, while the possibility of climbing one rung to the next declines. Where once there were such ladders, at whose summits material progress could be seen and could be felt, there’s nothing left but chutes. And their descent is a precipitous and a long way down. Seen in this light, capitalism becomes something altogether ugly—something to which you turn your back.

While capitalism certainly has its fair share of shortcomings, it’s not a system against which I’d be so quick to rail. No other system in the history of man has done so much, for so many, in such little time than has capitalism. One needn’t look beyond those rapacious and enviable Asian “tigers” of the east (including Japan, South Korea, and Singapore to name but a few) to see this on full display. It’s to capitalism, exported from the west and planted in the east, that these countries owe their low infant mortality rates, their high incomes, their longer lifespans, and their wider waistlines. The contrarian can’t simply frown and make these tangible and life-sustaining realities go away.

After all, no one pretends that capitalism is perfect nor all-wise. And it may even be that it’s the worst form of economics. This very well may be the case. Except, of course, if we’re to consider all of those other forms of economic systems that have been tried from time to time. Only then will we realize that capitalism is the only fashion trend we need. Only then will we recognize the lack of style that is socialism and that it’s contrary is the only thing that’s chic.

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