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Better things aren’t possible

A recent (recent in actual time, if not in internet time) review of Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now has led to a steady stream of moderate leftists acting scandalized at Lewis’s suggestion that abolition of the family should be at the centre of left-wing politics. This response, when it isn’t just incredulous scoffing, generally emphasizes the family as an institution that embodies qualities of caring that should be maintained and extended in a socialist society. As the critical review of Full Surrogacy Now puts it,

While abolishing the family is obviously fraught with problems, providing it with the resources to reform its pathologies has much to recommend it…. Any viable progressive vision of a postcapitalist future cannot look like an experiment in social engineering, but as a project that recognizes the ties, both within the family and without, that often underlie the everyday struggles of working people.

This genre of “don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses” propaganda seeks to counter the view that socialism is impossibly radical by asserting that people are already socialist, they just don’t know it yet, finding instances of putative socialism in things people already agree with. I’ve come to think of this approach as an attempt to trick people into being socialist, because, in taking the (obviously reasonable) point of beginning agitation where the audience already is, it dissembles about the genuinely radical changes that socialism requires.

It’s not a surprise that the review that inspired this latest round of casting socialism in moderate garb was published in Catalyst, house journal of the DSA, because this is one of the main features of the DSA’s approach. Reading the DSA collection, The ABCs of Socialism, it’s striking how much space is devoted to reassuring the reader, as in Bhaskar Sunkara’s piece trying to persuade people that socialism isn’t “a sort of global commune where we’re forced to wear hemp bracelets and share our Kenny Loggins records”. This is a typically witty update of an old line taken by moderate socialists to differentiate themselves from wilder radical communisms (although traditionally it is toothbrushes that the mythical communists want to collectivise).

We all like to laugh at the centrist slogan, “better things aren’t possible”, but it seems to me this moderate socialist insistence on the continuity of socialism with our present has some similarity, in that it attempts to circumscribe our understanding of better things to those which seem possible within the limits of the world as it currently is. I think it’s understandable that we respond to the difficulty of bringing about a better world by trying to accommodate ourselves to the idea that this better world isn’t really possible. Centrism’s flat rejection of better things is the silliest version of this, while social democracy’s moderated vision of the better world is more sophisticated but ultimately responds to the same impulse; and the ultraleft positions I’m more sympathetic to have their own version. There’s a kind of ironic utopianism which is always prepared to embrace radicalism even (but in fact especially) when framed in the most absurd terms. Advance any apparently absurd slogan (Socialize bodily fluids! Abolish “houses” and the bourgeois distinction between “inside” and “outside”!), and I’ll probably endorse it; and I’ll have a solid theoretical argument as to why this illustrates something important about communism – but I may also be relieved that the apparent silliness of the slogan means people are unlikely to call me out for failing to work towards it. This absurdity allows for a romantic irony, which isn’t simply saying what you don’t believe, but instead allows you to ambiguously distance yourself from what you do, nonetheless, believe, which helps to deal with always very obvious possibility of failure

However, the ambivalence of this ironic utopian position could be developed into something more rigorous, less romantic and also less pessimistic: a properly dialectical understanding of the impossibility of a better world. The first step in moving to this dialectical understanding is realising that whatever our understanding of a “better world” is, we cannot develop it if we “look at the world around us and find that something is amiss, that something immoral is afoot“. Judging the world by a standard external to it is, as Hegel points out in the shorter Logic, a way of protecting our ideals from contact with the world; it is “the fancy that Ideas and ideals are something far too excellent to have actuality, or something too impotent to procure it for themselves.” The fact that these ideals stand outside the world and can be used to judge it is in fact a weakness of the ideals, which are defined by their difference from the actual world, that is, by their non-actualisation. Hegel points out the problem with this mode of criticism which ties it to an eternal position of exteriority, that is to say, of failure:

This divorce between idea and reality is especially dear to the analytic understanding which looks upon its own abstractions, dreams though they are, as something true and real, and prides itself on the imperative ‘ought’, which it takes especial pleasure in prescribing even on the field of politics. As if the world had waited on it to learn how it ought to be, and was not! For, if it were as it ought to be, what would come of the precocious wisdom of that ‘ought’ .

Against this undialectical opposition of bad reality to good ideals, some propose as dialectical the view that reality is both good and bad. This often comes up with some of the conceptual foundations of our current order, the enlightenment and human rights. The argument is that these contain both good and bad parts, and we should criticise the bad parts in order to defend and extend the good parts. That is, the left should

not merely critique the values of “secularism, republicanism, rights, freedoms, and equality” but … rather show how capitalism is incapable of fulfilling them.

Separating something into good and bad parts, however, is not dialectical, particularly not when this is used to suggest that our response to this should be to get rid of the bad parts without getting rid of the good parts. We would only be able to do this if it were possible for the good parts to exist without the bad parts, that is, if there were no internal relation – no dialectic – between the two.

The dialectical position is not to suggest that the capitalist system has good parts and bad parts, and thus to judge the bad parts by the standards of the good parts. The dialectical position is that the good parts are the bad parts. This is the, I think still under-appreciated, point of Marx’s On the Jewish Question. You can’t criticise the reality of the capitalist system by reference to the ideals it generates, because the way in which the ideals are realised tells you what the ideals really are:

Above all, we note the fact that the so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme as distinct from the droits du citoyen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society – i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community…. None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community.

To put it differently, a properly dialectical critique does not criticise the reality of capitalism for failing to live up to its ideals; it criticises the ideals of capitalism for their, more or less hidden, reflection of that reality. What a dialectical critique shows is that better thing’s aren’t possible, if we index possibilities to what appears possible according to the world as it is. But what it also shows is that better things are not only necessary, but real: a better world does not exist in the thwarted ideals of the present, but in the real processes that might abolish that present. If we continue to insist that better things are possible in order to persuade people that their present ideals, generated by existing society, we prevent the people we are attempting to persuade (and we prevent ourselves) from attaining different, and better, ideals. Reassuring people about the possibility of socialism “requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society”, what Marx called bourgeois socialism, and this, in the end, renders radical change unthinkable:

Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech. Free trade: for the benefit of the working class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of bourgeois socialism. It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois — for the benefit of the working class.