Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

Last night I was home alone during an odd storm which beat on my windows all night. It started as a thunderstorm of rain and developed into a thunderstorm of sleet/hail and then eventually into a thunderstorm of snow; fully equipped with lightening all the way through. It was the perfect setting within which to watch the dazzling Lars Von Trier film “Melancholia”, which portrays the strained relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire, as an unforeseen rogue planet barrels into the solar system and heads straight for Planet Earth. The purpose of this short essay is not to give a review or a summary of the film (I am assuming readers will have already watched the film), but rather to explore a philosophical aspect of the film that I have not heard others comment on (although perhaps some have). It is my contention that this film, which examines the depths of depression, isolation, nihilism, and annihilation, is heavily influenced by Nietzschean philosophy.

During the first half of the film, Justine is suffering from a particularly intense episode of near catatonic depression, while her sister Claire, sober and stoic, helps her through it. Half way through the film though, Justine begins to slowly emerge out of her depression, just as Claire slowly descends into a chaotic panic as it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue planet “Melancholia” is on a collision course with the Earth. The sisters effectively switch emotional positions. What marks this stark role reversal is a scene in which the two sisters are out riding horses together and Justine, still depressed at this point, tries to urge her horse to cross a bridge which it refuses to cross. In a frenzy of anger, Justine beats the horse with her whip and kicks it with her feet until the horse collapses; she continues to beat him as her sister Claire, riding around in small circles on her horse, yells desperately at Justine to stop. This scene sets into motion the emotional role reverasal between the sisters. Claire, from this point forward, slowly gets more and more anxious and eventually descends into full blown panic attacks as well as completely irrational (and utterly futile) attempts to flee with her son in the face of oncoming armageddon.

The scene with the horse is eerily reminiscent of the famous story of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes that one day while walking in streets of Turin, Nietzsche came upon a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche, in an emotional frenzy, ran over to the horse screaming, draped his arms around it desperately, and then collapsed onto the cobblestone streets. He was arrested by two nearby policemen for causing a public disturbance. But this event signaled his complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He lived the rest of his life under the watch of his sister, and never contributed to philosophy or literature again.

The connection seems obvious to me: just as Nietzsche went crazy after seeing the beating of the horse, so did Claire. Her usual calm and commanding demeanor slowly evaporated away (not unlike the atmosphere of Earth as Melancholia approached) until she was left in emotional ruin. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy centered around the problems of a post-god world, and the subsequent creep of nihilism into the human psyche, which Nietzsche saw as a terrible thing that humanity had to overcome; not by reverting back to the old religions, but by pushing through nihilism and transcending it (for those that were strong enough to do so). The relentless approach of the rogue planet Melancholia can be seen as a loose symbol for the approaching nihilism that Nietzsche was so concerned about: both representing the total destruction of all human values and meaning.

The connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the themes of the movie is made even more explicit by Von Trier’s use of Richard Wagner’s music to underscore the film; namely Wagner’s famous opera, “Tristan Und Isolde” (which was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, who was famous for his philosophical pessimism and was a huge influence on Nietzsche). Richard Wagner was a famous German composer and contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche and Wagner were, at one time, very close friends, and Nietzsche wrote one of his most famous works, “The Birth of Tragedy”, which trumpeted Wagner’s music as the “rebirth” of European high culture. Soon, though, their friendship became strained, and then ended bitterly, as Wagner moved his music in a new direction that Nietzsche hated. It is not accident, then, that Wagner’s music would be used in a film that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. The assertion, were it to be made, that this is all mere coincidence strains credulity.

To take my theory about the connection between Nietzschean philosophy and this film a step further, I think it is worth noting that another fundamental element of Nietzsche’s philosophy (which was thematized in “Melancholia”) was a skepticism of scientific truth and human reason. He appreciated science and he clearly used reason, but he was intimately aware of their innate limitations and criticized those who had too much faith in them. This is reflected in the film in the form of Claire’s husband, John, a rationalist, who is hyper-confident throughout the entire film that “the scientists” are certain that the rouge planet will not collide with Earth, but rather perform a safe fly-by; it will appear beautifully in the sky, but humanity is not in danger. He carries a telescope, a scientific instrument and a symbol of the scientific method and worldview, around with him most of the film, through which he gazes at Melancholia amusedly and excitedly. For him, it is just a spectacle of science. Later, when he realizes that the scientists were wrong, and that Planet Melancholia is in fact going to collide with Earth, he commits suicide by swallowing poison in the horse’s stable. The certainty that science and reason had provided for him evaporates, and the existentially destabilizing pain caused by the catastrophic failure of his faith in science proves too much to cope with. His very identity was tied up in his belief in science, reason, and order, and when those broke down, so did his entire sense of self. When his wife, Claire, finds his dead body, she covers him with a thin layer of straw from the floor of the horse stable. He dies an animals death.

To conclude, the beating of the horse which leads to Claire’s emotional breakdown, the exploration of nihilism and the (literal) destruction of all values, the use of Richard Wagner’s music throughout the film, and the depiction of a dogmatic faith-in-science, and its tragically complete failure, all stand as strong evidence that there is, in fact, a clear and distinct strain of Nietzschean philosophy that Von Trier consciously put into his film.

I love this gorgeous and melancholy film. It is, like all of Von Trier’s work, as beautiful and emotional as it is intellectual. It is a true masterpiece of cinema and of art generally.

 

Six Ways of Approaching and Interpreting Marxism

Marxism, like many philosophical traditions, is a huge series of concepts and ideas with plenty of complexity and nuance. Too often discussions of Marxism are befuddled and unproductive because people are using the term in different ways than their conversational partner, and so they end up talking past one another. What I want to do here is propose six basic ways of approaching and studying Marxism in an effort to bring some of these complexities and nuances to light, and thereby, hopefully, increase clarity and understanding with regards to discussions of Marx and Marxism. I am motivated to do this because I think Marx, more than ever, offers an essential and important way of orienting oneself to current social, political, and economic events in the pursuit of understanding them fully. However, for a plethora of reasons, there continues to be a stigma attached to Marx and Marxism, and a large reason for this is because so much confusion exists as to what exactly it is; I hope this short essay will clear some of that confusion up.

Here are six general ways of understanding Marxism (in no particular order):

1) As a historical, empirical subject of study: If you were asked, for example, to do a paper on Marx in a college class, you would likely approach him in this  way; as a subject of third-person research or of a biography, in which the historical facts of his life and writings are explicated in as objective a way as possible.

2) As a doctrine: as a core set of ideas. This is done by extracting what one considers to be the central points of Marxism, and molding them into a coherent doctrine that can be subscribed to or refuted. This involves abstracting away from any changes in his thought over time in order to put forward a cohesive net of basic ideas. It is a rational reconstruction of Marx’s thought based on what one believes to be the most important, or most central, aspect of his thought. 

3) As a conceptual revolution: One could view Marx, fundamentally, as starting a *tradition* of thought; as re-conceptualizing capitalism and history, and thereby spawning a philosophical and political tradition. Much like Darwin and Freud re-conceptualized biology and the mind, starting long traditions which expanded on, edited, corrected, and carried forward those basic ideas.

4) As a branching-off: You could study the thought of *the people who called themselves Marxists* throughout history (Lenin, Adorno, Althusser, Gramsci, Debord, Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc.). So Marxism just becomes a loosely connected net of different strains of thought as represented by different thinkers after Marx. In this interpretation, Marxism becomes identical to the thought of historical figures who called themselves Marxist.

5) As a historical application: You could study Marxism merely by studying the ways in which his ideas were put into practice, focusing more on how they operated in the real world (Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc.) instead of on the ideas themselves or the methodology he proposed. In this interpretation, Marxism most often becomes synonymous with Leninism and Stalinism. Many of Marxism’s opponents take up this interpretation as the ONLY valid interpretation for obvious reasons.

6) As a methodology: as an interpretive lens through which one can make sense of historical and political events and through which one can analyze the economic paradigm. It can be seen as a continuing project of consistently applying the methodology that Marx put forward. Under this view, it matters less what the exact ideas of Marx himself were, and instead focuses on the WAY in which Marx proposed we analyze the world.

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I study Marxism largely via #3 and #6. And insofar as I call myself a Marxist, I mean that I view him as a conceptual revolutionary who put forward an interpretive lens and a methodology (namely historical and dialectical materialism, theory of alienation, the critique of political economy, etc.) that I find particularly useful in analyzing current social, political, historical, and economic events. It is not a dogma or a doctrine to which I blindly adhere, rather its a general approach I take, fully backed up and informed by my own critical thinking, ethical values, and political / historical context. Beyond that basic orientation to Marxism, I also find #4 extremely important. Marx was just a human being, and as such he was wrong about a lot, and many thinkers that came after him took his thought in new and exciting directions, and expanded on his philosophy in such a way that it was improved and updated, and continues to be improved and updated. I place myself in that long tradition of people who studied Marx and his philosophical heirs, and who continue to update Marxism and apply it in new and unique contexts (as Marx himself would have wanted).

But NONE of these ways of interpreting Marxism are completely wrong. All of them are valid ways of studying Marxism, its just a matter of realizing that all these approaches exist and are valid in their own ways, and then being conscious about how you are using the terms involved at any given moment.

Lots of confusion stems from people talking past one another by using different approaches without being clear, in their own minds as well as explicitly, about which one they are using. I’ll often get into arguments with people interpreting Marxism STRICTLY as #5, when I am using it in the ways outlined by #3 and #6. Such discussions are bound to fail because we are literally talking about different things without realizing it, and no constructive dialogue can blossom out of that fundamental miscommunication.

So, whether you are sympathetic to Marxism or are firmly opposed to it, I hope you keep these distinctions in mind going forward, and do your best to articulate them explicitly when engaging in dialogue about Marx and Marxism. It’s not only an intellectual obligation, its also a moral one, because in these times of rapid change, ubiquitous corruption, and constant upheaval, understanding Marx, and what he had to offer, is more important than ever.

Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism: Ancient Philosophies For The Modern Soul

As a life-long student of philosophy, I often turn to the subject in times of uncertainty or despair. Often the subject of philosophy, thanks to academia, gets a bad reputation for being pedantic, obscure, overly abstract, and even elitist. However, this bad reputation is totally unfair. Philosophy, perhaps more than any other subject, has the ability to teach us the most about life and how to live it. In particular, the converging (and often heavily over-lapping) philosophies of Stoicism, Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Pessimism, when combined, offer a unique and rather simple set of strategies for living a good life.

I will not go into the fine details of each philosophy here, I merely want to highlight some basic tactics that these philosophies offer us with regards to how a human being should live their life in order to squeeze the most happiness (or at least the most contentedness) out of it.

Lower Your Expectations

Coming mostly out of the Pessimist tradition, this idea is as simple as it is effective. Too often in life, especially in our modern American culture which inculcates in us from an early age that we are special and “can be anything we want to be”, our expectations grow out of proportion with our reality.  We are often raised to expect a morally-uplifting and meaningful career, a happily-ever-after romantic life, a comfortable income, etc. However, all too often, these things fail to pan out as we would have hoped, and the disparity between our expectations and our realities can cause us serious despair and even self-loathing (as if its *our* fault that these expectations haven’t come to fruition).

However, by being conscious of these overly-optimistic expectations, and bringing them down to more reasonable levels, we reduce the inevitable disappointment that results when we realize that life is a lot harder and shittier than we were brought up to expect. This does not mean that we stop trying, or that we give up. To the contrary, we should still try our hardest to find a career we enjoy, a partner we want to grow old with, and enough financial resources to provide for ourselves and our families. But by lowering our expectations as low as we can, we can be happily surprised when things go well, while never being overwhelmed with disappointment when things go badly. The truth is, most of us won’t have jobs we love, our relationships with our loved ones will often be strained and difficult, we will likely have plenty of money troubles, and, ultimately, everyone we care about will suffer greatly and then die, one by one, until its our turn. But this reality need not make us tremble with sadness, rather by appropriately and maturely orienting ourselves with it, we steel our minds against these inevitabilities and therefore can maintain some semblance of mental and emotional balance when they occur; as they almost certainly will.

Control Your Emotions

Our emotions come and go like weather pattners. We can be happy and optimistic in the morning, tired and deflated in the afternoon, and riddled with anxiety in the evening. The external world cares not at all for our internal emotional states, and is constantly infringing on our ability to maintain emotional balance. To grab and hold onto any sense of inner tranquility in today’s world is a Sisyphean task, indeed.

The ancient Stoics took this problem on, and concluded that by gaining control over your emotions, you can diminish the chaotic negativity that can result from having your emotions blow to and fro without an anchor. A primary method that they employed were thought experiments. By constantly thinking about worst case scenarios, the logic went, one could build up their powers of emotional control and not be as flustered when things went wrong. Holding, for example, the thought of death in your mind constantly tends to strengthen you against feelings of fear and anxiety. Reflecting often on the fact that the people you love are going to die tends to strengthen you against feelings of sadness and despair. Reflecting often on the ultimate meaningless and pettiness of human squabbles tends to strengthen you against feelings of anger and hatred.

Beyond that, though, I would argue that by OBSERVING your emotions as they arise, and detaching yourself from them in order to study them, has an even bigger effect on your ability to control them. When anger arises, for instance, simply letting it play itself out and observing how it makes you feel tends to dissipate the feeling rather quickly. Instead of justifying your anger to yourself with white-hot inner dialogue, and thereby elongating that emotion’s lifespan, try taking a deep breath and feeling what anger feels like, especially in your stomach. Anger sits in your stomach like a hot ball of iron, and it has a distinct feel to it. By detaching from the emotion in order to watch it dispassionately, you rob it of its momentum. When a strong emotion arises, you immediately have two options: 1) succumb to it, fall into it, and talk to yourself in you own head about it or 2) stand back from it, observe it with full attention, and watch it as it runs its course and fizzles out. With time, employing the latter tactic over and over again gives you steadily increasing control over your emotions, and allows you to live a slightly happier, more balanced, internal emotional life.

Take Pleasure In The Small Things

The Epicureans believed that much of our unhappiness comes from hoping for the big things in life, while ignoring all the little things. We are so obsessed with achievement, money, fame, and status that we neglect the small things in life that make life worth living. We may never obtain the “big” things in life, but we can and do engage with a plethora of wonderful little pleasures on a daily basis, and by orienting our attention to those small pleasures, we create a happier life from the bottom up.

The way coffee warms your chest and stomach on a cold winter morning, or the way your child slips their little hand into yours on a walk, or the way wine and cheese mix together on your pallet, or the way the spring sun feels on your exposed skin; these are the little wonders of life. In the rat-race that is our modern lives, these things often get passed over with little to no appreciation as we dash from our jobs to school to home and back to our jobs again. We are constantly bombarded by stimulation (visual, audio, etc.) as well as by cultural ideas of achievement and social status. Those things lash out at our attention ceaselessly. But by becoming aware of that, disengaging from it as much as possible, and taking time to consciously appreciate the little things in life, we can build up a mentality and a focus that is far more cohesive with our own happiness than our default orientation towards big dreams and future hopes could ever be.

Focus On The Present Moment

The idea that our minds (and by extension our emotions and expectations) are perpetually being pulled away from us, and tossed around chaotically, was something that the Buddha himself was very cognizant of. In Buddhist traditions, the default state of our constantly chattering, chaotic mind is known as “monkey mind”; swinging from emotion to emotion, from thought to thought, from external stimulus to external stimulus. By constantly talking to ourselves in our own heads all day long, we disconnect from the present moment in favor of reflecting on past events or anticipating future ones. This produces in us a sense that life is passing us by, as well as a nagging sense of never being fully satisfied. We satisfy one urge only to quickly discover that a new desire has arisen in its place. This pattern of “desire, satiation, desire, satiation, desire” plays out indefinitely in our minds, and is not at all conducive with lasting peace and tranquility.

To combat this tendency of the human mind, Buddhism stresses the concept of mindfulness: of consciously bringing your attention into the present moment as often as possible. By fully and deeply focusing on our breath, or on what we are doing at any given moment, we slowly train our brain to slow down and to engage with the present moment, which, if you think about it, is all we really have. When the past occurred, it occurred in the present. When the future comes, it come to us in the form of the present. All we have is the moment in which we exist. That is all we will ever have. By training our minds to focus on the present moment, often through mindfulness meditation, we come to appreciate that fact intimately. This ability to live in the present moment decreases feelings of regret and anxiety, since those emotions are about what HAS happened or what MIGHT happen. It also allows us to take in life *as it happens* with a sense of equanimity and patience and inner balance. Happiness is a natural outgrowth of this mind-state. After all, happiness is not something that needs to be hunted down and obtained, rather its like the blossoming of a flower when the proper conditions (sunlight, moisture, oxygen) are present. Orienting your mind to the present moment is how you cultivate the proper conditions in which happiness can blossom.

Conclusion

By understanding and integrating the lessons taught by these four schools of philosophy (Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism), we can create space in our lives and in our minds for true contentedness. There is, to be sure, significant irony in the fact that, in our 21st century world, it is the philosophies of the ancients that continue to prove to be the most relevant with regards to how we should live.

 

 

In Praise Of Idleness: Valuing Leisure In A Culture Of Accomplishment

I am not an “ambitious” person. I do not desire fame, wealth, or recognition. I do not want to spend 12 hours a day at any job, and I do not want to climb any professional ladders. I do not have a compulsion to achieve a prestigious professional title or to compose a great novel or album for which I will be remembered after I die. My interests are constantly shifting, and as such, I do not doggedly pursue any single thing in such a way that would make me an expert in that field or area of study.

In our culture, which values accomplishments above all else, saying what I have just said is almost taboo. It might even be seen as a clear sign by many that I am lazy. But this is not the case. I go to work everyday, I read multiple books a month, I am an attentive and caring parent, and I keep a very clean home. I am just not wired to seek “success” in the way that our society understands the word. Success, in our society, is synonymous with professional achievements, which in turn is heavily associated with wealth. Wealth is seen as an objective measure by which we analyze whether someone is successful or not. High level politicians with power and influence, highly regarded doctors who get 7 figure salaries, famous musicians who sell out huge venues, and professional athletes who spend hours every week working out; these are the epitome of success in our society. But what about those of us who aren’t wired that way? What about the introverts? What about the people who value leisure and relaxation over accomplishment? What about the people who would rather spend hours everyday building up their relationship with their children, instead of staying late at the office, trying to gain an edge on their coworkers for that promotion opportunity?

Well, I am just such a person.

I like lounging around. I like drinking good beer with even better friends. I like long walks alone in the woods. I like to read books for fun. I like waking up in the morning with nothing to do. I like to meditate. I like love to sleep. I like to go camping. I like to eat good food and then lay down for a nap. I like wrestling with my kids. I like going hunting for Pokémon. I like to drink red wine in a small theater while watching a film.

In short, I like to relax.
I like leisure.

I don’t like deadlines. I don’t like high-pressure situations. I don’t like *having* to do something. I don’t like stress of any sort.

What makes a good life? Well, people are different, and so there are lots of different answers to that question. There are people who think that a good life is one where they accomplished something great. For some people, having a PhD after their name is what drives them. For others, accumulating wealth is what compels them forward. For still others, achieving something that will outlive them is what motivates them. And that’s great! People are all different, and those sorts of motivations are wonderful. We certainly need those sorts of people in the world. But for me, what constitutes a good life is not achievements, but rather relationships. Relationships with my children, with my friends, with my family, and with my community are what motivate me. I don’t want to sacrifice a second of my time, that I could be spending with them, pursuing some professional goal. I want to live humbly, but happily; and for me that means not constantly stressing out about achievements or accolades.

When people on their deathbeds are asked what they wish they would have done differently in life, the majority of them answer that they wish they’d spent more time with their families, they wish they cared less what others, and by extension society at large, thought about them, and they wish they had spent less time at work. I take that to heart.

I won’t be a lawyer or doctor; I wont be a famous musician or artist; I wont win a Super Bowl ring or live in a mansion. I wont be remembered generations after I die. No statues will be made of my likeness, and no buildings will be donned with my name. But I will, hopefully, have the most wonderful relationship possible with my children, I will have friends who love me deeply, and I will have family who never question my priorities or loyalty. Ill have a garden, a humble home, some well-cared for cats, a library stacked with hundreds of books, a fridge full of craft beer, and a life that I can reflect on happily.

On my deathbed, I wont be surrounded with plagues and certificates, but I will be surrounded by people, by relationships fostered and carefully tended to.

In short, the goal of my life is not wealth, fame, or professional achievements.
The goal of my life is love, laughter, and leisure.

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“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Anarchism In The Context Of Today’s World

Being an anarchist, for me, does not mean that I think we can have, or even should have, a stateless society overnight, or in the near future. That wont happen.

What being an anarchist REALLY means for me is to be constantly surveying the political, social and economic landscape in search of all forms of hierarchy, power, authority, and injustice, and then systematically analyzing and critiquing those structures; forcing them to justify said hierarchy/power/authority, or be opposed in every way possible.

Those systems of hierarchy, authority, and power can be obvious, like in the case of governments or corporations, but they can also be more subtle, albeit just as dangerous, like in the case of patriarchy, institutional racism, homophobia/transphobia, etc. An anarchist opposes them all, and knows *exactly why* she/he opposes them.

Additionally, its our social duty, to whatever extent possible, to self-govern. This means making a concerted, daily effort to behave as morally as possible; to plant, in you own little sphere of influence, the seeds of a better world. A world of cooperation, solidarity, social responsibility, and love.

If you call yourself an anarchist, you better be trying everyday to do these things or what’s the point? Anarchism is not just wanting to “smash the state”; its much, much more than that. Its about developing yourself and your community, its about caring for your fellow human beings, its about opposing injustice anywhere and everywhere that it appears.

Ultimately, its about believing that a better world, a more just world, is possible, and then taking on the responsibility of trying to help build that world…

The Difference Between Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy

Many people do not understand the difference between Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism, so let me explain:

The difference is that Democratic Socialism ultimately aims at transcending capitalism, and their methodology of doing so is by implementing social democracy to build up the momentum and coalitions in the populace necessary to make that ultimate jump.

Social Democrats are exactly the same EXCEPT they don’t have any desire to make that last jump to socialism. They are fine with letting capitalism be the economic engine, and just redistributing wealth via progressive taxation. The problem with social democracy, though, is that they hitch their wagon to the capitalist system, and when it fails, social democracy fails.

In practice, though, they have historically amounted to the same exact thing. The moment a social democracy makes the jump to socialism, then we can talk about the efficacy of Democratic Socialism, until then, Democratic Socialists have the burden of trying to explain why they haven’t achieved socialism throughout history.

In the same way that Marxism-Leninism tends to devolve into various forms of authoritarianism and stay there, Democratic Socialism tends to devolve into social democracy and stay there.

I am not opposed to building up social democracy in the U.S., to do so would represent a huge material gain for working people within the country. But radicals must always keep in mind that social democracy depends on capitalism, and capitalism in America inevitably takes the form of imperialism. Therefore, any social democracy that we build here will be invariably tied to the violent domination and exploitation of our brothers and sisters in poorer countries, mostly in the global south. Additionally, capitalism, in its rabidly endless pursuit of profits and growth, will always end up harming the environment, polluting the oceans, and perpetuating Climate Change.

Social democracy (and Democratic Socialism insofar as it virtually always means social democracy in practice) depends on capitalism, imperialism, and environmental degradation. Therefore it is, at best, a step in the right direction; but never an end-point in and of itself. Democratic Socialists would do themselves a favor by realizing this and taking a more radical stance against capitalism itself, which entails pointed criticism of social democracy. Social democrats would do themselves a favor by realizing that capitalism is not sustainable, and any gains made under the capitalist system can always be rolled back when they become inconvenient for the plutocratic ruling class.

The clock is ticking, our oceans are dying, human beings are suffering, and the global ruling elite are hoarding more and more of the wealth and resources for themselves.

We need Leftists, not liberals.
We need anti-capitalists, not compromises.
We need radicals, not reformists.

The future depends on it.

Social Democracy and Post-Capitalism: Why The Former Is A Necessary Step Towards The Latter

The argument I am going to make in this essay is that radical leftists should support the formation of a social democracy in the US as a means to more radical ends. Traditionally, radical leftists like Marxists, Anarchists and revolutionary socialists have viewed social democracy as a compromise with capital; as nothing more than left-liberalism. On these grounds, social democracy has been dismissed and even confronted as an opposition ideology by radicals.  Contrary to many of my fellow radicals, I view social democracy as a necessary step on the path to a post-capitalist America. Furthermore, I am going to argue that at this specific time in history, the building up of a social democracy in America is essential if we are going to move into the age of hyper-automation and artificial intelligence with the least amount of chaos and suffering possible possible.

I want to state at the outset of this essay, for clarity’s sake, that I am a radical socialist and anti-capitalist, I am not a social democrat. I share the consensus view of most radicals that social democracy as an end goal is a capitulation to capital, and one that fundamentally undermines socialist values. I also have a very strong premise upon which the bulk of the following argument is built, and that premise is that the socialist revolution in America (and beyond) is not going to come via a bloody revolution, instead it will come via the inevitable rise of hyper-automation and artificial intelligence. The revolution will come, as Marx predicted, via the contradictions within the capitalist system itself. By automating more and more jobs with exponentially increasing computational power, capital will sow the seeds of its own destruction by creating an environment in which human beings have to do less and less work in virtually all industries and sectors. I have written about this in more detail on my blog, but if you refuse to accept, even tentatively, this premise, then the following essay will not have its full bite.  However, even without this premise, it is my hope that this essay will have some influence on how radicals think about social democracy and the future.

Defining Our Terms: Social Democracy and Radicalism

For the sake of clarity, I will briefly define what I mean by “social democracy” and “radicalism” to ensure me and my readers are on the same page.  Social Democracy is defined by Wikipedia:

“as a political ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, and a policy regime involving collective bargaining arrangements, a commitment to representative democracy, measures for income redistribution, regulation of the economy in the general interest and welfare state provisions.”

The easiest way to think about social democracy is by associating it with the Northern European nations that have high taxes, highly robust social safety nets, and strong regulations on capital. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are classic examples of social democrats that many readers are probably familiar with.

Radicalism, on the other hand, is an umbrella term I am using to cover all far-left, anti-capitalist philosophies ranging from anarchism to Marxism to revolutionary socialism. These philosophers often dismiss gradualism and reformism as legitimate ways to transcend capitalism. Whether its through spontaneous revolution (anarchism) or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Marxism), radicals aim to overthrow capitalism from outside of the normal mechanisms of governmental change (i.e. voting, running for political office, reforms, etc.).

The great division between social democrats and radicals is precisely the means by which the two propose to implement socialism. Social democrats, as I’ve said above, favor gradualist tactics. They want to participate in party politics, elect progressive candidates who will help implement progressive reforms like universal healthcare, free higher education, guaranteed paid maternity leave, etc. (Its worth noting that on these three points, America remains one of the only countries who refuses to grant its citizens any of these benefits).  Radicals counter that by winning those gains within the capitalist framework, and depending on the government in capitalist societies to implement and maintain those gains, social democrats leave these gains open to the risk of dismemberment at the hands of the next set of politicians.  Furthermore, the vast majority of politicians that exist in a capitalist State are disproportionately, if not wholly, pawns of capital. Capital dominates any State apparatus that exists in the context of a capitalist economy. It is for this reason that even the best gains are perpetually at risk of being slashed or underfunded or otherwise undermined. Only by taking over the State, or by dismantling the State and Capitalism, can we hope to implement a lasting program that guarantees all citizens freedom from poverty and wage slavery, freedom from exploitation and domination, and freedom from the coercive and cut-throat nature of a capitalist system.

It’s with these dynamics and antagonisms in mind that I hope to construct an argument that bridges these seemingly disparate ideologies into a unified strategy.

Why Social Democracy Is An Essential Step On The Path To Post-Capitalism

There are four main reasons why I think it is necessary for radicals to take seriously the effort to install a social democracy in America; which means dedicating time and energy to supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, not as ends in and of themselves, but as tactical means to more radical ends. The four main reasons are as follows:

1)            The organizational structures built and maintained in a social democracy are essential pre-conditions for radical change.

2)            Victories for the working class actually emboldens workers to go further, and re-contextualizes politics to left for the American mainstream.

3)            Material gains for working people is of utmost import; far more important than ideological purity.

4)            A robust social democracy will make the inevitable transition into the age of hyper-automation and post-capitalism a much smoother one

  1. Organizational Structures:

Within social democracies across the world, there are certain organizations that must be created and strengthened overtime to maintain the existence of the social democracy and to prevent roll backs. Strong unions, Consumer advocacy groups, labor representation on corporate boards, and strong grass roots organizations must all exist in robust ways in order for a social democracy to exist. It is precisely these structures, plus many more, that are desperately needed in order to wage a more radical fight.  In America today we are lacking any viable vehicles through which we can organize on a national level. The 40-year systematic deconstruction of unions has taken away a powerful traditional vehicle for radicalism; and only through the building of a social democracy can we restore unions to the level necessary for legitimate worker power. Social democracies also offer the benefit of *actual* working class political parties (as opposed to the Democratic party which is steadfastly and unapologetically a party of capital) with national organizational structures, consistent funding, and a strong platform for radicals to influence toward more radical ends.

 

2. Victories for the Working Class:

With the success of social democracies, the workers get a taste of what they can accomplish. They become less apathetic and disillusioned as they begin to see the fruits of leftist, working class politics. The systems of power and oppression in America have done a very good job at convincing working class people that leftist goals like universal healthcare or free college are either impossible or evil.  The inculcation of the myth of individualism in the general populous is a hypnotic spell that can only be broken by the real-world implementation of the very things that capitalist propaganda has convinced workers would be bad for them. Once people have universal healthcare, free college, paid maternity and the other benefits of a social democracy they will begin to see through the lies of capital in regards to these programs, and will be far less likely to give them up without a fight.

Everywhere in the world where social democratic policies exist, the populace becomes committed to defending them against attacks from capital.  In Slovenia, when they tried to dismantle free higher education, the students went on massive marches and voting campaigns to throw the people who represented capital’s interest out of their political positions, and replaced them with defenders of the program. Similar events occur in any country where the Right tries to roll back hard-fought programs that benefit working people.  Therefore, by implementing these policies, letting people benefit from them, and showing them conclusively that the fear mongering of capital in regards to these programs was just a cynical attempt for them to defend their own interests against the interests of working people, we invigorate the working class. We make them feel empowered, and in that empowerment, the inclination to unify, organize and fight back against any attempt to undermine our gains becomes natural. It is precisely this type of solidarity in defense of working class interests that is lacking in America and that is desperately needed for any radical change beyond social democratic reforms. This element must be in play before any radical project can even think about getting off the ground.

 

3. Material Gains:

I am in favor of any and all material gains for working people. The reason I am a radical and a socialist is precisely because I love working and poor people. I come from the working class, and my family, my friends, and my community are all working class. It is more important to me that all people get access to healthcare, for example, than it is that I strictly adhere to a radical philosophical doctrine or dogma. Material gains for working and poor people is vastly more important to me than ideological purity. Too often, I see radicals whose priorities run in the opposite direction. They would rather posture as ideological demagogues than compromise slightly for various material benefits.  For example, many radicals will criticize a Bernie Sanders for his position on Israel, and use that as a basis to dismiss his entire campaign and to mock his supporters as “liberals” (which is a pejorative in radical circles).  Now, of course the Israeli / Palestinian conflict is of severe importance, and any radical worth their salt better have the correct position on this issue. I think the Israeli government is an oppressive apartheid State and we should be uncompromising in our defense of the Palestinian people.  However, to give up on a real chance at social democracy in America in order to stay unsullied in regards to a single position seems counter-productive. The goal should be to rally behind the most progressive candidate possible (above a certain level, obviously. This isn’t a “lesser of two evils” argument) and then use our influence to push him or her in the right direction on the issues that we do not think they address properly.  Most social democrats will be open to that influence in ways that normal liberal democratic politicians are not.

The point is, the left is so defeated and marginalized in America at this point, that we have got to build radical politics from the ground up. To dismiss this necessity, and to instead retreat into ideological dogmatism is abandon real politics. The left must always be looking beyond social democracy as an end-goal, but also must realize that the journey from here to there involves steps. These steps may not always be pleasant and they will involve some compromises along the way, but that’s the cost of getting something done; and even a cursory examination of the radical left in America will show conclusively that we are not getting anything done, and we need to make some tactical changes if we hope to do anything of substance.  A tentative embrace of social democracy in the short term is the tactical change I am advocating.

4. The Inevitability of Automation and the Importance of a Robust Social Democracy:

I have written, at length, about the inevitability of automation and what that means for the future of work and socialist politics.  I have been clear that I believe it to be the most promising means by which we can transcend capitalism; far more promising than traditional notions of revolution and the seizure of State power. Any attempt to revolt in America will lead quickly and violently into either a complete bloodbath as the State brutally squashes the uprising or a devolution into Civil War as the reactionary elements in our society take up arms against the Left. Neither option bodes well for the quality of life for working and poor people. It is only through the hyper-automation of the economy that we have a real chance at upending and replacing capitalism with a more humane, sustainable, and democratic global system. I will not get it no the details of how this will happen because I have spilled a lot of ink on that topic in other essays.  The point here is to argue that by implementing a robust social democracy before the inevitable transition reaches a climax we can mitigate some of the chaos it will cause, and create a situation in which we can more easily and more smoothly move into our new political, social and economic reality.

Without a social democracy, fully equipped with all of the benefits I outlined above, the transition away from capitalism will be highly chaotic as the masters of capital try to usurp the wealth created by new automation technologies and artificial intelligence advancements. Without a strong working class organizational structure already in place, and without a confident, organized and prepared working class, we run the very real risk of being scattered and confused on how to handle the transition, allowing capitalists to benefit disproportionately from the advancements. In the worst case scenario, capital could seize the State apparatus outright, and impose a sort of dystopian techno-capitalist society marked by even more extreme wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and an accelerated and overwhelming surveillance State, as capital desperately tries to maintain itself in the face of its own internal contradictions.

An integral part of the social democracy I am advocating here is an acknowledgement, study, and discussion of the inevitability of this transition period, and a robust conversation about how best to deal with it and ease into it.  Currently, we have very little dialogue around the issue and with that comes a complete lack of preparations or plans concerning how to handle it in a way that reduces chaos and suffering as much as possible. A properly constructed social democracy in America would make it a primary issue and would work to cautiously accelerate the rate at which the transition can take place safely. There are no guarantees, obviously, that a social democracy would automatically deal appropriately with this huge issue, but it at least lays the groundwork for a context in which these things can be seriously talked about.

 

Abandon Sectarianism:

If the American left hopes to become relevant again, it must abandon its inclination to obscure sectarian battles over high-minded and abstract doctrinal differences.  Those battles can be fought later down the line, but we aren’t even close to a situation in which those battles are even slightly relevant to real-world politics.

It’s important to remember, as well, that sectarianism on the Left is not a cause of Leftist impotence in America, it is a manifestation of Leftist impotence in America. It’s precisely because the Left has very little in the way of real politics to do that we have the luxury of debating pedantic academic differences of doctrine. These differences are not wholly illusory or unimportant, but at this moment in time, they are irrelevant. And only by unifying under a common program, at least in the short term, can we ever hope to be relevant. In fact, to abandon real politics for the safety of ideological certainty is a particularly insidious form of individualism, where your specific dogmatic commitments are given higher priority than making real change for working and poor people.

Conclusion:

Radicals must always be aiming to go beyond social democracy. It must always be viewed as a step on the journey, and not itself the destination of a Leftist program. But I believe that the construction of a social democracy is a necessary pre-requisite for more radical change, and if abandon that opportunity, we do so at the cost of our own relevancy.  To build a bridge across the chasm of global capitalism starts with nailing in the first plank. There are no short cuts. We must keep our gaze on the horizon, but we must keep our feet on the plank underneath us, and work tirelessly to build, plank by plank, our path to the future.