World Progress Report, or Why Is There Still Socialism?
Well, my calendar says it’s 2018, but anyone taking a quick glance at today’s world scene and its sorry cast of characters could be forgiven for imagining it was 1918. After all, we humans pride ourselves on learning from our mistakes, and surely no era would be more inclined to indulge in this pride than one that calls itself “progressive.” And yet…
One of the distinguishing marks and definitive virtues of so-called Western civilization is its inherent will to self-development, its restlessness under the strain of its own imperfections. As the first and only human civilization to be essentially rationalist and self-critical in its tendencies — that is, the only one habitually inclined to subject its own norms and structures to continuous, rigorous, and dispassionately reasoned scrutiny — the West, in contrast to those civilizations which pride themselves on their capacity to remain unified in an essentially static condition for centuries on end, has found its self-justification precisely in its refusal to remain the same merely for the sake of remaining the same. To state this in socio-psychological terms, the West, uniquely, identifies its virtue precisely in refusing to see itself as a perfect world, a Utopia, a “Middle Kingdom,” or what have you.
The West is all about facing hard truths about itself, and then applying those truths to the painful task of self-improvement. There are various complicated reasons for this exceptionalism, not the least of which is that the West, as I have explained elsewhere, is the only civilization that has elevated The Teacher to heroic stature, literally displacing the more conventional and universal archetypes of human greatness (the warrior, the lawmaker) in favor of exalting the search for Truth — the longing for wisdom — as the definitive human endeavor.
This explains why a survey of Western history is so prominently punctuated, not with the mere foreground alterations (wars, treaties, alliances) that typify all histories, but with radical divestments of past practices, based on new arguments, new systems of belief, new knowledge. Other civilizations may grow or transform gradually over time, of course, but they do so with a preternatural reluctance, through internal power struggles or under outside pressures. In other words, they change under the rule of Necessity. The West, by contrast, more or less willingly submits itself to self-analysis, self-critique, and self-correction. In other words, the West changes under the dominion of Freedom.
To restate this synoptically, other civilizations evolve; the West learns.
Apart from all its undeniable (though still widely denied by today’s intellectuals) positive achievements, each era of the West is characterized, negatively, by a few big ideas or new directions that simply proved regrettable, wrong-headed, or outright destructive. Most of these errors were overcorrections for previous problems, or ill-conceived extensions of new discoveries. Examples abound, but let’s focus on just one such sequence of shifts, most relevant to our present purposes.
The Catholic Church’s medieval limitations on free inquiry and religious tolerance, intended to overcome prior Christian persecution and to prevent social corruption by newer cults and dogmas (such as Islam) extended into inquisitions and a mandated deference to the often questionable minutiae of Church doctrine. The Protestant Reformation grounded faith more firmly in Scripture again, rather than in arcane institutional rules — but also bred anti-Catholic fantasies of earthly ideals, Utopias, and a measure of authoritarian discipline masquerading as a guarantor of collective spiritual “freedom.” Luther laid the groundwork for Kant, and Kant for German progressivism, which in turn was the most important intellectual engine in the development of totalitarian socialism throughout the West, and finally throughout the entire advanced world — that world having become, politically-speaking, varyingly successful branch plants of Western modernity. (If you doubt this, note how the East’s modern “democratic” societies ground their own political arrangements in rights language — impossible without their having absorbed and basically acquiesced to the premises of Western political philosophy.)
And this leads me to my point. Even during the period of the Reformation’s precipitous enthusiasm for controlled rearrangement, there was John Locke calling for tolerance, individual liberty, and deference to the natural self-preservational needs of man rather than to the earthly demands of religious doctrine.
Even during the most catastrophic wrong turn in the growth of individual liberty and industrialization — Europe’s rationalizations for reinstituting slavery — there was Alexis de Tocqueville placing the enslavement of black Africans within the broader horizon of modern man’s self-destructive moral weakness for tyrannically enslaving himself and his brethren in the name of comfort or convenience.
And for the most part, Locke and Tocqueville, along with their respective intellectual allies, eventually won the day. The critical eye of reason won. Seen civilizationally, the West struggled through its internal errors and inconsistencies to achieve greater self-knowledge and self-development, just as the individual human being, if permitted to live in his natural condition of freedom, must and will finally do (even if this advance sometimes comes, for both the civilization and its denizens, with a concomitant forgetting of invaluable lessons of the past).
If the past century held one lesson for the self-understanding and self-development of Western man, one glaring proof of an intellectual wrong turn and moral blind spot, that lesson was that the nineteenth century’s great new political idea, socialism, was — exactly as Tocqueville and Bastiat (and later even Nietzsche) had surmised early on — just slavery by a prettier name, and would, if put into wide practice, result in a dispirited and diminished man, mass suffering and oppression, and a fundamental violation of human dignity.
In the twentieth century, we tried it. We tried it everywhere, in the widest possible variations of outward form. We tried it to varying degrees — pure, partial, or seeping. And in all instances, precisely to the degree and consistency of its application, socialism brought the same results again and again: mass death and poverty, tyrannical suppression of dissenting views or non-compliant behavior, the irrational collectivization of humans into arbitrarily-determined, static “classes” and “identity groups,” for the sake of producing unearned benefits and irrational elevation for some, and undeserved punishment and irrational vilification for others.
Socialism produced these results consistently and obviously for the most straightforward reason of all, in hindsight: these outcomes were not accidents or transitional byproducts of the theory, but essential to its meaning. For socialism is, at its base and by definition, the rejection of the right to private property, including and especially the right to individual self-ownership. Looking back, what else could such a theory have caused, in practice, but the gradual, forced death of personal responsibility (necessitated by the erasure of self-determination), the evaporation of private conscience (required for the sake of socialist economics, which makes everyone his neighbor’s mugger), and the collapse of any sense of the inherent value or meaning of individual life (implicit in the collectivist denial of the ultimate reality of the personal “self” or soul)?
So in the last century, the West saw her latest and greatest error — her catastrophic distortion of Christian morality and materialistic equivocation on the rational concept of “equality” — played out on the world stage, from East to West. And she saw tens of millions die by mass killings and forced famines in the name of this error. She saw billions enslaved to the collective in the name of equality, in the process losing their basic control over their own life choices and their children’s futures. She saw men and women forced by law to work countless hours for the State by way of “income taxes” (confiscated earnings), before being “permitted” to keep some of the value of their labor, i.e., of their time and effort, i.e., of their lives. She saw economies — earthly prosperity and hope — decimated and stunted by socialized industry, socialized agriculture, socialized healthcare, and socialized education, all in the name of justice and equality. She saw the family trivialized and weakened, the administrative state strengthened and deified. She saw mass abortion and mass euthanasia rationalized and then normalized as mere conveniences of collective comfort. She saw Eros — which the Greeks regarded as the key to education and artistic endeavor — corrupted and manipulated into a tool of sexual anarchy and its attendant moral and intellectual lassitude.
No civilization is more invested in self-correction than the West. And no error in Western history reveals itself more glaringly, with uglier and more universal outcomes, than socialism’s idea that the individual human being is essentially property of the collective, to be molded, used, and when the time comes, discarded, at the State’s whim.
Yet here we are, more than a hundred years since the first large-scale application of this principle was attempted, and with every civilized country in the world having made its own personalized experiment in following this corrosive muse to some extent, for generations. And where does the world stand today regarding this utterly failed notion? What has the West, and the world under its influence, learned from this latest dreadful mistake?
Canada, long a bellweather nation indicating global political winds in moderated strengths, having put on a mask of (moderate) conservatism for a decade under the under-performing quasi-leadership of Stephen Harper, proved its true colors (viz., red and darker red) by replacing the tired, flabby Harper with the pretty boy pop-communist Justin Trudeau — emphasizing its eyes-wide-open reversion to hardcore progressivism by electing the wax figure replica of father Pierre, one of the democratic West’s longest-governing and most obnoxiously condescending socialist icons.
South Korea, whose nighttime satellite image, viewed in contrast with that of its communist neighbor to the north, is today’s favorite living metaphor for the value of economic liberty, has just elected its most openly progressive government ever: a government hell-bent on fully socializing the country’s hybrid (and therefore still relatively excellent) healthcare system, ending the country’s educational advantage by crushing the private teaching system that has long run parallel to the lowest-common-denominator public schools, and leaping headlong into the radical minority’s hardline feminist agenda, i.e., female Marxism.
Meanwhile, the recently elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, was previously the leader of Portugal’s Socialist Party and President of Portugal, as well as President of the Socialist International. As Portugal’s president, he resigned during his second term amid economic failure and popular rebellion against him in local elections. As the head of Socialist International, he led a coordinated group of the world’s small to mid-sized socialist parties — Is there an equivalent international organization for any other political philosophy? — including several parties currently in government, such as Fatah, the Sandinistas, and the African National Congress (which used to have the courage to call itself a communist party, and is still openly allied with South African and international communist factions).
As leader of the UN, of course, Guterres presides over a “Security Council” comprised of five permanent member states, of which two are currently governed by openly progressive (France) or communist (China) parties, one is a largely socialized nation currently under nominally “conservative” governance (the UK), one is the thugocratic remnant of history’s longest and most destructively informative example of the real meaning of socialism in practice, and the fifth — the so-called “leader of the free world” — recently completed two terms with a democratically-elected neo-Marxist activist president, and came within a handful of votes of electing an even more corrupt radical as his successor.
Of the Security Council’s ten current non-permanent members, three are consistently socialist countries, two are effectively one-party communist states, and two are banana republics, one of which is currently mired in a civil war and massive political corruption. Poland, Kuwait, and Peru are the only sitting members currently representing neither some variant of Marxist-Leninism nor authoritarian chaos.
The self-critical impulse of Western civilization (including its non-Western branch plants) appears to have given way to the cocoon-like ease of relativism. A century’s assault with progressive propaganda and indoctrination, all of it aimed directly at the rational, individual-ennobling soul of Western thought and politics, seems to have achieved its subversive goal at last. The tradition that not only embodied the phrase “the free world,” but actually defined it and explicated its value, has, for the most part, ceased to care about, or even to remember, the ideas that formed its core.
The West has ceased to learn from its mistakes, which means it no longer seeks self-development, which in turn means it has stopped caring about its own soul. The aimlessness of nihilism sets in hard. Self-destructive violence, hopeless lunges at nothing in particular, and the general lethargy of stasis, become the behavioral norms of a civilization that no longer cares if it lives or dies.
Politically, this means socialism — the reasoning error that painted its illogic across the globe in the boldest imaginable colors for a century — is probably here to stay, in one form or another, until it devours itself and us. The good news, if you are prepared to be philosophical about this, is that we are already half-eaten. It presumably won’t be long now. What follows in the wake of this critical error may take some grave hardship to work itself out. But in the long run, almost anything would have to be an improvement on today’s semi-conscious (and worse, self-congratulatory) drift into suicide.