Why would skeptics want to take left-wing ideas seriously? Here I wish to present a defense of the idea that radicalism and a skeptical worldview go together. This is a work in progress.
Here is an initial sketch of the argument, which I plan to change over time. This essay is an expansion of some remarks I made on Talk:Communism.
- The skeptical and radical attitudes
- Socialism as science
- The left in power
- Historical perspective
- Alternative socialisms
- Left-wing thought todayol
- Scope & relevance
- Further reading
Skeptical and radical attitudes
The opening line of "RationalWiki" says the site focuses on "science, skepticism, and critical thinking". Skeptics have a strong commitment to objective reality, putting them at odds with all kinds of crazy people. In my view it's great to go after alt-medicine woos, creationists, Ayn Rand, and other cranks because they do real harm. But while the site has some interesting material beating up on Ron Paul and the Tea Party, mainstream politics are largely exempt from the Rational reign of terror. This brings me to my next point.
Radicalism is the enemy of the "holy alliance" of established power; the suggestion that there is no real legitimacy inherent to traditional institutions; the uncompromising urge to fix things no matter what it takes. Some schools of radical criticism include socialism, feminism, postcolonialism; respectively, these could be said to be projects to address the wrongs inherent in capitalism, patriarchy, and imperialism and to provide progressive alternatives. The most important strain in radical/left-wing thought is the struggle for emancipation from oppression. An academic paper I really appreciated (sorry, you'll need JSTOR) describes the project of radical sociology thus:
- A radical sociology takes as its goal human emancipation. By human emancipation we mean a condition in which each person has the chance to participate consciously in the formulation and direction of the social organization affecting him or her-and thereby has the chance to maximize his or her potentialities. In a liberated society each person would be able to freely undertake a range of activities that would be self-expressing and fulfilling, while simultaneously contributing directly and intelligibly to the projects and plans that make social life possible. (Flacks & Turkel 1978)
Is this dream achievable? In particular, if we apply science, skepticism, and critical thinking to the problem of sociopolitical organization, could we hope to achieve a world where people can all find fulfillment in their lives and enjoy being a worthwhile part of society? Compared to the alternatives I think this approach starts to look pretty good.
Radical and conventional approaches
But let's consider this problem in the real world. This last month (October 2013) has seen a remarkable crackup among conservative Republicans, who shut down the government but still failed to enforce their conditions on Obama. Even so, we can still wonder if the Democrats are pushing for all they could get. If we assume that Democrats seriously want the things they called for in their 2012 platform, which include major improvements to social "safety net" programs and populist economic reform, it's not clear that they've been really interested in winning these kind of fights. Instead they're fighting a rearguard defense of a federal government crippled by an arbitrary 5% spending cut.
An alternative vision of Democratic governance was presented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the People's Budget. This is actually a pretty good idea overall. The proposed budget would raise revenue through progressive taxation, improve social services beyond anything proposed by Obama, fix a bloated military budget, and perform a lot of other pinko social engineering. Overall almost everyone in America would be better off under such a federal budget. You won't be surprised to learn that despite some apparent public support for this plan, it was DOA in the House: respectable Democrats couldn't support such a thing, and no Republicans would even think about defending it. Recent events make it even unlikelier that the update CPC plan Budget for All will get consideration on the floor of our representative legislature.
Importantly, the progressive budget is actually a less drastic kind of reform than the radical alternatives I'm advocating. It would go a long way but it wouldn't actually smash capitalism and those other troublemaking institutions. However, I think there's reason to believe that the progressive option isn't really going to happen. I guess the idea is: a left-liberal candidate (less Obama, more Barbara Lee) wins an outsider candidacy for the Democratic nomination and then defeats a polarizing conservative for the Presidency, and then she can implement these kind of ideal progressive policies. But what else has to be true for President Lee to turn an election victory into desperately needed progressive policy?
- Senate Democrats have to get the bill through
- House Democrats have to get the bill through
- To pass, the bill needs to grant special favors to otherwise wobbly legislators
- And favors to get the right lobbyist go-ahead
- Meanwhile the bill is the center of a national debate with only a few topics on the table ("Is it fair to soak the rich?")
- After the bill's finally off Lee's desk, the implementation is delayed everywhere for a Supreme Court showdown.
- Oh, and also an election showdown.
- And even more, with conservatives declaring unending Kulturkampf until this evil socialistic legislation is destroyed.
Actually this is more of a "literal description of the Obamacare row" and less of a "hypothetical scenario about a much more important law that would change society for real". It would be much, much harder to pass seriously worthwhile legislation like the People's Budget than it is to pass incremental reforms like Obamacare. In fact, it would only be possible to pass such a far-reaching law, and make that progressive vision a reality for a generation or so, only if there were currently a terrible social crisis. Even in that case, it is clear that the forces of reaction are stronger than ever and prepared to swat down any serious attempt at challenging oppressive values. The Great Depression led to the New Deal and the social disintegration of the 60s led to the first effective civil rights law since Reconstruction, while the Great Recession brought you what, Obamacare? It might not be Democrats' fault that the Democrats are useless, because it might be built into the current system that no one can make real reforms happen even when they're badly needed, but the fact is Democrats are pretty much useless for that.