Democratic socialism is on the rise America, as evidenced by the popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the mainstreaming of various collectivist policies. Many have shrugged at the movement, explaining it away as a far cry from the blood-soaked tyrannies of yore. But while the practical differences are certainly significant, many of the basic moral impulses remain the same, bent toward a particular ideal of social control and deconstructionism across individual and institutional life.
In a recent paper for the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Ayaan Hirsi Ali takes aim at the economic and moral problems of such efforts, arguing that democratic capitalism remains the best solution, “not only for its economic efficiency, but also for its moral superiority and the possibilities it provides for humans to flourish.”
“Democratic capitalism, in the framework of the rule of law and respect for individual rights, has benefited billions of human beings,” writes Ali. “It allows for gradual, incremental progress to remedy legitimate grievances as they arise. Until a better alternative can credibly be proposed, these are the institutions that we should celebrate – and defend.”
Raised in the Somali Democratic Republic, Ali is no stranger to these forces. She has experienced the failures of collectivism firsthand — economically, socially, and at every level of society.
She reflects on her mother, whose daily life largely consisted of “standing in line for hours on end to receive the daily ration of food allotted by the government.” Such lines were useful for the planning elite, she explains, reminding citizens of their dependency on the collectivist machine. “I recall that my mother and grandmother felt a sense of bafflement, indignity, and real powerlessness as a result of this daily grind,” Ali explains. It’s a telling portrait of how individual subjugation can stifle healthy community, undermining the real sources of provision through top-down organization.
Yet such injustice went beyond material devastation and individualized pain. Pressed by the state’s various restrictions, some Somalians would eventually express their creativity in other ways. “They began to smuggle, scheme, game the system, and lie,” Ali explains. Predictably, state officials were happy to accommodate such behavior, leading to a system wherein the wealthy and well-connected consolidated their control through the power of the state. By overemphasizing equality in select areas, they inevitably neglected it elsewhere:
The system of scientific socialism as implemented by the government did not result in equality and justice. On the contrary, it was the people with the strongest political connections to the government and to influential clans who were most empowered under the system. A system that claimed to empower the marginalized and dispossessed showed an astonishing lack of compassion for precisely the least-connected people.
You had to “know someone,” invariably someone who was not accountable to the public. What I witnessed in those days was the very opposite of equality and justice. There was tremendous inequality and tremendous injustice. Siad Barré’s communist regime brutally repressed dissidents, as did other authoritarian socialist regimes of the twentieth century.
Ali proceeds to highlight other case studies across the world, from Venezuela, to Cuba, to China, to various Eastern European states. “In every implementation and expression of authoritarian socialism, individual freedom has been irrevocably compromised for a utopian and unattainable collective idea,” she concludes. “The sheer number of failed socialist experiments raises important questions about politics, economics, justice, and human nature.”
So, how do the more recent iterations compare?
On economics, today’s so-called socialists are noticeably softer, to be sure. Yes, they will promote lavish social welfare programs and seek to control certain sectors, but in doing so, they will also hem and haw about the legitimacy of capitalism, occasionally praising the good of private ownership. Very few will advocate for outright state ownership of the means of production, carefully cloaking their vocabulary with the typical qualifiers about how the authoritarian socialists simply did it wrong. The economic ideas are still heavily clouded by fatal conceits, but if there is a revolutionary aspect to all this, it seems to stem from something deeper.
For Ali, our modern “grievance politics” is the key — fixed on zero-sum battles against various oppressors fueled by the arbitrary ideals of the age.
Whereas “the socialism of the twentieth century was primarily economic in orientation,” Ali explains, today’s “neosocialism” takes its cues from the current streams of identity politics, seeking to politicize multiple aspects daily life. In our new “crisis of history,” we are no longer confined to a struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie but are part of a larger war among an amorphous array of “clashing, competing classes” – social, economic, religious, racial, and otherwise.
This isn’t to say there aren’t distinct struggles among distinct classes in American life. Likewise, it isn’t to say that such struggles aren’t often perpetuated by select clusters of the entrenched and well-connected. It’s simply to note that socialism finds its remedy in exacerbating these tensions. Rather than managing our differences and disagreements in a context of ordered liberty, it seeks to squeeze us into a unified collective, promoting false notions of “equality” that, in application, diminish our cultural diversity and prod us ever closer to lifeless conformity.
“Just as in the socialism of old, the individual and his own moral contributions are [still] devalued,” she explains. “What matters, once again, is the group (the collective tribe) to which an individual belongs. Again, these collective groups are either oppressive or oppressed, and an individual’s moral worth is determined by looking at the group or groups to which he belongs. Capitalism, with its emphasis on individualism, meritocracy, and color-blindness, is not compatible with this worldview.”
Today’s democratic socialists relish the glories of popular control, seeking to distinguish themselves from their authoritarian forebearers. But democracy does little to correct for such targeted violations of individual freedom. Indeed, when tied to our current climate of mob politics, democracy serves to highlight socialism’s core flaws in uniquely destructive ways — expanding and diversifying our class warfare well beyond the typical categories of rich vs. poor, even if it is felt primarily at the levels of local community and social media warfare.
“The rise of tribalism, identity politics, critical race theory; the ideological bent of gender studies, the focus of intersectionality on collective blocs rather than the human individual – all of these correlate with the rise of a new socialism,” Ali explains. “Consequently, we are at risk of losing the ideal of a universal humanity, which can be based only on a respect for individuals, regardless of their backgrounds and attributes.”
It doesn’t represent our only tribal temptation, of course, particularly now that populists and nationalists have found their own footholds in American identity politics, each boasting their own ironic bits of Marxist revolutionary flair. But given the their heightened position across institutional life – the academy, the media, business, and elsewhere – the neosocialists hold cultural sway that seems likely to endure, regardless of whether it has any successes in the realm of “practical politics.”
The more we hastily divide our neighbors into groups of “oppressed” vs. “oppressor,” elevating collective conformity as the only way forward, the less justice we are likely to see across all spheres of society. Even if the “market” or “democracy” aren’t being dismantled directly in favor of Venezuelan-style economic autocracy, the social and relational ripple effects of these cultural movements will inevitably mirror the values at the heart of those tired economic aims.