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The socialism America needs The Left's agenda is more feudal than Marxist

Green politics in action (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


November 23, 2021   5 mins

Clobbered from all sides by the pandemic, climate change and disruptions in virtually every industry by the rise of artificial intelligence, the capitalist dream is dying — and a new, mutant form of socialism is growing in its place. In the US, perhaps it’s no surprise that most Democrats have a better opinion of socialism than capitalism. Far more startling is the fact that they are not alone: the Republican party and the corporate establishment, which once paid lip service to competitive capitalism, are both starting to embrace the importance of massive deficit spending and state support.

But unlike the social democracy movements that followed World War Two, the New Socialism focusses not on material aspirations but on climate change, gender, and race. While the old socialism sought to represent the ordinary labourer, many on the Left today seem to have little more than contempt for old working-class base and its often less than genteel views on issues such as Critical Race Theory.

Yet perhaps the most critical difference between traditional socialism and its new form relates to growth. The New Socialism’s emphasis on climate change necessarily removes economic growth as a priority. Quite the opposite, in fact: the Green agenda looks instead towards a shrinking economy and lowered living standards, seeking to elevate favoured groups within a stagnant economy rather than generating opportunities for the general population.

As a result, this new variant of socialism seems more feudal than Marxist. As Edwin Aponte, editor of the socialist blog The Bellows, has observed, Marx opposed utopian socialists, with their dreams of a return to the cohesive social order of feudal times — instead, he favoured using technology and economic growth to lift them up.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may not realise that the much-admired European socialist system was built on the back of a private sector. But the truth is that virtually all the successful welfare states — Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia — rose on competitive economies: Swedish steel, Dutch chemicals, German machine tools and cars were critical to funding socialist programs in capitalist countries. But as this model slowly crumbles, as Europe loses its competitive edge to China and elsewhere, this lesson appears to have been forgotten. And in its place has risen a New Socialism that serves Wall Street, the City and the tech oligarchy.

The usual response from environmental activists is that the rapid transition to “zero carbon” will create oodles of new, well-paid jobs. In reality, however, these jobs generally pay less, offer fewer hours and are rarely unionised. The reality facing the middle class is an acceleration of our class divides and lower living standards. It’s long been de rigueur on the Green Left to cut back on homeownership, limit use of private cars or even fly on vacation. In other words, those who will suffer most are the very people whom socialism is supposed to save. Already energy poverty is on the rise in those places — from California to the EU — where punitive fuel costs have been increased.

Elsewhere, supply chain problems and inflation are now dismissed as “high-class problems”, even if it also means high prices for essentials such as milk, gas and rent. The Atlantic, a premier voice of the gentry Left, grumbles that “America’s central organizing principle is thoughtless consumption”, echoing the kind of homily handed out by Medieval clerics to disgruntled serfs.

Yet nowhere is the hierarchical nature of feudalistic socialism clearer than in the property markets. Social democrats may have once celebrated people owning homes or cars, but new green-tinged policies would lead to those becoming an option only for the rich, while opening a vast market for financial firms to buy single family homes and turn them into rentals. Just look at California, where Green progressives wield almost unlimited power, and which is now home to rising inequality, the nation’s highest poverty rate and the second lowest percentage of homeowners.

Of course, this mindset is not confined to the Left. In the UK, for example, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have proposed climate-based rules that would force homeowners — their political base — to retrofit their homes for thousands of pounds, while forcing them to abandon affordable gas heaters for less effective electric ones. This reflects what one socialist neatly labels “eco-Thatcherism in Britain“.

But there can be little doubt that the biggest change is taking place on the Left. Historically, the British and Australian Labour Parties, the French Socialist Party, America’s Democrats and Canada’s Liberals evolved from a strong working-class base. But in recent years, for both economic and cultural reasons, these parties have become dominated by professionals, academics and government workers increasingly bent on introducing paternalistic, puritan policies.

Ultimately, many of the old Left-wing parties may end up losing out to the ascendant Greens, who could be the real winners of the rise of New Socialism. It is not inconceivable that they could take power across Europe — particularly in Germany where the country’s traditional industrial base has shrunk. In the US, although there’s not much chance of the Greens challenging the ruling political duopoly, there are clear signs that the Democrats could find themselves torn between the need to represent both progressives and the party’s blue-collar base.

Yet it didn’t have to be this way. The Left’s Green policies might be big on virtue, but moves to eliminate energy and industrial jobs make no sense if we are going to depend on fossil fuels for at least the next few decades. It seems futile to be shutting down domestic pipelines, curbing energy production and raising electricity prices while begging the Saudis or the detestable Putin regime to drill more.

A more traditional socialist would promote domestic production, particularly natural gas, while also trying to shift production away from coal-dependent China, the world’s primary emitter. China’s Xi continues to build new coal plants and arrange for long-term oil supplies from the Middle East. Unlike our Left-wing parties, Xi knows the grip on keeping power rests on meeting the aspirations of his subjects, not dampening them.

To remain relevant, the Left needs to return to the basics. Social democracy, as first developed in places like Sweden, sought to bolster families, and allow for improvements in daily life. Throughout history, economic growth has been critical to making societies wealthier, while making it far easier to distribute salves to the poor, invest in environmental improvements and work to improve conditions for historically disadvantaged minorities. Good jobs and “economic expansion,” notes economic historian Benjamin Friedman, are the best antidote for “rising intolerance and incivility”.

Is there still hope for a more socially beneficial kind of socialism? Certainly, elements of the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill could help American industry compete with China. People, more than anything, want roads, bridges and ports fixed. But all this risks being undone if the Democrats continue to press for more extreme measures: more moderate Democrats will lose their seats, and the GOP will gain control of the House.

Many on the Left deny the electoral reality, and claim the party can only win by moving towards more assertive redistribution, anti-racist and draconian climate policies. Meanwhile, the Republicans are redoubling efforts to forge a social democratic agenda, crafting an aggressive programme of tax breaks for working families, upholding educational choice in states such as Virginia, and committing to aggressive re-shoring for industry. Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio has even called for a “divorce” with the financial and corporate elite.

It’s an encouraging sign, even though such moves will be adamantly opposed by the bearers of libertarian orthodoxy who have shaped the party for a generation and have the support of many of the party’s big funders. In the end, then, both the libertarians and feudal socialists could find themselves rejected by the majority of the population. After all, a society bedevilled by rising inequality, racial tensions, a pandemic and complex issues around climate change is as unlikely to accept honeyed words about ‘the market being efficient’ as it would tolerate an increasingly intrusive state that squashes their aspirations in the name of environmental virtue.

Something else is needed: policies that address the competitive economy while preserving upward mobility, economic growth and an environment improved by technological changes. In other words we need a socialism that is rooted in the needs of the working and middle classes — not one that seeks to keep them in their place.


Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)

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Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

Yesterday my daughter was chastised by her teacher in front of my wife for not using another student’s preferred pronoun. The two children are 9. Progressives, especially gender hustlers, can get in the bin.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Gonna need a bigger bin.

John Bassett
John Bassett
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Next time somebody wants my preferred pronouns I think I’ll put down, MAGA, MAGA, and MAGA and see if they use them.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bassett

I announced my preferred pronouns a few weeks ago:-

https://amoebadick.blogspot.com/2021/10/my-pronouns.html
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bassett

My preferred pronouns, announced a few weeks ago on my blog (google “Amoeba D1ck”) are notfuc/kingwoke.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Gawd I feel sorry for your daughter. My grandson was chastised as a 6 year old, his parents even had to meet the headteacher, because when asked to identify the impact of differences in class mates, he rather cleverly (in my view) stated that a black child in the class would experience more issues – he’d obviously picked this up from tv, maybe school and his elders. He didn’t say anything racist – just highlighted that black people can experience issues because they’re black. He should have been lauded.

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago

“But unlike the social democracy movements that followed World War Two, the New Socialism focusses not on material aspirations but on climate change, gender, and race. While the old socialism sought to represent the ordinary labourer, many on the Left today seem to have little more than contempt for old working-class base and its often less than genteel views on issues such as Critical Race Theory.”

Regardless of your economic standpoint, this is a strikingly accurate analysis of the modern discourse on political issues – no longer do the parties have a coherent or even developed/endorsed system of looking at the world. Rather, it’s composed of assorted opinions on whatever issue is at hand
 entirely reactionary. Under the guise of “socialism”, the internet dwelling left is allowed to be a vaguely contradictory mass of opinions, as opposed to the coherent (if misguided) “comprehensive” systems of the past’s political ideologies.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Wilson
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Marxism IS feudalism: hierarchy of goons aided and abetted by an indoctrinating clerisy? Check. Command economy in which nobody owns anything but the state or its leader? Check. Millenarian doctrine which promises paradise tomorrow as a reward for sustained obedience and horrible suffering? Check again. We might add: art which endlessly repeats the same message in support of the clerisy; vicious intolerance of dissent; disdain for reality and suspicion of truth as independently or spontaneously discovered; a reliance on pie-eyed dogma – viz extrapolations from Ptolemy or Galen or “critical race theory”, in tandem with bitter hostility towards the evidence of one’s senses. Hence the disbelief morphing into wilful ignorance when a certain person drives an SUV into harmless consumers; hence the screaming indignation that a man who acted in self-defence is cleared by the courts. Evidently, it is Marxism which is back in charge, over whole swathes of western thought and institutional life. DON’T go making excuses for it.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Plus the demand for justice based on their “narrative” rather than existing law. President Biden was ‘angry and upset’ at the verdict because: existing law was deplorable (so to speak) or the jurors were? Someone should ask, him, really.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  rick stubbs

Well, maybe they asked him around teatime. It’s when many people of his age become “angry and upset”.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

You make some excellent points. However, Marxian socialism is far more centralized than feudalism. It’s impossible for me to imagine a socialist equivalent to the English barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta. Leaders at the national capital, yes; that’s how Khrushchev was overthrown, I believe. But not a collection of leaders from various locales come together in Runnymede.

JAX AGNESSON
JAX AGNESSON
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Anyone can pull this cheap old gag; pick two items from the same broad class, (in this case, two political/economic structures). Point out a few aspects that, if described with sufficient vagueness, sound quite similar, and VIOLA! they are the same thing. Marxism IS Feudalism? Yeah, right!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

This is a very mixed and rambling essay, making many points but not too coherently.

First of all, for older people Socialism has a bad name because it has been a weasel-word meaning Communism. It is better not to talk about Socialism because hackles will rise immediately.

Let us say that life is changing. The old idea was that poorer people should be given money to bring them up in the world. This didn’t work because they just spent the money, often on parties, and demanded more.

Next came equalising education so that the poorer people would better understand what to do with the money. This was only possible by lowering standards to allow people to catch up. This dumbing down lowered the ability of the whole population so that people could no longer do difficult things properly. Everybody wanted to party.

What has been missing is an aim, a raison-d’etre. For short periods wars have brought us together. It is certainly possible that the politicians in the USA will start a war to achieve this aim. But wait, what about the covid? This was too sudden and impossible to manage.

I know, The Environment. We can all be brought in line fighting for the environment. We can all be told that when we are enjoying ourselves we are spoiling the environment. We can all sit at home with our super-fibre broadband and look at screens telling us the latest figures about the environment. How many people insulated their houses today? 20,162 people did this yesterday so can we beat that figure today? Mrs Jones in Wrexham saved 5 kw of energy yesterday and she gets a prize of a super, environmentally-friendly thermal vest for the winter.

I am going to write a book and call it 2084.

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You’re wrong about education. It DID work UNTIL the left started dumbing it down. Read Peter Hitchens on grammar schools.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

I agree. There was nothing wrong with the grammar schools, it was entirely due to one such school that I, from a working-class family, was able to achieve my goals. What was needed was more money/effort spent on the secondary moderns, some of which were very good, but a large number were dumping grounds for children who were deemed failures even before they had really started their lives. What we ended up with was pretty much all schools becoming like the worst, or, if one is being kind, the not so good, secondary moderns; the excellence of the grammar schools was gone. Very few, if any, children benefitted from these so-called reforms.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Much I agree on, but the grammar school I went to was just way too stuck in the past, and way too imitative of the public schools. If I’d known it was going to be so snobby and middle class I’d have taken the scholarship and gone to public school instead.
I’m afraid the grammar school I went to was far from excellent. Like most schools it was patchy. Some good teachers, a lot of mediocre ones, and some total duffers. Lorded over by a headmaster, panicked by the social changes of the 60s, who, far from seeing his school as a route to success for working class kids, was put out when any of them turned out to be bright.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

And we’ll watch those immense telescreens while chewing on organic cannabis gummies to maintain our calm.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
2 years ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

The large telescreens take too much energy, especially the downloading of films from the internet. We will sit in cold dark houses, glued to the radio, ONE per household, listening to the apocalyptic stats of gloom and doom.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephanie Surface
Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago

Glugging our Victory Gin while we listen. That gin being grain alcohol, essentially. With a label displaying Meghan and Harry.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago

AND – everybody will be formed into “New Pelotons” and “encouraged” to keep fit while feeding into the National Grid.

JAX AGNESSON
JAX AGNESSON
2 years ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

Where can I get some of them organic cannabis thin-gummies?

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

The Green agenda can only succeed by destroying democracy first. The reason is simple: voters only tolerate inequalities of wealth and power as long as their own prospects are improving. If those prospects go into reverse and their living standards start reducing (and more importantly their children’s prospects start to look worse than their own) then the privilege of wealth enjoyed by others becomes problematic.

And when that privilege exists among the same people who say that the planet cannot survive good living standards for everyone, only themselves, well that becomes intolerable.

The article above appears to understand this only partly, what with its final paragraph talking about how we need a socialism that works. This is not true: free market capitalism is the only mechanism that has ever delivered modern living standards, and the way forward is to fix it, not have another go at the stupidest poltical idea in history.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

” … the corporate establishment (is) starting to embrace the importance of massive deficit spending and state support.” The corporate establishment has learnt that it is far easier to take government money than compete in the free market. The ‘Green New Deal’ will turn out to be no more than apple-white, but many corporates will be well rewarded for their financial support for the Democrats. The first sector to benefit from government largesse this century was the arms industry. Wars were fought to justify expenditure. That’s why no one cared that the US military left armaments worth billions in Afghanistan. The manufacturers of this equipment had already got their money. Then there was the financial industry who found that debasing the currency resulted in higher asset prices. It was inevitable that other sectors of the economy wanted to get in on the act.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

Okay, now I’m certain Joel Kotkin is an officially sanctioned Unherd troll. I used to think he was sincere. But now I think he’s like that $10 bill your dad left on the floor to test your self-control. Will you reach for the easy stuff at the expense of your dignity? Any tortured soul who would begin an article “Clobbered from all sides by the pandemic, climate change and disruptions in virtually every industry by the rise of artificial intelligence, the capitalist dream is dying” needs our support more than our derision. I admit to not reading all of it. I’m not actually convinced the author read all of it.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

Mickey – ah, the voice of reason finally! I am shocked that the other commenters let Kotkin get away with the distorting blob of endorsement of leftwing ideas in this article! The place where Republicans have an issue with free market economics is NOT socialism to achieve green-ish ideals.
Rather it is because of large global players moved to China for cheap labor: the US has OSHA (workplace safety) and environmental and labor laws and wages in place for manufacturing, which makes manufacturing (including labor inputs) more expensive. China and Viet Nam (for example) have none of these – no OSHA, Environmental restrictions (to speak of) and no minimum wage laws that allow people to live on a single salary. In short, the US permitted these global big-boys to outsource pollution and unsafe work environments (including slave labor) to China , so that the elite can buy fancy iPhones for $1,000 instead of $1,500. That’s why republicans want to on-shore manufacturing.

That’s just one of the grand distortions in Klotkin – his choices for the US are: socialism or socialism.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

The Capitalist Dream, and Capitalism itself, are already dead.

Small businesses aside, there’s nothing left that is remotely like Adam Smith’s capitalist ideals.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

The New Socialism’s emphasis on climate change necessarily removes economic growth as a priority.

This one has perhaps been a long time coming to the fore, but it’s been there since the 60s in parts of the left. One could describe it as part of the hippy inheritance of the left – an antimaterialism of the posh left which sneers at those who haven’t got much, and want more.
More generally, a surprising amount of what could be called modern bourgeois culture has its origins in a former counter culture.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Morley
T Doyle
T Doyle
2 years ago

The writer fall for the trap of citing “rising inequalities”. For who? Actual poverty, life expectancy and other measure of life quality have risen massively across the world since 1945.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Someone please tell me where the money trail leads to on this?

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Democrats would do well to forsake their attempt to indoctrinate sexual identity doctrines into the curricula of school children. These programs are alienating American parents and families.
And yes, all of the above economic platforms that you mention. . . Democrats and Centrists need to incorporate into their list of priorities, if they are going compete with the fast-fascizing republicans at the ballot box.
First and foremost, we need to get back to Civics classes in school. My boomer generation, having been taught the principles of Constitutional Law, must get back to emphasizing the rule of Law, instead of turning to intimidation with weapons and violence to reinstate an authoritarian bully who will use any lie or provocation to abscond the Presidency from our rightful victor, President Joe Biden, even if he is a weak Executive.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

Although, as a fellow American, your characterizations of Republicans as “fascist” has given me my laugh du jour. Nonetheless, I agree that Civics and Economics have been neglected. As a former teacher I believe they should junk the invented subject of Social Studies, and instead teach actual history, geography and economics. Civics should naturally be embedded in American History, along with their hopefully budding notion of economics. I was told as a student that since taxes were going to be extorted anyway, the more educated and involved a voter one was, the more you would get your money’s worth out of that. In many decades, I have seen no reason to doubt that statement. Be smart, be involved, follow the money — because it came out of your pocket after all. Government “gives” us nothing it has not first taken away.

JAX AGNESSON
JAX AGNESSON
2 years ago
Reply to  Liz Walsh

“As a former teacher I believe they should junk the invented subject of Social Studies, and instead teach actual history, geography and economics”. Were these subjects not invented?

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

If you had typed a full stop (for you a ‘period’) after the word “violence” then as a Brit I think you would have many green upticks. An Electoral Audit in one of your ‘swing-states’ has already unearthed 11,000 or so dead people who voted Biden and in Georgia, IIRC, the state authorities (I presume what us Brits would call an Electoral Commission) cannot find ANY (machine) voting records because they have been erased/destroyed.