Conor Friedersdorf’s Main Problem With Socialism? DemocracyPhoto by Spencer Platt/Getty Politics Features Conor Friedersdorf
Conor Friedersdorf, one of the Internet’s most famed libertarians, is concerned with the rise of socialism, or as he puts it in his Atlantic piece, “democratic socialism.”
With very few exceptions, pretty much every socialist in America is a democratic socialist. That means they view socialism as an extension of democracy. The means of production should be shared. Libertarianism, which is the professional worship of old rich guys, disagrees with popular control of the economy.
To most Americans, “democracy” always sounds appealing. But many young people who say they’re “democratic socialists” may fail to grasp all that minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained by the political and economic system under which we currently live. What ought to scare them is not social-welfare spending on the less fortunate. The original Jacobin piece is clear that, in the estimation of its authors, the left should not be content even if it achieves progressive goals such as universal access to health care, higher education, and housing.
I used to think CF was disingenuous. Many people still do. But I don’t anymore. When he’s given a chance to respond to the specter of socialism, what does CF do? Does he go the tried-and-true way of claiming socialism is autocracy, death to the human spirit, un-American, or impractical?
No. CF, God bless him, goes back to the conservative well and actually argues that we have to be afraid of democracy.
”…if democracy were radically less constrained.” Imagine writing that in 2018! Well, we don’t have to. CF has done the job for us.
As an ideology, the right is profoundly uncomfortable with democracy: that’s why they’re always crowing about how we’re “A republic, not a democracy.” But it’s unusual to find a right-winger who will be blatant enough to admit it. I’m almost taken aback:
Popular control is finally realized! So: How popular is Islam? How many Muslim prayer rugs would the democratic majority of workers vote to produce? How many Korans? How many head scarves? How much halal meat would be slaughtered? What share of construction materials would a majority of workers apportion to new mosques?
Under capitalism, the mere existence of buyers reliably gives rise to suppliers. Relying instead on democratic decisions would pose a big risk for Muslims. And Sikhs. And Hindus. And Jews. And maybe even Catholics.
This is normally where I’d assume that CF was once more trolling liberals, this time by appealing to identity politics. But I’m no longer sure about his bona fides in that department.
CF seems genuinely convinced that capital frees us from that reliable right-wing bogeyman, majority rule. Interesting phrase, that. “Majority rule.”
When conservatives speak of protecting a minority from a majority, what do they mean? Libertarians don’t want to protect actual minorities, like women or LGBTQ Americans; when did a libertarian ever object to the pay gap? Rather, what they mean by “minority” is “property-owners” and by “majority” they mean “working people.”
Like most libertarians, CF is just dandy with the invasive power of the state in Approved Cases. Jeff Bezos underpays his workers, and heaps up mountains of treasure. The state pays for guards to protect Bezos’ hoard.
The state only becomes abusive, in CF’s view, when it tries to set matters right. CF is just fine with concentrations of power when they’re in private hands: say, a class of a hundred extremely rich people dictating policy. It’s only when those concentrations are accessible to the unwashed horde that libertarians start to panic.
As Carl Beijer writes about CF’s piece:
So is the problem with socialism too much democracy, or not enough democracy? The answer, of course, is both. When socialism promises to put an end to the terrors of capitalism through the power of the state, it’s time to start warning about the “unaccountable bureaucrats” and “regimes” that impose “socialism from above” (see Friedersdorf’s previous article). When we clarify that we’ll rely on a democratic state, however, the critique reverses: first the bureaucrats were unaccountable, but now “their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will.”
As Beijer points out, our supposed elite safeguards are conservative. The Electoral College, that great bulwark of liberty, gave us Trump; the majority of Americans voted for Clinton. During the middle of the 20th century, what body blocked Civil Rights legislation? The Senate. The majority wanted to strike down Jim Crow; but the “great men” of High Chamber wouldn’t allow it.
We could be ungenerous to CF. I could point out that nothing demolishes traditional belief quicker than modern capitalism. I could point out that our system is a machine for oppressing and rolling over the people CF claims it helps. I could point out this is another retread of the chestnut of “Be grateful, peasants. See how many iPod colors capitalism gives you!” I could point out that this is exactly the opposite of what capital does, which is create monoculture. Does CF realize that in twenty years, most of the working class of America will be people of color?
I could, but I won’t. I’m still awestruck over his choice to double down on “democracy bad.” It’s a genuinely strange angle for a public conservative to take. It’s not a choice that a perceptive, calculating right-winger would make. And that’s just the point.
For a long time I just assumed CF was an aggravating right-wing concern troll. A Caitlin Flanagan for the Hayek Crowd. CF was reliable. Pick any political moment over the past five years. Look for the side that’s fighting for liberation. And you would find CF making a very serious face about how rude the progressives are. Are billionaires shutting down media platforms? Is the alt-right marching? Are giant corporations shutting down marginalized voices? Is the government prosecuting protesters? No matter what the rich and powerful are doing, CF found the will to dig deep in his soul and complain that Reformers are Not Protesting Right.
That was his shtick. Or so I thought.
Now? When I read an actual CF sentence like, “In the economic realm alone, their solution would consolidate power now dispersed across firms with powerful incentives to serve mass and niche markets via decentralized, uncoordinated decisions,” my reaction is changed. I no longer think he is deliberately ignoring Amazon. I honestly think he’s just incapable of grasping perspective on most features of modern American life.
In this light, I can no longer take CF as a threat to my political philosophy. If this feels anticlimactic, believe me, I share your mood. But the man convinced The Atlantic to publish the equivalent of a sophomore year term paper.
Who would write this?
I don’t think The Paladin of Tone has a mendacious bone is his body. CF’s gift is a spectacular indifference to reality, a perpetual twilight of the reason. Bees can see ultraviolet light, blue, and green. CF has the opposite problem. He can only see red, and shades of red, and how everything looks in the light of red. He can critique the way red looks today, but not anything else. Until this moment, I didn’t understand.
He’s not pretending to be oblivious; he just is. CF is a concern troll, but doesn’t know it — and that’s the miracle.