Socialism, a politics for the good life
On my return flight home from Chicago, I was seated next to a lovely older Bulgarian woman who now resides in the United States. Eventually our conversation wound its way to the inescapable topic of politics. As someone born in 1993, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask her about her life before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before doing so, I had already subtly gathered that she was conservative and a supporter of ‘free market economics’. I was therefore unsurprised to hear her voice dismay and contempt when recounting her experiences in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
We ended up talking about politics for quite a while. She was a staunch supporter of the GOP, and spoke the language of Reagan republicanism. I have very little interest in trying to convert strangers to socialism, so my side of the conversation mostly involved listening. When I did speak, I identified myself as a Bernie Sanders supporter, figuring that would be a simpler starting point than divulging the entirety of my messy political ideology. At times, I tried to insert small ideas or corrections. For example, when she bemoaned the taxes that businesses are required to pay, I mentioned that some of the biggest corporations don’t pay any federal income tax. She seemed unaware of this fact and didn’t accept it.
Among our scattered remarks, I think there was one moment of breakthrough or connection. That moment arrived when we contemplated the different values that anchor our world views and life philosophies. She (I never got her name, unfortunately), was enamored by the idea that one could lead an entrepreneurial life and accumulate wealth. Whereas I espoused the idea that the goods of life are generally cheap and can easily be collectively produced. She characterized our disagreement as one predicated on prioritizing material versus spiritual goods — she the former, me the latter.
By appealing to her own story I attempted to further explore our differences. At one point, she mentioned that in Bulgaria she would visit the cafeteria every morning before work to enjoy coffee and conversations with friends. The death of this daily ritual after moving to America was described as a serious loss. Now she lives in a big house on a farm, and bemoans that social life is so ‘programmed’ and scheduled, and doesn’t flow naturally like it did in her home country. At other points in the conversation, however, she spoke enthusiastically about her (satiated) desires to own fancy cars, to get the best private healthcare, to take lavish vacations, and start businesses — things only America can supposedly offer.
I tried to express my view of the good life by pointing to the richness of her cafeteria experiences. I suggested that spending time with friends and family, philosophizing about life’s quandaries, enjoying a delicious cup of coffee, are the true constituents of a fulfilling life, and they do not require slavish devotion to alienated labour and wealth accumulation. Collectively, we can make these goods widely available and accessible with proper investments in the public economy, and that this should be the aim of a moral social policy agenda.
This approach helped us to break ground, because it became evident that we each desire a political system oriented towards entirely different ends. In other words, our politics diverge at the level of values, before even reaching the point of technics. She values the practice of private wealth accumulation, and wants a society that fully allows individuals to do that. I, on the other hand, value the enjoyment of the basic goods required to live well, and want a society that collectively produces these goods for everyone’s shared satisfaction. It felt as though my point of view genuinely came across, and induced a reaction of ‘well, I don’t share your vision of the good life’ as opposed to ‘you are just factually wrong’. I’m well aware that she did not deboard the plane eager to join the DSA, but I couldn’t help but feel we had a meaningful dialogue.
The conversation ending in the ‘I don’t share your values’ territory feels like a much better place to be. I have no evidence to suggest that it is a practically superior outcome. It may very well be that arguing for socialism in terms of technical efficiency is more successful for expanding the franchise. But I admit to sincere skepticism about that. People believe deep down that capitalism promises wealth and socialism leads to nothing but a diminished standard of living. Thus, instead of always trying to fight against that depiction, why not suggest that the obsession with wealth is misguided?
In other words, the political left might do well to avoid fighting for their cause within the confines of neoliberal and conservative assumptions. Of course, I felt compelled to take this route in my conversation on the plane. You can indeed argue for welfare programs and public services by pointing to their economic benefits. But I fear that really doesn’t illuminate the key issues that divide us: namely, our wildly different visions of the good life. I am not saying that the left should be defenders of asceticism and reject all the trappings of a materially comfortable existence. What I am arguing is that we must strive to narrate how a good life doesn’t depend on incessant fidelity to the acquisition of more. Failure to do so relegates the case for socialism to a defensive position, where we will always have to argue that socialism poses no threat to what people presently value. Instead, our time may be better spent articulating how socialism allows people to live a life defined by preferable spiritual values.