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Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara debate socialism

The Anti-Intellectual Case for Socialism

How have politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who openly champion socialism, become so popular? One of the reasons is that socialist intellectuals are working hard to spread socialist ideas.

The magazine Jacobin is in the intellectual vanguard of the new socialism. Founded in 2011 by Bhaskar Sunkara, the magazine uses a slickly designed web site and edgy prose to attract a wider audience than traditional leftist publications. Recently Sunkara published a widely reviewed book, The Socialist Manifesto. He is one of the intellectual leaders of the new socialist movement.

Recently, Sunkara agreed to debate the question of capitalism versus socialism in a series of three events with Yaron Brook, the chairman of the board of the Ayn Rand Institute. Having written a critique of Sunkara’s book from the perspective of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, I wanted to see how he would respond to Objectivist arguments. How, in particular, would an intellectual leader of the new socialism respond to the charge that socialism is a system at war with the value of individual freedom?

Socialism and freedom: pro and con

In the debates, Sunkara argues that socialism is the system that protects people’s “basic rights” to goods and services like health care, education, and nutrition. He also argues that workers should be given democratic control of the firms they staff by being given the right to elect their managers and receive a share of the profits. This, he says, is necessary to protect freedom from the “tyranny” in the workplace: from the “coercion” of having to take a job under terms set by others.1 Sunkara thinks worker collectives would be able to effectively manage their firms and encourage innovation.

Brook responds that there can be no “right” to goods and services produced by others as there is no “right” to engage in theft. Because socialism means systematic expropriation of the means of production in the name of the collective, it is the antithesis of individual freedom. It restricts individuals’ freedom to create material values, to trade them voluntarily with others, and to keep the products of these efforts. Socialist experiments have proved to be impractical because they are immoral: they fail to produce because they paralyze the source of production, the individual mind. Brook argues that capitalism is the system that bans the initiation of physical force and protects individuals’ freedom to use their minds in the pursuit of their happiness. To the extent that capitalism has been implemented, prosperity and abundance have been the result.

Interestingly, Sunkara agrees that innovators under systems with more capitalist elements have helped to create much of the prosperity and abundance we enjoy today. But he still thinks that it is just for the state to take over the firms those innovators have worked hard to create and to deprive them of the fruits of their labor. What reasons does one of today’s leading socialist intellectuals give in defense of this position?

The democracy justification

Why think that large-scale expropriation of private property promotes freedom? Sunkara acknowledges that this needs justification. “There is a trade-off here. . . . It’s a question of freedom for whom? Freedom for the majority who do not own private property? . . . Or freedom for the . . . minority who does?”2

Claiming that the majority has the right to vote to commandeer the life’s work of business people and to elect commissars who will dictate how the spoils are to be managed sounds a lot like unlimited majority rule.
How does Sunkara justify “freedom for the majority” that comes at the expense of the minority? His answer is typical of many socialists and “liberals”: he argues that restricting the freedom of the minority is justified because we vote to do it democratically.3  

This response seems persuasive because to many people, “democracy” means a government of elected representatives that protects basic freedoms. But as I have previously argued, “democracy” is ambiguous between that system and a system of unlimited majority rule, i.e., majority tyranny. Claiming that the majority has the right to vote to commandeer the life’s work of business people and to elect commissars who will dictate how the spoils are to be managed sounds a lot like unlimited majority rule. How does he defend against this objection?

Brook raises a form of the same objection by asking: why isn’t it justifiable on socialist premises for the majority to vote to silence the smallest minority, the individual, as Athens did to Socrates?4 Sunkara responds by asserting that socialists believe in the rights enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights and that there are limits to what can justifiably be taken from individuals.5 He asserts that socialists believe in “a sphere of rights that the state or no collective body, no matter how democratic, should touch,” such as the right to free speech, protest, and worship.6

What’s noteworthy is that this response is completely ad hoc and unresponsive to the question Brook is asking. Sunkara never explains why he thinks we should treat these rights as inalienable. If the majority objects to some people’s speech or some people’s assembly, and the will of the majority is the justification for other forms of coercion against minorities, why shouldn’t the majority vote to restrict these freedoms too? No answer is given.

Like a politician who wants to change the subject, he sidesteps the issue with the blunt denial that his position has any untoward implications.
A similar question could be asked about his response to Brook’s question about why someone wishing to start a business under socialism wouldn’t be jailed?7 Sunkara responds they would only be fined.8 Still, he does not answer the question of philosophical principle here: why wouldn’t the majority be justified in voting to jail entrepreneurs for this crime on his premises? Again, no answer is given.

As one of the leading socialist intellectuals, Sunkara could have offered some philosophical rationale for what distinguishes the freedom of capitalists from the freedom of philosophers and dissidents. (There are distinctions others have given, though I find them unpersuasive.) But like a politician who wants to change the subject, he sidesteps the issue with the blunt denial that his position has any untoward implications.

The pragmatism justification

Sunkara says he wants to distance himself from those socialists who apologized for modern oppressive socialist regimes. If so, shouldn’t he then want to articulate a clearly defined principle by which to distinguish the system he advocates from those regimes? But Sunkara regularly claims that he is not interested in justifying his views by reference to intellectual principles.9 He offers this pragmatism as a sign of his reasonability. But how intellectually serious is this contention?

There actually is a governing principle here, though Sunkara doesn’t seem to want to name it: it’s that the whim of the majority is supreme.
Brook identifies other instances of Sunkara’s unprincipled approach. For the “important” sectors of the economy (most prominently, health and education) Sunkara wants fully centralized state control and a prohibition of competition among firms. For other sectors he would allow state-owned firms to compete.10 This is even though the nationalization of a sector as important as agriculture demonstrably failed under communism, and even though (as Brook contends) the problems in today’s health and education industries can be traced to extensive state intervention in those sectors.

Rather than answering Brook’s facts, Sunkara invokes his pragmatism as a virtue.11 He echoes a point he made in the first debate, that if socializing a sector of the economy doesn’t work, “we” could always vote to re-privatize them.12 There actually is a governing principle here, though Sunkara doesn’t seem to want to name it: it’s that the whim of the majority is supreme. The majority that gets to decide what counts as important, what counts as outcomes that “work,” and, ultimately, whose lives should be interfered with or uprooted, and to what extent.

Sunkara had claimed that workers’ collectives under socialism could be as innovative as capitalists in a free market. But given his pragmatism, we should now ask: how can human beings be expected to innovate in a system in which they must live in fear of how the majority will decide to experiment the day after tomorrow? How can they innovate when no clearly defined principle stops the majority from voting to rob them of their property, their freedom, or their lives? These are dots Sunkara does not do the intellectual work to connect.

The new socialist intellectuals?

Sunkara is celebrated as “one of the most prominent voices on the American Left,” and his publication has been called “the leading intellectual voice of the American left” and even “the most successful American ideological magazine to launch in the past decade.”13 It seems fair to count his performance at these debates as representative of the best that today’s socialists have to offer.

If so, his performance seems to confirm comments Ayn Rand once made about how the state of our intellectual culture makes socialism attractive:  

It is only the . . . pragmatist, positivist, anti-conceptual mentality — which grants no validity to abstractions, no meaning to principles and no power to ideas — that can still wonder why a theoretical doctrine of that kind had to lead in practice to the torrent of blood and brute, non-human horror of such socialist societies as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Only [this] mentality can still claim that nobody can prove that these had to be the necessary results . . .  and still promise that its own gang would do it better and make it work — or still mumble in a quavering voice that the motive was love of humanity.14


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Footnotes

  1. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Maryland, September 17, 2019.
  2. “Socialism vs. Capitalism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Texas at Austin, September 18, 2019.
  3. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Maryland, September 17, 2019.
  4. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Maryland, September 17, 2019.
  5. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Maryland, September 17, 2019.
  6. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Colorado at Denver, September 19, 2019. 
  7. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Colorado at Denver, September 19, 2019. 
  8. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Colorado at Denver, September 19, 2019. 
  9. “Socialism vs. Capitalism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Texas at Austin, September 18, 2019.
  10. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Colorado at Denver, September 19, 2019. 
  11. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Colorado at Denver, September 19, 2019. 
  12. “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” Debate between Yaron Brook and Bhaskar Sunkara, the University of Maryland, September 17, 2019.
  13. BasicBooks.com promotional page for The Socialist Manifesto; Dylan Matthews, “Inside Jacobin,” Jacobin, March 21, 2016; Robert P. Baird, “The ABCs of Jacobin,” Columbia Journalism Review, January 2, 2019.
  14. Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition), 43.

Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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