Thursday, February 12, 2004
Defending Tail Gunner Z
I wouldn't call myself a communist. Unless, of course, I was trying to start an argument at a certain kind of dinner party.
One reason I wouldn't call myself a communist is that I don't believe in the inevitability of revolution, and couldn't support a violent revolution even if I did. Too many professed communists, especially communists with a share of political power, have had a cavalier attitude towards human suffering. They have so dirtied the label that anything noble it might once have stood for is now blocked from view.
Another reason I wouldn't call myself a communist is that I wouldn't want to commit myself to communist economic theory. Marx was very smart and added a lot to the study of economics, but in the century and a half since he did his best work the discipline has moved past him. It's unfortunate that contemporary mainstream economists don't read Marx – he has things to teach them about the way disparities in bargaining power distort markets. But it's also unfortunate when latter day communists don't familiarize themselves with modern economic theory.
Labels are deceptively powerful. The vice principal at my junior high school wanted to be a figure of respect, a man feared by the students and spoken of in hoarse whispers. But his name was Dr. Grippenstroh. That name can only induce giggling among adolescents.
For awhile a desire not to be pigeonholed led me to call myself an anti-ismist and to deny all doctrines other than anti-ismism. I contemplated writing a manifesto. Even after I became disillusioned with anti-ismismist dogma I considered becoming an anti-ismismologist so that I could study the main figures of the movement. Unfortunately, no one had gotten around to writing a manifesto, so that project fell through.
Not all definitions are bad. My uncle happily calls himself an accountant and doing so helps him attract clients. Carnap thought that agreement on definitions was a necessary condition for rational disagreement about anything else.
If I had to give a label to the core of my political beliefs, I'd call myself a radical democrat. With Rawls, I think that the most fundamental democratic commitment is to the idea that all persons have a right to equal participation in the operation of political institutions, and that this right is grounded in the fact that all persons are capable of forming and acting upon their own conception of the good. I don't know how to argue for this commitment, but I don't think it's very controversial either – it seems to me to underlie the professed ideologies of both major political parties in the United States.
What makes me a radical is my understanding of political institutions. As a matter of definition, an institution is political just in case it is a mechanism for the legitimate exercise of coercive force. Using this definition, a libertarian would say that governments are the only political institutions. As a radical democrat, I hold that political institutions are much more pervasive. In particular, I think that the exercise of economic power is an exercise of coercive force and that, therefore, institutions which exercise economic power are political institutions. It follows that all persons have a right to equal participation in the operation of economic institutions, which is to say that the workplace ought to be democratized.
As with the fundamental democratic commitment, this isn't something I have an argument for. In fact, I suspect that it's not the sort of thing that can be settled by argument. Instead, it's a matter of perception; you either see it or you don't. The thing to do in such a case is to try to train the perceptions of others by pointing out the things you think they ought to see.
Sometimes they won't see it. They'll just see you, pointing, and think, "Damn commie!"
Them's the breaks.