Naggingly Abstract Freedom: A Critical Review of “Three Cheers for Socialism”

Introduction

It is due to my deep affinity to the historical heritages from which this discussion emerges from that I undertake it. My deep concern for my brothers and sisters who value both Chrisitian community and the experience of freedom is that they have become what they criticize.  Not uncommonly, they criticize formations of “us and them” from segments of society that have deep roots in individualist heritages.  And they criticize it by saying “we are smarter” than those “less reflective” and/or “less educated” ones. You will recognize a now entrenched “right vs centre vs left” or “Fox vs CNN vs truly informed” language lurking in the background.  I will not adopt those frames of discussion because they beat a dead horse (so to speak), they are semantically weak, but most of all, they hide the fundamental issues, armed as they are more for battles of rhetoric than for concrete experience.  Perhaps more significantly, my so-called tribe of people who value community and freedom, let’s call them “Reflectivists”, argues for types of “humane” systems from starkly non-reflective and deterministic reasons, which are clouded from Reflectivists arguments. 

In “Three Cheers for Socialism,” David Bentley Hart asserts, “[a]n enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete.”  The overall aim of the article, through an analysis of approaches to health care from other non-American Western states, is to highlight four general points, which I will consider in turn: 1) the so-called indoctrinated nature of Americans; 2) the illustration of the US state as a military-industrial complex; 3) a defense of the consideration of socialism; and 4) the highlighting that there is a shadow counter-enlightenment Christian communitarian heritage and ideals that still floats in the world. The confusion that abounds in this article reflects the overall confusion in the Reflectivist worldview; in other words, it sees other’s problems quite clearly, but is blindly unaware of its own. Since I put myself squarely in the Reflectivist camp, this has been my repeated problem as well.

Part 1

Let us consider points 1 and 2 above together. One should be aware of the admittedly abstract claim to Christian communitarian ideals made at the end of the article. It is a notion of a freedom in the abstract that motivates the criticism of the lack of concrete freedom in actuality.  Using this form of criticism (called a transcendental argument), Hart places himself squarely in line of the criticism he offers.  If Americans are indoctrinated, as it seems, that they are more free in the abstract than they are concretely, then Hart is just as guilty; the basis of his argument is admittedly a “shadow”, which is as abstract as it gets.  It is Plato’s cave. It is a dream within a dream.  It is a faint remembrance of glory days.  And it may be less true or ideal than his underlying hope.

To say that Americans are more indoctrinated than others is a bold claim.  Looking at this claim from a non-Western perspective, I believe that the concrete freedoms of indoctrinated societies are substantial.  There are numerous examples, including in Eastern Europe, and including in the Arab world.  The level of indoctrination in places like Oman, the UAE, and Qatar is quite high, but so too are the levels of freedom.  As a Canadian, the conciliatory tone I may project is the result of effective indoctrination. The point of agreement I have with Hart is that Amerians believe they aren’t indoctrinated.  Hart uses the US healthcare system to show it.  Americans defend a system that does not bear the fruits that it promises, but Americans believe it does bear the fruit it promises.  (Given the more recent movements to the Affordable Care Act, I am still not certain that Americans themselves do not see the conflicts between the promises and the fruits of the US healthcare system) He also uses this argument to substantiate the basic premise that the money from the tax system to fund a military-industrial complex that benefits only the rich. Hart writes, “the government raises its revenues for the express purpose of transferring as much wealth as possible from the working and middle classes to corporations and plutocrats.” Dog-whistling.  Let’s stir the emotional pot of people who care for the poor.  This  language of “middle-class”, “corporations”, and “plutocrats” entrenches a reality that has been framed by those that dominate the story – by an educational whom Hart calls a “neoliberal” elite that tries to stoke the flames.

In other words, Hart writes about a broken health care system in a traditional narrative already framed on the part of the dominant.  It is like he thinks his readers have no experience to contradict this.  That is, from a metanarrative constructed by a dominant group, he criticizes a system on abstract grounds.  And it is precisely this type of indoctrination he condemns.  And moreover, it is written to like-minded people who will tend to agree with him and overlook the shortcomings of his narrative. The readers will naturally overlook the abstract grounds from which the overall argument generates.  And it is precisely the default abstract presupposition that we Chrisitans who believe in community and freedom that needs to become clear and questioned.

Let me be as clear as possible: Hart believes that Americans are indoctrinated to abstract freedom, while giving up much of their own concrete freedoms. But here, in this article, he argues an abstract meta-narrative, while throwing his hands up in the face of a lack of concrete effective freedom. He writes, “I know that Christ in the Gospels calls his followers to a different kind of “politics” altogether—for want of a better term, the politics of the Kingdom. Of this, even the wisest, most compassionate, and most provident form of democratic socialism could never be anything more than a faint premonitory shadow.”  The challenge Hart does not see, and I am surprised that he doesn’t, is that there are historical examples of communities that embody, historically and presently, examples of experiences that embody to a greater or lesser extent the concrete freedom that Hart seems to long for. It is as if Hart has only considered that the only realms of existence we live in are private and political – like the individual confronting and engaging with large institutions of centralized governments, or monolithic medical corporations. Let me return to this after having considered points 3 and 4 above.      

In effect Hart also gives up the ghost, so to speak, and longs for the other-worldly God’s Kingdom in a defeatist clinging to abstract freedom in the midst of concrete slavery and indentured servitude.  That is, Hart effectively moralizes from a dream of God’s kingdom to giving up on concrete freedom. And this is the fruit of indoctrination of a particularly pernicious kind. But it makes for good press…. especially for us Reflectivists … who to Hart can seem contented in their reflection.

Part 2

Now let’s take up point 3. Why should socialism be considered? Language matters, and it for this reason that Hart presses the consideration of socialism.  In the context of the political conversation in the United States, socialism is considered a slur.  Hart, rightfully, asks us to consider it.  Ironically, he is writing to an audience that already does.  That is, the need for the body-politic as a whole to bear the economic burdens of being a body-politic is something already agreed to by the readers.  The question, of course is that he is attempting to address an audience that fears an authoritarian government.  His belief is that it is primarily this fear that pushes people away from socialism.  Hart writes, “the oldest and richest stream of real socialism in the Anglophone world was… a longing for a truly Christian understanding of community… [and] was essentially a Christian-humanist protest against the inhuman scale of both government and industry in the late modern age.”  In other words, the source of community, according to Hart, was necessarily infused with the original intention of buttressing ourselves against intrusive government.  It is a US constitution version of community.  And that is a problem.

Where does the socialist impulse come from?  While I agree that communities that bear each other’s burdens, economic or otherwise, need to be protected, it isn’t central to the impulse to social concerns.  What Hart never mentions in his narrative of individual versus big, centralized, imposing governments are the actual experiences of communities people have.  And these communities of experience are the ones who actually generate the individuals that are measured against abstract freedom.  But they don’t come from nowhere.  These individuals, in fact, are nurtured and strengthened within communities, and they are differentiated from them.  In this case, freedom is both abstract and concrete.  An individual doesn’t appear out of nowhere, as Hart writes the individual in his narrative.  Instead, individuals are nurtured by communities, and are also differentiated by exposure and influences of other communities.  That is, each individual is a historical individual, and can be considered abstractly only insofar as they have differentiated from particular communities.  The impulse to socialism is because each individual will not only have read about socialism, but will have also experienced the pains, joys, and shared experience of actual communities.

I wish Hart would have been able to make this argument.  It would have offered an historical ground to socialist ideals he advocates.  And that would have been a much more authentic argument for the freedom (as opposed to authoritarianism) that is provided for by socialist economics, and it would also make room for the moral stakes in the argument.

For, as we know, differentiation from our particular communities is an incredibly difficult practice. How could one call themselves “Catholic” without at the same time coming to terms of the history of sexual abuse?  How could one call themselves “Mennonite” without at the same time sorting through the sexism, and use of shame in communal practices.  How does one bring those in front of God in the act of repentance and grace that we all realize we come to need.  That is, how do we experience actual freedom?  Often, a socialist impulse to share experience is a very intuition that we all need to experience repentance and grace, and also a shared intuition that the strongest communities nurture the freest and strongest individuals.

But apart from considering human beings as situated in relationship to one or more historical communities, Hart’s argument to consider socialism for economic reasons falls flat.  Hart is aware that it falls flat.  And we should all be so aware, because concrete freedom is not designed from a blueprint.  It is worked out in historical struggles; in real communities; and with actual living examples.  On this point, those advocates of socialism from Christian background should not act it out for the attempted logical reasons that Hart employs, but rather from a lived experience akin to the real historical conquering of death that Christ accomplished, and the real embodiment of miracles that Mary lived.

But perhaps we have now begun to live apart from those historical communities, and live only as individuals over-against the mass state.  But I have not lost hope; that is so because of real experiences with real communities that people live every day.

Part 3

My advocacy here to push us towards the real connection with actual communities.  I also advocate that Christian people who believe in both community and freedom do this.  But this is a difficult reorientation. It is difficult, because like our so-called “socialist” impulse, we know that being oriented to a community in terms of shared experience is a two-edged sword.

First, we know that if we have a community who supports us, we have a better security system than any “welfare” state, and any government program.  When we are in trouble, we always know to whom we can turn, and we know who could turn to us when they are in times of trouble.  That security is more than anything a national government can provide, even more than the socialized health systems of social democratic countries.  The other side of this, though, is to also take on the pain and sin of the community as it historically stands.  There is no “perfection” when it comes to historical communities.  We know that the sins of our communities, whether it be the “sins of the father,” or the structural inequality borne in our communities, will be the demons that we have to face.

And the key aspect to this two-sided awareness of the nature of our individual relationships to our experienced historical communities is that it is universal to both the “indoctrinated” Americans as it is to the “Reflectives”.  And in this sense, then, it does not end in the shadowy existence of God’s kingdom, but rather in the long and difficult labor of its emergence.

Conclusion

As Christians who believe in the communal sources of life and freedom, one should be urged not to adopt an unusually abstract view of freedom contradicted by not only particular Bible verses, but also of the Incarnate Christ.  A socially-derived experience of freedom and salvation is available to us (including Americans). The difference is that it needs to be communally maintained, and that requires work.  It also needs to be received by faith, which is not abstract belief.  It is a living experience of God in the world.  And that is something both the “indoctrinated” and the “reflective” can agree on.

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