Democratic socialism vs progressivism

Why you should be an ethical socialist and not a progressive

November 3, 2020

In this series:

  1. Intro
  2. What even is capitalism?
  3. The capital strike
  4. The unstable equilibrium (capitalism’s weeping angels)

In this series, I want to address the limitations of two ideological rivals, Progressivism and Marxism. My much longer series on Marxism can be found here.

Marxists ask: how can a case be made for democratic socialism without Marxism? This case is made simply with two points: the unstable equilibrium (#4 in this series) and the capital strike (#3; #2 explains capitalism from the point of view of a progressive). These points can be easily understood by anyone, refuted by no one; they can’t really even be disputed. By contrast, here is an excerpt of a book written to introduce the uninitiated to Marxism; this diagram is presumably a few pages in:

I was a physics and chemistry double major in college, so I am not afraid of equations. More importantly, I’m not automatically impressed by them; just because you can set up a mathematical model doesn’t mean that mathematical model has any salience in the real world. Marxism and classical economics aren’t wrong because they use a flawed mathematical model; they’re wrong because models aren’t a good way to understand the world.

In any case, as we can see from the diagram from the first chapter of the intro to Marxism book, the Marxist case for democratic socialism is complicated. This is a problem for two reasons. First, people are (rightly) not persuaded by abstract models; expressing ideas in this way, in practice, puts them out of reach of many. Second, its complexity means people can, in bad faith, quibble with any tiny piece of the argument and discredit the entire argument. Western philosophy, including Marxism, is set up as a house of cards: if one piece turns out to be false, the entire thing collapses. In bad faith, people can thus quibble with one tiny piece of the argument, and Marxists must defend with vigor that tiny piece; since it’s all abstracted from the real world anyway, any random quibble is probably at least somewhat reasonable. The end effect is that anyone can appear to persuasively discredit the entirety of Marxism by raising some half-baked objection to some random part of the overall theory.

For the progressive side, the difference between progressives and democratic socialists is the relationship to capitalism. Progressives believe human dignity can be respected by taming capitalism; democratic socialists believe human dignity can only be respected by ending capitalism. That is where we begin in post #2.