21 February, 2020 • • 42.7Politics

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What Does the Seahorse Have to Do with Socialism?

Kit Rasmussen

Nathan J. Robinson
Why You Should Be a Socialist
All Points Books

More, as Mr Robinson would have it, than just its forward-thinking approach to gender roles in childrearing:

Seahorses are astonishing creatures indeed. This is not just because the males give birth, or they don’t have stomachs, or they’re the slowest swimmers in the sea, or they can consume 3,000 shrimp a day, fascinating as those factoids may be. It’s because… well, look at them. They look like horses. But they have nothing to do with horses! Where did they come from? What are they doing here? The ocean is full of creatures so curious that if we didn’t know better, we would think they were from faraway galaxies.

All of which makes it that much more tragic that humankind threatens to destroy itself and the rest of life on Earth. It’s because there are so many wonderful things that the terrible things are so devastating. I know the kind of bliss that can be enjoyed when one is free from worries about rent, medical bills, and the threat of violence, and it makes me viscerally angry that such joy isn’t available to all equally… Leftists don’t just see the problems in the world. We see the things that make it wonderful, which is one reason why we sound so paranoid about threats… The leftist orientation I begin with, then, is one of deep appreciation of spectacular things and deep loathing for unjust and cruel things.

This is a curious sort of passage, and representative of the tone of this book. Why You Should Be A Socialist is chatty, guileless, and Very Online. It is also an earnest and competent manifesto for a new-wave American left that is making itself felt in print and at the ballot box.

Robinson is one of the more recognisable public voices associated with that movement, a fact which he owes chiefly to the success of his prolific writing for left-leaning publications, in particular his magazine Current Affairs (a flagship leftist publication, along with Jacobin), and perhaps non-negligibly to his (in its bottomlessness, apparently Narnian) wardrobe of polychrome three-piece suits. The socialism Robinson presents in WYSBaS—like the man himself, who manages to evoke both the brightest student in your civics class and the dapperest gambler on the steamboat to Vicksburg—is eclectic. The book’s cast of characters and ideas is diverse, and a reader expecting a careful exposition of Marxist ideals will be dizzy when she finds Robinson marching Kautsky, Jaurès, and Malatesta arm-in-arm with AOC and Glenn Greenwald. But he is explicit that his leftism, the sort of leftism that he claims is at work among his rubescent generation of Americans, is more about impulse and a loose set of principles than any particular partisan doctrine. A quotation from Terry Eagleton pops up several times:

A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.

Now, if this is all it takes to be a socialist, then the ideological price of admission is really rather low. Robinson is not bashful about this: “Every moment spent discussing what socialism means or whether someone does or does not qualify as a socialist is not being spent discussing their actual proposals.”

This is true, in a certain way, and an important thought for maintaining unity on the left—but although Robinson is surely not so naïve as to pretend that there is an easy distinction between hashing out what socialism means and which proposals we should, as socialists, pursue, he seems here and throughout to be rather lackadaisical about this point. We needn’t read this as disinterest in socialist theory (to the contrary, given the number of movers and shakers Robinson refers to in his potted history of the left, I am led to believe he has the sort of breathlessly taxonomical interest in leftwing thought that precocious children sometimes have in dinosaurs, or trains). Rather, in this book he is understandably more concerned with turning as broad an audience as possible on to the idea—and ideas—of socialism, by showing them how much they already have affinity with, than he is with the fool’s errand of formulating his own ideologically consistent brand of leftism. He is, after all, trying to explain why ‘you’ should be a socialist, which may very well differ in the specifics from why I or anyone else should be one, even when we share the same central values as points of departure.

The title of the book recalls, perhaps intentionally, the leftist philosopher G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, a book that shares its project with Robinson’s: making the case for socialism in plain terms. Not only the title of his book, but much of Robinson’s character seems suspiciously evocative of the Cohenite, from the faint transatlantic accent, to the gesticulation, to spectacles of the fashion that normally confines one to academia; Robinson even shares Cohen’s penchant for short videographic reflections spent peering directly into the camera as he talks.

The similarities do not extend, however, to every aspect of Mr Robinson’s work. At the level of prose, Robinson is often dilatory where Cohen would be terse, wacky or whimsical where Cohen would be wry; where Cohen might spin fables to make his points (the Shmoo, the camping trip), Robinson tends to an anecdotal news-clipping style, unreeling accounts of working conditions at Amazon, or superyachts with basketball courts, or grade-schoolers going into arrears on their lunch money, or union-busting, or wildfires. “Before today’s socialists develop their theories, they start with facts and observations.” Now, this sort of pretension to science is one socialists have been making since Marx and Engels, but the journalistic style favoured in WYSBaS and by the young left more broadly is certainly removed from Cohen’s thought-experiments, let alone the caliginous mode attributed (fairly or not) to a postwar left-intelligentsia of assorted warlocks and academicians.

Despite these differences, however, for both Cohen and Robinson to be a socialist is basically about two things: first, belief in the value of equality, solidarity, and community among all persons; and second, belief that the capitalist order we live in is importantly and systematically deficient with respect to these values, such that it should be opposed and transformed. So far as you and I have these beliefs in common, we are comrades, and for Robinson, this must be the end of it: “Dogma should be shunned, and ideas should be straightforward”. The narcissism of small differences has derailed too many leftwing movements, and we should focus on “things that materially affect lives: can you afford to go to the hospital? Are you being mistreated at work? Are you struggling with debt?” For Robinson, as for many on the left today, it is self-evident that capitalism is not working as we should want it to, and that we can take immediate steps to remedy this. Less charitable interpreters may see this as a classic soixante-huitard foolishness—‘don’t think, just do something!’—that tries to outrun hard questions by declaring that the answers are so obvious that they don’t even merit discussion. But Robinson is very clear that he wants discussion, welcomes it, so long as it is in good faith and acknowledges the two core beliefs he invokes and hopes you’ll share. Although he spends a long part of the book (perhaps too long a part of the book) laying out specific measures and goals he thinks merit socialist consideration, he doesn’t pretend that these are more than a good place to start.

Robinson may have something of the analytical Marxist’s no-bullshit impatience with ungainly ideologising. Regrettably, his impatience with systematic ideology at times appears to have bred questionable thinking about it. The book is divided in three parts, over the course of which Robinson sketches what’s wrong with the world, why socialism can fix it, and why other ideologies are part of the problem. He dedicates this third part of the book (“What Are The Other Political Ideologies And Why Are They Bad?”) to attacks on conservatism and liberalism, which he regards more or less uncritically through the lens of the American party system. Conservatives amount to cruel reactionaries whose politics find their clearest expression in the bile of post-9/11 talk radio; liberals are false friends whose faith in the system and the power of positive attitudes leads to inaction in the face of injustice. He repeatedly appears to conflate liberalism with neoliberalism, even though elsewhere he echoes Noam Chomsky’s remark that neoliberalism is ‘neither new nor liberal’. Robinson here is at his most disappointing, and will no doubt be accused of caricaturing his intellectual adversaries.

Of course, he is writing for an electoral audience, not an academic one. Thus, in describing the conservative ideology he opposes, he is hardly expected to discuss Oakeshott (though he does) when the average American conservative’s instincts are far closer to those of an Ayn Rand or Dinesh D’Souza. (Incidentally, D’Souza has agreed to a public debate with Robinson, which will no doubt delight those who thought last year’s Peterson/Zizek rumble was a bit subdued but enjoyed its associated drinking games). Nor is his apparent disregard for the basic structure of liberal theory (he spends a chapter called ‘Polishing Turds’ explaining how liberalism is basically about George W. Bush dancing on Ellen) quite such a surprise if we read him as writing for the typical American, whose experience of what ‘liberalism’ is about will have far less to do with Rawls than with the Clintons.

Nonetheless, I don’t think one should be as cavalier about the finer points of ideology as Robinson ends up being. This is especially true since many of the attitudes and priorities he expresses could easily be embraced by a perfectly principled left-liberal who would nonetheless disavow the ‘socialist’ label—Elizabeth Warren would be a paradigmatic example from our time, as would Roosevelt or Beveridge in theirs. Socialists none, but all people whose achievements and ambitions Robinson cites as good examples of what socialists should pursue. I have already noted that Robinson is eager to pitch a very big tent. Some readers, whether liberals sceptical of socialism or socialists sceptical of liberalism, may wonder whether it’s so big that he encroaches on liberal turf. I myself questioned at points whether his socialism can be more than a particularly tub-thumping strain of the progressive liberalism that was once a robust force in the Democratic Party, and if so, whether the ‘socialist’ label is useful to Robinson’s left beyond its countercultural appeal. Personally, I think the answer to both questions is yes: Robinson, his ideas, and his readership are radical in ways that Eugene McCarthy or Howard Dean, for instance, were not. But when he blasts liberals as complicit pushovers with one breath and with the next praises them as having set examples for the socialist agenda, one could be excused for wondering whether he knows or cares what distinguishes his professed creed from that of his professed adversaries.

WYSBaS is poor political theory, but viewed as political pamphleteering in its modern American context, it’s more interesting. The book is ambitious, to the extent that Robinson variously attempts social commentary, intellectual history, political proselytism, polemic, and motivational writing. It has some remarkably successful moments. Robinson is articulate in criticising the conflation of market value and moral desert and in describing the corrosive effects of profit-maximising ‘neoliberal rationality’, the sorts of complaints that are often gestured at but rarely stated with clarity by the young left’s rank and file. He introduces notions and thinkers that may be valuable to left-leaning American voters who are looking to articulate dissatisfactions that they have long held but could not name. Most of all, he argues thoughtfully for the importance of identifying and questioning the implicit premisses of America’s broken political argument.

The book may seem a sort of airport-bookstore piece for the Jacobin set, and to no small extent it is, but it also captures something important about the present moment in American politics. That is, Robinson has written a useful primer on the attitudes and ambitions of the American left at an instant where they have never seemed closer to power. Robinson at one point explicitly aligns his socialism with the agenda of Bernie Sanders and (with some qualification) that of Elizabeth Warren. At time of writing, it seems likelier than not that one of these two people will be the Democratic nominee for the presidency. It is already clear that they have set the terms of the debate within the party with the policies and ideas they have championed. The same proposals (universal healthcare, wealth taxes, the Green New Deal) are being feverishly discussed and advocated by people like Robinson, and they take pride of place among the key near-term objectives he identifies in this book.

No observer of American politics with an ounce of humility would be ready to make confident predictions about where the chips will fall in 2020. It seems, however, less far-fetched than ever that the United States could elect its first socialist president before the year is out, and even if Sanders is denied victory, the pink tide that has swept card-carrying leftists into office since he took his first tilt at the White House in 2016 shows little sign of turning. If the young left can transmute this ‘socialist moment’ into institutional power, then the ambitious re-envisioning of our national and international order for which Robinson has such excitement might just come to pass. That’s a big ‘if’. But, Robinson might reply, is a socialist rose-and-fist in the Rose Garden really any less plausible than that there should be horses in the sea?


Kit Rasmussen is reading for an MSc in Economics at the Paris School of Economics and an MA in Philosophy at the Sorbonne.