Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

The Moral Core of Socialism Is Our Responsibility to Each Other

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

To avoid runaway climate change, we need to transform our societies' economic priorities. But the Green New Deal can't succeed unless it enjoys working people's active support — and starts out from their existing moral assumptions.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks on the Green New Deal with Senator Ed Markey in front of the Capitol Building, 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Linus Westheuser

In a presidential campaign short on concrete proposals, the mounting environmental disaster was again the dog that didn’t bark. In one dismal moment, Donald Trump sought to smear Joe Biden as a Green New Deal (GND) supporter — only for Biden to play down his commitment to such a program.

But climate change demands serious action, which can’t be entrusted to market principles. This is the case Jedediah Britton-Purdy makes in his This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He explains how the “moral core of socialism” helps us understand the need to change humans’ relationship with the natural world — and each other.

Britton-Purdy spoke to Linus Westheuser about the failure of market-based solutions to climate change, the ethical dimension of socialism, and the challenges of promoting the GND in communities long reliant on carbon-based industries.


LW

Daniel Aldana Cohen wrote last month that a Biden victory would leave room for “climate optimism.” He observed that this would be the first time that China, the EU, and the United States are all at least nominally committed to real decarbonization. Now that he’s won, how optimistic are you feeling?

JBP

A lot less optimistic than I’d hoped. Had there been a strong Democratic showing in the Senate and a stronger one in the House, there would have been a real prospect of Biden going along with and even claiming a strong GND. I think that the situation in the Senate, even on the best outcome, is going to make it very difficult to pass anything meaningful.

This also reflects the role of territoriality in American sovereignty. Our Senate is a product of this bizarre idea of representing the states rather than the population. This has become a rationally and ethically indefensible — but deeply constitutionally and politically entrenched — mode of decision-making, and it’s choking us right now. Sadly, the pace of the ecological crisis is greater than the pace of political change.

LW

You noted that not only did “the markets” do nothing to save us from Trump or climate breakdown, but nor did “the institutions” that figure so prominently in the liberal imagination, like the courts, Robert Mueller, or the legal system.

Only politics could show a way out. But here you’re saying the political system can’t cope: so, what grounds are there to think that politics could have the answer — and what kind?

JBP

I think it’d have to be a politics emancipated from two specific forms of anti-politics. One is market ideology, a form of anti-politics that presupposes an inevitable form of political economy. The other is this strong liberal constitutionalist legalism that supposes inherent moral or institutional constraints within which politics has to work.

Both these anti-politics help to generate the incapacity of politics that we’re talking about. They do this through their deference to the market form and their openness to the market colonization of political power. But also through the constraint of legislative innovation and popular sovereignty by constitutional forms taken to be somehow sacred, when actually they’re a kind of fetishistic hobble on politics.

We need to clear away the obvious impediments to the political potential to grapple with this, and then see what we can do. There isn’t really cause for optimism. It’s only that we know the political act of collectively remaking the most basic terms of our shared circumstances is the only act that can change this trajectory.

If it doesn’t happen, what we’ll see is a variety of predictable partial responses: unevenly distributed technological innovation, and cultural forms of quietism and accommodation. If we can’t really do anything collectively, people will try to live with disaster, internalizing and riding it rather than trying to change it.

LW

So, where does the right politics come from? It seems like your writing identifies its core in an acknowledgement of our interdependence. Is this something that already exists in people’s lives, only for us to be “walled in” by institutions?

JBP

I wouldn’t say the awareness of interdependence is already present in people’s lives in a fully ethically worked out way, that just then gets artificially shut down. But I do think that it’s always potentially present.

To be a minimally self-aware human being, I think, is to be alert to your profound implication in many levels of interdependence in which you are both the dependent and the person who’s depended on. The irony of twentieth and twenty-first century rich-world infrastructure is that it fosters the fantasy of ever-growing independence while intensifying the reality of increasing interdependence. So, our ideas of autonomy or autarky run in parallel with the reality that we are functionally more and more aspects of the systems that we’re plugged into.

On some, proto-political ethical level, there is an incipient awareness of interdependence. But when it surfaces, that awareness can also mean wanting to build walls, because you want to be absolutely protected from it. And that’s part of what’s going on in the territorial imagination of right-wing nationalism now. As the world crushes in on you, you want to drive it away. This is a desperate assertion of self-reliance and sticking to your own, more than a self-confident and grounded response.

Yet, there are also powerful invocations of solidarity in slogans like “fight for someone you don’t know” [as Bernie Sanders put it]. And the fact that this had the grip it had on people — and sounded like the true description of what we were doing — is a kind of proof that you really can make a politics out of being caught in things together, out of interdependence.

LW

You added an important element to that in a recent article, where you said it’s not only about fighting for someone that you don’t know, but also someone you do know and despise…

JBP

…or who you’re pretty sure doesn’t like you! [laughs]. I think that’s the really hard part: we’ve such intense aversion to one another, in part because we know all about one another’s resentments and fears, they’re constantly thematized and made very vivid.

It’s hard to know quite what to say about this: on the one hand, you can’t just be a warm and fuzzy communitarian. Politics needs opponents and targets for mobilization. I think that’s a key part of what the Left’s revival has brought back to light. But there are definitely pathological forms of that. And a politics that’s pervaded by aversion and disgust and fear toward people you have to live with at some points undercuts its own capacity to produce collective change.

The Republican Party has been eagerly doing that. Their strategy has been the cultivation of existential fear, disgust, and delegitimization, in the service of their minoritarian control of key institutions.

LW

…stoking culture wars or battles over alleged identities which may not even be so relevant for people in everyday life, but you’re made to believe they are.

JBP

Yes, except one of Trumpism’s effects has been to make essentialized versions of people’s identities a reality, to some degree. He has created a reactionary white nationalist identity which, while it was there before, was less salient and more inchoate.

It didn’t stop some people from voting for Obama, whom it did stop from voting for Biden, now that it’s got greater intensity and an explicitness. Part of that change is what Trump made.

But then there’s also the kind of essentializing effort that appeals to the liberal center — to use very blocky identity categories as stand-ins for more complicated forms of material analysis. Like the reductive view that Latino voters were “on board” because of who they are — which turns out not to be the case.

You can’t assume that demographics, as interpreted through a liberal frame, is political destiny. And if you don’t have a robust material program, you’ll stumble. You need a materialist analysis like Sanders’s. There’s a reason why he had stunning primary victories among Latino voters across the American West.

LW

I’m interested by your willingness to go beyond categories like “the white working class” and think about the moral basis of the position of people who should be on our side but aren’t.

It’s uncommon on the Left today to talk about “morality,” perhaps suspected of being an idealist hangover. But you look at how people think — their connection to their work, the land, and so on — through the lens of a “possible majority.”

This was the title of a recent article of yours, where you write, “a democrat must take seriously, recognize as moral facts to be grappled with, the identities of everyone in the polity.” How does the socialist vision fit into that — what is socialism’s “moral core,” and how does it speak to the morality of working-class people?

JBP

I appreciate the way you put that. In my perspective, the moral core of socialism is minimal — a beginning for much, much more. It has to do with putting at the center of political economy the equal safety and flourishing of ordinary, unexceptional lives, that people are living in their places, with the people they love, in the work they’re doing.

It has to do with taking life and work and play out of the unrelenting matrix of market pricing and allowing them to answer different standards. This means finding ways to treat them as good in themselves: to treat our lives as valuable in themselves, to treat our activity as valuable in itself, and one another as valuable in ourselves.

An important starting point is the ethical idea that we are tyrannized by market forms, that they make us into one another’s enemies or mere profit opportunities — that we are taught to instrumentalize, as much as to fear one another — and that this is deeply distorting for our way of living.

Socialism relies on taking the logic of economic value out of markets’ hands and into those of other forms of decision-making. That has to be political, though it isn’t just a form of technocratic management. Socialist politics channel cultural and moral visions.

Sunrise Marin participates in a climate strike in San Fransisco, 2019. (Fabrice Florin / Flickr)

This is deeply radical, because you’re talking about creating a setting in which many kinds of living could flourish. All the ideas that invoke radically plural, queer lifeforms of diversity and community and activity and love — that’s all exactly right, that’s all opened up in this vision. At the same time, this vision also points back to a mode of experience that is often politicized and stylized as conservative — namely, the value that more or less conventional ties of home and family and familiar kinds of work have for many people.

The extra-market or anti-market values that we’re talking about have many forms. Some are coded radical and some are coded traditional or even conservative. And all of them are potentially part of what E. P. Thompson described as the moral life of a political economy. There’s no reason in principle that the traditional and the radical in these forms should be at odds with one another, or should be in a zero-sum relationship.

We try to make versions of these moral economies for ourselves in our little institutions, among people we know and like and don’t find it difficult to fight for. It’s good that little magazines are unionized and I have strongly supported grad student unionization. We have these very inspiring community mutual aid and self-defense efforts in places like North Carolina, where I lived for a long time and am living again now.

There’s a lot of that sort of energy here. But it’s all so divided from the other version of moral economy that we’re talking about. And it’s been the terrible achievement of the Trump era to politically deepen that divide and make it harder for people to see one another in their respective moral economies.

LW

Your book explores the metaphor of “the land.” Land is nature, land is private property, land is belonging, and land is something which belongs to everyone, as in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Our Land.” You rephrase this idea of the land as something that potentially connects everyone as the potential basis for a new “commonwealth.” Could you explain?

JBP

It stands for something very close to what we were calling the moral core of socialism. It’s the idea of turning the fact of interdependence into an ethics of mutuality. It’s about recognizing that being thrown into interdependence creates real potential to be made one another’s enemies, to be made one another’s problems.

There’s some inescapable way in which we are always one another’s problems because we’re trying to exist in a finite world fraught with trade-offs. At a methodological level, the economists are not wrong about that. But our unique power is the political power to set the terms of our interdependence and to build the world that materially structures it.

The idea of “commonwealth” is an ethical, more than programmatic, statement of the idea that we should work toward creating the conditions in which that mutuality can become material reality, rather than being merely notional. A strong GND is the closest thing to a materialization of this idea in US politics right now. It grapples with the inseparability of the natural world and the social world, caretaking, and justice. I think they never were separable, but now that is clearer than ever.

The idea that we need to talk about the preservation of the nonhuman, the health of the human world, and the work that people do and the ways that our built world and the nonhuman world make people vulnerable or protect us — that’s an extraordinary practical synthesis of the things we need to be thinking about.

The electrifying appeal of GND is one of the most hopeful facts about our time. If you wanted to explain the idea of commonwealth to someone who didn’t want to read this kind of thing, you could almost point to it and say, well, that’s what I’m talking about.

I think that the challenge in mentality — almost the challenge in disposition — for someone on the Left is to have both a vivid, realistic sense of how cruel and false the institutional and ideological frameworks in which we’re fighting often are, and to have an alertness to this moral horizon, that is the reason we’re working at all.

I think those are the two polar truths of the Left orientation. The world really is that bad, and it really is that important that it should be good. Both of these things are true — and actually quite inter-braided.

LW

I liked how your book connects your thinking to your experiences growing up in a former coal mining area in West Virginia. You bring up some realities which many on the Left may struggle with, like how people might love a job even while it is killing them.

Reading this reminded me of a story we published in Germany, after some protests against an industrial slaughterhouse. It’s run with migrant labor under horrible conditions, by a monopolist whose practices really hurt the farmers. But faced with the protest, some farmers came out with their tractors to protect the slaughterhouse, saying “we depend on this place for our livelihoods. They come here to fight out their principles, but they don’t understand that this is about our lives.”

Connecting this to GND: is it a little too easy for us to think that we can sweepingly transform the economy and give people work with a jobs guarantee, in the care sector and so on, when there are quite deep material and historically developed connections to places and industries, which this transformation would have to come to terms with?

JBP

I’m afraid that’s completely right: your example is really powerful, and it resonates with the example of Appalachia. In the book I mentioned my wife’s grandfather; he was dead before she was alive, but my father-in-law talks about him all the time. He loved going underground. He loved digging coal. It was probably the place he was happiest. It also killed him — and killed him young.

There’s no question that in the coalfields, the talk about “learning to code” or “going to work in the care sector” feels like a joke, like a way of saying “we don’t really care what happens to you.” There’s been so little in the trade-adjustment policies of the last thirty years — supposedly there to assist displaced industrialized workers — that it’s just a very cruel joke. And people know that — people are not stupid about the terms of their own livelihoods.

But there’s also this cultural dimension that doing work of a certain kind is an identity. You can’t just strip it out. To hold that our human capital should be so fungible is an extremely neoliberal view. People don’t think that way about their work. So, what you say, which I think is irresistibly correct, leads in two directions.

One is very depressing — it tells us that a GND, which we may not even get in any case, may be much less successful at reconciling interests and perspectives than we imagine it should be, and it may be experienced as riding roughshod over some industries and not bringing a desirable form of life. Maybe we should name that prospect so that we can be serious about trying to avert it. If we pretend that’s not a serious prospect, then people will know that we are not serious.

Coal miner in eastern Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, real political empowerment can make a difference here. In the book, I note that when the unions were strong, the miners and the unions were much more interesting on environmental issues. They pressed to ban strip mining and strike to protect environmental and health standards. All that is gone — and it’s been replaced by a sort of corporate populism: the unions aren’t there to stand against the bosses, but now the bosses will stand against the government.

As a solution this is easy to say, hard to do — it’s not clear how we get to a world where people who would be displaced under a successful GND, have real political power to renegotiate the terms of the change. But they have to be able to. Because nothing experienced as imposed on you by someone who doesn’t get you, is going to be welcome, even if there’s a $15 minimum wage for the care job.

It’s still going to be fought tooth and nail. So, we don’t have any description of what we can do, just a sketch of what we’re up against. Which we mustn’t forget as we go on.