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What if Scott Ferguson is exactly the kind of leftist I aimed my argument at, the full employment kind who wants to put us all to work because that would somehow be good for us?
What if his question –"what if," repeated 25 times– is an expression of pious belief in the next world, not this one? What if we want to put off holiness and take on intelligence, as the abolitionists did, so that we could have an effect here and now? What if we don’t want to be Lennonists, singing “Imagine” to the point of embarrassment?
I’m not interested in fancy thought experiments, so for now I’ll ignore all the “what ifs” except to say this. I’m enough of a Hegelian –and yes, a Marxist, too, also a Freudian, and did I mention my affiliation with feminism and pragmatism?– to think that our ethical principles are either inscribed and legible in actually existing historical circumstances, or they’re preachments meant to transport us from earth to heaven, to remove us from the world we want to change.
As John Dewey once put it, “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better."
As for the substantive critique that precedes all the “what ifs,” I don’t quite get it. I feel like I’m holding a parchment up to a dying fire and wondering what language this man speaks. He criticizes the “Liberal social ontology” that allegedly assembles my thinking on the grounds that it contains a “contracted relationality” –as against something more organic, spontaneous, communitarian?– and enforces a “depoliticization” of social life and social production.
It is true, I’m a liberal as well as a socialist. This means simply that I believe the site of self-discovery and self-determination is not the polis, not necessarily in political action as a citizen, but in civil society. Professor Ferguson apparently believes that liberalism precludes politics –“collective governance,” he calls it– but in history, rather than theory, Sheldon Wolin and Hannah Arendt nothwithstanding, liberalism has promoted debate about the designation and delivery of rival goods, which I take to be the essence of politics.
His argument is a covert reinstatement of classical republicanism, in this sense, or, to update the idea, of participatory democracy. Perhaps also of communitarianism. Professor Ferguson is not easily decoded. He does seem to think that the state is the site of everything important about, well, everything. He clearly wants to attend many meetings. “What if we radically affirmed our dependence on the public institutions that support us? What if we forced government to take responsibility for the system it already conditions?”
Let’s be clear, Professor Ferguson is obviously for full employment via government spending and against a universal basic income. To be sure, he says, “What if we rebuffed [sic] the white patriarchal jargon of full employment, which keeps millions of poor, women, and minorities underemployed and imprisoned?” But I’m mystified by such language because –apart from the fact that I made this argument– he follows up with a question that places him in the neighborhood of the jargon he has just “rebuffed”:
“What if, in lieu of this liberal-democratic ruse, we made an all-inclusive and well-funded federal Job Gurantee the basis for a renewed leftist imaginary?"
Hello? How often do you find an argument undermined by its own author so quickly and effectively?
But there might be a way to explain the confusion. Professor Ferguson happens to be a partisan of Modern Monetary Theory, an obscure intellectual trend that echoes both the Populists of the 1890s and the social credit movement of the 1930s. As against the “liberal conception of money” allegedly deployed by Marxists like me, which supposedly treats money as “a private, finite, and alienable quantum of value” –when exactly did the Fed disappear from my argument?– the MMT folks think of it as “a boundless and fundamentally inalienable public utility." Thus “government can always afford to support meaningful social production."
Well, OK, government has boundless powers. The question is, do we want it to have them, and exercise them? Do we want statist command of civil society? Professor Ferguson apparently does. I don’t. That is the fundamental difference between us.
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