Everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world system sincerely applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure us getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everyone; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.—George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Dinesh D’Souza has had a remarkably tidal career. Starting in the late 1980s, he published a series of politely received books on Christian doctrine that attracted the attention of academic theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Michael Novak. But it wasn’t until his 1991 book, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, that D’Souza really caught the public eye. The book made a contribution to the minor genre of conservative critiques of campus activism and politics and received warm reviews from the bowtie and cigar part of the right-wing press. Even the New York Review of Books took note.
D’Souza seemed fated for a cushy career as a conservative intellectual, bouncing between right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and prestigious outlets like the Public Discourse and First Things. But things began to slip off the rails with 1995’s The End of Racism and especially The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. The latter contains an infamous passage in which the author claims that the “cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the non profit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world. The Muslims who carried out the 9/11 attacks were the product of this visceral rage.” This take, along with D’Souza’s admission that he had some sympathy with fundamentalist critiques of western culture, proved too much for many conservatives, leading D’Souza to complain that he was being attacked by his own side in this lengthy op ed. This was pretty much the end of D’Souza the serious intellectual and the birth of the popular far-right conspiracy theorist, who has released books and documentaries hypothesizing that Barak Obama had a radical postcolonial agenda, comparing Richard Spencer to a “progressive Democrat” and arguing that Hitler was OK with homosexuality. The publications slowed for a little while when D’Souza was briefly imprisoned at a halfway house—colourfully depicted in the film Hillary’s America as the time when Dinesh discovered that the Democratic party was basically a gang—but picked up again after his release and eventual pardon by Donald Trump.
His latest book, United States of Socialism, is rather odd, though, to his credit, it’s better than a lot of what passes for pop-conservative commentary these days (I’m looking at you, Dave Rubin). There are the requisite eye-rolling passages, describing sixties activists and rock stars as “parodies of humanity … horny slothful loafers completely divorced from real-world problems, neurotically focused on themselves, their drugs and sex lives and mind-numbing music” and depicting Bernie Sanders as a lazy leech who publishes in “hippie rags.” During these sometimes interminable sections, I found myself dozing off on more than one occasion. But there are enough stabs at argumentation to prevent United States of Socialism from having quite as strong anaesthetic effects as Don’t Burn This Book. But, unfortunately, D’Souza’s arguments won’t be even moderately compelling to anyone who isn’t already convinced that Joe Biden is Josef Stalin reincarnated.
What Isn’t Socialism?
In Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, “Political controversies are always conflicts between sinners, and not between righteous men and sinners.” Falwell is in the pulpit. The Bible speaks of good and evil, and in the Bible the two do not mix. But in politics, distinctions are often less vivid. Falwell’s rhetoric, however, frequently does not distinguish between liberals, socialists, and Communists. He sometimes regards his enemies as opposing not just his programs, but God Himself. So he demonizes his critics the way they do him.—Falwell Before the Millennium, Dinesh D’Souza
One of the curious things I discovered from reading United States of Socialism is that the Marxists actually won the Cold War. Apparently, it wasn’t even close—at least, that is the only logical conclusion you can draw from the fact that pretty much everyone to the left of D’Souza is depicted as some kind of socialist. Even Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are socialists lite. While they may have liquidated the Social Democrats and Communists who were their main enemies, and sat on the right side of the Reichstag with other conservative parties, it seems that the Nazis were socialists too. Franklin Roosevelt was at least socialist curious and billionaire Michael Bloomberg is “rhapsodic” in his praise of Chinese communism. The Nordic countries practice “Sven Socialism”—in fact, pretty much ever developed country other than the US is a socialist state, since they all have public health care systems. Feminists, advocates for racial and LBGT equality and Miley Cyrus (a “highly disturbed individual,” who is “headed for the asylum or the morgue”) are “identity socialists.” Just about the only two people in history who are not socialists, according to D’Souza, are George Orwell and J. S Mill—despite the fact that shortly before his death Orwell claimed that “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly … for Democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” Mill also often called himself a socialist and certainly sympathised with many socialist ambitions. This makes shrill passages like the following more than a little ironic:
We are again in Orwell territory … It’s hard for me to believe that, thirty years after I came to America as an idealistic teenager, this is where we are headed. In college I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which contains the thrilling declaration “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. We seem to have gone, in one generation, from the bracing atmosphere of Mill’s On Liberty to the dark, dank atmosphere of Orwell’s 1984. Hate Week! The Ministry of Truth! The Thought Police! All of this—once the hallmark of faraway socialist regimes—is now familiar. It has become our world.
But if everything and everyone is socialist, then nothing is. D’Souza casually throws around a huge number of terms as though they were synonyms—leftist, progressive, Democrat, socialist, socialist lite, Stalinism. Any meaningful distinctions between all those to the left of a hard right American Republican are lost. Anyone who has actually engaged with the American political left would know there are deep and perhaps unbridgeable chasms between its different factions. D’Souza sometimes circles around this reality without really acknowledging it, as we see in his occasional begrudging admissions that Marx would have probably found the rainbow coalition politics of the post-Reagan Democratic party noxious. There are intense doctrinal differences between revolutionary Marxist-Leninists who emphasize class concerns, New Leftists who view them are irrevocably patriarchal and exclusionary and social democrats and democratic socialists who accept many features of liberal politics but want a more egalitarian economic system. These are in turn quite distinct from classical liberals and libertarians like J. S. Mill and Jason Brennan, who may be more or less economically left-wing, but who reject all socially conservative constraints on individual liberty in favor of diverse “experiments in living” and consequently tend to vigorously support multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism over cultural and ethnic nationalism. In D’Souza’s book, all these people are in the same camp and therefore “evil,” dangerous and apparently too partisan to harmoniously coexist with genteel conservatives like Dinesh.
The Moral Basis of Capitalism
When he’s not implying that Barak Obama is paying for blowjobs and crack cocaine—I’m not joking: read Chapter Six—D’Souza occasionally manages to make some quasi-reasonable arguments. The most interesting part of the book is Chapter Five, where he makes the case for the morality of capitalism. D’Souza rightly points out that there have always been convincing ethical objections to capitalism—even free market apologists like F. A. Hayek have conceded that, in a capitalist society, many of the unworthy get ahead, while many of the worthy fall behind. Social inequalities are now so stark that even billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have lobbed softball criticisms at unbridled capitalism and called for the rich to be taxed more heavily. Everyone from Marx to Milton Friedman has praised capitalism for its capacity to produce goods and wealth, but there remain serious questions as to whether it distributes that wealth in a just manner. D’Souza tries to argue that it does, and to do so he references some of the best arguments to the contrary.
Unfortunately he does not engage with these arguments in any depth. He provides an impressive list of moral critiques of capitalism, from Marx to John Rawls and Amartya Sen, but he speeds through all these arguments in a few scant pages and never offers any substantial rebuttals. What emerges is more a kind of pastiche, propped up by a lot of emotionally heated language about “lifelong” leeches and “Rawlsian mumbo jumbo.” Take his criticism of a well known thought experiment by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. In The Idea of Justice, Sen asks us to consider which of three people most deserves to be given a flute. Carla says she should get it because she made it. Jen says she should because she is desperately poor and would enjoy playing it the most. And Jim claims that he should get the flute because he can play it best. The three potential recipients here map nicely onto different theories of distributive justice. Carla’s claim to the flute flows from the Lockean idea that one should be entitled to the products of one’s labor. Jen’s claim is based on the utilitarian argument that we should distribute goods in such a way as to maximize overall happiness and minimize suffering. And Jim’s claim coincides with virtue-oriented and perfectionist theories that stress the importance of pursuing human excellence.
One could make a compelling argument in favour of any of these three moral theories. Sen’s own capability-based approach tries to split the difference between them. But D’Souza doesn’t even try to provide a justification for his preferred take. He merely asserts, “The flute always belonged to Carla, who created it. It’s obviously Carla’s flute. Absent Carla, there wouldn’t be a flute.” This doesn’t even approximate an argument. There are cases in which almost anyone would accept that more compelling concerns outweigh the entitlement to the product of one’s labor or to one’s property. For example, in his paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer (whom D’Souza once debated) asks us to imagine that we’re driving by a shallow pool when we see a child drowning. We can rescue her—but only at the cost of ruining our fine clothes. Singer points out that if we accept that the child’s life outweighs our right to preserve our property, the reasoning behind this leads to radically egalitarian connotations of a type D’Souza would emphatically reject.
Indeed, as a conservative, D’Souza should find the Lockean theory of work-based entitlement problematic. The notion that using your own personal labor to make something creates an entitlement to it has roots in both the Protestant work ethic and in major works of philosophy like Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. But it is not very popular among conservative economists for a simple reason: nowadays, it is strongly associated with Marx’s arguments about exploitation. Consider McDonald’s, about which D’Souza waxes poetic in the book. Did Ray Kroc or his successors actually grill many of the burgers that built the company? Does this mean that since the employees “created” the hamburgers that they’re “obviously” their property? D’Souza would never want to accept that conclusion. He spends a lot of the book arguing that labourers and workers contribute a lot less to the success of the businesses they work for than entrepreneurs do. This results in some pretty funny fan-fiction in which D’Souza waxes poetic about Donald Trump’s business genius and fantasizes about talking to a parking lot attendant who works for Trump. D’Souza assures the guy that “his worth is not more” than whatever Trump decides to pay him: “Someone—in this case Trump—had the idea for that resort. He organized it. He marketed it and established the coveted brand. His brand attracted the clientele. He took all the risk. The parking guy did none of this. So Trump, not the parking guy, deserves the lion’s share of the profit.”
As Nathan Robinson has explained, the book contains no real economic argument proving that Trump somehow created so much more value than the parking lot attendant that it justifies his decision to pay him a dead end salary. Remarkably, D’Souza even acknowledges that Marx was wrong to suggest that capitalists at least put up the capital that funds businesses, since nowadays banks and investors often perform that function. Capitalists don’t generally produce anything concrete. Instead they have “ideas,” D’Souza explains, and engage in “marketing” and “branding.” D’Souza is primarily attracted to the image of the capitalist as a modern day lord ruling over an empire. Consider this passage, in which he invokes Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter:
“One defining feature of the entrepreneur,” he writes, is “the dream and the desire to found a private kingdom.’’ In fact the secret dream of the entrepreneur is to found a “dynasty,” to project the dream beyond his own life. It is, Schumpeter admits, “the nearest approach to medieval lordship possible to modern man.” The motivation of the entrepreneur, according to Schumpeter, is not primarily monetary success. Rather it is the “will to conquer, the impulse to fight, to prove oneself superior to others, to succeed for the sake not of the fruits of success, but of success itself.”
What D’Souza advocates here is a romantic capitalist aesthetics. This interest in aesthetics permeates the book: for example, remarkably for a self-described Christian, D’Souza positively invokes Nietzsche’s critique of the “last men” as “insufferable,” effeminate types who “ride bicycles to work.” As David Hollands has commented, here as elsewhere, D’Souza writes in a postmodern conservative vein that lionises machismo and appeals to the gut rather than the head.
Dinesh D’Souza’s United States of Socialism is filled with unconvincing generalizations, rhetorical bombast and arguments that are far too thin to carry the weight D’Souza places on them. There are far better conservatives critics of the left, such as Roger Scruton. But D’Souza’s book could serve as the basis for an entertaining drinking game. Every time he calls the Democrats evil or Nazis or alludes to Satan, take a shot. That’s pretty much the only way to get much enjoyment from reading United States of Socialism.