Leftists support the lockdowns, conservatives oppose. With a few exceptions, pandemic policy has lined the tribes up with impressive neatness, and while many factors contribute to any ideological divide, the socialist influence on the broader left is here playing a crucial and unexpected role.
While the trademark of progressives has long been the grand social engineering project, the socialists’ motivation for supporting such policies (and allying with the rest of the left) is their stated goal of helping the workers. Workers’ movements, centered around workers’ issues, sign on to progressive methods and policies as a means to an end: They hope that the scientific management the progressives install will benefit the group they represent.
But with lockdowns costing millions of workers their jobs, depriving them of necessities and devastating small businesses and family savings, the socialist movement within the left is providing an essential service to the progressives who imposed this policy. How can the costs of such a desperate experiment be justified? The real, crushing costs are borne by the vulnerable, not concentrated on the affluent like a Sanders tax plan. Regardless of the necessity of the policy, or its benefits, facing up to tradeoffs is to be avoided in politics, especially when those tradeoffs amount to ruining the lives of millions. A frank reckoning along the lines of “x thousand lives saved is worth y million livelihoods destroyed,” is unlikely, even with the most favorable numbers.
And it is here that the intellectual influence of the American socialists comes to the aid of the progressive cause. How can we minimize the impact of tens of millions of unemployment applications? How can we look upon the livelihoods wrecked, not by natural disaster, but by our deliberate policy, as a small enough thing to ignore? By denigrating the notion of “livelihood.” The democratic socialists who celebrated driving Amazon’s headquarters out of New York must look at jobs in a very different light than do job applicants. If jobs and businesses are viewed as the means by which the masses feed their children, their destruction is a tragedy, but if workers have nothing to lose but their chains, it is no such matter. Inflicting losses on workers is ironically sanitized by an ideology committed to defending workers, because it insists they have nothing to defend. In regarding jobs as exploitative, and economic freedom not as opportunity (as in the view of immigrants actively pursuing it) but as a predatory struggle, the socialist blinds himself to the interests of living workers.
The persistent problem for American socialists is the disconnect between their image of the impoverished worker, wages suppressed by the iron law, barely surviving at all, and the lived experience of a large mass of American workers. That workers should succeed and elevate themselves by working in “exploitative” employment relationships, or competing in the “dog-eat-dog” world of small business, forms no part of the socialist’s vision of the world. But for those workers who do succeed on their own terms in the market, that success is a matter of personal pride and identity that will not be wrenched away without a fight. The welders, mechanics, machinists, framers, nurses, electricians, plumbers, roofers, (and on and on into more trades than I could name) who have improved their conditions of life and fed their families by doing these jobs are absolutely hostile to a socialist pitch that involves treating them as charity cases. It insults their personal achievements, and erases their identity, to be treated like Russian serfs needing political liberation as a gift from Bernie Sanders. The successful worker is as repelled by this condescending kind of socialism as the unemployed are drawn to it.
It is the size of this class, the successful workers (success being defined in terms of the aims of each individual worker) that will decide the fate of the American socialists’ dreams. Where workers succeed by working, they have no need for a “Workers’ movement.” Where the dreams of the individuals are stifled, by disaster or by policy, there is hope for the socialists to be welcomed when they come rushing in with their political interventions. But in the calculations of the socialists themselves, the size of this class is always claimed to be zero; the worker is always the victim, or else he himself has become an exploiter. When this view is perhaps close to reality (as in post-Ming China or Tsarist Russia) the socialist’s theories guide him well enough and he can expect good success for his political movement. Where Chinese peasants stream by millions with nothing but the shirts on their backs, and in three generations have climbed to statistical affluence, the Marxist theory, and the socialist movement, are both seriously confounded.
A lockdown policy which devastates the independent livelihoods of Americans thus erodes an important base of mass resistance to socialism (even if it is a mass the socialists refuse to acknowledge), as do occupational licensing, business regulations, and tax withholding (more hated on payday than any boss). Politicians will view this as a feature or a bug, depending on their hopes for the socialist movement; they may seek to protect the livelihoods of the workers as a defense against socialism, or they may go on trying to impoverish and destroy the dreams of families in order to pave the way for their better world. G.K. Chesterton explicitly warned his contemporaries about this very issue nearly a century ago, in arguing against the Inclosures in England:
…in so far as the peasant proprietor is certainly tenacious of the peasant property, is concentrated on the interest or content with the dullness, as the case may be, he does, in fact, constitute a solid block of private property which can be counted on to resist Communism; which is not only more than can be said of the proletariat, but is very much more than any capitalists say of them. I do not believe that the proletariat is honeycombed with Bolshevism (if honey be an apt metaphor for that doctrine), but if there is any truth in the newspaper fears on that subject it would certainly seem that large properties cannot prevent the thing happening, whereas small properties can.
(The Outline of Sanity, 1927)
The fact that leading defenders of capitalism in Chesterton’s age sneered at the “rustic” small property holders and allowed cronyism to eat away at the property and security of a large class of Englishmen seemed to him a tactical error as well as a moral outrage. To excuse violations of property in the name of “modernization” is not only hypocrisy, but also, in Chesterton’s view, destroys the best bulwark against the open violations of socialism: Millions with their own independent stakes in private property, and personal motive for its defense.
The ultimate fate of America’s class of small property holders, independent livelihoods, or successful workers, is yet to be seen. Certainly the presence and size of this class has been an intrinsic element in the American standard of living, in spite of America’s lagging behind other nations in “essential” worker protections like unionization, regulation, and welfare. America has a centuries-long tradition of unusually high real wages under conditions of unusually inactive (though not absent) economic policy. Marxists put this down (when they admit it at all) to a “labor shortage,” while economists credit it to a large capital stock, which is a more sensible way of saying the same thing. In any case, the home of relative laissez-faire has been the most fertile of ground for penniless families to take root and flourish, and about the most stubbornly barren for socialist movements. These two facts are not unrelated.