Against Liz Bruenig’s “metaphysical” socialism

Liz Bruenig’s anti-abortion position, and her reasoning behind it, shows a fundamental flaw that’s ubiquitous in Utopian Socialism as well.

Christian Patterson
2019-05-29
Underground Mall

Liz Bruenig was recently a guest on the LA NPR affiliate KCRW show “Left, Right and Center”. I had to listen because Bruenig represented the left in Left, Right, and Center, even though Bruenig is right-wing with regards to abortion, one of the topics discussed.

They ended up bringing another pundit to be the real left-winger on abortion, while Bruenig said very little. She still stands by her anti-abortion stance, even though she tries to avoid bringing it up. She was recently on edgelord podcast Red Scare talking about it, but it’s (wisely, for Bruenig’s sake) behind their paywall, so I can’t listen.

However, on “Left, Right, and Center”, Bruenig said something illuminating. In doing so, she not only implicitly stood by her anti-abortion stance, but also illustrated why her perspective on economics is flawed. The reason is, she claims that both economic distribution and abortion are metaphysical issues. She says:

“I think it’s especially complicated because in liberal societies, you use the democratic apparatus to try to settle these metaphysical questions behind almost every law. And we were talking earlier about usury, even behind laws regarding interest on loans, there’s a metaphysical question there. It has to do with what things are meant for, like wealth and what exploitation is, and how evil it is, and why and what the nature of a human person is. And abortion is one of those issues where those metaphysical questions are really front and center. So you have two very pure approaches. For instance, the fetus […] has an immediate claim on human life. And then you have the other approach, which is “not until birth”. And then you have this vast world in between…”

Liz Bruenig

Of course, the issue with this is obvious: there’s no metaphysical element to abortion. It’s sucking a clump of cells out of an organ. It’s a medical procedure. The only way it would be metaphysical is if you take a very theological approach to humanity, where humans are imbued with “Capital L” Life, or a Soul, and at some point during the gestation process, the fetus becomes imbued with Life.

Buying into the metaphysical element of abortion is already an anti-abortion frame. It’s a concession that, at some point, the fetus goes Live. Once you buy into that, you could believe that life begins with first breath, or at conception. The issue is, Life certainly doesn’t begin at conception by any material measure. Once you politically value metaphysical things, you’re giving political value to something immaterial.

If someone determines that Life enters the fetus at some point during gestation, they will choose to preserve that Life, because the metaphysical value of a hypothetical child becomes more valuable than the material value of Actual Life. This is aligned with a metaphysical political value, but it also means it’s out of sync with the material facts of our world.

The metaphysical piece of her political perspective explains why she came to her anti-abortion position. But perhaps even more illuminating is that she imposes this same metaphysical politics on economic distribution. To reiterate her original quote: “And we were talking earlier about usury, even behind laws regarding interest on loans, there’s a metaphysical question there. It has to do with what things are meant for, like wealth and what exploitation is, and how evil it is, and why and what the nature of a human person is.

I just want to get this out of the way: this is an absolutely anti-Marxist position. That isn’t a smear, because Bruenig never claimed to be Marxist. But I’m putting that out there because Marxism explains why this line of thinking is ineffective at achieving socialist goals.

In general, the metaphysical approach to politics results in thinking that there’s one perfect, right world, that’s perfect across time. For example, for Liz Breunig, the exact moment a fetus becomes “Life” is just as true now as it was a thousand years ago. Bruenig does say that there’s “a vast world in between” the two abortion positions, but she’s acknowledging everyone draws their metaphysical line in different places.

Similarly, for Bruenig, the exactly right way to distribute economic material has been the same since the beginning of time. This might be true, there’s probably an ideal world, and that ideal world would be equally ideal at every point in history. However, that’s not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of theology. And it’s simply not politically useful to approach something like usury from a perspective of “what’s the most metaphysically good way to divide this money?”

Would feudal peasants live better lives under socialism than feudalism? Absolutely. But it’s also historically impossible. It’s a misnomer to impose socialism on such a historically distant context. The way to understand politics, in order to have political leverage, is understanding the political force of a mass movement to achieve a higher form of economic distribution. Usury may be just as wrong in a metaphysical sense now as it was in feudal times, but what really matters is that usury laws can be changed or abolished in the right historical context.

Engels wrote a lot about this approach to politics, but he’d use the name utopian socialism for it. Utopian socialism is a pre-Marxist approach that looks for a perfect society, and then tries to achieve that utopia.

The metaphysical political lense that Bruenig analyzes through is similar to utopian socialism. In other words, when Bruenig says, “it has to do with what things are meant for, like wealth and what exploitation is, and how evil it is, and why and what the nature of a human person is,” she’s saying that, we must determine the virtuous, ethical, and precise point where human suffering is okay, or not okay.

This is the utopian approach: determine the ideal society, and try to work for it. There are two reasons why this is a non-Marxist approach. First, Marxism has no concerns with virtues and ethics. It is a political philosophy that’s purely rooted in historical and material analysis. Marxism considers virtues, ethics, and consequently, things considered to have metaphysical value, are dependent, and in response to, the conditions of that historical context.

Here’s what Engels has to say about this approach to socialism, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

The Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.

Engels

In this passage, Engels shows a type of socialist theory that’s common amongst social democrats. The utopians pinpoint the exact right spot we should be as a society. Or, in Bruenig’s words, the utopians determined the “metaphysical line” where things are no longer bad or evil.

Engels points out that utopian approaches try to evolve “out of the human brain”. They take no consideration into how society and history actually exist. They simply revolve around the ideas from a single theorist’s mind.

Utopian socialism is idealistic because it doesn’t consider the progression of history and the distribution of material throughout time. It posits the most perfect future, and from there, grasps towards that vision. Engels points out with this approach, the more the utopian vision is dissected and scrutinized, the more the utopia feels idealized, distant, and detached from historical context.

This is why for Engels (and Marx), capitalism follows feudalism, and socialism follows capitalism. This may be simplistic, and when socialism is actually applied to the real world, it doesn’t usually work this way. But Marx and Engels made that suggestion because it was based on the projection of history so far. It wasn’t a matter of what, exactly, Marx and Engels envisioned as utopia. Marx and Engels envisioned a historical way to progress towards socialism. The point isn’t determining the precise morality to apply to society, the point is determining where we are in society and how to get to a better place.

Engels also writes:

“The Utopians’ mode of thought has for a long time governed the Socialist ideas of the 19th century, and still governs some of them. […] To all these, Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power.”

Engels

In other words, the utopians took an Enlightenment-style approach to socialism: there’s some ideal truth that lies outside and beyond us, that remains true regardless of space and time. If we could only figure out what that world is, we could achieve it. This is antithetical to the Marxist, dialectical approach, which analyzes history as a dynamic, alternating, contradicting process.

Engels continues, referring to the idea that socialism is “an absolute truth”:

“As an absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school.”

Engels

This passage is more directly refuting Bruenig’s metaphysical politics than his others. If there was a metaphysical element to politics, for example, if there was a Platonic ideal of society, then it results in every individual person having a personal vision of their utopia, and all of those visions would compete.

However, the result of this idea is the status quo. It’s basically the promise from bourgeoisie representative democracies: we all have a vision for our perfect society, then elect politicians who best align with that vision of society, and then they compromise.

Engels continues:

“And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive of one another. Hence, from this nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average Socialism, which, as a matter of fact, has up to the present time dominated the minds of most of the socialist workers in France and England. Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.”

Engels

In the current political climate, anarchist minded leftists see themselves as ideologically opposed to Marxists, and within Marxists, there’s a bunch of factions about how to best implement Marxist theories. Because of this, people usually don’t know, or forget, that Marx’s original goal was to synthesize many different approaches to socialism, and unite the working class socialist movement as one.

If everyone approached politics the way Bruenig did, there would be no mass political worker’s movement. There would be a bunch of people who retreat into their personal “metaphysical boundaries”. Once you retreat your values into a metaphysical realm, they become much harder to refute or argue against, because they aren’t based in anything except “personal beliefs”.

Liberals and social democrats holding the “metaphysical” political line is destructive because it undermines a mass political movement, with each individual standing firm in their non-material starting point. But, that’s hardly the biggest issue to these “metaphysical politics”. The biggest issue is how much neater this worldview fits into reactionary thinking.

The analysis that, in my opinion, best fortifies the Left, that we get from the Marxist tradition, is the idea that our current politics is based on history, and specifically the historical distribution of material. Without this, the working class becomes divided into many different strains of utopian navel-gazing. With historical materialism, the working class realizes their potential as a united group to liberate themselves from economic oppression.

On the other hand, the reactionary world-view is that we must preserve our culture man! Gay people are undermining traditional family values! Communists hate your way of life and want to take it from you. Immigrants are threatening the size and power of white people. If you notice, all of these claims are highly based on identity, culture, values etc. All of these gesture towards a non-material, ie metaphysical worldview.

Basing political views in metaphysics results in uncompromising sects with specific and incompatible goals for the left. People who use this as their political vantage point, might also be more likely to lapse into right-wing views. This is why Bruenig is ostensibly left-wing politically, yet has a right-wing view on abortion. Bruenig thinks her fellow left-wingers are pro-abortion because they prescribe to different metaphysics. In reality, the left is pro-abortion because they don’t impose metaphysics on politics.

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