A FEW YEARS AGO, I found myself digging into the history of the humanist movement. Humanists were edging away from the confrontational celebrities of post-9/11 atheism and claiming historical humanist figures in campaigns to make non-belief respectable and welcoming. In 2012 African Americans for Humanism ran billboards demonstrating the celebrated history of Black humanism. Organizations highlighted dead celebrities alongside the living ones we use to drive attendance at our events. Even meme culture saw ahistorical attempts to claim deist architects of US government as secular humanists. We were claiming our history, if not always accurately.
As we did this, I noticed that many of these historical figures were political activists (and artists, but that’s someone else’s essay). I couldn’t escape the contrast with much of the broader humanist movement, which in the early 2010s pushed the idea that political activism was divisive. “Why should we focus on those issues we disagree about when we agree on 95 percent of everything?” derided those who wanted everyone to focus on church-state separation if they took on politics at all.
I wanted to know how and why this depoliticization had happened. I went back to the Humanist Manifesto, or rather the various versions of it over time, where I found that much of the change was centered around economics.
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.
That’s point fourteen from the original Humanist Manifesto, issued in 1933, near the worst of the Great Depression. It’s unapologetic in its blatantly political goals, and it ties them directly to other humanist beliefs. It says the then-current economic system isn’t humanist because it doesn’t recognize that we all have rights to flourish and responsibilities to create a world in which we do. If we believe in those rights and responsibilities, objections to the unfettered capitalism of the 1920s and 1930s must follow.
It doesn’t get much more political than that. There are additional political imperatives in the document, with calls to transform human institutions and a promise to “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.” This was a vigorous, ambitious humanism, not content to influence only itself.
The situation had changed somewhat by 1973. The Cold War had successfully poisoned socialism as a topic, entwining it with totalitarianism in popular consciousness. The updated Humanist Manifesto II reflected that:
We are committed to an open and democratic society. We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy, the school, the family, the workplace, and voluntary associations. Decision-making must be decentralized to include widespread involvement of people at all levels—social, political, and economic. All persons should have a voice in developing the values and goals that determine their lives. Institutions should be responsive to expressed desires and needs.
This statement is less idealistic, in keeping with the humanist rejection of wishful thinking in the original manifesto. But it is no less political. It goes on to restate the original’s imperative to economic justice for a new age.
Humane societies should evaluate economic systems not by rhetoric or ideology, but by whether or not they increase economic well-being for all individuals and groups, minimize poverty and hardship, increase the sum of human satisfaction, and enhance the quality of life. Hence the door is open to alternative economic systems. We need to democratize the economy and judge it by its responsiveness to human needs, testing results in terms of the common good.
While socialism might not have looked as good in 1973 as in 1933, the Manifesto still stipulated that economies existed to serve the needs of all their members and that humanists had a responsibility to make sure that they did. This was a more cautious humanism, but no less resolute or convinced that its commitment to human flourishing required political action.
Sometime over the next forty years, American humanism changed. It became more insular and less eager to promote human welfare if it required thinking at a governmental scale. It shackled itself, then did its best to forget it wasn’t chained.
The first change happened quickly and early. By 1980 Paul Kurtz and the organization that would become the Council for Secular Humanism had only this to say about humanist imperatives in economic systems:
We stand not only for freedom from religious control but for freedom from jingoistic government control as well. We are for the defense of basic human rights, including the right to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In our view, a free society should also encourage some measure of economic freedom, subject only to such restrictions as are necessary in the public interest. This means that individuals and groups should be able to compete in the marketplace, organize free trade unions, and carry on their occupations and careers without undue interference by centralized political control. The right to private property is a human right without which other rights are nugatory. Where it is necessary to limit any of these rights in a democracy, the limitation should be justified in terms of its consequences in strengthening the entire structure of human rights.
This document is a radical departure from the one Kurtz co-wrote with Edwin H. Wilson for the American Humanist Association only seven years before. Freedom is now paramount, but only freedom from government. Freedom to compete—and lose. Property has ascendance over people. All other ideals about the rights and flourishing of people are worthless unless this singular right is put first.
This was a humanism with strong ideas about politics but no stated rationale for how those ideas tied back to a regard for humanity. Instead, those ideals were simply given primacy by fiat. This was also a humanism that suddenly spread a message previously carried by the very interests it had been fighting for the last several decades, minus only the claims of salvation.
I never published my piece on the history of the Manifesto. I wasn’t even close to being the only voice reasserting humanism’s imperative to political action. Regional humanist communities and the American Humanist Association itself began to step up politically. My rabble-rousing wasn’t needed.
I didn’t forget about the project, though. And I didn’t forget that I’d argued myself into a responsibility to examine the evidence on economic systems and how they affected people’s ability to flourish.
A couple years later came the 2016 presidential election cycle and the candidate who called himself a socialist. Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist, of course. While he may be pragmatically compromising on his way toward the socialist system he truly wants, policy-wise he’s a moderate social democrat. His proposals would produce a stronger welfare state than the US has now but not a socialist state.
Through a combination of state neglect of civics education and two generations living at the blunt end of capitalist extremities, however, enthusiasm for these proposals has led many people to identify as socialist. Some actually are socialists; others simply agree with Sanders. Their positions on economic issues wouldn’t be recognizable as socialism to the signatories of the original Humanist Manifesto, but Cold War Republicans would be happy to accept their identification.
Ironically, this state of confusion was the clarifying moment for me in understanding that I’m not a socialist. A pedant, maybe, since I agree broadly with many of these social democrats. But not an actual socialist.
I’d like to say the reasons are simple, but they probably aren’t. The two main reasons I’m not a socialist are that I think the failure modes of both capitalist and socialist states are best avoided by maintaining separation between the interests of capital and labor, and that identifying as either capitalist or socialist maintains a counter-productive focus on economic interests to the exclusion of other important issues. Allow me to explain.
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about failure modes. I grew up on science fiction, which has a long history of putting the “dis” in utopian. I learned about government in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. I was raised by an activist who spent a lot of time decompressing with friends after dealing with one headache or another. In my own activism, I’ve spent years dealing with rules lawyers who try to break the system because they don’t believe they should be subject to any rules.
It could get depressing. Instead, I find it oddly liberating. There’s a Winston Churchill quote that lives in the back of my head:
Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Now, I’m hardly a Churchill acolyte, but when he’s not wrong… the fact is that every system fails sometimes because systems are complex. But not all failures are equal.
As an aside, this is also why I’m not an anarchist. I’ve spent enough time in self-organizing spaces to see the kinds of injustices that happen. I’ve seen the kinds of social conformity or social capital required to get one’s needs met. I’ve seen the effects of disability, bigotry, and even charisma on systems that are supposed to create equality. And while I know that all of these factor into how accessible equality and justice are in state systems as well, I still prefer state systems. If any system is going to control our access to necessities, it should have formal appeal processes and fallbacks built into it in a way small, self-organized groups don’t have the resources for.
We have the option to demand that political science and the study of governance specifically be more than the laundering of any political ideology—even our own.
When talking about economic systems at the level of capitalism versus socialism, we’re talking about balancing the power of competing interests. Failure means consolidating power in one set of interests. Currently in the US we’re seeing the failure mode of capitalism, as we did in the 1920s. I refuse to call it “late-stage capitalism” because the steps taken to hobble capitalism during and after the Great Depression demonstrate this is a matter of political power and will, not timing. But today’s United States is an extreme form of capitalism, in which capital is assigned virtues it hasn’t demonstrated, then granted nearly exclusive access to political power based on those virtues.
This is bad. I shouldn’t have to say that, but sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious.
That doesn’t mean socialism is better, however. When it’s running well, socialism is better than failing capitalism. Of course, capitalism running well is better than failing capitalism as well. Honest comparisons of the two ideologies involve contrasting them best to best and worst to worst.
Truth be told, the differences between them aren’t huge. Both socialist and capitalist governments have histories of creating a good quality of life for the majority of their citizens. Both have histories of exploitation and starvation. Both have histories of ideology interfering with good political decision-making, of imperialism, of environmental disaster, of cronyism and corruption. Though the governmental machinations which lead to failure may be different, socialist and capitalist governments both fail to reliably put human flourishing ahead of the interests of capital.
That sounds wrong. It certainly doesn’t match popular socialist theory. But it makes more sense when you understand that leaders tend to consolidate power for many reasons, including simply that decision-making by consensus is a real pain, particularly if you want to make it truly accessible. It makes more sense when you understand how difficult it is to design any system that resists exploitation by bad actors. It makes more sense when you understand that capital doesn’t stop having or asserting its own interests because it’s owned by labor. There just stops being an opposing power structure challenging those assertions.
When considering the drawbacks of organizing strictly around labor, it might help to think about the relationship between labor and other identities around which people have organized politically. Take race for instance. Unions have sometimes been a means toward greater racial equality. The auto industry became a path to the middle class for Black workers in Detroit. The unionization of civil servants, with job protections and clear paths to promotion, has made government jobs highly attractive to many racial and ethnic minorities.
At the same time, racial divides have been used successfully to weaken and break unions. In the early part of the twentieth century, segregated workforces and unions that excluded marginalized identities created pools of labor that couldn’t have been better designed to replace striking workers. People barred from unions based on their nationality or the color of their skin are both more desperate for work and have little to no interest in building unions that become just one more barrier to them.
Race is hardly the only issue where organized and empowered labor has fallen short by protecting its own interests. Union shops have long histories of sexual harassment as women have entered various fields. Unions that represent multiple job classes have replicated class hierarchies within their own organizations, and union bosses have enriched themselves at the expense of average workers. Unions have fought environmental protections to protect jobs.
By framing human value in terms of labor, we’re subtly encouraged to devalue people with disabilities and the technology that often makes the world more accessible to them. Plus, we haven’t even started talking about how unpaid labor, labor not performed at the behest of capital, is valued (or not).
Again, though, none of this means capitalism is better on these issues. We can watch now in real time as capitalists organize to throw their power behind immigration restrictions, the dismantling of education, and international corruption that threatens their business interests. None of these are problems inherent to one economic system or another.
They are, however, the problems that motivate me as a humanist. So what am I to do?
If the answer isn’t socialism, it isn’t capitalism either. Capitalism isn’t simply what’s left as your default if you don’t want to do socialism, despite the way we frame our politics as a battle between the two. No, I’m no more interested in a political system that seeks to vest virtue and power in property than I am in one that seeks to vest virtue and power in work. I’m neither a proponent of the prosperity gospel or the Protestant work ethic.
The problem with our global political systems having spent the last century battling between these two ideologies is that I’m not sure exactly where this leaves me. I want a political ideology that doesn’t put economics first, but I don’t have the language for it. I have partial models in the world’s social democracies, though even they demonstrate significant faults. It isn’t, for example, enough to embrace a government’s responsibilities to its citizens, because we’ve seen how this can turn refugees and immigrants into the enemy or a commodity to be exploited.
I don’t know that what I want exists as a political model. I want a system built to help human beings flourish, both in the short and long terms. I want an ideology set upon a foundation of all people having inalienable equal rights to support and agency. I want policies informed by the best information we have access to, even when it’s uncomfortably complex, and rooted in progressive harm reduction.
When it comes to economics, I want a system that recognizes all labor, paid, unpaid, and underground, in meaningful ways. I want it to recognize a variety of interests and not empower one at the expense of the rest. I want it to situate economics as part of a wider world with wider concerns instead of pretending industry and currency are life’s primary driving engines. I want a system that accommodates innovation and security, that makes decisions about public and private ownership based on outcome rather than ideology, and that doesn’t tie the provision of basic human needs to the vagaries of any market.
Beyond economics, I’m less sure of what this looks like in practice. That’s another downside of framing so much of our politics in economic terms. There are good models for some of our problems: Norway’s criminal justice system is successful. (Though it may rely on a certain level of economic equality funded by their oil industry, there are other countries and states that also rely on oil income without the same outcomes.) Many urban communities in the US, governmental and private, have successfully clustered services in ways that take some of the administrative burden off those who need the most help. We know how to build walkable communities. We have plenty of evidence of the kinds of international intervention that exacerbates political trouble abroad, even if we have much less about what works better than non-interference.
The point is that we can find out. We have the option to demand that political science and the study of governance specifically be more than the laundering of any political ideology—even our own. We can support it when it’s done well.
I don’t know what this is called. Maybe it’s simply humanism in a full embrace of politics. It’s ideologically both something more and less than socialism, more ambitious in scope and less certain of the answer to any given problem. And I’m ready for us to stop asserting economic change as a cure-all and start figuring out what it looks like.