What replaces rights and discourse?

It’s not a rhetorical question.

Lately if you’re in left-of-center spaces you will have heard a lot of griping about rights talk and about “the discourse.” People mock the concept of rights as a concern of liberals; they dismiss the idea that discourse and the democratic process can result in positive change. And to a certain degree, I understand the frustrations, as rights talk is often used in an unconstructive way and discourse talk is often a plea for bullshit civility norms that serve only the interests of establishment power.

The problem is that no one has the slightest idea what would replace individual rights and discourse as a social system. None of these complaints ever get packaged with a livable, real-world alternative to a democratic system where individual rights are protected and where people debate the best path forward in order to convince others and win power. When you complain about the current system, you need to propose alternatives. And I never see those alternatives, just an unfocused unhappiness with the status quo.

I think this phenomenon stems in part from a kind of vague, half-articulated endorsement of a Soviet system where concern for individual rights was considered a bourgeois phenomenon. (It could not stem from earnest Marxism, given that orthodox Marxist belief is not contrary to individual rights and that in fact Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and all manner of other Marxist philosophers were in fact staunch defenders of those rights.) I think people are kind of grasping around for their old perceptions of what “communism” meant and settling on a formless sense of illiberalism.

But the comparison to the USSR demonstrates the hollowness of this position. I would never endorse the logic that undergirded Soviet infringement of individual rights, but at least there actually was a logic. At least under the Soviet system there was an actual party to whom individuals were expected to subordinate their interests. The moral and political justification for overriding individual rights was that the Soviet government represented the will of the proletariat and thus to argue for those rights, when the individual expressing them was acting contrary to the interests of the proletariat, was counter-revolutionary.

Again, I don’t think this logic holds, particularly not with the not-at-all-Marxist post-Lenin Soviet oligarchy in charge. But like I said, there’s a minimal justification and a body that we would invest with this decision making authority for regulating speech and other rights. What’s the equivalent in 21st century America? There is no coherent socialist party to pledge our fealty to. To what entity would we be sacrificing our individual rights? Who would decide who gets to say what? Who hands down punishments for saying the wrong things? Media Twitter? A panel of cultural studies professors? The HR department at Goldman Sachs? I’m asking 100% pragmatically: what is the alternative that you all imagine to individual rights? What replaces participatory democracy as the decision-making apparatus for society? No one ever advances anything remotely practical. What are you guys actually asking for?

I don’t think anybody has any idea about what replaces rights and discourse. That’s because nobody who gripes about rights or discourse online actually believes that they will take sufficient power to get rid of those things. Because the American left has been so far removed from power for so long, many of its discursive and social practices reflect an assumption of permanent powerlessness. People feel little obligation to propose workable systems or practical alternatives to current practices because they can’t imagine what it would be like to get to decide those things. But the radical left actually can win, and it can win using the existing democratic systems we have now — if we commit to being an adult movement that’s dedicated to convincing others to join our cause in order to build a pragmatic and workable socialist system.

Using “liberal” as a slur without showing your work and proposing a meaningful real-world alternative does not advance the cause of achieving socialism-in-fact in our own lifetimes, and that’s what I’m after — real democratic socialism, in the real world, before I die. To get it we need to be a movement of political substance, not a social circle.