A good socialist-from-above speaks and acts primarily in the name of something or someone else. A “leading comrade” has a higher “political level” by virtue of being closer to someone who is themself even higher.
A smart socialist-from-above knows not to claim the top spot for themselves, but to leave it empty. The purpose is not to reach the summit, but to enjoy the most visible place on the ladder, and to encourage those below to look up by reminding them that the highest point is that way.
Socialism-from-below is the understanding that the “empty place” is always a determinate negation; it’s something that no one can occupy, and is also not eternal. If you take away the gesture towards the “empty place,” it no longer exists.
The socialist-from-below idea is nothing apart from the people living it, and is recreated and reconstituted with each new thought. In Neuromancer, Jack Womack says that “Cyberspace is infinite but starts with each person who chooses to step into it” (pg. 271). The same can be said of socialism-from-below.
When you hear about “anti-essentialism,” it’s almost a guarantee that the crudest essentialism will follow.
The person that walks off the cliff ends up falling to the ground.
In identity politics, people take one aspect of who they are, and aspire to become it in a more purified way, usually to the point of a caricature. Some examples include the Stalinist glorification of the working class (the Stakhanovite movement being one instance of this); Marcus Garvey (back to Africa)-style nationalism; or things that bill themselves as “anti-essentialist.”
The “subject” is replaced by the “ego.”
The move from socialism-from-above to socialism-from-below means, philosophically, a shift from epistemology to ontology.
For socialism-from-above, if you did something wrong, then it was because you didn’t know what the right thing was. And if you thought you knew what the right thing was, but were mistaken, then you were wrong from the beginning. In this way, socialists-from-above always have a home in Plato’s Republic.
“By 1971, the initial euphoria of Allende’s democratic, non-authoritarian revolution was beginning to fade; [the] ministry had acquired a disorganized empire of mines and factories, some occupied by their employees, others still controlled by their original managers, few of them operating with complete efficiency.”
A supercomputer was the solution. The “Burroughs 3500″ was supposed to coordinate this “disorganized empire” into a productive, socialist paradise. In terms of “economic” questions, it was the “computer supposed to know” . “Ironically the project worked best when strikes were paralyzing Chile and […] managers started to panic and ask for help.”
It’s a powerful symbol for Socialist-From-Above and it’s privileging of knowledge, discourse (and epistemology in general).
“We have found the objective truth of things!” says a Socialist From Above.
“Oh? So have we!” says another.
“But are they the same?” asks the first.
“No,” realizes the second.
There is an uncomfortable pause.
“Fascist!” says the first.
“Reactionary!” says the second.
“It’s a good thing I’m an objective observer,” observes a third Socialist From Above, walking past, “So that I know how ridiculous you both are.”
Socialism-from-above does not have much room for subjectivity. There are only great individuals and the masses they are supposed to mould.
Metaphorically (and literally), socialism-from-below is not about choosing among items on a shelf, but about what goes on the shelf in the first place, and how it is made.
“Leftists usually bemoan the fact that the line of division in the class struggle is as a rule blurred, displaced, falsified – most blatantly in the case of rightist populism, which presents itself as speaking on behalf of the people, while in fact advocating the interests of those who rule. However, this constant displacement and ‘falsification’ of the line of (class) division is the ‘class struggle’: a class society in which the ideological perception of the class division was pure and direct would be a harmonious structure with no struggle.”
(Slavoj Žižek. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 2000), pg. 187)
Socialism should be scientific and utopian.
The socialist-from-above “synthesis” of determinism and voluntarism is best expressed in Mao’s statement that
“We must have faith, first, that the peasant masses are ready to advance step by step along the road of socialism under the leadership of the Party, and second, that the Party is capable of leading the peasants along this road. These two points are the essence of the matter, the main current.”