A friend accused me recently of having a “French” mindset. He was right in at least one respect: like the stereotypical French philosophe, my approach to things does tend to be: “That’s all very well in practice, but does it work in theory?”
So, let’s turn away from the practical politics of recent posts to something more theoretical: G.A. Cohen’s short (and posthumously-published) book Why Not Socialism?.
Cohen’s book – really no more than an essay – is very much a work of philosophy rather than practical politics. He begins by observing that there are times when people do behave like socialists: for example, a camping trip among friends, in which equality and community are the basis of their activities rather than a market-based approach (“I’ll let you use my can-opener if you pay me”).
Cohen’s point is not that society can be run like a camping trip, but to use this as a basis for asking how society differs from a camping trip, so that he can then go on to consider two questions:
- Is socialism desirable?
- Is socialism feasible?
Above all, though, what clearly animates Cohen is not so much the detailed analysis as his ethical conviction that socialism is to be preferred, as least as an ideal, to the “injustice of market results and the moral shabbiness of market motivation” – of which more, I hope, in a later post.
Note also that Cohen is at pains to point out that the question in his title is not rhetorical: he acknowledges that it is by no means certain that the objections to socialism can be overcome. In the same way, my blogging about the book should not be taken as a sign that I agree with everything Cohen says.
The first question the title of his book raises, however, is what Cohen means by “socialism”. I’ll look at this in my next post.