Socialism as moral challenge

Interesting review of G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, which clarifies some of the points raised in the discussions about his book on recent posts here, in particular as regards (a) the feasibility of socialism and (b) the question of coercion.

For Cohen, the “two core principles of socialism” are “radical equality of opportunity and community”. Given that (as his camping trip example shows) these ideals “are not inherently unattractive”, at least on a small-group level, why is it that “they are currently undesirable on a societal level”?

Cohen sees this as a “technological” problem, stemming from the lack of appropriate mechanisms (equivalent to capitalism’s market mechanisms) to implement socialist principles within society. As the reviewer puts it:

Capitalism, a social technology which harnesses selfish desires to public benefits, is at present unrivalled as the organising spirit of our society. Socialism in Cohen’s sense, where citizens’ interactions are guided by their preference for community over inequality, remains technologically infeasible, for we do not understand how to orchestrate mass interaction and mutual dependence through the more elegant engine of altruism.

Hence socialism is like “one of Da Vinci’s inventions: a vision for a splendid contraption which cannot be constructed for lack of tools”.

Since no such tools currently exist, and no effective mechanisms have been found to “orchestrate mass interaction and mutual dependence” through altruism rather than self-interest, what are we to do in the meantime? Key to Cohen’s position is the moral challenge for individuals to behave in a way that promotes equality, community and care for others. For him, equality is not “an ideal to be achieved in the abstract” but rather “a practical principle to preside over everyday actions as a matter of conscience”. In particular, socialism is not something that can be achieved by force, coercion or central control:

Cohen’s vision is of justice as a mode of interaction between citizens rather than a state-fashioned framework against which we can act as we please – socialism cannot be delegated to the state, in the way that liberal democracy involves delegating politics to politicians. Even with the appropriate social technology, Cohen’s socialism can exist only if enough of us believe in it, and act on this belief.

In conclusion, Cohen’s socialism can be seen as a humanist version of “love your neighbour as yourself”, and of humility regarding one’s own privileges:

Though certainty of state socialism’s advent has all but melted into air, capitalist society still presents myriad opportunities for incremental progress. Cohen’s achievement is to convince us that we should not take the impracticality of state-wide socialism as an excuse for a sense of entitlement to our talent. Instead, integrity invites us to turn to the socialist value of serving the needs of others, not through expectation of reward, but out of care.

Speaking personally, that’s the key for me. As someone who has had significant blessings by birth and upbringing (a good education, ability to pursue a professional career), am I to feel “a sense of entitlement to my talent”, or a sense of indebtedness: not only to my family, but to the wider society? Not “liberal guilt”, but a rational awareness that most of what I have is not by my own choice or efforts, but by a combination of genetic inheritance, upbringing, education and the gift of living in a particular society – and a consequent belief that our political, social and economic settlement should reflect that mutual indebtedness of one to another better than it does now, even if I am extremely hazy as to how exactly that is to be done, or even the extent to which it is possible.


2 thoughts on “Socialism as moral challenge”

  1. The supposed choice between functional capitalism and unworkable altruism is a false one, as there are ways of reframing capitalism in terms of generosity. Once we realize that the gift is an interested act, I think that we have the key to defuse Cohen’s tension between economic activity as pure self-interest and altruism as disinterested gift.

    I think that Cohen’s camping trip analogy is a terribly poor one, and that it underlies a number of the other problems with his analysis. Here are just a few of the reasons why it is a poor analogy and why socialism might not be desirable (and not merely workable) were the parameters or character of the activity to change.

    1. It is a short-term activity. Long-term activities will need to have mechanisms to ensure that people pull their weight and to ensure that the system can be sustained.

    2. There is little wealth generation dimension to the activity. It is more or less a zero sum game. Socialist systems must answer the question of what to do with super-provident and successful people.

    Suppose that the camping trip lasts for ten years rather than a weekend. After a few months, Bill and Ted decide that, rather than patching up their threadbare tent, they will build a log cabin instead. They build a splendid log cabin, able to house both of them comfortably. The group insists that the log cabin belongs to the group as a whole and that people sleep in it on a rotation. Bill and Ted then build a device to capture rainwater, a raft for the lake and construct an axe in order to increase the amount of firewood they can collect. Does everyone in the group have an equal right to these things? Do they naturally belong to the group, or do they belong to Bill and Ted (with the expectation that Bill and Ted will be generous in the way that they use the capital that they have developed)? Should Bill and Ted have any more say than others over the manner in which the capital that they developed is used?

    Screening out capital generation and ownership really plays into the hands of an argument for socialism, as it dodges the big questions completely.

    3. It is engaged in by a group of peers. If the group were composed of adults and some younger, less able-bodied and not entirely cooperative children, I doubt that a pure socialist approach to camping would be quite so effective or enjoyable an experience.

    4. It is an activity in which the stakes are fairly low. If the camping trip doesn’t work out, it is unlikely that anyone is going to die. The limited number of resources isn’t enough of a factor in the picture.

    5. It is an activity that can easily be abandoned. If everything goes wrong, the group can just give up and head home.

    6. It is an activity that doesn’t demand any significant skills on the part of the participants (although most of us have had frustrating experiences trying to put up tents in the past, it is hardly rocket science).

    7. It is a task that doesn’t really demand a lot of specialization, or roles that only a few could ever fulfil. In my experience camping trips usually involve people doing tasks on a rotation.

    8. It presumes that the participants are individuals, with no other social bonds that take priority. This is one of the reasons why socialism can often be so hostile to the family – parents and spouses must often give priority to the needs of their spouses and children over the needs of others within the group.

    9. It is a task in which no participant is anonymous to the others and scaled on a level where personal relationships can help things to work and all are presumed to be equally committed to the joint activity and concerned for the well-being of each other. Disagreements can be dealt with through informal and relational means: peer pressure and discussion within the group. Scale the task up a few levels of magnitude – say a town of 20,000 inhabitants decides to go camping – and workability and distribution of resources is by no means as simple. The informal relational system that works so well on the small level is no longer adequate and so it must be replaced by a more formal, impersonal and coercive model, if socialism is to be maintained. If you maintain the small scale relational system certain neighbourhoods will do much better than others.

    Central planning and socialism can work fine for certain types of activities and groups but scalability is a HUGE issue, as the very things that make socialism and central planning effective, desirable and workable on a small-scale level no longer operate on the larger scale. In fact, large-scale socialism can often undermine the very things that drive socialism on the small scale. Mutuality, common concern, love for one’s neighbour (loving one’s neighbour is about forming and maintaining personal bonds of relationship and concern with particular persons, and can easily be lost to a vague philanthropy that seeks people’s good in a detached way), provision for one’s family and dependents and a love for community are undermined by a system that wants our primary commitment to always be to the whole, and to downplay local attachments that could take priority over this.

    10. The camping trip example is not really socialism, as it never truly abandons private ownership. When the camping trip is over, it will be Jack, Ted and Joe who will be taking the tents back to their sheds and Bill and Mike will have the cars in their garages. Throughout the camping trip it is always tacitly assumed that Jack, Ted and Joe will have the most say over how the tents are used. If they see deliberate damage being caused to the tents, they can always reassert their rights of private ownership and withdraw them from common use.

    What we are really seeing here is an economy of gift in action, based upon private rather than common ownership. The whole economy of gift depends upon private ownership, as each person voluntarily grants the group use of their resources. Where private ownership is denied gift can’t exist in the same way, as gift depends upon the gap between giver and receiver and what belongs to each that is traversed in the act of giving. Where an economy of gift is replaced by a socialist approach of collective ownership, the collective narcissism of entitlement can take the place of gift and gratitude. In economies of gift, furthermore, the gift once given is not alienated from the giver, and the receiver is regarded as owing gratitude in response. In certain case the giver is seen to be within their rights to withdraw the gift if it is responded to with ingratitude or a sense of entitlement and bitterness.

    Economies of gift are local and voluntaristic in character. The problem is that the phenomenology of the gift is such that it is much harder to make them work on a large scale. The reciprocity, the fact that the gift is never completely alienated from the giver, directed gratitude, the personal and voluntary character of the gift and the act of giving, the non-compulsive compulsion that attends it: all of these things don’t quite work in the same way on a large scale. Where they do, I am all for encouraging such a gift economy, but what generally takes place in the name of socialism militates against such a gift economy, and so I oppose it strongly (for instance, attempts to redistribute wealth through taxation undermines gift in several ways). Where Christian socialists appeal to examples like the early Jerusalem church as a model they are appealing to a gift economy, which never did away with private ownership, but encouraged gift, reciprocity and non-coercive mutuality in other ways. Where this is scalable I am all for it. However, scalability can never be at the expense of the economy of gift.

    11. Finally, there is no trans-generational aspect to it. The camping trip lasts for a weekend, not for several generations. If it last for a number of generations, would Bill and Ted’s families inherit their log cabin, or does it belong to the group? Should the children of the super-provident be permitted to have an advantage over those who were not as committed to or gifted in developing, maintaining and employing capital? To the degree that we deny people the ability to dispose of their capital as they please we can discourage them from producing it.

    What I want to argue for is an economy of gift. An economy of gift can temper and balance a commitment to private property. Within an economy of gift there is no such thing as purely private ownership. An economy of gift is opposed to most popular models of capitalism just as it is opposed to most popular models of socialism. Both socialism and capitalism tend to adopt false anthropologies and destroy the gift.

    Economic exchanges come with duties and non-compulsive compulsions and retain a gift character. A businessman who has gained greatly through his diligent workforce is not entitled to think that paying his workers’ wages means that their labour in his factory is now purely his possession. Their labour always retains a gift character and must be responded to with gratitude. The workers must also recognize that their wages have a gift character too, and respond with gratitude in turn. As the businessman prospers he should express his gratitude to his workers by providing well for them, increasing their wages and seeking their well-being, and the workers should seek the good of their employer’s company. The non-coercive character of all of this is crucial.

    People cannot approach society with a sense of entitlement to its privileges. This applies across the social spectrum. We are all indebted to society in different ways and those of us who respond to society in ingratitude should not be surprised when people in society withdraw their gifts from us, whether we are rich or poor.

    An economy of gift can be a profoundly unequal society. Gifts are not distributed evenly, and I see no reason why they ought to be. Society as a whole is generally better off with an imbalance of gift. Suppose you have an African village with 5,000 inhabitants, but which lacks good medical services. The inequality of paying for one promising child to be educated as a doctor will probably do that community much more good in the long term than giving each person in the village £5 to spend as they will. A free market (which does not regard economic activity as extrinsic to an economy of gift) will for the most part tend to channel greater gifts towards the people who are most provident for the needs and desires of society in their disposal of them.

    The same is the case in the economy of gift in the church. All are valued, even those who are completely dependent. No one can say to another: ‘I have no need of you.’ However, some members of the body have greater honour than others, certain gifts are more desirable than others, God has distributed gifts unequally, and faithful stewards will be given more gifts, while those who are unfaithful may find even those gifts that they presently possessed removed from them. Those who do not seek the health of the body can be expelled, and there is a clear sense of those who are deserving and those who are undeserving of society’s gifts. People who are lazy and improvident are to be treated as outsiders (1 Timothy 5:8), as are those who are merely self-serving and think that they have no need of or duty to others.

    In a gift society some people will get very rich, and others can be rendered destitute. Some will enjoy great influence and others will be almost entirely without it. Equality is not the goal, but mutuality. A society built upon an economics of gift will tend to disadvantage the selfish, the lazy, and the improvident while giving greater gifts to those who best serve the interests of the community.

    The large inequalities that can exist within such a community need not be regarded as threatening as things are skewed in favour of the grateful and the generous. I often find myself spontaneously thanking God for the great wealth, positions of power and privilege, or talents of certain people that I know of, precisely because I know that they are employing these things in a generous and provident manner, that they are far better suited for such authority and privilege than I am, and because we are all better off on account of the way that they use their gifts.

    Coming at this from a Christian perspective, much of what troubles me about the arguments for socialism that I encounter derives from the degree to which the arguments reject or discourage an economy of gift, and encourage coercion. Equality becomes the goal over mutuality, even when mutuality must be sacrificed. Envy, bitterness, and a sense of entitlement become the driving motives rather than gratitude and generosity.

    I think that such an economy of gift is FAR more realistic, desirable, moral, and achievable a goal than Cohen’s socialism camping style.

  2. Alastair: you are right that the big issue of scalability. In fairness to Cohen, he recognises this, writing:

    “The circumstances of the camping trip are multiply special: many features distinguish it from the circumstances of life in a modern society. One may therefore not infer, from the fact that camping trips of the sort that I have described are feasible and desirable, that society-wide socialism is equally feasible and equally desirable. … What we urgently need to know are what are the differences that matter, and how can socialism address them?”

    In other words, the point of the camping trip is as an “analogy-by-contrast”, used as a reference point for the differences between a camping trip and society, a number of which you have identified.

    As for an “economy of gift”, I suspect there is room for a fruitful interaction between that concept and what Cohen is arguing for. I think Cohen envisages a “socialism” that is essentially a large-scale economy of gift, in which what motivates people is care for others. What this needs is mechanisms that encourage and (in a non-financial sense) reward a gift mentality, making it feel as natural and normal as most market interactions feel for us now. It may be this is an insuperable obstacle, as Cohen acknowledges.

    Finally, as to coercion: this is a difficult area. It easily ends up as “freedom in a market economy vs coercion in a socialist economy”. You may well by now have seen my latest post regarding Cohen’s point (which fitted with my own intuitions) that coercion is present in any distribution of property; that existing property relations involve restrictions on liberty of their own, particularly where they lead to extremes of inequality.

    That’s not to say that two wrongs make a right and that socialist coercion is justified as a reaction against capitalist coercion. Just that we need to avoid making it sound as if only one side of the discussion involves a trade-off. To maintain the status quo in the name of rejecting coercion is in fact merely to support the retention of existing forms of coercion. I don’t have an easy (or indeed any) answer as to how to resolve that conundrum satisfactorily, but I think the first step is to recognise that the conundrum exists.

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