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.