The S-word

Why Not Socialism?
G. A. Cohen
Princeton University Press, $14.95, 83 pp.

 In dark times, it sometimes helps to take a longer view. Abolitionists undoubtedly had many reasons to be discouraged in the 1820s and ’30s. Let us hope those who were found comfort in reflecting that so immoral and irrational an institution as slavery simply could not persist until the end of days. For surely all the people cannot fool themselves all the time.

 Economic inequality in the twenty-first century is not, perhaps, so starkly immoral and irrational as chattel slavery in the nineteenth. Still, the ownership of 40 percent of the world’s wealth by 1 percent of its G.A. Coheninhabitants, while 30 or 35 percent—2 billion people—live on less than two dollars a day, entails a truly staggering amount of needless insecurity, poverty, and outright destitution. Surely this state of affairs—along with the less desperate but nonetheless substantial misery of the less-well-off in developed societies—cannot persist for many more decades, much less centuries?

 Perhaps technology will help, although this can no longer be taken for granted. Essential resources are finite, and in some cases exhausted; and the costs of previous technologies, from climate change to species depletion to air- and water-borne pollution to toxic-waste disposal, have scarcely begun to be reckoned. In any case, even benign technological development may not prevent the hardening of current inequalities into something like a global caste system, with an enormous and degraded underclass. The only thing that can prevent it is intelligent, humane collective action.

 The original name for intelligent, humane collective action that is also deep and sustained is “socialism.” During the twentieth century, the word was commonly used to describe actions that were anything but intelligent and humane, and were not even collective in the relevant sense (that is, democratic). For their different purposes, dictators and plutocrats embraced this usage: the dictators in order to dignify their tyranny with the prestige of a noble ideal, the plutocrats in order to insinuate that tyranny is the inevitable result of trying to realize the ideal. Ideologically, this was a very successful pincer movement. Today the word “socialism” suffers from extreme—and entirely understandable—prejudice among those who take it to mean what Stalin and J. Edgar Hoover agreed it meant.

 Still, you can’t keep a good idea down forever. Far from the political or academic mainstream, socialist writers like David Schweickart, John Roemer, Alec Nove, Michael Albert, Ernest Callenbach, Gar Alperovitz, and others have been formulating arguments and even plans. G. A. Cohen, the recently deceased Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, wrote two major books (If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? and Rescuing Justice and Equality) vindicating socialist morality against the more cautious and far more influential liberalism of John Rawls. They were intricately argued books, dense with the jargon of British analytic philosophy, and probably did not win many hearts and minds to the socialist cause. But Cohen’s final, very short book (a long essay, really) may do just that.

 Imagine a camping trip, he asks us. We are out with a large group of friends, whom we like and trust, along with a few of their significant others and casual companions, whom we don’t know but who seem nice enough. Some of us bring tools and provisions; other things we chip in to buy. Some people have relevant skills, like fishing or making campfires or singing. Some people bring nothing but themselves. The purpose of the trip is simply that everyone have a good time. What relations of production and distribution will we adopt?

 Clearly, those with food or tools will share them rather than sell or rent them. Those with skills will not charge for helping others or for doing the most demanding tasks. No one will seek to exploit his or her comparative advantage in order to maximize profits or leisure. From each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs: that is camping-trip socialism.

 Why can’t the rest of life be like that? Some will say: Because it’s not just. People with more skills or resources deserve higher rewards. Do they? Cohen replies. Our genetic endowment, early environment, and educational opportunities are a matter of luck rather than desert, and they are overwhelmingly responsible for our success or failure in the marketplace. Moreover, in a capitalist society, inequality, like interest, compounds over time.

 Others will say: Because it’s not efficient. People need incentives to work hard, and what stronger incentive is there than financial reward? That, Cohen points out, is an empirical question. For some people most of the time, and for most people some of the time, there are indeed stronger incentives than personal gain, just as on the camping trip. Doctors (at least European ones), nurses, teachers, and book reviewers do not “tailor their work to expected monetary return.” Moral, intellectual, and aesthetic incentives may be rarer than financial ones, but they are no less productive, and they are certainly far less destructive.

 Fine, skeptics will say, gifted people may not need extra incentives to work hard, but what about slackers and schlubs—that is, the great majority of us? As conservatives’ horror stories of union featherbedding demonstrate, job security brings out the worst in many people. (Political theorists will recognize this as the celebrated “collective action problem.”) Here, Cohen acknowledges, is the rub. Is there enough virtue in the world—generosity, honor, patience—to make socialism feasible? Not any time soon, of course; the millennia of scarcity and greed have scarred us deeply. But in the imaginable future? Or is there an evolutionary equivalent of original sin, an irreducible minimum of radical evil in human nature that must rule out socialism in aeternum?

 Anyone who offers a confident answer to that question is either a blithe utopian or (much more likely) an apologist for the capitalist status quo. Anthropology, biology, and evolutionary psychology are currently in ferment over the question of how deep are the evolutionary roots of cooperation and competition. A priori dismissal of the possibility of socialism is evidence of ignorance or bad faith.

 But suppose there is, someday, enough virtue—how would socialism work? With the help of a useful distinction between the informational and the motivational functions of market prices, Cohen canvasses some possibilities. Central planning is out—there’s not enough information available to planners. (Though Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel argue intriguingly in Looking Forward that decentralized planning is possible with present-day information technology.) But even if we must rely on markets for information, we must also find motivations other than those that markets appeal to: greed and fear.

 One option is market socialism. The version Cohen expounds, based on the economist John Roemer’s A Future for Socialism, allows inequality of income but not of wealth. Every citizen receives a share of the nation’s capital assets and can trade shares on the stock market, but not buy or sell them. Their dividends may increase, and their earned income is not limited (though it is progressively taxed), but at death all their shares are returned to the national treasury. Publicly owned banks and other financial institutions monitor corporate performance, as major shareholders do now (in theory). Thus the capitalist class is eliminated with no loss of economic efficiency, Roemer claims.

 No doubt the best forms of socialist organization will emerge, like everything else, after much trial and error. But a vast quantity of preliminary spadework is necessary to excavate the assumptions that keep us from even trying. With Why Not Socialism?, Cohen has turned over a few shovelfuls, bringing us a little nearer the end of the immemorial—but surely not everlasting—epoch of greed and fear.

 


Related: A Vote for Socialism, by David J. O'Brien
Radical, OP: Herbert McCabe's Revolutionary Faith, by Eugene McCarraher

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About the Author

George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?  and For the Republic.