The persistence of (belief in) socialism

By Lorenzo

I find the persistence of belief in socialism surprising (an example here), particularly given that Venezuela and North Korea both, in their different ways, display, yet again, the disastrous results in poverty, human misery and tyranny of “actually existing socialism”: that is, state domination of the economy. The lesson of Venezuela is, if anything, even stronger, as it is an example of the “democratic path to socialism”.

Now, it is possible that by socialism such folk mean something other than a state-run and dominated economy, but if they do, they need to pick a different term because that is what, socialism, in practice, means. Trying to get it to mean something else this late in its history is not practical. And using socialism as a placeholder term for some unspecified system of “common” ownership is empty moral self-indulgence parading as political commitment.

Recently, I had drinks with a very well-read friend who grew up in the Soviet Union and so has some lived insights into this. He made two very cogent points:

(1) What other language of justice-inspired of major social change is there? There remain all sorts of reasons to be morally repelled by aspects of contemporary society: what is the alternative political vision for a post-capitalist society? If there isn’t any, then “socialism” wins by default, as it has no effective competitor in the moral marketplace.

(2) For the Left, history is not the past, it’s the future. For folk like my friend and I, history is what happened in the past, from which we can learn and draw lessons. For the Left, history is what is going to happen, it is what has an arc that bends towards justice while the past is something to be judged, censored and transcended.

(As an aside, it is a nice illustration of a wider tendency for secular appropriation of religious ideas that Barack Obama liked quoting Martin Luther King who was quoting Theodore Parker on the arc of history bending towards justice, but turned what was a “kingdom of God” religious point into a very different secular claim.)

This second point coincides with something I had noticed about modern progressivism–what I had come to think of as the history is their bitch phenomenon: the recurring confidence that, if their policies are adopted, the legacies of the past can be swiftly surmounted. But history happened, lives on, and provides a rich source of lessons: history informs and constrains.

If, conversely, history is the future and the past is a record of sin and failure, of Haan history, to be judged, censored and transcended, then elevated hopes for what their policies can achieve, including the persistence of belief in socialism, is much less surprising.

But no more justified. Wishing does not make it so, and a lack of an alternative articulated vision of a post-capitalist society does not make socialism a worthy project. The unending record of failure of actually existing socialism is not some weird happenstance, it reveals key features of the entire project of socialism, as things show their nature in their history.

Four strikes

The first error is the implicit notion that public (which functionally means state) ownership of the means of production will somehow abolish selfishness, sociopathy and psychopathy. On the contrary, it creates a single, all-encompassing hierarchy for the self-servingly ambitious to climb. Socialism does not lock out selfishness, it gives it the keys to the entire kingdom. Socialist states always end up creating corrupt and exploitive hierarchies in particularly pathological manifestations of the late Jerry Pournelle‘s Iron Law of Bureaucracy or sociologist Robert Michels‘ Iron Law of Oligarchy.

The second error is that state ownership destroys key information for the functioning of an economy. This is the Mises-Hayek socialist calculation point. As is common for these sort of predictions, Mises and Hayek underestimated the ability of people to make adjustments, to get around the inherent dysfunction of the system they are stuck in, but Mises and Hayek correctly identified an inherent and deeply dysfunctional flaw in the entire project.

The third error is to wildly overestimate the capacity of the state apparatus to efficiently use the information that is available to it. Anyone who deals with government bureaucracies (or any large bureaucracy) will be familiar with this phenomenon. But the effects get much worse when government bureaucracies are the only significant users of information in the society and have coercive power backing them. Historical anthropologist James C. Scott‘s Seeing Like a State is a classic analysis of the problems involved, which extend beyond his revealing analysis and are compounded when the state is the (formal) economy.

The final point is the emptiness of the notion of democratic socialism. Socialism is inherently tyrannical, Hayek‘s Road to Serfdom point. The point is often somewhat obscured by the tendency to see democracy as some teleological endpoint of the arc of political history, whose apotheosis is finding the “correct” system for counting votes to elect officials.

Moving from theory to history, democracy is a system for entrenching and operationalising the broadest level of social bargaining and there can be no effective social bargaining with or within a state that runs everything. In a state-dominated society, due to having a state-run economy, there is no independent basis of social information and action outside the all-encompassing state, so no basis for genuine social bargaining of any breadth. Democracy will never tame socialism, socialism will always eat democracy.

The state was born in coercion and expropriation. Democracy is not some magic talisman that can somehow eliminate those features from a state in charge of everything. On the contrary, democracy becomes a casualty of the all-encompassing state becoming more intensely a system of coercion and expropriation.

These features explain socialism’s history of tyranny and massive human misery. A record of human experience that any serious analysis must grapple with rather than airily dismiss.

Returning to archetype

Socialism is not a modern invention. The first states dominated their economies so thoroughly that they can reasonably be called socialist. That the remaining command economy, North Korea, has ended up with a god-king dynasty running everything is not some weird aberration, it is a return to the origins of the state once the state has become the society.

The reality is that history is not progressivists’s (or anyone’s) bitch: as the entire socialist project demonstrates. So, while socialism currently may be the only game around for aspirations for a post-capitalist society, it is not a game anyone should seek to play. The real work is not in trying to find a way to make socialism “work”: that is a project doomed to failure and which leads only to human misery. The real work is to come up with an alternative vision of the post-capitalist future. That the state is the easiest substitute for private firms based on ownership of capital may make socialism the default alternative to capitalism; it does not make it a worthy one.


ADDENDA: Reacting against the human suffering and moral failures which are part of the rise and practice of capitalism is fine, but if one then discounts (on whatever grounds) the mass murders and starvations, human misery and tyranny which are so saliently and deeply part of the history of socialism, one’s politics clearly are not based on human suffering and concern for human flourishing, but something else.

FURTHER ADDENDA: Much of the trumpeted sins of “capitalism” are either things that have no intrinsic connection to capitalism (such as slavery and imperialism: both which have proved eminently compatible with socialism) or which came from capitalism supporting more effective and capable states (such as imperialism) or have their (often worse) counterparts in other social systems, all of which further points to the doomed nature of basing or anchoring one’s search for social structures more conducive to human flourishing in reaction to capitalism.

NOTE ON USAGE: Nothing above should be taken as an endorsement of the term capitalism which I dislike as it is typically ill-defined and often used to conflate phenomena together: in particular commerce and government action. Commerce cannot be relied upon to exclude people by social category, so governments have to intervene to get such results–for example, the economic side of Jim Crow or adjustment of the New Deal to disadvantage African-Americans.  Calling the results “capitalism” obscures rather than revealing.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

One Comment

  1. Nigel Davies
    Posted September 21, 2017 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    OMG (Whoops, how racist, classist, politically incorrect, I’ll just pause and have a good self flagellation)…
    How dare you suggest that the ‘all rights and no responsibilities generation’ can completely ignore the history they never learn’t and just wish the implausibly impossible into being.
    I’m off to report you to the thought police for prosecution for wounding my delicate sensibilities… (just can’t remember whether it’s the HRC or the SSM junta’s that get to do summary execution without trial?)

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