Human beings are good at showing kindness on a small scale, but when we try and show kindness on a grand scale something seems to dissipate away. We are good at extending compassion towards family and friends, but less good at doing so towards the man on the street. This, as G.A. Cohen conceives of it, is the principal challenge of a socialist world, not that such a world would not be desirable, but that we do not have the appropriate social technology to harness our better instincts towards equitability, community and friendship at the expense of avarice, fear and resentment.
In “What is Socialism“, G.A Cohen sets out a short but bold vision for how we capture the spirit of small-scale community into something much bigger. Cohen begins by sketching out a metaphor of a camping trip to symbolise how human beings are capable of acting with an instinct towards sharing and reciprocity. In the camping trip, everyone is able to contribute what they can. There is no language of private ownership; people aren’t solely in it for themselves; everyone participates together in a shared, communal activity and everyone accrues the same benefits. There is no hierarchy and people have space for both private and communal activities. Cohen is able to demonstrate convincingly that the camping trip is much better exercised through egalitarian and socialist principles than it would be through capitalistic or free market principles.
But then Cohen then turns to the wider question– if it would be both desirable and feasible to arrange a camping trip along socialist lines, would the same hold true for wider society? Here Cohen is a little less optimistic. He reflects unfortunately that:
“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.”
The desirability comes from an impetus to create a social system that is less reliant on the dominant motivators of fear and greed. These motivators produce societies in which the impetus to covet spurns massive inequalities in both outcome and opportunity. As Cohen says: ” community is put under strain when large inequalities obtain.” The alternative that Cohen expounds a system that advances socialist equality of opportunity. This would be a mechanism, contrasted with left-liberal equality of opportunity, in which inbuilt disadvantages denoted by birth would not just be ameliorated, but instead eliminated. This would not mean that within such a society there would not be some inequality. Only that this inequality would reflect the choices that people have made from an equal position; reflected, for example, in the choices in the number of hours worked and the commensurate allocation of resources. A system in which inherent unfairness is filtered out would represent a more desirable political system.
But the question then becomes how one would look to scale such a system up to create a better society. Can a political system be built that foregrounds the prominence of community at the expense of rampant self-interest? The problem we face, Cohen argues, is not so much the ideas themselves but in the social technology required to actually manifest them.
Cohen addresses objections to the notion of a society built on socialist principles. These include the theory of human nature that supposes that people have a natural instinct towards self-satisfaction and envy. Cohen points to examples of where this instinct is side-lined such as in the work of carers, doctors and teachers who work tirelessly for the benefit of others. Or we see the same instinct when communities come together when faced with emergencies. This is all true, but such examples stand as the exception rather than the rule, meaning that additional ground still has to be made to realise their spirit on a grander scale.
“We do not know how to harness the generosity; we do not know how, through appropriate rules and stimuli, to make generosity turn the wheels of the economy.”
Attempts to offer a socialist model in Russia or China did not evidence the spirit of harmony found on the metaphorical camping trip. One thing that the market does well is provide a source of information about the prices of goods. Attempts to transition to a model of central planning had a devastating impact in Russia and China and corresponded with the brutal repression of ordinary people.
Cohen highlights alternative models such as the analysis put forward by Joseph Carnes who calls for a socialist market system; the principles of which operate under normal market rules but supported by a tax system that cancels out the unequal effects through redistribution. People act as they do, but cannot keep the profits from capitalistic activity. Ultimately, as Cohen concedes, the idea is utopian as it relies on non-self-interested choices. Market socialism does not solve all problems but as a normative proposition, it would surely serve us better than a purely capitalistic system.
Why not socialism is a bold and persuasive text–more of a long-form essay than a book– which deals with the underlying rationale for formulating a conception of society based on socialist principles. There is no doubt that whilst huge challenges remain the case for reimagining the case and spirit of socialism is strong. Ultimately, we must never stop making the case to bring about a political system that responds to peoples better instincts for a sense of community, justice and compassion.