The Spirit of the Whole: Socialism and Religion

It has been observed that putting the words ‘socialism’ and ‘religion’ in the same sentence can have dangerous results. This seemingly unstable mixture has been known to produce the following noxious reactions:

  • “Socialism is a religion!”
  • “Never forget what the Soviets did to the Church!”
  • “Religion is evil and all socialists must be atheists!”

It should be noted that before we can get anywhere with this, we have to separate Stalinism from socialism. Under Stalin and his bureaucracy the terminology of socialism was indeed used in a way that resembles a state religion. But this was purely a linguistic matter, an appropriation, an absurd form of theft not entirely unlike postmodernism’s stealing of scientific terminology to give its irrationality the sheen of respectability. That postmodernists have used the term “fuzzy logic” to make their ideas sound like they have a basis in something other than opportunism and sophistry does not invalidate fuzzy logic – or mathematics.

The Soviet Union as it came to exist under and after Stalin was a planned economy, but it was not a socialist state. (The two notions – “a strong state” and “socialism” are often portrayed as the same, especially in the US media, but this is little more than propaganda. There are many forms of political organization; there are many types of state.) The purges that anti-communists like to reference were, after all, purges of actual revolutionary socialists. It’s not like the people Stalin spent so much time worrying about were capitalists: his victims were people like Trotsky, who wanted a democratic, progressive Soviet Union that would use the scientifc mindset that is the basis of Marxism (a term Marx himself disliked, and that I wish we could let go of) to create a sustainable, fair society.

The “scientific” part is the important one here, and is also the real reason postmodernism is so opposed to socialism. Marx did not write about ideals or utopias – he wrote about economics. Socialists are sometimes idiotically portrayed as “wanting everyone to get along and be friends” and other such piffle. Socialism is not about friendship or idealism; it’s an economic system, not a self-help group. It does not posit the possibility of a world where everyone will be happy. It posits that examining the patterns of economic growth in various systems can lead us to understand how to build a more stable system based on rational, scientific principles – a system aimed towards sustainability and quality of life, including intellectual life. This will not be Utopia; it will not be an unchanging paradise. There will still be divorces, unpleasant people, differences of opinion, even crimes of passion or insanity. But maybe there won’t be a billion people starving while we have enough food to feed them twice over, or tiny groups of people controlling most of the planet’s natural resources for the noble goal of making even more money that they can never spend.

Socialism isn’t a religion. It’s common sense.

Because socialism, unlike Stalinism, is not a dogma, it is also in no way monolithic. (It may well not be monolithic enough. Socialists tend to laugh harder at the People’s Front of Judea than anyone else, I think. Because it’s true and because it hurts.) Though there is much common ground, there are many different approaches to how a sustainable system should be built. And these different approaches aren’t about various ancient texts, worshipping different editions of Das Kapital. People like David Harvey have spent decades refining, adapting and evolving the analytical tools of Marxism for the modern world. 2012 is not 1867.

Let’s leave aside the clichés about the religion of socialism, however, and talk about a more direct intersection of the two: the persecution of religion in the Soviet Union.

Now this is a very, very tricky subject matter. The narrative of “the evil Soviets persecuted the poor Christians!” is popular not only with nutty Black-Book-quoting anti-communists, but also with many Western liberals. And what makes it even more tricky is that it’s true… partially. The problem, as usual, is one of context.

A brief detour: I was raised in Greece, and until I left Greece I was a militant atheist. Why? Because, apart from history and philosophy and everything else, there was the Greek Orthodox Church. And the Greek Orthodox Church is, to put it mildly, evil. It’s a tangled-up net of corruption, racism, sexual abuse and general backwardness. It is a cancer in Greek society, draining it of money, using ridiculous excuses to steal vast amounts of land, and promoting hatred, nationalism and superstition. By the latter I do not mean the belief in a divine creator or the philosophical engagement with the poetry of the Gospels, but the idea that hitting yourself on the head with a piece of painted wood will make a saint cure you, or believing yourself to be superior to others because you belong to the chosen ones… while you starve and the priest of a Messiah who commanded his followers to give away their possessions to the poor sits on a throne like a fat pig with a golden hat on his head.

I’m not going to make any excuses for this organization. It supports fascism, exploits the people, spreads reactionary ideas and regularly engages in criminal activities. Growing up in a country with these self-important, power-hungry abusive barbarians makes it almost impossible to appreciate anything positive about Christianity.

That’s the Greek Orthodox Church in 2012. The Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 makes our current church look like the Unified Church of Carlin and Maher.

Of course the revolutionaries went after the church. I would go after the church, too. This was an organization strongly opposed to any change, an anti-revolutionary centre of power. It existed to spread philosophical ideas that kept people intellectually depressed and unwilling to fight for their own interests. It was, above all, a political organization – like churches usually become when the state gives them authority. It said “God wants you to be poor, God wants you to obey the tsar, God wants you to hate the Jews!” Note that Lenin was strongly opposed to anti-Semitism, while the tsarist regime organized horrific pogroms against them. The Wikipedia has a quote from the New York Times of 1903:

There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep.

These are the people the socialists of the Russian Revolution were faced with, and it is entirely natural that they fought them, and hard.

But how far is too far?

Religion has very often played a very negative role in the development of the human species. There is no question about this. Organized religion is responsible for some of the most horrific crimes in human history, and even without the actual authority of the church, the thought patterns encouraged by religion have supported vile behaviour by individuals and groups the world over. No matter what you believe in, there is no way around these facts. Even if you believe in the Catholic Church with all your heart, you cannot deny the simple fact that Catholic priests abused children, and that the Church systematically covered it up. And if you have even the slightest bit of moral fibre, you will have to confront facts like these and think about them.

Furthermore, in a democratic state, religion does not belong in schools or courtrooms. We cannot have freedom of thought without the possibility of freedom from religion. Religion must have nothing to do with the state. We cannot have democracy without making sure that power is wielded by the people, and not by a religious authority.

But when does fighting for freedom of thought transform into persecuting those who think differently? When does free thought become atheist dogma?

Because it does happen, and it does matter.

We live, once again, in times when religion is extremely powerful. Churches are economic behemoths, the official political discourse is afraid to even touch a questioning of religion, and science and logic are under constant attack by religious fundamentalists (and technophobic postmodernists). It’s gotten worse than anyone could have imagined thirty years ago, as these things do when an economic and political system is in crisis and desperately trying to keep itself going. Religion has always functioned as a support for the status quo.

Simultaneously a movement of militant atheism has emerged, represented by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. These individuals are not socialists or even particularly left-wing; Hitchens in particular is a fine example of the fact that atheism does not equal any kind of progressive agenda. His open hatred and gleeful racism are quite remarkable, though they will not be the focus of this article. But socialists, while staying well away from the Islamophobia of the militant atheists, very often still maintain that atheism and socialism are inextricably bound. And this is where things become problematic.

A scientific worldview is essential to socialism, but a scientific worldview does not equal atheism. It equals only one thing: examining the world and drawing conclusions on the basis of evidence. This can lead to atheism – there’s certainly no hard evidence to suggest the existence of a deity – but it doesn’t have to. In my case it leads to agnosticism. In other cases it may lead to religion. Why? Because while personal experience cannot be enough for us to build theories from, it is enough to lead to personal opinions. The complexity of the human experience makes the complexity of economics pale by comparison; it would be entirely unscientific to disregard the accumulated data of millennia in this regard. It is entirely reasonable to expect everyone to form their opinions and beliefs on the basis of logic, but history and common sense show us that we cannot possibly expect everyone to come to the same conclusions.

It’s more than just that, though. Socialism values humanity – the value of humanity must be a fundamental supposition of socialism, or why seek to preserve and enhance it? – and there is a great deal in our history that has to do with religion and that is valuable. Take Leo Tolstoy, for example. You can’t reduce him to his anarcho-pacifism; his greatness is bound up with his Christian beliefs. The same goes for William Blake, or G.K. Chesterton. And in fact it is my opinion that Chesterton was terribly wrong in many of the things that he wrote, in particular in his defense of the Catholic Church. But I don’t want to live in a world without Chesterton. Or Blake. Or Tolstoy. The fanatical Christians would create a world without Carl Sagan. The fanatical atheists would create a world without J.R.R. Tolkien. Either world would be a world without me, because both Tolkien and Sagan shaped who I am today.

The truth is that a desire for meaning and transcendence will always be part of this species. We can get rid of racist preachers, greedy churches and hate-filled beliefs; we can get rid of technophobia and philosophical arrogance; we can learn to look at the universe and consider our place in it; perhaps we can even learn to allow children not to be indoctrinated at a young age, but to choose a religion (or none) when they’ve had some time to think. We might even eliminate the term ‘religion’ (it can go on the same heap as ‘Marxism’). But we’ll never eliminate that yearning. We’ll never eliminate worship.

As the great philosopher, writer, and socialist, Olaf Stapledon, wrote in the glossary to his magnum opus, Star Maker:

Worship. At the risk of raising thunder on the Left, I have used this word to designate an emotional attitude or activity which I believe to be extremely important, and to be the essential meaning which the common debased use of the word has obscured. [All emotion is an attitude or activity consequent on valuing something or other either actually enjoyed or merely needed. Sometimes what is valued is a simple bodily activity; sometimes it is something demanding more developed powers of apprehension, for instance, personal triumph, or the well-being of another individual, or of a community. More developed emotion, though always woven of simple emotional responses to primitive situations, such as hunger, and danger, becomes complicated and refined in relation to more subtle situations, such as personal and social relationships, adequately cognised. Now we may adopt, or strive to adopt, an emotional attitude appropriate not merely to personal or social relations but to our relation to our experienced universe as a whole. I suggest that this attitude, when it really is appropriate, is the most significant meaning of the word ‘worship’.] I should describe the essence of worship as the attempt to see and feel all experienced things not merely from the private or even the racial point of view but from the universal point of view. It is a prizing of the whole of things (so far as revealed) not as means to personal or racial advancement, but for its own sake. ‘The whole of things’ needs qualification. Perhaps the activity which I am calling ‘worship’ is an appreciation not precisely of the whole of experienced things, but rather of an attribute or essence that is experienced as characteristic of all particular existents. Metaphorically this essence might be called the ‘spirit of the whole’.

And to carry us back to relationship between religion and socialism:

Religion. (a) In the mouths of Communists the word means a particular sort of capitalist dope, namely certain doctrines and practices calculated to withdraw attention from the need for revolution, and to fix it upon an unreal world of fantasy, thus relieving the ‘religious’ person from the moral responsibility of serving the revolution. Some readers may condemn this book as ‘religious’ in this pejorative sense. (b) In another sense ‘religion’ includes all that is best in the emotional attitude of Communism itself, namely the resolute will to live devotedly in service of mankind. ‘Religion’ in this sense includes also a conviction that this will has in some manner not merely terrestrial but also cosmical significance. Further, it includes the feeling that even the will to fight in life’s battle against the forces of death should be complemented by an ultimate piety toward something superhuman, and even super-vital, a piety toward fate, or the whole of being, or some inconceivable diety. This attitude, so well expressed by Spinoza, is alien to contemporary Communism; but it is not to be confused with capitalist dope, for those who have felt it most strongly have been amongst the most active in the service of mankind.

Maybe, then, at the very heart of socialism, there is something similar to religion after all: that fundamental idea, defended by Chesterton and Blake and King and X and Tolstoy and so many others, that there is something worth serving, something greater than just the ego of the individual, something that includes life and love and art and philosophy and simple human existence. Everything that lives is holy.

Or maybe that’s just common sense.

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32 Comments

  1. Notes:

    1. “Socialism” here is for the most part interchangeable with “Communism” or “Marxism”; not with “Stalinism” or “Democratic Socialism” or “Social Democracy”. Yes, this is a simplification.
    2. You should really read Star Maker.

  2. David Highlender

     /  August 1, 2012

    The only response I will leave is that in my experience too many people are quick to mistake Christianity with a religion such as Catholicism, Mormons, Greek Orthodox, etc. Even though the genealogical proof exists that a man named Jesus was born and walked the Earth, too many people make the wrong argument. The viable discussion to have is whether or not Jesus is the son of God, but to argue he didn’t exist is ignorant. (You didn’t make this argument, just expanding on my point)

    For me “religion” didn’t come together until I stop trying to live the way an organization told me to live and started to live the way the Bible said to live. There is a big difference in having a relationship with God and being told to follow rituals, and restrictions.

  3. Evan Balster

     /  August 1, 2012

    Good writeup, Jonas. An enlightening morning’s read. 🙂

  4. Jan from Denmark

     /  August 1, 2012

    Jonas, I can appreciate that you clearly have been thinking hard on this.

    Beautiful writeup.

    I myself define religion as rigid dogma which easily leads to fanaticism and all the negative things you mention.

    Like you I would define my attitude as agnostic, given my own life experience I see indications of a spiritual (not rigidly religious) existence, being (call it whatever you like).
    Even if this can not be objectively (scientifically) verified it seems to be a common human experience throughout the ages.

  5. Jan from Denmark

     /  August 1, 2012

    P:S: “Star Maker”, to me, sounds like an interesting read.

  6. You have to read Star Maker. It’s one of the great science fiction books ever written. A masterpiece of imagination and philosophy. (Also the inspiration for Dyson spheres, amongst other things.)

  7. Nahil

     /  August 1, 2012

    “Everything that lives is holy” hm, I quite like that. One thing though, It kind of bothers me when people say they are agnostic instead of atheist. Atheism and agnosticism are actually in two different categories. The former is about not believing in a God while the latter is about acknowledging that one can’t really know. They’re not mutually exclusive. If you are agnostic and have no particular belief in any God, then you actually are also an atheist. Anyway, that wasn’t really the point of this article, but I had to get that out 😛

  8. It’s funny that I read this article when I just watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica last night. Since you probably haven’t watched it (it’s an anime, if you couldn’t guess from the title), its biggest theme is how helping people can often go wrong, and how people often lose hope in the face of all the horrific things happening in the world.

    You bring up many good points, and I’m glad to have found SOMEBODY who understands what happened between the church and the revolutionaries in Russia.

    I find it disturbing that anybody could be opposed to socialism morally. What’s morally wrong with wanting everybody to have a fair share of the resources of the Earth?

    I also find it extremely disturbing that these crazy fuckers on the right keep painting socialism as a religion, and, at the same fucking time, paint Islam as a political standpoint. That’s not a joke. People running for Congress have said Islam was a political movement intent on bringing Sharia law to the US.

    And then there’s gun laws. So many people ready to kill, but are they really? Killing should never come easy. Every human life you take is another permanent stain on your hands. It is, and should always be, a heavy burden on the soul.

  9. Great read.

    I’ll add that the Church is the main responsible for some terminological ambiguities marked here. It’s a right-wing political organization that acknowledges it’s true face when attacking, and becomes all politically neutral and spiritual when under attack.

    There’s also the problem about confusing Christianity with the Catholic Church. All Church-based religions have this problem. I personally find it hard to believe you can politically separate yourself from an institution while living under the principles of a book written/compiled/translated by the institution itself.

    I can also note you bring the terms common sense and scientific analysis together, when they’re typically portrayed as opposed or unrelated. Is this intentional?

  10. Iurii

     /  August 2, 2012

    Thanks for the great text!!
    “Everything that lives is holy” – that’s Schweitzer’s philosophy 🙂
    As for ‘socialism’ and ‘religion’ – well, I think here in USSR we had just great two examples of people calling themselves Christian or Communists while being neither of them. What you say about present-day Greek Orthodox church – and that was certainly similar to Russian Orthodox church when it was the reigning spiritual body before the October revolution – is really true, and that nautrally gave birth to some popular anger later. But that fact in no way discredits Christianity – it only shows that those church people were not (or, are not) actually Christian… Not all of them, that’s for sure!
    The same thing happened during Stalinism – Stalin called himself a Communist, and many Western observers still call him (and other Soviet leaders who came after him) that name, but almost all true communists were actually murdered or exiled by Stalin. And again – that fact does not discredit Communism, in my opinion.
    (By the way, there was a difference between ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ – accroding to Lenin, the latter term was discredited after WWI when socialist leaders turned socialism into de-facto nationalism, so now we should call ourselves communists, not socialists, Lenin argued.)

  11. BlueJay

     /  August 2, 2012

    @Nahil, I’m glad you mentioned the part about atheism and agnosticism not being mutually exclusive; I was going to mention that and was trying to come up with some complicated explanation and you just said it, very simply and clearly. Much better than I could have. 🙂 And you’re right of course.

    @Jonas, I’d like to point out one thing and ask two. (Or more.)

    First, you said: “Simultaneously a movement of militant atheism has emerged, represented by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. These individuals are not socialists or even particularly left-wing; Hitchens in particular is a fine example of the fact that atheism does not equal any kind of progressive agenda. His open hatred and gleeful racism are quite remarkable, though they will not be the focus of this article. But socialists, while staying well away from the Islamophobia of the militant atheists, very often still maintain that atheism and socialism are inextricably bound.”

    But Christopher Hitchens actually called himself a socialist. Here’s one youtube video, if you’re interested, where he says “I said earlier I was a socialist, we regard liberals as dangerous compromises where I come from.” I think I recall him saying somewhere else that he liked Marx, and I know he called himself a Trotskyist. (On a completely unrelated and irrelevant note, I just found this second video, and I hadn’t known before that Trotsky helped to write the Surrealist Manifesto. I found that quite interesting. Not my question though…)

    So, why do you think Hitchens was not a socialist? The only thing you really mention is his hatred of Islam. (I honestly don’t know if this is the racism you’re referring to.) I know you’re against the imperialistic wars of aggression that Hitchens apparently supported. (He thought Iran should be destroyed militarily, right?) But I don’t see how that’s inherently a non-socialist idea. My impression is that socialism not only sanctions but necessitates force, (and aggressive force,) in countless parts of life, specifically the economy. Hitchens apparently thought the world could be made a better place by destroying Islam through coercion. What’s unsocialist about this?

    These are honest questions by the way. I’m honestly trying to figure out your thinking here. This isn’t a personal attack against you or anything like that. (Although I’m about as far away from you politically as possible, I think.)

    My second question is about how you emphasize, (several times,) that socialism is scientific. I’m curious as to what scientific evidence you have in support of socialism. You don’t seem to provide any here, (but that’s not the point of the article, so I don’t mind too much.) What examples do you have of state planning, control, and coercive intervention into other people’s lives and affairs ever bringing prosperity to anyone?

    By the way, I admit I’ve never read Das Kapital, but I’ve read the Communist Manifesto and it didn’t make me all that eager to read more of what Marx had to say. In fact I was disappointed. (Not that I expected to agree with him, I just expected more of an economical or philosophical justification than I saw. At least an attempt.)

    So I guess my question should be, what do you consider the best evidence for socialist ideas out there to look at? Thanks.

    @Evil Roda

    You said: “I find it disturbing that anybody could be opposed to socialism morally. What’s morally wrong with wanting everybody to have a fair share of the resources of the Earth?”

    Ah, Evil Roda, now you’ve gone and asked a question. I don’t know if you were being rhetorical, or if you were sincerely wondering how anyone could object. If rhetorical then I’ll peacefully suggest that you skip this. If sincere curiosity, then I’ll attempt to explain my own moral objections to socialism, (if not anyone else’s.)

    I don’t know exactly what your definition of socialism is, but I would say that, from what little I’ve read of socialist ideas, an essential part of the philosophy is the use of coercion to make it work, no? If I see a man making balloon animals and giving them to some children for free, then I don’t object. If I hear he has payed for the balloons with money he got by robbing a bank, I do, and whatever joy the children got from the exchange is irrelevant.

    I adhere to the Non-Aggression Principle: it is immoral to initiate the use of force or fraud, or threaten to do so, against any other adult human being. (Children are a tricky, special case and pseudoexception, which I won’t get too much into unless you really want me to. And yes, I just made up the word “pseudoexception”.) Allow me an example…

    Suppose you have something I want, say a car, for instance, or a mouse. There could be a ton of reasons I might want your mouse, but there are really only a couple of ways I could try to get it from you.

    The first way is voluntarily. I could ask you to give me the mouse, or I could offer a trade. If I, say, offer you a banjo for your mouse, and you say yes, then it seems obvious to any third party observing our interaction that we are not only interacting voluntarily, and with mutual consent, but we also both benefit from, or profit from, this situation. After all, if you accept my banjo in return for your mouse, then it stands to reason that you probably value the banjo more highly than you value your mouse. Correct? And contrariwise, it makes sense, (seems to to me at least,) that I would value the mouse more highly than the banjo. (Who wouldn’t?) If either of us didn’t value the thing we obtained more highly than the price we paid, then why in the world would we do the trade? You could tell me no, after all, in which case neither of us have lost anything or harmed the other. Not only do we both gain from this voluntary interaction, but by the very nature of voluntary interaction we must either both gain from it, or not engage in it at all. (Unless, perhaps, we’re mad. In which case one could argue that we don’t know what we should value and trade for. But in that case, who is anyone to tell us what we should value? It’s our lives and our decision.)

    Now, on the other wing, I could use a more aggressive, coercive approach to obtaining my small, furry, slightly smelly and disease-ridden prize. Such as shooting you. Now, to an outside observer, it seems that, in the short term and blatant sense, I have benefited from this less than benevolent transaction. I have, after all, obtained the thing I wanted. But you are dead.

    Now, there are matters of degree here. I could only threaten to shoot you. Then you could either comply, or not. (And be shot if not.) I could threaten to imprison you instead, and even feed you hospital food while you’re imprisoned, out of the goodness of my heart of course. Then there are plenty of completely meaningless and irrelevant things:

    Perhaps I were to claim that the mouse is not for me, and that I will immediately give it up to someone much more needy of it than I. Perhaps this is even true. Perhaps instead of a mouse I am taking food and giving it to starving children. Perhaps I have a hundred million people who agree with my point of view. Perhaps all the people in the world (besides you) agree with me and sanction my coercion. Perhaps we have even formed an institution called the Government, which is all very official and proper, and had debates and long discussions and taken a vote at the end. Perhaps the vote was unanimous. (Except you.) Perhaps all the moral philosophers of the world sanction me, or God even sanctions me. (Or so I say.) Perhaps I will benefit from my act, perhaps I will gain nothing. (Other than power.)

    Or perhaps, to answer your question, it it not food or a mouse or a car, but all of the people in the world being given a “fair share” of the “world’s resources.”

    You are still dead, I am still evil, and this is still the “economics” of parasites and predators.

    Voluntary interaction is beneficial, by it’s nature, to everyone involved. Coercion, by it’s nature, is necessarily harmful to the person being coerced, it can only be used to destroy. Never to create. And the only time it should ever be used, the only time it can justly be used, is in retaliation, for the sole purpose of stopping those who have initiated it’s use, and, if possible, righting the wrong they have done.

    I do not object to your merely “wanting everybody to have to have a fair share of the world’s resources”. I object to your use or advocacy of force to achieve it.

    Thank you for your time.

  12. Well yes, BlueJay. But, to be fair, the means to accomplish a Socialist society are not the core of the Socialist ideology.

    Even the first capitalism-defenders, when capitalism wasn’t the dominant system of production, dealt with how to impose an economic system they believed to be more fair than, IDK, feudalism? And whether to accomplish it by coercion or by … pretty please, maybe?

    Kinda thinking in Foucault I’ll say human interaction consists on people trying to accomplish their goals, and trying to fix things so other people will find the better choice for them to be collaborating with you. So power and coercion are not discrete categories, but qualities that all human interaction has in different amounts, and therefore cannot be rejected as a whole.

    Not sure if this is relevant. Please ignore if I’m just not getting it.

  13. frong

     /  August 3, 2012

    Your point that socialism is purely an economic system, not something else, is valid. Your point that socialism is common sense, on the other hand, is not. Socialism/communism/etc. run contrary to human nature – the desire to look out for #1.

    If you know that you will never get ahead no matter how hard you work because all your additional earnings are taken and redistributed among everyone else, nearly all of whom are people who you will never meet or even know, you will have little to no incentive to work any harder than absolutely necessary. This is the fundamental flaw in socialism that has caused it to fail nearly every time it’s been attempted. Soviet Russia is the best example of this, and the EU is working on adding itself to that list.

    Capitalism takes the exact opposite approach and uses that human trait to its advantage. Want to get ahead, or perhaps help others do so? Work more/smarter/harder, keep what you earn, and use it however you want. Now that’s common sense.

  14. But Christopher Hitchens actually called himself a socialist.

    That he called himself one does not make him one; Hitchens was an opportunist who for a time pretended to be allied to the left.

    So, why do you think Hitchens was not a socialist? The only thing you really mention is his hatred of Islam. (I honestly don’t know if this is the racism you’re referring to.) I know you’re against the imperialistic wars of aggression that Hitchens apparently supported. (He thought Iran should be destroyed militarily, right?) But I don’t see how that’s inherently a non-socialist idea. My impression is that socialism not only sanctions but necessitates force, (and aggressive force,) in countless parts of life, specifically the economy. Hitchens apparently thought the world could be made a better place by destroying Islam through coercion. What’s unsocialist about this?

    An imperialist war of aggression to defend the interests of a national elite is pretty much the exact opposite of socialism. How could it not be? Socialism has always been opposed to wars – because the perspective of socialism is inherently internationalist, and wars basically consist of the elites of one country trying to take something from the elites of another, with the people as cannon fodder.

    Voluntary interaction is beneficial, by it’s nature, to everyone involved. Coercion, by it’s nature, is necessarily harmful to the person being coerced, it can only be used to destroy. Never to create. And the only time it should ever be used, the only time it can justly be used, is in retaliation, for the sole purpose of stopping those who have initiated it’s use, and, if possible, righting the wrong they have done.

    I have trouble responding to this because it comes from a uniquely libertarian mode of thinking that sees coercion in everything. I’ll quote from two articles that I find relevant:

    Adam Cadre: Occupy the first person plural
    The irony is that while the word “social” is anathema to libertarians in economic contexts, property is itself a social construct. There’s nothing intrinsic to my stuff that makes it mine, and there have been cultures that would have been perplexed by the notion that I had any right to keep others away from an object I wasn’t using. In ours, we have a social contract that we can each claim stuff, usually by paying for it — money being a social construct as well — and I’ll respect your right to keep me away from the stuff we collectively define as yours if you respect my right to keep you away from the stuff we collectively define as mine. If you say, “I never agreed to that! You all don’t get to collectively decide what we’re going to do! I’ll opt out of my property rights if it means I don’t have to respect yours!” and burgle my apartment, there’s a reasonable chance that some people who don’t know either of us will capture you and put you in jail, in order to enforce the collective agreement that frees us from having to spend all our time at home guarding our stuff. And libertarians are fine with this. In fact, they insist on it.

    and

    Albert Einstein: Why Socialism?
    If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

    I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life.

    The important thing here is this: all of our social interactions, including economics, are based on social constructs. Social constructs can only exist because we collectively agree to them – and because we are willing to enforce them. This includes our current understanding of property, which is not God-given or “natural” but constructed and backed up by laws. The idea that something is “yours” can only exist because the police will come and arrest me if I take it, even if you don’t need it or don’t even remember that it exists.

    However, one major problem is that many people (particularly in the United States, where the economic system is less humane than in parts of Europe) people experience this as a negative fact. You say that all this constitutes coercion. But you could also say that it constitutes the exact opposite: it constitutes a way to prevent conflict. We have social constructs, codified ways of dealing with situations, so we can be free of fear (or one another). And we can alter these social constructs (because they are arbitrary) in order to make our society more functional and more free.

    Voluntary interaction imagines that we all independent of one another and can just ignore each other. But we can’t. Every single element of our civilization is interconnected, and we rely on that interconnection to make things work. Whether we like it or not, we are all in the same boat. Being part of society is not voluntary and never can be; we will always be subject to social constructs. The question is how these social constructs will be shaped.

    Also of note is that what you are arguing is actually very similar to that which socialism is always accused of: “let’s all get along.” It’s a utopian ideology that relies on humans altering their personal behaviour, which I think is highly unlikely. Socialism, on the other hand, is about simply creating a more functional economic system. It is less far from existing capitalism than a world of voluntary interaction in which everyone is “free of their brother.”

    And that is one of the essential differences between socialism and most forms of libertarianism: the one argues from analysis, the other from ideology. Socialism isn’t interested in saying that capitalism is “evil” or even “immoral” – the point is that it doesn’t work because its mechanics are flawed. As people like David Harvey have pointed out, the math simply doesn’t work.

    The latter is easily enough backed up with facts. The last few decades have seen the ideas of neoliberalism applied again and again – and they’ve always failed. Privatization and deregulation have not brought wealth or growth, but have consistently caused crises and recessions. Instead of helping business they have destroyed business; even the IMF itself was forced to acknowledge that Iceland’s anti-capitalist measures actually worked, whereas in Europe everything is getting worse despite the claims of capitalist dogma.

    To go back to your example: you seem to think that the idea of rationally using resources would involve some kind of arbitrary taking away of things. But it’s much simpler than that. You have ten hungry people, and ten steaks. Our current system has half the people getting a tiny bit of steak, two or three starving to death, and the rest having too much steak and throwing it away. “Give each person one steak” isn’t arbitrary, it’s common sense.

  15. Soviet Russia is the best example of this, and the EU is working on adding itself to that list.

    Your argument instantly became invalid the moment you added the EU to the list. The EU is only socialist according to insane people in the US media. The crisis here has nothing to do with socialism and everything to do with precisely the ideology you peddle, the increasing application of which has taken Europe from stability and growth to disastrous crisis after disastrous crisis.

  16. Also: this presentation by David Harvey. Harvey is a very good starting point if you want to learn more about actual socialism.

  17. BlueJay

     /  August 4, 2012

    Back again with another agonizingly and stupidly long post. Sorry about that. (Short and sweet is not my strong point.)

    @David T. Marchand

    If I get the blockquote tags wrong, I apologize…

    [T]he means to accomplish a Socialist society are not the core of the Socialist ideology.

    Even the first capitalism-defenders, when capitalism wasn’t the dominant system of production, dealt with how to impose an economic system they believed to be more fair than, IDK, feudalism? And whether to accomplish it by coercion or by … pretty please, maybe?

    Kinda thinking in Foucault I’ll say human interaction consists on people trying to accomplish their goals, and trying to fix things so other people will find the better choice for them to be collaborating with you. So power and coercion are not discrete categories, but qualities that all human interaction has in different amounts, and therefore cannot be rejected as a whole.

    Not sure if this is relevant. Please ignore if I’m just not getting it.

    Not only is it relevant, it’s the most important part of the conversation. Many arguments for state power and intervention are based on an equivocation between force and nonforce. Most of society actually interacts on a voluntary basis. We get up, talk and interact with family or friends, go to a job or the store or to some social event or whatever, and none of this is coercive. Most of the normal, civilized stuff we do, if not all, is non-coercive. It’s only when people equivocate, say, wage labor with slavery, or charity with welfare statism, that they’re able to argue against what are actual voluntary, beneficial interactions, (by equating them with harmful actions that are harmful because force is involved,) or for coercion, (by equating it with “cooperation” or something voluntary and pretending it has the same benefits.) The whole point is that the difference between, say, paying someone to work for you and enslaving them through threat of physical violence is not merely a matter of degree, there is a substantive difference. As there is a substantive difference between competing with someone on the free market and ordering them to pay you for the “right” to open and run a business on threat of imprisonment or fines, as the state does. (And as so many businesses do through the state, by bribing them to suppress other business owners, in fascist or mixed economies. In which case the people who own the business are not capitalists, but fascists.)

    Yes, if I walk into a store looking to buy something, you can say that the store owner has a sort of power over me. He owns the thing I want, and to get it I have to give him something in return. That affects our interaction, and my behavior. But on the other hand, I also have a sort of power over him, because I’m not being forced to buy it, I could take my business somewhere else or not buy the thing at all. And I can quite possibly use this to negotiate with him about the price, until we reach a point where we’re both satisfied.

    But that kind of power, the power of persuasion or reasoning or whatever you want to call it, is in a completely different category from robbing the guy, or from him robbing me.

    Also, you say “[T]he means to accomplish a Socialist society are not the core of the Socialist ideology.” I assume your pointing out something like the difference between the socialists who argue for revolution, (like Marx,) and those who argue for creating a socialist society through election or “democratic” means. It’s true that they differ on this, but either way they all agree that once the socialist system is created it will work by force, by confiscating the wealth/income/property/fruits-of-labor/whatever of some and giving it to others. And besides “redistribution of wealth”, which people who don’t call themselves socialists also call for, socialists farther want the government to run and own and have a monopoly on essentially every industry, business, and field of work. But whether you have to get government permission to open up a shop or other business (more fascist) or you have to actually work for the government directly (more socialist) it’s coercive.

    So that I’m not accused by anyone of strawmaning, let me just quote Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto and see exactly what specific measures he advocated:

    The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

    Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.

    These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

    Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

    1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

    5. Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.

    6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.

    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

    8. Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.

    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.

    When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

    In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

    (Yes, I know socialism and “Marxism” are not equivalent, and there are other socialists besides Karl Marx who disagree with his ideas. Jonas is arguing from Marx’s view, so that’s who I’ll quote from.)

    Apart from his utter lack of justification for the idea that this will ultimately result in a classless society, and his failure to justify any of these measures on moral or economic/scientific grounds, at least in this book, I don’t see how any of these measures could be carried out or sustained without coercion by the state. Isn’t that the point? That the state will have the authority to enforce all of these things through threat of fines, imprisonment, or physical violence?

    Also, while I’m sure Jonas will probably say they’re simply not socialized enough, or that the following are examples of fascism instead of socialism, I think some of these are already implemented in the U.S. and Europe both, so his assertion that The E.U. is not socialist or anything close is just wrong. First, (to Jonas) you haven’t given your definition of socialism, or of capitalism, so I have no standard by which to judge what you think should be called socialism and what you think shouldn’t. I can only argue for voluntary, free trade and against state control. Second, your assertion that the economic catastrophes of the E.U. are a result of “precisely the ideology you [frong and I both] peddle” is severely lacking evidence. The E.U. is hardly capitalist, the banking and monetary system in particular.

    In fact, while you can claim that the Federal Reserve in the U.S. and the Central banks of other countries don’t perfectly satisfy number 5: “Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.”, these banks do in fact have a state enforced exclusive monopoly on both the production of money (state capital or credit) and the regulatory power over other “private banks”. The fact that these central banks claim to be private is not evidence that the state should have more control over the banking industry, it’s evidence that when the state gives an allegedly “private” institution government powers and a monopoly, and then uses it to borrow money while inflating the value of the money supply, things turn sour. The economic disasters that ensue are the fault of the government, plain and simple, not the fault of any of the ordinary citizens that make up the free market. The banks involved in the crisis in Greece are not examples of capitalism, but fraud and coercion of which government is the ultimate source.

    In stark contrast, what happens when the state sanctioned currency utterly fails? Why, the free market steps in and fixes it of course, or at least if not fixing it, helps to make better the lives of people like those in ,a href=”http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17680904″>Volos, Panos Skotiniotis, where they’re using an alternative, grassroots system of trade and are slowly freeing themselves of the state-and-bankster’s power.

    Marx would be against this simple, obvious, free-market solution, after all, it’s violating the state monopoly on the production of currency. And even though the articles say the legislature of Greece is supporting it, the idea didn’t originate with the government, but with private citizens, and there’s no way you can claim this as a socialist solution. It’s capitalism and the free market at work here. They’ve created alternative currencies, they’re competing with the government currencies, the currencies used by the big banks. Without the inflation a central bank causes you get this:

    <blockquote cite="second link above“>By not being limited by price tags, almost anything is possible. Choupis relayed the story of a woman who arrived at a market with three trays of cakes she had made. The woman’s asking price was only one unit per cake, which Choupis questioned: “I asked her: ‘Do you think that’s enough? After all, you had the cost of the ingredients, the electricity to cook …’

    “She replied: ‘Wait until the market is over’, and at the end she had three different kinds of fruit, two one-litre bottles of olive oil, soaps, beans, a dozen eggs, and a whole lot of yogurt. ‘If I had bought all this at the supermarket,’ she said, ‘it would have cost me a great deal more than what it cost to make these cakes.’ ”

    That’s not possible under socialism, or state-run economies. It’s only possible in a free market.

    There are other things Marx wanted that, for all intents and purposes, we now have. #2, the income tax, is at least closer than it was when he wrote his manifesto, even though socialists apparently think it’s not nearly high enough. Is there not a higher income tax now than when Marx was writing? Would Marx, if he had known we would have the taxes we have today, not have thought that we would be much better off? I’m speaking of everywhere, not any particular country.

    While #4, “Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.”, isn’t implemented entirely, the U.S. government at least has the ability to imprison anyone they call a “terrorist” (not unlike “rebel”), so I don’t know what’s stopping them from taking property. As for emigrants, it is in fact difficult to move from one country to another, including moving out of the U.S. or even leaving temporarily. They don’t take all of your property, but it’s costly. I’d venture to guess other parts of the world aren’t all that different.

    #6, “Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.”, I honestly find even a little more scary than the others. Transportation in the U.S. is practically in the hands of the state. Roads are run by the government, (and 40,000 people die on them every year,) and air traffic is regulated by them, not to mention the unwarranted searches and seizures and horror stories of the TSA at the airports. I’m not aware of any countries where transportation is private in any major way. The Federal government is trying to control the internet, so while they don’t control all means of communication now, it’s not for lack of trying. In places like China they do control people’s access to the internet. Does China fit your definition of socialism?

    The first two sentences of #10, “Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc. ” are in effect today in many countries. The U.S. does allow homeschooling and private schools to exist, unlike some places, and home schooled children statistically learn more than public schooled children. In fact, despite the formation of the Department of Education, and massive amounts of money poured into the schools, the federal government has utterly failed to improve the quality of public education. It’s worse than it was. If a private company failed as completely as the Department of Education, they would not still be bringing in millions of dollars. (Unless they were getting it from, drum roll please, the government, like the banks or the car companies who were “bailed out”.)

    So, I’ll ask again, what evidence is there of socialism or state planning, control, or intervention bringing prosperity to anyone, or improving the standard of living? What successes have we seen in State-monopolies that couldn’t be done (and haven’t been done) better by private companies?

    Now, since I’m verbose as a parrot on state-subsidized high-fructose corn syrup, let me go through your (Jonas’s) reply, point by point.

    An imperialist war of aggression to defend the interests of a national elite is pretty much the exact opposite of socialism. How could it not be? Socialism has always been opposed to wars – because the perspective of socialism is inherently internationalist, and wars basically consist of the elites of one country trying to take something from the elites of another, with the people as cannon fodder.

    Yes they do. Perfect description, and I see what you’re saying, but it seems odd to me that someone opposed to the elites doing bad things with their power would want more power to be given to the state, as Marx did. Especially when the risk still exists that the state would use their power to harm innocent people through war. Perhaps socialism is internationalist, but it seems like in the mean time, in the apparent absence of a world government, socialists are arguing that all the governments that currently exist should be stronger.

    Or do you not think the “elites” and the “state” are related? I do assume that here, so perhaps that’s where we disagree.

    But since we both oppose the wars I won’t spend too much time on this.

    I have trouble responding to this because it comes from a uniquely libertarian mode of thinking that sees coercion in everything. I’ll quote from two articles that I find relevant:

    I had read the second article before and I went and read the first article now. I thank you for the interesting read, but I didn’t see too much new to me. But how do you get from my argument the idea that I “see coercion in everything”? I see coercion where there’s coercion. In fact I think most interactions among normal people on a day-to-day basis are voluntary, so in most things I don’t see coercion. It’s only a minority of violent criminals and the State that use coercion or the threat of violence to get what they want. The only sense in which I could possibly see “coercion in everything” would be if I spent all of my time looking at the government. Private individuals seem to do a lot better than you seem to imply.

    The important thing here is this: all of our social interactions, including economics, are based on social constructs. Social constructs can only exist because we collectively agree to them – and because we are willing to enforce them. This includes our current understanding of property, which is not God-given or “natural” but constructed and backed up by laws. The idea that something is “yours” can only exist because the police will come and arrest me if I take it, even if you don’t need it or don’t even remember that it exists.

    However, one major problem is that many people (particularly in the United States, where the economic system is less humane than in parts of Europe) people experience this as a negative fact. You say that all this constitutes coercion. But you could also say that it constitutes the exact opposite: it constitutes a way to prevent conflict. We have social constructs, codified ways of dealing with situations, so we can be free of fear (or one another). And we can alter these social constructs (because they are arbitrary) in order to make our society more functional and more free.

    You seem to be saying that the only alternatives are “intrinsic” or “arbitrary.” I don’t think property rights exist intrinsically, as you seem to think I do, but I also don’t think they’re arbitrary. Intrinsic would be if they existed as some physical thing. But arbitrary means it’s completely disconnected from anything real, that it’s meaningless.

    My property may not be mine in an intrinsic sense, like my hand is mine since it’s part of my body, but that’s not the same as saying it’s “arbitrary”. It is natural in that it’s based on an examination of nature, human nature and the nature of social interactions, and what sort of “code” or “system” of social interactions will allow people to, as you say, function and be free. There are particular actions people can take, and particular methods of interacting with others, and very real consequences of our actions which are facts as much as falling from a cliff is a fact. And there are “natural laws” about what sort of consequences will arise from certain kinds of actions, which are laws in the same sense that gravity or the principles of kinematics are. (And the math does work out.)

    If I create something through my own action or with the willful help of others, or I get something through a trade or as a gift or what-have-you, then it makes sense that these things should remain in my possession unless I give them up through trade or as a gift or all-the-ways-you-already-know-about-and-that-I-shouldn’t-really-bother-repeating. If I don’t know whether anything I obtain through creation or trade will remain mine, then I essentially don’t know whether or not I have the capacity to benefit from my actions. If the actor and the beneficiary are not the same, why would one act? (I’m allowing for acting for other people’s benefit here by the way, the actor would still be benefiting from their action because they’d still be accomplishing what they set out to do.) In a culture “that would have been perplexed by the notion that I had any right to keep others away from an object I wasn’t using”, I would have no ability to save or accumulate wealth, which I could then invest.

    Ok, seriously, I don’t need to explain the reasons why having private property is beneficial to everyone in a society where private property exists. This has been covered much more thoroughly by people much cleverer and more well-spoken than I.

    Voluntary interaction imagines that we all independent of one another and can just ignore each other.

    No it doesn’t. No it doesn’t. I’m sorry, but I feel like you already think you know what I’m thinking and you’re just reading from a script titled “How To Refute Those Pesky Silly Capitalists”. Wrong play. I never said people could just ignore each other.

    Voluntary interaction imagines that since we do live in a society among other people, and since there is so much benefit that can potentially come from interacting peacefully through trade or what-have-you, and harm that comes when people start threatening each other and wanting to live as predators, that we should interact voluntarily, not coercively. It doesn’t say that we shouldn’t interact at all, and you know it doesn’t and I don’t understand why you would imply that it does.

    I suppose if everyone hated each other and would never agree to any sort of voluntary interaction, then we would all have to ignore each other. But that’s not the case in real life. People interact voluntarily all the time. It’s actually normal. There’s no reason why coercion should be necessary for people to be free and prosperous, except in the case of stopping the occasional criminal, in other words defensive coercion.

    Being part of society is not voluntary and never can be; we will always be subject to social constructs. The question is how these social constructs will be shaped.

    I reject the idea that social constructs are equal to force, and even if I accepted the notion that “Being part of society is not voluntary and never can be” I don’t see how that would justify anything.

    Also of note is that what you are arguing is actually very similar to that which socialism is always accused of: “let’s all get along.” It’s a utopian ideology that relies on humans altering their personal behaviour, which I think is highly unlikely. Socialism, on the other hand, is about simply creating a more functional economic system. It is less far from existing capitalism than a world of voluntary interaction in which everyone is “free of their brother.”

    No sir. I am simply advocating the Non-Aggression Principle. I said nothing about everyone “just getting along”, or whether I expected anyone else to follow it or whether I thought everyone had to follow it it order for a society to work. I make two claims, 1) I attempt to the best of my ability to use this principle as a guide to my own actions. I have no control over the actions of anyone else, and thus for me to make any plea for a “utopian ideology that relies on humans altering their personal behaviour” would be ridiculous. I follow it. It seems to me, at this time, to be the most moral course of action open to me and the course of action that will lead to the greatest benefit for myself and those I interact with and the least harm for the same. I would prefer for others to follow it as well, and if someone asks me what I think I’ll tell them, but unless persuasion works I can only affect my own behavior.

    Second, I claim, because of what I’ve read and seen of economics and political history and present occurrences, and because of what I know of human nature and interaction, that the more widely and closely the NAP is followed, and the more people interact on a voluntary basis instead of using coercion to get what they want, the better off people are. That’s not utopian, it’s a simple prediction based on what I know about how people behave.

    And that is one of the essential differences between socialism and most forms of libertarianism: the one argues from analysis, the other from ideology. Socialism isn’t interested in saying that capitalism is “evil” or even “immoral” – the point is that it doesn’t work because its mechanics are flawed. As people like David Harvey have pointed out, the math simply doesn’t work.

    The latter is easily enough backed up with facts. The last few decades have seen the ideas of neoliberalism applied again and again – and they’ve always failed. Privatization and deregulation have not brought wealth or growth, but have consistently caused crises and recessions. Instead of helping business they have destroyed business; even the IMF itself was forced to acknowledge that Iceland’s anti-capitalist measures actually worked, whereas in Europe everything is getting worse despite the claims of capitalist dogma.

    Why do you imply that “neoliberalism” supports capitalism or privatization and deregulation, what privatization and deregulation are you referring to, and how do you draw a causal connection between them and the crises and recessions that have plagued Europe, The U.S., and elsewhere? I would point to Central Banking as the primary cause of our recessions along with the difficulties imposed by regulation and bureaucratic paper-gates upon small business owners trying to hire people as a close second cause.

    Can you give me a specific example of a law that has been passed in Europe, or in the U.S., that has “deregulated” an industry and caused the economic hardship seen today? I pointed above to the state-controlled and regulated monetary system. Banker involvement with the government may go against your definition of socialism, whatever that is, but it is definitely not an example of the free market or Capitalist Dogma.

    The thrust of my first reply was to Evil Roda’s comment and question about moral objections to socialism. So I spoke in moral terms, instead of analytical or economic terms. But for you to claim that capitalism doesn’t work and that socialism does in the face of centuries of failure of state-run economies, from mercantilism to fascism to socialism to what-ever you want to point to, is simply erroneous. People do better working out their decisions for themselves and controlling their own lives than being ordered along by the state, and they solve conflict among themselves better when the state isn’t offering to help them eat each other. That’s not some Utopian philosophizing nonsense, that’s just how people are.

    Pick a subject, and let’s look at some specific area where you think capitalism failed, and state-planning succeeded. How about private vs. state-subsidized (or owned) healthcare, such as in Canada or Great Britian or the Soviet Union? Or how about government-regulated pharmaceutical companies? Or how India’s barriers to firing people in the past made their poverty level so low today. Or the wonderful help and service the police system provides everywhere in the world, or the wonderful defense of people’s freedoms carried out by the military, or the wonderful health benefits from following the government’s recommended diet or the healthier food produced under their oversight, or the wonderful economic growth in our fascist stimulated/subsidized economy, or the advances in green energy from government research, or the benefits from leaving the gold standard and confiscating everyone’s gold in the early twentieth century, or the rehabilitating effects of arresting people for doing marijuana or other drugs, or the jobs created by tariffs on sugar and steel in the U.S., or the wise spending of the British government in funding people’s moats, or the incredible state-run school systems around the world and the help the Swedish government gives when they kidnap 7-year-olds because their parents refuse to stop homeschooling them, even when homeschooling is legal.

    Ok, ok. Sorry to poke you. End of rant. I’m going away now.

    Also, you’ve posted that video before, and I watched it then. Didn’t see a lot of evidence for benefits of state-planning. Thanks though.

  18. How about private vs. state-subsidized (or owned) healthcare, such as in Canada or Great Britian or the Soviet Union?

    Hmm, let me see. Healthcare in the United States? Complete disaster. Healthcare in Germany? Pretty good. Even Britain looks fantastic compared to the US. Socialized healthcare is actually pretty neat.

    Frankly, I don’t know how to argue with you. You don’t seem to exist in the same universe the rest of us do. For example, you pretend as if the idea that neoliberalism supports privatization and deregulation is weird or needs explaining, when those are its central tenets:

    Neoliberalism is an ideology based on the advocacy of economic liberalizations, free trade, and open markets. Neoliberalism supports privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of markets, and promotion of the private sector’s role in society. (Wikipedia)

    That’s what we’ve experienced in Greece (and Germany, to a lesser degree). Massive deregulation and privatization. Did that lead to job creation and growth? No, it led to people working crappy jobs for little money with very little legal protection from their employers. It led to a fall in quality of life, sharp increases in pricing (partially because of deregulated stock market gambling) and ultimately economic collapse.

    And you know what it led to, which it has led to everywhere? A small minority – the most ruthless – owning everything. You’re afraid of the state, but in a democracy the state means that there can be control over authority. Who can control private enterprise when they own everything? And where is the difference to an oppressive state?

    Perhaps socialism is internationalist, but it seems like in the mean time, in the apparent absence of a world government, socialists are arguing that all the governments that currently exist should be stronger.

    No. That is fundamentally wrong. Your idea of government is based on current, capitalist governments. It is not the idea of socialism to make these governments stronger. Why does the argument always have to be reduced to a weak state versus a strong state? (I mentioned this in the original post.) We don’t want a stronger state, we want a better state.

    I respect your friendliness and your detailed responses, but I’m not sure whether I want to invest a lot more time in this particular discussion. I honestly do not think that you understand what socialism means, even in the slightest – the idea that “Europe is socialist” is so alien, so extremely removed from reality, that I’m not sure we can have a meaningful discussion.

    Nevertheless, thank you for your thoughts.

  19. BlueJay

     /  August 4, 2012

    Okie-dokie. Thank you for your patience and taking the time to really respond. And thanks for calling my response “detailed” when I honestly only felt long-winded.

    I honestly didn’t expect to change your mind. Interesting thoughts as always, in any case.

  20. jm

     /  August 4, 2012

    The problem is that the word socialism has become totally meaningless, it’s basically the political tag with the most possible interpretations and definitions. Jonas argues from a standpoint that mostly fits trotskyist views. However, it’s only one of countless tendencies to employ the word, and I don’t think anybody can claim that they have the found the truth in it.

    Thats why I try and avoid employing the word in regards to world view nowadays. It doesn’t fit the realities of the 21st century, but mostly just leads to confusion and labeling. I would say that a broad definition of “Left” vs. “Right” has more meaning than “Socialism” vs. “Capitalism”, but even that is simplifying too much.

    China for example doesn’t fit either scale, as it has adopted policies that come from all over the spectrum, that can be understood as “socialist” as well as “capitalist”. On a whole, the country cannot be labeled as either outright, though. Thats a mirror of the modern world, where all countries are part of a capitalist framework on a global scale. The truth of the matter is hard to describe in words that fit the reality of the 19th century. They still have value, but I think for Jonas to summarize the ideal policies he envision under the world socialism is rather misleading. I agree with parts of them, but I wouldn’t label them like that.

  21. jm

     /  August 4, 2012

    Same goes for Jonas usage of the word “racism”. My impression in the past it that he uses it almost interchangeably with “discrimination”. But in that regard, my views are pretty far removed from his anyway, I’m much more open to immigration control and state intervention in the cultural sector than him (e.g. French veil ban) and don’t see them as opposed to left ideas, rather the contrary. But that is part of another discussion.

  22. @jm: That’s why I mentioned that socialism really isn’t monolithic. Some versions of socialism are even quite close to anarcho-syndicalism, and I have a fair bit of sympathy for some of those ideas.

    The terminology certainly has gone to hell, though. I believe it would be useful to reclaim some of these words for more specific positions, but that won’t be easy.

  23. Macaroni

     /  August 6, 2012

    I must say, I like the steaks example. Let’s talk about steaks.

    Let us imagine a young, floating island somewhere far off in that magical place far beyond the edge of the world. We’ll call it the Universe, because it is all that its inhabitants knew of. Living on their respective side of it are two spiritual entities that live in constant opposition, The Essence of the Right, and The Essence of the Left. They each had strong philosophical viewpoints and had a moral attachment to them, a rare thing amongst Essences, as many only adopted views that they believed would benefit their wallets.

    Also dwelling in the Universe are its more mortal natives, twenty humans and the various flora and fauna of the island. These humans were equally young and primitive, and they lived lives of little order other than those of their ethics.

    The two Essences, during one of their many long and profitless debates with one another, decide to make a proposition with one another. They come to the island and summon the humans to them. One Essence forms a group of ten humans, while the other does the same. They each give their groups the same task:

    “You, as a group, have three days to gather steaks from the wild cattle in this portion of the island.” Here, The Essence of the Right pointed to his half of the island, and The Essence of the Left to his, establishing a formal boundary. “You shall store it all in your own iceboxes, and when the time is up, we shall summon you again.”

    These people had never experienced any sort of government before. In those days, there was no king in the Universe; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. However, even then, they agreed that anarchy would never advance them forward. Nothing would exist to protect them from the immoral taking advantage of them, or the wars they would inevitably face. So, the two sides were happy to try whatever the Essences had in store for them.

    Both sides had relatively similar occurrences at this point. There were those men whom got the most steaks. Some of them wanted only to make the most of their lives, to become successful and be the best they could be. Unfortunately, though, others only wanted power and to become better than the others so that the Essences would think better of them, and they stomped upon the other men’s opportunities.

    There were also those whom got the least steaks. Some of them wanted it just as much as those good men at the top, but couldn’t make it because of disease and other circumstances beyond their control. Others simply didn’t care, and figured that there was no point, and somehow things would work out for them anyway.

    Then there were those majority in the middle, the trickiest subject. They gave decent effort, yet they gained just enough steaks to get them by. The Essence of the Right stated that the opportunity for them to move up was clearly there, as there were plenty of cows, and if they gave stronger effort in the long term, they could gain plentiful of steaks as well. The Essence of the Left, though, insisted that it was the fault of the luckier cattle hunters for taking them first.

    Finally, the 72 hours had come to an end. The two Essences came and summoned their groups, and asked them to bring the uncooked steaks. The Essence of the Left spoke these words:

    “Here, give me all of the steaks you have gathered, cook them, and distribute amongst you evenly, for it is a man’s right to live and eat well that I stand by.”

    The steakless were overjoyed, of course. They still ate just as well as the others, and they didn’t have to do anything. Even the diseased eventually came to the realization that they may as well not work at all, for the quality of life they live will be as if they were forever retired.

    The higher were slightly depressed. The good men at the top were depressed. They had worked so hard for success, yet they received no better than the lazy. “Are those steaks not ours?” they asked.

    “No,” said the Essence, “These things are properties of you all as a whole. Ownership is an illusion.”

    Why work at all, they decided, when it would do them no good? To own nothing?

    The Essence of the Left was satisfied, though. The unfortunately corrupt at the top were broken, and they realized that they couldn’t gain power no matter how hard they tried. The Essence was proud to have formed such a society.

    The Essence of the Right then came, and gave his orders. “Good work. Now, those of you who have your steaks shall cook them and eat them, for they are yours.”

    The men felt okay about this at first. It seemed right to them. After all, those who ate had gathered their steaks, and as the blessed human race, they owned them, not their Essence. If The Essence remained out of their hair, they could live just as they had before, free to govern their own path, but with the protection a civilized order could provide; a wonderful and daring idea.

    But soon, people began to have their doubts, as people do, especially the lower classes. Those without steak were starving, while those with many steaks couldn’t eat it all. They confronted The Essence about this.

    “Why is it,” they asked, “that we sit here with empty stomachs while there is enough food to feed us twice over?”

    “For this,” The Essence directed to those who were diseased among them, “I am truly sorry. I know that it is not your fault that you starve, but alas, I cannot control the goods of the people, even for righteousness, for they are not mine. What you can do, though, is ask those richer than you in steak for their charity. Many of them will be more than happy to oblige, despite some rotten eggs.” These disabled did this, and found that they could gain food without coercion. Some even were able to recover, and get back on their feet.

    Then he spoke to those who were lazy among them. “To you, I hope you feel great shame, for you are yet another reason I cannot distribute these steaks. Even if I were to disrupt the people’s rights to property, it would be a shame, for you would take your steak and still never do anything to earn it. Go ahead, ask the richer for their charity, and you will gain nothing from them, for you’ve done nothing to deserve it.” They asked for steak as well, and as the Essence said, they were given nothing. They thought hard. Perhaps this means they should try in life. Who knows, maybe they could succeed as well.

    The Essences then told their groups, “Stay here, live like this, and you shall be happy. There will be ups and downs, but I believe you will pull through.” They then instructed the men to elect presidents and other representatives to have a balanced nation. The Essence of the Right had them appoint positions of lesser power, while the Left had them appoint ones strong enough to enforce equal income. They then left to the edges of the island to observe from afar as the new lands grew in population.

    The Open Society of the Left, as they called it, went on to form a full economy of things greater than steak. They had currencies and all sorts of things. After a while, though, this economy declined. No one wanted to do any work, and they could not foresee that if no man worked, there was no money to spread. The few that could were outnumbered. So, the president decided to force men to work. They made it mandatory for every man to produce at least one steak. Surely, this would work.

    When it came time to distribute, nearly every man only had one steak.

    They then forced a workload of three steaks.

    Nearly every man produced three steaks.

    Sure, this was enough. But the economy was still stagnating. No one had to do anything more than they were forced. The Society was barely able to make any scientific progress, and they were falling behind.

    Meanwhile, The Rightward Republic was doing fine. Surely, the corruption was there, and the poor were there. But everything was doing okay, and the charities succeeded on a large scale.

    The Society was forced to compete. Ten steaks per person, minimum. For scientists, a major discovery once a year or else. The people were being worked to death. And it didn’t take long for them to rebel. The masses rose up, and took over the government. They summoned The Essence of the Right for guidance, and formed a capitalist state, to the dismay of The Essence of the Left. Now corruption would begin anew.

    The pressures of war required the other side to take much of the cattle for rations, and there was a bit of a crisis going on in rightward land. Goods were sparse, and it was hard for everyone. In far too many of the rich, this induced the need to save money. For some, this equaled becoming corrupted. For far too few others, it meant keeping enough to make it out of the crisis okay. The amount of money given to charities lessened, and the poor became greater in number. Everyone was becoming desperate, and evil worked its way into their hearts. To counteract this, some started listening to the ideas of The Essence of The Left. They began to believe that the rich should be forced to give to the poor, and it was the only way to save the country. They began by using the taxes of the people to give unemployment checks, then free healthcare. Soon, the socialism began to make the problems even worse, and people still blamed capitalism for it. There were very few that remembered the way they were supposed to be, and they longed to return. After many years, they were a socialist state themselves. The Essence of the Right wept, for the people had given up their right to success.

    This cycle would repeat itself indefinitely until the end of time.

    Surely, the reasons for change would not always be the same. Socialism would not always fail due to revolution, but fall apart passively. Capitalism would fail due to many other reasons than a war crisis. Sometimes, the more immoral of the socialists would try and force economic failure to bring capitalism down, devaluing the dollar or increasing the size of government.

    Eventually, the people would be forced to make a decision. They would have to choose. But for now, they just go through the motions, waiting to decide which would be the one to lead them to the end.

    ———————————————–

    I may never comment on here again. But I need to get that off my chest.

  24. Well, you’ve put in a lot of effort, but all you’ve done is replicate the old myths: that if people have some kind of basic equality, they will stop working (when did this ever happen? certainly not in the Soviet Union, certainly not in even the more left-wing parts of modern Europe), that socialism equals a few people having control over the state instead of democratic control over the means of production (so you’re confusing Stalinism with socialism) and of course the basic fallacy that the people who have “many steaks” have them because they earned them, because they are better or cleverer. Your understanding of socialism has nothing to do with the real thing, but is just the worst version of a capitalist welfare state you can imagine.

  25. By the way, I find the glorification of (non-creative, non-scientific) work for its own sake to be one of the most problematic and sadly entrenched ideas of capitalism. Why should we be so happy that billions of people are spending the biggest part of their lives doing menial tasks that benefit no-one? We have more than enough people and technology to cover the stuff that really needs doing and to do it in ways that allow people to still have productive lives beyond work.

  26. BlueJay

     /  August 6, 2012

    Capitalist welfare state?

  27. But of course. That’s the problem with calling Europe socialist. The existence of a welfare state is not the opposite of capitalism and never has been. Ownership of the means of production is private, the market is ruled by the profit motive, the economy is driven by the free market. And on top of that there is a rickety construction of laws that guarantees the people a few protections and basic economic rights, plus a few services via taxation. But this isn’t a planned economy or socialism, it’s capitalism with a few social programs – all of which exist within a capitalist mode of private production. In Greece even those programs are now gone, and everyone is left to fend for themselves.

  28. Lin

     /  August 6, 2012

    In fact it’s easy to argue that it’s the smart way for capitalism to go, to ensure a basic welfare state. The majority of capitalist countries are aware of the maths of that. If your drones get sick less often your drones will earn you more money.

    To echo Jonas, it baffles me still that many people use the existence of basic welfare services to argue that a certain country is a “socialist state”. The only thing I can call a capitalist state with a welfare system in place is a smart (or sneaky) capitalist state. Improving the welfare state while strengthening each country’s capitalist policies is the way Europe chose to go. And the reason Europe is falling apart.

    A coat of (useful! necessary! humane!) paint on an old house doesn’t in any way prevent the faulty foundations from crumbling in.

  29. Hey Lin, it’s good to have you back! 🙂

  30. BlueJay

     /  August 6, 2012

    Ah, I see. I’m using “capitalist” to describe particular activities, as in, if someone owns a business privately and runs it for a profit, what they’re doing is capitalism. On the other hand, when the government steals some of their money to give to somebody else, it’s not capitalism, it’s theft. The fact that the government doesn’t stop people from owning private businesses doesn’t make the government capitalist, because what the government itself is doing is not capitalist. What the people who own the businesses are doing is capitalist.

    But you’re using “capitalist welfare state” to mean a country with both people who own private businesses and a government that runs a welfare state. Right? You aren’t describing the welfare state itself as capitalist? (That’s how I read it to begin with.)

    If you’re not describing the welfare state itself as capitalist, then I think the way you said it was incredibly confusing and distortive. Because that’s what it sounded like. (If you are saying that the welfare programs themselves are examples of capitalism, then that’s just bewilderingly absurd.)

  31. The fact that the government doesn’t stop people from owning private businesses doesn’t make the government capitalist, because what the government itself is doing is not capitalist. What the people who own the businesses are doing is capitalist.

    You can’t just separate what people are doing from how the system functions. A system in which the means of production are privately owned and the main driving force of the economy is the desire for profit is a capitalist system, and a government that makes and upholds laws that allow the system to work in such a way is a capitalist government.

    If you are saying that the welfare programs themselves are examples of capitalism, then that’s just bewilderingly absurd.

    I am saying that welfare states as we have them are characteristic of capitalism, a way of maintaining a quality of life just high enough to prevent revolution. But they exist firmly within a capitalist mode of production and ownership.

  32. MKS

     /  August 13, 2012

    Is the name Socialism really necessary when dealing with an economic system, outside of aiding people in communication?

    See Howard Bloom’s Genius of the Beast as an example…