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Thursday, March 18, 2010

If Capitalism Has Gone Global, Can Socialism Go Local?

I picked up this book at professional conference in Toronto last year, and read it on the plane ride home. It was a quick read, and a striking one: here was the last book by the late G.A. Cohen--who was by all accounts about as learned and witty a Marxist as you're ever likely to find--laying out a clear, concise, and (I thought, anyway) persuasive case for socialism which didn't appeal to Marx in any serious way at all. Since that time, there has been some fine discussions of the book, and Cohen's legacy overall, on the blogs (particularly over at Crooked Timber; see here and here), and deservedly so. In moving away from a materialist and Marxist justification for socialism, and turning instead to the question of what the development of a socialist ethos might involve, Cohen did something important: he implicitly called attention to the communitarian, democratic, anarchist, and localist aspects of the socialist egalitarian argument, aspects which are often forgotten by sympathizers and critics alike.

I'm using the book this year in an upper-level theory class on capitalism, socialism, and localism. A couple of months ago I gave a lecture to the local chapter of the DSA with the above title, using Cohen's book as a centerpiece; I did much the same thing a few weeks later, when I discussed the book with some folks at a local coffee house. Several people have asked me to put the basics of the lecture and discussion down in written form; well, here it is.


G.A. Cohen was born in 1941 in Montreal, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and grew up in an environment characterized most thoroughly by two things: secular Judaism, and orthodox Marxism. Cohen attended communist day camps, learned communist songs, and looked forward to the inevitable revolution the way sincere evangelical children are raised to look forward to the second coming of Christ. As he grew older, and became more aware of and wise regarding the world around him, he codified his beliefs, beginning most centrally with his passionate commitment to equality. He recognized that there were others besides convinced communists--namely, Christians--who also believed in equality, but he could not take their beliefs seriously: partly because he observed that believing all humankind were brothers and sisters and children of God didn't seem to necessarily translate into much actual change in the living conditions of those human beings here on earth, but mostly because he was convinced that concerning oneself with people's beliefs--talking about equality as the product of an ethos, in other words--was a waste of time; after all, Marxist historical determinism made it clear that the collapse of capitalism and a socialist revolution were inevitable.

That conviction of his eventually fell by the wayside. Cohen, by the last couple of decades of his life, no longer accepted Marx's historical materialist account of capitalist development, and no longer assumed that the immiseration of the proletariat and the subsequent revolution that would culminate in communism was inevitable. But he remained fiercely committed to equality--and moreover, professionally found himself engaged in extensive arguments with various liberals and egalitarians over just what kind of equality is possible in the modern world of markets. In the context of this argument, Cohen found himself, sometimes surprising, essentially affirming the Christian line which he had dismissed as a child: that the beliefs and behavior of people along egalitarian lines--the development of an egalitarian ethos, in other words--was essential to the realization of any kind of equality, socialist or otherwise.

In staking out this claim, Cohen was--at least as I read him--taking sides within the split that emerged amongst those socialists who rejected the course which Lenin and others took Marxist thought in at the beginning of the 20th century. While Cohen may have been raised in an environment which supported various Stalinists and other apologists for the Soviet Union, by the time he was a mature scholar his socialist convictions were strongly democratic. This meant, however, he was faced with an historical choice, one which Sheri Berman expressed this way:

One democratic faction believed that Marx may have been wrong about the imminence of capitalism’s collapse, but was basically right in arguing that capitalism could not persist indefinitely. Its internal contradictions and human costs, they felt, were so great that it would ultimately give way to something fundamentally different and better—hence the purpose of the left was to hasten this transition. Another faction rejected the view that capitalism was bound to collapse in the foreseeable future and believed that in the meantime it was both possible and desirable to take advantage of its upsides while addressing its downsides. Rather than working to transcend capitalism, therefore, they favored a strategy built on encouraging its immense productive capacities, reaping the benefits, and deploying them for progressive ends.

Cohen, to the end, was simply unwilling to countenance greater capitalist inequality in the name of "tak[ing] advantage of its upsides." Hence his long and critical engagement with the arguments of John Rawls, which, among other things, posit the justice of an arrangement whereby the most talented and the hardest working among us enjoy the bulk of the fruits of their labors--thereby encouraging them to be ever more productive--but are subject to some level of redistributive taxation...which, because of the large amount of taxes so generated, not to mention the many jobs which those talented, hard-working individuals created, would enable the least well-off to experience real improvement in their lives. Cohen--who, it should be noted, had immense respect for Rawls and his liberal-egalitarian/social-democratic arguments, comparing his philosophical work at one time to both Plato and Hobbes in importance--was only willing to call such an arrangement, perhaps, "sensible"; it could never be considered just. And this reveals another important element to Cohen's thinking about equality: that community--a community which, following the ideals contained in Marx's "On The Jewish Question," is only enabled when "individual man...has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that social force is not longer separated from him" (Karl Marx, Selected Writings, p. 21)--is crucial to equality: a state of affairs where things are made more equal by the (perhaps coerced) generosity of the rich towards the poor does little or nothing to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; it creates no solidarity between them. And, contrary to the social democratic or liberal egalitarian argument, Cohen, at least, was convinced that equality without solidarity, without something felt between people, was barely worth the name "equality" at all.

Which brings us around to Why Not Socialism?, which itself begins, not with Marx, but with a camping trip. Cohen, it is manifestly clear from the text, was probably never much of a camper. Still, his basic observations--about how fishing, cooking, and cleaning up duties are distributed during such a trip, for example--ring true: the activity of a camping trip is profoundly socialist, in the sense that there is little or no bargaining for position, little or no renting out of one's property or talents, that "norms of equality and reciprocity" are taken from granted...and that, indeed, to the extent that any of the above do not hold, it "contradict[s] the spirit of the trip" (p. 5). Cohen then proceeds to codify the "spirit of the trip," which he does through two principles: that of equality, and that of community. The former leads into, and becomes part of, the latter. Cohen rejects absolute communism, and recognizes that individual liberty and the vagaries of democracy will, of course, result in certain inequalities; however, of the sorts of inequality which a socialist arrangement, which he defines as "radical equality of opportunity" (p. 12), admits to, only a few will be tolerable. First, "variety of preference and choice across lifestyle options means that some people will have more goods of a certain sort than others do" (p. 25)--but that is unproblematic, because such individual choice (one camper awakes earlier than another to go enjoy a sunrise, while another gets to sleep in), in following individual preference, conveys no real social power. But then comes the possibility of regrettable or unlucky preferences (the camper who slept in missed a once-in-a-lifetime, worldview-transforming sunrise); such inequalities are problematic because they can accumulate, and in the aggregate can generate ever deeper divisions between individuals (the campers who caught the worldview-transforming sunrise have an increased capacity for work and increased wisdom, meaning they are able to more efficiently bring their own children those remote, difficult to access spots where they also can see world-transforming sunrises, etc.). Obviously, what Cohen is talking about here is how economic and social advantages can be passed down along individual lines, opening up new opportunities for select individuals, bypassing society as a whole entirely. And this is not acceptable--even if not, strictly speaking, "in-egalitarian," since none of it arose from necessarily unequal social designs, but might well have resulted simply from option luck--because it makes impossible socialist community:

"Community" can mean many things, but the requirements of community that is central here is that people care about, and, where necessary and possible, care for, one another, and, too, care that they care about one another. There are two modes of communal caring that I want to discuss here. The first is the mode that curbs some of the inequalities that may result from socialist equality of opportunity. The second mode of communal caring is not strictly required for equality, but it is nevertheless of supreme importance in the socialist conception. We cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make, and keep, say, ten times as much money as I do, because my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face, challenges that you could help me cope with, but do not, because you keep your money....So, to return to the camping trip, suppose that we eat pretty meagerly, but you have your special high-grade fish pond, which you got neither by inheritance nor by chicanery nor as a result of the brute (that is, nonoption) luck of your superior exploratory talent, but as a result of an absolutely innocent option luck that no one can impugn from the point of view of justice: you got it through a lottery that we all entered. Then, even so, even though there is no injustice here, your luck cuts you off from our common life, and the ideal of community condemns that, and therefore also condemns any such lottery (pp. 34-35, 37-38).

Cohen's argument thus focuses our attention on the need for communal solidarity, for a common life, as a concomitant to equality. But this brings up some at least two crucial questions, which Cohen, to his credit, forthrightly acknowledges: is such community in fact desirable, and is it in fact feasible? As for desire, Cohen--appealing, to my mind, anyway--falls back on the pure ethos he was instructed in as a child, though he didn't recognize it as such at the time: "I continue to find appealing the sentiment of a left-wing song that I learned in my childhood, which begins as follows: 'If we should consider each other, a neighbor, a friend, or a brother, it could be a wonderful, wonderful world, it could be a wonderful world'" (p. 51). As for feasibility, the responses multiply and become more difficult--because, of course, modern states are not voluntary groups of campers, and thus differ in both nature and telos. Absent Marx's historical materialist justification for the emergence of socialism, what kind of argument or arrangement could be made which would assert the feasibility of socialism on a the scale of the nation-state? Cohen runs through several possibilities, insisting all the while that "the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run...our problem is a problem of design," rather than selfishness (pp. 57-58). He does also allow that the design problem may be insoluble, but that doesn't stop him for trying.

For many people, this seems simply utopian...and a consideration of utopianism, interestingly, is where we should turn to move Cohen's argument beyond the point where he was able to bring it. Socialist movements have been associated, both positively and negatively, with utopian thought ever since the mid-19th-century...and of course, in the pre-Marxian history of socialist thinking, you find it being advocated for religious and "utopian"--that is, explicitly ethos-based--reasons for centuries; socialist practice and different kinds of collectivist and/or intentional communities were, for most of Western history, almost invariably connected. However, around the beginning of that split amongst democratic (non-Leninist) socialist thinkers mentioned earlier, you also saw a strong push by different socialist parties and organizations against any taint of the utopian or the communal. Democratic socialism, in the hands of such early advocates as Sidney Webb, "included a determined lack of sympathy for proposals which sought the 'regeneration of mankind' by means of establishing 'little Utopias'," as David Leopold has argued. He went on:

[Webb] drew an interesting distinction between two strategies for the growth of socialism--one "horizontal," the other "vertical"....The communal strategy is characterized as a "horizontal" one, where by the "whole faith" is adopted by "a partial community" in the hope and expectation that individual communal success will lead to replication, and the eventual incorporation of the wider society. For Webb, the empirical record of intentional communities confirmed that the "horizontal" strategy was doomed to failure. He observed that the majority of communities failed, and, in the case of the rare few that might prosper, there was no subsequent evidence of the promised growth and expansion of socialism throughout society. However, in Webb's view, the communal strategy was not only unsuccessful, it was also undesirable....By turning their backs on "machine industry" in order to engage in "spade husbandry"--the allusion is to Robert Owen's stubborn and longstanding belief in the superiority of spade cultivation over that of the plough--communitarians should be seen as abandoning both the modern world and the majority who live in it....[By contrast,] the Fabians embraced a "vertical" gradualism initially involving "the partial adoption of their faith by the whole community." The resulting evidence of success would lead society as a whole to adopt ever more socialistic institutions....No country, he explained, having "nationalized or municipalized any industry has ever retraced its steps or reversed its action" (Leopold, "Socialism and (the Rejection of) Utopia," Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2007, pp. 224-5).

Of course, the Fabian Society is not the whole history and destiny of democratic socialism--but still, it is worth pondering the fact that Cohen, in beginning his defense of socialism by talking about a camping trip, never thinks to consider that his own approach to considering the feasibility of socialism--especially a socialism whose justice is affirmed through an appeal to ethical considerations of equality and community, rather than a historical, Marxist foundation--might be limited to the same sort of parameters Webb insisted upon. For that matter, the great majority of liberal egalitarians and social democrats are similarly so limited: witness the intra-left discourse which has taken place over the past year over the health care debate, in which slowly but surely the great majority of those who pushed and agitated for single-payer, for a public option, for anything more aggressively socialist, have nonetheless come around, however reluctantly, to supporting the president's plan, because it is better than nothing and because it is a foot in the door. Introduce something socialist, however minimal, to the public at large, and watch the people come recognize its worth and embrace it, is the argument. The evidence from the history of Social Security or Medicare seems to support Webb's "partial faith-whole community" approach, as opposed to the "whole faith-partial community" approach which he dismissed.

Obviously, it's not as though all socialist eggs are to be placed in the same basket; one can pursue, or at least accept as legitimate, both approaches simultaneously, especially given that they will almost certainly operate on different cultural and socio-economic levels at different times. And it is just as obvious that Webb's exhortation of continued, inexorable nationalization is a difficult one to take seriously in this day. So, perhaps, what we have in the end is the sense that the socialist project, to be feasible, cannot simply look at what minimal ways it can effectively extend its principles, as valuable as they are, to the whole community--meaning the whole state, the state being, for at least the time being, the central operating component and primary locus of any and all recognition of (and sometimes, even, organization of) socio-economic power. Despite the undeniable successes of that approach, the socialist project must also look at Webb's derided "whole faith-partial community" approach--the instantiation of equality and community in its fullest in camping trips and devotional communities and small-scale businesses and neighborhood organizations and anywhere else where a belief in a particular ethos can, itself, have real world results. More than a few democratic socialists (and fellow travelers) have recognized this; The Nation recently ran a whole series on "Reimagining Socialism," and one of the consistent themes expressed throughout was that unions, co-ops, farmers markets, and the like are where the real, practical future of socialist ideals lay: that socialism, in other words, must go democratic and ecological and, above all, local. Yes, it must address the issues of unregulated finance and industry and the dominance of corporations and commidification in the way in which citizens pursue their health and preferred lives, and it must insist and pursue as best as possible ways of design which can promote the public ownership and distribution of goods...but it must also go to those arenas of association--camping trips, where all is governed, quite sensibly, by assumptions of reciprocity and equality--where social power is truly not a dividing presence between persons. (Yes, even if that does mean associating occasionally with those bothersome, Robert Owen-type Luddites and farmers.) Because it is there, rather than in the purely economic, transactional, national sphere of the modern state, where the real point of a socialist ethos is most clear.

E.F Schumacher, long ago, said it best, as well or, perhaps, even better than G.A. Cohen did:

There are no ‘final solutions’ to this kind of problem. There is only a living solution achieved day by day on a basis of a clear recognition that both opposites are valid. Ownership, whether public or private, is merely an element of framework. It does not by itself settle the kind of objectives to be pursued within the framework....What is at stake is not economics but culture; not the standard of living but the quality of life. Economics and the standard of living can just as well be looked after by a capitalist system, moderated by a bit of planning and redistributive taxation. But culture and, generally, the quality of life, van now only be debased by such a system. Socialists should insist on using the nationalized industries [or, I would, any kind of "partial faith-whole communtiy" scheme of public regulation or ownership] not simply to out-capitalize the capitalists--an attempt in which they may or may not succeed--but to evolve a more democratic and dignified system of industrial administration, a more humane employment of machinery, and a more intelligent utilization of the fruits of human ingenuity and effort. If they can do that, they have the future in their hands. If they cannot, they have nothing to offer that is worthy of the sweat of free-born men.

Some would argue, it should be noted, that Cohen's egalitarian and communitarian beliefs--his whole ethical approach to socialism--is no more respecting of "free-born men" than the orthodox, revolution-awaiting communism he used to embrace was; Andrew Sabl, years ago, famously attacked Cohen's determination to articulate a "project of social unity" as failing to "appreciate how a real liberal thinks." That kerfluffle was one of the earliest blog debates I ever involved myself in, and I wouldn't make the comments I made then in the same way today, but my basic concern is the same: that Cohen is right to see equality and community as necessarily linked, and he needs to be able to appreciate community as something other than a necessity for justice--something that also emerges, organically, from historically and locally practiced relationships and reciprocation. Cohen's camping trip goes along way towards that appreciation...as well as perhaps proving, if one wants to incorporate Sabl's terms into Cohen's argument, why liberals never go camping. My conservative father, who taught his kids well the borderline-socialist principles of Scouting on many a fondly remembered family camping trip, would be pleased to hear that. I hope Cohen, in his ethical and arguably illiberal way, would be as well.


Matt said...

Russell, I'm going to admit up front that I only skimmed the lecture part of the post. I'm sorry for that. But I want to ask a few questions.

I did a lot of camping growing up, much of it similar to yours, I'd guess (much of it was in a boy-scout troop, or with my family.) Along with the nice things I remember, I remember people not bringing canteens, on the assumption that someone else (me, usually) would, and they could just use mine, or forgetting their sleeping bag, and so needing to share one, to the detriment of both people, or not cleaning their tent at the end of the trip, so that it was dirty and smelly the next time we went camping, or not taking care with the cooking, so the food was burned, or faking a sore foot, so they could ride a horse rather than walk, of stealing the toilet paper from all the other camp sites at scout camp (okay, I did that one), and so on. Camping was fun, but if it's the model for one's society, either one hasn't gone camping (as in Cohen's case) or one has an image for society that's not very attractive. But maybe you just had experience unlike these.

I wonder if you've read Alec Nove's excellent _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_. It's great, is meant to be an argument for socialism by someone who thought very seriously about what it would be like and how it could be brought about, and it made me see that, while I'm a social democrat, it's wrong to call me a socialist.

I also wonder if you've read Kropotkin's _Mutual Aid_. To me it's still (among other things) the best account of a localist communism, and how it might have developed, and (though it doesn't want to be this) why that path closed several hundred years ago. I don't see how we could possibly get back to it.

Finally, I want to ask how the class is going, and what the students think. It sounded like lots of fun.

Aloysius said...


Russell Arben Fox said...


Moving backwards through your list of questions, the class is going very well. Obviously, not all of the lecture-discussion days really work out; Rousseau, surprisingly to me, was a bit of a dud. (I think I made a mistake in not having them read the Social Contract.) And the Polanyi has been a slog for them. But Adam Smith and Marx both generated some great classes.

I don't know as much about Kropotkin and mutualism as I should; I know enough to teach a political ideologies course lecture on it, but not much more than that. I'd be interested why you date the closing of the localist communism window as several hundred years; are you exaggerating, or do you see it as something that died with the end of the Middle Ages? Most of the stuff I've read points to the scientific revolutions and pluralism which accompanied industrialization as its end-point.

I've never read (or heard of) Alec Nove's books before; I'll have to give it a read. Thanks for the recommendation!

As for my actual camping experiences, they were a mixed bag--sometimes like yours (or worse), sometimes much more positive (whether in terms of just personal satisfaction or in a socialist sense). I think Cohen's case of drawing admirable socialist principles from the camping trip ideal is both reasonable and even persuasive; the fact that a great many camping trips do not, in fact, feature any kind of reciprocity or community just goes to show that Cohen is dealing in types of which he has little practical knowledge, not that the argument which perceives said principles with those types is itself flawed.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Interesting link. Unfortunately however, I couldn't discern whatever connection you see it as having to the subject matter of this post, so perhaps you could explain further. As always, thanks for reading.

Matt said...

Thanks Russell.

In Mutual Aid Kropotkin draws many of this examples (that are not drawn from the animal world- that's one of the very interesting things about the book, how it's a serious work both of social theory and evolutionary theory) from the Medieval free cities, mostly Russian ones like Novgorad. Wittingly or not, I think he makes a compelling case that something about that size is biggest such a society can go, and that it would be very hard to get more sophisticated social organization to work along those likes. Beyond that, attempts to push the communal lines lead, I think, to the gulag. But society of that sort on anything more than a strictly voluntary, reclusive commune style is so far back down the road of what's happened since that I don't think there's any way to it, and that attempts to do so would either be comical or tragic. (Kropotkin, and, I think, Cohen, also have an annoying tendency to ignore or wish away aspects of the life they imagine or admire, but that seem to be essential parts of the life- restrictive guild systems in Kropotkin, for example.)

As for camping, I generally really liked it, despite all those things I'd mentioned. But those things are the perfectly predictable and typical aspects of camping, and it does no one any good, I think, to imagine camping without them and then think it's a model for social life. This is one reason why I think it's better to read Nove on socialism than Cohen- he seems to me to have thought much more seriously about what it would be like, and what the costs would be. (Nove's economic history of the Soviet Union is also great, but not as relevant.)

Aloysius said...

Yeah it was a bit prolix like your blog but read on down to what he says about Marxism.

You ought to read this guy regularly Do a search on his site for socilaism and Marxism.