6 Ways to Subtly Distort the Meaning of the Socialist Drive for Equality

Everyone knows that socialists think ‘equality’ is quite a good thing (although some consider such talk too fluffy and just speak of ‘abolishing classes’, but whatever). And the ideal of equality has become a widely used motif in all sorts of areas of politics. But often the way that it gets expressed, especially by liberals and social-democrats, makes it appear quite different to how actual socialism would mean it. Which, since many people’s impressions of socialism are drawn largely from such things, can then cause confusion.

So! What are the Top 6 Ways to subtly distort the meaning of ‘equality’? Read on to find out!

1) Focusing primarily on personal consumption, and not on control of production. If people own the means of production together, and control them democratically, at least a rough equality of consumption flows naturally; if ownership of the means of production remains in minority hands (private business or the state), then inequality of consumption will be stark, regardless of how many new initiatives and reforms are introduced to reduce it. More to the point, even if it were possible, being handed an equal slice of wealth by a power over which you have no control (the state or the market) is still alienating and disempowering.

2) Presenting only claims of need, not of right. The people with 50 times someone else’s wealth are not 50 times as worthy – often they are less worthy. Everything around us has been produced by thousands of people’s efforts, living and dead, and splitting it into the rightful property of various individuals would be impossible, and even then would not look much like the actual distribution. People deserve equal shares not because they need them (though that’s not irrelevant) but because they have as much right to it as anyone else.

3) Implying, by accepting any comparability with private charity, that a rich person who lets some of their wealth go to others is displaying generosity beyond the call of duty, rather than returning some of what they have usurped.

4) Talking as if equality was primarily for the benefit of ‘the poor’, some fraction of the population who are worse off than ‘the average’. The majority of the population are dispossessed by capitalism and would benefit from equality.

5) Calling for ‘redistribution’: if you need to redistribute, your original distribution was badly off, and will probably override whatever efforts at re-distribution you tack on. If the distribution is broken, then change that primary distribution, so that the basic workings of the economy produce equality.

6) Implying that equality is something to be produced by a body standing outside the rest of society and independent of the ‘normal’ economy – a body thus separating itself from society being pretty close to a state already, whatever its other traits.

Obviously these aren’t entirely separate – each one connects with the others. But I thought it might be worthwhile separating them out.

Why Do We Have Property Rights? Why Has Capitalism Been So Successful?

Via. Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling I came across a series of interlinked posts discussing property rights and their justifications or lack thereof (which I think were sparked by Chris’ posts about copyright).

Now I won’t rehearse everything I’ve argued on this subject, but I will offer a few observations.

Ian B., a commenter at Tim Worstall’s blog, claims the following:

“Animals (indluding humans) tend towards asserting property rights. My cat believes she owns the garden, and forcibly ejects other cats from it. It’s just something animals do…You’re free to choose which sort of society you want but, like my cat, I will personally prefer the property rights one.”

What’s interesting about this is it’s actually pretty much my view – and in sharp conflict with the way that both right-libertarians and many socialists talk.

For the latter, the key issue for understanding property is work, creation of goods. There are then different arguments about whether entrepreneurs or inheritors or capitalists ‘have the right’ to their wealth, or whether in fact the workers who collectively produce that wealth ‘have the right’ to it.

But what both myself and Ian suggest is that while these reflections may be true or false, they have nothing to do with the reality of property rights. That reality is instead a descendent of the territorial instinct – that is, of animals competing for power.

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The ‘Political Compass’ and Class Politics: A Better Way to Classify Ideologies?

Most people interested in politics will have come across ‘The Political Compass’, which markets itself as an improvement on ‘The Left-Right Spectrum’ (which those interested in politics will also probably have come across). It’s basic idea is that the Left-Right axis should be kept as a gague of economic views, but supplemented with a vertical ‘authoritarian-libertarian’ axis. B47E81B8FE3F4E54829E1EB4059FE270

This gives four corners, as indicated right:

(Note that this approach gives no obvious way to reflect issues such as feminism vs. antifeminism, environmentalism, racism, etc.)

Is this any good? I think it’s major problem is that although it’s presented as replacing the left-right spectrum, it’s actually a different sort of thing. It is, so to speak, a classification ‘from first principles’ that sets up abstract criteria and then compares people’s views to them. It’s spirit is almost like that of a scientific experiment that tries to isolate certain variables and then model them. What it ends up doing is asking two (very broad) questions – about capitalism and about personal freedom – and then tell you how you answered them.

The left-right spectrum doesn’t do this. It looks at the complex and messy reality – of divergent all-encompassing worldviews, and how they imply views on particular issues, and how this plays out in practice, and who will ally with who, and tries to group this into hazily-defined but (at least somewhat) practically-relevant lumps.

The first method might be more appropriate if people’s political opinions were formed in a purely intellectual process of debate and inquiry, but if this weren’t the case – if, in fact, systematic interests lay behind most if not all production of ideology – then we would expect that the most relevant ideological contours would actually be based on fault-lines that weren’t always immediately obvious at the ideological level, and which could best be understood in terms of a certain sense of ‘partisanship’.

That would suggest that ‘the left’, whatever particular ideals they espouse, are partisans of a particular side; the ‘right’, partisans of another. This approach also has the virtue that it can deal better with different views of what the basic questions of value are – whereas the political compass’ approach has to assume that, say, ‘personal freedom’ is an important issue for all views, and that they define it in the same way.

However – isn’t there some usefulness in trying to spread the left-right spectrum out over at least two dimensions? It does seem strange that Hitler and Stalin must be placed at opposite ends despite their similarities, for example. So what if we tried to combine the merits of both – to look for a schematic representation that could incorporate more information than a mere line, while retaining the ‘class-partisanship’ approach of the traditional left-right spectrum?

That’s what I want to try to do today! I may not do it very well, but that’s ok. BetterCompass

See second image, right (and bear in mind the colours may not always be most appropriate, I was trying to balance historical associations with making it look pretty overall).

So what’s the idea? The idea is that four major trends all appear as paths leading away from the grey muddy centre: liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and conservatism.

All ultimately are best understood in class terms, although only two are specific to a certain class. Socialism, as is conventionally assumed, seeks the interests of the proletariat, i.e. it seeks a society without private capital, on behalf of the class whose members have no private capital.

Liberalism, again not saying anything too strange or novel, seeks the interests of the bourgeoisie, of those who do own private capital and seek a return on it. But the ambivalence of liberalism comes from the differentiated of this class into the petit-bourgeoisie, who have little capital, and whose interests (and hence ideology) can potentially move close to those of the proletariat, and the haute-bourgeoisie, who have loads of capital and are thus a proper ruling class.

This merges them into conservatism, which is not the ideology of any particular class but rather a body of ideas and sentiments that any established ruling class can use to defend its position and hold back change.

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Socialism, Labour-Notes, and Black Markets: does private currency lead to private capital?

Floating around in socialist headspace there is sometimes the idea of what I’ll call here ‘labour notes’, a form of currency for a society that was socialist but not fully communist (or at least not yet – sometimes this is seen as a ‘transitional stage’ as culture adapts away from capitalist habits of thought).

The essential idea is that if it turns out that material incentives continue to be useful and necessary, then people could be ‘paid wages’ by the commue (whether local, national, whatever) for doing useful work, which they could then spend on buying certain priced goods. Not all work need by paid, and not all goods need be priced – this system could take up a high or a low percentage of the economy, and presumably that percentage would be changed over time as non-material incentives became more effective (e.g. work was re-organised to be more rewarding, or whatever).

The idea is that this isn’t money, i.e. can’t function as capital, because it can’t be used to gain ownership of means of production, i.e. can’t be invested. It just goes to the individual from the commune for work, and then goes back to the community for consumption goods – and the commune need not keep a ‘stock’ of it at all. Indeed, it might even be given a ‘negative interest rate’ so that over a certain period of time it ‘evaporates’ and ceases to be valid.

Now I’m not particularly keen to endorse or recommend such a scheme over proper communism (where goods are generally just freely available, or in some cases rationed with equal rations – i.e. ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’). But I do think it’s useful to have as a possibility, especially for arguing with people who are convinced of human depravity.

In a recent comment, though, SnowdropExplodes says

“Honestly, I don’t know how you could stop it from circulating and becoming capital. Even if the currency itself is not transferable from one person to another then the goods for which it can be exchanged, are. From there, it is only a short step to a black market economy using a currency of its own devising, for the trade of commodities obtained using the official currency. At that point, official currency will be redeemed not for goods with use-value to the person who earned the points, but for trade-value in the black market system.

A further problem is that it clearly opens up the door to corruption if one person obtains a large amount of this official currency, and uses it to bribe others by obtaining for them goods that those others do not have the currency to buy themselves; this could in turn potentially lead to individuals obtaining control over means of production through bribery.”

This is a common question that I think is provoked by what I’ll call ‘labour-note socialism’ – is it stable? Would it morph back into capitalism? I think that it would be stable, and that black markets wouldn’t morph it into anything, so I wanted to talk a bit about why.

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Socialism, Capitalism, Risk, and Innovation

One of the themes that comes up often in debates between socialists and capitalists is the idea of ‘punishing success’.

‘When someone, a genius, a person of distinctive intelligence, comes up with a brilliant idea that makes huge savings and improves people’s lives, and in consequence becomes very rich, why do socialists want to punish them, by depriving them of their rewards? Such people are doing great services for humanity – why does socialism hate them?’

To this the simple response is that there are two personalities here: the big capitalist, who has skillfully accumulated a lot of capital, or otherwise come by it, and the innovator, someone who performs or has performed a particular productive sort of intellectual labour. Sometimes the two overlap – often they don’t. Socialists are hostile to the former, but not the latter.

Indeed, the argument is perhaps analogous to something like following, from a defender of an Classical (i.e. not racialised) form of slavery:

‘When a slave of distinctive intelligence, a genius, comes up with a brilliant idea that makes huge savings and improves people’s lives, and in consequence gains their freedom and enough money to buy themselves many slaves, why do anti-slavery advocates want to punish them, by depriving them of their rewards? Such people are doing great services for humanity – why does anti-slavery hate them?’

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The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

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Discussing Future Societies

So yesterday’s post somewhat bemoaned the widespread reluctance of socialists to talk positively about socialism, and explained part of why I thought it was a bad thing. But obviously it would be one-sided to not discuss some of the good reasons for this phenomenon.

1) It’s really hard. More moderate political positions can easily describe what they’re after because it’s so much closer to what exists – and even the extreme right have a slightly easier time in that they can happily declare an intention to force society into a certain mould. Bot socialists have to describe something which is both a very radical change, and also supposedly freedom-maximising, with hyper-democracy and so forth. So it’s quite likely that any substantive description will be very hard to give.

But that seems like a fairly weak reason to avoid the whole endeavour. “If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing” is a maxim of Homer Simpson, not of the world-historic vanguard of the proletariat. But a more developed version of this argument says

2) We’ll be wrong most of the time, and

3) It will lead to a lot of time wasted in pointless arguments – ten people will have ten visions, of which 9 will be wrong, and they will take so long debating which one is right that nothing will get done.

I think this argument rests on the assumption that talking positively about socialism means talking about what socialism will definitely be like, or even about what it must be like.

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