Saturday, October 17, 2009

G.A. Cohen's "Why Not Socialism?" has been telling me via email for months that I "should" buy G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism (2009: Princeton UP). I recently gave in and ordered it.

The format is similar to Harry Frankfurt's (surprising) bestseller On Bullshit: very short, elegantly concise and "small enough to fit in a coat pocket."

I found it to be a quick, enjoyable read. I felt that it captured the ethical core of what has, in general, animated and moved the socialist complaint against market society. But passionate and committed as Cohen's account is in putting forward the case, he is still quite sober about the challenges facing the feasibility of socialism. But for me this only makes his case more strongly that the "the question that forms the title of this book is not intended rhetorically".

The book begins by drawing attention to the way people interact on camping trips, which, Cohen argues, is a case where we strongly favor a socialist form of life over feasible alternatives. On a camping trip,
There is no hierarchy among us; our common aim is that each of us should have a good time, doing, so far as is possible, the things that she or he likes best (some of those things we do together; others we do separately). We have facilities with which to carry out our enterprise: we have, for example, pots and pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, a soccer ball, decks of cards and so forth. And, as is usual on camping trips, we avail ourselves of those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip, and we have shared understandings about who is going to use them and when, and under what circumstances, and why.
To drive the point home, Cohen imagines what it would be like if we were to run a camping trip according to market principles and strict private-ownership. Here's one example:
Following a three-hour time-off-for-personal-exploration period, an excited Sylvia returns to the campsite and annouces: "I've stumbled upon a huge apple tree, full of perfect apples." "Great," others exclaim, "now we can all have applesauce, and apple pie, and apple strudel!" "Provided, of course," so Sylvia rejoins, "that you reduce my labor burden, and/or furnish me with more room in the tent, and/or with more bacon at breakfast." Her claim to (a kind of) ownership of the tree revolts the others.
Cohen's point is that most of us would hate this. We'd correctly complain that Sylvia, in the case imgained above, was being a schmuck.

Now this isn't yet to mount a serious argument for socialism on a wide-scale; it's only to make plausible the principles that we seem to strongly prefer on camping trips (but also, when there are natural disasters and in other cases as well...). But what are theses principles that are implicit in the camping trip?

Cohen argues that there are two: an egalitarian principle (a radical version of equality of opportunity) and a principle of community.

By radical equality of opportunity, Cohen means, simply, that social justice abhors the arbitrary. In other words, factors that limit (or expand) a person's life chances or opportunities on the basis of arbitrary circumstances or chance are unjust; one's relative standing with respect to others should (on the basis of justice alone) owe to nothing except that person's choices and preferences. A person's opportunities should be in no way be limited on the basis of the family she is born into, her initial class status, her race, her natural endowments and talents, etc.

But this version of equality of opportunity, Cohen points out, is consistent with certain kinds of inequality. Importantly, it permits inequalities that result from (1) regrettable choices that people make as well as (2) from what philosophers call "option luck". The familiar case that explains (1) is the parable about the grasshopper and the ant. But (2) is a bit more complex. "Option luck" is tantamount to a deliberate gamble: imagine a case in which two people with equal opportunities both deliberately gamble on something that has 50/50 odds. They both make a similar choice but one ends up with a lot more than the other as a result. Call this "standard gambling".

Now (2) is called "option luck" because it's a deliberate, chosen gamble which was avoidable. But Cohen points out that "market gambling differs strongly from standard gambling" in that the "market is hardly avoidable in a market society... The market, one might say, is a casino from which it is difficult to escape, and the inequalities that it produces are tainted for that reason." He continues:
Whatever else is true, it is certainly safe to say that the yawning gulf between rich and poor in capitalist countries is not largely due to luck and the lack of it in optional gambling, but is rather a result of unavoidable gambling and straightforward brute luck, where no kind of gambling is involved.
So that's the "egalitarian principle". The other principle, community, is characterized by the anti-market norm whereby you serve somebody not on the basis of fear or greed (the dominant characteristics of purely market-based relations), but on the basis of serving them and being served by them in a reciprocal way. "Communal reciprocity", Cohen notes, is a "committment to my fellow human beings as such", not a kind of interaction based on instrumentally maximizing your own benefit by using people most efficiently.

The remainder of the book is devoted to showing that these principles are both desirable and feasible on a wide scale.

Importantly, Cohen makes the point that there are two senses in which socialism might be infeasible: (1) because 'human nature' is allegedly fundamentally selfish and/or because we lack the proper "social technology" to make it happen, or (2) because "any attempt to realize the socialst ideal runs up against entrenched capitalst power".

It's (1) that he's interested in here, since (2) is a question of tactics and strategy about which it is difficult to say anything general.

What Cohen has to say about (1) is honest and convincing. He's not convinced by the "we're too selfish" objection, but he is convinced that we (socialists) don't yet have an institutional scheme that fully fits the principles outlined above. There are plenty of options more desirable than laissez-faire, to be sure. But there is no magic fix, no easy solutions to how to organize a society according to socialist principles. But, and this is crucial, this does not mean that we, in principle, cannot ever devise such technological/institutional arrangements. In fact, the technological/prudential considerations here say nothing of the worthiness of the principles outlined above, so if we really do find them convincing we ought to keep trying, no matter how hard, to realize them as long as we believe they are more desirable than the instrumental reason and fear/greed motivations of markets.

Timely as this is, I've yet to see it on the shelves at Borders or Barnes and Noble. Hopefully that changes. It would certainly be biting if Americans went crazy over a tiny book (by a philosopher) about bullshit, but yawned and failed to even notice a comparable book about justice.

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