Geoffrey Hodgson poses an old question: what is socialism?
I share his dissatisfaction with Corbyn’s definition as a way of living in which “everybody cares for everyone else.” For me, socialism is not about being well-meaning busybodies. Rather, the care must be expressed via institutions which meet people’s needs whilst treating them with dignity. On this score alone, our welfare state and immigration system fail.
So, can I come up with a better answer to Geoffrey’s question? Here’s my personal and idiosyncratic take.
First, a caveat. Like Marx, I’m not keen on detailed blueprints. Capitalism did not spring fully-formed from a single great mind, but rather evolved over centuries. The same will be true for socialism. Yes, there’s a place for utopian thinking insofar as it reminds us that there are alternatives to the present system, and insofar as they ask us how we might better embed values into institutions. But they can be a menace if they encourage sectarianism – “my utopia is better than yours” – and make the best the enemy of the good.
Instead, for me, socialism is a set of institutions which reconciles three principles.
Secondly, substantive equality. Rightist cliché-mongers will sneer here that full equality is impossible. But few leftists mean that everyone must have identical incomes, any more than that they must all wear Mao suits. Instead, two possible guidelines are envy-freeness and Rawls’ difference principle – that inequalities be acceptable only if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
For me, what matters here isn’t just inequalities of income, but of power and respect too. For this reason, whilst redistributive taxes are necessary they are far from sufficient. What’s also needed (among other things) is an end to the “messiah complex” - our moronic faith in bosses and leaders. One reason why I doubt that Labour party is an adequate means of achieving socialism is its obsession with leaders’ personalities to the detriment of sensible institutional reform.
Thirdly, we must recognise that knowledge and rationality are tightly bounded. For this reason, Geoffrey’s right to say that “relatively little can be planned from the top.” Markets, therefore, have a big place in socialism – not least because, as Adam Smith said, they are a means whereby people provide for others without caring. (The best counter-argument to this I’ve seen comes from Matthijs Krul).
This principle has another implication. Socialism should be achieved by evolution, by creating stepping stones – small institutional tweaks that create the potential for bigger ones. For example, small acts of empowering people – such as worker directors or patients’ groups – might create a demand for greater power.
In this context, expansionary macro policy and job guarantees are important in two different ways.
First, economic growth makes people more liberal and tolerant and hence supportive of beneficial change; the notion of some ultra-leftists that recessions create demand for socialism has surely been refuted by history.
Secondly, full employment would greatly undermine capitalist power. In my socialism, awful working conditions such as those at Sports Direct wouldn’t exist not because they have been outlawed but because workers have the real freedom – via a basic income and good jobs elsewhere – to reject such conditions. One step to socialism consists in enabling people to follow Johnny Paycheck’s example.
Yes, full employment would squeeze profits. But this would, I’d hope, create conditions for more worker ownership. Capitalism might thus wither away.
Now, you might object that all this isn’t too far away from Sam Bowman’s “neoliberal” manifesto. I couldn’t give a toss*. If we are to move towards socialism, we must take as many people with us as a far a possible – although of course there’ll come a time when Sam and I prefer different paths.
For me, socialism requires building support for institutional change. It’s not about narcissistic sectarianism. As I said, this is an idiosyncratic view.
* It’s a lovely paradox that it is now the right rather than the left that wants to abolish (one form of) money.