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January 28, 2013



"As a socialist, I am compelled to have an optimistic view of humanity, to believe we are not all motivated by greed, selfishness or hate."

I think there's a way to rescue this. If we define the "natural" state of the world as the one in which our institutions are designed to promote these virtues to the greatest possible extent, and any deviation from that as "unnatural", then we can argue that human nature is indeed good, and it's only due to the failures (whether intentional or accidental) of our institutions which lead to humans behaving badly to each other.

However, this does require you to believe that it's possible to figure out what this "naturally good" state of the world would be, and to have some feasible plan for transforming this world into that one. I guess Owen Jones believes this?


I fail to see how the Holocaust - or any other historical period, really - shows that humanity is capable of great good.

Luis Enrique

When I was young and foolish* I used to think I was a socialist, because socialism when the economy is organized for mutual benefit, when people help each other rather than do their best to rip each other off. Then I started to think that whilst that was a fine idea, in practise attempts to bring that about (and I guess I am thinking more along statist-socialist lines than market socialism etc.) tend to work out badly, plus there's a risk the clowns in the SWP might actually be the ones in charge [**], in the event socialism actually happens. What I'm getting at is that as I become less optimistic about human nature, I started to see socialism as, if not doomed to failure, then likely to be much less appealing in practise than in theory.

now I think Chris you have in mind by socialism something the likes of which this planet has not yet seen, but perhaps Owen has more traditional socialist ideas, in which case he's right, we'll need a people's vanguard turn out to be angels

* as opposed to now: there's no fool like an old fool

** you know if what passes for the "real left wing" in this country was put in power in this country, they'd make Richard Murphy chancellor.

fisioterapeuta barcelona

Me ha encantado vuestro post y me ha sabido a poco pero ya sabeis lo que dice el dicho "si lo bueno es breve es dos veces bueno". Me gustara volver a leeros de nuevo.


So, Chris, you're a socialist because you believe in order , responsibility and efficiency. This sounds rather statist in spirit.


"So, Chris, you're a socialist because you believe in order , responsibility and efficiency. This sounds rather statist in spirit."

A well-run football team has order, responsibility and efficiency, without being statist. The state does not have a monopoly on being responsible or non-chaotic.


I want to know how you get the benefits of a state (sidestepping collective action problems) without having a hierarchy.


@Rob - men in uniform following orders. It's no coincidence that sport has been important to totalitarian regimes.


"I want to know how you get the benefits of a state (sidestepping collective action problems) without having a hierarchy."

That's a good question. I think both anarchism /libertarianism and "free market" conservative types denigrate the state excessively.

What is so bad about Nationalisation of say electricity generation and distribution, and central planning of various parts of the economy? It may not be appropriate for all of the economy where private profit making firms or start ups can be useful as innovators, but are not much of the recent problems of the world economy the result of scraping or not developing centralised system of control? If there had been world wide regulation of Banking and financial services by a enligtened world socialist government would we have had a crash? Would we be worried about the lights going out if we had a Board of engineers planning investment in electicity generation over twenty year time periods? How do you reduce inequality unless you have institutions that do things to reduce it? Such as taxing land values and income to finance spending on welfare benefits and free public services?

This fad for rejecting any centralised planning or control mechanisms in the economy is surely one of the mistakes of political economy since 1980.


This piece is to me a vast improvement on what in my opinion are rather facile and misguided views in the article mentioned, and I agree with the gist of is said here. I stumbled however over the equation of Jones's (obligatory) optimism about the nature of 'human nature' with idealism. Is Jones's purported optimism really a form of idealism - which I take to mean an expression and pursuit of an ideal - or is it something else, namely an expression of the will rather than about an ideal form at all?

This led me to think that it's easy to denigrate and attempt to exclude the role of idealism in driving and shaping socialist politics, especially when it gets tainted with naivete and puerility, however I'm not convinced that socialist belief can be detached from idealism. I also believe that the active Will is a prerequisite for active socialist politics. Owen Jones's error, it seems to me, is to think that it is essential to have an optimism of the intellect in order to have an optimism of the will. This is not the case as many of the most committed radicals in history have demonstrated.

In fact I would argue that an optimistic intellect is an unstable and misguided foundation for a radical politics because it leads to a shallow and one-sided perception of human nature and history which ignores or blithely dismisses, like Jones, concepts like 'evil' and 'tragedy' and the complexity of the human psyche. This is bound to lead to political and individual error in my view. I would argue that the Left needs to recover this dimension that it seems to have forgotten over the last 30-40 years.

Dan Kervick

I like to strive for a realistic view of human nature, and neither "optimism" nor "pessimism" are appropriate terms for that view. But surely one traditional motivation for socialism in the past has been the feeling that human beings left only to their own laissez faire devices will do a fair share of lying, plundering and brutalizing, and will naturally differentiate into groups based on hierarchical private systems of domination and exploitative control and extraction. If human beings pursuing their natural inclinations were generally wonderful, there would be no need for socialism. Classical laissez faire liberalism would work fine.

I tend to think that building a political community organized around shared prosperity, equal dignity and respect, democratic institutions of governance, mutual obligation and commitment, and egalitarian mores is a noble ambition, and that it would provide the greatest overall happiness and social peace we can achieve, and bring out more opportunity for the expression of our kindly and pro-social emotions. But it is hard work to create such a society and hard work to maintain one, since there are a lot of wayward, narcissistic and anarchistic impulses against which such a society will have to struggle for survival. No matter what kind of civil order exists, there will always be some who want to set it on fire and destroy it, some who want to dominate it and master others, and some who want to neglect their obligations toward it and free ride on others.


"Owen is surely right to say that the Holocaust - and I'd add much else in history - shows the "almost infinite malleability of humanity": we are capable of great evil and great good."

Yet I can think of no instances in which massive bodies of people come together to take part in acts that were as altruistic as the Holocaust was evil. Humans have spent hundreds of thousands of years being awful to each other. There is no equivalent history of our expressing a compassionate desire for worldly betterment.

Will Richardson

In evolutionary terms there is a balance between selfishness and altruism. Surely we should focus on what's effective at getting the most out of the whole population, not just the n%, so that EVERYONE gets to make the most of themselves, to contribute to our common real benefit; some might call it teamwork, some might say that the only thing greater than the cost of co-ordination is the return on it...

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