October 26, 2009
Why the left isn't socialist
If you define "socialist" as advocating government ownership of the "means of production," which is what I've always understood socialist to mean, then, no, modern leftists (or progressives or whatever they want to be called) no longer believe that, right now at least, widespread government ownership of economic enterprises is a good strategy.
As a sketch of that now-obsolete view of socialism, consider Lenin in State and Revolution:
The development of capitalism ... creates the preconditions that enable really "all" to take part in the administration of the state. Some of these preconditions are: universal literacy, which has already been achieved in a number of the most advanced capitalist countries, then the "training and disciplining" of millions of workers by the huge, complex, socialized apparatus of the postal service, railways, big factories, large-scale commerce, banking, etc., etc. Given these economic preconditions, it is quite possible, after the overthrow of the capitalists and the bureaucrats, to proceed immediately, overnight, to replace them in the control over production and distribution, in the work of keeping account of labor and products, by the armed workers, by the whole of the armed population. Accounting and control -- that is mainly what is needed for the "smooth working", for the proper functioning, of the first phase of communist society.
Pretty much everybody these days, including some leftists, believes that this notion -- that with good accounting all problems of production can be solved -- is naïve. And that the brute reality (however un-virtuous) of the Austrian critique of socialism -- that production is so impossibly complex that it cannot be commanded "from the center" -- must be admitted.
This turn, of course, undercuts any argument that socialism is -- without regard to sentimentality -- "scientifically necessary for human progress." This construct -- "scientific socialism" -- really represents its own sort of sentimentality, rooted in a 19th century mechanistic view of the "material world." And it still survives in such sentiments as "history is on our side."
Bertolt Brecht was, for instance, bewitched by this notion that he had, in communism, discovered the science of history. He saw, in the Marxism of his day, the "scientific" solution to the dilemma of the Good Woman of Szechwan. In Brecht's play, the truly good woman (Shen Te) must pretend to be an evil capitalist (Shui Ta), simply in order to run her tobacco shop properly. The solution to this problem, and one Brecht lived his life by, was scientific socialism. But, more or less mugged by real life, the left has reconciled itself to a need for capitalist institutions for any foreseeable future. "Scientific" socialism failed. "You see, there was this wall."
But, just because they are reconciled to the survival of capitalist enterprise doesn't mean they have to like it. And the sentiment that capitalism is evil emphatically survived the failure of state ownership. How wonderful that Brecht gave his character a tobacco shop to run. (And we also need here to recognize Ayn Rand for her odd glorification of tobacco, putting her finger on the master-metaphor of this struggle.) Because tobacco policy probably best exemplifies the program of the new socialism.
Tobacco production today is viewed as evil. Tobacco, literally, kills. And yet, we allow it to continue. Why? Because the profits of the tobacco industry -- via taxes and lawsuits -- are used to finance good things. Schools and cancer research.
In the view of the left, capitalist enterprise is just one big smokin' pack of Camels. The insurance industry ("they want you to die"), big pharma ("profiting off of people's sickness), the banks (overpaid rascals), auto ("making cars that are killing the planet"). There is really no industry out there that is both successful and "OK." The OK-industries -- green, solar-driven windmills -- are all as wildly unsuccessful as Shen Te's tobacco shop, when she ran on "good" principles.
Under the new socialism, we need those bad industries to generate wealth, so that we can pay for the good ones. So, the simple strategy is: Do whatever you have to do to keep capitalism alive, and then bleed it for everything you can.