13 February 2016

What exactly is wrong with socialism?

In the wake of the recent electoral victory of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, it has been common to see Christians of an apostolic bent wondering if it is wrong or right to support Bernie Sanders. These conversations (see Micah Conkling here and here, Fr Dwight Longenecker here, Barbara-Marie Drezhlo briefly here, an older piece by Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia here, some of the tangential discussion on George Michalopulos’s post at Monomakhos here) are interesting, in part because they are trying to draw clear distinctions between ‘totalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ socialism, saying that the former is what stands under religious condemnation – whether of Papal pronouncements or of Orthodox social teaching – and that the latter is not only supportable but may even be preferable, from the standpoint of Christian social ethics, to other forms of economic and political organisation. I’m not going to comment on the advisability of an Orthodox Christian in America voting for Bernie Sanders, but I would like to offer a little bit of pushback on perhaps a couple of the directions the political-philosophical discussion is heading.

Let’s take a look first at the common objections to socialism one sees. From the American side, a particularly common (and most particularly common among American Protestants) objection to socialism is the abstract and idealistic political-philosophical stance that all charity ought to be ‘voluntary’, or else it doesn’t count as charity. This is often coupled with an argument that state involvement in programmes which benefit the poor are necessarily coercive (and therefore irredeemably bad), and detract materially from the voluntary exercise of charity. These don’t quite constitute a cogent objection to socialism in the first place – by which a public or communal ownership of the means of production is indicated – but rather to welfarist or progressive forms of taxation. Further, the latter claim is an empirical one, and it does not seem to be true even on its own merits. The countries which are most generous on an individual level (as defined by the World Giving Index) include nations like Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with very high levels of government consumption as a percent of GDP (which implies high national tax rates), and which have historically been marked by relatively robust redistributive transfer payments.

But even looking at the principles we can see these are also flawed. For Orthodox Christians particularly, from the historical point of view, there has been no objection at all by the Church to the idea of progressive and redistributive taxation, neither to their receipt of tax funds for charitable use, which were ‘coercively’ collected by the state. Both in Byzantium (even from the early days of Emperor St Constantine the Great), and even in the decentralised and decidedly less-brutal Kievan Rus’, tax funds were distributed by the government either to the Church to aid the needy, or directly to the poor. This economic setup whereby the state would share its tax funds with the Church was justified largely through the principle of symphoneia, or cooperation between the Church (whose duty was charity) and the state. The modern idea that charity is something which ought to be wholly private and voluntary, is a notion which arises from the highly un-Orthodox view that government and religion ought to be completely separate. Though it is now aimed at ‘socialism’, the logic of this argument is at odds with the historical development of the apostolic, Christian faith.

The second objection to socialism is that it ‘doesn’t work’, and that it is not based on ‘sound economic principles’. The often-unspoken corollary to this, is that capitalism does ‘work’, and that it is based on ‘sound economic principles’. It isn’t really necessary to refute this objection, so much as to question the entire premise. What is an economic system supposed to ‘work’ for? Or rather, for whom is it supposed to ‘work’? Capitalism, particularly in its extreme late form, has delivered massive growth in overall productivity, true – but it has also: consolidated power over finance and capital in the hands of a rootless, cosmopolitan, globalist very-few; accrued most of the growth it is responsible for to the same few; continued to plunder cheap labour and cheap raw materials from underdeveloped countries; undermined the principle of the living wage; subjugated the natural family to the corporation; caused untold ecological damage globally; polluted our politics with lobbying, special interests and ‘soft money’; and brutally destroyed uncooperative polities and actors. If you have no problem with these outcomes (as, indeed, most defenders of capitalism don’t), then sure, capitalism ‘works’. And if you don’t demand of economic principles that they account for these externalities, then it’s very hard to convince you that the principles are ‘unsound’. But even the logic of this particular objection to socialism, that it ‘doesn’t work’, hides two philosophical commitments: the first is to the ethical theory of consequentialism, and the second is to the metaphysical theory of materialism. Those who claim that an economic system ‘doesn’t work’ are judging the means solely on account of the ends by which it can purportedly be held responsible, and these ends are always, always based on a metric of material well-being. Those who object to socialism on this particular ground point specifically to the lack of consumer choice in states with planned economies, or to other metrics corresponding to a lower standard-of-living, defined materialistically.

Which brings me to the third objection to socialism – which is the only objection I happen to share, as it applies even more to capitalism. Socialism is materialistic. It aspires to the same bourgeois ideals of material comfort and goods that capitalism does, with the exception that it seeks to spread them out through public ownership across a broader swathe of people. As with capitalism, it doesn’t object to environmental devastation per se; nor is it capable of a critique of growth-at-all-costs. As with capitalism, it doesn’t object to agricultural monocultures, to mass extraction or to modernist architecture. It actively cheers the capitalist-led death of traditional life-ways at the hands of the urban market, particularly those associated with rural people and communities, as well as those associated with the natural family.

Note well: this last objection does not make a distinction between ‘totalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ forms of socialism! ‘Totalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ socialisms are both capable of the anti-Christian stance that ‘man liveth on bread alone’; thus, ‘democratic’ socialism does not render itself less objectionable by the fact of its adherence to democracy alone. Note well, that during the interwar period and after the Second World War, the ‘democratic’ socialists even more so than the ‘totalitarian’ ones were at the forefront of crushing the peasant-led Green Rising in the most undemocratic of ways. On the other hand, however, there are socialistic ideas and forms of organisation which are not materialistic in this way, of which the Green Rising itself took full advantage: cooperatives, credit unions and labour unions (or guilds) – are all socialistic modes of ownership (insofar as they constitute communal ownership and management of property), but they do not necessitate a managerial, consolidating, growth-oriented or anti-traditional mode of governance. Nor are they particularly amenable to the materialist world-view.

It is largely for this reason that I don’t necessarily pay too much attention to whether or not a given socialism is ‘red’ or ‘black’ – that is to say, authoritarian or anarchist. What I generally try to pay attention to, rather, is whether or not its insistence on communal forms of ownership is motivated by a striving for material comfort and bourgeois uniformity; or instead by a striving for a just, stable and transcendentally-oriented organic order. Remember that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that great anti-Soviet dissident, did not object to the soviet communes. He didn’t even object to an authoritarian government! What he objected to most strongly of all was the all-pervasive lie of materialism, and how ordinary Russians were meant to go out of their way to deny the very noses on their faces, all to uphold this lie.

What’s wrong with socialism, therefore, is exactly what’s wrong with capitalism. And even for the same reasons. Many people aren’t used to looking at these two political and economic setups as two sides of the same coin, so to speak.

6 comments:

  1. I appreciate your perspective, but I would take a nuanced position, as I think there is evidence for voluntariness explicitly in Scripture and in holy Tradition and lastly the failure of socialism, as admitted by Russia's current leader. Acts 5 teaches a volunteerism. Tradition teaches virtue which is compelled is not virtue. And when the state mandates it, since it is compelled, it fails. Putin had an interesting take on this. I wish I had the link. I am all for Christian socialism amongst believers. The charity programs of Byzantium were not analogous to the ballooned welfare states we have now. It leads to a coercive atheist secular statism like we see everyway.

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  2. I appreciate your perspective, but I would take a nuanced position, as I think there is evidence for voluntariness explicitly in Scripture and in holy Tradition and lastly the failure of socialism, as admitted by Russia's current leader. Acts 5 teaches a volunteerism. Tradition teaches virtue which is compelled is not virtue. And when the state mandates it, since it is compelled, it fails. Putin had an interesting take on this. I wish I had the link. I am all for Christian socialism amongst believers. The charity programs of Byzantium were not analogous to the ballooned welfare states we have now. It leads to a coercive atheist secular statism like we see everyway.

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  3. Those who think socialism has to do with charity misunderstand it. It has to do with justice. To a man who gives even just unskilled manual labor - the brawn of his back and the sweat of his brow to a boss for 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year has EARNED a living wage according to the Socialist. He might be given a living wage out of charity says the liberal. And he should be given no more than the private market dictates says the conservative - living wage or not.

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  4. Fr Christopher Moody:

    Bless, Father! Thank you for your thoughts, and welcome to the blog! I didn't take a particularly nuanced view here, that's true. I do hold to the view propounded by Solovyov that some level of coercion, even the organised coercion of governments, is perhaps necessary to prevent truly egregious wrongs from occurring. The job of the state is not to create heaven on earth (which is a Satanic promise in any event), but rather to prevent our life on earth from becoming a hell.

    As to the charity programmes of Byzantium; I think you are right on that count, in the sense that the Church was the primary vehicle for the delivery of charitable services to the poor. But I think it was John Sanidopoulos who pointed out that Constantine's taxation policy was very 'progressive', at least as we would consider it now.

    Kurt:

    Welcome to the blog, and thank you for your thoughts also! Yes, I did note that objection, probably in a rather oblique way, when I said that the position against taxation and welfare is not (rightly considered) a position against socialism. And I do very much agree with you that a day's work demands a fair day's wages, and that when work and wealth become divorced from each other massive injustices result. Let's see if I can find the link...

    Ah, here we are! http://heavyangloorthodox.blogspot.com/2015/09/on-work-and-wealth-labour-day-post.html

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  5. I'm with you on the first objection. I really don't like conservative opposition to social security.

    I disagree with you on the second objection. I think capitalism can lead to better outcomes than you allow. Michael Novak made a good case for the Christian virtues of capitalism in 'The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.'

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  6. Thank you for the link to the article on work and wealth. It was a very thoughtful piece. And I've never understood the appeal of the Acton Institute.

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