Friday 4 December 2009

Ahistorical analysis

Why Not Socialism? , by Gerry A Cohen (Princeton University Press, 2009)

Jerry Cohen, one of the leading left-wing political philosophers in the Anglophone world, passed away in August of this year, with this book length essay (of about 10,000 words over 83 pages) published posthumously. Cohen, to give a bit of background, was for many years the nominal head of political philosophy at Oxford, moving from an ‘analytical Marxist’ take on historical materialism in an effort to foster a ‘no-bullshit Marxism’ to arguments with the ultra-libertarian Robert Nozick over self-ownership and finally a prolonged encounter with Rawlsians over the meaning of ‘justice’. Cohen was a life-long socialist, born and raised in a Montreal Jewish communist family, as he was fond of recounting, with a sense of the moral injustice of inequality imprinted there that pervaded all of his academic work. Cohen was also a famed lecturer and friendly teacher, and in another life would probably have taken his particular brand of stand-up beyond lecture halls and stuffy teaching rooms.

Despite Cohen’s charms, there is a very serious problem with this short book, which distorts both its understanding of socialism, and its way of arguing for it. Cohen’s biography is important here: he moved from thinking about Marxism to a wholesale engagement with the problems of liberal analytical political philosophy and, in particular, questions about the problems of justice, becoming increasingly absorbed in philosophy rather than using it as a way to deepen his understanding of Marx’s theory of history. Cohen’s arguments are undeniably clear and well-put throughout, and the book is an easy read, with Cohen’s voice clearly coming through the winding sentences, with clever and often funny asides. But once Cohen’s position is put into the history of arguing for socialism—evolutionary socialism, guild socialism, Marxism, revisionist socialist strands, culturalist socialisms, and so on—a glaring omission becomes apparent. Cohen does not talk about history.

Cohen doesn’t see any relationship between capitalism and socialism (whereby, for instance, the latter develops out of the contradictions of the former in the Marxist mode or can be achieved through gradual and peaceful reform in the Croslandite mode). He doesn’t see the explanation of inequality as historically specific. He doesn’t understand community in terms of the historically-grounded sources of identity and group membership we currently hold, with the question of how to get beyond them. He doesn’t see the history of arguments for socialism as central to how we should attempt to understand the ideal of socialism and reformulate it to our current condition. The only explanation I can give for this is that Cohen is firmly embedded in a philosophical paradigm (that of analytical political philosophy) which sees history as almost ‘contaminating’ the quality of arguments, and adding unnecessary complexity to powerful and precise distinctions and definitions. This rigorous and powerful form of thought, currently dominant in Politics departments at American and British universities, is ill-suited to the understanding of the role of human history in arguments about how we should live our lives, since the analytic truths it deals in gain their truth precisely in relation to conceptual definition and language, rather than anything about the world.

The consequent character of Cohen’s understanding of socialism can be gauged by comparing it to Albert Einstein’s answer, in 1949, to the very similar question: why socialism? Einstein wrote (and in fact Cohen cites approvingly) that ‘the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development’. The overarching aim of socialism, for Einstein, isn’t the institutionalisation of any conception of the socialist ideal, but to take human development forward a stage in history. Cohen’s account, instead, focuses on the objections to the predatory phase of human development we’re currently in (the market) that can be made by socialists on the grounds of ‘equality’ and ‘community’.

The socialist ideal, for Cohen, is then explicable in terms of these twin concepts. The strongest parts of the book are, indeed, Cohen’s expert presentation of the socialist ethical case against the market, pointing out that the market’s defenders frequently forget the three-part nature of what the market does to us: yes it produces public benefits of high output, but at the cost of activating our private vices, and it also produces great inequality (p78). As a result of this argument, Cohen, tellingly, sees the primary problem facing socialism today as one of institutional design (p57).

It is true that the question of how to run an economy on the basis of generosity rather than selfishness is difficult and important one, and that we have only the beginnings of an answer by thinking about those people whose production is guided by a conception of human need (doctors, nurses and teachers, perhaps) rather than by monetary rewards. Cohen’s argument for the relationship between community and equality turns on the feasibility of establishing a system which produces public benefits by activating our best qualities (the desire to service each other and be served), while lessening relevant inequalities.

At all times, however, Cohen’s account of socialism operates within the rules and assumptions of ‘analytical political philosophy’. Cohen’s mental project is clearly within the bounds of analytical political philosophy, and distorts his view of socialism at a number of key points, rendering it sophisticated but an ultimately unconvincing response to the question of why not socialism. Analytical political philosophers, some have observed, have always had problems with examples, since the complexity of the real world escapes definition on only the dimensions salient to the problem at hand. Examples are often absent (one can read entire tomes on central problems of social life without any description of how these problems appear in the real world) or increasingly implausible or terrible (particularly in moral philosophy, papers are produced on whether we have an obligation to throw a life-ring to drowning swimmers, and whether we should shoot one Indian or allow five to die). The examples given by some philosophers, since they are illustrative rather than being used in the active process of constructing an argument, tend naturally to betray the way of thinking already engaged in. And, regrettably, Cohen’s examples most clearly to show the limits of his approach.

For instance, Cohen attempts (in a relatively central part of his argument) to construct a view of ‘socialist equality of opportunity’. He uses the following analogy:

A table is before us, laden with apples and oranges. Each of us is entitled to take six pieces of fruit, with apples and oranges appearing in any combination that make up six. Suppose, now, I complain that Sheila has five apples whereas I have only three. Then it should extinguish my sense of grievance, a sense of grievance that is here totally inappropriate, when you point out that Sheila has only one orange whereas I have three, and that I could have had a bundle just like Sheila’s had I foregone a couple of oranges. So, similarly, under a system where each gets the same income per hour, but can choose how many hours she works, it is not an intelligible complaint that some people have more take-home pay than others (p. 19-20).

Cohen intends to make the point here that the income/leisure trade-off is relevantly like the apples/oranges trade-off, and does not represent an objectionable inequality. That may well be the case. But his thinking works so firmly within the (redistributive) problematics of analytical political philosophy he still begins from the unquestioned initial assumption of scarcity: only six pieces of fruit allowed per person. One of the grandest arguments for socialism may well be that this restriction could be transcended; socialism, by rationally assigning the productive powers of society, will increase the output of useful goods and potentially allow us as many apples and oranges as we desire.

Elsewhere, we see in Cohen’s explanation of inequality the curious phrase:

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 (p33, emphasis added).

Whatever the truth of this proposition (it is the case that we are not given a choice whether or not to participate in the market, and some have more desirable skills), it is clearly expressed in the language and from the viewpoint of analytical political philosophy. One of the most dangerous aspects of this method is that it finds it very difficult to operate at anything other than an incredibly static mode—it is most comfortable freezing the situation under discussion and picking it apart rather than tracing its development and the contradictions discernible there. Thinking again about Cohen’s explanation of inequality—unavoidable gambling and bad brute luck outside of gambling contexts—we can see that the history of working class struggle, capitalist development, the role of the state, and many other factors we might expect in a socialist account are quite simply and quickly effaced.

There is, of course, much more to say about socialism, but one of the characteristics of Cohen’s book is that it says little, but says it carefully. I disagree with the starting point of Cohen’s whole project; it seem clear to me (and, it also seems to me, fatal for the appeal of Cohen’s account) that Cohen’s understanding of socialism and his way of arguing for it are interrelated. They are both ahistorical in a surprisingly broad sense, unconcerned with either the way in which socialism can be seen as a development out of capitalism and beyond it, or the way in which the key features of the path to and the meaning of socialism must be understood historically. ‘History’, of course, is an incredibly difficult term to understand—it concerns, perhaps, the reality and weight of the actions of past generations on where we are now and where we can go—but we will get nowhere by imagining it doesn’t exist, or by building arguments that pretend it’s not important.

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