Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 2

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.  It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

In the first part of this series, I showed that both Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx respected individual freedom so much that they saw it as the essence of socialism. Each man envisioned a future that enabled the fullest expression of individuality. Far from the authoritarian socialism of the Bolshevik model; Wilde had libertarian socialism in mind. Neither man was particularly explicit about what socialism would look like, each preferring to paint in broad strokes his vision of the future. In all likelihood, neither probably knew what socialism would look like so much as they knew what was wrong with capitalism. There is thus no way to compare blueprints. We may, however, see socialism in a negative, that is by knowing what they said socialism is not, and how each believed we get from capitalism to socialism.

It may seem surprising that not even Marx advanced a state-ownership of private property model; one that placed society above individuality and authoritarianism over liberty. State-ownership of the means of production was capitalism for Marx, who thought of the state as the keeper of bourgeois interests. Neither did he think that the dictatorship of the proletariat could be anything other than universal, democratic, and brief. A democratic dictatorship is an anarchic phase that all revolutions necessarily go through. Think of the American Revolution before the constitution, when the Contential Congress claimed self-sovereignty and began issuing dubious laws. The dictatorship of the proletariat under the Bolsheviks came to mean “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors…”, as Lenin put it. No longer would the people rule themselves, they would be ruled by the vanguard of intellectual elites acting as saviors for a whole class of people who revolted quite sufficiently without them. This was socialism in name more than in substance.

Real socialism is supposed to differ from capitalism. Capitalism cultivates economic dependence, suppresses actual political decision-making for indirect democracy, and through these methods stifles individuality. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of poverty under capitalism. From the perspective of capitalism, poor people are “superfluous”, to use Thomas Malthus’ term, or “redundant”, to use Margret Thatcher’s. They are not needed by the economic system and therefore the system is unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to support their continued existence. Capitalist logic dictates that it is the duty of the poor to die, even in the midst of great plenty, if their labor is unnecessary to capitalists. This ruthlessness of capitalism has been defended by Malthus et. al. but generally it is deplored by mainstream society, including a great many wealthy capitalists themselves. Poverty for most people is a social problem that requires a social solution. Wilde writes,

Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.

Poverty is so destructive that those who are in it fail to recognize the social mechanisms that produce their deplorable state; rather like how a drowning person loses sight of everything but keeping their head above water, the poverty-afflicted can only struggle desperately from moment to moment. Disobedience and rebellion, those mechanisms of human progress, require the intervention of others who can help them discover their plight. Wilde writes,

What is said by [capitalists] against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.  Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.

This is the role Marx set for himself. Just as the chains of slavery were not, and could not be taken off by the slaves themselves, abolitionists became necessary. Socialist agitators awaken the proletariat–who at that time, may well have been fully employed and yet completely destitute–from false consciousness, or the conviction that this was the best that they could hope for in life or all they were worth or that the iron law of wages meant there just wasn’t enough for them even if they doubled production.

But it is not only the poor who suffer under capitalism. Another problem is the threat of poverty, which leaves even the richest insecure. Wilde again,

An enormously wealthy merchant may be—often is—at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone. Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself.  Nothing should be able to rob a man at all.

The threat of poverty drives the rich the way a jockey drives a horse. No one, no matter how wealthy, is immune to the threat. Poverty must be done away with, must it not?


Socialism obviously offers a solution, but capitalism provides its own. Charity and altruism are the bulwarks of capitalism. Wilde saw this as a fraud. Like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilde realized that the exercise of mercy is just another form of power and control, a way to make others live for you. Altruism is anti-socialist! Charity hurts the poor. It strings them along without the hope of liberation. Wilde writes,

[People] try to solve the problem of poverty… by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing [them]… The proper aim [of socialism] is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible… Charity degrades and demoralises.

For Wilde, this was cruel self-aggrandizement on the part of the wealthy. Charity makes the rich feel better and that is all it does. The Malthusians among us will no doubt object that it is by the generosity of the capitalist that any poor exist at all. The neoliberal will add that, actually, it is by the self-interest of the capitalist that the working poor, those paupers, have even the meager means to survive. But for Wilde, as for Marx, this is telling the slaves, those who sow the seeds, raise the crops, harvest the food, and prepare and serve the meals, that they should be grateful for the master’s benevolence in providing them sustenance. Wilde writes,

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

The poverty-ridden people unable to recognize who or what is making them poor, have but two options for survival: to steal or submit to capitalism’s picture of humanity. Wilde suggests the choice is between living as a human being and as a pet, writing,

It is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg… As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage.

To the Randian libertarian, who locates the fatal flaw in the idea of altruism itself, a break with capitalism is not necessitated. To these anti-socialist libertarians, one must boot-strap oneself out of poverty, either by accepting their worth as whatever crumbs fall from the rich man’s table or by asceticism. Against this position, Wilde writes,

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

The problem for this libertine brand of capitalism is the loss of human dignity that it entails. One may not need to be “grateful” because one lives by one’s own lights but without socialism, that life must be debased. What is the point of living by one’s own labors if one cannot earn a respectable living with nearly super-human effort? What is the point of individualism when it reduces individuality to mere animal subsistence?  Indeed, it is not finer to take than to beg?


Rejecting capitalism’s cold comforts and Bolshevik authoritarianism, we are left only with a particularly libertarian form of socialism. The socialism of Wilde approaches something like the minimal state of Robert Nozick, but unlike Nozick’s, a state incompatible with exploitation.

Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result, the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures.

Wilde was very nearly an anarchist, however, the state remains as a

…voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.

How exactly the state and individual efforts are to be arranged, Wilde leaves us to speculate. Which to his credit he acknowledges:

Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.  Progress is the realisation of Utopias.


Still glimmers of what Wilde envisions come through. Wilde, like Marx, sees the unlimited potential of mechanization to free human beings, but only under socialism where its benefits are shared by all. Mechanization eliminates manual labor and frees human beings from toil.

There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities…. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine… Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.


How close is Wilde to Marx’s vision of socialism? In the third volume of Capital, near the end, Marx argues that “the realm of freedom” his ideal society of free individuals, cannot begin until freedom from want and thus compulsion is achieved.

Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants… so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all the forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied. The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins the development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. (Fromm, 60)

Marx paints a picture of socialism where humans produce rationally rather than in an alienated way. That is, they produce for themselves what they want, not necessarily what the capitalist would profit by the most. They produce associatively, which may or may not be competitive, but without the ruthless competition of capitalism. This clearly rules out the possibility of a state-run, bureaucratic socialism. The individual must be the central agent and the goal of socialism. Socialism then is merely meant to alleviate human beings from the struggle with nature, and so allow us to create ourselves for ourselves. Socialism will be known when economics serves the needs of society the same way it serves the needs of capitalists under capitalism. For Marx and Wilde, socialism is a machine for serving the basest of human needs, our animal needs. It is not here to tell us how to satisfy them, only to ensure that they get satisfied.

 

 

 

 

The Wealth of Nations, Revisited

A Contradiction of Interests

I’m not sure if this is a real contradiction or not. But it seems to me that Adam Smith has a perspective problem. Smith famously argues that what is best for the individual is best for the society, and yet at the same time he argues that slavery is not best for the society because slaves lack individual incentive to work hard. This may be true, but it certainly seems to serve as a counter-example to the notion that what is best for the individual is what is best for the society. For when he suggests this, we must sincerely ask, which individual? The slave or the slaveholder?

What is true in Smith’s slave argument is that it is not best for the slave to be a slave, and correspondingly it would not be best for a society that the slave be so either. The slave’s disincentive to work would lead to less work performed in general, and correspondingly to a less productive society. However, is that which is best for the slaves or the best for the slaveholders? As a slaveholder, owning many slaves is what is best individually. If the rule holds, we must conclude that owning slaves is what is best for society. Is this not a contradiction? It cannot be both best and not best for a society to have slaves. Perhaps we could claim that being a slaveholder requires the existence of slaves, which we just said were not beneficial to society. But then the question becomes, why should we take the slave as “the individual” and not the slaveholder, as Smith clearly does? 

Smith’s problem seems to be one of perspective. The value of the rule that societies do best when people are free to pursue their own interests is debatable. It may depend entirely on which individuals’ perspectives we adopt. Is it better that a landlord is allowed to collect rent or that every person own the property they live in? Is it better than an employer negotiate wages before the sale of the product or that laborers are paid in accordance with their efforts? These perspective questions shoot holes all through the idea that liberty is the best policy and its more general precept that individual interests can be used as the best guide for social action.

The Utopia of Competition

It seems to me that competition itself becomes romanticized under most libertarian writers. The reason for this is if they use it as a cure-all for many economic injustices. The assumption works like this: as long as the rules are fair, then competition will lead to the best possible use of resources. And so it would, as long as we had some way to ensure the fairness of the rules. What does it mean to be fair? Who decides what is fair? On what basis is that decision to be made?

One can always succeed in competitions through two different methods. The first method is exactly what the libertarian writers imagine, a system where everybody follows the rules, the rules are fair, and then the winner deserves what they get, and this would work out best for society, just as Adam Smith suggested. The reason is that if everyone competed this way, we would all benefit from the maximized effort competition elicits. But unfortunately, there are no umpires or referees in economics, no one to turn to and say, “Hey, that’s not fair!”.

The second method for success in competition is free and unrestricted. Players follow their own best self-interest, and when the “rules” of fair play get in the way, they abandon them. In this method, one might succeed by making their competition under-perform or advance themselves through some form of subterfuge. This method focuses on distinguishing oneself by making all of the others look worse. This, of course, is a natural tendency of free competition that ultimately degrades society.

So we have a choice. Either competition is regulated to enforce an external set of rules that foster fair-play or economic competition is not good for society. If we were to have the former, a sport-like instead of war-like competition, then we would have to insist that the players do not get to dominate the body that makes up the rules. In real terms, this means that businesses would have to have minimal effect on political determinations of economics.

The Fable of the Bees?

It is perhaps ironic that Mandeville’s “The Fable of the Bees” features so heavily in Smith’s thought. The poem presents the idea that it is private vice (greed) that drive humanity to the public good (prosperity). The irony is not what climate change and over-use of pesticide have done to the bees, but the fact that Mandeville chose bee’s as his perfect society turned waywardly toward virtue to the ruin of all.

Bees are hive-minded totalitarians. The structure of bee society is based on homogeneity. The hive is comprised of nearly identical genetically speaking. The small individuality comes in the form of castes: the Queen, the product of royal jelly is tasked exclusively with all the breeding for the entire colony; the drones, a small subset of males, whose only function is impregnating the Queen; and the workers who do everything else to make the colony run. There is some break down among the work performed by the workers but this too is regulated exclusively by age. The high organization by nature is related to the Orwellian suppression of individuality inherent in bee society.  

There is no private vice in bee society because there is no individuality. Private vice requires individuals whose interests, even if entirely dependent on the efforts of others for their survival, can still conceive of themselves outside of the society. If private vices are public virtues then it perhaps proves that what is best for the individual is not what is best for society and vice versa. For it seems that public vices can just as well be private virtues.

Murder by Libertarianism

I’ve written more and more in-depth on the problems with libertarianism before, but in this post, I’d like to delve into a specific absurdity of libertarianism. Let me start by summarizing Nozick’s understanding of why he feels there is no exploitation in economics. He argues that people cannot be faulted for taking actions that limit the opportunities of others even beyond the point that some of those others have intolerable lives. The implication is that, while unfortunate, these people’s misery is justly derived and nothing should be done to alleviate it because any form of redistributive justice would assault the rights of the beneficiaries and thereby, be unjust.

In a section of his magnum opus, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where Nozick discusses capitalism and force, he claims that what limits the choices determines whether or not an act is voluntary. He further claims that when choices are limited by other peoples’ rightful actions, the remaining choice is “voluntary”, even if it is limited to a single option. He helpfully provides a concrete example of his position: imagine 26 pairings of marriage partners A-Z and A1-Z1, so that A1 is the most desirable for all letters and A is the most desirable for all primes, B1 and B are the second most desirable, and so on through the list, so that Z1 and Z are the least desirable in each group. Naturally, we could assume that A and A1 would get together, thus delimiting the options of all the rest by removing themselves as available options. Sure, B1 would like to get with A, and B would like to get with A1, but they simply do not have that option. The actions of A and A1 getting together limits the actions of all the others but is just. By rational extension, B and B1 get together, C and C1, etc., until we reach Z and Z1. In this case, Z and Z1 have no choice but to marry each other or remain single. Nozick asks, have they been forced to make this decision or is it still voluntary on the part of Z and Z1? 

Nozick’s point is not that the situation is not unfortunate for Z and Z1, but that the only alternative, forcing one of the other couples to not get married or give up their chosen partner to make the situation of Z or Z1 better, is worse. In this Nozick is right, however, that’s not the whole story. Nozick has chosen a rather disanalogous example. Z and Z1 are of course free not to marry without being harmed. Would the situation be different if they would be killed if they did not marry? Would a threat of death be enough to change the ethics of the analogy?

Imagine the same situation except for this time a dictator threatens each couple with execution if they do not agree to choose any mate. Would there be a violation of rights? I imagine Nozick would say yes, it is the dictator who violates the rights of the couples. But let us tweak the situation slightly again, and this time say that the dictator will only provide food to those individuals who agree to marry so that if they do not, they will starve to death. Here, you are free to choose the harm, but the question becomes is it within the rights of a dictator to choose how food is distributed? Again, Nozick would probably argue it is not. However, if the dictator choosing how food is distributed is a violation of individual’s rights then would it be less so for the dictator to decide to distribute food on the grounds of who worked to produce it? If the dictator doesn’t have the right to choose the one method, they do not have the right to choose any. Let me try one more tweak before we quit this example: imagine this time instead of a dictator, we imagine an incredibly wealthy individual, who gained his wealth through entirely justified means. This individual has had his love rejected by you and as a result, he has made it his life’s goal to revenge himself on your romantic endeavors. Towards this end, every time you have fallen in love, he has paid off your would-be lover to quit you so that you are never able to marry. Would this still be just according to libertarianism?

I think it must be! It meets all the libertarian criteria for “voluntary” action. The spurned suitor has the right to spend their money as they like, and the would-be lovers have the right to break off with you in exchange for his money. It may seem unfair to you, but it is not unjust according to libertarianism. It would be a breach of justice to protect your happiness by interfering in the rights of the spurned suitor. But if this is justice, would it be different if the actions were deadly? This time imagine the same rich individual, except now he’s decided to escalate matters and take your life. In this case, every time you go to buy food to feed yourself, he offers the food purveyors more money to sell it to him instead. This is well within his rights. He is simply buying food. Since he has a right to do with his money as he pleases and the money is indubitably his, and purveyors have every right to get the best price for their food, all the transactions are therefore legitimate. Through the exercise of his rights, the spurned suitor is able to prevent you from buying any food, effectively and willfully starving you to death.

The Nozickian libertarian must conclude that it would be perfectly just for the rich man to starve you in this manner. This reductio ad absurdum comes about because libertarianism insists that the government cannot take any action to prevent your death as long as the agent of your death were legitimate in their actions preventing you from getting any food for a long enough period of time to intentionally cause your death. The fact that this scenario is highly unlikely is immaterial. The point here is that libertarianism allows such absurdities as part of its ethical ideology.

The fact that the spurned suitor is not buying the food to use, but merely to prevent you from having it is also immaterial. This could only be seen as a violation of your rights if and only if we observe something like the troublesome Lockean proviso that forbids ownership in the event that there is not “as good and enough left over” for others. I will spare the details of Nozick’s treatment of this proviso, except to say that he doesn’t explicitly reject the proviso; he merely points out the unsatisfactory nature of it as a solution. Sadly for libertarians, there seems to be no alternative. They are forced into a dilemma between accepting a dangerously unsatisfactory proviso or uncomfortably admitting that there are ways in which it is permissible to intentionally murder another individual under the ethical framework provided by libertarianism.

If you accept my argument, it is but a small step to the idea that there are other places where libertarianism leaves gaping holes in its ethics. I am perfectly willing to suggest that at least one such hole is its treatment of owner/laborer negotiations under capitalism. It’s entirely keeping with Nozick’s premise that if the situation is unacceptable in an individual instance it is equally unacceptable at larger scales so that the reductio ad absurdum given above is sufficient to condemn libertarianism altogether.

However, as I do not agree with his premise, I will not offer such an argument here. Instead, I would want to show that the situation is no better on a large scale. The ultimate condemnation of libertarianism comes from the fact that it can be found absurd both individually and socially. Imagine a situation in which a rich man, goes on accumulating through legitimate means until the whole of the Earth is their exclusive property. This, when combined with the minimal state and without the Lockean proviso, would create an autocratic libertarian nightmare. Such leverage would make all life entirely dependent on the will of this libertarian autocrat, annihilating the possibility of free choice since one would have to “voluntarily” agree to whatever the autocrat asks of them or die or watch their family die, or both, or worse. At this point the difference between the worst kind of authoritarianism and libertarianism vanishes and the two become identical. Libertarianism requires only that the autocrat has derived his total leverage via “legitimate” means. So on this scale too, libertarianism could justify absurdities.

I obviously believe that it is a failing of libertarian ideology that it can be used to justify totalitarianism. A zealot of the ideology could always argue that libertarianism is correct despite such arguments and the unlikeliness of such extreme situations reinforces this view. But I am not one to follow absurd ideas. On the other hand, this condemnation of libertarianism should not be read as a suggestion that governments can or should dictate all aspects of individual life. It only suggests that there are times when society has the right to intervene in the lives of its members. Freedom is not always the best policy, although it is generally the best policy. There are the places where we slip beyond the ethical into the political, and such places are blind spots for libertarians. It is in these places, however, that libertarianism must give way to libertarian socialism if it is to retain the aspect of justice.

 

Socialism, What’s the Difference?

Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Vladimir Lenin walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll it be?” Lenin immediately climbs up on a stool and loudly proclaims, “We, the intellectual vanguard of the people, shall seize the means of production in the name of the people!” Bernie Sanders gently replies, “No, my dear Lenin. It is the freely elected government of the people who must seize them.” To which, Noam Chomsky quickly retorts, “Not at all, it’s the individual people themselves, who must seize them.” The bartender picks up the phone, “Officer, I got a trio of thieves at my place. Come arrest ’em.”

In the eyes of the doctrinaire capitalist, all sorts of socialism are the same, they are all theft. Internally, there is a good deal of division. The media has what I’ll call the short-division understanding of political economy. Remember learning short-division? Where five divided by four was one, remainder one. It’s like that, but with economics. This elementary-school version of political economy has capitalism on one end of a short spectrum and socialism/communism at the other. Essentially, it boils decades of diverse economic and political theory into capitalism and others. Obliterated are the intricate nuance and subtle variety that separates even pro-capitalist thought into over a dozen distinct theories. There are a few, ill-defined buzzwords that get carelessly banded around the information superhighway like drunks on the freeway. Terms like “neoliberal”, “neoclassical”, and “democratic socialism” take on a loose association with a political side like “neoclassical” = right-wing and “democratic socialism” = left-wing, or falls helplessly in between them confusing most people who hear them like “neoliberal” and “libertarian” and “libtard”. Are those that left-wing or right or good or bad? How should I feel about them? The point here is that the names don’t matter, but the theoretical positions do. So I want to take the next five minutes of your life and give you the gift of understanding the difference between “libertarian socialism”, “democratic socialism”, and Soviet-style communism.

Soviet Russia is indisputably the icon of socialism the world over. It’s not the original socialist theory and you’d probably be surprised to learn that it is a dubious successor to Marx’s theory. The Bolsheviks claimed descendancy from Marx and Engels, but Leninism grossly over-emphasizes economics, twisting Marxism into something ideologically self-defeating in order to make it negotiable under the labyrinthine socio-political climate of Czarist Russia. Leninism agrees with Marx that the bourgeoisie illicitly own the means of production and that it would only be through revolution that they can be used for the betterment of all rather than for the eternal enrichment of a few. And that’s where the important similarities stop because Lenin had to invent a practical scheme to bring about what Marx said would occur naturally. There is little dispute that the first Russian revolution, the February revolution was a spontaneous occurrence, revolting from tyrannical Czarist and oppressive aristocratic rule. The October revolution was not so spontaneous, in fact, it wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a coup d’etat. The freely elected government of Russia was seized by the Bolshevik party and democratic rule was supplanted for autocratic rule of the communist party. This, according to Lenin, was necessary because the people, having labored so long under the false-consciousness of bourgeoisie propaganda–what today would be called “fake-news”–could not be trusted to follow their real interests. His evidence for this was the fact that his party failed to win a majority in the general election. Lenin determined that socialism would need to be guided from above, structured by a cabal of intellectual elites who were not deceived by false consciousness. This vanguard would centrally-plan and command the economy for the people without any input from those people.

It seems obvious, now, when I put it this way, that Lenin traded economic freedom for political enslavement. He would enslave the people to free the people and then, maybe, someday, when they proved themselves ready, return them their freedom. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. We needn’t trouble ourselves with why not, because the next alternative cannot work the same way at all on principle. Democratic socialism is an alternative to the Soviet-style communism in that it believes it is the people who ought to decide on what uses the means of production are put to. In this version, the state still controls the means of production, but the state is necessarily a democratically controlled one. Myriad questions ensue, such as at what level will they be determined: nationally, communally, etc.? Or will the particulars be determined the people directly or through representatives or the appointees of representatives? Or how will the workers be paid, by the state on a fixed scale, by production rates, or by contract negotiation? How will prices be set or will products be doled out on some scheme? But these questions don’t really affect us here. The point is that democratic socialism hopes to overcome the difficulties of Soviet-style communism by bringing in the voice of the people, that is allowing them to weigh in on how socially controlled economic mechanisms are run.

Is such a system possible? Of course, it is. Take central planning, one could “centrally plan” an economy democratically by taking orders from every individual and making products to correspond with the orders. Technically-speaking that’s not a market, it’s a centrally planned economy with a single producer. Would it be efficient? Hmmm, that depends on what you mean by “efficient”. Would we overproduce, no, it would never produce anything for which there was not already an order (at least not in theory)? But it would be terribly inefficient having to wait for your order to be made and difficult to anticipate your needs well in advance. Plus, fairly limiting how much each consumer could order at a time. Still, it could all be worked out. The real question is, “is it more desirable?” I’m not so sure. Such a market would be like letting Amazon take over everything and then nationalizing Amazon. Monopolies are unquestionably efficient but they are also condensers of power. By reducing options to one, they eliminate choice to everyone except the one who decides on what to produce. Maybe we could all decide, but how? It’s unfeasible to think we’re all going to vote every time there is a decision at “National Amazon” and even if we did, how should we count the votes? Majority rules hardly seems fair. The logistical encumbrances quickly swamp the advantages the democratic socialist system provides.

A point should be made here about the so-called Nordic socialist countries. To be clear, they’re not really socialist at all. These countries share a strong devotion to welfare-state policies. We might add a fourth type of socialism in here, “welfare-state socialism” but this would be more confusing than illuminating. Capitalism, as I have argued elsewhere, should be defined by the legal determination that the owners of an enterprise or an estate be the owners of the capital in that enterprise or estate. These countries economic systems fit this description and therefore are best classified as capitalist. They simply use these myriad social programs to buttress capitalism and hedge in its worst tendencies the way the United States used to under Keynesian economic policies from the nineteen forties to the nineteen seventies. The best term for these countries then would be “welfare-state capitalist” and not socialist at all. It has been a rhetorical deception of laissez-faire theorists to classify such systems as “socialist”.  

Returning to our main discourse, we’re not stuck choosing between democratic socialism and unfettered capitalism; we might choose libertarian socialism. This oxymoronic sounding theory is unlike the others in that it disagrees that market mechanisms and private property in the hands of the bourgeoisie are the root cause of the problems with capitalism. Libertarian socialism holds that the problem of capitalism has to do with the organization of private property and not the existence of it. In this case, we can imagine a principled order that allows for private property, market exchanges, and most of the other staples of capitalism, but removes the exploitative rules regarding rent, interest, and capitalist profit as contradictory with private property ownership itself. With these exploitative elements eliminated, many attributes of capitalism change form, e.g. the overwhelming and incessant need to accumulate more wealth. This desire is capped by the concept that you cannot make money from money without rent, interest, and profit, so there is a finite amount of labor you’re willing to do beyond what you need to meet your needs. The desire to come to dominate all other businesses, the desire for monopoly, the desire for ruthless business practices, all have their teeth pulled. Included also is a guaranteed income which is required to prevent anyone in a society from forcing anyone else into a life of servitude in order to attain one of unearned leisure; in order to remove the one, the other must be dispensed with as well.

Libertarian socialism differs from other forms of socialism in that it emphasizes the freedom of individuals to make individual choices. It differs from libertarianism by arguing that societies have rights and privileges that individuals do not. The basis of this argument rests on the needs of groups to foster a sense of unity, without which there can only be lawlessness. The preservation of unity is a responsibility of societies which cannot be reduced to the individual members who make them up. This disagrees with libertarianism which assumes that all rights and responsibilities of groups can and do reduce to individual rights and responsibilities. There is a thing called society from which we are each individuated. Another way to imagine it is that the rules cannot be set with any particular individual or association in mind and be just, in the same way, that a baseball league cannot create rules favoring any particular club, either explicitly or implicitly without those rules being unfair. Libertarianism, which is a close cousin to anarchism, asserts that such a league would be unnecessary except as guarantor of the rules the clubs themselves agreed to. There is the possibility of fairness here, as long as we can assume that each club was equally well off when the bargain was struck, which is a pretty remote possibility. Libertarianism is simply unlikely to turn out to be fair.

Libertarian socialism offers us our greatest chance at a sustainable, just, and fair economic system. It is the most likely to produce the massive economic requirements of our modern large-scale societies and do so in a manner that is sustainable and harmonious with our natural environment and is at the same time compatible with human dignity and our political sense of fair play or justice. Libertarian socialism is the most feasible economic system, requires the least amount of change from capitalism, and could be produced without a bloody revolution. It is quite simply our last, best hope for a better world.

Liberating the Invisible-Hand from Libertarianism

Libertarianism often conceives of the “invisible-hand” explanation as a form of get-out-of-jail-free card. It is not the only doctrine to do so, others include neoliberalism and some strains of conservatism. In this essay, I will lay out why libertarians are inclined to believe in the absolving ability of the invisible-hand and why that may be wrong. To begin with, I will examine Robert Nozick’s concept of “invisible-hand explanations”. From there I speculate about how “invisible-hand explanations” are used by libertarians to exonerate individuals from claims of extortion and exploitation. Finally, I will show why such extortion does, in fact, take place despite the invisible-hand mechanism at work. In this essay, I will mean “extortion” to be the unacceptable situation of profiting from the unproductive coercing or defrauding of another to loss, and by “intention”, I mean deciding with reasonable knowledge of the expected outcome of one’s actions.

Nozick wrote, “[a]n invisiblehand explanation explains what looks to be the product of someone’s intentional design, as not brought about by intentional design.” The emphasis here is on the unintentional quality of a complex process. No one intends the results of the process that brings about a good or bad result. While there is a concerted effort, the effort is not coordinated because it is unknown. Each actor is acting in the dark, irrespectively of all the other actors, and consequently cannot know what the ultimate result of their efforts will be. The quintessential example is the self-interest of individual proprietors to feed, cloth, and shelter society. After all, every morning Philadelphia gets food from all over the country to feed its citizens and no one has to coordinate the effort. 

Nozick’s concern with the invisible-hand is for protecting the rights of the beneficiaries of such unintentional processes from intentional efforts at redistribution by others who feel the need to correct the results of such unintentional processes because they feel the results to be unfair, unjust, or just plain bad. But Nozick and other’s of a similar mind, defend these results as fair and just, even if they are not “good”. They claim, it is not the fault of these beneficiaries that they are beneficiaries, since the entire process that made them such developed unintentionally. I will not belabor the reader with an extended discussion of Nozick’s and other’s arguments for such an explanation. Instead, I will simply assert that this argument is used most often to defend against redistributive efforts by the left by claiming the lack of intentionality legitimates the uneven distribution of wealth on principle. Negative appearing outcomes say where one person is made insanely wealthy while tens of thousands of others work incessantly for near-poverty wages only seems unfair because of a vestigial sense of sentimentality, left-over from our primitive ancestors and an unhealthy obsession on human affairs being justified by logical reason. The question we will concern ourselves with is: when is an individual responsible for extortion? Libertarians do not deny that extortion exists. What Nozick et al. do argue is that when the process that creates what appears to be extortion is the result of an “invisible-hand explanation”, i.e. it is unintentional, no individual can be held responsible for extorting anyone. If no one is responsible for the extortion, it is not, in fact, extortion, our feelings of unfairness are misguided.

To really understand what Nozick et al. are up to, let us examine some concrete examples. Imagine you are carrying a briefcase with a quarter of a million dollars in it. You hail a taxi. Stepping in, the driver, with full knowledge of the money you carry, tells you to gift it to them or they will shoot you; they then credibly produce a pistol and aim it at you. You are of course free to choose. You can refuse to hand over the briefcase and take the bullet. Likewise, you can trade the money for your personal well being. Either way, we might say that since you were free to choose, no “robbery” took place. However, I think most of us would agree that your choice in the matter was coerced. 

The trouble with coercion is that it’s not always condemnable according to these theorists. We can easily imagine a scenario where you are nearly starving and a man offers you a job where you would work for an income that is equivalent to five percent of the value of whatever you create by your labor. You are of course free to starve, but if you take the job most libertarians would say that you chose this freely and were not really coerced. So, libertarians and neoliberals have left the burden of explaining what the difference is between the first and second cases.  It is here, where they must maintain that the former case is an example of extortion while the latter is not, that the “invisible-hand explanation” is deployed. 

The difference, they claim, is that the first case is intentional and the second case is not. The taxi driver who pulled the gun on you, set up the situation in order to get the money from you; while the boss who offers you five-percent is merely leveraging a natural situation that they neither created nor intended. While it is somewhat arbitrary whether or not and to what extent the taxi driver and the boss are creators of their situations, the point is nevertheless valid. The situation the boss exploited is not one of his own design, but that of the taxi driver is. Left here it would be reasonable to conclude that the first case is extortion and the second case is not.

But let us not leave it there, instead, let us further examine this by asking: what is it about intention that makes the first case extortion? We might speculate that Nozick et al. believe that intention is the product of specific knowledge and that without knowledge there can be no intent. This would make sense to us intuitively. Returning to the taxi, imagine this time that you merely left your money-laden briefcase in the backseat of the taxi after paying the fare. The driver takes off with it and it’s not until hours later you realize it has gone missing. Let’s further imagine that the driver about that same time discovers the money in their vehicle and claims it. Has the driver stolen or extorted your money from you? We are inclined to say no. This is simply a case of lost and found: you lost money and the driver found it. The driver lacked knowledge of the money about to come into their possession through some unintended process. This lack of knowledge equals a lack of intention. The complete lack of intention both on your part and that of the driver, in this case, legitimates the money really belonging to the driver after it was found. So, Nozick et al. would confidently conclude that the case with the boss is more like this case where the gun was pulled because of intentionality. 

But, it has not really been established how intention is made manifest. Let me assert that if we cannot have intention without knowledge, then we cannot have knowledge without intention or in philosopher-speak: knowledge of the consequences is materially equivalent to intentionality. Let us return again to the taxi and say that this third time, you have again forgotten your briefcase, but as you are exiting the vehicle, the taxi driver turns around and notices that the briefcase you brought with you is still in the backseat and not in your hand. Let’s also say that he knows it’s full of money. To be precise, the taxi driver, in this case, didn’t intend for you to leave your money and neither did you so again this case is unintended; however, the driver now has come into possession of the full knowledge that you have forgotten your money and that they stand to benefit from your loss. In this brief moment, a decision presents itself that did not occur when you forgot your money without the driver immediately realizing it. The driver, with full knowledge of the situation, has a choice. If they can choose, the outcome of the situation must–by definition–be an intended outcome. 

The taxi driver then–if choosing not to speak-up–is acting intentionally, hoping to profit from another’s unintended situation. Even though the driver did nothing to bring that situation about it is still intentional in its last act. This last act is sufficient to condemn it as extortion because it is an intentional design to benefit from another’s loss. The driver cannot be saved by our switching criteria from intention to action either. Not taking an action is to act intentionally when the lack of action is the result of a deliberate choice. Choosing to do nothing is an intentional action. Things are different when one acts or does not act without knowledge. Failing to act because of ignorance or confusion is not an intentional act. However, in the full light of knowledge that one will gain by not acting, to not act is intentional, and it is intention which, according to our libertarian theories, condemns an action as extortion.

Let us return now to the boss offering the starving person a five-percent wage. If the boss recognizes that poverty would allow him to depress the wages of the employee then the boss is extorting money from the employee even though the boss did not create the situation of their poverty. The creation of poverty is not the issue, the intention is. The boss is not extorting the employee by offering a lower wage if and only if the boss has no knowledge of the potential employee’s poverty or how that poverty would affect their choice to work for lower wages. By simply knowing that a starving person will accept whatever they can get and that this person is starving, one is in full knowledge of the situation. The choice to use it for leverage must, therefore, be seen as extortion. Contra Nozick and the rest, the boss’s case is more like pointing a gun at a person and demanding their money than it is like them losing their money in your car. The boss knew what it is was they were doing when they suggested a lower wage or they wouldn’t have known to suggest a lower wage at all. 

This illuminates what should have been obvious to Adam Smith and Robert Nozick alike: once the action of the invisible-hand is revealed, it is no longer unintentional, no longer innocent. The problem for libertarians is that the “invisible” part of the “invisible-hand explanation” is precisely what conveys the innocence, namely ignorance; but the “explanation” is the imparting of knowledge, and so promptly does away with the innocence. The unintentional situation is unintentional precisely because no one knows what exactly is happening or what the outcome will be. But the process of explaining that some good or bad outcome is the result of an “invisible-hand mechanism” is to reveal the hand at work! That is to say, explaining anything is to let people know what is happening, how their actions add-up to arrive at a specific outcome. To say that New York is fed by the self-interest of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker is to show us exactly how each contributes to the whole, and subsequently to necessitate our choice of intervening in that mechanism’s workings or to leave it alone. Either way, the leaf has fallen away and we stand nude in the full sun of knowledge.

Adam Smith himself–by the act of explaining the action of the invisible-hand in the market–made it possible to choose whether or not to hazard making corrections or by inaction leaves the system to its own devices and endure whatever consequences may come. So, the fact is that since Adam Smith’s time, the evils of economic activity brought about by the revealed workings of any invisible-hand at work are the result of an intentional choice on the part of those in power not to mitigate them. It may be that a choice to meddle will turn out worse than not meddling, but we cannot hide behind the “invisible-hand explanation” anymore. It is not invisible at all, it is a human hand, our hand, the hand of those in power and it moves as they will.