Monday, September 29, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter VII

Chapter VII (pages 164-185), “Science and Art Under Socialism”

[An e-version of Chapter VII is available here.]

Socialism might provide sufficient income and leisure time to allow everyone to contribute to societal advance – though most comfortably-off people in current society do not do so. For material progress to be of real use to society, “it must be made a means to the advancement of those higher goods that belong to the life of the mind [p. 166].” But the life of the mind must itself be connected with community life to avoid sterility and preciousness.

Russell asserts the higher social value of people who are capable of creating beauty or extending knowledge. “A social system which would render them unproductive would stand condemned, whatever other merits it might have [p. 167].” He claims that the best of creative activity cannot be brought about via monetary inducements. (Here Russell forgets or ignores Shakespeare, of whom Pope noted, “For gain, not glory, wing'd his roving flight, / And grew immortal in his own despite.”) What is needed is “circumstances which keep the [creative] impulse alive and afford scope for the activities which it inspires [p. 168].”

To promote mental creativity, social systems can provide: (1) technical training; (2) liberty to pursue one’s Muse; and (3) the potential for public approbation (if only that of a small public). Some forms of Socialism would surely be worse than the current system at fostering scientific and artistic development.

Who receives the requisite technical training now? Those whose parents are sufficiently wealthy and interested, and those who show such promise when young that they attract a scholarship. The first category would essentially disappear under socialism – but the wealthy are only a small proportion of society, anyway. The scholarship system suffers from inducing the wrong type of competition, leading to glibness and overwork in the young – and a compensatory dilatoriness later. State Socialists might universalize scholarship exams, which would be disastrous. The bureaucrats in charge would want only to subsidize those who can do the most for society, and let the others wallow.

Russell proposes instead that education be free to whoever wants it up to the age of 21. Most students will quit at an earlier age, but those with the strongest inclinations – not necessarily the most talent – towards learning will continue. (Russell notes, page 172, that the desire to become a painter is not limited to folks who can paint.) Subsidizing some students who lack talent is a small price to pay for making sure that those with talent have the opportunity to develop it. This sort of free education could be provided under Socialism or Anarchism; indeed, in theoretical terms, it is even consistent with capitalism, though it flies in the face of the typical spirit of capitalism.

Under current circumstances, the freedom to follow your Muse without regard to expert or commercial opinion is only effectively available to the wealthy and to those who can earn their living in a manner which still leaves them with the time and energy to undertake their creative endeavors. Private means have been available in the past to only a few, but those few include many who have made important contributions, such as Keats and Darwin. “If Darwin had been a university teacher, he would of course have been dismissed from his post by the influence of the clerics on account of his scandalous theories [p. 173].” [Russell himself had already (at the time he wrote Proposed Roads to Freedom) been dismissed from Trinity College for his anti-war activism, and later would lose a position he had secured at City College of New York because of other unpopular opinions.] Socialism will undermine the “private means” route to creative freedom, so it must compensate by broadening the opportunities available to those without private means. But even today, most creative work is done by those who support themselves in some less-than-fully-consuming occupation – including the research undertaken by those who teach in a related area.

State Socialism is likely to result in a bureaucratic mechanism, whereby a panel of people considered eminent in their field would license the products of those young people whom they find most promising. “In such a world all that makes life tolerable to the lover of beauty would perish [p. 175].” Art requires an anarchic spirit, one profoundly at odds with the bureaucratic mindset. “Better Anarchism, with all its risks, than a State Socialism that subjects to rule what must be spontaneous and free if it is to have any value [p. 175].” Fortunately, not all forms of Socialism require this bureaucratization of art.

Art could remain free under Socialism if artists choose to work only a few hours a day (at their non-art occupation), with commensurately less pay, and devote the remainder of their working time to art. The artist’s right to sell his products at freely negotiated prices must complement this system. (Many young artists currently do limit their paid work, but they live less well than they would under the Socialist arrangement.) Or, a small but sustaining guaranteed income could be made available to all, without a work requirement. Russell thinks that having vagabonds who choose to accept this wage and do no paid work would enliven the community, as long as they were not too numerous. Either of the approaches that Russell outlines to artistic freedom under Socialism would produce “far more complete freedom, and far more widespread, than any that now exists except for the possessors of capital [p. 178].”

But who will decide what books to publish? If it is the state or a literary guild, censorship will be rife. Kropotkin’s suggestion is to eschew specialization and have authors also layout and bind books – but whose books? (Russell notes that “it would be a waste of time for them [authors] to leave the work they understand in order to do badly work which others could do far better and more quickly [p. 179].”) Authors whose own books are rejected are not likely to do a good job publishing the books of others. Books critical of the existing system (such as Kropotkin’s books!) will not be published. Russell claims that the only solution is to allow authors to pay for the publication of their books if the state or guild apparatus rejects them. The payment might take the form of a labor contribution, but it needn’t be bookbinding. (Perhaps the admirers of an author could contribute, too.) No book could be rejected if the offer of payment at a set rate is made.

At least twice in this chapter Russell notes the utility of placing some barrier or inconvenience in the way of artistic production. For instance, the discomfort associated with the servitude bartered for book publishing “would give an automatic means of eliminating those whose writing was not the result of any very profound impulse and would be by no means wholly an evil [p. 180].” Some suffering for the sake of art is not particularly objectionable.

For art to flourish, artists have to know that art is respected (even if specific artists are not). Too much solemnity, perhaps brought on by overwork, undermines the environment for art, which needs “a capacity for direct enjoyment without thought of tomorrow’s problems and difficulties [p. 182].” An environment conducive to art also requires “a diffused sense of freedom,” one that a bureaucratic State Socialism is unlikely to foster.

A general progress also helps to spur creativity, and this will require ongoing technological improvements. But will there be enough innovation under Socialism? Workers should be allowed to keep some of the fruits of better methods in their industry, to provide an incentive to innovate.

Russell concludes that the three conditions needed to promote science and art – training, freedom, and public appreciation – are unlikely to exist under State Socialism, but could be maintained under Guild Socialism or Syndicalism, with better results than what capitalism affords. The key is liberty. “In this as in nearly everything else, the road to all that is best is the road of freedom [p. 185].”

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