Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Halftime

The obvious intermission in reading Proposed Roads to Freedom is at the break that Russell provides between Part I (“Historical”) and Part II (“Problems of the Future”), but I so enjoyed the delayed intermission in Unpopular Essays that I am trying to recapture the experience. The largest surprise for me in this first “half” of Proposed Roads to Freedom is Russell’s fairly positive take on Anarchism, and his prescience with respect to the tyranny lurking in State Socialism. Russell’s view that large increases in productivity were within grasp also has been borne out in the 90 years that have elapsed since Proposed Roads to Freedom was written. Russell’s argument that pure Anarchism cannot form a stable equilibrium seems sound to me, too.

Russell is endorsing a system in which people are guaranteed a minimal income (the “vagabond’s wage”) without any work requirement, along with a minimal government. Further, guilds play a serious role in governance, setting wages, output and prices, it seems. (Incidentally, though Russell does not reference Emile Durkheim, the guild part of Russell’s vision seems consonant with the ideas laid out by Durkheim in the Preface to the Second Edition of Division of Labour in Society.)

The first Russellian tenet, that of a guaranteed income, largely came to pass, though guild governance and a minimal State did not. I feel as if Russell neglects what proved to be an almost impenetrable issue for socialist economic planners, how to determine where to put new investments, how to decide what goods to make. (Russell, later in the book, discusses innovation with respect to art and science, and recognizes that incentives will have to be provided, but the socialist-style restriction on individual investment and entrepreneurship would, I believe, lead to a Russellian society ultimately falling behind a more capitalist one in terms of living standards.)

One of the reasons that Russell believes that any of the three alternatives (Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism) could, in the right form, be an improvement over the status quo is that he recognizes a good deal of un-freedom in the status quo. Some of this lack of freedom is tied to the British class system – Russell believes that the working class are barred from high-paying professions by their poor education, and that they do not have the resources to support any type of intellectual, scientific, or artistic investment that does not offer an immediate payoff. Give them a vagabond’s wage, then, and watch the flourishing as the majority of people, for the first time, are free to pursue their dreams. I guess I believe that this vision has come to pass in part, too, though surely it is still the case that poor education limits the progress of many children.

Two mini-points made by Russell will stay with me, I think. The first is in the Introduction, when he offers an explanation of how people who fundamentally are empathic and loving nevertheless end up appearing to the rest of the world as being consumed by hate. The second is Russell’s argument against seizing power via violent tactics. Russell says that if the Syndicalists could actually seize and hold power via violent means, then they could do so using non-violent means. (Essentially, he is arguing that holding power requires substantial public support.) I am more intrigued than convinced by this argument, however: many regimes that come to power via violence are able to maintain their position for a long time, despite public disapproval. (Oh, one more mini-point, Russell’s note that labelling was one of the tactics of the Syndicalists was news to me; here’s a brief history of labelling. Two weeks from now [the first edition of this post was made on September 16, 2008], the US will require country-of-origin labelling on many meat products -- this particular labelling requirement might not reflect and appeal to our best instincts.)

Finally, Russell’s arguments in Chapter V about how liberty cannot be foisted upon or be maintained by an uninterested population form a lesson that largely remains unlearned.

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