Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Seven, Part Two

“The Case for Socialism,” Part Two, pages 105-117

Picking up from Part One with the remainder of Russell’s nine arguments for socialism….

6. The Emancipation of Women and the Welfare of Young Children   The economic dependence of women, whose housework is unremunerated, on their husbands cannot easily be remedied absent socialism. The state needs to see to the financial demands of children, and wives need to work outside of the house: architectural adjustments and the provision of nursery schools are part of the requisite reforms.

7. Art   The privacy fetish undermines public art, and this predilection also can be overcome with socialism.

Commercial motives are holding back the development of cinema: some observers even believe that the apex of the cinematic art lies in Soviet Russia. Profit-motivated authors, too, temper their writing to preclude offense and produce pap to widen their appeal. The state monopoly of publishing that an insecure socialist state would offer could be worse [-- a concern that Russell expressed years earlier.] In a secure socialist state, however, more free time for creative activity, and a norm that anyone’s work can be published if the expenses are privately covered, would lead to more creativity than now exists.

8. Unprofitable Public Services   There are many public goods, such as defense, that are poorly provided by individual, profit-oriented activity alone, and as a result, these goods are provided by the government. A recent addition has been public health measures, which the private enterprise fanatics have opposed, but which bring substantial benefits in practice. Private enterprise in this realm might involve blackmail via privately profitable threats to spread a plague: better that quarantine be a public mandate.

The scope for public provision of services has expanded, with education now being largely a public matter, though religious, charitable, and profit-oriented schools also exist. (“On the whole, the profit motive has had little influence on education, and that little bad [p. 108].”) Even areas dominated by private provision of goods and services are regulated by the government, and rightly so, as the spillover effects are often broad and long. Residents in one neighborhood of a city work in other neighborhoods, so multiple areas are affected through behavior that in itself is geographically isolated. Transport and economic development increase interdependence and undermine the self-sufficiency of towns and villages. Power stations have monopoly control, and unfettered, that control could be exercised in an extortionate fashion. Roads, railroads, and airplanes all advance, heightening geographical spillovers.

9. War   War is too dangerous to risk, and socialism holds the potential to reduce the risk of war – which is not to say that war is a capitalist invention. Economic motives are traditionally prominent in war-making, but so are status motives: spirited men enjoy war, and enjoy that women like men who are successful soldiers. Global socialism would be an effective antidote to war, but socialism in the largest, most powerful countries, would also offer substantial protection.

The intellectual case against war is now strong and widely shared, bolstered by the sufferings of both the winners and the losers from the previous war [WWI]. The next war will involve even more damage and death to civilians. Entire cities can be destroyed, and Britain has lost its longstanding immunity against invasion.

Despite the broad desire for peace, further war is on the near horizon. “The proximate cause, of course, is the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, with the consequent growth of militant nationalism in Germany [p. 110].” Nonetheless, the next war likely will bring a still harsher peace, and the process will repeat itself. So the answer lies not in winning a war but by ending the causes of conflict, which primarily are economic.

Economies of scale help to stoke the rivalry. Large factories can undersell small factories, so manufacturers need access to a huge market to be profitable. The US domestic industry has such a market, but the manufacturers of Britain, France, and Germany do not. Further, much industrial demand (such as for steel) comes from armaments, so industries profit from international tensions. German and French steel makers believe that they will flourish when their country wins the next war (with the costs borne by others), though their unsurprising confidence is unwarranted. The valuable ore in Lorraine switched from German to French hands after the last war, providing an example of the economic benefits of victory, and making Germans keen for their turn.

The capture of the state by large industries is facilitated by their tapping into popular sentiments, such as fear or resentment. Sophisticated self-interest argues for cooperation among European nations in ways that can improve well-being generally, but voices of reason are drowned out by nationalistic cant – and the cant itself is stoked by those with a financial interest in keeping tensions high. This is the mechanism through which modern capitalism causes war: the drive for profits produces propaganda that appeals to the worser angels of our nature. [Smedley Butler’s phrase “War is a racket” still echoes today. – RBR] An international democratic socialism that conducted the affairs of large industry in the interests of society instead of for profits would eliminate this mechanism for militarism – and even a partial socialism, comprising the most powerful countries, would go a long way to ending militarism.

Beyond the nine advantages already adduced, socialism can mitigate other problems. Decentralized, profit-oriented investment decisions lead to the absurdity of investment booms followed by low prices and bankruptcies. [This was a major part of the Soviet critique of capitalism, as put forth, for instance, in their 1930 book aimed at explaining central planning to young people, New Russia’s Primer. – RBR] Under socialism, transitions from old to new technologies can be made gradual, with younger workers being retrained for the new jobs; further, shorter work days will keep unemployment low. Those who are unemployed but who are willing to work will not suffer financially from unemployment. And the productivity gains from technological improvements can be shared between higher living standards and increased leisure.

Economic dependence on other individuals will decline under socialism, replaced by both less uncertainty and the state as provider. Wives will not be dependent on their husbands, and children will be less dependent on the qualities of their parents.

Socialism holds the potential to be good for virtually everyone, by sharply limiting economic insecurity and by decreasing the likelihood of war. The belief of some communists that socialism can only be introduced at the point of a proletarian sword in a class war is unfounded. Socialism has developed in the minds of its opponents an unnecessary and unfortunate connection both to atheism and to tyrannical rule. Nonetheless, socialism is consistent with religious views of all stripes, and most tyrannies are of the reactionary sort (though in battling these regimes, socialism might be contaminated with some of their bad features). “But in countries which still permit some degree of free thought and free speech, I believe that the Socialist case can, with ardour and patience combined, be so presented as to persuade much more than half the population [p. 115].” Perhaps there will be counter-revolutionaries, but their numbers will be small, and overcoming their opposition will not induce a socialist tyranny. And if the majority is not in favor of socialism, then it should not be imposed, in keeping with standard practice in democratic societies. [This is a point Russell repeatedly made years earlier.]

Some people say that the slow, evolutionary methods of introducing socialism are unrealistic in a world where fascism has taken hold. This might be true in fascist countries themselves, but is not the case in France, Britain, and America. Indeed, both France and Britain have socialist political parties with considerable support. In Britain, the socialists could soon be in charge. But even in power, they will face obstacles to implementing their policies, and a forcible implementation will be a temptation. But again, force will be to no avail in making socialist policies lasting. Indeed, departures from democratic methods strengthen the hand of fascists, not socialists.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Seven, Part One

“The Case for Socialism,” part one, pages 91-104

Chapter 7 is sufficiently long that following long-established RBR precedent, its summentary will be broken into two parts. This is part one…

Most current socialists are Marxists, and accept that a proletarian-based revolution is the only path to socialism. This dogma repels non-proletarian would-be sympathizers, and many non-proletarians think a preemptive strike against socialists might be better than waiting for their own defeat in the coming class war. Fascism draws some support in this fashion; more generally, the equating of socialism with Marxism makes it very hard for socialist ideas to make headway in the West.

Though I [Russell] am a fervent supporter of socialist ideas, for me, socialism is not fundamentally about class war or economic fairness. “I regard it primarily as an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race [p. 91].” The violence associated with a transition to socialism is not inherent to it, but is a byproduct of the attitudes of its intemperate supporters.

The definition of socialism includes state control of the commanding heights of the economy, as well as democratic control of the state. Marx and other early socialists would concur with these descriptions of socialism, but the Bolsheviks opted to limit political power to members of the party vanguard. Such a regime might be part of a transition to socialism, but a sustainable socialist system requires democracy to go along with social ownership of the economy. “Unless there is popular control, there can be no reason to expect the State to conduct its economic enterprises except for its own enrichment, and therefore exploitation will merely take a new form [p. 92].”

Some small-scale private enterprise, including construction and finance, is compatible with socialism. People can be personally wealthy, but they cannot be coupon clippers, as there will be no large publicly traded companies in which to invest, and such investments would be prohibited. Wealth disparities would be minimized when interest incomes are unavailable – but only disparities that do not confer power over other individuals would be permissible.

Socialism offers many advantages, but they probably would not be realizable if the socialism were achieved after a protracted, bitter, and militarized class war. The analysis here presupposes a largely peaceful transition to socialism. The path could be more peaceful if socialists would focus on the advantages of economic organization, as opposed to envy of the rich. Here are nine of the many arguments in support of socialism. [The numbering and the italicized titles of the pro-socialism arguments are copied directly from Russell, but I suppress quotation marks in this instance – RBR]:

1. The Breakdown of the Profit Motive   The belief that the pursuit of profit would lead to proper decisions about what and how much to produce once was reasonable, but no longer is so. Large-scale manufacturers face great uncertainty about the salability of their products. If they cannot make a profit, their capacity is unutilized (much of the capital stock is not easily transferable to other industries) and their employees are let go. The reduced incomes of the employees in turn reduce spending, so other businesses cannot sell their wares. Thus a miscalculation in a small part of the economy can cascade throughout the system. Further, economies of scale make it imperative to capture a large market, which leads to economic imperialism. In the transition to market domination by the largest producers, many sizeable manufacturers will be driven out of business, too.

If Henry Ford discovers a cheaper way to produce cars, the resulting bankruptcies of competitors carry with them enormous social costs, but these costs do not form any part of Ford’s profit-seeking decision calculus. During the transition to Ford’s market dominance, the full costs of supplying cars – which could include riots and repressive measures – increase. Capitalism is based on private profit, not on overall social wellbeing.

2. The Possibility of Leisure   Surely productivity has reached the point that fine living standards could be achieved with four hours of work per day for healthy adults. But work and leisure are not evenly distributed, so some people work long hours, while others are unemployed. [This is covering ground that Russell explored in the titular essay of In Praise of Idleness; he acknowledges this connection in an initial footnote on page 98.] Despite the unemployment, average working hours now exceed four hours, indicating that some time is wasted or is utilized to produce goods beyond the necessities and “simple comforts [p. 99]” that comprise a reasonable living standard. The waste is prodigal: advertising and marketing, the excess capacity resulting from private enterprise, trade restrictions inspired by nationalism that prevent goods from being produced in the lowest-cost fashion or location. “Then there is the waste involved in armaments, and in military training, which involves the whole male population wherever there is compulsory military service [p. 100].” In our current economic organization, a reduction in such waste would have the paradoxical effect of worsening the lot of the working class. [Russell’s point provides a faint echo of Mandeville.]

3. Economic Insecurity   Most people in today’s society have good reason to fear that they will become destitute -- if they are not already destitute. This pervading terror undermines happiness and stokes societal madness. The security that is at the root of most interest in wealth is unavailable, leading to a sort of recklessness in decisionmaking. “Economic security would do more to increase the happiness of civilised communities than any other change that can be imagined, except the prevention of war [p. 101].” People can be required to work if that is socially needed, but they should not be punished economically for an undersupply of jobs. Financial security with job retraining for those whose professions see reduced demand might mean that the pay of the highest earners is reduced, but it would be worth that cost. Few people work out of hope for an outsized economic windfall. [Russell noted in 1919 that most people would be happier working than by receiving the same wages without working.] Honor can be a significant motivator, and could be more socially useful if honors were distributed in ways that mirrored social benefits better than financial returns now do. The desire for success generally promotes the social good; the desire for huge wealth no more conduces to societal wellbeing than do other forms of gluttony.

4. The Unemployed Rich   Many rich people are quite idle, and though they are unsophisticated, they and their bad taste often control the production of cultural goods. Art could do better under socialism than under this form of capitalism. [Russell devoted a chapter of his 1919 book Proposed Roads to Freedom to creative endeavor under socialism.] The idle rich also provide the customers for innumerable and unnecessary small shops, all selling the same items in a desultory exchange which is a waste of everyone’s time. All of the retainers catering to the perceived needs of the idle rich suffer moral and intellectual harm from their economic dependence upon foolish wealthy people.

5. Education   Access to higher education is typically available only to the well-to-do, so much talent is wasted. State dominance in the education sphere assures that ideas that are not supportive of the status quo will be suppressed. [Shades here of Russell’s Education and the Good Life. ] It will require a socialist regime secure in its power to remedy these longstanding defects of the education system.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Six

“Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism,” pages 82-90

I [Russell] do not subscribe to the notion that one must, in effect, be a supporter of communism or a supporter of fascism: I am opposed to both.

First, I’ll provide eight reasons for not supporting Third International-style communism. (1) I see no reason to be convinced by either Marx’s or Lenin’s philosophy. History lacks a dialectical determinant, contra Marx and Hegel. (2) Marx’s economics is a hodgepodge designed to make classical political economy support Marxian politics. (3) A scientific outlook precludes regarding any thinker as infallible or any text as sacred. (4) The undemocratic nature of communism assures a tyranny by the powerful – in this case, the all-powerful state. Marx recognizes the potential for tyranny by all forms of government except communism. (5) The joining of political to economic control under communism would stifle individual liberty. Unpopular ideas, which are the source of progress, would be squelched by communist bureaucrats. (6) Marxism divides the world along class lines, being antagonistic to white-collar workers while glorifying manual workers. (7) The focus on the class war is likely to lead to a real war, with catastrophic consequences. Friends of socialism should aim for gradual persuasion, not military conquest. (8) Hate is a major driving force of Marxism and communism, and it will result in severe oppression by Marxists in power. [Russell’s critique of Marx and communism in In Praise of Idleness echoes many other Russellian writings on this theme.]

I [Russell] share many of the ends of communism, but oppose the means; for fascism, I object to both the means and the end. Though there are various strains of fascism, and more are evolving, they share some central elements. Fascism “is anti-democratic, it is nationalistic, it is capitalistic, and it appeals to those sections of the middle class which suffer through modern developments and expect to suffer still more if Socialism or Communism becomes established [p. 85].” (The theoretical version of communism also is anti-democratic, but only temporarily, and aims to promote the wellbeing of wage earners, a label which eventually is intended to include everyone.) Fascism is not interested in the general welfare; rather, it concentrates on favored groups which are deemed to be superior. The unfavored will be forced into serfdom, serving their masters. It can be hoped that fascism will provide a well-organized prison for the non-elect, but that is the extent of rational expectation. The economic planning that fascism took from the socialists is aimed to improve the welfare only of the favored folks – which in Germany and Italy, are the already dominant economic classes.

The focus on an elect within Fascist ideology is a throwback to a pre-Christian, pre-democratic era, when not all people were created equal, and the purpose of the unwashed was to promote the grandeur of the special classes.

Fascism in power would exacerbate the worst features of capitalism. The lower classes would barely receive subsistence wages, and effectively would be slaves. This is the outcome under dictatorship (as in Russia) or under a capitalism unconstrained by democracy. But fascism in power is a short-run phenomenon, as the focus on heavy industry turns into a prelude to war. The war will be highly destructive, and fascism will be one of its casualties.

Fascism cannot be said to represent a coherent body of thought. Its appeal is to the emotions of small shopkeepers and others whose interests in the modern world are under threat, as well as to the hunger for power of some wealthy industrialists. Its irrationality lies in its inability to actually serve the long-term interests of those whom it aims to help, though it does provide some short-term psychological comfort.

Ensconced traditions of representative government offer Britain and the US some inoculation against fascism; France perhaps is more at risk, especially under wartime conditions.

Commonalities in communism and fascism admit for common, and telling, objections. Both isms involve a small group of people trying to shape the whole population into a preconceived plan, to be cogs in the machine that the creators find so enticing. [Shades here of Adam Smith’s “man of system” treating humans as if they were chess pieces fit to be moved at the player’s behest, without regard to the humans’ own preferences – RBR.] People who do not readily enough fit the plan are disposed of. Such policies are both unethical, and, in the long run, unsuccessful.

As with plants, humans can be sheared into topiary-type designs – but the human subjects are not as passive as the plants. [Here Russell echoes his godfather John Stuart Mill.] One type of action for the trimmed man might be to learn the trade of the shearer, and to take up the shears himself, for those lower in the hierarchy. Pruning leads to such cruelty when it does not lead to listlessness. “And from a population with these characteristics no good thing is to be expected [p. 89].” [Compare with Mill’s On Liberty, just at the end: “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.” Reading Bertrand Russell has found occasion to cite this passage in the past.] 

The dictatorial powers at the disposal of a fascist or communist state, combined with the theoretical necessity to suppress the subordinate elements of society, imply that a cruel tyrant will hold the reins. Someone with a humanitarian outlook will not survive the competition for control, or will have to forcibly override his own gentler inclinations. Any good intentions that may have accompanied the original path to power will eventually be lost, replaced with the need to maintain power.

The appeal of machinery makes it easy to view society in mechanical terms, with parts, not people, and where the controllers have a sort of omnipotent status. But unlike machines, humans themselves alter under treatment, whether they are the controlled or the controlling. The resulting uncertainty about the long-term effects of manipulation makes it unwise to invest control in a dictator. “The ultimate psychological argument for democracy and for patience is that an element of free growth, of go as you please and untrained natural living, is essential if men are not to become misshapen monsters [p. 90].” Fascism and communism are not the only choices, and certainly not desirable choices, as democracy remains a viable and preferred alternative. It is only the belief that fascism and communism exhaust the options that could make it so.