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.

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