I presented Why Not Capitalism? at the College of New Jersey this past week. In the book, during a parody of G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, I describe what might happen if the anarcho-capitalist Mickey Mouse Clubhouse villagers suddenly started acted like real-world socialists. E.g.,
a. Donald decides to forcibly nationalize and control all of the farmland, murdering millions in the process, and causing a massive famine that murders tens of millions more. He uses terror tactics to assert his control…
b. Things do not go as well as Donald planned, and the other villagers begin to resist. Goofy stifles dissent by creating gulags in the coldest reaches of Disney World. Anyone he deems an enemy is sent to the gulag to be tortured and worked to death…
c. Mickey Mouse stifles free speech, crushes all political opposition, and installs himself for life as the Premier. He becomes increasingly paranoid. At one point, to assert his control, he murders nearly all members of the governing party…
In my parody, I show that some of Cohen’s complaints about capitalism work equally well or better as complaints about socialism. Here, e.g., I take Cohen’s criticisms of capitalist societies and just substitute some socialist societies.
In the USSR, Venezuela, or Cuba, cooperation is based largely on greed and fear. A person does not care fundamentally, within socialist interaction, about how well or badly anyone other than herself fares. They cooperate with other people not because they believe cooperating is a good thing in itself, not because they want all people to flourish, but because they seek to gain and they know that they can do so only if they cooperate with others, or because they worry they will be punished or murdered if they do not do as they are told. In the mutual provisioning of a socialist society, we are essentially indifferent to the fate of the farmer whose food we eat: there is little or no community, respect, or beneficence among us, as those values were articulated above. In this kind of system, what we tend to find is that the people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay.
During the Q and A, a faculty member in attendance (a literature professor, for what that’s worth), made something like the following objection:
The USSR, Cuba, Cambodia, were not socialist societies. Calling the Khmer Rouge socialist just seems crazy to me; it just seems like such a fantastic stretch to call them socialist. [I don’t remember his exact wording, but that was the gist.] These aren’t socialist societies, but totalitarian ones.
I don’t think you’re using the word “socialism” properly. “Socialism” just refers to collective ownership of the means of production. The USSR was not a nice or just socialist society, and it’s not the form of socialism any decent socialist would advocate today, but it was a form of socialism.
However, if you insist on saying that the USSR, Cambodia, China, etc., were not socialist because they don’t match the moral ideal of a socialist society, keep in mind that this same move is available to capitalists. If you complain about bad behavior or injustice you see in real-world commercial societies, I can just respond, “Oh, that’s not real capitalism, because that kind of thing would never happen in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village.”
Some socialists–including Gerald Cohen at times–try to define socialism in terms of values or moral principles instead of terms of institutions. But that’s bad lexicography:
We must be careful not to equate socialism with moral virtue or community spirit. Capitalism and socialism are simply ways of organizing the ownership of property. In capitalism, individuals may own the means of production. In socialism, they may not—the means of production are owned collectively (or by the representative of the collective, such as the State). Socialism is not love or kindness or generosity or oceans of delicious lemonade. Socialism is not equality or community. It’s just a way of distributing the control rights over objects.
Cohen asserts that capitalism runs on greed and fear. Yet Cohen cannot simply assert this as a conceptual claim. Capitalism is not analytically tied to greed and fear. Whether a regime is capitalist or not has nothing to do with people’s motives. A fearless, greedless capitalist society—like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village—is no less capitalist than a fearful, greedy capitalist society—like Denmark or Switzerland. A social system is capitalist to the extent that it has private property in the means of production, decisions about the use of property are made by owners rather than by governments or society at large, people may make contracts as they please, legal monopolies and subsidies are absent, and so on.
So, if Cohen had said, “By ‘capitalism’, I just mean a predatory system of greed and fear,” that would be no stronger a condemnation of market societies than if Adam Smith said, “By ‘socialism’, I just mean a system of bloodthirsty dictators who starve and slaughter peasants.” We cannot just decide to insert evil motivations into the very definition of capitalism in order to argue that capitalism is evil. That would be both bad philosophy and bad lexicography.
Cohen would respond, I suspect, that we can imagine capitalist economies free of predation, greed, and fear, but real capitalist economies are not free of greed and fear. He would be right. Yet, a defender of capitalism could retort that we can also imagine socialist economies free of greed and fear, but real socialist economies are not free of predation, greed, and fear. Quite the contrary.