Sunday, December 25, 2016

Socialism and morality

Socialism is the notion that the material well-being of each member of society is the collective responsibility of all the members. We collectively see to people's material needs because we must.

In this sense, even a thoroughly capitalist society such as the United States can be partly socialist: to the extent that we take some responsibility for some material needs of some people, we are partly socialistic. So, yes, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc. are socialistic.

The opposite of socialism is autonomism, i.e. that no member of society has a responsibility for the material well-being of any other member of society. Autonomists can certainly be charitable, but individual acts of charity are voluntary, not a matter of duty.

There's no objective truth as to whether a society should be socialistic or autonomism, or to what degree. It's a matter of what the members of a society want, with the understanding that peoples' desires and social institutions are in a dialectical relationship — each shapes the other — and all are historically contingent. So, in addition to person-to-person persuasion, autonomists try to shape social institutions to encourage people to want autonomism, and socialists try to shape social institutions to encourage socialism. Additionally, there is always reality to contend with: neither socialism nor autonomism are objectively true, but both have objective consequences, and people have preferences about those consequences.

Marx argued not only that capitalism would have disastrous economic consequences, but that capitalist autonomism would have disastrous effects — which he labeled as alienation — on people's personal, social, and moral psychology.

People have been making moral distinctions since the beginning of time; most social mammals (and perhaps birds) probably make moral distinctions. And, while I'm not an anthropologist, there are some hints that even pre-agricultural human societies struggled with a dialectic between moral distinctions and wealth (in the broadest sense of economic power). When there was no storable surplus, reality imposed strong constraints on the connection, and my very cursory studies suggest that the need for collective solidarity entailed that moral worth and wealth were only weakly connected if at all.

Regardless of what happened ten thousand years ago, it is true today that moral worth and wealth are strongly connected: poor means bad, not-poor means good, and rich means awesome. Capitalism did not invent this connection. Adam Smith saw it even at the dawn of capitalism:
To superficial minds, the vices of the great seem at all times agreeable. They connect them, not only with the splendour of fortune, but with many superior virtues, which they ascribe to their superiors; with the spirit of freedom and independency, with frankness, generosity, humanity, and politeness. The virtues of the inferior ranks of people, on the contrary, their parsimonious frugality, their painful industry, and rigid adherence to rules, seem to them mean and disagreeable. They connect them, both with the meanness of the station to which those qualities commonly belong, and with many great vices, which, they suppose, usually accompany them; such as an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition.
Smith would probably be aghast that his name is connected to a political system that is today so contrary to his morality.

If people believe that that poverty is vice and wealth is virtue, then it is of course completely absurd to adopt a collective responsibility for the material well-being of the poor. To take from the rich and give to the poor is to punish virtue and reward vice. The concept is not merely nonsense, it undermines the very foundation of morality.

Although the connection between wealth and morality is strong, our actual moral beliefs are not so simplistic. When wealth and other notions of virtue and vice are no longer connected, when the possession of wealth is not seen as legitimately connected with virtue, and the lack of wealth is no longer seen as legitimately connected to vice, then social instability inevitably follows. And that is the current situation.

Never mind the electoral college and Republican gerrymandering; in a politically stable society, Donald Trump would never have gotten close enough for these technicalities to matter. What does matter is the connection between wealth and virtue has become disconnected. Specifically, Trump voters, I think, hold four important beliefs:
  1. People who are wealthy because of business are virtuous. Hence, despite his egregious vices, Donald Trump, wealthy because of business, is fundamentally virtuous.
  2. The white, non-urban working class believes itself virtuous, and yet has become poor.
  3. The white, non-urban working class believes that they have become poor because the vicious urban poor is stealing its wealth.
  4. The professional-managerial class is not virtuous, and deserves neither wealth nor political power, precisely because they are stealing the wealth of the white non-urban working class and giving it to the vicious urban poor.

These beliefs have traction because of the class struggle between the capitalist class and the professional-managerial class, and in no small part because the professional class threw away all its advantages: they did not have the will to destroy the capitalist class as a class. (The history of the last 80 years decisively proves that a dialect between the capitalist and professional classes cannot stabilize.) Enough capitalists want the kind of absolute power they had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (that gave us two world wars and the Great Depression), and the capitalists who see the theoretical value of the professional class have rightly abandoned the professional class because in practice the professionals are incompetent. And, of course, the professional class must be incompetent; to be competent, they would have to destroy the capitalist class, and they will not and cannot.

Donald Trump has finished what Ronald Reagan started: the utter destruction of the professional-managerial class as a ruling class, even as a ruling class wholly subservient to the capitalist classes. (In a truly brilliant exercise of propaganda, the capitalists have completely discredited the professionals by observing that the professionals are subservient to the capitalists. It worked because people don't like weakness.)

Getting back around to the main topic: the "good" capitalist/professionalist solution is to get wealth correlated to non-wealth perceptions of virtue. But trying to correlate wealth to virtue is, as history has shown, very difficult. Wealth always begets more wealth, and if some non-virtuous person manages to acquire wealth, he both lends his vices the imprimatur of wealth as virtue, and also acquires the power to gain more wealth.

As difficult as the task might be, socialists must transform the moral connection between wealth and virtue, at least to the extent that having more wealth than one's neighbor becomes as morally reprehensible as a person hoarding oxygen while his neighbor suffocates.

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