George Scialabba reviews, G. A Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? in the process running through the standard arguments against Socialist societies:
Fine, skeptics will say, gifted people may not need extra incentives to work hard, but what about slackers and schlubs – i.e., the great majority of us? As conservatives’ horror stories of union featherbedding demonstrate, job security brings out the worst in many people. (Political theorists will recognize this as the celebrated “collective action problem.”) Here, Cohen acknowledges, is the rub. Is there enough virtue in the world – generosity, honor, patience – to make socialism feasible? Not any time soon, of course; the millennia of scarcity and greed have scarred us deeply. But in the imaginable future? Or is there an evolutionary equivalent of original sin, an irreducible minimum of radical evil in human nature that must rule out socialism in aeternum?
Anyone who offers a confident answer to that question is either a blithe utopian or (much more likely) an apologist for the capitalist status quo. Anthropology, biology, and evolutionary psychology are currently in ferment over the question of how deep are the evolutionary roots of cooperation and competition. A priori dismissal of the possibility of socialism is evidence of ignorance or bad faith.
Mercifully, my answer to that question isn’t a confident one, so I guess I escape the apologist tag. Nevertheless, the essence of my scepticism of socialism does stem from exactly this pessimism of human nature. I am inclined (that not by any means fully confident) that evolution has provided us with a strong tendency towards self-interest (via-self preservation) and that this tendency, while not the sum total of our existence, is enough to render the large scale collective action required for utopian-socialism impossible.
In addition that, even if socialism could work, I’ve no idea how we’d get there from here, given that elites would inevitably resist, and given that violent revolution seems to destroy utopia in utero.
But I hope I’m wrong. Ethically, I’m definitely a socialist of sorts. And, in the not to distant future I think it likely that capitalism’s solution to the problem of inequality – raising absolute levels of wealth through growth – is going to crash heavily into environmental limits. For these reasons, having some sort of alternative, some sort of escape route, seems not only desirable, but also essential. I’m just not at all confident we humans can find it…
BTW: if you like book reviews George Scialabba’s website is a treasure trove. And I can’t recommend his book ‘What Are Intellectuals Good For?’ enough.