Monthly Archives: January 2008

Socialism and altruism (or, the “human nature” argument against socialism)

[Response to reader.]

Kevin Baker writes:

How anyone can still support Marxism is beyond me. For Marxism to work, 95% or more of the population must be exceptionally altruistic – and the Bell curve simply doesn’t support that.

Assuming by “Marxism” Baker means some variety of socialism, the claim can be considered on two levels:

(a) Certainly, socialism should require no special degrees of “altruis[m]” to get going. This system will come into birth, if it does, for the same reason every other economic system has already come into birth—because people (in this case, workers) want stuff they don’t have.[1] Qualitatively speaking, nothing apart from the same basic parcel of incentives and emotions that impel workers to make labor strikes now will, nor need, come into play.

(b) Nor should people be required to be especially “nice” or charitable to one another in order to maintain a socialist distribution of wealth, once it is put into place. This, again, no more than our capitalist distribution of wealth rests primarily on the selfless generosity of people who would otherwise upset it: I might be a sweet and generous guy, but those qualities aren’t the reason I don’t take over the shop in which I work. Rather, it is because someone else has a title to it—a broadly recognized, binding, enforceable interest in it—which makes such behavior unfeasible under normal conditions.

To elaborate: Under socialism, workers will retain a real title to the big means of production—factories, productive land—that is every bit as solid as the title capitalists have to theirs now. (It will still be property, it just won’t be private property.¹) On the surface, this title, like all titles, amounts to a legal relationship, something I can point to when I call the cops on a usurper. But it is bound up with far more: Wealth distributions of any systemic “type” are maintained because they are also associated with distributions of real power which make alternatives—again, normally—impracticable. (The legal or quasi-legal framework—the “broadly recognized” aspect of the title—largely emerges to ratify these “deeper” realities.)

It would be just as impracticable under socialism as capitalism for one worker overtake his factory, cut the labor payroll, and start ordering around his former coworkers. Think about it. The workers are simply in a position to stop such a move which would be clearly not in their interest. (They could invoke the law and call the cops if they like, but if they chuckled and ignored the guy instead, he’s still not getting the factory.) Any feasible effort of this kind would require a grand counter-revolution on a scale that would be long seen coming and marshaled against. (A counter-revolution is a genuine possibility, of course, but again, this is a problem for any economic system, not somehow special to socialism. And none of it has a damned thing to do with “altruism.”)

In brief, the system is of a kind which just doesn’t facilitate such actions. But the constraints go deeper still: We might say: Not only is it hard to upset the egalitarian distribution of wealth, but the system is set up in such a way that makes it likely that there is such a thing to be upset in the first place. That is, once in place, socialism will bear its own new, real economic structures which in the normal, unreflective unfolding of economic life prejudice certain kinds of distributions over others, every bit as much as capitalist structures prejudice capitalist distributions and feudal structures prejudice feudal ones. (In an obvious sense, an economic system just is a network of constraints on alternatives to itself.) As “structural,” these tendencies maintain entirely apart from the personal desires (or, Mr. Baker, the moral inclinations) of individuals acting within these structures, or the legal framework set up to constrain these desires.

Like many of its critics, Mr. Baker seems of the view that socialism (“Marxism”) is fundamentally about equality in levels of personal consumption. While socialist views do tend to be highly correlated with concern for this kind of equality, that concern isn’t essential to socialism itself. We can readily imagine a socialism which generated differential wealth among its citizens just as well as capitalism, with a socialist citizenry lacking in political will to redistribute it equally, or perhaps even welcoming the discrepancies as part of a work-leisure tradeoff. (Conversely, we can conceive of a capitalism which massively—in theory, even perfectly—redistributes income in an egalitarian way.)

Granted, too, socialism would remove the most significant mechanism driving very severe and problematic inequality in the present system—namely, privatization of the returns on social investment; and so a more egalitarian distribution is probably inevitable under socialism. (That is, there will be less to redistribute in the first place, if that is the concern.) But socialists as socialists are not overly concerned with economic “equality” per se.

Rather, socialism is concerned with gross inequalities in one specific type of wealth: those factories, productive land, and other “big” means of producing consumer goods. This is more a matter of “what kind” of thing rather than “how much” of it. It is this privatized quality of production that allows capitalists—a minority social group—to direct social investment for everyone, and which makes the economy operate “naturally” in their basic favor no matter how they “direct” things. (These two factors are what Marx probably means when he speaks of a “ruling class” of capitalists.) The fact that there are a global multiplicity of private producers mandates that they compete with one another, and it is this dynamic which ultimately renders the rest of social reality subject to the imperatives of capital accumulation—something socialists see as having a deleterious effect on society. (This is not the place to argue the validity of these socialist concerns, but that, right or wrong, these concerns have, contra Baker, little to do with some people having more “stuff” than others.)

In any case, it is unclear how, under socialism (as under capitalism in its normal, working order), very obscene, problematic inequalities in any kind of wealth could occur in the absence of private ownership (or otherwise effective control) of the means of production. It is not even clear what, under socialism, one would do with great differential wealth if he had it: Very few people want, for example, 10,000 toothbrushes or pairs of shoes; and no market would exist for dreamy luxury items such as only grossly differential wealth can attain. Factories and large landholdings simply aren’t for sale, nor the raw materials to construct them from the ground up. (Nor are there financial markets in which to speculate about others’ property.) One couldn’t maintain a payroll of workers if labor isn’t a commodity, and private factories are of no use anyway when no market (as we know it) exists to profitably unload whatever is produced in it. Workers would have no interest in selling their means of production—assuming this were legal—as no individual or sub-group could accumulate enough wealth (at least matching the salaries of all the workers calculated through retirement) to make them a desirable offer. Even if the means of production were for sale, banks wouldn’t loan the sums of money needed to invest in or build them, nor loans of any amount for that purpose.

Not only, then, does a socialist organization of production soften the blow of inequality—assuming socialists should give a damn—but it makes it so that only distributions which are relatively egalitarian in the first place will be allowed to emerge. The system is inherently prejudiced toward these distributions in just the way that the capitalist system is prejudiced against them. Contra Baker, this tendency doesn’t depend on folksy generosity or massive and constant redistributive state interference in economic life. So something like the opposite of his conjecture is the case: It is not that socialism doesn’t “work” because people aren’t good; rather, its is that people need socialism—its structural constraints—because they are, indeed, capable of being so bad.


[1] Though not every title amounts to property; property is only one example of the general type.

[2] I mean “want stuff” in the broadest sense. My point is that such struggles are not fundamentally about ‘self-denial’ of anything. They are actions in the (perceived) interest of the actors themselves.

Appendix: On Altruism in General

Genuine altruism is inescapably immoral. There is no reason why discounting my own interests should be more morally wholesome than discounting someone else’s interests. For I am somebody, no less than they. Of course, there may be good reasons for self-denial in the service of others: I might be stronger and more capable of doing without or bearing the harder load. But “being me” is not the justification for this behavior; rather, it is “being the stronger person, who happens to be me.” This does not amount to genuine altruism, but rather economic use of resources. (If I am twice as strong as you, and carry twice as much, we just break even. Things “balance.”) And this decision would come after fair consideration of all interests affected—counting one’s own interests alongside those of the others, even if, precisely because of the consideration, it comes to be determined that it should be subordinated to some greater interest whose fulfillment is incompatible with that of our own.