The Perils of Socialism

19/09/2011

The rejection of the realities of socialism does not imply unreserved approval of our own way of life; quite the contrary. For good or ill Marxism is a vital part of our cultural heritage, and we should watch and learn from this vast social experiment in which an explicit and in many ways seductive rule system was applied without any consideration for traditional values. A sober analysis will disclose familiar features of our Western culture in its reckless efforts to solve the equation of human coexistence once and for all. Criticism of Communism, fascism and suchlike is always cultural self-criticism.

Max Weber was the first to perceive the link between political freedom and a free economy but the most convincing presentation of this case can be ascribed to Friedrich von Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944). The widely differing cover stories of fascism and socialism conceal an identical collectivist core: contempt for individual liberty and disgust with democracy. Hayek concludes with an almost clairvoyant conception of a liberal and decentralized Community of European nations. Politics has been defined as the art of preventing people from interfering in their own affairs. In socialist countries existence tends to become totally politicized, and it is of the very essence of democracy that government intervention in the private sphere is kept to a minimum. Everyone should have the inalienable right to get unhappy in his own inexplicable way.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) has the following to say (in Democracy in America) about the ability of a future democratic society to repress its citizens and to demote them to dependent serfs: “The power of the state is absolute, detailed, regular, considerate and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood… the government provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

de Tocqueville blames the principle of equality, which we already have marked as an obstacle on the road to social development. If equality is not balanced with freedom and cooperation with competition, even a democratic society stagnates and crumbles.
 

Primitive solidarity

Primitive societies exhibit a heavy and suffocating superstructure, a complex web of ritual rules in marked contrast to the harsh game of pure economics. The fruits of individual effort generally belong to the extended family, if not to the whole tribe. In the less developed countries, a prosperous man easily falls victim to this archetypal group solidarity; a horde of ‘distant relatives’ suddenly descends on him demanding a slice of the common cake. In imitation of Pierre Proudhon (1809–65), one of the the fathers of anarchism, they contend that clinging to personal property is equal to theft.

In primitive tribal communities anyone was allowed to claim a desired object, but the claimant then had to assume a reciprocal commitment. Our deep-rooted egalitarian reflexes cry out against significant differences in income and property. The upshot has been the surreptitious socialization of personal responsibility which is advancing in all democracies with Sweden in the van.

The wantok system in Papua New Guinea exemplifies the streamlined social security of a tribal society, as well as its shortcomings in an imposed national state. Wantok is Pidgin English for “one talk” viz. the same language. A wantok is a kinsman who is obliged to help a poor relative after “one talk” − a complementary interpretation of wantok. A civil servant is not only bound to give preference to his wantoks; he is also expected to steal or embezzle to supply their needs. On payday a wage earner is pestered by work-shy relatives who insist on their share.
 

Genetic encumbrance

Technological progress accompanied by a general increase in prosperity has never been an automatic or continuous process because it inevitably comes up against deep-seated genetic blockages. The economic stagnation in former high cultures can hardly be blamed on some external cause such as the exhaustion of natural resources; the carriers of culture probably lost their way in a maze of social and political conflict. The economy imitates nature; it is always in dynamic, praxeological balance, and unless we are capable of actively advancing the game it will slide back under the weight of very natural human indolence and ruthlessness, ill will and spite.

In repressive societies, the lack of economic self-regulation necessitates bureaucratic intervention at every stage. Soviet socialism succumbed to an ever-increasing complexity of decision-making, which made for delays upon delays until the economy was approaching rigor mortis. Similar mechanisms can be blamed for the rigidity and downfall of many ancient, over-centralized states. Typically, the elite channeled disproportionate investment into imposing building projects. The pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer and Babylonia, the great wall of China and the temples of the Mayas all served the self-justification of the ruling nomenclatura – repression by monuments.

The division of labor through free commerce involves a rational and self-organizing interplay between people, reaching far beyond the instinctive and genetically rooted norms of the kin group. The rules of the game are and must be different from those in the family, the parish or the political party. Thus, the coldly calculating undertone of business transactions is in constant conflict with ingrained epigenetic directives.

Unfortunately, economic efficiency seems to presuppose a certain amount of inequity in the community; the prevailing inequality is one of the prime movers of the market economy. A clear and realistic formulation of the overriding political goals is therefore needed before we can design rational mechanisms for meddling with the outcome of the economic game. This is easier said than done. Private ownership and tribal solidarity are in perpetual conflict in our minds. Our extended prehistory has imprinted communal sharing on the human mind. This epigenetic rule is in permanent conflict with the accumulation of private property – at heart we are all socialists.