The first of these arguments is a fun one. The "socialism is dead" right-wing meme was important just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had a lot to do with the invention of the Third Way, largely shepherded by Anthony Giddens, and with the thesis argued by Francis Fukuyama, that world society was headed toward universal liberal (capitalist) democracy. Only Fukuyama never explained in his book why the "democracy" part was necessary. Why not just skip the public, and get on with the trumphalism? One can pick out Fukuyama's desires by his depiction of the realm of the possible.
The idea of this and my past two diaries (1) and (2) is that dismissals of socialism are generally right-wing memes -- that if we can't have socialism, regarded here in its dictionary sense as public control of the means of production, then (it is implied) we must be satisfied with plutocracy, which is the likely end-result of competition between firms in a capitalist economy (especially given current levels of corporate welfare). Or maybe it's that old standard, the "well-regulated capitalism" that is currently the province of those with money and connections, with which we must all be satisfied. We all have money and connections, right? Have you bought access to your Congressmember yet, to enact the reform of your choice?
Here I hope to establish, au contraire, that socialism is something we ought to want to have. And if we ought to want to have it, then we ought to try to find some way of making it work for us once we get it. Arguments that socialism won't work are not out of the question, however, because it's by dialectic and debate that we sharpen our notions of socialism, making it stronger. Such arguments tend to fall into two categories: 1) Socialism won't work because it's completely out of reach or because it's evil or whatever -- because, as Margaret Thatcher argued, "there is no alternative" to (neoliberal) capitalism, and 2) socialism won't work because it's impractical.
Arguments of category 2) typically suggest practical barriers to socialism -- for instance, one might argue that democracy requires a political class, a class of politicians, because direct democracy is impossible in groups larger than a certain amount. And so the political class will end up being a substitute for the public which would otherwise control the means of production. Practical barriers to socialism constitute practical problems -- and so you have ideas such as participatory economics, which are attempts to get around the practical problems faced by the public as it would attempt to make socialism a reality.
Generally speaking, practical problems are problems which can be framed so as to admit of a solution. "If man were to fly he'd have wings" was one way of denying the possibility of human flight, but there were plenty of people who, from the Renaissance onward, thought of ways of putting wings on people, and then you had Orville and Wilbur Wright, who no doubt built upon a good number of previous inventors who also imagined the matter of building a successful airplane as a practical problem. I can easily imagine socialism as presenting similarly inventor-like challenges to those faced by earlier dreamers of airplanes -- once we can get behind the idea that socialism is something we want to invent.
In this vein, there's also the "the USSR is dead so where's the socialist culture going to start?" argument. In this regard I think the process has been largely begun by organizations such as the MST in Brazil, the Zapatistas, and the "misiones" in Venezuela, under the banner of "21st-century socialism." In that regard "socialism is dead" is what rich folks tell everyone when that common human ability to dream has gotten out of bounds.
Arguments of category 1), however, are typically made by people who have a stake in the existing order. This is the "socialism is against human nature" category. People who argue stuff in category 1) want to put down socialism without making the socialists any stronger. Such people are like conversational capitalists -- they want to establish their own private control over, and ownership of, the means of argument. They argue stuff like "socialism is impossible because it's against human nature so shut up about it" or something like that. These arguments are somewhat odd-sounding when combined with the "omigod the Soviet Union" argument. So the Russians spent seventy-odd years in contravention of human nature? Wow. Someone ought to tell the Cubans.
I think the most popular of these arguments begins something like this: "it is human nature to be greedy." This can be taken two ways. The first is that it's actually an argument for socialism. Rather than only the top 1% of human society being allowed exclusive development of their natural greed, everyone gets to be greedy under socialism, and so socialism is better for human nature than capitalism. The second would be that almost everyone must deny their human nature so that human nature can be gifted to a select few. All those alpha males, living and dying through the 200,000 year record of human existence -- tragically denied the right to be Gordon Gekko:
Sad, when you think about it.
Let's just say that it's human nature to be malleable. All sorts of human impulses can be pushed around by culture, including the definition of "greed" -- if we assume that it's "human nature to be greedy," and we want to explain real-life socialism, why, we just change the definition of "greed." Problem solved!
In that vein, I guess we can be greedy about a number of things. We can be greedy for sex, or food, or candy, or alcohol and other drugs, or wealth, or power, or maybe even socialism. Maybe we could all get greedy, really greedy, for socialism. What happens then?
why is this stuff important?
As we know now, the challenges of our future are quite daunting from today's perspectives. In real life, continued operation of the capitalist system is going to bring us global warming hell. Eric Schechter outlines the primary challenge of this era amusingly, in his essay The Root Problem: "We need a revolution, and soon, and it must be the right kind of revolution". Big tall order.
But the problem I've been outlining in real life isn't about real life, strictly speaking -- the folks who write global warming diaries here can tell you about that, or you can just watch David Roberts' video -- but it's about the life of the mind. The conceptual framework for the mental problem under scrutiny here is easily explained in terms of the early psychology of Sigmund Freud, up to and including Freud's (1920) work Beyond The Pleasure Principle. In Freud's scheme, there are two main forces operating in the mind (and this is before we read of the "death drive" and the "uberich" and so on). There was the pleasure principle, the libido, which sought pleasure in the ways once detailed by Jeremy Bentham, and then there was the reality principle, which told the psyche to cool off because pleasure is not immediate, but gained through strategies. Freud, from Beyond The Pleasure Principle:
Under the influence of the ego's instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle. This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure. (p. 26)So that's the procedure. Our pleasure principles tell us "pleasure! pleasure!" but our reality principles tell us "no, you must follow the rules outlined by all the stuff in your heads before you can have pleasure." So that's what all these arguments against socialism are about. We can tell ourselves all we want that global warming is going to do us in. But the real problem here is that internalized rules, which condition us to follow the "continued operation of the capitalist system," still have a hold on our society's reality principle. This is why we do not just "go for" socialism.
Now I suppose we could try to counter this problem by cultivating the socialist ego (within society), and by developing a socialist reality principle that will solve our society's problems. All these folks with their knickers in a bunch about "socialism," with all their arguments about "socialism is dead" and "socialism is against human nature" would seem to indicate themselves that there's a socialist ego out there to be cultivated. How could socialism possibly be dead, or against human nature, if they're so concerned to keep killing it off?