Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies

I’ve easily read a hundred books on the evils of socialism.  I was quite surprised, then, by how much I learned from Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, available for free download.  Yes, I already knew that socialist regimes go through a popularity sequence, starting at “This socialist regime is a model for the world” and ending with “That’s not real socialism.”  Niemietz, however, describes this sequence with great precision and eloquence:

1. The honeymoon period

The first stage is a honeymoon period, during which the experiment has, or at least seems to have, some initial success in some areas. During this period, its international standing is relatively high. Even anti-socialists concede, grudgingly, that the country in question has something to show for it.

During the honeymoon period, very few dispute the experiment’s socialist character; almost nobody claims that the country is not ‘really’ socialist. On the contrary: during the honeymoon period, large numbers of Western intellectuals enthusiastically embrace the experiment. Self-declared socialists claim ownership of it, and parade it as an example of their ideas in action.

2. The excuses-and-whataboutery period

But the honeymoon period never lasts forever. The country’s luck either comes to an end, or its already existing failures become more widely known in the West. As a result, its international standing deteriorates. It ceases to be an example that socialists hold against their opponents, and becomes an example that their opponents hold against them.

During this period, Western intellectuals still support the experiment, but their tone becomes angry and defensive. The focus changes from the experiment’s supposed achievements to the supposed ulterior motives of its critics. There is a frantic search for excuses, with the blame usually placed on imaginary ‘saboteurs’ and unspecified attempts to ‘undermine’ it. There is plenty of whataboutery.

3. The not-real-socialism stage

Eventually, there always comes a point when the experiment has been widely discredited, and is seen as a failure by most of the general public. The experiment becomes a liability for the socialist cause, and an embarrassment for Western socialists.

This is the stage when intellectuals begin to dispute the experiment’s socialist credentials, and, crucially, they do so with retroactive effect. They argue that the country was never socialist in the first place, and that its leaders never even tried to implement socialism. This is the deeper meaning behind the old adage that ‘real’ socialism has never been tried: socialism gets retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’ whenever it fails. So it has never been tried, in the same way in which, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the government of Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

This is not a conscious process, let alone a purposefully orchestrated one. There is no equivalent of an industrial standards body, which awards a ‘real socialism’ certificate of authenticity, and then withdraws it again with retroactive effect. Socialists do not hold clandestine conferences in secret hideouts; they do not deliberately cover up their former support for the regime in question. They simply fall silent on the issue, and move on to the next cause.

At some point, the claim that the country in question was never ‘really’ socialist becomes the conventional wisdom. Since it is only the opponents of socialism who still refer to that example, while socialists themselves no longer do, it is easy to gain the impression that it must be a straw man argument. This book will show that these alleged ‘straw men’ were all once very much alive. They are not straw men at all. They are the failed utopias of yesteryear.

In short:

The not-real-socialism defence is only ever invoked retrospectively, namely, when a socialist experiment has already been widely discredited. As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody disputes its socialist credentials. On the contrary: practically all socialist regimes have gone through honeymoon periods, during which they were enthusiastically praised and held up as role models by plenty of prominent Western intellectuals. It is only after the event (i.e. once they have become an embarrassment for the socialist cause) that their version of socialism is retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’.

Niemietz then provides long list of case studies of self-labelled socialist regimes.  The two biggest examples – Soviet Union and Maoist China – fit his sequence to a tee.  So do North Korea, Cambodia, Albania, and Venezuela.  The chapter on the latter was especially eye-opening for me.  Choice passages:

Chávez defined his version of socialism explicitly in opposition to previous models. This was not empty rhetoric. Under Chavismo, there were genuine attempts to create alternative models of collective ownership
and democratic participation in economic life. In particular, the formation of worker cooperatives and various forms of social enterprises was heavily promoted. Exact figures are hard to come by, but, according to Piñeiro Harnecker (2009: 309), the number of worker-run cooperatives increased from fewer than 1,000 when Chávez was first elected to well over 30,000 in less than a decade. By the end of Chávez’s second term, cooperatives accounted for about 8 per cent of Venezuela’s GDP and 14 per cent of its workforce (ibid.).

Venezuelan socialism would later show many of the negative features associated with earlier forms of socialism, but it was never government policy to replicate any of those earlier models. When Western Chavistas insisted that the Venezuelan government was trying to create a different model of socialism, they were not deluding themselves.

At that point, the tone among Western Chavistas changed noticeably. Pro-Venezuela articles, which had so far tended to be hopeful and optimistic, became angry and defensive. The emphasis shifted from the supposed achievements of Chavismo to whataboutery, and to questioning the motives of Chavismo’s critics both in Venezuela and internationally.

In 2014, Owen Jones wrote an article for the Independent entitled ‘Socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, “We told you so”. But they are wrong’. Jones acknowledges the existence of ‘recent economic troubles’, but the emphasis of the article is on the problems of the pre-Chávez era (‘let’s have some context’), and on the violence committed by parts of the opposition. It culminated in the claim that ‘[t]hose who relish using Venezuela’s troubles for political point-scoring have no interest in the truth’.

Since this is a high-quality book, Niemietz searches for counter-examples to his own thesis, and identifies two.  Cuba doesn’t fit because after decades of tyranny, many socialists still admire it.  East Germany doesn’t fit because it never had much of a honeymoon period.  Overall, though, these are minor deviations.  The socialist big picture is at once bizarre and horrifying, especially as so many young people negligently convert to this once-dying creed.

P.S. This spring I’ll once again be debating “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” this time at the University of Wisconsin versus Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago.

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In Praise of Home Delivery Culture

Writing at Reason magazine, Liz Wolfe lauds home delivery culture — the increasing tendency of Americans to Netflix and chill while relying on Amazon Prime, Instacart, Grubhub, and other services to drop the goods we consume off on our front porches.

Wolfe nails some of the individual benefits, and beneficiaries, of this “late-stage capitalism” phenomenon. It allows working people to spend more of their limited “free” time with their families instead of trudging up and down store aisles. It eases the shopping problems and increases the options of the elderly and disabled.

But Wolfe doesn’t mention a couple of the biggest SOCIAL benefits: Delivery culture is also a huge potential boon for the environment and in terms of reduced infrastructure costs.

Fewer individual shoppers means fewer cars clogging the roads and filling store parking lots (in fact, given Wolfe’s inclusion of ride-sharing services like Uber, it may mean fewer cars, period).

Fewer individual shoppers also means less retail space to heat, cool, and light.

And those two things translate into three other things: Fewer greenhouse emissions, less money spent building and maintaining roads, and more land potentially left as “green space.”

One Amazon or Instacart delivery van bringing groceries to 20 households reduces the number of vehicles out on the road for that purpose, during that time frame, by 95%, and the number of total miles driven for those shopping needs by some smaller factor.

One Uber vehicle transporting ten individuals or parties per day means at least five fewer cars taking up parking spaces for hours at a time at the non-home ends of round trips.

And because those services are operated with an eye toward maximizing profit, the vehicles used are likely to be more fuel-efficient and better maintained than your jalopy, and the drivers are likely to choose the most efficient routes, reducing miles driven, wear and tear on roads, and overall emissions.

Much of the focus on home delivery culture, both positive and negative, is on lots and lots of stuff becoming more and more accessible. That’s true, and relevant, whether you’re a fan of consumer culture or bemoan it.

But home delivery culture also incentivizes businesses to do things that are good for all of us. And it does so through market mechanisms rather than through political haggling.

The iron laws of profit and loss are more reliable motivators of business behavior than public scolding or government regulation.

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David Friedman: A Consequentialist Theory of Anarcho-Capitalism (1h47m)

This episode features a lecture by economics professor David Friedman from 2013. He looks at anarcho-capitalist political theory from its consequences in the economy and to society. Purchase books by David Friedman on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (1h47m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Anarchist Colonization of Mars

I was on a recent episode of the Anarchy Bang podcast with the topic being Anarchist Colonization of Mars. Here are the pieces that I wrote for the intro and the editorial for this episode.


In 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published the science fiction novel “The Dispossessed”, which told the story of a movement of anarchists who collectively left an Earth-like planet to go colonize a Mars-like planet, establishing there a new society organized around their anarchist beliefs. In 1992 Kim Stanley Robinson published the science fiction novel “Red Mars”, the first book of his “Mars Trilogy”, which told the story of people colonizing the planet Mars, including a number of explicitly anarchist groups, who then go on to become independent from the various authorities on Earth.

Then last Saturday, September 28th, Elon Musk held a press conference where he introduced the world to the “Starship” vehicle that he intends to use to send humans to Mars to begin the process of colonizing that planet. Musk’s company, SpaceX, has already shown the world that reusable rockets which are capable of going out into space can be made, and that a private company can make them. Prior to this only single-use rockets were made for space travel, and government agencies were seen as the only organizations capable of going out into space.

Taking inspiration from all of this, the question here becomes: How about we build some real-life anarchist colonies on Mars? Our current planet is fucked, in all kinds of different ways, so how about those of us who yearn for a completely different world go set up shop on a completely different world? How about we turn “the Red Planet” into “the Red & Black Planet”? Let’s become Martians!
Join in the conversation!


Editorial for Episode 39 – Anarchist Colonization of Mars

For a long time I advocated for a Global Anarchist Social Revolution. I said that everybody in the world can and should change the way that they relate to get rid of all hierarchy and domination, and instead have voluntary cooperation and sharing be the basis for all of social life. This would involve the elimination of all governments, capitalism and patriarchy worldwide, and the dawn of a beautiful new age of freedom and equality for all of humanity. I saw my role in all of that as being to help inspire people to move to unlock this latent potential to make this happen.

Over time, after a series of different heartbreaks and disappointments, I came to hold a belief that a Global Anarchist Social Revolution (or “GASR” for short) was most likely not going to happen and that it would be best to not be putting my time and energy into things assuming that it would. At around the same time as this, other anarchists were coming to these same conclusions, most notably with the widely circulated text called “Desert”. That piece took things a step further by saying that not only would an anarchist revolution not happen, but the sibling project of “saving the Earth” from ecological catastrophe was not going to happen either, and that we should adjust our plans and expectations to accommodate that. My anarchist goals became much more diminished and narrow in scope, shrinking from a global scale down to a more individualist scale, looking at just me and my own little life.

Then in more recent years a new and completely unrelated development has taken place. Elon Musk and his company SpaceX has publicly announced their intention and plans to send humans to the planet Mars, and they have developed some reusable rockets to help make this happen. SpaceX also has the advantage of also being a private company, not a government agency, thereby showing that these kinds of endeavors can take place outside of the purview of a government. If SpaceX can do this, what can other non-governmental agencies accomplish?

An idea then hit me, perhaps a new big grand world-changing mission can be adopted by anarchists to fill the void left by what was previously occupied by the “GASR” (Global Anarchist Social Revolution). Perhaps instead of focusing on changing this world, anarchists can focus on getting off of this world and settling on Mars instead? Both tasks are enormous, involving lots of work, resources, and would most likely take generations to accomplish. But if we are indeed writing off all hope for this planet, as far fetched as it may sound, there may be some hope in the planet Mars instead.

I would like to have a conversation that I have never had before, and that is to talk about the possibility of anarchists colonizing Mars. How can we conceptualize this project in a way that is in some sense realistic and tangible? How can we even begin to break down this massive undertaking in a way that we can make some progress with it? How would we need to re-organize our tiny little anarchist scene or subculture to be able to tackle such a big endeavor? Or perhaps this all is still a project that is ahead of it’s time, and is best left for a future “wave” of anarchism to take up?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Plus, there are a million other questions and variables to consider when considering something like a project on this scale. But I would like to talk about this, and in particular I would like to talk about all of this while using an anarchist lens. So let’s get going.

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Customer Service as a Way of Life

I’m sitting in a lab lobby waiting to get blood drawn. The receptionist is one of the rudest people I’ve ever overheard. Every time someone checks in, every word she says is edgy and nasty and she seems to have no tone except one that makes people feel like idiots.

It was like this last time I came here too. I don’t know what’s going on in her life or why this business allows her to keep her job, but it got me thinking about customer service. How is it learned?

I had several customer facing jobs when I was young, starting with door to door candy bar sales for little league and collecting payments from newspaper subscribers. I don’t remember being coached or taught but maybe I was. I do remember feeling nervous and awkward and reading people’s responses. I wanted to not make people unhappy, a tall order in door to door sales but easier when you’re 10. So I’d see what seemed to get the best responses and adjust. I wasn’t consciously systematic most of the time, just adjusting to the situation.

Over time, I learned lots of little things that worked every time. I got good at it. I practiced more running the concessions and pro shop at a small golf course then bagging groceries. Then I installed internet and phone systems at car dealerships and learned to deal with higher profile people in higher stress situations.

The apex of my customer service work was as a legislative assistant to a state representative. Most of the day was spent on the phone and email and physical mail between me (speaking in the voice of my boss half the time) and truly crazy, angry, or delusional people with an occasional nut job for balance. I turned it into a game and tried to find a way to make people happy while being disagreed with. I got good at it.

The ability to interact with lots of people and leave them feeling good after the interaction is really powerful. When I did fundraising for a non profit these skills with receptionist and assistants and gatekeepers worked magic on helping me get meetings.

I’m not sure why some people seem to learn customer service skills and some don’t. It really baffles me. I wish I could crack the code.

Oh, as an aside, say what you will about the U.S., but the customer service in this country is typically about ten times better than any other place I’ve been, save maybe heavily touristy places in Africa. Mises said under capitalism consumer kings rule. It feels so good to be made to feel like a king for merely existing. Vegas is probably the greatest example of this.

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Codifying Our Worst Impulses: The Ideas that Started World War II

 

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the deadliest violent conflict in human history.  Death tolls vary, but often reach 80 million souls.  What caused it?  Lists of proximate causes never end, but the only credible “root cause” is simply: ideas.  Three countries started World War II: Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  While popular summaries rarely list the Soviets as initiators because Hitler double-crossed Stalin two years later, Molotov and Ribbentrop’s  so-called Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a Treaty of Aggression Against Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What ideas led the leaders of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union to war?  The obvious answer is extreme nationalism – the view any action is morally praiseworthy if it advances the interests of your nation-state.  Heinrich Himmler said it best:

For the SS Man, one principle must apply absolutely: we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood, and to no one else. What happens to the Russians, the Czechs, is totally indifferent to me… Whether other races live well or die of hunger is only of interest to me insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise that doesn’t interest me. Whether 10,000 Russian women fall down from exhaustion in building a tank ditch is of interest to me only insofar as the tank ditches are finished for Germany.

…When somebody comes to me and says, I can’t build tank ditches with children or women. That’s inhumane, they’ll die doing it. Then I must say: You are a murderer of your own blood, since, if the tank ditches are not built, then German soldiers will die, and they are the sons of German mothers. That is our blood. That is how I would like to indoctrinate this SS, and, I believe, have indoctrinated, as one of the holiest laws of the future: our concern, our duty, is to our Folk, and to our blood. That is what we must care for and think about, work for and fight for, and nothing else. Everything else can be indifferent to us.

Almost everyone understands that Japan and Germany grew extremely nationalistic during the 1930s.  Few realize that the same holds for the Soviet Union as well.  Under Stalinism, anything that advanced the interests of the Soviet Union was the moral imperative – starting with the reabsorption of all the breakaway territories of the Russian Empire.

By itself, however, extreme nationalism need not generate war.  Rationally speaking, the best way to advance the national interest is with peace and consumerism.  The leadership of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, however, all angrily rejected this bourgeois, “shopkeepers’” perspective.  Instead, they equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government – and angrily denounced Western “plutocracies.”

This was most obvious in the USSR, which deliberately eradicated the rich, business, and private property itself in order to build a totalitarian militarized society.  But Germany’s National Socialists had a similar vision.  Their goal was not to build an idyllic consumer society, but a mighty war machine.  Unlike the Soviets, however, the Nazis had the common-sense to harness the rich, business, and private property rather than destroy them.   As Hitler told Nazi defector Hermann Rauschning:

He had no intention, like Russia, of “liquidating” the possessing class. On the contrary, he would compel it to contribute by its abilities towards the building up of the new order. He could not afford to allow Germany to vegetate for years, as Russia had done, in famine and misery. Besides, the present owners of property would be grateful that their lives had been spared. They would be dependent and in a condition of permanent fear of worse things to come.

The same holds for Japan: Its leaders equated the national interest with the power and glory of the Japanese government, not the safety and prosperity of the Japanese people.  So while the Japanese government happily used the domestic rich and domestic business, it truly bled them dry during the war.  As Walter Scheidel explains in The Great Leveler:

Japan was once one of the most unequal countries on earth. In 1938, the country’s “1 percent” received 19.9 percent of all reported income before taxes and transfers. Within the next seven years, their share dropped by two-thirds, all the way down to 6.4 percent. More than half of this loss was incurred by the richest tenth of that top bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths.

However rapid and massive these shifts in the distribution of income, they pale in comparison to the even more dramatic destruction of the elite’s wealth. The declared real value of the largest 1 percent of estates in Japan fell by 90 percent between 1936 and 1945 and by almost 97 percent between 1936 and 1949. The top 0.1 percent of all estates lost even more—93 percent and more than 98 percent, respectively. In real terms, the amount of wealth required to count a household among the richest 0.01 percent (or one in 10,000) in 1949 would have put it in only the top 5 percent back in 1936. Fortunes had shrunk so much that what used to count as mere affluence was now out of reach for all but a very few.

What’s the right word for “equating the national interest with the power and glory of the government rather than peace and consumerism”?  There are many candidate labels  – “statism,” “romanticism,” “populism,” “communitarianism,” “anti-capitalism.”  But none is quite right, so we might as well stick with the label that activists who equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government have preferred throughout the 20th century: socialism.  Obviously, there are many kinds of self-identified socialists – including socialists who unequivocally seek a peaceful, consumerist society.  Historically, however, these are rare – and since I’m not a socialist, I say that “real socialism” equals “what most self-styled socialists do when they have power.” Whatever label you prefer, the key point is that all the regimes that started World War II praised the power and glory of the government to the skies – and brought traditional elites – the rich and business – to their knees.  Or their graves.

Before you join me in blaming World War II on nationalism and socialism, though, there’s an obvious objection: These ideas have been ubiquitous for ages.  My response: The emotional impulses behind nationalism and socialism – impulses like xenophobia and anti-market bias – are indeed long-lived and widespread.  Far more children dream of being warriors than merchants.  But the initiators of World War II turned these knee-jerk feelings into bodies of thought.  They codified humanity’s worst impulses into explicit, militant, self-conscious ideologies.  And they took their ideologies seriously enough to kill for them – and often to die for them.

Does this mean that every latter-day nationalist and socialist is morally comparable to the architects of World War II?  No; that’s absurd.  The reason for this moral non-comparability, though, is disturbing.  The rhetoric of modern nationalism and socialism remains grotesque.  Anyone who says “By any means necessary” is, by implication, saying, “If it takes 80 million deaths for us to win, then so be it.”  The saving grace of latter-day nationalists and socialists is that almost all of them are hypocrites.  They may say, “By any means necessary,” but thankfully few have the stomach for it.  As I’ve said before, if your ideas are bad, hypocrisy makes them less bad.

Still, I am dismayed by the renewed popularity of nationalism and socialism.  I don’t think World War III is coming this century.  If it does come, however, I will blame the nationalists and socialists who take their scary slogans to heart.

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