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Talking Socialism: At it Again

February 24, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is trailing his coat through French domestic politics, hoping to be picked up by the Socialist Party as their presidential candidate in next year’s elections. If successful he would become the Left’s candidate against Nicolas Sarkozy.I was charmed by a report that he is saying socialism “is the future.”

Listen Dominique, and listen carefully. Socialism is a nearly 100-year social experiment that has failed. It has failed everywhere it has been tried. It retarded the development of Russia and is responsible for the disaster on display in former Soviet lands It retarded China’s economic growth and in both cases has been responsible for the murder of tens of millions of people. North Korea is a living example of the low-level starvation that is part of life under socialism. Ever visited Cuba and seen the range of groceries in its stores? In my visit there were two brands and two alone on the shelves.

What irritates is when a western politician – and it would only happen in France these days – picks up the old rhetoric and gives it another run. Socialism has a dictionary definition. It is public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. It’s not anything as vague as “the greatest good for the greatest number”, it is public ownership. Public ownership of the commanding heights of industry – to pick up an old phrase favoured by socialists – is a demonstrable failure. British politicians were very fond of talking about socialism with abandon. They didn’t mean it. They knew it was unworkable. But they had to pretend. Deceiving the rank and file like this caused the disillusionment that had the Left take over British Labour in the 1980s.

Here’s the main point. This same Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was last in government – as Minister for Economics, Finances and Industry – actually privatised industry. He privatised France Telecom. He privatised Aerospatiale. He privatised Credit Lyonnais, Thomson-CSF and GAN. He no more believes in socialism than you or I. But he can’t help dragging the term out again. Lazily. Insincerely. Not remotely intending to revamp the public ownership which in office he had reversed.

Back in 1986 I said:

In the collective mind of Western Europe there is still a vivid recollection of what happened when demagogues offered quack solutions to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Few want to go down that track again. The West Europeans can see Marxist-Leninist solutions on the other side of the border and Eastern Europe is a very bad advertisement…

You can find the full piece in Thoughtlines (Penguin, 2002).

  1. Watson permalink
    February 25, 2011 10:47 am

    Socialism or Social Wisdom
    It is a fundamental mis-reading of Darwin’s theory to imagine that competition, raw in tooth and claw, is the basis of the natural laws of evolution. When people misunderstand the notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’, the endless futile competition of social Darwinism is the unfortunate result. Modest familiarity with the natural world as Darwin and Wallace understood it, reveals that the goal of evolution is to reduce competition by isolating each species in its own unique ecological niche within a larger interaction known as an ecosystem.

    An ecosystem is indeed made up of living organisms that consume one another, but they do so according to a beautifully balanced order – an overarching harmonious cooperation which needs no mythologising ‘spirits’ or gods to account for it. The ecosystem creates no waste; everything is recycled so that life is maintained in perpetual abundance. Rainforest or coral reef, the ecosystem is always greater than the sum of its parts, achieving a collective productivity, stability and security which the individual organisms could never achieve by themselves. If you need a name for the guiding principle of cooperation between the members of an ecosystem, you could call it social wisdom.

    Early attempts at re-ordering the ‘human ecosystem’ according to these subtle principles of collectivism and cooperation born out of competition were poorly conceived – based on artificially forcing individuals into some centrally planned cooperative. That proved to be as profound a mis-understanding of the nature of social wisdom as was the invention of a supernatural deity, imagined to be the responsible for the organization of cooperation, kindness, mercy, wisdom, and altruism which are in fact naturally evolved attributes of our species.

    But if we re-examine collectivism in the light of the social wisdom of the ecosystem and apply those principles to the whole of human society, we may finally begin to maximize our potential through enlightened cooperation instead of the narrow, selfish, self-destructive individualism of unregulated capitalism.

    We are reminded from time to time of the importance of effective external control of the invisible hand of the economy by collective actions that are not natural products of that blind and wasteful approximation of an ‘ecosystem’ called an ‘economy’. One occasion is the ‘cycle’ of the market which sometimes spirals into self-induced global financial mistrust and chaos. Another is the inspiring selfless cooperation displayed by strangers at a time of crisis. When the crude instrument of the market economy is hit by disasters of this kind, we need something a lot older and wiser than individual selfishness in order to recover.

    At this point in our history as a species we have grown in power and in numbers till we threaten the continuation of life – at least as we know it. Conventional economics offers no solution because it is insensitive to this larger, longer term problem – in essence – population, pollution and resource depletion. We must move beyond conventional economics to a new ecological paradigm which forces economics to conform to the laws of ecology. That new paradigm appears to have a superficial resemblance to socialism, but in reality it is critically different. It is based on a much more complete understanding of ecology and human evolution which has developed in the past century, long after Marx’s early and very imperfect theory.
    In conclusion: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  2. February 25, 2011 1:25 pm

    I must first congratulate you on becoming a patron of the SPA.
    I agree with some of your comments about Socialism but strongly disagree on others.
    For a start, you are confusing socialism with Communism when you use the examples of Soviet Russia, China, and North Korea. They were never socialist but communistic dictatorships. I would regard Atlee’s Government at the end of WW2 as a socialist state and it had high ideals but came at the wrong time.
    The restraints on the UK due to the lingering effects of the war did not give socialism a fair chance to succeed.
    I agree that some of the ventures such as nationalizing the steel industry were ill advised but some of the others such as the railways were brilliant and should have had more backing from the Governments that followed.
    I would agree that Government run enterprises tend to be inefficient but this is better than the alternative Privatized companies who cut any service that is not making a profit.
    Eventually the whole thing grinds to a halt because it has lost the confidence of the clients. The other effect lack of investing in new infrastructure and repairs to increase profits and this also causes lack of patronage.
    Privatized companies are they’re for one thing and one thing only, profit.
    They have no reason or inclination to provide a service and they do not do so if they are not going to make a profit. They have no moral or legal responsibility other than to maximize profit.
    There are some services that should be Government owned and run for the good of the Country and the citizens.
    I would include water, electricity, rail, buses, and ferries. Health and no doubt would find others if the time was spent on this.
    One area that should become a government owned entity is the oil, gas, coal industry.
    Australia is frantically exporting these as fast as it is able to bring in income, which is mainly paid in US dollars.
    We should be saving these for the time coming when we will need them for our own use.
    Pushing paper dollars into the fuel tank of a truck will not make it go.
    We depend on trucks for all distribution of vital products and services.
    The coal of course is used to burn in dirty power stations and is adding to the greenhouse gas increase.
    It can be used to make vital products such as plastics and fertilizers.
    The course taken should be a middle course between capitalism and socialism.

  3. Peter Pando permalink
    February 25, 2011 1:39 pm

    Dear Mr Carr,

    In the absence of socialism as a defensive tactic against unaccountable profiteering and exploitation of workers, what is left to protect vulnerable populations apart from the threat of an uprising? You were all for the abolition of Workchoices and maintenance of, at a stretch, a form of public ownership (in unions) of IR negotiations. I would hazard a guess that you’d also have some shares in a portfolio somewhere, and shareholding too is a mechanism of a type of public ownership. Socialism at least offers the hope of something other than uncontrolled profiteering, and it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. If Mr Strauss-Kahn gets any traction, perhaps it’s a warning to business to share things around a little more.

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