Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Socialist Idea Refuted

In Libertarianism, Marxism, Nozick, Philosophy on June 30, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Book Review

Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge, 2014) 120pp.

In 2009 G.A (Jerry) Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? defending socialism was posthumously published by Princeton University Press. Jason Brennan’s book, just published by Routledge, is a response to Cohen. A more accurate title for the book might have been Why G.A. Cohen is Wrong. However, as Brennan is defending capitalism, and no doubt with an eye on sales, his own choice of title more suits his purpose.

While Brennan’s book can be read and understood by those without the background, it is a work of political philosophy and will be more appreciated by those with at least an elementary background in the work of twentieth century political philosophers, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and G.A. Cohen.

A similarity between Cohen’s book and Brennan’s book is the cover design. If a book defending socialism can have a single red rose on its cover, then a book defending capitalism can have a bunch of roses.  Perhaps Brennan’s cover design has a further resonance when one considers his final sentence prior to his concluding chapter. Turning Mao Zedong’s notorious statement on its head, Brennan asserts, “The slogan of a capitalist utopia might be something like, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom.’”

In defending socialism Cohen came out with a thought experiment. He compares two different types of societies to two versions of a camping trip. In the socialist camping trip everyone mucks in. One person brings a tent, one person catches fish, one person does the cooking etc. Everyone assists each other and it is a wonderful way to live. In a capitalist camping trip, the owner of the tent would charge rent to other campers, the cook would want to charge people for cooking and so it goes on. Capitalism, in Cohen’s world, is awful. Greed and selfishness are features of capitalist society. And these features are morally repugnant.  The camping trip thought experiment is a powerful argument for socialism, or so it might seem prima facie. Brennan’s short book exposes a dramatic flaw that he has found in it.

Cohen’s fallacious reasoning is that he is comparing idealised Marxism with a realistic but flawed capitalist system. Brennan is justified in arguing that one should either compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism or idealised Marxism with idealised capitalism. If one were to compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism then a simple comparison would be Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to Truman or Nixon’s America. Capitalism wins. Just as we have not experienced idealised Marxism so we have not experienced idealised capitalism. If Cohen can construct an idealised version of Marxism by using his camping trip example, then Brennan can construct an idealised version of capitalism. He does this by noting that life portrayed in the village of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is akin to idealised capitalism. Brennan parodies Cohen by setting up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village whereby the villagers “cooperate with a common desire that everyone have the freedom and resources to flourish under their own conceptions of the good life. Everyone operates on principles of mutual concern, tolerance, and respect. They live together happily, without envy, glad to trade value for value, glad to give and share, glad to help those in need, and never disposed to free ride, take advantage of, coerce, or subjugate one another.”

Brennan notes that there is “an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist versions of utopia.” An idealised capitalist utopia would allow a group of people to set up a socialist commune. The socialists would be permitted to own property communally just as the capitalists would be able to own property individually. However, in the socialist utopia, all property would be owned communally and capitalist acts such as owning property individually would be forbidden. In part, this is a reason why idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism.

Brennan aims to show that idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism and that realistic capitalism is better than realistic Marxism. It is a tall order to suggest that he has managed to do this well enough to convince sufficient amounts of doubters in his short book, but what I think he has done well is demonstrate that Cohen’s argument based on the camping trip thought experiment is flawed.

UCL Student Union ban Nietzsche Club

In Freedom of Expression, Libertarianism, Marxism on June 9, 2014 at 12:15 PM

This is  cross-post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on June 6th 2014, 5:40 pm.

The policy of “No Platform for Racists and Fascists,” historically adopted by many student unions, is ideologically appalling. Not only is it an affront to the doctrine of free speech, it has been thoroughly abused by its supporters. Anybody that they do not like can be targeted for banning. The latest successful attack is on the Nietzsche Club at University College London.

UCL Student Union have passed a policy to “ban and otherwise prevent the installation of any further publicity of [the Nietzsche Club] around UCLU buildings, and to urge UCL to adopt the same policy in the university buildings.” They have also resolved to “reject any attempts by this group to seek affiliation and official recognition from UCLU as an official club or society.” A further resolution passed is to “prevent any attempts by this group to hold meetings and organise events on campus.” However, this latter resolution is pending implementation subject to a professional opinion on its legality. Irrespective of the legal opinion, following the other resolutions passed, the Nietzsche Club will not be able to advertise their meetings in the Student Union or book a room to hold a meeting in the Student Union. In the language of student union politics, this is an effective ban.

The Student Union believe that “this group is aimed at promoting a far-right, fascist ideology at UCL” and that “there is no meaningful distinction to be made between a far-right and a fascist ideology.” There is no question that it is Marxist inspired political views behind this policy. The motion tells us that “the root cause of fascism [is] capitalism” and hence the fight against fascism is really one for a “socialist transformation of society.”  Moreover, among the crimes, according to UCLU, of Nietzsche, Heidegger and other philosophers that the Nietzsche Club wish to read, are that they are “anti-Marxist [and] anti-worker.”

There is no need to comment on the political views of the philosophers that the Nietzsche Club wish to read. Even if they are fascistic, that is no reason to ban groups who wish to read their works. It seems to me a small political step from UCLU wishing to ban the Nietzsche Club to wishing to march into UCL’s libraries, pulling books written by Nietzsche from the shelves, and burning them. At any rate, one wonders what UCLU wish to do with UCL’s own academic departments that teach Nietzsche on accredited courses for students. Does the Student Union wish to close down the courses and hound the lecturers from the College?

Nobody should be the slightest bit surprised that Marxists are behind the  hideous motion. Sam Bayliss, who proposed the motion, is a self-declared active member of UCLU Marxist Society and Timur Dautov, who seconded the motion, is the president of the very same Marxist Society. In hisTwitter biography Dautov admits to being a supporter of Socialist Appeal UK and the International Marxist Tendency, follow on organisations from the Militant Tendency, the Marxist organisation that caused mayhem in the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Marxist organisations are notorious for using and abusing the “No Platform” policy. In the past, the Socialist Workers Party used such a policy to ban Jewish Societies on the grounds that they were Zionist and hence racist.

The irony is that if any societies should be banned for promoting dangerous ideologies, after genocides in Communist countries in the twentieth century causing tens of millions of deaths, those that champion the ideology of Marx and Lenin should be high on the list. But surely, rather than banning either the Nietzsche Club or the Marxist Society, it is far better to champion free thought and free speech in our academic institutions.

Publish the Blair/Bush Letters

In Iraq, Just War on June 5, 2014 at 11:06 AM

This is a cross-post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place, June 5th 2014, 10:22 am

It appears the Cabinet Office has blocked publication of the George Bush/Tony Blair  correspondence that was written in the run up to the Iraq War.  All that can be published is the “gist” of what Blair said and nothing to indicate Bush’s views. The reason for blocking the publication is either for the Cabinet Office’s independent reasons or because they do not wish to antagonise the Americans.

Writing in The Times (subscription required), Melanie Phillips has said:

Publishing this correspondence would breach the understanding that dialogue between world leaders is necessarily private. It would undermine trust that any such future conversations would remain undisclosed, causing lasting damage to Britain’s relations with the US and thus to British interests.

I wish to dispute this premise. The world leaders in question are the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the then President of the United States of America. Both were elected as leaders in democracies. As such they serve the population that they represent. They made decisions that ultimately led to British and American citizens, who had signed up to the army in their respective countries, going to war and risking their lives. Some died.

Any correspondence between Bush and Blair surrounding a decision to go to war should not remain private for ever. Such conversations are not like those asking each other what they had for breakfast. I do not believe that it is in the interests of the British and American populations that such conversations remain private. They should be official public records. In recent memory we have had a “thirty year rule” before public records come into the public domain. This is gradually being reduced to twenty years. There was a considered proposal to reduce it to fifteen years. In my personal opinion, for a lot of material, I do not see why it cannot be released within ten years or even earlier. It has been over eleven years since the commencement of the Iraq War and I can see no reason why it should be necessary to keep such correspondence away from the eyes of the public.

Melanie Phillips’ concern that publication of the correspondence “would undermine trust that any such future conversations would remain undisclosed,” is misplaced. We should not want our leaders to be able to act with impunity. It would be damaging to a liberal democracy if it were so.  Leaders should be held responsible and accountable for their actions. That would not be possible if those actions were kept secret. It is true that it would be bad mannered for the British government to publish private correspondence from an American President without permission if that correspondence has not yet been made public in America, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that if the British and American governments can cooperate on going to war, they should be able to cooperate on publishing correspondence about that decision.

Hat Tip: The Steeple Times.