The Case for Socialism

Ian Olasov argues that the case for socialism rests on widely shared premises and values.


Much of the best political philosophy has been produced in periods when our basic institutions were under some sort of attack, and it became practical and urgent to think, at the most fundamental level, about how society should be organised. Plato wrote the Republic in the aftermath of Athenian democracy; Confucius lived and taught during the Warring States period; Hobbes wrote in response to the English Civil War; Marx wrote in response to the Industrial Revolution; Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice during the Vietnam War; Fanon wrote in response to the dissolution of the European empires. These theorists found themselves in moments in history where, all of a sudden, radical new options were on the table.

It's too soon to tell, but it certainly feels like we live in such a moment now. The post-colonial global liberal order, which was once called “the end of history,” is debated daily by pundits and politicians. This order is being challenged from the right by nationalist movements in countries across the world, from Brazil to Hungary to India; the left is ascendant in the United States for the first time in generations, with a surge in labour militancy and candidates from groups like Democratic Socialists of America winning elections around the country. New options are on the table.

So what do we do? What sort of society do we want to live in? What basic social order is best?

I think the answer – a big part of the answer, at least – is socialism. Different people use the word “socialism” in different ways, but I take socialism to be the view that more goods should be owned and managed collectively and democratically.

That leaves us with a few big questions. Which goods? (All private property? Natural resources? Land? Real estate? Particular businesses? Entire industries? The means of production, whatever those are?) Which collectives? (Workers at particular businesses? Labour unions representing entire industries? Subjects of a municipal, state, federal, or world government?) What sort of democratic management? (Representative democracy? Something more participatory?)

Different socialists will give different answers to these questions, advocating for worker cooperatives, small communes, national ownership, or something else. My own view is that different sorts of goods should be socialised in different ways, and some goods, like the contents of your refrigerator, shouldn’t be socialised at all. But for now, to whatever extent I can, I’d like to avoid the messy details of how we ought to socialise any particular set of goods.

Some popular arguments for socialism rest on questionable empirical premises or values that aren’t widely shared. Questionable empirical premises include the belief that socialism is inevitable, and that the basic structure of a society is determined by the organisation of its productive capacities. Dubious values include the Marxist concepts of contradiction and alienation, or the labour theory of value, more generally. Other popular arguments for socialism rest on values that many of us share, but which we each understand in very different ways – freedom, fairness, democracy.

But we don’t need to appeal to any vague, ambiguous, or tendentious values or premises in order to argue for socialism. I believe the best arguments for socialism start from clear, widely shared values and premises that any reasonable person should believe.

The Case for Socialism

Here are the arguments for socialism that I find most convincing:

The argument from inequality

Capitalism – the view that goods and services should be provisioned primarily by private entities interacting through markets – leads to massive inequality of wealth, education, and political power. You might think this is intrinsically bad because it is unfair. But I think of the badness of inequality in terms of waste and domination. Inequality leads to waste because resources that would be better off in the hands of the poor are put in the hands of people who don’t need them; inequality leads to domination because when some people are much richer than others, they can manipulate the basic institutions of society so that things keep going their way.

Here’s another way to think about it. To a first approximation, when a society provides a good or service via the market, that is its way of saying that it’s OK if poor people don’t have access to it. (Yes, the U.S. has a mixed economy, where people who can’t afford certain goods and services get them through means-tested government subsidies or public services, like public housing. But means-tested services are always precarious and underfunded, because they’re always stigmatised. Compare food stamps with social security.) Of course, we’ve already decided that there are some goods that it is not OK to deny poor people – roads, the postal service, K-12 education, social security, libraries. But why stop there? Are we really okay if poor people don’t have food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or access to toilets, the internet, or higher education? Not me.

The argument from global warming

Capitalism depends on constant growth, and, at least as a rule, constant growth means constant increase in the use of energy and natural resources. This is unsustainable.

Not every form of socialism is environmentally sustainable – look at states whose economies are built around a nationalised fossil fuel industry, like Venezuela or Norway. But some form of political-economic system that isn’t based on perpetual growth is necessary if we are going to avoid the existential risk that climate change poses. (This is not to say that some sectors of the economy can’t grow while others shrink – we might produce more nutritious food and durable clothing and entertainment, but spend less on poison, disposable junk, military equipment, and deforestation, for example.)

The limits of markets

Since Adam Smith, economists have used the idea of the invisible hand to describe the ways in which individual people acting in their own self-interest can, through their interactions in a market, benefit each other. Consider the iPhone. Apple is primarily interested in making money. One way they can make money is by continually developing fun and useful new features for their phones, and selling their phones at prices that won’t scare too many consumers away. Individual consumers buying iPhones are also acting primarily in their own self-interest, but the money that they pay Apple funds further development. Everyone wins! (At least as long as we don’t look too hard at the working conditions in factories that manufacture iPhone parts, or the environmental costs of mining for the rare minerals used in iPhones.) Defences of free markets often appeal to the power of the invisible hand.

But think about the range of conditions or types of markets under which the invisible hand fails to work, even in theory – when we’re dealing with monopolies and cartels, unequal information between buyer and seller, negative externalities, tragedies of the commons, public goods, planned obsolescence, rent-seeking, cronyism, markets that manufacture the preferences they satisfy. Most markets, I would suggest, fall under at least one of these categories. We can always try to regulate our way towards better markets, but in capitalist societies, regulators tend to work for the businesses they’re supposed to regulate. Why not think of other ways of getting people the goods they need?

The argument from automation

Something incredible has happened! We now have robots and machines to do a lot of the mindless jobs no one wanted to do before. But people are terrified of this. This might be a familiar point, but we should really reflect on how bizarre it is. And it’s all because we have privatised the benefits of automation.

The argument from labour allocation

Anyone who has worked at a medium- to large-sized business knows that lots of jobs that do exist shouldn’t. To some extent, this is because managers solve problems by hiring new managers. To some extent, it’s because once you create a job, it can be hard to get rid of. And as the anthropologist David Graeber has shown, an enormous number of people think that their own jobs shouldn’t exist – telemarketers, debt traders and collectors, secretaries and assistants for people who don’t need secretaries or assistants, and so on.

By contrast, think seriously about the most important jobs that you could possibly do. Here are some candidates: researching clean meat, existential risk research, carbon capture and renewable energy research, low-cost overseas public health interventions. Most of the funding for most of these jobs comes from private charity and public grants. Or think of the difference in funding for research, treatment, and prevention of diseases of poverty like malaria versus diseases of affluence like hypertension. That is because they are not, in the short term, profitable, or because they run contrary to the interests of the fabulously wealthy. A better political and economic system, in which profit and the interests of the wealthy mattered less, would fund these things more generously. (We could make a similar, but slightly different argument about vital but wildly underpaid professions – social workers, home attendants, janitors, farm workers, warehouse workers, childcare providers, etc.)

The argument from moral shiftiness

Many of the early supporters of free markets believed in them because they thought they would lead to a more equal society. This was plausible because (a) free markets challenged many of the greatest sources of inequality at the time (feudal property laws and guild monopolies, for example), and (b) these early supporters generally thought of each person as self-employed – this was before the Industrial Revolution.

Capitalism has failed spectacularly at accomplishing those goals. But as the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues in her book Private Government, instead of working towards a better form of political economy, we have changed the underlying morality of capitalism. Now it’s about personal desert, meritocracy, and freedom from government interference. This should at least give us pause.

Intersections with other social issues

To a hard to specify extent, capitalism exacerbates social problems that aren’t entirely economic in nature – factory farming, war, ableism, racism, police brutality, sexual violence, the exclusion of women from various dimensions of public life. Socialism is not the complete solution to these problems, but it is one key part of the solution.

Objections and Responses

Even if you accept the arguments given above, you might think that the arguments against socialism outweigh them. Let’s consider a few of those arguments, and why I don’t ultimately find them convincing.

Socialism is theft.

It’s true that socialism requires certain people and organisations to relinquish their private property. But private property is, at least in many instances, created by the law. Copyrights and trademarks and patents, for example, don’t exist in the wild. When we realise that facts about who owns what are determined by the law, not by nature, then changing the property relations in a society might start to seem more like a democratic decision, and less like a violation of the natural order of things.

Often when people are called on to justify strong private property rights, they appeal to the value of desert. If you invest your money in the right way, say, you have earned that money, and you deserve to keep it. But desert is a dubious value. After all, none of us deserves to be born into the circumstances that we find ourselves in. I didn’t deserve to be born white, or male, or born with my natural strengths and weaknesses, or born in New York City in 1986. But if I don’t deserve all of my natural gifts and inheritances, how can I deserve the profit that I make using those gifts and inheritances?

In any case, even if you believe in desert, for the wealthiest people in the world today, most income is capital income. That is, they make their money not from making anything or doing anything for the world, but from already owning stuff. How could people who don’t work deserve more than people who do?

Capitalism has lifted a lot of people out of poverty.

It’s hard to know how much of the decline in global poverty is the result of the rise of capitalism, and how much is the result of other factors – technological progress, economies of scale, peace. But fair enough – capitalism does some things well. The question isn’t whether capitalism does some things well, though. The question is whether we can do better.

Capitalism drives technological and scientific innovation.

Sure, sometimes, although it also sometimes impedes technological and scientific innovation. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical firm Valeant, which all but gave up on medical research when they realised there was more money to be made in buying up patents and gaming the insurance industry. Or take the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness, which has stuck around for as long as it has in large part because it serves the needs of drug companies.

We might also note all the examples of technological innovation that are not driven by the profit motive. The Soviet Union beat the U.S. to outer space; the internet was largely invented by the U.S. government; many medical researchers are motivated by altruism and the desire for recognition, rather than by money.

Again, though, my answer is the same as above. The question is whether we can do better.

Socialist states have a bad track record.

Not all socialist states – Chile under Allende, Grenada under Bishop, Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara, arguably the Nordic states today – but sure.

One thing to note is that socialism doesn’t necessarily mean handing control over any particular enterprise to the state. It might be handed over to, say, workers, unions, consumers, or community groups. Another is that we need to ask why the socialist states of the past have failed. It’s a bit glib, but important, to remind ourselves here that most states have failed. In the case of the socialist states, I would argue that many of them failed largely for reasons that have little to do with socialism, per se. One factor in the failure of the Soviet Union, for example, is that the economy was devoted single-mindedly to developing the military, rather than, say, producing consumer goods. Another factor in the downfall of many socialist states is that civil liberties were highly restricted. Another factor is that the central planners of the economy didn’t have access to accurate, real-time information about supply and demand. Another factor is that the U.S. and other world powers isolated and covertly undermined the socialist states. But these factors are inessential to socialism. Socialism doesn’t require military spending, or restrictions on civil liberties, or global conflict, or widespread disinformation about the economy.

Of course, some socialist policies or initiatives have had disastrous effects – land collectivisation under Stalin, the Great Leap Forward, and so on. But learning from these mistakes doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on socialism. It might just mean doing socialism better.

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Ian Olasov is a commissioning editor for TPM. His most recent book is A Companion to Public Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2022), co-edited with Lee McIntyre and Nancy McHugh.