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moral arguments for socialism?

March 3, 2013

Some people tend to criticize the inclusion of ‘moral’ terms in discussions about economics on the basis that such terminology is confused and arises out of religious assumptions about market forces or the lack thereof. In my opinion, however, ideas about morality and ethics in the realm of economics don’t necessarily arise out of religious assumptions; they can just as easily arise out of a careful analysis that combines human emotions with human rationality, especially if ‘moral’ = ‘for the common good.’ Hence my opinion that moral arguments and justifications can have a place in such discussions.

From a socialist perspective, for example, I think the potential exploitation inherent in the capitalist system is one place to start. In the Marxist sense, at least, exploitation refers to the worker’s lack of ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour. That’s why Marx defined slavery, feudalism and capitalism as exploitative systems of production, i.e., in each, the producers/workers have no ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour.

From this perspective, exploitation is an inherent part of the capitalist mode of production, which in turn, ties into Marx’s theory of alienation. It’s rather complicated, and I don’t fully understand everything Marx wrote on the subject as much of it is very abstract, but in short, exploitation is the idea that the capitalist profits far more from a worker’s labour than the worker does, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s voluntary or not due to the structural and personal forms of dependence that characterize wage-labour under capitalism and compel workers to work for others (e.g., see “Wage-Slavery and Republican Liberty“).

Adam Smith et al. assumed that labour creates wealth (surplus value). But according to Marx, in a capitalist system, labour itself becomes a commodity, an object that’s bought and sold on the market. Moreover, due to private ownership of the means of production, the product of the worker’s labour doesn’t legally belong to them (alienation), nor does the surplus value their labour creates (unpaid labour), which is kept by the capitalist.

Consequently, the product of the worker’s labour becomes a commodity that’s divorced from the labour expended on its production, thereby obscuring the social relationship between producer and consumer (commodity fetishism). Furthermore, the employer has the ability to increase their profit exponentially by reinvesting the surplus value extracted from the worker’s labour into their company while the labourer is forced to spend their (more often than not) meager wages on the necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, etc.

If one assumes that giving workers more control over the product of their labour is more ‘moral’ or socially beneficial than, say, giving that control to a capitalist who treats their labour as a commodity and gives them a smaller wage than their labour is truly worth in exchange, that may be one argument based on both a moral and rational basis.

Taking a broader view of history, one can also make the argument that the foundation of capitalism, private property, is ultimately built upon theft, which isn’t only viewed as something immoral but something that’s harmful to the commonwealth as well (i.e., a community founded for the common good). For example, a modern argument against socialism is the idea that abolishing private property rights and confiscating the ‘rightful’ property of one person (or persons) and giving it to another, including to the community as a whole, is immoral or harmful to the commonwealth. However, much of the land and natural resources that one may now ‘rightfully’ exploit for profit may very well have belonged to, or utilized by, another at some point in time, and was forcibly confiscated (e.g., Native American land). As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Discourse on Inequality

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

And the question can be raised, What’s more moral or socially beneficial from this point of view, communal ownership where all (or at least a majority) have a say in the use of, and share in the profit from, property, whether in the form of land, resources, or machinery, or a private ownership, where only a single individual or select few benefit and/or have a say in the production and distribution of commodities that the reproduction of society depends upon?

Another argument may be how the present system actually creates structural unemployment, which hardly existed on a mass scale before it became the dominant mode of production, leaving many working-class people unable to support themselves or their families. This can be seen to be ‘immoral’ and socially harmful from a certain point of view.

And then there’s the argument that under the present system, opportunity is essentially privatized along with everything else the capitalists and free-market advocates can get their hands on, making it just as concentrated as wealth (and, if you’ve noticed, income inequality is rising while median family income is lower now that it was 30 years ago). Sure, things have improved since the 1900s, when workers (which included large numbers of children) essentially had no rights whatsoever, and were forced to work over 12 hour days in absolutely appalling conditions, but that’s been due to the struggle of workers themselves, not due to the benevolence of capitalism.

Capitalism isn’t an immoral system as much as an amoral one, in my opinion, (as I’d argue all economic systems are in that they’re essentially ways of organizing production and distribution utilized by people with varying degrees of intention); but I think we’ve definitely outgrown it, just like we did feudalism. And while socialism isn’t going to be a perfect replacement if it ever takes its place, I think it has the potential to revolutionize society much the same way feudalism and capitalism have.

For me, socialism isn’t so much about the equality of wealth or outcomes as it is the de-privatization (i.e., socialization) of opportunity and the weakening of class antagonisms and hierarchies arising out of social relations unique to capitalism and other predominately exploitative systems. As Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

Marx’s focus, the bodhisattva that he was, is essentially the same as socialism’s, which is primarily the question of how to liberate society from its suffering and alienation by changing the material conditions that support it. In the words of Erich Fromm, “[Marx’s] concept of socialism is the emancipation from alienation, the return of man to himself, his self-realization.”

The present system, however, due to the way its structured, tends to idealize and promote greed (self-interest) over altruism (common good), competition over cooperation, privatization over public ownership, etc., as well as encourage the accumulation of capital into a smaller and smaller number of hands. This, I suppose, can be argued to be less moral and socially beneficial if we place a higher/greater value on things like altruism, cooperation, etc., and if we conclude that liberty in the economic sphere (as opposed to just within the political sphere) is more in line with/promotes the general welfare of the commonwealth.

Those are some of the tentative arguments for including moral terminology in discussions about economics I can think of off the top of my head, at any rate.

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One Comment
  1. In a somewhat related tangent, I think it should be noted that, from a historical materialist perspective, these kinds of socio-economic evolutions in societies’ modes of production primarily take place due to empirical processes and the working out of contradictions within such systems, i.e., they arise not out of some conscious decision to create a society with x social relations, but out of material conditions that express themselves in certain ways and take certain political forms based on the material conditions that are present.

    The political forms that our societies take, on the other, do seem to be a bit more susceptible to conscious molding; but this is often done in relation to the empirical, material conditions of society, not prior to, or independent of, them (i.e., while some variety is observed in the political forms of capitalist nation-states, bourgeois politics are more or less determined by bourgeois relations of production). That’s why I think a forced and premature transition from one political-economic form to another, such as the one that took place in Soviet Russia, will likely not succeed or be successful in its transformative aims, since the material conditions supporting such a transition aren’t present/developed enough.

    Personally, I don’t think any utopian society planned out in advance will ever succeed, or at least work out exactly as planned. At most, I think we can work towards trying to consciously building the material foundation of a more socialized society and steering history into this general direction, but such a transition will ultimately be the result of empirical events that takes place in reaction to, and conjunction with, material shifts in technology, production and distribution methods, finance, etc. taking place at the time, not a theoretical (i.e., purely political) one.

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