| Winter, 2013

Socialism We Can Believe In

Part One

Obama rides the elevator

Pete Souza, Untitled, 2009

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Four years on, the heady idealism of 2008 makes me cringe like a purple passage in a teenage diary, like an old love letter excavated from a dusty pile. In some respects the frustration of that first term has been a uniquely American story: with its two houses, both alike in dignity, Congress will always produce legislation that satisfies no one in particular, and America’s non-stop election calendar will inevitably encourage centrism. But the path that leads a Leftist from “Change We Can Believe In” to “Better The Devil You Know” has become familiar throughout the West. To Brits like myself, for instance, the Obama cycle feels like a Hollywood remake of Tony Blair’s premiership (1997 slogan: “Things Can Only Get Better”), which itself appeared in theaters alongside the French version—more conversation, less drama—starring Lionel Jospin (1997 slogan: “Let’s Change The Future”). And all three remind you of Bill Clinton.

In each case the activist “base” seems to go through the same emotional cycle:

(1) anger at right-wing government precedes
(2) hope in a new Left and
(3) election of a new government;
(4) disgust at that government’s compromises gives way to
(5) protest at betrayals, leading to
(6) refusal to vote which produces
(1) anger at right-wing government.

At the time of writing, Britain has returned to (1) under David Cameron, although there are hints of (2); France is between (3) and (4) with François Hollande; and the U.S. has just decided (narrowly) not to convert (5) into (6) and hence (1). The most interesting phase is clearly (4): disgust at compromise. Why should the base find compromise disgusting? Everyone knows you can’t always get what you want—that may be disappointing, but it does not, on the face of it, seem disgusting. Yet that is precisely the point. What offends Leftists is the suspicion that their leaders are not actually compromising but triangulating. Compromise is something you do when you know your desired destination; triangulation, by contrast, is just negotiating to stay in power.

Yet it’s not as if the base itself has any kind of articulated vision of the good society. Take last year’s Occupy protests in America and beyond. “We are winning,” they cried. But what exactly were they trying to win? Whereas the Tea Party placed candidates into elected office, and forced others to bend to its will by orchestrating debates, rallies and pledges, Occupy renounced such ambitions from the start. Policies and politics are for dupes, it seemed to sneer: the old world is beyond saving. The idea, its leaders proclaimed, was to model a new direct democracy in which there are no leaders. But if the movement was itself the message, the message was hardly appealing: anyone who has endured student government knows that when everyone talks, nothing gets decided. And this indecision seemed all too convenient, as many pointed out, since it allowed the protesters to wash their hands of the responsibility that comes with concrete commitments.

It may have been unfair to expect detailed policies from the Occupiers. But the real critique was harder to answer: What, the critics asked, is your vision of the good life? And not just the good life in general, but the good life for us, here and now in the twenty-first century West? How does the model of tent-dwelling anarcho-democrats debating long into the night relate to the problem of contemporary inequality? It’s all well and good attacking corruption and cronyism, but inequality is also a function of globalization, which turns first-world countries into service economies that reward the educated and screw the rest. Viewed in this light, Occupy’s central slogan—“We are the 99%”—was as facile as they come; the editor of The Occupy Handbook actually bragged that “Occupy Wall Street has the rare distinction of being a protest movement that even the objects of its attack can find little fault with.” Like the Harvard lawyer at whose feet many of its participants had knelt three years earlier, Occupy managed to wrap itself in the aura of Che Guevara while offending nobody. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Obama and Occupy seem to represent the exhaustion of the Western Left in general. Yet the mood of cynicism, wry and weary, to which I, like so many, presently find myself tempted, can be as blinding as the most dizzying optimism. To dismiss 2008 as mere showbiz, or the Occupy movement as mere self-righteous escapism, would be to ignore the significance of the springs from which they drew: widespread dissatisfaction, even despair, at the status quo; and a yearning, however inarticulate or inchoate, for fundamental transformation. That this yearning has so readily found expression in vacuities points to its strength, not its weakness; if it is capable of sustaining us in empty illusions, at least for a time, that only goes to show how desperately we crave escape from the fetters of contemporary politics. And it is notable that in promising us relief, Obama and Occupy both pointed to the same kind of destination: setting their faces against self-seeking individualism, they spoke to us as individuals in search of self-transcendence. They spoke, that is, to our desire for community without collectivism, for a community forged from the ground up, by us ourselves, in a spirit of what the French Revolutionaries called “fraternity.” We are the change that we seek.

The problem was that neither Obama nor Occupy was able to give the idea of fraternity any real substance. For Obama, it seemed to imply campaign contributions; for Occupy, endless discussions. Neither could connect it to the imperatives of our changing economic climate or to the day-to-day decisions and actions that together constitute society. This, not their idealism, was their failing. If fraternity is to be more than a utopian fantasy or a pious palliative, it will need to find expression in an ethic that can be lived out in everyday life, in institutions that are within our grasp, in a vision of a future radically better than the present yet recognizably rooted in its conditions.

Among the many paradoxes of contemporary politics is the fact that the concept of fraternity now finds its home on the Right, not the Left—at least ostensibly. The Right is a broad church, if a church it is, and between the neoliberals and the theocrats sit the “civic” conservatives, represented by intellectuals like Yuval Levin and David Brooks in America, and Phillip Blond, Jesse Norman and David Willetts in Britain. Civic conservatism shares neoliberalism’s suspicion of collectivist welfare but rejects its absolute faith in markets; it holds that social services are best provided neither by the state nor by corporations, but by the “little platoons” and “local associations” through which citizens help one another in a spirit of fraternity and fellowship.

It’s easy to dismiss civic conservatism as mere lipstick on the neoliberal pig. Certainly there is more than a whiff of comedy in the titles under which it has labored: “compassionate conservatism” in the case of George W. Bush, a man whose own compassion tended to be well hidden, shall we say, behind his stiff upper cheek; and “Big Society” in the case of David Cameron, who, having coined an empty phrase, felt the need to commission academics to decipher its “difficult to pin down” values. Given that the centerpiece of civic conservatism—the idea of freeing civil society from the state—coincides rather neatly with the need to cut government budgets, many have concluded that it is, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.” And it does seem to be private companies that increasingly run prisons, parks and even orphanages, rather than the charities and churches that get highlighted in the prospectus.

But accusations of bad faith are more emotionally gratifying than productive. For the idea of reviving an ethic of locally rooted public service actually expresses our yearning for fraternity rather well. As the “Red Tory” policy guru Phillip Blond puts it, the past few decades have seen Right and Left conspire to shift power away from local communities. To reverse the shift towards big business and the big state would be to create a big society. Communities must be given more legislative powers to shape their neighborhoods; parent-run schools, mutual insurance funds and cooperative ventures must be encouraged; and citizens must engage in community service. From the perspective of fraternity—community without collectivism—that all sounds exceedingly noble. And that only makes its failings more interesting. For the problem with civic conservatism is at root intellectual rather than moral—as will become clear if we consider another of Cameron’s grand slogans.

When Cameron first called Britain a “Broken Society,” in a 2009 speech, it seemed a little hysterical. As the Economist lost no time in pointing out, crime had dropped 45 percent since 1995; the number of teenage mothers had halved since 1969; the divorce rate was the lowest since 1979; and in the previous five years there had been a fall in drug abuse. But when rioting befell Britain the summer before last, Cameron seemed vindicated. What began as a protest against police brutality in one of London’s poorest districts somehow snowballed into a seemingly senseless spree of theft and vandalism across the country: 3,443 crimes were committed in less than a week, resulting in five deaths and damage worth £200 million. In Cameron’s words, echoing many a right-wing jeremiad, this destructive frenzy was simply the logical conclusion of the “slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of [the U.K.] these past few generations.” Round up the usual suspects, he seemed to say—welfare, godlessness and the Sixties can step to the front.

Cameron has never addressed the concepts of Big Society and Broken Society in the same speech, it would appear—which is just as well, since they stand in flat contradiction. The central idea of the Big Society is that if we would only remove state interference then local non-profits would be able to take their rightful place in providing services. This presumes that the only thing preventing a vibrant array of volunteer associations from springing up all around us is the long shadow of the state. Yet if society is in fact broken, as Cameron suggests, then this premise will surely be false.

Perhaps Cameron means to imply that Broken and Big apply to different segments of society, with the well-adjusted “silent majority” sweeping up after the underclasses. This is of course an appealing thought for the majority, as many Western politicians have realized; Cameron’s “Broken Society” slogan is itself borrowed from Jacques Chirac’s 1995 campaign theme of “la fracture sociale,” and Chirac’s successor Nicolas Sarkozy came to power on the back of his 2005 denunciation of kids from the Parisian banlieus as “scum.” But comforting as this picture may be, it flatters the majority. For if Western societies are indeed fractured along moral lines—if, that is, their underclasses seem to act as if they have no stake in the perpetuation of social norms—this fracture only expresses a deeper dysfunction, a “moral collapse,” to use Cameron’s expression, that is scarcely limited to one particular class.

Consider the riots. When the BBC asked two boys in Manchester why they were looting, one responded: “Why are you going to miss the opportunity to get free stuff that’s worth loads of money?” Notice what the boy does not say: “I just joined in,” for instance, or “I fancied some new shoes.” Instead he offers a normative argument: anyone in his right mind would have done as I did. And the argument is logically sound. His premise is that of economic man: get as much as you can for as little cost as possible. In normal circumstances, the threat of punishment renders petty crime unprofitable, but in extraordinary times the costs and benefits shift. And if the expected return from theft—probable gain multiplied by probable cost—rises above zero, and no better opportunities present themselves, not to participate would be positively irrational.

This reasoning may be shocking, but it is hardly unfamiliar. Nor is it limited to one particular class—if anything, it is more common at the top than at the bottom. As the Daily Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne pointed out, in recent years Britain has seen bankers demand government handouts while awarding themselves colossal bonuses, politicians abuse parliamentary expenses for private gain, journalists hack the phones of celebrities and murder victims, and police accept payments from journalists. These crimes all share a basic structure with the boy’s looting (and welfare scamming, for that matter): the gains were obvious, punishment seemed unlikely, and the victims were too distant to create what economic man would term “psychological costs,” such as feelings of sympathy or guilt. In these circumstances—as when you come upon a wallet in a deserted street—only habit and shame can counteract self-interest. Perhaps self-interest simply overwhelmed them in battle. But an alternative explanation is that maximizing our own welfare at the expense of the community is no longer shameful—that it has, in fact, become a habit.

This might seem histrionic. Humans have always been self-interested, and every society has its monsters. Oborne himself tried to pin the blame on the monsters, especially those who set an example from the top of society, claiming that most people “continue to believe in honesty, decency, hard work, and putting back into society as much as they take out.” But the prevailing ethos of a society manifests itself above all in what it considers shameful, since it is through developing a sense of shame that we learn to regulate our own behavior. And the evidence suggests that most Britons no longer consider self-seeking to be shameful, as one of Oborne’s own observations shows:

A few weeks ago, I noticed an item in a newspaper saying that the business tycoon Sir Richard Branson was thinking of moving his headquarters to Switzerland. This move was represented as a potential blow to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, because it meant less tax revenue. I couldn’t help thinking that in a sane and decent world such a move would be a blow to Sir Richard, not the Chancellor. People would note that a prominent and wealthy businessman was avoiding British tax and think less of him. Instead, he has a knighthood and is widely feted.

The point is not that Branson has no sense of shame—his whole career, replete with self-promoting stunts such as driving a Sherman Tank down New York’s Fifth Avenue to promote Virgin Cola, suggests a man who cares very deeply about his image. The point is rather that Britons do not shame him. If Britain is indeed suffering from a “moral collapse,” as Cameron thinks, then the inability to find antisocial behavior shameful is at the root of it. Far from being on the margins of British society, the boy who could see no rational reason not to loot had only too firm a grasp on its dominant ethos.

And this ethos makes a mockery of civic conservatism. Cameron chose “Big Society” as a slogan because it allowed him to distance himself from Margaret Thatcher, who had infamously declared that “there is no such thing as society.” In Cameron’s view, there is such a thing as society, only buried beneath the stifling superstructure of the state; freed from the shackles of bureaucracy, civic-minded volunteers will inevitably spring up from every crack and crevice to usher in a golden age of civic-mindedness. But if a country’s dominant ethos is egoistic—if antisocial behavior is no longer shameful—then this golden age is at best unlikely. And if an army of volunteers should not come forth once we have dismantled the state, there will be no option but to call in the for-profit contractors. In the final analysis, then, the Big Society is, as George Eaton pointed out in the New Statesman, no less utopian than Engels’ infamous assertion that the state would eventually “wither away” under communism.

To change an ethos you need to change habits. Habits are the basic substance of moral life: they are the medium through which our values are translated daily, unthinkingly, into action; but they are also the medium through which our actions are translated, over the months and years, into values. If we spend our days looking out only for ourselves, trying to get as much as we can for as little cost as possible, are we really going to spend our nights volunteering at the soup kitchen? If fraternity is to be more than a campaign theme, an idle fantasy or a cynical ploy, it must be allowed to shape our day-to-day lives—and especially our day-to-day work. And with this in mind it is time to rethink an ideal whose very name is apt to make civic conservatives squirm.

Sometimes we lose a concept without noticing. We carry on saying the words, but the life has gone out of them; shorn of the power to orient or inform, they serve only to mystify. Such is the fate, in the twenty-first century, of “socialism.” In the United States it has become a term of abuse; elsewhere it is simply an abused term. Any attempt to reduce inequality can now be called socialist, it seems—from Barack Obama’s plan to secure new customers for private insurance companies to Tony Blair’s idea of unleashing the financial sector to pay for growth in public services. Of course everyone knew Blair was no socialist, whatever he claimed. And even the most rabid libertarian must be aware, deep down, that a President who calls the free market “the greatest force for economic progress in human history” is no socialist. But when it comes to someone like the new French president, François Hollande, leader of the Parti Socialiste, few would now object to the label. Hollande, reports the New York Times, “is vowing to impose a 75 percent tax on the portion of anyone’s income above a million euros ($1.24 million) a year.” This is the stuff of Occupy Wall Street’s wettest dreams. But that does not, in and of itself, make it socialism.

To some extent the name is irrelevant: the important thing is to keep our concepts clear. But historically the name “socialism” has generally been used to describe a theory of production rather than a theory of distribution. In its most common form, it referred to the idea that the “means of production” ought to be brought under democratic control. The only time that Britain had an unequivocally socialist government, for instance, between 1946 and 1951, it nationalized the most important industries—coal, electricity, cable and wireless, rail, transport, gas, iron and steel—and created a state-run healthcare system. The hope was that collective ends would be better served if economic production were consciously regulated and controlled. This emphasis on the common good sprang from an egalitarian outlook, of course, and it typically involved the notion of redistribution, but those features were shared with left-liberalism. What distinguished socialism was its vision of an economy organized around service rather than profit.

If we have lost the concept of socialism, it is because we no longer consider it a genuine possibility. For although the notion that Eskimos have umpteen words for snow is now known to be a myth, it still expresses an important truth: we tend to make conceptual distinctions only when they seem useful. Europeans have often been struck by the way Americans equate the Left with liberalism; but since liberal is more or less as far left as anyone has ever gone in mainstream American politics, at least since Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election, there has never been any need to distinguish the two.[1] If the term socialist had been used to refer to liberals in mid-century Europe, in contrast, people would have needed a new term to describe the real socialists. For all the differences in their modes of self-understanding and self-presentation, Europe and America are now drawing closer politically. Socialism is now as dead in Europe as it is in America.

Socialists had often argued that collective ownership would produce efficiency gains: just as work in a factory is coordinated by a manager, rather than by an internal market, so whole industries could be administered rationally if freed from the dictates of the market. But this proved false. The real analogy, it turned out, was with the inefficiency of corporations freed from the pressures of competition: just as private monopolies grow bloated and fail to serve their customers, so do state monopolies. Those who ran state monopolies may have thought of themselves as public servants, but their good intentions were not enough. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, they were simply too distant from conditions on the ground to allocate productive resources effectively.[2]

While the failures of nationalization can be overstated, they were nevertheless real. There were early successes: life expectancy rose, for instance, as did literacy and social mobility; gone forever were the brutal excesses of nineteenth-century Manchester, with its poverty, its disease, its wretched child labor. But by thinking of state ownership as the means to a fraternal society, socialists fell into treating it as an end in itself. They became statists. And since it will never be easy to discern the true face of brotherhood in the cold expression of a bureaucrat, the administrative state came to seem directly opposed to the realm of human association and mutuality. It was thus declared unwieldy and inhuman, a bloated monster that created dependency and suffocated local initiative. The logical response seemed to be privatization. And so, in one of history’s little ironies, the idea of using public policy to engender fraternity became the political property of the Right.

At the same time, and largely as a result, the range of respectable economic thought narrowed considerably. Back when socialism seemed like a real possibility, the third way between it and laissez-faire liberalism was Keynesian liberalism. Keynesian liberalism shared socialism’s aspiration to ensure full employment and the alleviation of poverty, but it also shared classical liberalism’s skepticism concerning public ownership: all other things being equal, free markets were to be preferred. With socialism out of the picture, what had previously been the center now became the Left—or, to put it another way, the space of political possibility contracted. The dearth of compelling new ideas coming out of the endless discussions at Zuccotti Park bears witness to this contraction. We read Marx for the diagnosis, not the cure; Badiou and Zizek give us little more than the frisson of a radicalism beyond comprehension; for actual policies, we can’t think much beyond Paul Krugman.

But perhaps we need to rethink socialism. For what differentiates socialism from both left-liberalism and civic conservatism is, at bottom, its focus on the character of work, the day-to-day labor by which we produce both the world around us and, in the end, ourselves. And in and of itself this entails nothing about the state. Once socialism is distinguished from statism, it can also be liberated from it, both practically and theoretically. If we can find a non-statist mold into which to cast the core ideal of socialism, it might be possible for us to forge a politics of fraternity that is transformative without being utopian. And in this respect, I believe, our best guide might turn out to be a theorist described by Hayek himself as “a very wise man” and “a sort of socialist saint”—the inimitable R. H. Tawney (1880-1962).

Tawney was an extraordinary character by any standard. Hugh Gaitskell, the former leader of the Labour Party, called him “the best man I have ever known”; The Times wrote that “no man alive has put more people into his spiritual and intellectual debt”; and his biographer Ross Terrill recounts that some claimed to have been converted to Christianity just by “the example of [his] humility, serenity and sense of ultimate things.” Whereas many Leftist intellectuals stay aloof from the proletarians whose interests they claim to represent, or else content themselves with meaningless gestures of self-disavowal—a New York-based literary journal recently urged its readers to shred their college diplomas in solidarity with the masses—Tawney, still feeling his way into the nascent discipline of economic history after graduating from Oxford, decided to serve the proletariat, crisscrossing northern England every weekend to hold classes at trade unions and workers’ institutes, debating the principles and practices of industrialism with weavers, potters and miners, and grading as many as 58 essays per week.

This life was shattered when the Great War erupted in 1914. Tawney enlisted straight away rather than waiting to be called up, turning down the class-based privilege of an officer’s commission. This gesture proved to be of some importance: shot on the first day of the Somme in 1916, he was left lying on the battlefield for two days and then denied the care reserved for officers. When the Bishop of Oxford paid a concerned visit to the field hospital, the matron scolded her charge: “Why didn’t you tell us you were a gentleman?” Nor did humility desert him even as he became one of the doyens of the Labour Party after the war. Teaching at the London School of Economics, Tawney once became so absorbed in his lecture that he placed his still-burning pipe into the pocket of his tweed jacket, which duly caught fire. Smoke billowing around him, his students looking on in silent consternation, he finally became aware of the fire, looked down, and calmly remarked: “I see I burn prematurely.”

Tawney had friends in high places as well as low. On his first day at Rugby, one of England’s most famous boarding schools, he met William Temple, who was not only the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury but himself went on to occupy the post during the Second World War. At Balliol College, Oxford, he fell in with the economist William Beveridge, later Sir William Beveridge, whose sister he married. Both friends later played crucial roles in the foundation of the postwar welfare state: Temple’s best-selling Christianity and the Social Order (1942), published in his first year as Archbishop, developed the moral case; and Beveridge’s seminal reports Social Insurance and Allied Services (1942) and Full Employment in a Free Society (1944) provided the blueprint. And in many ways these documents reflected the driving concerns of Tawney’s own work.

Tawney is probably most famous for Equality (1931), in which he argued for an idea that remains radical to this day, if taken seriously: equality of opportunity. Nowadays everyone claims to believe in this ideal, Right and Left, yet few are willing to follow through on what it obviously entails. For without a certain measure of equality of outcome, one generation’s equality of opportunity will be the next generation’s class privilege. Given how alien the impassable hierarchies of Edwardian England now seem to us, Tawney’s critique of his contemporaries remains surprisingly—and painfully—resonant:

Most social systems need a lightning conductor. The formula which supplies it to our own is equality of opportunity. The conception is one to which homage is paid today by all, including those who resist most strenuously attempts to apply it. But the rhetorical tribute which it receives appears sometimes to be paid on the understanding that it shall be content with ceremonial honours. It retains its throne, on condition that it refrains from meddling with the profitable business of the factory and market-place. Its credit is good, as long as it does not venture to cash its cheques. Like other respectable principles, it is encouraged to reign, provided that it does not attempt to rule.[3]

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Equality on the British Left. So popular that in twenty-one years it went through four editions, its arguments effectively laid the groundwork for the welfare state created by Beveridge and company a decade later. “What is important,” Tawney had written, “is not that all men should receive the same pecuniary income. It is that the surplus resources of society should be so husbanded and applied that it is a matter of minor significance whether they should receive it or not.” The postwar welfare state expressed this principle in law: a couple would be given a pension that would allow them to grow old in dignity no matter how rich they or their children had become; a worker who went blind would receive disability compensation rather than being forced to beg from his neighbors; boys and girls would be educated to their full humanity regardless of the wealth or wisdom of their parents. The rich would help the poor not out of charity, with all the resentment and hypocrisy that can entail, but out of citizenly fellowship.

Yet the headline arguments of Equality were as congenial to left-liberals like Beveridge and John Rawls as they were to socialists. What made the book distinctively socialist were the sections that recapitulated Tawney’s earlier works, which had focused on the nature of production. In The Acquisitive Society (1920), Tawney argued for a “functional society,” in which work is organized towards the common good, as against an “acquisitive society,” in which individuals work only for their own enrichment. During the war, a spirit of national unity had challenged the individualistic presuppositions of classical liberalism, and Tawney saw no reason why this ought not to be continued. In a 1918 essay, he had put this in the starkest terms:

The right principle for the community to follow is simple, though its application may be complex. Though industrial reform cannot be imposed by the state, the state can, at least, emphasize the principle that industry and trade are a form of public service, and that the man who in time of peace plays on public necessities to amass a fortune—the monopolist, or the speculator who corners the market, or the urban landlord who grows rich by other men’s industry—is morally on a par with the merchant or manufacturer who holds his countrymen to ransom in time of war.[4]

An industrialist who considered himself a public servant would, Tawney argued in that essay, offer the community the best service he could; he would charge the lowest price compatible with adequate payment for himself and his colleagues; he would redirect any surplus earnings back to the community; and if he provided no service he would demand no payment. The state would encourage this ethic by requiring him to publish a complete account of his costs and his profits, so that workers and customers could check if wages and prices were fair. But publicity, he conceded, was “no more than an antiseptic.” What was needed was a cure.

The best-known argument in The Acquisitive Society concerns ownership. In a functional society, Tawney wrote—i.e. one in which every worker conceived of himself as a public servant—citizens would not consider property rights to be absolute or unequivocal; insofar as private ownership got in the way of service, it would be curtailed. If this sounds like the kind of revolutionary communism that gets people digging holes in their gardens and raising their mattresses by a few inches, Tawney insisted that it was quite the opposite: “If by property is meant the personal possessions which the word suggests to nine-tenths of the population, the object of Socialists is not to undermine property, but to protect and increase it.” He wasn’t thinking of ordinary household property, but of cases like coal deposits and capital inheritances. Suppose coal is discovered under your land. Why should it be thought of as yours? Why should you receive royalties for ever after, regardless of whether you perform any kind of service?

The real analogy to many kinds of modern property is not the simple property of the small landowner or the craftsman, still less the household goods and dear domestic amenities, which is what the word suggests to the guileless minds of clerks and shopkeepers, and which stampede them into displaying the ferocity of terrified sheep when the cry is raised that “Property” is threatened. It is the feudal dues which robbed the French peasant of part of his produce till the Revolution abolished them. How do royalties differ from quintaines and lods et ventes?

This wasn’t just a debating point. In 1919, Tawney served on a government commission on the future of the mining industry. Meeting various proprietors, he began to marvel at “the alchemy by which a gentleman who has never seen a coal mine distils the contents of that place of gloom into elegant chambers in London and a house in the country.” In response to such functionless property rights, the commission concluded that the mines should be nationalized. Twenty-six years later, as part of the sweeping socialist agenda of the post-war Labour government, their proposal was finally enacted.

But what makes Tawney important today is not so much the fact that he advocated nationalization as how he advocated it. He always insisted that nationalization was a means, not an end; if it proved counterproductive, it should be jettisoned. And even if it were necessary, he thought, it could never be sufficient. Many socialists seemed to think that fraternity could be achieved from the top down, just through making industries accountable to elected politicians. But on Tawney’s view nationalization would never produce fellowship if it took the responsibility for service away from workers themselves, denying them the freedom to exercise their own intellectual and creative capacities, and preventing them from transcending the acquisitive ethos for themselves. “However the socialist ideal may be expressed,” Tawney insisted late in life, “few things could be more remote from it than a herd of tame animals with wise rulers in command.”

What was needed, Tawney thought, was for every worker to conceive of himself as a public servant. This demand was above all ethical. But it wasn’t simply pious utopianism, like the demand for politics without malice or stability without coercion. Tawney wanted to engender ethical change by institutional means, building on a resource already available in his society: the notion of a profession. Tawney defined a profession as “a trade which is organized, incompletely, no doubt, but genuinely, for the performance of a [social] function.” Examples include medicine, teaching, law and the military, trades all governed by associations which prohibit conduct benefitting the individual worker at the expense of the community he is supposed to be serving.

So, if they are doctors, they recognize that there are certain kinds of conduct which cannot be practiced, however large the fee offered for them, because they are unprofessional; if scholars and teachers, that it is wrong to make money by deliberately deceiving the public, as is done by makers of patent medicines, however much the public may clamor to be deceived; if judges or public servants, that they may not increase their incomes by selling justice for money; if soldiers, that the service comes first, and their private inclinations, even the reasonable preference of life to death, second. 

In other words, professional associations are institutions that both foster and enforce an ethos of public service or professionalism. They are self-coercive: although answerable to the state at some level, they are constituted and regulated by workers themselves. As such they point to the possibility of instituting labor-based fraternity without resorting to either high-minded utopianism or oppressive collectivism.They point, in short, to a socialism we can believe in.

“We are the change that we seek,” preached Barack Obama in 2008— and he touched something in us, something that seemed both real and utterly beyond grasp. In the years that followed, our rage was as much at our own vagueness as it was at Obama’s; when Occupy Wall Street revived the idea of a new community born through us, not government, it could only repress the vagueness through romantic fantasies of a pre-industrial direct democracy. Tawney’s ethical socialism does not solve everything. But it does offer a kind of concretion to the longing for fraternity, a critique of the present that is at the same time a guide for individual action. In Tawney’s ideal, all work would be a kind of social service, and each worker would consider himself a professional.

This is, in the first instance, a demand for institution building: in journalism, banking and industry, for instance, vocational schools should instill, and professional bodies should enforce, a sense of pride in public service and shame in self-seeking, so that, as Tawney rather quaintly put it, they “cultivate the esprit de corps which is natural to young men, and … make them feel that to snatch special advantages for oneself, like any common business man, is, apart from other considerations, an odious offence against good manners.” But it would also require us to reform existing institutions. For professions can easily turn guild-like, protecting their members’ interests at the expense of society. The American Medical Association, for example, spent much of the twentieth century campaigning against proposals to make healthcare cheaper and more extensive. And there is no doubt that labor unions have sometimes obstructed the common good. No socialist would ever deny that unions play an essential role in industrial democracy. But rather than simply defending them uncritically, a true socialist would hold them to their higher purpose—which is, among other things, to hold workers to theirs.

But institutions are not everything. Many of us work in trades too diffuse and diverse for any formal association to serve. And a professional association is unlikely to have any effect, by itself, unless its members more or less subscribe to the ethos of service already. There can be professions without professionals, but there can also be professionals without professions. The final responsibility, then, lies with individuals. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.

As we move from an industrial to a service economy, it is becoming easier to ask yourself what the purpose of your work actually is, what service it actually performs. Does building your iPhone app count as a genuine service, a contribution to the collective enterprise of society as you see it? Or are you just exploiting people’s weakness for procrastinating? If this seems like a false dichotomy, or if the notion of work as service seems jejune and naïve, it is because we remain in the grip of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. But that grip can be broken—or so I hope to show.

The second part of this essay will be published in Issue Seven. To read it, please subscribe.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. Milwaukee did have socialist mayors in the periods 1910-12, 1916-40 and 1948-1960; and Bernie Sanders, now Senator for Vermont, is a self-described socialist. The question of why socialism has had so little impact in America has been subject to academic debate ever since Werner Sombart’s 1906 tract, Why is there No Socialism in the United States? Possible causes include America’s overwhelmingly rural geography; its federal constitution; racial divisions within the working class; and a pervasive spirit of individualism.
  2. 2. In actual fact, socialist theorists had often been aware of this potential pitfall, but their proposed solution, which was usually some form of local democratic feedback, was impractical or at least ineffective—especially as compared to market prices, which aggregate information about consumer needs almost instantaneously.
  3. 3. In the face of John Boehner-style success stories, whereby the successful rise of one member of the working class is held as an example to the rest, Tawney was simply sardonic: “It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconveniences of their position, by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles and nothing more, the more fortunate of their species will one day shed their tails, distend their mouths and stomachs, hop nimbly on to dry land, and croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs. This conception of society may be described, perhaps, as the Tadpole Philosophy, since the consolation which it offers for social evils consists in the statement that exceptional individuals can succeed in evading them.”
  4. 4. One might think of this as one of the broader implications of Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons; Miller was of course a socialist.
Jonny Thakkar is a founding editor of The Point. View all posts by Jonny Thakkar → This entry was posted in Essays, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Tags: , , , ,
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