Friday, February 13, 2009

An Examination of Socialism Part II

by Hilaire Belloc

In the first place, no man in a Socialistic State would be what we now call free. This is a proposition very hotly denied by many Socialists, because they believe it to be an unfair and a misleading one; but no clear thinker can deny it, and by far the best arguments used in this connection by the clearest thinkers upon the Socialistic side are to the effect that, though the citizen in a Socialistic State would not be "free" in the sense in which an old independent owner of land and capital used to be, he would be much freer than the mass of the population is to-day. Before returning to that, however, it is well to repeat the first and fundamental objection to the Socialist solution if our modern difficulties. No man under a Socialist State would be what we call free. He could not exercise his will as to where he should go, what he should consume, what he should do with his time, to what activities he should direct his energies.

There is a rather muddle-headed habit, but a common one, present not only in Socialist discussion but in most other political discussion, which may be briefly described as trying to have your cake and eat it too. Men like to believe that some ideal of theirs would have all the advantages inherent to itself, and also the advantages in contradiction with its very nature. ‘All men love individual freedom—·even such a remnant of it as the modern artisan may claim is very dear, and the threat of losing it is a serious one. It is, therefore, not surprising that those who see in Socialism the only remedy for the appalling evils which we suffer to-day try to reconcile that remedy with individual freedom. But consider for a moment how impossible such a reconciliation is. A man in a factory under a master may, if he choose, leave that factory and look for work elsewhere. If he prefer, for the sake of security, to remain in that one employment, he is in many things at the disposal of his master’s will during the hours of his labour. He cannot go to the manager or to the master and say: "I don’t like this job; I feel inclined for that other one. Be good enough to give it me.” At least he can go and say it, and perhaps in certain cases if he shows large aptitude for the new job and is able to convince his master of it, or if he find’s a special favour extended to him, that liberty of choice will be conceded; but it is obvious that it could not be universal. You could not have every employee in Mr. Jones’s mill saying exactly what he would do and for how long he would do it, or choosing his job according to his private inclination. So far liberty is already largely restricted by the industrial system, and the rich man is far freer than the poor one. But now go a step further. Work is done, and the man goes out into the street. He thinks he will have a glass of beer; but all the public houses in the neighbourhood are owned by Mr. Jones just as much as the mill is, and Mr. Jones will or will not let him drink, according as he sees fit. He goes home, and, finding something not suitable to him in his present house, he decides to move into another which has caught his fancy, and which is more convenient to him for some reason. He finds, to his astonishment, that not only is Mr. Jones the owner of his present house, but of the other house too; and can deny him the faculty of exchanging his old residence for the new one. He thinks he will use part of his wages to get a pair of boots; but he can only get boots of the sort provided by Mr. Jones, and Mr. Jones can allow him to have a new pair, or not, just as he thinks fit. He will go to a music-hall. He finds that Mr. Jones owns that, too, and decides on his entertainment. Wherever he turns, all the things he desires to get, all the places in which he desires to move and to have his being, belong the same man as owned the mill where his working hours were spent, and wherever he goes, no matter how far afield, this omnipotent being is everywhere the owner and controller, not, indeed of his person but of the food by which his person remains alive, and of the shelter by which he remains alive, and of every recreation or necessity relative to his being.

Now Mr. Jones is, under Socialist conditions, the Government; and to the lost of freedom which every man feels during those hours which he gives as a wage-earner to the capitalist who employs him must be added, under a Socialist system, a similar loss of freedom in all the other hours of his life. There is no way out of that truth.

To this criticism the Socialist has an answer. Te answer is as follows: “I admit that the ownership of the means of production by the Government would be a bad thing, if it were used despotically, as such ownership is now used by individual owners. But I would never tolerate a Socialist ideal unless that ideal included democratic management.”

Note at this point that the two ideas of Government ownership and democracy have no connection. We have all of us met Socialists who were not in the least democratic, and it is perfectly easy to be a Socialist and a most rabid anti-democrat, to do whatever you think is good for them than good and evil. Still, it must be admitted that the desire for Socialism, springing as it nearly always does in hearts powerfully affected by the misery of the people, is usually associated with a democratic ideal of government; and most Socialists will say to you: “The man will not be free as regards the Government, but since he will, as a citizen, be the master of the Government, he will be really just as free as the most independent owner is to-day, and much more free than the ordinary wage-earner is to-day. He will be able to make or unmake the regulations which shall control his life."

The critic of Socialism at once replies that this will not be the case. A man voting as one of many thousands or millions is quite a different thing from a man enjoying elastic and immediate personal control every moment over his own actions. No one would be so insane as to say that the actions of a modern Government, on however democratic a base, are invariably consonant with the will of the great majority of its citizens. Most people would say that usually the actions of the Government were out of touch with the will of the great majority of the people. This, they would say, was true even of the very limited sphere of Government to-day, and of the very slow and imperfect action which it can take in quite a few matters. Those who believe this to be true even of Government as it is cannot believe that Socialism, no matter how democratic the political system with which it was combined, would give freedom of action even to the majority of citizens.

The critic of Socialism asks a further question: What about the minority? Either you must have a constitution where nothing can be done without an overwhelming majority, in which case you would be perpetually coming to a deadlock, or else you must work by ordinary majorities, in which case you would be perpetually creating hearty and intolerable discontent in large minorities opposed to you. Further, this system of majority voting, even if it worked, could only apply to the very large decisions of life. In all the innumerable minor details that make up our circumstances we should necessarily be in the hands of officials. I am not saying that would be a bad thing, or that it would be worse than the state of affairs that exists now for most of our citizens. I am only pointing out that this is an absolutely inevitable result of Socialism, and a result that cannot be avoided save by a process of confusion of thought; by trying to believe that a thing can both be and not be at the same time. Nor has any one ever been able to show how so clear and obvious a resultant of the Socialist system could possibly be avoided.

The next criticism offered to Socialism is of a more subtle and profound kind, but is nonetheless very real. As Socialism would destroy what we call freedom, so it would destroy what we call the satisfaction of the desire for property. Now here two very important arguments used by Socialists against their opponents must be immediately noted.

First, they say, under present conditions the vast mass of our fellow-citizens can not satisfy that human desire for property in so far as it exists; their whole efforts are directed—and God knows under what an anxious strain of body and mind!—to satisfy the bare necessities of human appetite—the necessary food, and clothing, and house room. They would, under a Socialistic State, if it were democratically managed, own, not indeed any of the means of production, but far, far more of the enjoyable permanent possessions of life than they do to-day. This is perfectly true, and all that the critic of Socialism can set against it is a repetition of the undoubted truth just stated—namely, that under a Socialist State the desire for property which can now in theory be satisfied by all, and is in practice satisfied by some, would not be satisfied by any if private property in land and the means of production were abolished.

But even to this the Socialist has a second and a very strong reply. He can say: "The desire for property does not exist very strongly in the case of land and of machinery. The desire to have these things is only a desire to be what is called ‘rich’—that is, to be able to exchange the product of land and capital so owned against daily enjoyments. The desire is not for the things themselves, for the land itself, or for the machinery itself; and those things which a man really does desire to own, the things which are part of his permanent possessions, and with which he is constantly in contact, and out of which he obtains a permanent enjoyment because he is their owner, those things—his books, his furniture, his ornaments, his pictures, perhaps even a little plot of land (if he promises to produce nothing for sale with it)—he could possess under the Socialist State; and then everybody would have such personal possessions, whereas now very few do.”

There is but one reply to this very powerful contention, which is that, as a fact, men do desire to own: land and the means of production, and to own them absolutely, not only in order that they may be what is called “rich”—that, is, that they may command passing enjoyments—but for the pleasure and consequences of owning the things themselves, and that for the following reasons:

First, that you cannot distinguish between the desire of ownership in a thing according to whether that thing is productive or not. It is true the interest which a man takes in a share of a business is not the same as the interest he takes in a particular instrument which he himself handles and uses. Still, it is a personal interest, and not a mere crude sense of superior opportunity for enjoyment. This is particularly the case with regard to land, which arouses the most powerful sentiment of affection and interest in the possessor, quite independently of whether it is cultivated for profit or not, and quite independently of the amount in which it is owned.

Secondly, this general desire to own is connected with certain human consequences which have nothing to do with whether the thing owned is capable of exploiting the labour of others or not. Of one of these human consequences, economic freedom, mention has been made above. Another well worth noting, and closely attached to it, is the preservation of personal honour. Where few own, the mass who do not own at all are under a perpetual necessity to abase themselves in a number of little details. The mass of the population gets trained to the sacrifice of honour; it gets used to being ordered about by the capitalist, and partially loses its manhood. If there were but one capitalist, the State, this evil would certainly be exaggerated. Men might be better fed, better clothed,and materially much happier; they might be brighter in spirits, better companions, and hea1thier men all round, but they would necessarily have lost all power of expression for the sentiment known as personal honour; they would have one absolute master, all forms of personal seclusion from whom would be impossible. This, when it si stated in the midst of modern evils, appears a very small point; but those who have passed by compulsion from a higher to a lower standard of personal honour can testify how vital a point is that honour in the scheme of human happiness.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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