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Artillery Row

It’s OK to be angry about socialism

It is perverse that this chronic failure of an ideology endures

As I write, Labour seems set for electoral victory and yet its professed policies and publicity are so anodyne as to have us wondering whether its next government will be socialist or embrace social democracy. Possibly Starmer and Reeves are unsure — practical governance being dependent on the size of its majority. They have been wise enough not to reveal much of their political souls and their core instincts, if they have any. So, it may be revealing to review what their Spads will have been reading recently. 

The grumpy grandpa of American politics wrote a book last year which proved to be a bestseller and still features prominently on display in the remaining bookshops we have left. No doubt Bernie Sanders will be happy that the free market has yielded him voluminous sales, albeit aided by the odd Guardian interview. Its title, “It’s OK to be Angry about Capitalism:, tells you all you need to know — that wealth is stacked disproportionately in the coffers of the few, that the alleviation of undefined poverty requires redistribution of wealth, that common assets such as water and land justify common ownership, for “equity”, and that all this presents problems that are historically compounding and urgent. It presents a world of unfair and pre-revolutionary economics, and is essentially a simplistic summary of Thomas Piketty’s dense, turgid, intellectual nonsense, concluding theoretically without evidence that the world will create more wealth if it curbs free market capitalism. 

He wants increased taxes on companies that use automation and robotics to cut costs and employment. That would only displace innovation and manufacturing elsewhere, compounding the problem it attempts to delay. Worries about technology are understandable but economic history has repeatedly taught us that when industries decline and/or evolve in the face of technological advance, employment opportunities also evolve. The wonderful efficiency of the free market means that it sorts this change out quicker and less painfully than could any government. 

There is an issue on which I find myself agreeing with Uncle Bernie — that lack of local news can cause people to overuse social media and lead them to fake news and conspiracy theories. His prescription is, of course, grants for local media. Notwithstanding that tax breaks are usually more benign than tax handouts, lowering inefficient distortions in economic behaviour and reducing fraud, I am not sure that this would work anyway. Obtaining news from social media is not going to be prevented. Better to regulate its publication than subsidise its failing participants. 

Socialism, like its ugly big sister Communism, is a failed ideology

Senator Sanders, like our own Magic Grandpa, Jeremy Corbyn, is an old fashioned socialist. Just as when one’s undergraduate offspring surprise you with some newly learnt certainties about politics and culture, you listen and wonder whether they have actually thought it through. Socialism, like its ugly big sister Communism, is a failed ideology. There have been something like 80 socialist governments in democracies since the 1920s and every one has left power with weaker economies than before. For me, that is failure. To a socialist that may be the wrong criteria, of course. Success may be measured by the distribution, by progress to the mirage of equality as an endpoint, (or “equity” – like “economic justice”, something which sounds benign but is in practice brutal). Thing is, such principles transposed into policies rarely deliver the services that a nation and its communities need and often weaken them completely. The nearest thing we have ever had to pure socialism in Britain is the NHS, a federal bureaucratic behemoth that consistently delivers mediocre healthcare outcomes. 

Less cuddly in terms of popularity, but just as old and opinionated is the economist Joseph Stiglitz. His latest is The Road to Freedom: Economics and the Good Society (very witty, as opposed to Friedman’s Road to Serfdom), and seeks to reclaim the concept of “freedom” for liberals and progressives, claiming it is more complex and nuanced than how most of the Right understand it. We follow the arguments of a cleverer mind here, but I doubt whether, if liberals start to use “freedom”, we would actually be allowed some. 

Stiglitz rails against American gun ownership, which is fine. The US is a very strange country in that regard, with widespread freedom of gun ownership leading to restrictions in daily life for everyone else. Conversely, I suppose it is like our fox hunting prohibitions. I have no wish to hunt but don’t see why there should be a law preventing people doing so — but that is me thinking about freedom in the old way. Stiglitz argues that the state should define what is good for us in terms of freedom by cost benefit analysis, whereby restrictions on individual behaviour are weighed against the greater freedom of overall societal benefit, such as better healthcare outcomes or an increasing GDP. He is no socialist — as an economist he understands that it does not work — but he is a thinker who has moved to the Left over time and this may prove to be more influential than if he was spouting the usual tax-the-rich and curb-the-corporations argument. He wants to redirect freedom from being an individual right to one that can be weaponized by government to justify its interventions.  

If you must read economics from a left-wing perspective, the only truly great thinker was the late David Graeber — Keynes was a centrist — and he was an anthropologist best on history, not analysis. His Debt: The First 5,000 Years is amazingly insightful. (Debt is money. Money is debt. Metal is money and might be debt. Debts are units of trust and, therefore, so is money). 

I can think of only two successful peacetime governments, Attlee’s and Thatcher’s

There are less damaging alternatives to socialism for those who are centre left: Social or Christian Democracy, the Third Way of Blair and Clinton. Liberalism has been the most successful because it is the most adaptable and permeable. Freedom used to be a concept beloved by Liberals in the C19th and Stiglitz is likely to find eager ears amongst them to reclaim the word. Electorally the Liberal Party’s performance since the rise of Labour has been lamentable, but ambitious liberals became Tory Wets or formed Labour’s right and have effectively ruled the country continually since the Suez Crisis, Thatcher apart. When party activists complain that their senior MPs are not properly Conservative or socialist, they are largely right. With a First Past the Post electoral system that encourages two large parties it is inevitable that they are both umbrella coalitions and so liberals rise to the foreground and govern us. This does not guarantee effective government, of course. For that, a government needs to define its aims and timescales in a handful of points and be unswerving in delivering them. The constant buffeting of national affairs and media pressure, as well as the enthusiasm or not of the civil service, means it is easy to be distracted. 

I can think of only two successful peacetime governments, Attlee’s and Thatcher’s. They imposed their personalities and policies upon the machinery of administration and were ideologically inspired. The rest was well meaning muddle, often damaging and partly corrected later. Our likely fate in the next Parliament is more muddle, with demands for more tax from those who can’t contemplate cutting state spending and most of everyone else trying to deceive you as to what freedom means.

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