Critical commentary on an article on socialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The article is: Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill, “Socialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019.

This article is an example of how scholarship obfuscates the subject matter.

The subject of the article is “socialism.” After pointing out that the word is ambiguous and vague, there should be an attempt at a prescriptive definition, which they do give. They begin correctly with the statement: “Socialism is best defined in contrast with capitalism, as socialism has arisen both as a critical challenge to capitalism, and as a proposal for overcoming and replacing it.”

So, if socialism contrasts with capitalism, then the problem is to give a definition of capitalism, which they also give by listing, what they call, “constitutive features.”

“(i) The bulk of the means of production is privately owned and controlled.

(ii) People legally own their labor power. (Here capitalism differs from slavery and feudalism, under which systems some individuals are entitled to control, whether completely or partially, the labor power of others).

(iii) Markets are the main mechanism allocating inputs and outputs of production and determining how societies’ productive surplus is used, including whether and how it is consumed or invested.

An additional feature that is typically present wherever (i)–(iii) hold, is that:

(iv) There is a class division between capitalists and workers, involving specific relations (e.g., whether of bargaining, conflict, or subordination) between those classes, and shaping the labor market, the firm, and the broader political process.”

Although these points do describe features of capitalism, I would not call them all “constitutive.” A necessary condition for capitalism is the presence of, what Marx called, “free laborers” or “proletarians.” This is why Bernard Shaw wrote: “To begin with, the word Capitalism is misleading. The proper name of our system is Proletarianism.” Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, 1928

It is (i) and (ii) which — properly formulated — is a necessary and sufficient condition for capitalism. However, as they have formulated it, it is misleading. The formulation has two phrases which are not accurate. The first is the word “bulk” meaning “most”, and the second phrase “means of production,” which comes from Karl Marx, and suggests something like “mass production.” The phrase “means of production” in Marx includes territory of land. But if we think of indigenous people (who are not capitalists), they use material found on the land for making tools, shelters, and they use the land for hunting, for fishing, and for gathering food for consumption, and they may also use the land for herding and cultivation — in short, for subsistence. It is misleading to talk here of “production.”

It is not that the “bulk” or “most” of the land (which is what we should be talking about) is privately owned; rather, all of it is controlled by the government — where there is a government — as a sellable commodity. For example, in the United States all land was owned by the government and originally sold for a minimum of $1 an acre.

Capitalism is best described as a political system which bars people from a free access to subsistence land; thus creating proletarians.

And then, socialism, as an antithesis to capitalism, is a political system which grants everyone a right of free access to subsistence land, or something approximating this.

The Danger of Disgruntled Employees and a Lame President

Julian Carlton, on Aug. 14, 1914, set fire to Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, Teliesen, in Wisconsin, and killed seven people, this included killing with an axe.
“Carlton’s motive for the attack was never conclusively determined, as he pled not guilty and refused to explain himself to the authorities before passing away. However, it is most likely that Carlton snapped after learning he would be let go from his job at Taliesin. Witnesses claimed he had been in several disputes with both employees and Borthwick, and that Wright had begun advertising for another worker. Carlton’s wife Gertrude, who also lived and worked on the grounds, further testified that her husband had recently grown agitated and paranoid, and that the two of them were even supposed to travel to Chicago in search of work on the day of the rampage.”TALIESIN MASSACRE (FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT)

It has become a policy when firing an employee to have the employee pack-up his personal belongings under supervision and be escorted out of the building immediately. This is to prevent any time for brooding and performing acts of retaliation, as what seems to have occurred at Teliesen.

President Trump has been given roughly 70 days for brooding and retaliation, until his replacement on Jan. 20, 2021.

Alexander Gray’s classification of socialisms

This is a further commentary on Alexander Gray’s The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin, 1946.

At the outset of the book, Gray expresses skepticism about a neat definition of “socialism.” He is, of course, correct in his skepticism. Most words suffer from ambiguity and vagueness; much more so abstract words which end in “-ism.”

He is probably right to begin with a survey of individuals who were called socialists, and reserve any attempt at classification and definition to the end of the book — as he does.

Although explicitly he classifies socialists into four categories, he actually uses five. The fifth category is whether the socialist was a Revolutionary Socialist or an Evolutionary (or Reformist, or Revisionary) Socialist. In this broad sense, socialism is simply a dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs. That is a necessary condition; it is not sufficient. It has to do with the nature of this dissatisfaction.

Well what can you do with the State? Incidentally, asking this question without saying anything about the nature of a particular State, is totally unproductive. When people talk about a “State” they are really talking about a particularly constituted government. It is entirely misleading to equate the State with government. The genus here is “government” and “State” is a species. Government exists when rules exist. And without rules, we have a Hobbesian brute state of nature.

As to the dissatisfaction with the status quo, from a historical perspective society is divided between masters and slaves, lords and serfs, and presently employers and employees. This is the perspective of Karl Marx, and constitutes what Marx called a “class struggle.” Well, certainly such a classifications can be made. But, as Gray asks, do these classes actually struggle? Well, there were various rebellions — but were they between classes? They were local and limited. And currently, when there are strikes, it is for improving wages of a narrow sector of this working class; and not for the improvement of workers in general, and certainly not to get rid of wages as such.

Gray is right to point out that there is no “solidarity” among workers in even one factory, or one country; no less than a solidarity between workers of different countries. And the solidarity which does exist is usually not greater than the strike of one trade union. We cannot ignore the fact that many workers are, indeed, satisfied with their wages, and do not want any radical changes.

And those that are unemployed or underemployed seem to place their hope in an opportunity to vote. This was the case with women and now this is the case with blacks. They think they can elect a candidate who will represent their interests, but the more likely scenario is that they will elect a candidate who will seek his own interests. Even if a true representative is elected, he or she will be in a minority.

But I stray from Gray.

In the concluding chapter 18 of his book, Gray classifies socialists into four types. I have tried to place his classification into a chart below. In order for the category of Anarchism to fit as I have placed it, people must be granted a free access to subsistence land. Although Gray discusses the Agrarians in chapter 11, who advocated a free access to subsistence land, he seems to forget them when discussing anarchism in general. Well, I put them on the chart where they seem to belong.

Alexander Gray’s classification of socialisms

Political Orientation

In the Wikipedia article, Poltical Spectrum, there are described different ways of placing a person’s political orientation.

An early one was presented by the psychologist Hans Eysenck “Chapter 7: Politics and Personality,” in Sense and Nonsense in Psychology (1957).

I found a quiz on the internet — allegedly based on Eysenck’s work — which can be taken by anyone to see where they are placed on his scale. Here is the quiz, and below is my own result after taking the quiz:

There is also a similar chart, called the Nolan chart, which looks like this:
My own approach to political charts is more limited. Since I reject all non-democratic forms of government, that leaves me with two questions:

1. Are you in favor of giving each person a right to free subsistence land? Yes No

2. Are you in favor of micro-democracy? Yes No

I also associate macro-democracy with a centralized government, there are thus four possible alternatives.

Andrew Chrucky’s Politico-Economic Democratic Chart

Reflections on Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit”

I am reading Carl Sagan’s collection of essays, titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (1995). I agree with everything in the book, except for two caveats.

The first is that although Sagan juxtaposes the findings of science against superstition and pseudo-science, his real intent is to recommend critical thinking. This becomes evident from two considerations.

The first. He tells us that while teaching at Cornell, the chairman of the astronomy department, Yervant Terzian, allowed him to teach critical thinking in a course titled “Astronomy 490.” (p. 435)

The other matter is that this critical thinking course was composed of what he described as “baloney detection kit,” described in detail in the essay “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” My point is that science and the methods of science are a subset of critical thinking, and this is admitted by Sagan himself in footnote to the essay “Science and Witchcraft”: “I do not wish to suggest that advocacy of science and skepticism necessarily lead to all the political or social conclusions. Although skeptical thinking is invaluable to politics, politics is not a science.” (p. 401) Exactly!

My second caveat is that Sagan’s skepticism and criticism is too narrow in this book. It should have included a wider political criticism as part of “baloney detection.” But, to be fair, he does express some political criticisms. One example is given in his “baloney detection kit” under the entry:

“weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”).” (p. 216)

Sagan also expresses moral disapproval of President Truman’s dropping of atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And he also criticizes the Alien and Sedition Acts.

But Sagan’s skepticism and criticisms are too narrow. He could have criticized the office of the U.S. President, as such. He could also have criticized the U.S. Constitution (as, for example, as inferior to that of Switzerland). And he could also have criticized the institution of capitalism. But he does none of this.

Why is the government of Switzerland invisible?

Most of the governments of the world have a person with whom we identify a country. The most visible and troublesome ones are Donald Trump, the President of the United States, and Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. Then there is the motley crew of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany; Emmanuel Macron, the President of France; and Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Then there is Kim Jong-un, the Dictator of North Korea; Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela; Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. Also there are a host of — at least to me — peripheral leaders: Xi Jinping, President of China; Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary; Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada; Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. Other leaders are, for me, at the margins — and I have to look them up or be reminded of who they are.

As to Switzerland, the government of Switzerland is basically invisible to me — even if I look up who’s who. Why? Primarily because they do not have a single leader, but a Federal Council consisting of seven individuals, who — unlike the nine-member Supreme Court in the United States who are often quite visible because of their individual identifiable controversial decisions — cannot be individually identified with any decisions because their individual votes are unrecorded and unknown.

Besides, whatever the Federal Council’s decisions are, they are neither controversial nor of international significance. The significant decisions of Switzerland are made through national referendums and national initiatives by the people; not by any leader. The result of this type of government is a prosperous, peaceful, and neutral country in times of war.

Viva la Switzerland!

Der Gesamtbundesrat 2020 (von links nach rechts): Bundeskanzler Walter Thurnherr, Bundesrätin Viola Amherd, Bundesrat Guy Parmelin (Vizepräsident), Bundesrat Alain Berset, Bundespräsidentin Simonetta Sommaruga, Bundesrat Ignazio Cassis, Bundesrat Ueli Maurer, Bundesrätin Karin Keller-Sutter. Foto: Annette Boutellier/Yoshiko Kusano

(3) Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

The last four lectures are on democracy.

I agree with the idea of democracy as the claim that government, if moral, should be founded on the will of the people. However, Shapiro seems to use American Democracy, as if it were the paradigm of democratic government. My objection is that there are many different existing types of democratic governments, which Shapiro should have mentioned.

Shapiro mentioned Robert Dahl as being — according to him — the foremost current scholar of democracy. Because of this endorsement, I have read his book, On Democracy (1998). Dahl, in his turn, recommended looking at the freedom ranking of governments at the site: Freedom House. What is more interesting for me is the type of governments which exist in these “free” democracies. And for that answer — by Dahl’s recommendation — we should look at the studies of Arend Lijphart, whose most important book is Patterns of Democracy (1st ed. 1999; 2d ed. 2012). [available on the Internet]

Lijphart’s main classification of democracies is into two types: Majoritarian (also known as the Westminister model) and Consensus models. For example, the United Kingdom uses majoritarian democracy; whereas Switzerland uses consensus democracy.

I am not going to get into the details except to point out two features. In England the House of Commons is elected by a principle that whichever party gets the most votes wins, and then this party chooses the Prime Minister. Whereas in Switzerland, party members are elected by proportional representation, and the four parties with the largest number of representatives nominate the 7-member Federal Council.

Swiss Federal Council 2020

Arend Lijphart believes that Consensus type of democracy is preferable to the Majoritarian type.

My criticism of Ian Shapiro’s course boils down to this. He failed to tell the audience that there are different types of democracies in the world, and failed to consider which is preferable.

But that is not his only failing: i.e., the failure to differentiate and to grade democracies. Beside actual different types of democracies, there are also ideal and utopian types of democracies which are never mentioned by Shapiro. For example, Part III “Utopia” of Robert Nozick’s Anarchism, State, and Utopia points in this direction. [Contrary to Nozick, I would call his framework for utopias as the framework for anarchism] And a general description of anarchist proposals could be summarized as bottom-up federated democracies.

And without considering these alternative ideal democracies, there is no prospect for finding “the moral foundations of politics.”