Alternative Pleasures

England to Her Own Rescue, Walter Crane, 1884

by Mark Bevir

“We Are All Socialists Now: The Perils and Promise of the New Era of Big Government” ran a provocative cover of Newsweek on 11 February 2009. The financial crisis had swept through the economy, and the state had intervened, pumping money into the economy, bailing out larger banks and other failing financial institutions, and taking shares and part ownership in private companies. The cover of Newsweek showed a red hand clasping a blue one, implying that both sides of the political spectrum now agreed on the importance of such state action.

Although socialism is making headlines again, there is very little understanding of its nature and history. The identification of socialism with “big government” is highly misleading: socialism is not simply when big business staggers and the state steps in. Historically, socialists often looked not to an enlarged state but rather to the withering away of the state and the rise of non-governmental societies. Even when socialists supported state intervention, they focused on promoting social justice, and not bailing-out failed banks.

In The Making of British Socialism, I rethink socialism by looking back to the late nineteenth century, long before ideological lines became hardened by cold-war warriors. The 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of three strands of socialism: Marxism, Fabianism and ethical socialism.

During the mid-nineteenth century, Enlightenment and romantic themes had intermingled in Britain to create a culture dominated by liberalism and evangelicalism. Liberalism, with its ties to classical political economy, and evangelicalism, with its basis in atonement theology, inspired ideals of individualism, laissez-faire and free trade in public policy, and prudence, truth, and duty in personal and social relations. However, by the 1870s, this Victorian culture faced two major dilemmas: a collapse of classical economics and a crisis of faith. British socialism emerged as a response to these dilemmas. The crisis of faith led people to reject evangelicalism for immanentist theologies, which inspired greater moral emphases on humanitarianism and fellowship, and the collapse of classical economics led people to explore new policy instruments and utopian visions.

British socialism was a response to the crisis of faith and the collapse of classical economics and rose in three distinct strands. Initially, a few popular radicals, including the poet and designer, William Morris, moved towards Marxism. Soon afterwards, a few liberal radicals and positivists, including the playwright George Bernard Shaw, forged a distinctive Fabian socialism.  Finally, a broader cultural shift towards immanentism led to the rapid spread of ethical socialism, with people such as Edward Carpenter – a poet and prophet of gay liberation, who was inspired by Walt Whitman – promoting an ideal of fellowship and attempts at personal and communal transformation.

Socialists held widely disparate views of the state. The Marxists generally came from traditions of secularism and popular radicalism. After discovering Marx, they began to identify social ills less with political corruption and the monopoly of land than with capitalism itself. They accepted Marx’s catastrophic view of capitalism as leading to crises of overproduction, the bondage of workers, and imperial wars for foreign markets. Some Marxists argued that the failings of capitalism made state intervention in civil society essential; the state had to intervene to build a stable, just society. Typically, these Marxists thus placed great emphasis on reforming the state to make it more fully democratic. Furthermore, although some Marxists called for a more interventionist state, their economic theories did not necessarily require state intervention. Marxists believed that the evils of capitalism arose from private ownership of the means of production.  Some Marxists thus suggested that if private ownership were eradicated, civil society could become a harmonious and self-regulating system.

The Fabians drew on new marginalist, neoclassical, and positivist economics to devise theories of rent as exploitation. They believed that any economy necessarily produces rent and other related social surpluses. These rents are unearned: they arise from the permanent and temporary monopolies that arise from natural and social variations of fertility and industrial situation. The Fabians also argued that rent was not needed to ensure the supply of land or capital in an efficient economy, and they even suggested that rent enabled inefficient companies to flourish. More generally, many Fabians came to argue that capitalism was an uncoordinated industrial system composed of numerous fragmented centers that knew little about each other’s activities. They thought that this lack of coordination led to duplication, temporary blockages, and unnecessary waste.

Fabian economic theories, unlike those of the Marxists, almost required their adherents to call for an interventionist state. The Fabians believed that rents could not be eliminated since they arose from the variable productivity of different pieces of land and capital.  The only solution was for the state to collect rent and use it for the collective good. And yet, if the state were to play a greater role in society, its integrity and efficiency would be vital. Thus, the Fabians too wanted to promote democracy – although because they drew on liberal radicalism, rather than the republicanism of the popular radicals, they defined democracy as representative government to the exclusion of other forms of popular control over the executive.

The ethical socialists denounced the free market and competition in favor of a moral economy and cooperation. They denied that the free market promoted prosperity, happiness, and peace. They associated capitalism with poverty, immorality, urban squalor, and social dislocation. Even if capitalism brought some material benefits, these were outweighed by its social costs. Besides, many of the commodities produced by a capitalist economy met artificial wants, for the market responded primarily to the changing whims of the wealthy, and not the everyman’s genuine needs. Worst of all, capitalism encouraged individualism and competition. It elevated selfishness and greed above fellowship.

Unlike the other two strands of socialism, the ethical socialists rarely appealed to economic analyses of capitalism. Capitalism stood condemned for its failure to base economics on an ethic of co-operative fellowship. An ethic of fellowship required people to concern themselves with others. Capitalists, consumers and workers all had to put the well-being of their fellows before their selfish interests in profits, prices, and wages. This ideal of a moral economy had little to say about the role of the state under socialism.  Ethical socialists typically defined socialism as the enactment of a spirit of democracy in which relationships were based on equality and love. The role of the state was of little importance compared to fellowship.

Socialism was, therefore, less about state intervention than about social justice, democratic reform, and personal transformation. Liberals too often responded to the crisis of faith and the collapse of classical economics in ways that focused attention on social justice. T. H. Green reacted to the crisis of faith with an idealist and immanentist philosophy that supported an ethic of social welfare and the common good. J. M. Keynes reacted to the collapse of classical economics by promoting state action to address macroeconomic imbalances.

For much of the twentieth century, socialists and liberals thus combined in a progressive movement to promote social justice through demand management, progressive taxation, and state welfare. Today, neoliberals sometimes try to bind liberalism to individual choice, free markets, and a minimal state. Historically, however, liberalism has been more consistently linked with representative government, the rule of law, and tolerance. Most socialists and progressives remained committed to these liberal values while combining them with a more robust commitment to social justice.

Many Fabian and ethical socialists owed a debt to liberal radicalism apparent in their identifying democracy with representative democracy. Other socialists drew on the republican inheritance of popular radicalism. They championed more radical forms of democracy that received little support from progressive liberals. They voiced a radical democratic critique of state action and bureaucratic expertise as necessarily inimical to the democratic ideal of self-rule. These socialists wanted people collectively to make, implement, and adjudicate the rules governing society. They hoped to empower people so as to enable them to participate effectively in self-governing practices.

Socialists also promoted a transformation of personal life. Ethical socialists in particular emphasized the simplification of life and a return to nature. Their message resonates even louder today as we grasp the extent of our impact on the environment. We do not have to believe in an immanent theology to see that the individual is ineluctably connected to a social community and the natural world. Again, we do not have to believe in a natural harmony to believe in the importance and benefits of a life more in tune with the environment. Politics is not just a matter of how we can most effectively get whatever we happen to want. It is, at least as importantly, a matter of debating and deciding what we want. Socialist utopias can educate aspirations: they prompt people to think beyond materialism and consumerism, and offer accounts of alternative pleasures found in alternative lives and communities.

About the Author:

Mark Bevir is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. His main research interests are in political theory (including the history of political thought, political philosophy, and the philosophy of the human sciences) and public policy (including interpretive analysis, organizational theory, and governance).