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Gerald A. Cohen, Why not Socialism?

Joseph Persky
p. 139-142
Référence(s) :

Gerald A. Cohen, Why not Socialism? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, 96 pages, ISBN 978-069114361-3

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Crédits : Princeton University Press

1This is a very short book. It was published the same year that its author, the political philosopher, G. A. Cohen, died. It takes a relatively informal approach to many ideas that Cohen has explored elsewhere in serious and rigorous depth. But what the book lacks in bulk and rigor, it more than makes up for in sincerity. We are indeed lucky to have this accessible summary of a first-rate thinker’s most deeply felt principles.

2The book’s title brings to mind the famous essay by Albert Einstein, Why Socialism? written for the inaugural issue of Monthly Review in 1949. This isn’t accidental given Cohen’s own personal history of involvement in left radical politics. And in his Coda, Cohen offers a definition of socialism that invokes Einstein approvingly: “socialism is humanity’s attempt to ‘overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development’ ”. Einstein in turn had acknowledged Thorsten Veblen’s description of most all of human history as constituting a long “predatory phase” of human development. Cohen, like Einstein, looks forward to moving beyond that long history. And like Einstein, he identifies the heart of socialism as “a social-ethical end”. Why Not Socialism? is very much about ethics.

3The central simile of the essay compares Cohen’s understanding of socialist ethics to those that rule on a camping trip undertaken by a group of friends. The heart of the essay divides neatly into three sections. The first elaborates the social-ethical principles realized on camping trips, the second asks whether the camping ideal provides a desirable guide for the organization of the economy of society at large, and the third explores whether achieving that ideal is feasible. Briefly consider each of these in turn.

4The ethos of the camping trip is two-fold: An egalitarian principle, which Cohen calls “socialist equality of opportunity” and a principle of community. Socialist equality of opportunity summarizes Cohen’s own work in the area of luck egalitarianism. What does justice demand of our economy? Cohen is sure that it demands more than “bourgeois equality of opportunity” i.e. the insistence that superficial differences such as color and ethnicities are not relevant to advancement (Bourgeois equality reflects the core values of classical liberalism). He is also sure that justice demands more than “left liberal equality of opportunity” which leaves individual talents, although not other accidents of birth, as a major source of inequality (Left liberal equality of opportunity looks very much like the concept of justice endorsed by John Rawls, a philosopher whom Cohen highly respected). Instead, socialist equality of opportunity aims at reducing inequality to those generated by personal choices. For example, this principle would insist on equal hourly pay, but would allow people to work more or less. The resulting inequalities would consist only of regrettable choices and pure option luck. This is the position of the so-called “luck egalitarians” with whom Cohen is very much identified.

5Cohen is sure that justice demands at least this. But socialism, according to Cohen, should go further in advancing a sense of community and building its economic institutions on generosity and fellow-feeling rather than immediate self-interest. Community, like self-interest in a market context, is founded on reciprocity. But in the market case reciprocity is purely instrumental, motivated by greed and fear. In the community case reciprocity is achieved through mutual generosity and celebrates our virtues, not our vices.

6Is this kind of camping ethic desirable? Community is likely to reduce further the range of inequality outcomes that would be tolerated even by socialist equality of opportunity. Cohen worries that the principle of community may on occasion go so far as to actually contradict the theory of justice lying behind socialist equal opportunity. But he points out that, even in market economies, choices are strongly conditioned on the wishes of others. The market provides a casino from which it is difficult to escape. For most of us there is no choice but to accept the options allowed by the market game. Constrained in this way we fall back on the basest motivations of greed and fear, and at best limit our better motives to immediate family and friends. How much better to accept the constraints of community and in that context draw on our more generous impulses?

7Is the camping model feasible in a large scale economy? Some might argue that such an ethic works well in recreational or family settings, but must fail more generally. Cohen acknowledges that to make it the heart of the economy is likely to prove challenging. First is the question whether people are generous “enough” to sustain such organization. Second is the question of whether we can engineer the mechanisms and designs to harness such generosity.

8As to the first, Cohen is optimistic. He observes that generosity already characterizes many parts of our social life. As an organizing principle it is not limited to camping trips and family decision making. Even in market societies we make widespread use of non-market motivations. For example in medicine, teaching and other caring activities, we traditionally rely on the professionalism, kindness, and empathy of service providers. And when matters are most serious, during natural disasters and emergencies, we often jettison market relations and count on the reciprocity of generosity.

9But granting Cohen these examples, we might still doubt that our shared sense of generosity provides enough material around which to organize a large economy. This is surely the view of the vast majority of behavioral and social scientists, not to mention business and political leaders. For example such concerns have been raised forcefully by Herb Gintis, a sympathetic critic, in his comments on Why Not Socialism? Gintis argues that Cohen has grossly underestimated the intrinsic (genetically determined?) importance of family and kin: “[F]amily is virtually universally, in every successful society, more salient than community. In every known society, people favor kin over non-kin, and their commitment to strangers is far weaker than their commitment to family members”. Similarly, Gintis argues that drives for success in competitive environments are also not just the result of the “hegemony of ‘capitalist ideology’” but have deeper roots in human nature. Perhaps the experts and the powerful are right on these fundamental points. Surely, Cohen’s brief and admittedly superficial treatment of human nature in Why Not Socialism? does not prove his own interpretation of human nature. Yet, it is refreshing to see the case for generosity laid out in such a straightforward and hopeful manner.

10Return to the second facet of feasibility. Can we engineer appropriate mechanisms to run the economy on generosity? If Cohen is optimistic as to human nature, he is far less confident as to our capacity to create mechanisms. Cohen identifies central planning with the failures of the Soviet Union and Maoist China and dismisses it from further consideration. Then he discusses briefly the types of recent market socialisms proposed by several radicals including his sometime collaborator John Roemer. But Cohen is not enthusiastic about using markets in an economy built around generosity. The market, for Cohen is inherently instrumental. Worse, “Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation”. Cohen admits his own doubts as to possible alternatives: “Our attempt to get beyond predation has thus far failed”. However, he does not “think the right conclusion is to give up”. While he remains hopeful, he clearly identifies the question of mechanism as the key one facing socialists in the future.

11Cohen’s essay will leave many readers, even sympathetic readers, unfulfilled. Cohen’s entire career was spent encouraging liberals to recognize the logic of a more radical egalitarianism. This broader argument is well articulated in his Rescuing Justice and Equality. Those looking for a rigorous philosophical defense of the desirability of the camping ethic should consult that work. But I suspect that these battles in political philosophy are not the major sources of skepticism when left liberals look at socialism. Instead most liberals in answering Cohen’s question (Why not socialism?) will point to just the issues of feasibility about which Cohen himself seems in serious doubt. Where are the new mechanisms of generosity to come from? If they are to be highly decentralized, why do we not see them growing organically, proving their promise even in the midst of the market economy? If they are to be centralized, where is the political movement laying out the concrete plans and possibilities?

12The historical moment does not seem kind to socialism. G.A. Cohen was not an economist or a historian and there is little sense of historical necessity in the present volume. While making socialistsm doesn’t require a scientific proof of inevitability, it does require a demonstration of historical feasibility. Cohen’s essay lacks even the hint of such a demonstration. In these times dominated by pessimism on the left, something more is needed.

13That said, Why Not Socialism? does provide a brilliant philosophical outline of a socialist ethics. This essay is sincere and honest. Cohen’s principles stand out sharply against the dullness of most academic thought. The essay is a gift, a generous act, that lives its own message.

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Joseph Persky, « Gerald A. Cohen, Why not Socialism? », Œconomia, 1-1 | 2011, 139-142.

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Joseph Persky, « Gerald A. Cohen, Why not Socialism? », Œconomia [En ligne], 1-1 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2011, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL :

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Joseph Persky

University of Illinois at Chicago

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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