Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Springs of Socialism

Sometimes I fall into a certain mood in which it is easy to see why someone would be a socialist. By "socialist" I don't just mean a social democrat. I mean a person who thinks that the government should, more or less, take command of all economic activity. I am certainly not a socialist in this sense (or in any other sense), but I do feel a certain sympathy with this way of looking at the world, and I find it hard to understand how somebody would feel no sympathy with it. Never mind that communism has been a disaster wherever it has been tried; I am merely talking about an idea here, not a reality.

I think the appeal of socialism lies in an awareness of the potential of humanity. A human being is the paragon of the animals, the "heir of all the ages" in the words of Tennyson. Even if you are a materialist without any spiritual beliefs, you do at least believe that mankind is matter made self-aware, the universe grown capable of marvelling at itself.

Through the windows of the five senses, the human intellect can, in a sense, become united to all things. It can apprehend history, science, literature, philosophy, mathematics. It can take reality into itself. It can escape from the prison of the self into the boundless country of the actual. In the few years between infancy and death, it can come to some understanding-- how small an understanding, but how immense also!-- of billions of years of cosmic history, and centuries of human civilization, and all the furthest horizons of speculative thought.

How extraordinarily wasteful, then, seem all the activites that drain away this human potential! Human beings pouring their utmost effort into cornering the fizzy drinks market seems, not just ignoble, but a criminal waste of human ingenuity and human attention. Man was born for higher things.

In this mood, it doesn't seem like sinister social engineering for the government and schools and universities to try to root out certain tendencies and instil others. Somebody has to! Somebody has to try to turn people away from gambling, and chat shows, and an obsession with spectator sports, and soap operas, and conspicuous consumption, and all the rubbishy things they spend their precious leisure moments upon. Look at what they're missing! Think of what society could be if all that waste-- all that scrabbling for a living, all that anxiety about medical care and transport and the basic needs of life, all that addiction to stupid activities-- could be cut out, and if people could concentrate on being properly, fully human!

And even if people had to live in smaller apartments, and swap a car for a bus or a bicycle, or even if they had a narrower choice of careers, if they had access to better museums and nature reserves and art galleries and free lectures and safe streets and free hospitals, how could anyone complain about such a sacrifice?

As I say, I have some sympathy with such an attitude, though I don't share it. I understand the perils of paternalism (though a socialist State probably wouldn't call it anything so sexist) and the fact that even the most sincere and talented human beings tend to be untrustworthy when it comes choosing what's best for other people. I know that, though capitalism seems wasteful beyond belief, the planned economy tends to be even more wasteful in practice. I know that our ills are not to be blamed upon an economic system, but upon original sin.

But sometimes, when I pass a billboard for a betting shop, or I see teenagers wearing heavy metal t-shirts, or I flick through the channels on the television and see the utter bilge that is on offer, I momentarily become a redder-than-red Marxist.

(In fairness, I should admit that there are also moments when the openness of our "open society" appears to me, not only as a crucial safeguard against tyranny, but as something sublime and wildly exciting in itself-- when even the very messiness of our uncoordinated, competitive, ideologically-divided, patchwork civilization seems like something inherently good.)

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