If you love democracy, you should oppose capitalism

John Rawls was arguably the greatest liberal philosopher of the 20th century. But by the end of his life – he died in 2002, aged eighty-one – he had become a persistent critic of capitalism.

In his 2001 book, Justice as fairness: a reformulation, Rawls argued that competitive capitalism, and even a vast Nordic-style welfare state, did not meet the demands of a just society. “Welfare state capitalism,” he writes, “allows a small class to have a virtual monopoly of the means of production,” which undermines two of the fundamental principles of justice: that political liberties are held equally by all and that the social order functions. for the greatest benefit of the poorest.

Rawls’ preferred alternative was a social order – either a “proprietary democracy” or a “liberal socialist regime” – that would “establish a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee fundamental liberties with the just value of liberties and just equality chance”. , and regulate economic and social inequalities through a principle of mutuality. Companies would be run democratically, but would continue to “carry on business in a system of free and genuinely competitive markets” with “free choice of occupation” also guaranteed. Unfortunately, he passed away without providing much more detail.

In his big book John Rawls: Reluctant Socialist (2017), the philosopher William Edmundson took Rawls’ positions seriously and deepened his radical egalitarianism. Now Edmundson has published a new book, Socialism for soloists, which builds on his earlier work to argue that “justice demands socialism”, and of a liberal-democratic type. More innovatively, Edmundson challenges the popular notion that socialists must have the bloodiest of hearts by insisting that even the most devout individualists should be socialists.

Much of Edmundson’s argument is technical and scientific. But it nevertheless arms us with intellectual arguments that are extremely useful in the battle of ideas.

Edmundson’s goal is to demonstrate how an individualistic commitment to liberal principles should lead to a further commitment to democratic socialism. This kind of endeavor will disappoint some leftists for its lack of political economy, and it leaves Edmundson open to the objection that his abstract moral theorizing is ahistorical and insufficiently materialistic.

But in my opinion, a socialism that is not based on a morally defensible conception of justice is a socialism that will prove unattractive in the long run. Without a substantial and compelling view of the principles of justice that underpin socialism—and an account of how they practically cash in—anti-capitalist critique becomes an exercise in trashing the status quo without offering a meaningful alternative. Edmundson provides us with a plausible philosophical basis for democratic socialism that does not ask us all to suddenly become angels – and for that he deserves much praise.

The basic principles Edmundson develops are clearly modeled on Rawls’s famous Principles of Justice, asking what kind of society the “soloists” – selfish, rational individualists who “recognize the pressing need for social rules and common power for enforce” – would choose to create through a social contract. Edmundson argues that a just society would uphold a “principle of political equality: citizens who are equally capable and equally motivated should have an equal opportunity to influence political decisions, regardless of wealth and income” and a “principle of reciprocity: economic inequality is permitted as long as it can be seen to benefit all representative social classes.

Of the two principles, it gives the second a much shorter treatment, which is disappointing given its importance. Edmundson simply argues that individuals “engaging” in society would be willing to tolerate some forms of economic inequality if it made everyone better off.

This is partly Edmundson’s response to the well-worn accusation that socialists are motivated less by concern for the poor than by envy of the rich. And he is right to say that any argument that the poor can be poorer as long as the gap between the rich and the have-nots is narrower will not sit well with anyone. As Edmundson points out, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves were not strict egalitarians. In the Critique of the Gotha programMarx mocked strict egalitarians, arguing that the unequal needs of equal individuals would require that they receive unequal shares to ensure the flourishing of all.

Yet Edmundson gives no idea of ​​the extent of economic inequality, arguing that “empirical research” could tell us where the sweet spot is going in the future. We are fortunate that researchers like Thomas Piketty and David Harvey are helping us fill this knowledge gap. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Edmundson could have provided more immediate advice on this important point.

Edmundson devotes much more attention to defending the socialist implications of the first principle, which is where the real innovation of his argument comes in.

He points out that most contemporary liberal thinkers express a nominal commitment to equal political freedoms for all. Yet hardly any of them have taken seriously the way in which private ownership of the means of production – which Edmundson defines as “those resources and instruments [which] . . . are largely indispensable means of productive activity (or their products are); and it is impossible for them to be held jointly” – fundamentally undermines this commitment to equal political freedoms for all. In a capitalist society, the individuals – including totally artificial people like corporations – who own the means of production have far more power and influence than those who do not. They derive much more value from their political freedoms and may even use those freedoms to exclude others from participation, ensuring that even laws and regulations that are meant to benefit everyone equally benefit them greatly.

Edmundson’s argument is not just an argument of principle. It brings together historical and contemporary evidence to show that the equal value of political freedoms for all and private ownership of the means of production can never be harmonized. Its evidence ranges from the immense influence of industrial capital on the politics of English-speaking nations since the turn of the 19th century to the power that modern big technology wields over the freedom of speech and expression of billions of people around the world. Therefore, he says, we have a choice: either maintain our liberal-democratic beliefs or accept the domination of capital.

Edmundson argues that no rational individualist could opt for the latter because it generates enormous instability and ensures that, far from being an efficient system of cooperation for the benefit of all, political rules elevate the rich and powerful to even greater heights. greater wealth and power. The vast majority of us are left outside and look within. A just society, says Edmundson, would ban private ownership of the means of production and place it in public hands, democratically managing the economy for the benefit of all.

This is a very powerful argument, showing how genuinely democratic liberalism not only can coexist with socialism, but demands it.

The means of production in Edmundson’s lists include “currency, road network, broadcast spectrum, telecommunications, power generation and distribution, waterways, credit, investment banking, insurance , arms and ammunition, airways, railways, hospitals, agro-industry, all extractive industries. industries, petrochemicals, internet service providers, Facebook, Amazon (especially Amazon Web Services), Google, etc. He argues that public takeover of the means of production could be achieved by something like the Meidner Plan (named after socialist economist Rudolf Meidner) of 1970s Sweden. The plan proposed a high tax on corporate profits paid in new shares, which would be held in a labor union-run fund. Over time, the workers would gain majority ownership in all major Swedish companies.

Beyond simple public ownership of the means of production, Edmundson argues that there should be caps on the intergenerational transfer of wealth and suggests that certain types of public services should be provided – although the types remain ambiguous. He also argues that much of the economy would remain in the hands of individuals because many types of personal ownership do not involve private control of the means of production. The line is bound to be blurred, as much will depend on historical and material circumstances.

Edmundson’s book is short—barely 150 pages—but richly suggestive and clearly argued. He draws on Rawls to show what an attractive liberal-democratic socialism might look like in the future, and demonstrates why those of us who value equal political freedoms should endorse it.

The book’s greatest flaws are its frustrating lack of detail about the degree of economic inequality that would be allowed and the types of resources that could be publicly provided. But these are minor quibbles beside the achievement of giving us a workable blueprint on which to innovate and riff.

Socialism grew out of the French Revolution’s demands for freedom, equality and solidarity, and democratic socialists have long prided themselves on their concern for equality and solidarity. Socialism for soloists reminds us that political freedom is also at the heart of socialism.