In an effort to achieve productive discourse on campus, I reached out to Nathan Robinson, Editor-in-Chief of “Current Affairs,” a socialist magazine, to understand what he means by socialism. This interview has been abbreviated for clarity.
Isadore: Do you define socialism as “a system where sectors of the economy and basic aspects of human society are moved outside of a market system and into communal ownership… people taking ownership of basic human needs like housing, health care, education, and food is… a non-negotiable minimal condition of socialism?
Nathan: I’m not sure I would agree that this is “the” definition of socialism. We’re not going to find it, because socialists have historically disagreed. I’ve been trying to come up with a satisfactory description of what I think they have in common. I think of it first as a kind of instinctive egalitarian feeling, a strong sense of outrage at exploitation and abuse and a fundamental objection to a world where wealth and power is unequally distributed. I talk about this as a kind of “socialist ethic,” a set of values and principles that kind of guide how we look at the world.
If you look at a world where children labor in fields while rich people live lives of ease and luxury, and aren’t outraged, you’re not a socialist.
It might be worth drawing a distinction between socialist ethics and socialist institutions. Socialist ethics are feelings of solidarity and egalitarianism. Socialist institutions are democratically controlled and minimally hierarchical.
Some people think that socialism just means “government ownership” but I think that is a mistake. Socialism means common ownership, so if the government is not democratic, the ownership is not common in any meaningful sense. I think it is fair to regard the public library as socialist, because it is not owned by one person or a small group of people, but by society as a whole. But if public libraries were effectively controlled by small groups of elites, and there was no democratic oversight, to me they would cease to be socialist.
Isadore: What exactly is capitalism?
Nathan: I think capitalists often get away with defending markets as if markets and capitalism are synonymous. But I think that’s a mistake, and we’re better off thinking about “ownership,” class, and power/control/democracy. The fundamental thing socialists object to about “capitalism” is not markets (the market world of lemonade stands and small proprietors would be much less objectionable), but the distribution of wealth and power.
We call it capitalism because there is a class of capitalists: People whose money does the work for them, and a giant class of people who own very little.
I would describe capitalism as a system where owners give the orders and workers have to listen, versus a system where workers themselves are the owners. It is much more a question of “Who is in charge?” than it is about whether money should exist.
Defenders of “capitalism” often spend a lot of time talking about the “socialist calculation problem” — the question of whether goods can be “rationally” allocated without trade — probably to avoid the more fundamental question, which is about economic hierarchy and dominance. It is much easier to defend markets (market socialists do it) than to defend having workers be given very little say in their workplaces and reaping only a small fraction of the rewards of their labor.
Isadore: Can socialism exist within capitalism?
Nathan: I believe “socialistic institutions” can certainly coexist “within” capitalism, that is to say you can have some institutions that are democratically controlled in the interest of all and others that are hierarchically controlled and operated for the benefit of private owners. We have libraries, as I say. Now, whether you can have private enterprises that operate socialistically and yet survive capitalist competition is another question, but I actually think worker coops are pretty competitive, and Current Affairs has managed to operate on a model without owners and profit.
Isadore: Should rights be seen as democratic? If not, how does one approach them?
Nathan: Rights are a complicated question. Where do they come from? Are they simply conventions? Did human rights exist before people recognized them to exist? This gets us into the entire foundation of morality and I can’t begin to go into it here. All I will say is that for rights to be meaningful as rights, they need to be as close to absolutes as possible, or at least insulated to quite a great degree from the ability for majorities to simply take them away at will. Of course, you’re always going to face tough questions though over how to balance rights: Does your right to live in peace trump my freedom to shout political slogans at your window at midnight? The fact that rights can be murky, however, does not alter the basic principle: We should try to come up with a list of the things that everyone deserves pretty much as an absolute, and then try to make sure that everyone does, in fact, have those things and they’re not arbitrarily or unjustly infringed upon.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.
Isadore Johnson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.