If there is one philosopher whom I am not looking forward to meeting in the kingdom of our Father, it’s G.A. Cohen. I find him wicked, corrupt, and maybe even insane, as judged from the ugliness of his philosophy. I hesitated to commit myself to reading another book of his, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. But the Introduction was unexpectedly delicious, and I’ll live-blog the entire book in the next few days.
Classical Marxists, says Cohen, did not find it necessary to enter into the examination of either the economics or ethics of socialism, because they considered the coming of socialism to be “historically inevitable.” The forces of social evolution would arrange everything for the best. Ideas and individual human choices guided by them play but a very subordinate role in this grand process, such as determining how to make socialism “come as quickly and as painlessly as possible. … You do not have to justify a socialist transformation as a matter of principle to people who are driven to make it by the urgencies of their situation, and are in a good position to succeed.” (6-8) The choice of the word “driven” is revealing. It is not the individuals who drive history, as per Marxism, but somehow history drives them. It’s “matter (i.e., the ‘material productive forces’) over mind.”
What then constituted the agents of social change? “One was the rise of an organized working class, whose social emplacement, at the short end of inequality, directed it in favor of equality. … [Second] was the development of the productive forces, the continual increase in the human power to transform nature for human benefit.” The latter was supposed to result in some sort of a “post-scarcity” society, in which “anything that anyone needed for a richly fulfilling life could be taken from the common store at no cost to anyone.” (6)
However, “history has shredded [these] predictions.” As Mises pointed out, capitalism most efficiently converts “proletarians” into bourgeoisie and has: “the proletariat never became ‘the immense majority,’ and it was ultimately reduced and divided…”
But it is the second prerequisite for the socialist revolution that was annulled most decisively, according to Cohen. “The development of the productive forces now runs up against a resource barrier: … the planet Earth rebels: its resources turn out to be not lavish enough… to generate unceasing expansion of use-value” (7):
The new basis of a demand for equality relates to the ecological crisis, which is a crisis for the whole of humanity. … (1) Our environment is already severely degraded, and (2) if there is a way out of the crisis, then it must include much less aggregate material consumption than what now prevails, and, as a result, unwanted changes in life-style, for hundreds of millions of people. …
Western consumption must fall drastically; we cannot achieve Western-style goods and services for humanity as a whole…
A (supposedly) inevitable future plenty was a reason for predicting equality. Persisting scarcity is now a reason for demanding it.
“We can no longer sustain Marx’s extravagant, pre-green, materialist optimism,” concludes Cohen. (9-10)
Now I may be able at this time to see a reason for “equality” under Cohen’s assumption: if competition between entrepreneurs and workers has now, because of the “ecological crisis,” become zero- (or negative-) sum and cannot be harnessed for the sake of economic improvement, then there is little reason to permit it. If the standard of living is forever fixed and may even worsen, such as with population growth, then the key advantage of the free market — ever better and cheaper goods and services for the masses — disappears. Perhaps the economy should be frozen in place forever to mitigate the perverse and vicious competition which churns the social hierarchy but only makes things worse on the whole. If, as part of such eternal economic rest, the government takes over production and distributes consumer goods equally, not much damage will be done to this Cuban-style world in which nothing new is already guaranteed ever to happen.
But wasn’t Cohen deceived yet again by the false “ecological” scares of the early 90s? If his new presumption of inevitable global economic deterioration does not hold, what other straws will our author grasp at to bolster his hope for egalitarian socialism?
Or is he really finished this time for good? George Reisman wrote that “the green movement is the red movement no longer in its boisterous, arrogant youth, but in its demented old age.” Can we finally mercifully take Cohen and his fellow commies off the ventilator?