Christian Socialism?

In the last few days, a bit of a feud has broken out over Christian support of “socialism” and “capitalism” (See this First Things article, Carter’s response, Jake Meader’s response, and Carter’s second response.) In my estimation, neither side in this debate can have much hope for success. (Though Carter’s original article, with its conflation of natural and human law, its obscurantist use of “Capitalism” as a technical term & description of our current economic system, and its confusion of material and formal causation–“Even in our world, my son, that is not what [a market] is but only what it is made of”–is pretty bad.) On the other hand, this really is an important discussion, though both sides have considerable draw-backs. What follows is my attempt to bring some sanity to the debate.

The weaknesses of both Capitalism and Socialism can be seen in Freddie deBoer’s recent critique of socialism light and call for a more full-blooded socialism. He rightly notes the destruction of a market system, whether a “socialist” one based on state-ownership, like in Scandinavia; or a one based on private ownership, and calls for the production of an economic system in which “[key] sectors of the economy and basic aspects of human society are moved outside of a market system and into communal ownership.” The first half of the call is, in my opinion, spot on—key aspects of human society need moved outside a market system. The second half is close, but not quite. The offending term is “communal ownership.” If this term vaguely suggests an alternative to a market economy, and a turning of basic sectors of our life from the market toward our communal live, I agree with it; but then the quote describes many non-capitalist, non-socialist, economic systems, and so is far too vague to be of use.

However, in fact, “communal ownership” means something specific. “Ownership” presupposes exercising power over the objects owned. And so “common ownership” implies a collective domination over whatever is owned. It seems therefore that in practice, it would presuppose powerful state apparatus capable of dominating the various sectors of the economy, and the people in them. That the pursuit of common ownership, once the power is gained, results in powerful state apparatus is, it seems, part of the story of the Russian Revolution (though I’m out of my depth here). As the Bolsheviks gained the power in the soviets, and the soviets gained the power in Russia, they had to rely on powerful state apparatus to enforce nationalization, and to distribute the commonly owned produce. Or, to take a different tack, the connection between “common ownership” and powerful state apparatus is seen, in a very different situation, in how naturally Matt Bruenig shifts from “state ownership” to “collective ownership over capital.” (Though, this concern of mine is still partly conjecture, expressing a well-founded concern, but not a solid proof.)

Treating a resource as commonly owned, however, is distinctly different from treating it as a commons. Commons are not owned by anyone, but are, in part, managed and preserved by all, and also, to some degree, remain free from control. So for instance, no nation can collectively own the atmosphere, because the atmosphere cannot be boxed up. Rather, the air is a commons: We all use it, and are all charged with doing some work to preserving it for everyone’s use, or at least, with not modifying it so much others cannot use it.

Rather than seeking an economic system that involves communal ownership of key aspects of the economy, we should seek a system that treats key aspects of the economy as commons.

This, in turn, would necessitate seeking institutions that cause us to treat the health of the nation (and world) as a whole, and of these parts of the national (and world) economy, as a common good, that is, something that is desired, sought, and enjoyed, by all the members of the nation, precisely in and for its commonality. That is, we need to foster institutions that train the people who make up our individual nations to desire and work for the good of the nation, precisely in its commonality, and to enjoy the good of the nation, precisely in its commonality.

Perhaps a small-scale analogy would help illustrate my meaning: The members of a string quartet may each have successful solo careers and enjoy solo performance. But when performing as an ensemble the music and body-sway of each musician in part determines the performance of the others, and the members of the quartet are united in pursuit of a common good, namely ensemble performance. Therefore, during the ensemble’s performance they are engaged in a different activity than during solo performance; their individual virtuosity is subordinated to the virtuosity of the ensemble (whether they like it or not–good soloistic playing could ruin an ensemble’s performance); when they are good ensemble musicians, they do not desire high-level individual play (soloistic play that happens to work as an ensemble) but high-level ensemble play; and it is precisely high-level ensemble play that they enjoy. All that together–their mutually directing each other toward the common performance, their subordination of their individual musicality to the common performance, their *desire* to perform well as an ensemble (and so their desire to subordinate their individual performance to the ensemble’s performance), and their enjoyment of the ensemble’s performance–can be summarized as “the ensemble’s performance is the common good of the members of the ensemble”.

In the same way that good members of a string quartet desire and enjoy the common good of their ensemble; as persons we should desire and enjoy the common good of our nations and world, and the just, equitable, use of our commons. And our institutions ought to work to fashion us into persons who in fact desire and enjoy the common good of our nations and world—to train us, as it were, to be good ensemble players, not good virtuosic solo performers who happen to be surrounded by other virtuosic solo performers. Socialism, it seems to me, would result in a system that works for the good of the community, but because powerful state apparatus direct persons who do not otherwise desire the good and order of the community, to work for the good of the community; not because the health of the community and of each member of the community, and their mutual order, is desired and enjoyed by each member of the community. Capitalism, on the other hand, finds coherence and stability through public works which make it so each individual can pursue their individual (soloistic) good, and indeed, their individually chosen good, and so this individual pursuit will (at least for a time) give coherence to society.

Exactly what institutions we could today work for that train our desires toward our commonality, and the true good of all the parts of the community is, I believe, open for debate. But our inquiries need to go far deeper than they usually do.

have two recommended directions for inquiry.

First, if anything is characteristic of our society, it is our technological prowess; a prowess that reaches us each individually through electricity and gasoline (in our cars and planes); and that is almost universally undergirded by fossil fuel consumption. Writers like L. M. Sacasas and Alastiar Roberts have, excellently, examined how our particular devices shape us, often weakening commonality. Other writers, like Oliver O’Donovan have aptly described how the desire for technical projects problematically effect the sorts of actions we habitually undertake and defend. But few have analyzed how electricity—which pipes large publicly funded sources of power into our private homes and businesses—gives us the “freedom” to pursue our own private ends as private ends; or the way oil and coal, in freeing our projects from the limits of our particular land, and her natural rhythms (a river has less, or even no, power in winter than in spring) provide material conditions which “free” our society from the need for our projects to be common both between industrialists, and between capital and labor (though this comes close). But, I would submit, since if anything differentiates us from other societies, it is our use of electricity, coal, and oil, we need to attend closely to these aspects of the material basis of our society.

Second, because fossil fuels allow the construction of large, fast moving, dependable, safe, ships, the scale of our global interconnection is unpresented. And, expressed in land-to-land terms, labor-for-labor terms, and material-for-material terms, land, labor, and materials are inequitably exchanged from the underdeveloped world to the developed world, whereas money circulates mainly in the developed world. Rather than isolating questions of government type to particular nations, we need to carefully analyze the ways different government types of nations in different positions in the world-system orient our nations to pursuing not only their own internal common good, but the common good of the whole planet.


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