Awkward Choices

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SOCIALISM | Real options

Awkward choices
Socialism in principle offers freedom to all. But in practice it has
become notorious for its curtailment of individual liberty. Anthony Barnett
argues that socialists should talk less about future utopias and
more about a real, limited world of shortage and conflict.

CHOICE is the curse of socialism. Socialism is wedded to the most ambitious expansion of choice conceivable. It aspires to a form of human society that is consciously determined by all its citizens. Its dream is a world in which all choose how to live, so that one person’s advantage is not imposed upon another.

But this dream has, so far, often resulted in a nightmare. The actual experience of socialism has often been associated with dictatorship and the systematic destruction of choice: in the worst examples over the very details of life. Pol Pot’s Cambodia saw even private eating forbidden.

Socialism therefore carries a double burden. It bears upon its shoulders both an impossible ambition - that of choosing the future itself - and a record for the most oppressive negation of choice.

So far as the ambition is concerned, socialism started as a moral and practical condemnation of capitalism. In a way it aspired to realize the great slogan of the enlightenment: liberty, equality and fraternity. The reign of money enslaved more than it freed, increased inequality and often lead to war rather’ than brotherhood. Socialism promised real freedom, equality and common association.

For Marx this promise was based upon an appreciation of the enormous gains worked by capitalism. He believed that only capitalism, with its ruthless profit-seeking, could transform the productive capacity of the human species. Yet at the same time, he argued, capitalism was too narrowly based to sustain the very system of production it created.

For Marxists, then, to use a technical vocabulary capitalism generates a contradiction between the forces and relations of production: the immense social forces of manufacture and distribution on the one hand and the concentrated, private relations of ownership for profit on the other.

There were major mistakes in the original Marxist view of capitalism. But as electronics technology advances wealth and productivity while dole queues lengthen and poverty increases, the assertion that capitalism is inherently unstable and irrational retains some credibility.

Yet the Marxist approach also shared the original confidence of capitalism. It presumed that the industrial increase in production could answer all human needs. Capitalism would fail to realize its potential, but ultimately choice would not be a problem. Scarcity would be eliminated by the social control of manufacture and distribution. In this sense the socialist argument depended upon capitalism to deliver the goods.

We now know that the idea of indefinite progress was naive. It is not possible to create so much wealth that everyone will have complete freedom of choice. Ecologically, the earth can’t take it.

That is for the future. So far as the present reality is concerned, socialist countries provide a poor choice. It is easy enough to point out that many of the choices of consumer society in the West are spurious. Advertising and pop music appeal to the feelings of freedom while, often quite cynically, they actually reconcile the gullible to its absence. But why haven’t so-called socialist or communist societies done better.

In one case this did begin to happen. In Czechoslovakia in 1968 a post-capitalist society introduced freedom of speech and liberalized the economy. There would have been some unemployment and less job security but almost certainly higher growth and a much happier country as a result. Instead, the Soviet Union invaded to eliminate what the Kremlin perceived as a threat to itself, namely a model that would challenge its own privileged form of rule.

The destruction of the Prague Spring put back the cause of socialism in Europe by a least a generation. For the first time there were both the resources that allowed for a possible socialism, in a medium sized, highly educated and relatively wealthy country, and a regime that wanted freedom and was willing to trust its own people. They were not allowed their choice. The experiment was crushed from without.

Socialism has often been crushed precisely because its showed signs of succeeding. Just as Dubcek was brought down by the USSR because of his real domestic support, so Allende was eliminated in Chile as his popular standing increased. Today, when people say that socialism has definitely failed or that it’s hopes are fruitless, they collude with Russian tanks and CIA-backed coups.

The most vivid example of this process, whereby the socialist promise is eliminated by its enemies, is now taking place before our eyes in Nicaragua. Socialists led the revolution that overthrew the long-standing, incredibly corrupt, American - supported

Somoza family. The Sandinistas learnt from the mistakes of others. They sought to install democratic freedoms in their country, to increase economic and political choice. But this presented a threat to Washington. Not a direct one, of course, but the threat of an example to countries elsewhere in Latin America. Accordingly, the US is determined to squeeze the Sandinistas economically and militarily. The policy has its predecessors: the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, have all been successively embargoed and quarantined.

What does this do? It leaves the country with ‘no choice’. It imposes a kind of ‘no choice’ ideology upon a regime which has ‘no choice’ but to survive. Freedom is curtailed in favour of military defense, something that happens in all countries under threat of invasion. A militarization takes place. Over time it will be internalized and become second nature to the State. Military organization is designed to eliminate choice as it concentrates decision-making at the top under conditions of strategic secrecy.

Meanwhile economic blockade means rationing, and even with rationing essential supplies may not be available, Uniformity and shortages become the badge of socialism’. And socialism comes to inca ii no choice’. In this way, even if the regime in Nicaragua does survive its exemplary character will be ruined. It may retain its independence but the price paid will make it a negative rather than a positive example.

If the question of choice is the curse of socialism, perhaps it is also the curse of all human life. God offers us heaven if we behave, the devil offers us a choice! And there is a tradition within socialism which in a god-like way makes a virtue of necessity, often ‘historic’ necessity, and offers us ‘no choice’. Similarly, many nationalisms - and not just the socialist ones - exhibit a longing for a necessary cause in which choice is eliminated.

Today, war and famine scourge the Third World, while the first and second confront each other with annihilation. And we can see two things: greater. even bizarre, efforts to avoiding supping with the devil and his choice - as in theocratic Iran: and a sobering yet determined movement towards a balanced livelihood - as in the Prague Spring. The second promises a renewed socialism that makes a measure of our limits, so that all who wish may all have some power to choose how they may live, whether they are in Ethiopia, Nicaragua or even England.

Such a socialism needs to be modest. Instead of seeking a realm beyond history in which choice is no longer a problem in a heaven of plenitude a socialism of real limits, of actual differences and awkward freedoms is needed - one which helps us make our difficult choices.

Anthony Barnett is working on Pale Colossus, a book about Vietnam and writes regularly for the New Statesman and the Guardian.

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