It’s not enough for socialists to point out capitalism’s many faults — we need to explain our positive vision of the future and how it lives up to our ideals of justice.

Works Progress Administration fresco by Victor Arnautoff, located in the Coit Tower in San Francisco, 1934. (VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images)

After decades on the margins of political life, the last few years have seen socialism make a comeback as a topic for serious deliberation. Among contemporary political theorists, there is now a maturing debate about whether market socialism, universal basic income, property-owning democracy, council communism, or a post-work utopia should be our vision of the postcapitalist future. But this debate is too rarely grounded in a political philosophy.

What I mean by “political philosophy” is a theory of justice, a systematic ethics, or a widely shared conception of human freedom. What political philosophers do is develop concepts that help us to distinguish the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, the just from the unjust. Socialists have historically had a complicated relationship to this project. We suspect that it is bourgeois, reifying of the status quo, or simply reformist.

It’s time to turn the page on this set of suspicions. We need not only diagnoses of systematic injustice but prescriptions for justice, freedom, and the good life. We need these prescriptions to be universalist, unsectarian, compelling to the unconverted, and hopeful about the future. We also need to restore our own conviction that socialism is possible, desirable, and just.

Socialism vs. Justice?

Let me begin by clarifying the traditional socialist objections to theorizing about justice. The first worry that justice is a bourgeois ideal is well founded. Claims about justice take place on a social terrain on which there are deep social divisions that liberal ideals like liberty and equality do a great deal to obscure. It is not easy to use the same ideals that obscure social divisions to argue for society’s fundamental transformation.

Second, as a result, claims about justice can tend to reify the status quo. It is too easy to take people’s intuitions about justice at face value. The market shapes our values, sentiments, and moral intuitions in a way that reinforces the status quo, which mystifies a whole variety of social problems. In this context, it is not credible to appeal to existing norms or people’s actual desires and preferences relative to those norms to legitimize socialist ideals.

The third objection is that the bourgeois nature of the ideal and its many ideological distortions lead to a hopelessly reformist political strategy. The idea of “justice” in capitalism legitimizes capitalist dominance through the law, the courts, and the parliamentary system; so committing oneself to maintaining a political structure that reinforces support for such institutions makes it nearly impossible to challenge their social basis in a fundamental way. Radical change requires questioning some fundamental values that people now have.

But socialists today should consider how our political opponents pose the problem of socialism’s relationship to justice. Liberals also argue that socialism and justice are incompatible — but for different reasons.

First, liberals argue that socialism presupposes one idea of the good life, which is illiberal. Socialism forces each individual to share in the life project of building a classless society that seeks to harmonize individual interests into an ideal of the common good. Critics say that the socialist position effectively denies the pluralism about ideals of the good life that democracy requires. In demanding that individuals identify completely with a social mission that is greater than themselves, the socialist rejects from the outset the fact of unreconcilable diversity in human life. In a classless world, socialists imagine away the realm of human contestation, communication, and diversity. This imaginary world erases social differences by denying the fact of pluralism that liberalism preserves.

The second liberal objection is what I call the “Don’t be an American rube!” objection. It goes like this: “You lot have got a bad case of the capitalism over there (seems pretty brutal!), but there are varieties of capitalism, don’t you see, and your objections to it only apply to the unrestrained sort of capitalism that is so inhospitable to human life that you are used to.” Karl Popper famously argued that there are not only two possibilities — capitalism or socialism — but many possibilities within capitalism. (There are, for instance, the more humane versions of capitalism found in the Nordic countries.) Socialism, by contrast, has very few varieties. It is the ultimate rationalization of society, which takes value pluralism and ideological diversity off the political table.

The third liberal objection is that abuses of political power are easier to prevent in a capitalist system than in a socialist one. If one understands socialism as public ownership over the means of production and central planning, then socialism builds corruption right into state institutions. A state structure that allows no independence to competing centers of power, like the market, puts individuals at the mercy of a ruling clique that can use that structure to enrich itself without oversight.

Voters in a capitalist democracy, on the other hand, can choose between better or worse responses to economic problems, which makes state officials more responsive to the public. What undergirds this political freedom is more choice when it comes to goods, services, and job opportunities. If one is not forced to take whatever the state provides, then the state depends more on public approval, which makes corruption less likely to persist or become pervasive. By contrast, socialism simply creates a large, opaque, and unaccountable bureaucracy hostile to external criticism.

What a Democratic Socialism Might Mean

The common thread running through these objections is that socialist politics are intrinsically illiberal, because socialists don’t acknowledge the desirability of having a conception of justice that allows for dissent, democratic deliberation, and civil liberties.

Socialists need to abandon their reluctance to talk about justice and explain forthrightly why socialism is compatible with liberal values, for two reasons.

First, it’s not clear how hope for the future can be built through a purely negative mode of social criticism. By “negative,” I mean the critical stance that diagnoses but refuses to develop positive prescriptions. Karl Marx famously refused to write “recipes for the cookshops of the future”: he rejected the idea that we should attempt to say in detail what a future socialist society will look like. This attitude is supposed to generate political realism and democratic deliberation as a revolutionary movement progresses, so that we figure out what socialism looks like in the process of building it.

But is it not odd for the Left in 2022 to hold fast to this position? Many of us have become nearly apocalyptic about the multiplying crises of climate change, global stagnation, and migration, and yet an immediate, clear idea of a socialist alternative to the global capitalist economy that is causing these crises remains out of reach.

If the political situation is as bad as many think it is, then can the Left really afford to employ no cooks in the kitchen? If we have lost even the capacity to be forward-thinking, I don’t see what this historic ban on our cooks adds to the discussion except demoralization, political disengagement, and, as a result, fatalism.

Second, socialists have always sought political and not just economic hegemony, which involves convincing the majority of society that labor’s political leadership benefits everyone. Even if one isn’t a worker, one ought to be able to find socialism desirable. Without a compelling idea of justice, there isn’t much hope for making that majoritarian goal a reality.

This isn’t to say that the individual is more important than the collective (i.e., “individualism”). But socialists need to show that individuals can flourish equally well in a different sort of social structure. The burden is on us to say that they can and should expect something richer and warmer from a conception of human freedom than the one capitalism offers.

Many of the liberal arguments against socialism turn on the assumption that socialism must be a centrally planned economy from top to bottom. The argument that socialism is homogenizing, undermining of social difference, and thereby denies politics should be less convincing once one takes the politics of socialism more seriously. As Aaron Benanav recently asked, why can’t the socialism of the future “be composed of overlapping partial plans, which interrelate necessary and free activities, rather than a single central plan?” Planning might be qualitatively different than in the past, leaving a more limited scope to market mechanisms but incorporating other values into the mainstream of economic life. One might make plans for technological developments that raise labor productivity, save time, and create a surplus, but if investment were democratized, one could mix this plan with other plans. For instance, citizens might propose competitions for public investment of the surplus into the arts or into care of children and the elderly. Socialism will require a democratic political structure that facilitates this massive social change, which will have to assume that pluralism is a basic fact of political life.

There may be varieties of socialism after all, which depend on how people transform already-existing institutional structures. It may very well be that North American socialism will look different from European socialism, which will in turn look different from South American socialism, because their state institutions and developmental needs are quite diverse. For instance, I can envision a large and illustrious project of building electric rail across the Great Plains of North America, where farmers there have a council that coordinates the price of grain with the rancher council in the Southwest that is sending livestock to Chicago. I can imagine the codetermination system in Germany turning managerial control entirely over to the workers while the trade unions become responsible for active labor market policies that they coordinate with an investment council.

There are many ways to have a socialism that doesn’t rely on one central authority that is particularly vulnerable to corruption. Checks and balances can still exist under socialism. A socialist political theory that makes good on this potential would seek to endow individuals with the capacity to negotiate differences in what we value or in emphasis in how we distribute and invest the surplus of our collective labor.

Projecting Our Hopes

A socialist conception of justice should offer good reasons for a great existential gamble: Why should people throw their lot in with a transition beyond capitalism? People must believe that such a transition will remove incentives for us to change for the worse and instead help us to adapt for the better. They need to feel confident that civil liberties, for instance, won’t go away.

Is “justice” necessarily reformist, as some socialists say? Maybe, but not hopelessly so. A socialist transition will likely require many reforms that expand capacities for people to act freely in the present, to give us more people to work with, creating more of the buy-in and expertise that a future free society certainly needs. That much is required to orchestrate a rupture with something so serious as the dominant imperatives of an economic global system. There is no way from reform to revolution that does not expand such capacities, making the individuals who now exist “fit to govern” themselves.

What reforms lead in the direction of rupture is not easy to determine. But people need to be able to see the seeds of socialism growing in the process, to trust that they are fertile grounds for justice, so that they can shift their horizons toward freedom. To deny the importance of justice in this historical process means denying that socialism should try to make itself morally legitimate in the eyes of the majority. It is self-undermining, turning socialism into an empty placeholder onto which people project fear and uncertainty rather than, as Otto Neurath once wrote, their hopes for a place where the kind person can feel at home.

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