Is Socialism Good?

Linas Vepstas
5 min readOct 26, 2017

So, Bernie Sanders thinks that the Pope is a socialist — well, that’s old news, if you’d been paying attention. Bernie’s rebroadcasting the obvious. Perhaps the Church had to elect him Pope — to make up for the sins under Ratzinger. Child-rape is a terrible thing.

A more interesting topic for me is the nature of the human creative impulse, and how it interacts with culture and society. So Max Weber, the father of sociology, points out that it was the Protestants who created the Industrial Revolution. They were trying to recreate Heaven on Earth; they believed that good works on Earth guaranteed you a high place in Heaven, and they followed through, full-tilt. Weber’s got a whole book, and more, explaining this.

Weber points out that Buddhism can’t get you there: Buddhism teaches you to be happy with your place, your lot on Earth. Why change anything if your velvet rut is comfortable, if you’ve already attained Nirvana and become one with the universe? You’ve got to be unreasonable, unhappy, demanding, to force change. This is why Buddhists and Catholics did NOT invent or drive Capitalism.

OK, so Capitalism: its this 400-year-old theory that wealth accumulation spurs creativity. As a 400-year-old theory, it has worked pretty well. But now we are well aware of its short-comings. Hell, Karl Marx was aware of its short-comings: he clearly found things wrong with it, and proposed Socialism as a replacement.

The first Socialist experiments went sideways: without a rule-of-law, a strong court system, it allows ruthless assholes to grab power and become dictators: Lenin, Stalin, etc. Socialism also failed to provide a motive force: an old Soviet quip was “they pretend to pay me and I pretend to work”. Nothing worked, no one worked.

Well, not nothing: A rural, agrarian economy was yanked from the third world into the first. The Soviet space program mostly worked. The atomic bomb program worked (despite the horrors of using slave labor living on the banks of a radioactive, polluted river...) Their mathematicians and physicists (and many other academics) were top notch, world-class. But these were the people who would have been creative no matter what: they were motived by something other than money.

How can we create a culture/society that is motivated by something other than money? This is the fundamental (and still unanswered) issue of socialism. With ideas like Universal Basic Income (UBI), we want to give money to the poor, and hopefully unshackle them from from their desperate situation. The capitalists claim that this will not work.

The capitalists are partly right: take a look at Saudi Arabia. Every Saudi (man?) has a guaranteed annual income of around $50K USD. No poverty, at least among the Saudi citizens. Have they done anything useful with their free time? Created any great works of art? Breached new scientific barriers? The resounding answer seems to be “no”: their culture, their father, mother, relatives, peers, books, television, youtube, none of these broadcast the message “Do Something Great With Your Life!!!” to the Saudis. And so none of them do. I mean, other than balancing cars on two wheels.

Universal Basic Income can only “work” if there is a culture that tells you to do something other than to be a drug addict. But if the cultural message is all about who the Kardashians fucked last week, don’t expect much.

The Silicon Valley nerds who champion UBI don’t seem to entirely understand this. That might be because they are all naturally creative. They are driven to write software, and create great things, and most of them would continue to do so, even without financial rewards. Being creative without financial rewards is what gave birth to the entire open-source movement. To Wikipedia. And so on. And that’s great!

I would love it if UBI really did unlock the vast creative potential of people. It might actually do so in Scandinavian countries. It probably, certainly would in Germany, and important parts of Poland, Eastern Europe (in Lithuania, I get the impression that half the population has a Masters of Fine Arts. Now, if they only they could work past the depression…)

So we are in a tight spot. The points are these:

  • Socialism maybe might work, IF there was some cultural mechanism to keep people from sinking into the depths of despair.
  • The depths of despair still lurk below, even if you’re wealthy. People do need to figure out the meaning of life.
  • The church (religions in general) have always been there to tell you what the meaning of life was.
  • Until the robot apocalypse is upon us, we still need humans to perform actual labor. So we can’t dispense with the idea of working-for-wages, just yet.
  • Even in a post-capitalist world, there will still be money, as there will still be a need to trade fungible goods. Money is a grease to keep economies moving.
  • The aristocracy is working hard to put us all down, while further accumulating yet more wealth. Dreams of luxury castles on Mars, far from the unwashed masses on Earth, seems to be a viable meme if you’re a billionaire. We are in deep do-do: all this stuff about “the 99%” and Obamacare and Equifax: this is real shit, and we have got real bona-fide clinically psychopathic assholes running things in Washington DC. Its a real crisis.

That’s all I got. You can expand this list almost indefinitely.

Are there provisional answers for these bullets? Some, sort-of. They are lame.

  • Ethereum, smart contracts, is a viable form of “grease” for getting the economy to continue functioning. Its even a viable platform for creating and redistributing a UBI, avoiding the pitfalls of UBI that is valued in dollars (because it sidesteps the political turmoil in Washington DC to “balance the budget” and all the confusion about the nature of “fiat money”).
  • Technological solutions for democracy: The pursuance project aims to create ‘the world’s first comprehensive framework for process democracy. That is, it allows individuals with no prior relationship to self-organize into robust, agile entities governed via a “proceduralism of agreement.”’
  • Many religions still seem to be incompletely enlightened. Some, like Scientology, seem to be evil. Society does not yet have an effective way for distributing enlightenment and happiness to the masses.
  • We need good social science ideas for how to handle free time, without sinking onto hooliganism and drug abuse. Here’s one:
  • We’ve got to muddle through. Ideas like might someday reform the political system. We’ve got to burn the Democratic Party down to the ground, so that it can be reborn fresh, like a Phoenix, without the Democratic bullshit that keeps making them loose elections.
  • We’ve got to understand how social media has altered the global dialog.

OK, some are not even answers. They’re todo items. You can expand the list. Its exhausting work. What’s the point if no one listens? If no one agrees? Does one sink into despair? Well, no one shouldn’t. One can, and must, muddle onwards. We’ve got to build heaven on earth, as it were, without having to be protestants.