Socialism is all the rage on the left side of the political spectrum. With Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s recent primary win and Bernie Sanders’ surprising primary challenge in 2016, the socialists are now the coolest cats at the party. The traditional Democrats get vilified and branded with the neoliberal slur. It’s all very smug. But I don’t want to get into a debate about the pros and cons of socialism. I want to know why socialism is the thing that the lefties have latched on to.
Socialism isn’t like climate change or the heliocentric solar system, the science (if you can call economics a science) isn’t even close to settled. There are no facts to turn to. There’s no consensus of experts. But those on the left are convinced anyway. They think socialism will cure all of society’s ills.
There’s a strange religiosity about the socialists. There are certain articles of faith that they cling to, like the evils of capitalism. They blame capitalism for everything from global warming to racism and sexism. Never mind the fact that racism and sexism predate capitalism by a lot. And don’t think too much about the fact that capitalistic markets have proven effective in tackling tragedy of the commons environmental problems before. We are told to accept that just because capitalism is the dominant economic system now, and these problems exist now, capitalism must be the cause of these problems. It’s bad logic.
Socialism also has its prophets and sacred texts, most importantly Karl Marx. While Marx was a keen observer and social critic, it turns out he was no better at predicting the future than any other human being. Just because he said there would be a revolution doesn’t mean there will be. Just because he said that socialism naturally follows the overthrow of capitalism doesn’t mean it has to. As historical texts, they are interesting, but as guides to the future, they’re no better than tea leaves.
I tend to think that an economic system is like a language. We don’t choose it or have much control over it. There’s a reason why Esperanto never caught on, it’s not how language works. Capitalism has grown and changed and it will continue to grow and change. I suppose at some point it will change enough so that it is no longer considered capitalism, but there’s no telling what that new system will look like or how it will arrive. Most people probably won’t even notice. It will take future historians to pick a date when it happened. At least that’s how it always happened before. I understand the problem of induction, but my gut tells me that induction works in this case.
I’m not writing this to defend capitalism. All of the problems are real problems. We need to do something about racism, sexism, global warming, inequality, poverty and all the rest. I just don’t see a faith-based approach as the best way to deal with them. It’s too utopian, too idealistic. We need practical solutions. Capitalism is what we’ve got, we need to learn how to deal with these problems within it. If we wait for the rise of socialism, people will continue to suffer, waiting for something that may never come.