Monday, April 6, 2015


192. A way out for socialism?


Socialism seems spent and stale. A new direction is needed. Central notions of individualism, equality and solidarity are up for revision.

Individualism used to be oriented towards autonomy, freedom, and self-interest of the individual, but with a shared responsibility for society

Equality was seen as shared identity, participation in a universal humanity, as a basis for universal rights. There may be quantitative but not qualitative difference. You may have more but you are not better than another.

Solidarity came to mean that everyone had to share in prosperity, in distributive justice.

These were the points of orientation for what Sennett, in his book on cooperation[i], called the ‘Political Left’. This stands in contrast with what he called the ‘Social Left’. The political Left is oriented towards unity in the form of universal, codified equality of position, in top-down solidarity, bureaucratically imposed, with cooperation as a tool. The social Left is oriented towards diversity combined with inclusion, access to resources, in a variety of capabilities, in bottom-up solidarity, with cooperation as an end.

The Political Left is organized, structured, with a stable script of rule-based order to secure harmony. The Social Left is self-organized, with an orientation to process, allowing for diversity. The first seeks to eliminate risk. The second accepts risk, in the tension of combining collaboration and rivalry, yielding emergence of shifting forms of order. Identity is not seen as given but as in progress. Life without risk is lifeless.

The political Left came to dominate socialism, and fought for the old ideals of equality and solidarity. That led to an excess of social arrangements, and a mentality of dependence, passiveness, pityfulness, and shirking of responsibility. That caused resentment, which corroded solidarity. The market seemed to be the alternative, with Adam Smith’s invisible hand of self-interest yielding prosperity. That required socialism to shed its ideological feathers.

But then the market also turned out to be imperfect. It derailed in excesses of cupidity, conceit and remuneration of managers, financial crises, power of money in politics, tax evasion by corporations, destruction of the environment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and social distress in low wage countries. And then socialism stood empty-handed.


Rosanvallon proposed a shift of the concepts of individualism, freedom, and solidarity, as discussed in items 150-162 of this blog.[ii]

Equality made way to diversity. Individualism became oriented to self-realization of the unique individual.

Self-realization turned into narcissism, wanting to see oneself mirrored in others, rather than recognizing their difference as interesting and a source of insight.  

Responsibility for society crumbled. Rosanvallon called this ‘singularity’. Sennett talks of ‘withdrawal’ from society and cooperation. That further contributed to the decay of solidarity.

Fundamental for a new notion of solidarity is the view that for their development people need different others to learn from opposition to one’s own prejudice. That requires openness, reciprocity, and not only toleration but also appreciation of difference, as Sennett argued in his book and as I have argued in this blog.

Equality not of identity but of relation. Not a redistribution of outcomes (income, capital), but equal access to resources of knowledge, work, influence, and networks.

Does all this perhaps yield a basis for a re-orientation of socialism? It could be politically viable. Solidarity as reciprocity yields a connection with Christian-democrats, and a challenge to neo-liberalism. Individualism as diversity and equality not in outcomes but in access to resources connects with liberalism. Identity as change is a challenge to conservatives. Also to socialism, to extricate itself from entrenched rights and positions. Acceptance of change and risk, not to play safe too much. That connects with old instincts of progressiveness. And it yields scope for entrepreneurs, an electorate neglected by socialism.

It will be difficult to get risks and inequality in outcomes accepted. One must determine the limits and conditions for them. With a basic income, for example, as I proposed in item 154 of this blog.

[i] Richard Sennett, Together; The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation, Penguin, 2013.
[ii] Here I use the book, ‘the society of equals’ by Pierre Rosanvallon: La société des égaux, 2011, Paris: Editions Seuil.