Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

We all prefer socialism when camping

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We have been sold a lie. We have become convinced that capitalism and free markets are the necessary trappings of post-modern liberty and democracy. Even with the serious failings on show in this recession, we are told that it is the naughty bankers and poor US people who should not have been allowed the homes for which they defaulted their loans. Communism is described as failed ideology, while capitalism is depicted as realised truth, and its evils, if mentioned at all, are all necessary. These things are lies.

In this last week, I have seen yet more pictures of US right-wingers comparing their new president to Hitler for his perceived ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ — Obamunism! I have watched Michael Winterbottom’s flawed documentary representation of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which has compelled me to read the book. Then I read an excerpt from Jerry Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? in the New Statesman.

The extreme reaction of the US right to a mildly progressive president (who happens to be black, which is clearly an issue for many)  is a demonstration to me that Klein is on the right track: we have been brainwashed into believing that neoliberalism is the default position for right-thinking nations, and all alternatives are crazy ideologies that would never work in the real world. Jerry Cohen died just over a month ago, but his rambling, discursive style refreshes the mind and takes us back to first principles.

Cohen asks us to consider what it might be like to go on a camping trip with a group of friends, even though he admits that he is not much into outdoor pursuits himself. He discusses how informal plans are made between campers about where to camp and who will bring which equipment. Cohen suggests that we should naturally pool our resources with friends. One friend might bring a stove and pans, some agreement might be reached to cook in turn, but all benefit from that one person’s resources and another’s skills. One friend might bring a fishing rod, but feel it only proper to share the catch with all. Another friend may bring playing cards, but would invite others to join in an evening’s game. Of course, life is not perfect: there could be clashes of personalities and disagreements over the group’s plans. Yet this manner of sharing and consensual agreement still seems only good and normal. Even the most right-wing camper fails to see that the basic principles of socialism are at work here.

Now try applying free-market principles to the camping trip. Resources and skills now have to be priced according to their relative and perceived value. The consensus is now replaced by constant bargaining and jostling for the best deals. In fact, the over-vaunted efficiency of free markets is shown up to be a lie too.

Naturally, it is a long jump from organising a camping trip to macroeconomic policy. However, Cohen’s point is to show us that socialism is normal, human, efficient and pleasant to all given the right circumstances. We need to discover a plurality of stories that demonstrates this to a world fed on corporate misdirection.

The future for the Left does not involve embracing capitalism and trying to tame it — social democracy, for all its niceness, is just as lost as the Right — nor is to be found in the ‘democratic centralism’ of Leninism and Trotskyism, which ends in the realignment of the enslavement of the working class to a new ruling class.  Cohen’s little story of a group of friends going camping shows us that socialism shaped to human needs must be based on small communities that are self-determining and self-sufficient. It is this kind of radical anti-globalisation, based on real rather than imagined communities, that is the true missing link between environmental sustainability and the reintegration of politics with civil society, where the state and its divisions are shaped as the cooperative of real human communities.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

2 thoughts on “We all prefer socialism when camping

  1. Using your analogy of camping.
    It would be best not to go camping with me.
    If you fail to properly prepare for your camping needs, then you better go to a superstore and get what you need.
    I will not feed you, nor will I provide sleeping gear or a tent to keep your dumb a$$ warm and dry.

  2. At first sight, this seems uncharitable. After all, I would help keep a friend’s ‘dumb ass warm and dry’; that’s what friendship is all about. Our sense of commitment to others in society is inversely proportional to the size of the group. I would help out those I know well, but helping those I do not know becomes charity. There is a place for charity, but it is no basis on which to base a society. The problem is that charity has its limits. Karl Marx agreed with that, classing as lumpenproletariat those who were unable or unwilling to give anything back to society. Of course there are far many bourgeois who only take from society’s resources without putting anything back in. Perhaps the problem is not so much the person who is so poor or disenchanted that they have no tent, but the person who has bought all the camp sites and turned them into theme parks and golf courses.

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