Sunday, July 15, 2012

Egalitarian vs Communal Principles

I was reading an interesting book on my flight called 'Why Not Socialism?', by G. A. Cohen. It tied in nicely with the concepts that I discuss here on this blog so I thought I would share two principles that Cohen discusses: the egalitarian and the communal, or community, principles.

The title of the book is not meant as a rhetorical question - Cohen discusses the idea of a socialist society from a logical and realistic view point. He also touches upon the feasibility of implementing a socialist system, but in this blog post I will not delve into whether socialism is feasible or not - you can read the book if you would like to find that out.

The Camping Trip

Let's start off with an analogy that Cohen uses throughout the book: 'the camping trip'. 

Imagine that you and I and a whole bunch of other people go on a camping trip. There is no hierarchy among us; our common aim is that each of us should have a good time, doing, so far as possible, the things that she or he likes best (some things we do together, others we do separately). We have with us facilities which we can use: pots, pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, deck of cards, etc. And as is usual on camping trips, we use those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip, and we have shared understandings about who is going to use them when, and under what circumstances, and why. Somebody fishes, somebody else prepares the food, and another person cooks it. People who do not like to cook but enjoy washing up may do all the washing up, and so on. 

On this camping trip there are plenty of differences, but our mutual understandings, and the spirit of the enterprise, ensure that there are no inequalities to which anyone could mount a principled objection. There is a clear sense of 'fellowship'.

Now imagine a camping trip where everybody asserts their rights over the facilities, or pieces of equipment, and the talents that they bring, and where bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay what to whom. For example, to use a knife to peel the potatoes, and how much they are going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes that were bought in an unpeeled condition from another camper, and so on. 

On this camping trip there are also plenty of differences but these differences are based on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. On this camping trip there is a clear sense of 'inefficiency' in the sense that too much time would be spent bargaining, and looking over one's shoulders for more lucrative possibilities. 

Which camping trip would you be drawn to? 

Now imagine that 
Harry, Sylvia, Leslie and Morgan are your fellow campers. 

Harry is very good at fishing, and so consequently he catches more fish than others do. Harry would like better fish than the others when he dines because he feels that it is unfair that his good fortune is not rewarded. Sylvia upon returning from a personal exploration period returns to the campsite and announces that she found a huge apple tree full of perfect apples. But in order to allow the other campers to have the apples she would like a reduction in her labour burden, more room in the tent and more bacon for breakfast. Leslie, endowed from birth with many knacks and talents is the only camper on the trip who knows how to crack nuts, but she wants to charge for sharing that information with her fellow campers.  Morgan's father camped in the same spot thirty years ago. Thirty years ago Morgan's father dug a special little pond and stocked it with exceedingly good fish so that when Morgan went to camp he would be able to eat better. Morgan says, "Now I can have better food than you guys have".

How would you react to your fellow camper's expressions?

Two Principles

From the two trips above, two principles are highlighted: the principle of community, evident in the first trip; and the principle of egalitarianism, evident in the second trip and in Harry, Sylvia, Leslie and Morgan's expressions.

It is also evident that the community principle, by default, constrains the operation of the egalitarian principle by forbidding certain inequalities that the egalitarian principle permits. 

There is also a sense of communal caring that is instantiated in the community principle - a communal form of reciprocity which contrasts with the market form of reciprocity evident in the second camping trip. Where starting points are equal, communal reciprocity is not required for equality, but it is required for human relationships to take a desirable form. 

Thus, communal reciprocity is the antimarket principle according to which: I serve you not because of what I can get in return but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.  On the other hand, since the market motivates productive contribution not on the basis of commitment to one's fellow human beings and a desire to serve them while being served by them, but on the basis of cash reward - market reciprocity is not the same as communal reciprocity.

This immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is typically a mixture of greed and fear.      

Greed and Fear

It is true that people can engage in market activity under other aspirations, but the motives of greed and fear are what the market brings to prominence: greed on behalf of, and fear for the safety of, one's family. Even when one's concerns are wider than those of one's self, the market posture is greedy and fearful in that one's opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one's success. 

Goes without saying that these are horrible ways of seeing other people, however much we have become habituated and inured to them, this is a result of centuries of capitalist civilization. Of course capitalism did not invent greed and fear, they are deep in human nature, but capitalism does celebrate them.

Within communal reciprocity, one produces in a spirit of commitment to their fellow human beings: a desire to serve them while being served by them.  

Within market reciprocation, one is willing to serve only in order to be served: one would not serve if doing so were not a means to get service. Accordingly, one would give as little service as they can in exchange for as much service as they can get: I want to buy cheap and sell dear. I serve others either in order to get something that I desire - that is the greed motivation; or in order to ensure that something I seek to avoid is avoided - that is the fear motivation.  

A marketeer, as such, does not value cooperation with others for its own sake: the conjunction, serve-and-be-served is not valued.

A non-market cooperator relishes cooperation: what I want, is that we serve each other; and when I serve, instead of trying to get whatever I can get, I do not regard my actions as a sacrifice. To be sure, I serve you in the expectation that (if you are able to) you will also serve me. My commitment does not require me to be a sucker who serves you regardless of whether (if you are able to do so) you are going to serve me, but I nevertheless find value in both parts of the conjunction: I serve you and you serve me. I do not regard the first part - I serve you - as a means to my real end, which is that you serve me. The relationship between us is not the market instrumental one in which I give because I get, but the non-instrumental one in which I give because you need, or want, and in which I expect a comparable generosity from you.

So, Can Communal Reciprocity Work?

Albert Einstein once said that socialism is humanity's attempt to "overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development". Every market, is a system of predation and so far, our attempts to get beyond predation on a national scale, have failed - but that doesn't mean we cannot apply the principles of community, or communal reciprocity, in our every day lives.   

Communal reciprocity can link chains of people together: I can serve you, and you her, and she him, and he me. In a sense, communal networks that are in some ways structurally like market networks, can form. The difference would be that reciprocity would operate under different motivations than market reciprocity but in essence, they would be like market networks in the way that no one does anything for anyone without getting something in return.

Because motivation in market exchange consists, to a large degree, of greed and fear, a person does not care, fundamentally, within a market interaction, about how well or badly anyone other than their self fares. You cooperate with other people not because you believe it's a good thing in itself, not because you want yourself and the other person to flourish, but because you seek to gain and you know that you can do so only if you cooperate with others. 

In every type of society people perforce provision one another: a society is a network of mutual provision. But, in a market society, that mutuality is only a by-product of an un-mutual and fundamentally nonreciprocating attitude.   

In our effort to advance beyond predation we must realize that we are up against entrenched capitalist power and individual human selfishness. But these are not reasons to disparage the ideal itself. If we focus on the aspiration to extend community and justice to our every day dealings, we can make a change. It is now, more than ever, imperative to defend community principles - especially that healthcare and education are currently under aggressive threat from the market principle.   

Is it just to live in a society where human life is valued by a monetary ROI?


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