Archive | Socialism

Matthew Yglesias on Star Trek

At Slate, Matthew Yglesias has an interesting article reviewing all of the Star Trek and many of the movies from the original 1960s series to the present. He especially focuses on the series’ ideology and politics, and its “utopian” vision of the future.

Despite coming at the issue from a very different perspective, I actually agree with much of Yglesias’ analysis. I think he is right that Deep Space Nine had many of Star Trek’s best episodes, that Voyager was the worst of the TV shows, and that the 2009 “reboot” movie (which I criticized here) takes the series in the wrong direction. Most fundamentally, I think we agree that Star Trek is interesting because it takes on serious issues about the kind of future we should want for humanity. That is a big part of the reason we are still talking about Trek almost fifty years after it began.

On the other hand, I have a much more critical perspective than Yglesias on Star Trek’s mostly left-wing politics, which I articulated in this Institute for Humane Studies podcast. As I explain in the podcast, I like Deep Space Nine better than the other series in part because it is more willing to question the Federation’s values, though it ultimately does still endorse them. I also disagree with Yglesias’ view that the economy of Star Trek is post-scarcity, thereby making socialism workable (and indeed the only feasible economic system). As I discuss here, many important goods and services are still limited in the Star Trek universe, including the energy sources that power starships, planetary real estate, a variety of personal services, and – most importantly – replicators. The replicator – the very technology that supposedly eliminates scarcity – is itself scarce; the Federation and its various rivals apparently […]

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Podcast on the Politics of Star Trek

The Institute for Humane Studies has produced a podcast in which I discuss the politics of Star Trek, especially it’s favorable portrayal of socialism, which I previously wrote about here and here. I single out Star Trek: The New Generation as the Trek series most committed to socialist ideology and most unwilling to give any credence to criticisms of the Federation’s ideology, while noting that Deep Space Nine is much better about presenting alternative points of view in an interesting way, and raising questions about the Federation.

As a bonus, there’s a discussion of Star Trek’s replicator technology, and why it is that some things can be replicated while others cannot!

For a contrasting perspective on the politics of Star Trek, see this recent series of posts by science fiction critic Abigail Nussbaum, which analyze The New Generation ((like me, she is more fond of Deep Space Nine). Nussbaum makes many good points, but I disagree with her bottom-line view that the Federation is a “cultural imperialist” projection of present American and Western values into the future. She reaches this conclusion in part because she simply ignores the Federation’s socialism, which is of course antithetical to much of present-day Western society. Thus, for example, she argues that series is based on a Cold War analogy with the Federation playing the role of the US and the villainous Romulans that of the Soviet Union. But once you take due account of the fact that the Federation is socialist, while the Romulans have a relatively capitalist economy and a political system based on that of ancient Rome (the precursor of the modern West), it is far from clear that her analogy works.

Instead, it is the Federation that turns out to be a sort of kinder, gentler Soviet Union. […]

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New York Yankees Co-Owner Hank Steinbrenner Denounces “Socialism”

New York Yankees co-owner Hank Steinbrenner recently denounced Major League Baseball’s revenue-sharing system, calling it “socialism”:

Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner [the other co-owner/co-chairman is Hank’s brother Hal] says baseball’s revenue sharing and luxury tax programs need changes…..

“We’ve got to do a little something about that, and I know Bud wants to correct it in some way,” Steinbrenner said. “Obviously, we’re very much allies with the Red Sox and the Mets, the Dodgers, the Cubs, whoever in that area.”

“At some point, if you don’t want to worry about teams in minor markets, don’t put teams in minor markets, or don’t leave teams in minor markets if they’re truly minor,” Steinbrenner said. “Socialism, communism, whatever you want to call it, is never the answer.”

I don’t have a strong view about the revenue-sharing system. As a tool for maintaining competitive balance, it’s much less effective than the salary caps adopted by the NFL, NBA, and NHL. Moreover, the revenue-sharing system suffers from the flaw that the low-payroll teams that receive the money paid in by wealthier franchises can simply put the money into their owners’ pockets, as opposed to investing it in improving their teams.

That said, comparing MLB revenue-sharing to socialism is absurd. Socialism is government control of the economy, not a private arrangement to divide up profits from a joint enterprise. You might as well say that a law firm is “socialistic” if individual partners don’t keep all the profit generated by the clients they bring in, and instead have to transfer some of it to the other partners.

If the Steinbrenners really believe that socialism is “never the answer,” however, they should return the record $1.2 billion in government subsidies that they recently got for the building of the new Yankee Stadium. Even the USSR […]

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Competing Explanations for the Oppressive Nature of Socialism

Economist Bryan Caplan has an interesting post summarizing three competing explanation for the oppressive nature of socialist regimes:

Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually-existing socialism. While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked. Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: Under socialism, “the worst get on top.” On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.

[Eugen] Richter’s novel [Pictures of the Socialist Future] advances a very different explanation for socialism’s “moral decay”: The movement was born bad. While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,” their ideal was totalitarian. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves – depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on dissenters – so be it.

The three theories aren’t mutually exclusive. All of them may have some validity. Still, the evidence supports “born bad” much more than the others. Acton and Hayek’s theories both imply that there should be a significant time lag between the time when the socialists take power and the start of really serious oppression. Even if absolute power corrupts absolutely, it doesn’t do so immediately. Similarly, it takes time for the “idealistic founders” to be replaced by “brutal cynics.”

In actual fact, however, massive oppression usually begins almost immediately after socialist regimes take over. The Cheka (forerunner of the […]

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Telos Returns to ‘New Class’ Analysis and the Critique of the ‘Wholly-Administered Society”

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The critical theory journal, Telos, returns to one of its earliest themes, the critique of what its editors in the 1970s and 80s termed the “wholly-administered society” and “New Class” analysis.  It shifted away from those themes and modes of analysis for a long time, but it has re-opened that discussion with a bang.  Editor Russell Berman, Stanford comparative literature and European studies professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow, introduces a short special section of articles on the New Class with a first rate introductory essay that offers the backdrop to New Class categories and defines their relevance today.

This is a marvelous short essay.  Telos is a difficult, intellectually challenging journal; it is not for everyone.  But its editors – who break along many intellectual, ideological, political, and other lines; there’s a Left Telos and a Right Telos and many others besides – are ferociously intelligent and never suffer fools gladly.  (Its founding editor, the late great Paul Piccone, never suffered fools at all.)  Beneath a tough intellectual language that many will find incomprehensible, Telos is that rarest of things, an intellectual journal of the highest order beholden to no academic department, no academic politics, intrigue, budgets, tenure decisions, careerism, or anything else.  No one’s academic career ever flourished on account of writing for Telos, so far as I know.  On the other hand, its alumns over the decades include a remarkable number of great scholars in social theory.

Berman makes a persuasive case for the relevancy of New Class theory and the theory of the wholly administered society in today’s urgent circumstances.  This will almost certainly not be Telos’s last venture into this terrain in today’s times.  This essay is highly readable; Telos is not.  Be warned.  But it needs to read and debated by intellectuals looking […]

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Democracy and the Appeal of Socialism

Economist Bryan Caplan wonders why socialism ever developed any broad appeal, given the weaknesses of the idea of the “New Socialist Man”:

The classic argument against socialism is that it gives people bad incentives. What’s the point of working, conserving, saving, quality control, and/or taking out the garbage if they don’t pay? The classic socialist reply is that capitalism creates the selfishness it purports to benevolently channel. Socialism will give birth to a “New Socialist Man” who loves his neighbor as himself….

I’ve always considered the New Socialist Man position to be not just weak, but absurd. Ever heard of Darwin? People are selfish because of billions of years of evolution, not capitalism. End of story…

I take hindsight bias seriously. Many mistakes really are hard to see until you actually make them. But socialism wasn’t one of them.

If the possibility of radically altering human nature were the only rationale for socialism, Bryan’s point would be compelling. As he notes, early critics of socialism quickly pointed out many of the perverse incentives it would create. You don’t have to be a sophisticated economist to realize that most people are self-interested most of the time, and that they are unlikely to work hard if there is no reward for doing so. However, the theory of the “new socialist man” was never the only version of socialism, and not always the most influential.

Democratic socialism was a crucial alternative rationale for state ownership of the economy. Even if people remain selfish, bringing the economy under the control of a democratic government could still greatly improve the lot of the working class. Unlike capitalists who pursue only their own profit, democratically elected politicians have to serve the interests of the majority of voters – even if the politicos are power-hungry […]

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