Of iPads and socialism
By Alberto Mingardi
Can we have “socialism, with an iPad”? This is the picture the Labour Shadow Chancellor recently used, with the aim of providing a somewhat modernized, albeit only symbolically, face for Jeremy Corbyn’s economic proposals. Labour-leaning columnist Zoe Williams argues that there is no contradiction between the iPad and socialism – and actually socialists should claim the iPad as the living proof their values work.
Ms Williams’ piece is rhetorically fascinating, but ultimately misleading. She fears that one of “Thatcher and Reagan’s visions” still influences much of the contemporary debate: “the notion that humanity progresses through innovation; innovation is a function of the brilliance of the individual; individuals can only fulfill their potential with personal freedom; and the state, in all its guises, whether regulatory or taxational, is the main barrier to that freedom.”
She holds that the durability of this view is not based upon the fact that there might be a grain of truth there, but rather on the sad reality that the left is losing a battle of words.
When socialism allowed the iPad to be seen as the achievement of the right, it ceded more than the product – it ceded its natural territory. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams describe in their book Inventing the Future: “From early communist visions of technological progress, to Soviet space utopias, to the social democratic rhetoric of the ‘white heat of technology,’ what set the left apart from the right was its unambiguous embrace of the future.
To be sure, the Left has been also home to many technological skeptics, beginning with the Luddites. Leaders of the workers movement organised resistance to technological innovations, that they understood as a likely cause of the degeneration of the wage-earners as a class. Time and again, the idea that machines compete with human labour has been a major source of support for socialism.
Clearly, there were times when socialism was forward-looking, rather than backward-looking as in the case of Mr Corbyn, who openly regrets the good old times of outright nationalisation. In the last few years, socialism has been increasingly tempted by nostalgia. But, in a way, wasn’t it always? “Utopia” was many things, but not a technologically advanced island. There was only a genuine grasp of the fact that for everyone to have “her fair share” (however defined), a society should be somehow held in a stationary state. Yes, some theorists place socialism firmly in the future: a future of perfection, when you could do away with all those big and little “changes” that mark the daily life of a capitalist economy.
For Ms Williams, innovators are motivated by other things than the pursuit of profit and do build on the legacy of previous innovators, taking full advantage of the stock of knowledge that society assembled over time. I think she is absolutely right: but how is this supposed to be incompatible with a market economy, and indeed positively related with “socialism“?
She thinks “free-market fundamentalists” believe that everything is done just in the pursuit of profit. I’d like to assure her that most of free-marketers want a free market for real human beings: that is, for people that can act upon egoistic instincts as well as upon altruistic ones, as I think it happens to all of us. Assuming self-interest puts us on the safe side, so to say, far away from “nirvana fallacies” of different sorts. One indeed wonders where Ms. Williams got her understanding of the free-market from.
It is a bit of an irony that Ms Williams quotes Deirdre McCloskey (by the way, it is her third, not her fourth, book on “Bourgeois Virtues” which is coming out next year). McCloskey maintains that the industrial revolution was by and large the output of an increased social appreciation for mundane jobs: she believes that it was a change in social attitudes (culture) which made industrialisation possible. Not by chance, she openly talks of “virtues”.
Iain Murray here has already pointed out that basically Ms Williams cannot see that markets are a form of human cooperation, and not its opposite.
It is also not by chance that her argument is a bit self-contradictory. On the one hand, she emphasises the extent to which innovation is a collective enterprise. On the other hand, she can’t but focus on the case of Steve Jobs, who was “fascinated by sharing.” This is because she thinks of innovation as a purposeful, top-down “act”: and not as something that you can somehow stumble upon.
The key difference between “innovation socialists” and “innovation liberals” may well be that the former believe that innovation is something that should be pursued per se. Yes, the Soviet Union’s space program: big, grand design, for the sake of the grandeur of the Socialist Homeland!
The latter, instead, believe that innovation is market-tested. A great project is not good per se: it is good insofar as it satisfies other people’s needs. Innovation is good insofar as it makes people lives better, which you see if they’re ready to buy into it.
This is why “socialism with an iPad” would be indeed a rather novel thing.