Saturday, September 05, 2009

G. A. Cohen: The socialist’s guide to camping

This week, New Statesman has an excerpt from the forthcoming book "Why Not Socialism?" by Oxford philosopher G. A. Cohen, who died last month (see here):

The socialist’s guide to camping

The book is coming out on Princeton University Press in October.


I: The Camping Trip
II: The Principles Realized on the Camping Trip
III: Is the Ideal Desirable?
IV: Is the Ideal Feasible? Are the Obstacles to It Human Selfishness, or Poor Social Technology?
V: Coda

Cohen's own summary: "In Part I, I describe a context, called “the camping trip,” in which most people would, I think, strongly favor a socialist form of life over feasible alternatives. Part II specifies two principles, one of equality and one of community, that are realized on the camping trip, and whose realiza­tion explains, so I believe, why the camp­ing trip mode of organization is attrac­tive. In Part III, I ask whether those principles also make (society-wide) social­ism desirable. But I also ask, in Part IV, whether socialism is feasible, by dis­cussing difficulties that face the project of promoting socialism’s principles not in the mere small, within the confined time and space of a camping trip, but through­out society as a whole, in a permanent way. Part V is a short coda."

The book is based on an essay published in Edward Broadbent (ed.) - Democratic Equality (University of Toronto Press, 2001).


wgreen said...

So, because sharing is sometimes desireable, therefore it should be extended throughout society all of the time?

Sometimes it is desireable to compete (i.e during the olympics), does it follow that competition is always desireable?

wgreen said...

Sharing is commonplace within otherwise competitive systems. Within individual businesses, employees share resources. Does this contradict competition between businesses? Does it contradict competition between employees? Even individual team members, though they cooperate on a team, compete against each other in many respects and so spur one another on to better performance.

wgreen said...

AS far as the camping trip, though I may share my stuff on the trip, and though I may share labor on the trip, it does not follow that this is how I want to (or could) live my life. A vacation is not life.

With time the camping trip would evolve into a typical struggle for existence requiring production, which would raise the issue of ownership of the goods produced. I think assumptions that human beings will naturally work hard for the sake of the community are baseless, as history has shown (i.e. Bradford's Plymoth experiment).

If extended in space to include all of society, the camping trip becomes a nightmare of coordination, with no way to legitimately decide who gets to do what or use what.

How can I decide to wash the dishes without consulting everyone else in society? How can I know how much I am allowed to eat without consulting everyone else? How can I eat anything without everyone else's leave?

Again, I think the assumption that humans will naturally cooperate in such an environment is baseless.

Incidentally, most folks don't like doing dishes or cleaning the latrine. Many prefer rest and fun. Who decides who gets to rest when and how much? What if I don't want to work? What if I'm content with dirty dishes and stinky latrines? Am I free to be lazy?

I suppose I might be barred from the latrine and the dishes, but now we enter the realm of coercion. Who decides what must be done and by whom? The majority? On what basis does the majority have ownership/control of the minority (or anything for that matter)?

Am I owned/controlled by the majority of humans?

For an example of the evolution of property rights, see

Also, the camping trip is a voluntary association. Presumably, socialism would have to be imposed upon society. Though most people enjoy communal camping trips with friends and family, I'm not sure most people would want to go on great communal camping trip with everyone on earth, much less be forced to do so.