No True Socialist

Author: Dom Rottman

Socialism is where the workers own the means of production. If you didn’t believe me the second time, google it. Sometimes it’s defined as “public” or “social” ownership of the means of production–words which are problematic for a reason I will get into shortly–but the point that needs to be hammered the hell home is that socialism is not, I repeat, not necessarily the redistribution of wealth. Some socialist programs and theories involve the redistribution of wealth to varying degrees and through various means. But the necessary condition for the possibility of socialism is the worker ownership of the means of production–and I’m going to beat this point over your head like a bag of doorknobs.

While I had heretofore heard of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro EPICALLY DESTROYING liberals, socialists, etc. with FACTS and LOGIC, I only recently watched a video of this actually happening. Before, I had only been exposed to Shapiro through sound bites, memes, and interviews.

I must admit that the man is a remarkable sophist. It’s no wonder that he seems to “destroy leftists” so often. The video I watched shows a young man, an avowed socialist, asking Mr. Shapiro what he thinks about the core element of socialism–worker ownership of the means of production. Immediately, Shapiro performs a rhetorical sleight of hand, and asks the socialist if he genuinely means workers, as in the employees of a company in most capitalist firms, or, what I’m sure Shapiro hoped he’d say, the government.

Shapiro is indeed making a jump, but to his credit, it isn’t a very far one. Many strains of socialism subscribe to an idea known as vanguardism, which is the idea that a vanguard “worker’s party” ought to assume control of the government and rule in the interests of workers. Vanguardism was most famously defended by Vladimir Lenin, and is part of the foundation of regimes commonly associated with socialism or communism: the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Venezuela etc.–which are of course the examples of “real socialism” held up as successful states (yes, the USSR is gone, but it did at least last for a good 80 or so years) but failed societies.

But socialism is where the workers own the means of production. Vanguardism is not a necessary trait or condition of socialism; it is in fact an idea criticized by many on the Left who maintain their identity as socialists or communists themselves. Nor does a “successful” form of socialism–successful with respect to a socialist state or society existing– indicate that such a form of socialism is ideal or even just and good at all. Indeed, measuring socialism’s mileage by the strength of a state is rather nauseating since–to the surprise of many–socialism does not require a state to exist and function. Socialism is where the workers own the means of production. That the workers ought to be represented by a political party and/or government and are therefore logically equivalent to such an entity is a different idea–vanguardism–which is problematic on its own. This is why, earlier, I insisted on using the term workers as opposed to “public” or “social,” which are dangerously vague collective nouns that do not guarantee a link between actual individuals–workers–and the means of production.

The young socialist seems to know all of this–but Shapiro has already begun to set his trap. If the young man admits to vanguardism, then Shapiro is free to go on a tirade about the horrors of the Soviet Union and Venezuela and whatnot, a fate from which a vanguardist cannot be saved. If he does not, which was true in this particular instance, Shapiro performs the great and infamous “no true socialist” fallacy.

The goal of the “no true socialist” fallacy is for the arguer to pull out the almighty punchline “that’s not real socialism” or some variation thereof. While Shapiro is, of course, a conservative commentator, it is a fallacy committed on the Left as well. The difference between the right and the left’s usage of the “no true socialist fallacy” is that while the former uses it to bamboozle the opponent into being a closet capitalist by accusing the opponent of not fitting into their–usually incorrect–preconceived notions of socialism, the left uses it to disown the Soviet Union, Venezuela, etc. as examples of “not true socialism” instead of being willing to admit that those regimes were examples of bad socialism. In this case, the left uses this fallacy to avoid divesting socialism of its total beneficence and invulnerability–because apparently ideologies are supposed to work on the first try.

Shapiro ultimately leaves the young socialist with a false dichotomy: he must either mean “a bunch of guys getting together” who might then go on to hire other people (which cannot be socialism if the new hires do not own the means of production just as much as everyone else), or government ownership of the means of production, a vanguardist, state version of socialism. The young socialist explains, correctly, that what he means by worker ownership of the means of production is something like a worker co-op, citing the Mondragon cooperative corporation in Spain. Shapiro asks in response if Mondragon is a voluntary organization. When the student replies yes, Shapiro interjects with the great punchline “that’s not socialism that’s capitalism,” receiving thunderous applause.

Because every voluntary organization is capitalist right?

The success of the no true socialist fallacy is owed to two things. Firstly, the fact that there are various theories and applications of socialism, briefly explored above, and secondly, the ambiguity of capitalism. While the necessary condition, the sine qua non of socialism is worker ownership of the means of production, determining the essential qualities or conditions of capitalism is much harder. That’s not to say we don’t actually know what capitalism is at all; we do have a vague idea and intuitive sense of it by living in a capitalist society. But while socialism can be determined by a single necessary and sufficient condition, the worker ownership of the means of production, with capitalism there exists only a list of features which characterize it. Among these, chiefly, are the existence of markets, theoretically endless growth and accumulation of profit and, wage labor, and, most relevant to this discussion, private ownership.

If Shapiro contends that Mondragon is capitalist, then private ownership cannot be a necessary condition for capitalism, since Mondragon is socialist–that is, worker owned. This seems rather odd, since property, specifically private property (think exclusive ownership of the means of production by a capitalist and/or the shareholders; the commies aren’t coming for your damn toothbrush) is an enshrined ideal in capitalism and liberalism at large. Furthermore, unlike in capitalism where there usually exists a contractual relationship between a worker, who will sell and alienate his labor for compensation, and the capitalist, who retains full and exclusionary control of the means of production, when the workers are themselves the owners, such a relationship cannot and does not exist. By extension, there is also no extortion of surplus value in a socialist organization, since workers cannot extort value from themselves insofar as all workers are equal as workers (worth noting, though, that this does not prevent value itself from still being arbitrary. How and why value is determined and especially quantified is an important discussion to be had that can’t be handwaved away by supply and demand or quantification of labor.)

Ultimately, Shapiro is simply wrong. Mondragon is socialist, for the workers own the means of production. It is not capitalist in itself as it is not privately owned and does not involve a contractual relationship between workers and a capitalist, who seeks to accumulate profit through extortion of surplus value.

Mondragon does, however, exist as a firm in a capitalist society. A few things follow from this fact. Firstly, socialism and capitalism are not like structures. The first specifically describes a form of ownership in the workplace, and the second is a form of a political economy. Secondly, therefore, capitalism is in some sense “bigger” than socialism, since it applies not only to firms but an economy at large. Thirdly, capitalism is necessarily a more totalizing system than socialism, and, finally, socialism is not a full counter to capitalism.

In other words, there is a difficult puzzle at hand: at what point would capitalism as we know it be no more? Suppose every existing firm becomes socialist; worker owned. Is capitalism dead at that point? What if there’s only one capitalist firm existing? What if 51% of firms are capitalist? 49%? Are worker owned organizations still seeking profit–and in what sense? Is profit synonymous with surplus value and can only be gained through extortion? Is it still profit if the worker receives the whole fruit of his or her labor–even if its value seems rather excessive?

These are difficult questions indeed, and capitalism’s ambiguity and broad applications make them all the more difficult to answer. It is why Ben Shapiro can get away with committing the “no true socialist” fallacy, since, even if workers own the means of production, capitalism is still the only game in town, right?

As a form of political economy, perhaps. As a form of organization, definitely not. The circumstances of a thing’s creation do not necessarily define its inherent qualities. Is a copy of The Communist Manifesto a capitalist work because it was produced and printed by and in a capitalist economy? Even if we answer this in the affirmative, which seems rather odd, it does not exclude The Communist Manifesto from being, well, communistic, since it is certainly so in content.

It is therefore not impossible for a system such as capitalism to allow or even itself produce things or structures against its own interests, from socialist worker co-ops to copies of The Communist Manifesto. That such things can and do coexist does not mean they do so harmoniously or without tension–indeed, tension is often an intended consequence, and how such tension is used is nothing of small importance. But when it comes to Capitalism, Capitalism the overarching society we live in, more than just socialism–the worker ownership the means of production–is needed to produce enough tension to be productive, and still more efforts are needed to create a new world entirely. Indeed, while socialism is greatly amenable to things such as democratic decision making in the workplace and the pursuit of things other than money, it does not necessarily guarantee those things, which are just as, if not more, important than socialism itself. Capitalism goes beyond the workplace itself and has an impact on how we relate to the world of things, how we relate to each other, what we do and do not value in and of itself (or what we think we value in and of itself), and our worldview altogether. Countering and improving these parts of our lives are far beyond the reach of socialism, and require us to imagine many different structures and relationships in all different areas of our lives through which we can build a better world.