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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Share this book
Why Not Socialism?
If you are considering buying this book be sure to read the "Product Description" so that you know the size of what you are getting for your money: it is not just "concise," it is tiny, no more than about 10,000 words. As an alternative, you may want to check your library for an earlier version, which appeared in Democratic Equality: What Went...
Published on September 2, 2009 by Jay C. Smith

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160 of 200 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Read this and you will know why not
Gerald Allan Cohen was a Marxist political philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford. He was a curious combination of rigorous analytical thinker and yet supporter of virtually unsupportable Marxian doctrines, including an economically determinist version of historical materialism, and a view of human nature according to which Marx's 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program...
Published on August 31, 2009 by Herbert Gintis


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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Share this book, September 2, 2009
By 
Jay C. Smith (Portland, OR USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Why Not Socialism? (Hardcover)
Why Not Socialism?
If you are considering buying this book be sure to read the "Product Description" so that you know the size of what you are getting for your money: it is not just "concise," it is tiny, no more than about 10,000 words. As an alternative, you may want to check your library for an earlier version, which appeared in Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong?, edited by Edward Broadbent (2001).

If you are not already familiar with Cohen (or even if you are) you may want to view the obituary that appeared in the Guardian (August 10, 2009), which provides an excellent overview of his life and thought: [...]

In this little essay Cohen pursues a helpful allegory, that of a group on a camping trip, to probe reciprocity and exchange motivations and principles. He illustrates how three forms of the principle of equality plus the principle of community might apply to the campers' behavior. He advocates "communal reciprocity," a principle that involves giving or sharing not because of what one can get in return, but because the recipient needs what is given. Think of it as a counter-balance to the role of selfishness in the classic allegorical work on economic motivations, Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees.

Further details of Cohen's argument are ably summarized in the Gintis review, so I will not repeat them. I will say, though, that Gintis seems too harsh on Cohen on a couple of points. First, Cohen is more accepting of markets than Gintis suggests -- Cohen allows that markets perform a valuable information function and he rejects central planning for that reason (it is perhaps unfortunate that he uses the term "predation" to characterize market motivations). Second, Cohen likely would have agreed with most of what Gintis says about the heterogeneity of human motivations. Cohen was not one-sided: "Both selfish and generous propensities reside, after all, in (almost?) everyone," he wrote.

As Gintis stresses, one of the major problems Cohen is up against is that it is not clear how the conditions of a camping trip, where the participants generally are expected to follow his equality and community principles, can realistically be brought to scale for an entire society. Cohen himself recognizes that it may not be feasible. It is worth pointing out, however, that there are obviously already many societal mechanisms that tap people's communal motivations (charities, volunteer work, underpaid service corps, and so on) and that as Cohen infers, many of us (probably the majority) do not think they are such a bad thing.

The other major problem Cohen faces is that we expect our economy to be as productive (efficient) as possible, and while many may be willing to trade-off a bit of efficiency to gain equality or community, there are limits. Cohen was a political philosopher, not an economist, so he offers little to directly address that problem here (other than to reference John Roemer).

Short as it is, maybe even largely because it is so brief (no problem to finish it), Why Not Socialism? is worth reading. But if you buy it perhaps you will want to share it with others, thus applying both the community principle (if you expect nothing in return) and the principle of economic efficiency (reducing the cost per reader).
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160 of 200 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Read this and you will know why not, August 31, 2009
By 
Herbert Gintis (Northampton, MA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Why Not Socialism? (Hardcover)
Gerald Allan Cohen was a Marxist political philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford. He was a curious combination of rigorous analytical thinker and yet supporter of virtually unsupportable Marxian doctrines, including an economically determinist version of historical materialism, and a view of human nature according to which Marx's 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program doctrine "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I never met Jerry (as he was called), although he had close intellectual exchanges with several of my closest colleagues, including John Roemer, Jon Elster, and Samuel Bowles. At the cost of being uncharitable to a keen intellect, I suspect that his studied ignorance of standard social and psychological theory, common among philosophers of the mid-Twentieth century, who did not want their judgments to depend on empirical facts, accounts for his ability to spout socially bizarre theories in a perfectly logical and reasonable manner.

This little book---and I do mean little, being about 3% to 10% as long as your usual academic offering---is Cohen's last word on the subject of socialism published before his death. Cohen shows no trace of the historical materialism he formerly, and brilliantly, espoused, and he does not believe that the modern economy is conducive to a socialist alternative. Rather, Cohen argues that markets are morally offensive institutions that most people would be happy to get rid of if they could figure out some alternative compatible with the standard of living we are accustomed to in advanced market societies. "The market" says Cohen, "is intrinsically repugnant...Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation." (pp. 78,82)

In place of the market, Cohen celebrates the caring and voluntary mutual aid that occurs in small groups of friends (he never mentions family), and believes this can be extended to a community of strangers as well. He calls this "communal reciprocity." (p. 39)

Cohen's distaste for markets is that market competition destroys community and undermines egalitarian principles. In place of our natural feelings for helping one another to the best of our ability, market competition fosters selfish greed and quashes human compassion. Cohen recognizes two guiding principles for socialism: an egalitarian principle and a community principle. He distinguishes three levels of egalitarianism. Bourgeois egalitarianism eliminates arbitrary social restrictions on occupying social positions (e.g., class, caste, or race). Left-liberal egalitarianism eliminates accidents of birth to institute equality of opportunity independent of social class or quality of family life. Radical, or socialist egalitarianism, which Cohen prefers, eliminates differences in natural ability. Inequality can still exist because of poor judgment or just luck. Much of such inequality would be corrected according to his principle of community solidarity, which requires a high degree of equality of outcome.

Cohen is far from optimistic about the feasibility of the sort of socialism he espouses. "There are two contrasting reasons," he argues, "why society-wide socialism might be thought infeasible...the limits of human nature and the limits of social technology." (pp. 54-55) Cohen concludes that there is no problem with human nature, since people are sufficiently generous under the appropriate conditions. He observes that "doctors, nurses, teachers and others do not...gauge what they do in their jobs according to the amount of money they're likely to get as a result." (p. 59) He argues that this is not because of some special properties of those who work in these professions, but rather because the culture of medicine and teaching are humanist rather than capitalist. There is no reason, he believes, why such culture could become a general characteristic of work in a socialist community.

Rather than lamenting the incompatibility of socialist community and human nature, Cohen faults our meager social technology; there is simply no known machinery for harnessing natural human generosity. He calls this an "insoluble organizational design problem." "In my view," he remarks, "the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run." (p. 55)

I think there are two problems with Cohen's argument. First, there is a reason why we lack the organizational institutions that harness human generosity, and it has to do with a side of human nature that Cohen does not recognize. There is a great deal of heterogeneity among people in the degree to which they privilege the personal, including self and family, over the social. Everyday observation, reinforced by a huge body of empirical evidence---see my book, Bounds of Reason (Princeton, 2009) for details---that unless there are safeguards against the free-rider tendencies of the selfish, the natural tendency for the majority to cooperate will be undermined, and cooperation will unravel. Moreover, the larger the group, the harder it is to identify and punish the free-riders, even though most people are willing to incur personal costs to do so. Markets work because they discipline firms, who then discipline workers, thus solving the free-rider problem. Moreover, markets discipline firms by forcing them to compete and therefore reveal to the public exactly what are the limits of the possible in satisfying consumer needs and using technology efficiently. The knowledge of production possibilities unleashed through market competition cannot be revealed in any other way that we know of.

A second problem with Cohen's argument is that his personal social values are not likely to be shared by more than a small fraction of citizens of advanced capitalist economies, and this is not because of the hegemony of "capitalist ideology," but rather because humans have goals that conflict with, and often are more salient than, egalitarianism and community values. For instance, family is virtually universally, in every successful society, more salient than community. In every known society, people favor kin over non-kin, and their commitment to strangers is far weaker than their commitment to family members. In advanced liberal democratic societies, the ties of family by no means eclipse the feeling people have for their compatriots and the members of their residential and work communities. But no analysis of the good society can avoid dealing with the relationship between our public and parochial motivations.

A second arena of moral disagreement is the importance of social equality as a goal of the good society. There is a certain fraction of the population that takes social equality extremely seriously, but a far larger fraction, I believe, places concerns with procedural justice far above those of equal outcomes. The idea that one's family should not be able to affect the social success of one's children conflicts deeply with the natural family orientation exhibited by humans in almost every social setting. The notion that people should not be allowed to benefit from their natural capacities is equally repugnant to the individualist values upon which contemporary democratic ideals and support for human rights are based.

Cohen celebrates one side of human capacities, the side that cherishes affiliation and group solidarity, but seems completely unaware of the equally important side in which individuals strive for excellence, seek victory through competition, and spurn the mass psychology of the crowd in order to innovate and create. The idea that competition, even market competition, is just predation does not ring true at all, even when there are serious material and social consequences for both winners and losers.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why not more Socialism?, February 25, 2010
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Dubarnik (Converse, TX USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Why Not Socialism? (Hardcover)
"Why Not Socialism?" presents a short, utopian argument that contains many interesting nuggets of truth. I agree with Cohen that greed and predation are the two critical attributes of a market economy, but I think Cohen generalizes too much. Globalization has given the world a capitalism that is beyond juridical checks and balances; reform and regulation are desperately needed. But I am not willing to say that the operation of small-town or regional capitalism, and the markets they respond to, is necessarily antithetical to the values of community and equality. Those of us who consider ourselves leftists must recognized that Socialism, national or international, is a pipe-dream. It's never going to happen and it shouldn't. But if I might expropriate Cohen's last sentence in the book, "I do not think the right conclusion is to give up" on moving certain key industries (health care and energy production/distribution are two that immediately come to mind) out of market-place capitalism and into non-market socialism. It is here that Cohen's arguments based on community and equality ring most true. It is this socialism that can happen and should. It is this that we socialists need to work towards.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review, August 16, 2013
This review is from: Why Not Socialism? (Hardcover)
I was not aware when I ordered this book, that it was in fact not a book. Sure it has a hardback cover, but it's really a journal article or essay, with book binding. It can be read in one sitting. This has an upside and a downside.

The upside is, in few words, and clear writing, Cohen gives a stellar defense of socialist values over capitalist values and practice. He does this by opening with an example of a camping trip. In general campers experience a sense of community and equality, and work towards the success of the trip on the old Marxian notion of "from each according to her ability to each according to her need." If one were to say "since I built the fire, I deserve the largest marshmallow" or "because I stumbled across these berries by happenstance I get half," the campers would probably rebuke that person and/or not invite them along next time. At the very least none of us would tolerate one camper privatizing all the gear and equipment, letting us borrow it for work, and hoarding the surplus for himself. But how comes once we leave the camping trip those socialist values of equality and community are seen as nasty, ideological, and not worth consideration? Why do capitalist values flourish when we go back to work? This leads Cohen to defend the values developed on the camping trip in the face of capitalist values, and then wrestle with the questions of: is socialism still desirable (yes), and is it feasible. To the later question he claims to be an agnostic. It's clear that state socialism according to the old USSR and China models were a nightmare. It's not clear that that's the only form socialism can take. And unfortunately the primary socialist models being developed are really just strong welfare state versions of capitalism that still rely upon private interest (anti socialist), and heavy taxation.

And this is where the book's size is a serious problem. Much of what Cohen explores and leaves out is degrading to his overall argument. For instance, all forms of socialism that he considers retain money as the universal equivalent of exchange. Why? If socialism was actually enacted, how is money still functioning? What good is money on a camping trip or in a campers society, and how does it function when socially necessary labor time no longer exist (a deeper Marxian question outside the scope of the essay)? And what about the other models for socialist society he either doesn't know about, or doesn't reflect upon (I'm think specifically Richard Wolff's model - Cohen was dead before this came out - but other models exist that Cohen could/should have read about e.g., anarcho-syndicalism). Finally, although he says the human nature critique of socialism needs to be addressed, he doesn't actually address it. And it can be addressed and has been, so to neglect this primary criticism of socialism is certainly devastating for his argument. And the fact the human nature critique can be refuted ought to be included in his book, to make socialist feasibility more fortified.

Overall this is a great book. Cohen is clear, logical, humorous, and honest. Socialist cannot go around handing out The Communist Manifesto anymore, expecting people to take it seriously and read it in earnest (not because there's anything wrong with the book, but only because ideologically people have been brought up to consider it to be pure evil). They can however hand out Cohen's book, and probably expect a more sympathetic response. After reading this, I look forward to reading more works by Cohen.
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4.0 out of 5 stars but certainly explained the good points and motives in comparison to those of capitalism, December 6, 2014
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I was using this book in a course about capitalism and it provided exactly the perspective that I wanted for students to understand socialism as an alternative. Cohen was open about why is might not work, but certainly explained the good points and motives in comparison to those of capitalism.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and concise argument for an attractive ideal, December 29, 2009
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This review is from: Why Not Socialism? (Hardcover)
As with all of his other works, "Why Not Socialism?" is sharp and meticulously argued. I found it to be an extremely quick and enjoyable read. It very neatly captures the ethical core of what animates the socialist complaint against capitalism. Succinctly put, Cohen's short book is simply a straight-forward argument that has a great deal of intuitive appeal. We're spared the propagandistic appeals and empty rhetoric that so often accompany arguments for or against socialism. Cohen effortlessly navigates through the terrain of debates about equality of opportunity and the value of community, showing all along the way where you may get off the bus if you please. On my view, however, that Cohen's book is so honest in showing where it's own weak points are only makes the overall force of the book more convincing.

Of course, the intuitive character of the argument will no doubt anger many on the political Right who would prefer that capitalism were simply taken for granted rather than subject to critical scrutiny. Those on the Right will be threatened by the intuitive appeal of a political ideal that they've invested decades attempting to dissuade people from thinking about seriously. Moreover, as is the case with Cohen's other works (particularly his "Self Ownership, Freedom and Equality"), it is not taken for granted in this book that those on the Right have a monopoly on the language of freedom, community and equality. On the contrary, the clearest upshot of Cohen's argument is that these values themselves (i.e. freedom and equality) are effaced by capitalism's ruthless pursuit of profit.

Now, the majority of ordinary people in contemporary capitalist societies today do not need to be persuaded that there are options more desirable than the disastrous force of laissez-faire; this much is obvious. But I particularly like that Cohen is honest here in making clear there is no magic fix for the systemic problems generated by capitalism. That is, there are no easy, ready-made solutions detailing how to organize a society according to socialist principles. Like anything else worth doing, working out the technological/institutional details would take a lot of work. But this hardly means that we cannot ever devise such institutional arrangements; accepting that we cannot would be like claiming in 1920 that we could never put a human being on the moon. Moreover, the prudential considerations here say nothing of the worthiness of the principles defended in the book themselves. We have little reason to think that capitalism is simply the best that humanity can do, and Cohen makes the case for thinking through the principles of greatest importance to us that could form the basis for a freer, more democratic, less unequal society.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Read, April 20, 2014
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Idealistic but still a very good and concise read. The problem with Socialism is that people aren't generally that unselfish. It is a very good principle however.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Short, but Still Interesting, October 16, 2009
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I hoped this book was longer than what it actually was... the book is small with big font and less than 100 pages. But the book makes a good point, and he mentions some other books around market socialism that do seem interesting although I haven't yet read them (especially A Future for Socialism by John Roemer). My main problem is the author doesn't seem to be as energetic in his arguments and debate... and this shows in the title of the book itself: Why not socialism? (While extending a flower no less.) Posing this question in this way for some reason honestly makes me think of a debater who is tired, which seems to take away from the argument from the offset. If the author didn't make such a good point throughout the book then I wouldn't have been able to rate the book as high as I did. I would have suggested to replace the flower with a red flag, and instead of posing a suggestion I would have suggested posing a demand out of necessity.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If you have a few hours to spare..., December 14, 2014
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While this starts off with a simple story and reads easily, it left me feeling it was a bit incoherent. It does present important concepts (I.e. option luck) in understandable format. Yet at times it also alludes to subsets wronged by their lot in life, which diminishes the text. I see more than one voice in the work, though a second reading might clean that up. All in all, it is worth looking at, if you have a few hours.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why not indeed?, August 31, 2010
This review is from: Why Not Socialism? (Hardcover)
The late great thinker G.A. Cohen advocates again, this time in only 82 pages, for a better society in which the principle of community can temper the principle of equality, avoiding the inequalities that the last one always produces in the outcome. It is beautifully written, though sometimes not a very easy read. But this is a profound philosophical essay, not another silly little self-help book. I found it illuminating, wise and, above all, very moving.
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Why Not Socialism?
Why Not Socialism? by G. A. Cohen (Hardcover - September 13, 2009)
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