- Hardcover: 96 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 13, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691143617
- ISBN-13: 978-0691143613
- Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.5 x 6.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #180,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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"Characteristically lucid, engaging and gently humorous. . . . Cohen says things that need to be said, often better than anyone else; and his last book is especially effective as an argument against the obstacles to socialism typically ascribed to human selfishness. His style of argument is very accessible, and it is certainly a more attractive mode of persuasion than dreary analyses of how capitalism actually works."--Ellen Meiksins Wood, London Review of Books
"Is socialism really such an alien way of organizing human society? In this stimulating essay titled Why Not Socialism? (just 92 pages long), the late Oxford philosopher G. A. Cohen invites us to think seriously about what socialism has to offer in comparison with capitalism."--Sanford G. Thatcher, Centre Daily Times
"Beautifully written. . . . In sublimely lucid fashion, Cohen draws up taxonomies of equality, offers ethical objection to capitalism . . . and distinguishes between two questions: is socialism desirable?; and, if desirable, is it feasible? . . . Tiny books are all the rage in publishing nowadays; this is one of the few that punches well above its weight."--Steven Poole, The Guardian
"[A] stimulating and thoughtfully argued advocacy of the better world that we need to fight for."--Andrew Stone, Socialist Review
"A quietly urgent book."--Owen Hatherley, Philosophers' Magazine
"Cohen brings his characteristic clarity to his final defence of socialism."--Tim Soutphommasane, The Australian
"No doubt the best forms of socialist organization will emerge, like everything else, after much trial and error. But a vast quantity of preliminary spadework is necessary to excavate the assumptions that keep us from even trying. With Why Not Socialism?, Cohen has turned over a few shovelfuls, bringing us a little nearer the end of the immemorial--but surely not everlasting--epoch of greed and fear."--George Scialabba, Commonweal
"[Here] we have a renowned scholar producing an accessible, concise work addressing a vital topic from a committed, progressive standpoint: would that more of today's academic star scholars would follow this example."--Frank Cunningham, Socialist Studies
"Why Not Socialism? is a lucid and accessible statement of some of Cohen's deepest preoccupations."--Alex Callinicos, Radical Philosophy
"However small the package . . . the problems that Cohen addresses in this slim volume are of enormous importance, and can be taken seriously by readers ranging from those with only a tangential interest in the field, to serious scholars of egalitarian and socialist thought."--Robert C. Robinson, Political Studies Review
From the Inside Flap
"Why Not Socialism? very elegantly advances philosophical arguments that Cohen has famously developed over the past twenty years, and it does so in a manner that is completely accessible to nonphilosophers. The book brilliantly captures the essence of the socialist ethical complaint against market society. Why Not Socialism? is a very timely book."--Hillel Steiner, University of Manchester
"Cohen makes out the case for the moral attractiveness of socialism based on the rather homely example of a camping trip. The positive argument of his book is impressive, and there is a rather disarming combination of simplicity of presentation and example with a deep intellectual engagement with the issues. It is very clear that there is an analytically powerful mind at work here."--Jonathan Wolff, author ofWhy Read Marx Today?
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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).
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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