Against Capitalism #happymayday

I have long argued for socialism as an attitude, rather than socialism as a program.

The late political philosopher G.A. Cohen is one of the most important socialist philosophical voices of the last 30 years. While Cohen wrote a grand treatise on Marx’s theory of history, he also engaged and criticized the libertarianism of Robert Nozick and the liberal egalitarianism of John Rawls.

In the following videos from 1986, Cohen outlines a critique of capitalism.

Part One:

Part Two:

Cohen’s personality comes through in this rather serious video, much in the way it does in his writings, especially his more personal reflections on socialism found in his books If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? and Why Not Socialism?

What are your thoughts about Cohen’s video essay? Please let me know in the comments below.

This post originally appeared here at Approaching Justice on March 7, 2014.



  1. I’m a big fan of Cohen, because I think he understood and strove to think seriously about–far more seriously than I’ll probably ever manage–how it is that equality and community have to build upon one another in modern, pluralistic societies. Socialism has to have a cultural component, he was right about that–and hence, from my point of view, that means it has to have a local component as well:

  2. The man is completely insane. LOL

    He says people “work for capitalists”. They do not. When people “work for” capitalists they are really going into business with those capitalists, as capitalists themselves. It’s a joint venture which is negotiated voluntarily before any work is done. The venture works like this….. Jane provides the premises, the machinery, the investment, the insurance and she carries all of the financial risk. Susan contributes her skills and labour to the venture, but none of the investment. She has no risk (apart from the risk of being made redundant) and she gets to keep her weekends free, whereas Jane’s home and life savings will be at risk if the business goes down the toilet, plus she has to work 80 hours a week, including weekends.

    In this venture it’s only fair that Jane makes more of a profit than Susan as she has to recover her investment and she’s carrying all the risk. Susan is paid a wage, which is fixed even if the company is losing money (a bonus for her) plus she is free to invest her own savings in other ventures, and she can leave after giving notice if she suddenly decided she wants to move to Spain or join the circus, unlike Jane who’s tied to her business.

    All employee/ employer relationships are joint capitalist business ventures which have been voluntarily negotiated by both parties. To claim the employee ‘works for’ the employer (with the suggestion it is exploitation) is like saying a wife is the property of her husband just because he referred to her as ‘his wife’.

    Either the man is an idiot or he is being deliberately manipulative with language to promote socialism – which is a system fundamentally dependent on violence and theft!

    He goes on to talk about people “having to make wages to buy the things capitalists sold”.

    Again, this is nonsense. We CHOOSE to buy the things capitalists sell. We can choose to buy a screwdriver for $10 knowing the capitalist hardware store is making $3 profit and the manufacturer is making $3 profit as well.

    Or…. we can CHOOSE to go on a metal work course ($500), buy a lathe ($1000), rent a workshop ($400 a week) buy the raw materials ($70) and make our own screwdriver at a cost of $1970 (not including he time involved).

    Why do people CHOOSE to buy things from evil capitalist shops? Because it’s much cheaper than making your own stuff! Who makes the most profit in these exchanges? The customer does. Yes that’s right, the customer makes huge profits when s/he buys stuff from capitalists. If we didn’t we would not CHOOSE to buy those things, we would make them ourselves.

    Once again, we see that capitalist manufacture and retail industries are really just another joint venture. And one where, once again, everybody is participating voluntarily and everyone is negotiating their own side of the venture.

    This is called ‘specialisation’ and it is the reason why we have computers and internet instead of being stuck in the medieval ages.

    In a world of schmoos people would no longer make clothes or run farms (because schmoos would provide these things now) and so they would move onto to inventing other stuff like spaceships and underwater hotels and 3D ipads and other cool stuff. As technology increases it ALWAYS makes the things which people make and sell increasingly worthless. The invention of cars made horses and carts (and all associated products and services) almost completely worthless within a couple of generations. This put a lot of people out of work, but also freed them up to invent, manufacture and sell the next load of cool things like ipads and marker pens.

    His argument that ownership is not legitimate because it can be traced back to people who just ‘took stuff’ is absolutely absurd!

    Again he’s defining ownership in terms of the owner depriving other people of stuff. This is not true. If everybody in the world gave you ownership of everything you would be mush worse off. We NEED people to own things like land, cows, factories, cars and houses so that they can make good use of them over the long term. A farmer who does not own his cows has no incentive to milk them and sell the milk. The result is we all starve.

    Even ownership of property can be thought of in terms of a joint venture which is voluntary. This includes money. Paying Apple for an computer is a way to reward them for providing you with a tool with is HUGELY PROFITABLE to you (as, say, a graphic artist, or an accountant or a small business with a website). Paying for that computer and giving Apple $50 profit is your way of investing in that company which you want to keep on developing better computers and software which will make your life even more profitable in the future.

    All interactions and transaction is a capitalist system are VOLUNTARY and that means they must be advantageous to all parties otherwise we would not CHOOSE to transact.

    Socialism is a system which requires guns, clubs, tasers and cages. Weapons are only required to make people do things (1) against their will and (2) against their own interests.

    • Rob Perkins says:

      All well and good, I suppose. Unless you’re starving or, hypothetically, six years old. Since those circumstances have never happened in all of the modern era, and all products and services are optional including food, shelter, and super-basic medical care, I hereby declare you the winner of the argument.

      • Because capitalism does not involve the initiation of force (unlike socialism) it is by definition a win-win transaction where BOTH parties profit – otherwise they would not have chosen to transact.

        It is in every capitalist’s selfish interests for everyone else to be prosperous. It is not in the interests of a capitalist farmer, or food manufacturer or food retailer to have people starving.

        Where the free market is allowed to operate with the least amount of violent interference by the state is where we see the most productivity and prosperity. Quality and innovation always go up and prices are always dropping for the consumer. Look at the tech industries for example. It is ‘evil capitalism’ which has driven down the costs of mobile phones enabling working class people (and now people in the third world) to be able to afford them in just a couple of decades. Meanwhile socialised services like education (funded at gunpoint) just keep getting more and more expensive as quality gets worse. These days children have to be medicated just to stop them from self harming or committing suicide. Schools have barely changed since the moment government took them over. The blackboard in now a white board otherwise they are basically the same.

        There would be no starvation in the world if it were not for the legalised violence of the state who use violence to monopolise the economy, take out huge loans in the names of the unborn and generally sell of a nation’s resources (including its people) to corporations.

        In a truly capitalist society there would be no corporations or debt slavery and thus no poverty or starvation.

        You seem to be implying humans are so morally bankrupt they’d happily see children starve. Would you? I wouldn’t. But even if we are that morally bankrupt that means we cannot afford to have a socialised society, because the most immoral people in society will always end up taking it over and exploiting everyone else…. which is exactly what happens over and over again throughout history.

        A socialised system DEPENDS on a dependent underclass of poor, uneducated, unhealthy, socially dysfunctional to justify its existence and continued theft of everyone’s wealth. If a socialised system ensured social/ economic problems remain in place (or get worse) so they can forever be *treated*, rather than actually *cured* or better yet *prevented*.

        Poverty in the US was being eliminated year on year after WW2 and was on course to be totally eliminated…. then they brought in welfare and poverty has increased ever since.

        To argue for socialism is to argue for violence, coercion and theft. That’s all socialism is.

        • Rob Perkins says:

          I haven’t argued for socialism (this time). I have named the premises upon which you win your argument. So. Congratulations on that.

        • “..I haven’t argued for socialism (this time)…”

          Any argument *against* free market capitalism is an argument *for* some kind of violent coercive interference by the state. Whether that violent coercion takes the form of corporatism, government ‘regulation’ or socialised public services it’s ALL dependent on the government’s monopoly on the legal right to initiate force. It’s just different flavours of legalised coercion and theft, that’s all.

          But, sure, I probably should have made that point more clearly.

          “…I have named the premises upon which you win your argument…”

          I don’t understand what you mean. Do you mean the thing about people starving? I don’t really get what your argument is on that.

          Having a free (ie non coercive) market in dating and marriage does not – by itself – prevent rape from occurring, but that is not a valid argument against having a free market in dating and marriage. There is nothing about outlawing rape that requires a central authority to coercively control dating and marriage at gunpoint. Not only is it unnecessary, it would only lead to corruption and make the problem far worse.

          Having a free (ie non coercive) market in farming, or food manufacture also does not – by itself – prevent starvation from occurring, but that is not a valid argument against having a free market in these areas. There is nothing about eradicating starvation that requires a central authority to coercively control food production and distribution at gunpoint. Not only is it unnecessary, it only leads to corruption and makes the problem far worse.

          Can you clarify your argument?

        • Rob Perkins says:

          Your followups suggest that you don’t believe my claim that you have won all the things. Are you not on the side of all that is right and good? Isn’t it gratifying to have such a firm hold on the best of all human philosophies? Revel in it, I say!

        • “…Your followups suggest that you don’t believe my claim …”

          My bad. I thought you were trying to make an actual argument.

  3. egalitariancowboy says:

    Reading hardcore libertarian defenses of markets and zero-state-intervention, I’m left thinking “wow…and they say _socialists_ are utopian!”

  4. Doug Johnson says:

    I am a libertarian. When it comes to socialism I reflect the attitude of Frédéric Bastiat:

    “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

    I have no problem with socialist ideals and their criticism of capitalism, it’s the manner in which it is often proposed to be accomplished: Via the coercion of government.

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