Are economic gains for African Americans being undermined by the social justice movement’s fascination with socialism?

I had the strangest conversation recently. I was at the rally/protest for the new Ferguson Police Chief, talking with one of the social justice protesters. She insisted that socialism was the answer for the United States. Afterwards I couldn’t help but think that the social justice movement’s fascination with socialism was somehow undermining the economic gains being made by African Americans.

The real world, obviously, doesn’t provide any examples of the superiority of socialism. The woman instead suggested the real world implementations had been flawed, but that socialism as a theory was superior to the “evils” of capitalism and was both possible and desirable.

It’s not true, of course – socialism as a theory has a fatal flaw that caused the real world failures. Karl Marx, considered the father of socialist theory, missed a key point about the benefit that accrues to managers in an industrialized economy.

Marx thought that the private ownership of property allowed a few to benefit disproportionately from the labors of the many and caused the exploitation of the working class. His answer was to end private property. With the government owning everything, this disproportionate benefit would be removed. Everybody would get approximately the same benefit from society (“to each his needs”) and exploitation would end.

Marx also believe that removing the possibility of disproportionate benefit – taking “greed” out of humans’ decision making processes – would allow what he called “scientific management” of the economy and produce much greater wealth for all. Marx recognized that industrialism leads to greater and greater specialization of labor. If each worker focused on a smaller part of an overall large job, each worker could do that one small part better, increasing the value of what was produced. Management of is a specialization as well. Marx believed that because there was no additional benefit to being a manager the people that would gravitate to management would be those that were best suited to the job (‘to each his abilities”). Without greed as a motivator, and everybody sharing equally in the benefits, people would want those that were most qualified to manage the factories and businesses, even if it wasn’t them.

But Marx ‘s analysis of benefit was incomplete and inaccurate. A paycheck is only one way to benefit – there are also what economists call non-economic rewards. A worker in a shoe factory has no need to go to Italy every year to see the latest industry trends. The managers and designers of the factory do – they need different information and experiences to do their jobs. And control itself is a benefit – for many people there is a pleasure in the power to hire or fire someone, or to give a job to a relative or close friend. These benefits accrue to managers because of the specialization of industrialism, not because of private ownership. If disproportionate benefit is exploitation, then ending private ownership doesn’t end exploitation as Marx suggested it would.

As importantly, the disproportionate benefit of management undermines the possibility of “scientific management”. People still compete to be manager because it benefits them – because of greed. And once in management they can realize even more benefit by using their control to reward their relatives and friends. People want to be – work to be – managers even if they are bad at it.

The flawed theory leads to the flawed real world results. In socialist countries disproportionate benefit still accrued to the people that managed the factories and economy, and greed caused them to promote relatives and allies regardless of management skills. Bad management greatly reduced economic output, making everyone poorer and magnifying the disproportionate benefit of being a manager. The managers of socialist countries still benefited far more than everyone else and workers were still “exploited” and a lot poorer. Socialism worked exactly the way the flawed theory suggests it would, and not surprisingly almost every country that has tried socialism has abandoned it.

It was surprising to hear someone in this day and age argue so passionately for socialism. It was especially surprising hearing an African American woman arguing for it as a path to advance social justice. There are many different ways to measure progress in social justice, but surely one of the first still has to be economic. The last fifty years have seen significant economic gains for African Americans, though still far to go. This woman seemed to be strongly arguing against accumulating wealth, and against teaching her children to accumulate wealth.

Social change is a slow process, with each generation needing to build on the progress of its predecessors. Maybe I’m wrong, but if this woman teaches her kids to hate capitalism it seems like they will have a harder succeeding in our capitalist system – it seems like they will be destined to fail, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if this is happening in the larger social justice community, then it risks undoing the economic gains that African Americans have made over the past fifty years. I couldn’t help thinking that the social justice movement’s strange intellectual fascination with socialism, a system that is flawed in theory and failed in the real world, was holding back the cause of social justice.

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