[OPE-L] Robert Owen

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Oct 16 2006 - 08:02:52 EDT

While I wouldn't deny the merits of Robert Owen's (or other progressive
utopist) ideas, what always puzzles me is why one would base a utopia on
what writers in the distant past have said about it, rather than on the most
advanced human relations and technologies created by capitalist development.
It seems rather conservative.

Simply put, if a socialist society is to grow out of capitalism, this must
imply that advanced capitalism generates many of the elements for such a
society. By implication, capitalist civilisation cannot be "all bad", it
contains also a lot of human progress, and it is precisely that progress
that is necessary for transcending a social order which makes human
development conditional on commerce. That progress ought to be utilised to
the full, not denied.

What makes a lot of Marxist "anti-capitalist" discussion so unintelligible,
I consider, is (1) the lack of an explicit social ethics (a set of values
that can guide behaviour), and (2) the assumption that all market economy is

As regards (1), a social ethics is precisely the link between a sober,
scientific appraisal of objective reality (which does not necessarily imply
any particular course of action) and (more or less utopist) social
alternatives and impulses. Utopias are not per se progressive, they can be
reactionary, and evaluating them inescapably refers to ethical norms.
Vincent Geoghegan writes: "The distinction between utopian and scientific
socialism has, on balance, been an unfortunate one for the Marxist
tradition. (...) The historical experience of Marxist-Leninist vanguards has
shown a strong tendency towards authoritarian utopianism - the formulation
by party elites of one and only one vision of the future. This has involved
disregarding the aspirations of most ordinary people" (Utopianism and
Marxism, London: Methuen, 1987, p. 134-135).

As regards (2), not all market economy is bad, though much of it also is,
but the real point is, that market relations themselves imply no specific
moral norms of their own, other than what is required to settle
transactions. Markets of any complexity could obviously hardly exist without
laws regulating contractual and property relations, but even where they are
regulated by legally enforced norms, a range of possible behavioural norms
exist. To the extent that one is "free to choose" in a market economy, this
also implies the freedom to choose what *moral norms* to follow. In turn,
this means that what happens socially or politically in a market economy
cannot simply be blamed on the corruptive or corrosive potentials of markets
or market coercion only - it has to be explained also in terms of the
actually lived moralities of social classes, leaders and populations.


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