While our attention is focused on the Middle East and beyond, storm clouds are gathering in other parts of the world. For example, on May Day, Bolivia nationalized its natural gas and oil fields. The president, Evo Morales, "ordered soldiers to occupy Bolivia's natural gas fields..." He plans to nationalize other sectors as well.
Morales seems to be part of a small, but growing, contigent of socialists. He joins Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and, of course, Fidel Castro, who are intending to create a web of socialist economic alliances in South America.
These developments prompted Lee Harris, in yet another excellent article, to ask "why isn't socialism dead?" After all, each of the many versions of socialism that has even been implemented has been far from optimal and has very often created massive suffering and death. It's usually very difficult to answer most complex economic questions regarding optimal organization of societies, but the hypothesis that socialism doesn't work has an overwhelming preponderance of evidence supporting it.
So why isn't socialism dead? Short answer: it can't die. Longer answer:
It may well be that socialism isn't dead because socialism cannot die. As Sorel argued, the revolutionary myth may, like religion, continue to thrive in "the profounder regions of our mental life," in those realms unreachable by mere reason and argument, where even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn't want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs? [...]In other words, ideas are more powerful than facts. Myths are more powerful than reason. Humans are not primarily rational animals and can never be primarily rational animals. Indeed, I doubt we even have the mental capacity to make rational decisions in the face of great complexity and uncertainty. Following our intuitions, institutions, and traditions is probably the best we can ever do.
[T]he whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle -- a band of brothers, so to speak. [...]
Thus, in the coming century, those who are advocates of capitalism may well find themselves confronted with "a myth gap." Those who, like Chavez, Morales, and Castro, are preaching the old time religion of socialism may well be able to tap into something deeper and more primordial than mere reason and argument, while those who advocate the more rational path of capitalism may find that they have few listeners among those they most need to reach -- namely, the People. Worse, in a populist democracy, the People have historically demonstrated a knack of picking as their leaders those know the best and most efficient way to by-pass their reason -- demagogues who can reach deep down to their primordial and, alas, often utterly irrational instincts. This, after all, has been the genius of every great populist leader of the past, as it is proving to be the genius of those populist leaders who are now springing up around the world, from Bolivia to Iran.
Lee Harris finishes with the following:
This is the challenge that capitalism faces in the world today -- whether it will rise to the challenge is perhaps the most urgent question of our time, and those who refuse to confront this challenge are doing no service to reason or to human dignity and freedom. Bad myths can only be driven out by better myths, and unless capitalism can provide a better myth than socialism, the latter will again prevail.I believe this to be true. Fortunately, the American myth, which is a combination of Christianity and the puritan work ethic intertwined with a belief in self-sufficiency, strong property rights, and free markets, is quite a powerful myth as well. Thus Americans are fairly well inoculated from being infected by "bad myths."
However, I cringe when the Rationalists and Materialists among us strive to weaken or destroy the American myth. They do so, in my opinion, at great peril. I believe America's myth was crucial to keeping civilization going in the 20th century. It may well be needed again in the 21st.