In the mid-20th century, a socialist movement began to develop in many parts of colonial Africa and the Arab world. In Arab countries, the goal of the socialist movement was, broadly, liberation through fighting imperialism, opposing the ruling classes and fighting for social justice. The social-economic component, although important, was seen as directly related to the wider issue of nationalism and freedom from colonial masters and their associated domestic elites.
I understand that in the United States there are still those who think that the machinery of government can be used as a substitute for personal responsibility on the part of the governed. This idea, as we know only too well in Britain, is the open road to disaster. It changes persons with responsibilities into robots with rights.
And while you fortunate Americans will last a little longer than the rest of us, your doom is also assured if you, like us, rely upon politics and collective action to relieve you of the normal and natural responsibilities of healthy men. For socialism is not a system; it is a disease. The “something for nothing” mentality is, in fact, an economic cancer.
In England we have suffered nearly five years of effective socialist government. But that is only the end of the story; we are merely completing 50 years of a sloppy sentimentalism in public affairs of which the present socialism is merely the logical outcome. In the process we have murdered old virtues with new deals. Well-meaning, shallow-thinking, kindly people, aware of the scriptural injunction that “the greatest of these is charity,” have failed to notice the distinction between the real article and the giving away of other people’s money. So, having lost our faith, we come to the end of the story; we have accepted false hopes and practiced a charity which is nothing of the kind.
When you cut through the worthiness of it, if that’s not your thing, looking out for the collective good is ultimately rooted in individual self-interest. A society where inequality is extreme cannot be policed effectively. Think of post-apartheid South Africa. White families had to build entire fortresses and compounds to protect themselves against what they viewed as a now feral black population unleashed from the necessary apartheid shackles. It does not occur to those rich people that apartheid is what created the hazard, effectively creating two separate societies so unequal that conflict and a forceful redistribution of wealth was inevitable.
When large parts of society do not have the access to employment, and no safety net that guarantees them basic healthcare, shelter and nutrition, things start to break down. This is not to suggest that theft is justifiable, but that to hoard resources and expect the poor to starve in submissive dignity is just a little bit unrealistic.
And yet it is socialists who are always accused of being unrealistic, of not making enough allowance for human nature. For not understanding that the money must come from somewhere – and I don’t see you, O virtue signaller, who I spot is carrying quite an expensive smartphone, giving yours up. Call yourself a socialist?
Well, yes. In a way, asking if one can be a socialist and rich is like asking whether a women can be a socialist and a stay-at-home mum. Believing in a political or social value does not mean living your life like a monk, dedicating every minute to the cause. But it does mean that there must be some way in which the ultimate purpose of feminism or socialism, which is to further the cause of equality, is advanced. It doesn’t matter how small, inconsistent or dissonant with your lifestyle to the naked eyes this effort is, as long as it means there is a gentle pressure on the scales to tip in the right direction.
The historian Bernard Lewis (typically scornfully) stated: “Nobody seems to have a good word to say for Arab socialism. Commercial, professional, and middle-class elements bring against it the usual complaints which are brought against socialism in western countries. Leftwingers dismiss Arab socialism with contempt as a half-hearted and inefficient compromise which has the merits neither of socialism nor of capitalism.”
But the movement presented a strong cadre of anti-colonial activists and post-independence politicians who, even if ideologically inconsistent and hailing from an elite, contributed incrementally to the liberation movement. They also drank a lot of coffee in street cafes, which was spun by their political establishment enemies as the pastime of indulgent, pontificating armchair critics. So go ahead and buy that latte: you are part of a noble tradition.