Ádám Lóránd discusses UCL Debating Society’s latest foray into the ideology that divides us.
On my way to the first ever public debate of my life, I was still wondering what my opinion on the topic actually was. While I had a solid belief that capitalism was the best system humanity had ever lived under, I couldn’t discount the recent statistics on inequality, and how the current system seems to be unable to act sufficiently to halt (or at least considerably slow down) climate change. When the moderator of the evening opened by asking the audience to vote, I voted against the proposition – something I wouldn’t do after the end of the debate.
One thing that became very clear after the first two speeches was that the two sides were using very different definitions of socialism. The proposition emphasised several times throughout their speeches that “real socialism” has never been implemented in history. They condemned Stalinism and the other socialist regimes of the Eastern Bloc as not socialist, with Prof Gregory Claeys of Royal Holloway going as far in his closing speech as saying that Stalinism was just the elites exploiting the workers under the pretext of socialism. Meanwhile, the opposition stuck with the dictionary definition of socialism, i.e. a system in which the means of production are owned by the state. Using this definition, they dismissed socialism as a failure, emphasising that socialism stripped the individual of his/her agency and that it destroyed the incentive to produce efficiently and innovate. It wasn’t as if they agreed on the definition of capitalism, either. The argument made by the Adam Smith Institute’s Matt Kilcoyne illustrated this the best; he said that the problems of this world stem from the over-regulation of the market by the state.
The question of climate change was obviously a focal point of the discussion. The proposition argued that the capitalist system had proved unable to act on the issue (as I thought), and that collective ownership of the means of production & collective decision-making would solve the problem. The opposition countered that capitalism does have tools to combat climate change (e.g. carbon tax), and that innovation, which is promoted by capitalism while disincentivised by socialism, is the answer to climate change. Neither side’s arguments were very convincing, as I do not see how collective action would make people less complacent about the issue, and if innovation or taxes (or some other miraculous tool yet to be revealed) are the answer, why are we still speeding towards an ecological disaster?
At the end of the debate, when the moderator called for the audience’s votes, I chose to abstain. I couldn’t help agreeing with one of the speakers from the audience, who argued that it would be best to take the best aspects of both systems to create one that’s better than either. I am not saying it would be an easy task, or that the selection of the “best aspects” wouldn’t be arbitrary to a certain extent. In this debate of definitions, however, a “middle way” can only be found if we focus on, and find arguments for and against, the individual properties of each system. On the one hand – as one of the opposition speakers pointed out – every socialist regime now dismissed as “not socialist” by the proposition, was at one point considered the ideal socialist “haven” even by the Western intellectuals of the time. On the other hand, capitalism is clearly failing at addressing the most burning problems of our age. I am not convinced that less state regulation of the markets would not lead to another economic crisis or avoid exacerbating the social issues that define our times.