The Right sometimes condemns socialism as a doctrine born of bleeding-heart sentimentalism: a poorly thought-out philosophy that is based in compassion, but that results in disaster whenever people try to put it into practice.
But another popular right-wing line of attack argues more or less the opposite. Socialists are not altruists whose good intentions lead them astray; instead, their primary motive is envy of the better off. Jordan Peterson made the charge recently with his characteristic histrionic flair. After accusing “‘Christian’ ‘social justice’ advocates” of “equat[ing] Marxism of the lowest form with Christianity,” Peterson said, “It’s evil. Just like Marxism itself: which is a manifestation of the envious spirit of Cain, in the guise of the Luciferian intellect.”
I don't give a damn if the Pope himself thinks it's a good idea. It's evil. Just like Marxism itself: which is a manifestation of the envious spirit of Cain, in the guise of the Luciferian intellect.
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) March 11, 2023
While it’s far from obvious what Peterson means by “Marxism” — or indeed whether even he knows what he means by the word — the basic thrust of the tweet is clear enough. Marxists, and advocates of progressive causes more generally, oppose hierarchy and favor greater social and economic equality because they are envious of the more powerful and more successful.
On one hand, the accusation of envy is beside the point. Proponents of any moral or political doctrine, such as nationalism or social conservatism, might be compelled by any number of psychological motivations, but those ultimately matter less than the implications of the ideology itself. Likewise, socialism should be judged not on the motivations of socialists but on its content — that is, whether a socialist society is both feasible and desirable compared with what we have now.
But even if it were possible to accurately judge a political project by the motives of its supporters, socialism couldn’t be dismissed this way, because the actual moral case for socialism has nothing to do with envy. Socialism is not about settling scores between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but creating a better world for all. In fact, a socialist world would be one in which antisocial motivations like envy are less pervasive and powerful.
Envy or Justified Resentment?
One problem with the charge that the Left is driven by envy is that one person’s envy is another’s justified resentment. That is, to say that someone is envious generally implies that they have a misplaced anger about something that rightly belongs to someone else. That’s the case with the biblical story of Cain and Abel referenced by Jordan Peterson — Cain was wrongly incensed at the favor God showed to Abel’s sacrifice.
But not every case of being angry about what someone else has is a case of envy. When women felt outrage about being denied the voting rights given to men, or when black Americans were resentful of being excluded from job opportunities and public spaces granted to whites, they weren’t succumbing to envy. These were instances of the oppressed groups feeling warranted indignation at being unjustly excluded from opportunities to which they were entitled.
Socialists argue that, under capitalism, the working class is systematically deprived of the fruits of its labor. Capitalists, by virtue of their monopoly over the means of production, assert ownership over the goods and services that their employees produce, and pay workers less than the value of what they create, keeping the remainder as profit. As the classic labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” puts it, “It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade / Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid,” while the owners take “untold millions that they never toiled to earn.”
The socialist response is to demand collective, democratic ownership of society’s productive resources so that the ultrarich are no longer able to hoard the wealth generated by the working class. This will allow society to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and to make more rational decisions about investment and production — prioritizing ecological sustainability, for instance, over the destructive pursuit of profit at all costs.
This vision is not an expression of covetousness or “hate” of the better off. It is a demand for a world where basic principles of justice and decency prevail. By chalking up the socialist desire for a redistribution of wealth and power to envy, the Right dodges the fundamental moral question at issue between socialists and their opponents: Who deserves what? Are the “idle drones” entitled to the wealth the working class produces, or does the world belong to the workers?
For a Less Envious World
Ironically, capitalism itself seems to foster motivations like envy. The capitalist class structure demands that people make a living either through selling their labor for a wage or through making profits on investment. And in both cases, competition is the name of the game: workers have to compete for limited job opportunities, and capitalists must vie against each other for market share.
This setup positively encourages antisocial motives of greed, envy, and the like — since those drives compel people to compete more aggressively in the capitalist war of all against all. It’s no wonder, then, that psychopaths are especially likely to be found at the top of the corporate pyramid: among senior management executives, 12 percent are psychopaths, compared with 1 percent in the general population.
Socialists want a world where people aren’t competing against each other to have a shot at a decent life, and where major economic decisions are no longer based on the limitless drive for profit. In that world, competition — and motives like envy that fuel competitive behavior — will be given a much less central place. If conservatives really have as much of a problem with envy as they say, maybe they should rethink their opposition to socialism.