If you are reading this I am going to assume that you have an interest in socialism. And if you have an interest in socialism, I am going to assume that you are so inclined because you do not much like the state of the world around you. But it is also safe to assume that, if I asked you to describe what socialism might actually look like, you would find that difficult. After all, it is relatively easy to describe something that exists but very difficult to be confident that anything we describe as a future state is anything more than utopian wishful thinking.
John Rawls was not a socialist but a liberal philosopher with an interest in social justice. He did, however, develop an interesting way of arriving at a potential new society. He suggested that the way to imagine a new type of society was to conduct what he called “a thought experiment”. The experiment imagines a group of people who are given the job of describing the ideal society. To ensure that this was done fairly, he proposed placing them behind what he called “the veil of ignorance”.
The veil of ignorance is a device which means that you are deciding on a new type of society extracted from your current position in society. As he says: “No one knows his (sic) place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength and the like.” (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1970, p.137) This allows you to consider the ideal arrangement for society free of prejudice. As you don’t know your position in society, you cannot design society to suit yourself.
Imagine then a scenario in which capitalism has collapsed, the ruling class is in hiding and the richest members of society have absconded. We can imagine the immediate effect of this would be a period of instability and insecurity. People would hoard food and, at least initially, turn on each other. They would though, based on the pandemic, crave a return to normality.
Behind our veil of ignorance we might begin by arguing that needs should be satisfied. But, what needs? The most basic needs we all have are for food and clean water. To these we might add shelter.
In 2021 the World Economic Forum estimated that around 2% of the world’s population – 150 million people – were homeless. In January 2023 Shelter found that 271,000 people were homeless in England. That figure includes 123,000 children. On any night 2,400 are sleeping rough. In the fifth richest country in the world.
The Ministry of Housing estimates that there were, in October 2019, 648,114 empty properties in England, of which 225,845 had been empty for longer than six months.
If this is the best that a capitalist system can offer, then clearly a socialist system has a very low bar to step over.
Behind our veil of ignorance it is not enough to argue that homelessness is bad. Bearing in mind that we do not know our own position in society, we would surely want to argue that shelter is not just a basic need but a basic human right?
According to UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, one in three people globally do not have access to adequate and safe drinking water. Every year, 297,000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea linked to inadequate water facilities. Although 99.82% of people in the UK had access to safe water in 2020, according to the World Bank there is a worrying downward trend from the 100% who had safe water in 2006.
We can do better than this. The very notion that people should be denied access to clean water is an affront to our humanity. Capitalism has clearly failed. As we deliberate behind our veil of ignorance we will surely take note of this?
According to the United Nations State of Food Security and Nutrition (2022) report, 828 million people go hungry each day. The report includes this chilling statistic. An estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition. 149 million children had stunted growth and development due to the effects of malnutrition. According to the charity Fairshare nearly 14 million people (including 4 million children) go hungry each day in the UK. Another charity, Chefs In Schools, published research in October 2022 that revealed that nearly three-quarters of school teachers reported children unable to concentrate due to hunger. Children from poor backgrounds were often disruptive, and many were forced to steal food from other children. A primary school teacher told me that one pupil regularly came to school with a lunchbox that contained only two biscuits. This in a country that is the fifth richest in the world.
According to John Rawls, people behind the veil of ignorance would have at their disposal “all general information” necessary to make, what he terms, rational choices (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p.142). Thus, we might assume this includes the UN Charter of Human Rights.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1948. It is not legally binding, though subsequent treaties based on its provisions have been voted into law in various countries including the European Charter on Human Rights and the UK’s Human Rights Act.
The Declaration begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This was not the case in 1948 and is still not the case now. For the signatories to the Declaration this was an important aspiration, but it does not take too much imagination to realise that the fact is that where you are born, which gender you are assigned to, who your parents are and how much wealth you have access to ensure that the idea of both freedom and equality enshrined in Article One should be contested.
If we are, however, in the process of building a model society, then clearly we might think that a commitment to equality in dignity and rights was a prerequisite to a society that guaranteed that every person would get, what we might call, a fair shake. We do know that gender inequality, ethnic inequality and class inequality ensure this is not the case in the here and now.
Average life expectancy has increased from 47 years in 1955 to 73.2 years in 2022. But there are differences between countries. In Hong Kong, top of the list, life expectancy is 85.29. Whilst in the Central African Republic it is only 53.6. Life expectancy is related to wealth. There is a pretty strong correlation, which you can see in this chart, between the life expectancy and the GDP per person. That relationship holds across different time periods. In other words, if we want to increase life expectancy, we need to either break the link to GDP entirely or increase the GDP at the bottom of the list so that the huge differences we see now no longer exist.
The United Nations declaration Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.”
I think it’s fair to say that nobody should go hungry, then. But we know that, even in supposedly rich countries, people go hungry every day. This treaty, however, is not law. It is an aspiration. It was an aspiration in 1948 and remains one today. Interestingly, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights does not include a right to food. Neither does the UK’s Human Rights Act, which is the legal expression of the EU Charter in the UK. So, for the sake of argument, we can say that the rights contained in the European Charter are legal requirements. As with the United Nations these start with a declaration of intent: “Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity.”
Back behind our veil of ignorance I think most rational persons (John Rawls assumes that these persons are rational, so we shall follow suit), not knowing their place in society, would not want a society where being hungry was both legal and an ever-present threat. Rationally, if you were playing the odds (though whether gambling with your life chances could strictly be called rational is arguable), you would have to say that being hungry was more likely than being rich. Therefore, rationally, it would make no sense to create a society that included those options. Better, surely, to say we want the maximum equality in terms of the fulfilment of basic needs.
Do we need a veil of ignorance to tell us that the way society is organised at present is unfair, unequal and unsustainable? Whilst liberals, such as John Rawls, conduct ‘thought experiments’ whose ultimate aim is to preserve the status quo, socialists have long known that the problems are systemic.
For Rawls the veil of ignorance is a thought experiment. For those living in hunger, without homes or in poverty, the veil of ignorance that means the rest of society can turn their backs is very real. We do not need a thought experiment, we need a change of system. A change to a system where the thought that one person going hungry, let alone millions, would be an affront to the basic rights of every citizen of a socialist state. Not abstract aspirations but real rights embedded in the democratic institutions that every citizen will be a party to.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.