Socialism’s Falsifiability Problem

Good science proceeds via falsifiable statements. In a recent review of a book that questions the helpfulness of the “quest for elegance” in physics and cosmology, Chronicle author Christopher Shea brings up the concern of falsifiability and string theory:

Like other critics of string theory and its variants, [the mathematician David Orrell] argues that it is basically unfalsifiable. If the Large Hadron Collider continues to fail to turn up evidence to support those theories, physicists can always say the problem is that they need an even more colossal collider that would hurl particles at one another at even greater speeds.

We’re going to need a bigger… uh… torus?

So what is falsifiability, and why is this Orrell guy so worried about it? Falsifiability is one way of demarcating whether knowledge is scientifically known or not; it’s an epistemological category, if that’s your game (a category of knowing). Karl Popper, early 20th century philosopher of science (and political theory, but that’s another matter), was a huge proponent of the importance of falsifiability. Basically, falsifiability is a characteristic of a statement. Here are two statements:

  1. Swans are white.
  2. There is a kettle in orbit around Betelgeuse.

The first statement is falsifiable; we know there are such things as black swans.

File:Black Swans.jpg

However–assume we don’t have the instruments to go to Betelgeuse–we have no way of ascertaining whether there is a kettle in orbit around Betelgeuse. Popper argued that the important part of this statement, or the more precise way of saying it, is that we cannot nullify the statement that there is a kettle in orbit around Betelgeuse. We could never search the whole universe for a kettle that might be in orbit around Betelgeuse–if people believed in it stubbornly enough, they could just say it was moving too fast for our instruments to detect, or it was infinitesimally small, or in an extraordinarily large orbit. You would never be able to prove the kettle wasn’t there, because it would always be possible it was just where you weren’t.

In other words, A is unfalsifiable if it is not possible to prove -A. Popper, and many scientists and philosophers since, have argued that falsifiable theories should be weighted much more heavily than unfalsifiable ones. From the quotation, for example, Orrell believes that string theory shouldn’t be taken so seriously, because whenever it fails, its proponents will just say we don’t big enough supercolliders.

Now–what on earth does this have to do with socialism?

I would argue that socialism has a falsifiability problem. The public is familiar with one prong of attack. If I had five dollars for every time I’ve heard, “but true communism has never been implemented!” (and another ten for every following groan and eye roll). This is a falsifiability problem: like string theory and the calls for ever-larger supercolliders, proponents of socialism can merely argue that x part of the formula wasn’t followed, or that the formula wasn’t correct yet, and that the idea itself is not at fault, but the execution.

So that’s one side of the problem. The other side of the issue is slightly more esoteric, but will be known to students of social theory since Marx (it’s also directly related to the post I just made on Gramsci). Marx himself–quite influenced by Hegel–believed communism would blossom naturally from capitalism, that, indeed, it necessarily followed from the contradictions in capitalism, just as capitalism had arisen from what came before it. All that had to happen was for the proletariat to become aware of their problems–which seemed obvious enough–and unite to globally and simultaneously overthrow the established order.

Except that never happened. By the Russian Revolution, there were serious quarrels amongst radicals whether the revolution would happen worldwide, or piecemeal as Communism in One Country (c.f. Trotskyism). The two most common explanations why are both unfalsifiable.

The first is that Marx was correct in assessing that communism would follow naturally, by the laws of dialectical materialism, from capitalism, but that this process will simply take longer than most observers have believed. This is an unfalsifiable proposition because the time it will take is unspecified, and believers in this proposition will always–no matter how much time has passed–simply argue that the time has not yet come when the circumstances will be ripe for communism. (I may be wrong, but it seems like there’s a parallel in the Jewish faith and the coming of the Messiah; you can’t falsify Judaism on the basis that the Messiah hasn’t come, because he could always come tomorrow.)

The second unfalsifiable proposition proponents of socialism can fall back upon is the one related to Gramsci. Namely: the revolution has not occurred because the proletariat retains a false consciousness made possible by the unequal relations of power between bourgeoisie and proletariat. In more vulgar terms, “You don’t know what’s best for you because the people with the power don’t want you to know what’s best for you, and that’s why you disagree with me.” The problem with this isn’t necessarily that it’s wrong–I don’t really think it is–but that it is unfalsifiable. You can’t disprove that someone has a false consciousness, because they’ll just say that’s what they truly believe to be in your best interests–which is exactly what someone with false consciousness would say! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes true no matter what happens.

Unfalsifiable propositions are not particularly convincing. While I think the argument for false consciousness and cultural hegemony is powerful and convincing, it encounters difficulties on the basis of its unfalsifiability. Karl Popper–no fan of socialism anyway–would be all over it on that account. Marx believed his process to be scientific, but when it comes to falsifiability, Marxist social theory is left in the lurch. That’s no reason to abandon it–I imagine I could make similar comments about other political theories–but it is something to think about.


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