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When Margaret Thatcher died on April 8th of this year, my Facebook friends reacted with glee. Several posted a Glenn Greenwald article saying we should feel free to speak ill of the dead. Others rejoiced in a campaign to take “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” to number one in the UK charts (it made #2). Being both an expatriate and an academic, I often look upon British news with a certain degree of befuddled bemusement; questions such as whether Cornish pasties count as hot foods for tax purposes seem to lose their urgency when one spends one’s life across the Atlantic reading Plato. But Thatcher’s death was hard to ignore, and my friends’ posts pricked something in me. Greenwald was right that it can be dangerous to allow political figures to become sanctified—as he observed, the bizarre fascination of American neoconservatives with Winston Churchill seems to have shaped their post-9/11 hysteria—and that insight would certainly have been worth sharing in the pages of the Telegraph or the Mail. But were Guardian readers, or any of my friends for that matter, seriously in any danger of idealizing Thatcher? It didn’t seem likely. In left-wing circles Thatcher enjoys a level of prestige somewhere above Hitler but below Mussolini. What people like us needed to hear, it seemed to me, was precisely the opposite of what Greenwald said: that we should refrain from dancing on Thatcher’s grave. From the perspective of a Plato or a Socrates, the first law of living well is to examine your own beliefs and way of life at every opportunity. By allowing a full human being to finally come into view, the passing of a once-hated political figure can occasion just such an examination. Interpreting an opponent’s actions charitably can be hard, painful even. But it permits political life to disclose itself as the essentially tragic space that it really is, a space in which pursuing one value most often entails suppressing another. And in that light self-aggrandizement and demonization come to look like two sides of the same coin, both symptoms of our anxiety in the face of this troubling complexity. To sympathize with the other is, in the end, to sympathize with ourselves.

Why did we hate Thatcher so much, my friends and I? She was eminently detestable, there’s no denying that. She gutted local democracy while claiming to be against big government; she fought inflation by deliberately running up unemployment; she labeled miners resisting the destruction of their livelihood “the enemy within”; she even managed to call Nelson Mandela a terrorist. And then there was her general bearing, which bespoke the strained snobbery of a lower-middle-class girl who had acquired a place at the top table and an accent to go with it and who now looked down her nose at those who hadn’t. For Brits ashamed of their class structures, as all should be, Thatcher’s whole manner was traumatic. She seemed to relish class warfare and to embody it. Even if she tried her damnedest to replace a system based on birth and schooling with one based on individual achievement, her apparent contempt for life’s losers was if anything more galling than the old prejudices, and not only because the two systems seemed to map onto one another rather too neatly. The following story is most likely apocryphal but it’s no surprise it stuck: at a private fundraiser in the Eighties, Thatcher is said to have declared that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.” Mitt Romney had nothing on that.

We had reason to hate her, right enough. But whence the intensity of our feelings for Thatcher? Whence the ongoing passion, more than 23 years after she was forced from office?

Some of it is personal, it has to be said. The most compelling reflection I found on Thatcher’s death came from Russell Brand, surprisingly, writing in the Huffington Post. Brand certainly came to bury Thatcher, not to praise her—“Her death must be sad for the handful of people she was nice to and the rich people who got richer under her stewardship. It isn’t sad for anyone else”—but what really drove the piece were his ruminations on growing up during her reign. His description of Thatcher’s voice, “a bellicose yawn, somehow both boring and boring—I could ignore the content but the intent drilled its way in,” captured the feeling of listening to her better than anything else I read, and the memoir was sprinkled with comic gold:

As I scan the statements of my memory bank for early deposits (it’d be a kid’s memory bank at a neurological Nat West where you’re encouraged to become a greedy little capitalist with an escalating family of porcelain pigs) I see her in her hairy helmet, condescending on Nationwide, eviscerating eunuch MPs and baffled BBC fuddy duddies with her General Zodd stare and coldly condemning the IRA…

But there’s a serious point in there too. In raging against Thatcher, our generation is, among other things, raging against the forces that shaped us—but rage as we might, they did still shape us, and they continue to do so. Brand himself is a case in point, as he well knows: he can lament the neoliberal erosion of the “unseen bond” of community all he wants, but at the end of the day he’s not exactly Mother Teresa. He admits to feeling nostalgia for the Thatcher years, bound up as they are with his childhood, yet “what is more troubling,” he owns, “is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and [Thatcher’s] neoliberal inculcation begins.”

Might something similar be true for all of us who grew up in the neoliberal era? If so, might not our loathing of Thatcher—or its positive correlate, our longing for the primordial community she supposedly shattered—be rooted in anxieties about our own moral stature? It certainly rings true of me; I am, undeniably, one of Thatcher’s inheritors. The bequest began in an oddly symbolic way: when I was seven or so, the other kids used to call me Thatcher on account of the similarity in our surnames (better that, admittedly, than a subsequent sobriquet that began with “f” and rhymed with “sucker”). Later on, in the complacent, pre-post-imperial environment of an elite boarding school, I came to rebel against the whole of Torydom; by blood I’m half-Indian and a quarter Irish and as a thirteen year-old I was sure that gave me the nobility of the oppressed. But it’s hard to maintain your victim status when you’re on your way “up” to Oxford, and although many do seem to pull it off I wasn’t equal to the challenge. As I gradually realized that I was and probably always would be on the winning side of Thatcher’s great divide, I came to feel complicit in the cruelty of her supposed meritocracy. Privilege may not have been a gift that I ever asked for, but it was a gift I would receive nonetheless. Just as my younger self used to bristle at the accusation that I was spoiled, unanswerable as it was, so my eyes still water at Billy Bragg’s reproach to Thatcher and her plummy progeny: “Just because you’re going forwards / Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards / Just because you’re better than me / Doesn’t mean I’m lazy.”

The condition of being unable to respond, of being lost for words, or arguments, is perhaps especially traumatic in politics, where self-identification and self-justification are almost the same thing. So traumatic, in fact, that we tend to hide it from ourselves—but in others we can see it clearly.

I recently engaged in a deal with a right-wing American friend whereby each of us had to subscribe to a magazine from “the other side”; for me he chose First Things, a journal of Catholic thought devoted to something like “keeping religion in the public square.” The magazine is basically pretty good, if somewhat predictable, and it’s been well worth reading for an atheist like myself—but if there’s one thing in God’s creation the writers simply refuse to contemplate, it’s how their opponents understand themselves. They consistently portray liberals as wanting to drive religion out of the public realm in order to undermine practice and belief and make way for some kind of hedonistic utopia. This may be true of some liberals. But in America the best and most influential arguments for religiously neutral public discourse have come from so-called “political liberals,” like John Rawls, who actually take themselves to be defending religion. Only by remaining as neutral as possible with respect to religion, so the argument goes, can the state accord individual conscience, and hence religious belief, the respect it deserves. First Things writers never really take that argument on; they simply ignore it and bash the hedonists instead.

Let’s assume, though, for the sake of argument, that political liberalism does in fact end up contributing to the secularization of public life; maybe citizens are more likely to maintain their faith if a religious worldview is taken for granted on public radio and so on. To someone like Rawls that will no doubt seem like an unfortunate side effect of his theory; to First Things, it will seem to have been the goal all along. Of course, the fact that you never intended something doesn’t always excuse you for doing it—it just changes the nature of the culpability. Every point of view has its blind spots, and their location is always revealing; even if a general can never exactly foresee collateral damage, the rate of civilian casualties always says something about his priorities. But this is where it gets complicated. For what if you hate the side effects but have no alternative to the way of thinking that produces them?

It would be easier if your opponents were in power, especially if they didn’t seem to care all that much about the collateral damage. That way you could blame them without having to account for your own position. If your own side were on top it would be much tougher, psychologically speaking. You would then be the ones producing the side effects you despise, and in principle you would have to be ashamed of yourselves. In practice, however, there is always one get-out: you can simply deny that you are in power.

The First Things crew have this technique down to a tee. If they’re honest, they probably agree with the vast majority of what political liberalism has to say about toleration, devoted as they are to the image of America as a haven from religious oppression—had the 2012 election resulted in Mormonism being preached from the presidential pulpit, they would have been as horrified as the rest of us. What allows them to have their cake and eat it too is their ability to attribute the side effects of the liberal system of thought—their own system of thought—to godless elites who surreptitiously commandeered the country sometime during the Sixties, the Depression or the Civil War. This is quite a feat of self-delusion, and it must take its toll on the psyche: to sustain such a fantasy, after all, you have to both demonize and aggrandize your opponents, and do so continually, in the face of reality, without end.

What does any of this have to do with Thatcher? Well, one of the greatest mysteries of the last three decades has been why leftist parties, so quick to criticize neoliberal policies in opposition, have consistently pursued them once in power. Since 1979, when Thatcher was first elected, almost all Western governments, left and right, have, to greater or lesser degrees, privatized public services and utilities while lowering taxes on corporate and individual incomes; inequality has risen inexorably; and the common perception is that citizens have become more consumerist and individualistic. In coming to terms with the failure of their elected representatives to arrest these trends, leftists have tended to cry corruption or cowardice; but the phenomena in question are too universal to be explained by personal vice alone. Either politics in general is just a cynical masquerade conducted by the rich and for the rich—a tempting explanation, to be sure—or there is something about the contemporary situation that makes it virtually impossible to resist neoliberalism. There must be various factors at work, but one of them is surely the absence of a compelling counter-ideal to neoliberalism in recent leftist thought. In the last three decades intellectuals and activists have mostly directed their attention towards foreign policy, climate change or identity politics rather than economic questions; when they have engaged directly with neoliberalism, it has typically been to offer what should technically be called conservative complaints, seeking to slow or reverse change rather than to suggest any new direction or ideal. And this, it seems to me, is because with respect to what we take to be our signature issue, economic equality, we have found ourselves in a similar position to First Things.

Economists of all stripes agree that the underlying cause of growing inequality in Western societies is the integration of the global economy, which has simultaneously increased the earning power of the highly educated while decreasing that of the rest. At the top end, HSBC can proclaim itself the world’s local bank; at the bottom end, unskilled labor cannot compete abroad. Even if neoliberal tax cuts and privatizations have exacerbated the problem, they are by no means its source. This leaves leftist politicians, most of whom understand these facts perfectly well, in the depressing position of having to hold neoliberals to account for crimes against equality while having no idea how to avoid such crimes themselves. In such circumstances the only way to keep your hands clean is to stay out of politics altogether; that allows you to blame the whole thing on the political and financial elites who are really in charge, as per Occupy Wall Street. But the position of disdainful superiority is itself unstable. If millionaires on Wall Street are immoral for not wanting to give more of their wealth to the unemployed of Detroit, how can any of us justify not giving more of our own riches—for such they surely are—to the starving of Africa? And although globalization may produce rising inequality within Western societies as a side effect, wouldn’t protectionism harm the poor in the developing world? Insofar as economic inequality is the left’s principal field of battle in contemporary political life, the fact is that it has no real response to neoliberalism. Idealists without an ideal, moralists without morals, to be on the left today is frequently to be both helpless and hypocritical. Faced with such a predicament, hating Thatcher is the easy part.

Plato was very attuned to this kind of situation. One of the recurring themes of his dialogues is how angry people get when they realize their inconsistencies, or rather in the moments just before the fact of their inconsistency rises to the surface of their consciousness, as their self-image, their sense of what is due to them, begins to be squeezed by the pressures of reality. But Plato thought such humiliation was the precondition for arriving at wisdom, and I think he was right.

“There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher infamously remarked. Coming across this statement for the first time it feels like you’ve discovered the secret memo that explains everything, as if Thatcher were a Bond villain who just couldn’t resist explaining her entire evil scheme before enacting it. A common way of summing up Thatcher’s legacy, exemplified in Pankaj Mishra’s pronouncement that the London rioters of 2011 were “Thatcher’s grandchildren,” is that her policies and attitudes rendered Britons more individualistic and self-seeking. Russell Brand, who considers himself one of Thatcher’s children, remembers being implicitly taught “that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful.” And the evidence that both Mishra and Brand adduce for the idea that Thatcher wanted to impart such a lesson, the shorthand for it, is that she said “there is no such thing as society.” The phrase is weirdly enigmatic, in and of itself; it rings of Yoda. Brand glosses it as “we are alone on our journey through life, solitary atoms of consciousness,” as if Thatcher believed friendship or community impossible, and something of that interpretation is manifest in the way the phrase gets used as a trump card against neoliberalism from pubs to parliament. When David Cameron decided to name his political philosophy “Big Society” conservatism, for instance, no one doubted that he wanted to signal a move away from Thatcherism. “There is no such thing as society” has become a political Chernobyl.

Yet the phrase contains an important insight, I believe—one that might actually guide today’s left. When you go back and look at the 1987 interview in which the phrase was uttered, it’s obvious that Thatcher had no intention of glorifying selfishness.

I think we have been through a period when too many people have been given to understand that when they have a problem it is government’s job to cope with it. “I have a problem, I’ll get a grant. I’m homeless, the government must house me.” They are casting their problems on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.

There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and how much each of us is prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Once we’ve stripped away the ugly layer of contempt in which Thatcher encloses her remarks—“I’m homeless, the government must house me”—something rather surprising emerges. For the central idea here, it seems to me, is not that there can never be any community between humans, nor that nothing can ever merit the name “society,” but that community and society don’t simply exist out there regardless of what we do; each of us, rich and poor, has to take responsibility for producing them. “There is no such thing as society” is a peculiar way of saying that, for sure, but then great rhetoric is often counterintuitive.

Plato is not a name one associates with Thatcher, to put it mildly, but he would have agreed with her on that point: there is no such thing as society—at least not at present. He thought of true society as an ideal, a goal, an aspiration; something that can be achieved but never assumed. Among the many topics addressed in the Republic, his masterpiece, is the question of what a true society would be like. To answer that question, he suggests that we need to think about why societies come into existence.

A society comes to exist … because none of us is individually self-sufficient, but each has many needs he cannot satisfy. … Because we have many needs, and because one of us calls on another out of need, and on a third out of a different need, we gather many into a single settlement as partners and helpers. And we call such a shared settlement a society.

The origin of society, then, its “real creator,” is our need. Society comes into existence because we cannot satisfy our needs on our own; to do so, we have to contribute our laboring energies to the collective enterprise that is society. What society is, at the most fundamental level, is a cooperative scheme born of individual weakness. And the form of that scheme will determine not only the type of society we have but also the degree to which it counts as a genuine society at all.

But what are our needs, exactly? Thatcher seems to picture individuals as relatively self-sufficient. To succeed, in her view, is “to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors,” which presupposes that we can separate looking after ourselves from looking after our neighbors. Plato, by contrast, views us as fundamentally social creatures, relying on each other for even our most basic needs. He is clearly right that we need to share to survive. The more complex society becomes, the less likely we are to see this. But when you think about a simple society, like the one Plato has us imagine, it becomes obvious: if we each had to make our own shoes, clothes and houses we would have little time to do the farming. We depend absolutely on the division of labor.

Where Plato becomes radical, though, is in his view that we depend on the division of labor not only for our continued existence but also for our ultimate happiness. Nowadays we tend to think of our life prospects as relatively independent of one another, and that’s what Thatcher assumes as well. But Plato thinks we sink or swim together. No one can be happy if his desires are not sound, his capacities developed and his opportunities felicitous; and our desires, capacities and opportunities are shaped by the people and institutions around us. In a bad society we can always hide ourselves away, but this will never shield us completely. In Book VI of the Republic, Socrates advises us to avoid political life in an unjust society, “like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind.” In Book VIII, however, he returns to this quietist, depicting him as a tragically impotent father, incapable of teaching his son to live well in the face of outside influences. We are all, in some sense, each other’s parents. The ultimate goal of our social cooperation is therefore to create an environment in which virtue, and hence the possibility of happiness, can be reliably fostered. That would be a true society.

On Plato’s view, then, society is a collective project aimed at securing the good life. It is as if we find ourselves thrust together with no option but to work as a team, at least if we are to survive and to prosper. But if the team is to function properly, each of us needs to play for the team. This is less a matter of fuzzy altruism—Socrates emphasizes that “if [citizens] share things with one another … they do so because each believes that this is better for himself”—than of having the discipline to carry out a particular role. Think of soccer. Defenders need to stick to their positions, and not wander around in search of excitement. If each player simply follows the ball (as often happens in pick-up games) there really is no team. Likewise with society: if everyone does his own job, and the jobs combine appropriately so that each contributes to the collective good, there will be a functioning society. If not, there will be no such thing.

Continental Europeans tend to drop the “neo” in “neoliberalism”—to them it is simply “liberalism.” And from a Platonic perspective that’s just about right. Where economic life is concerned, the contemporary political scene is split between left-liberals and right-liberals. What they have in common is an unwillingness to say anything about the goals of work. Provided they commit no crimes, how citizens choose to spend their laboring energies is seen as a private matter. What then comes up for debate is what to do with the proceeds: whether to force citizens to contribute to public goods such as infrastructure and education, for instance, or to improve the welfare of the poorest. In the Platonic view, however, all such debates are secondary to the question economic liberals invariably suppress: What do we actually do with our work?

If not all “societies” are real societies on Plato’s account, then not all “jobs” are real jobs either. A hermit has work to do, but no job. Jobs exist only where there is a division of labor: you peel the carrots, I’ll peel the potatoes. A division of labor in turn presupposes a collective enterprise, like an evening meal, towards which the various jobs aim, and in terms of which we understand what counts as a genuine job. For Plato, as we have seen, the goal of a society’s labor is first to maintain that society in existence, and then to enable each citizen to lead the best life he can. And these goals determine what counts as a real job. Just as checking your email plays no part in preparing dinner, so blackmail doesn’t contribute to a good society. Real jobs, by contrast, are crafts, skilled activities directed towards producing particular social goods; medicine, for example, is the craft that restores sick bodies to health. In a genuine society, Plato thinks, everyone—shoemakers and shepherds, soldiers and statesmen—will be a craftsman in this sense. But the statesman’s craft is peculiar, since he is the one who regulates the other crafts to make sure they are really directed towards the social good. To return to the team analogy, the statesman is like a soccer manager, deciding which functions need to be carried out in a given situation: sometimes even the goalkeeper has to join the attack. The job of the statesman, then, is to decide what counts as a real job. He is a “philosopher-king.”

Talk of “philosopher-kings” sounds far-fetched and utopian to the contemporary ear—yet Plato’s vision of society as a team of craftsmen regulated by a master craftsman passed, partly through the influence of his pupil Aristotle, into the basic legal structures of medieval Europe. The idea of labor as teamwork aiming at the common good, rather than at one’s own immediate gain, complemented the thought of the Christian Fathers: Christ had despised the rich; for Paul avarice was “the root of all evil”; and Augustine had seen lust for possessions as one of the three principal sins of fallen man. The medieval Church therefore held up an ideal—often flouted in practice, but an ideal nonetheless—of economic activity as subordinate to moral purposes. William of Auxerre, a thirteenth-century monk, was typical, for example, in arguing that private property was to be suspended in times of need, or that a contract resulting from unequal bargaining power was necessarily invalid. The central doctrine was perhaps that of the “just price,” propounded in the second half of the thirteenth century by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. Albert and Thomas argued that one ought always to sell an article for its true worth (understood primarily in terms of the labor required to produce it) rather than for the highest price the market will bear. If one village were struck by a crop failure, for example, the next village should not seek to profit by raising the price of their wheat. As Aquinas put it,

if someone would be greatly helped by something belonging to someone else, and the seller not similarly harmed by losing it, the seller must not raise the price, because the benefit that goes to the buyer comes not from the seller, but from the buyer’s needy condition: no one ought to sell something that doesn’t belong to him.

Given human fallenness, however, this doctrine had to be inculcated by law and habit rather than mere preaching. It was therefore up to public officials to determine prices, wrote Henry of Langenstein in 1483, since “to leave the prices of goods at the discretion of the sellers is to give rein to the cupidity which goads almost all of them to seek excessive gain.”

When put into practice, then, Plato’s economic thought quickly led to what we would now call socialism. The label seems perverse at first, since we tend to think of socialism as aiming at equality, whereas the largesse of the medieval Church was legendary and monks proved only too happy to sustain the feudal hierarchies at whose summit they naturally imagined themselves seated. But what else to call the price controls, limits on private property and so on that were instituted in the Middle Ages? Better to think of socialism as having a core sense beyond its more recent egalitarian incarnation—Plato’s vision of society as an ideal, not a given, something that has to be continually created by citizens working towards the common good. With Plato, in other words, we can put the social back into socialism.

Today’s economists would probably dismiss medieval strictures on price and property as primitive misunderstandings, much as they now view twentieth-century command economies with more contempt than alarm—the first chapter of the most widely used textbook, Hal Varian’s Intermediate Microeconomics, consists of a simple demonstration of why an economy with price controls will necessarily allocate goods and services inefficiently. But the sophistication of contemporary economics, unquestionable though it is, risks blinding us to the fact that its medieval ancestor was barely concerned with efficiency at all. It was a branch of ethics. Citizens had a duty to work for the common good, and it was taken for granted that the purpose of economic regulation was to ensure this duty was performed. If the ethics-first approach to economics has come to seem absurd to us today—if right- and left-liberalism seem like the only live possibilities—then that represents an intellectual revolution. And much of the credit must go to one man: Adam Smith.

Most institutions try to socialize us out of egoism; even competitive sports attempt to engender—or at least enforce—values and habits that place the survival of institutions above individual success. Smith argued that the economy should be an exception to this rule, a self-standing sphere with rules and norms that contradict those of society at large. Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch doctor living in London in the early eighteenth century, had argued in his Fable of the Bees that a sufficiently artful politician could transform private vices, like the desire for luxury, into public benefits. Smith took up this line of thinking but freed it from its moralistic premise and its reliance on individual dexterity. Replacing “vice” with “interest,” he argued that given appropriate institutional frameworks the general welfare would be best served if everyone pursued his own private interest in economic matters.

By directing domestic industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, [a businessman] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

To pursue one’s own interest in economic affairs is not only acceptable, on Smith’s view, but noble. Whereas those who try to work for the public good end up being ineffectual, in a competitive marketplace those who serve themselves will inevitably end up serving others. If people want a given good, there will be an incentive to produce it; if they don’t, there won’t. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest,” Smith writes. “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their own advantages.” Self-love or self-interest, greed or avarice—call it what you will, the invisible hand promises to wash it clean.

Smith does not think we should always act selfishly, of course, or even that we do. If there is to be any kind of stable social order we must forbear from harming others; this is what Smith calls justice. More than that, we all have a natural interest in the plight of the badly off; this is what he calls charity. But what shapes today’s economic thinking is not these nuances but Smith’s central proposition, which is that in a competitive marketplace egoistic economic agents will raise productivity and thereby create a “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.” Whatever our highest ends are, from alleviating misery to building opera houses in the jungle, wealth can only serve them. And if the opulence should turn out to be less than universal, well, we can always redistribute—whether through private philanthropy, as right-liberals recommend, or the state, as do left-liberals.

This way of thinking forms the unspoken background of Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” interview. It’s a vision of small shopkeepers like Thatcher’s father, living in small market towns like Grantham, where she was raised, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and encouraging others to do the same. “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.” There’s no room for large-scale capitalists or global corporations in this idealized marketplace of butchers and brewers and bakers, as liberals would happily point out. But there’s also no place for the idea of work in Plato’s sense—and that is an objection that tends to pass liberals by completely.

Imagine a debate between Smith and Plato today; ignore the anachronism, if you can. Plato would argue that the tradesmen Smith mentions in his famous example are not butchers, brewers or bakers at all, but what he calls “moneymakers”—they are guided by profit, not product. As such, he would claim, they will never create a genuine society.

In Book I of the Republic, Socrates insists that strictly speaking a doctor (and by extension any craftsman) must be distinguished from a moneymaker. Doctors do make money, of course, but Plato’s point is that anything that counts as one activity will be governed by a single organizing principle, something that gives unity to all the sub-activities, and that for a true doctor this will be healing the sick. The true doctor still earns money, but since this is not the goal in reference to which he makes his professional decisions he should not be called a moneymaker; it is incidental to his activity that he earns money, whereas it is essential to it that he treats the sick. Imagine, on the other hand, a “doctor” who treats the sick with one thing in mind: earning money. Plato would say that this man masquerades as a doctor.

Smith would see no problem with that. After all, both doctors and “doctors” heal the sick. In a system where the incentives are correctly aligned, such as a competitive marketplace with perfect information, it should make no difference to a patient whether or not he is treated by a true doctor. But Plato might ask what happens if the incentives come apart. Imagine, for example, a country—let’s call it America—where psychiatrists find they can make more money prescribing drugs than offering talking cures.[1] Some psychiatrists believe that drugs are more effective than talk; imagine one who doesn’t. This doctor really believes the best treatment he can give involves personal contact for sessions of 45 minutes or more, but knows he can earn almost twice as much by scheduling three 15-minute sessions for dispensing medication. All other things being equal, a true doctor will make a decision based on his patient’s needs; a moneymaker will simply prescribe drugs. And since similar decisions are made every day in countless hospitals and clinics, it will matter a great deal whether a society has doctors or “doctors.”

Since society is itself created and sustained only by the work its members perform on its behalf, like a team in which everyone has a role to play, Plato would also, as we have seen, distinguish between a society and a “society.” If every citizen carries out his social work to the best of his ability, there will be a real society. But if each worker is a moneymaker who performs his role only incidentally, when the incentives happen to be correctly aligned, then society will be nothing but an incidental byproduct of moneymaking. It will be a “society” rather than a true society. So what?—Smith might once again ask—we each get to do what we want, productivity is raised to unprecedented levels, and as a “collateral benefit” we produce something that to all intents and purposes looks like a society! Would you really rather live in the Middle Ages, toothache and all?

Wealth without virtue may indeed be pointless, as Socrates says in the Apology, but this rejoinder is unlikely to carry much weight in contemporary debate, however justified it might be in the abstract. As Deirdre McCloskey observes in Bourgeois Dignity, living standards have shot up since moneymaking began to be perceived as a respectable activity: in 1800 the global average income was just $3 a day (in today’s money); now it is $30, and in Norway it is as high as $137. Smith was right about productivity, essentially, and it’s hard to see many of us choosing to swap its benefits for the rigors of virtue. As Thatcher used to enjoy repeating when pushed to defend neoliberalism, “There Is No Alternative.”

Checkmate? Not necessarily. For even if Plato were forced to accept that labor should be allocated via the market and its price signals rather than conscious reflection on society’s needs, he might still ask how we as individuals are to understand our roles in this system. Consider this reformulation of Smith’s argument by Thatcher’s intellectual hero, Friedrich Hayek:

Profit is the signal which tells us what we must do in order to serve people whom we do not know. By pursuing profit, we are as altruistic as we can possibly be, because we extend our concern to people who are beyond our range of personal conception.

This is polemical of course—neither Smith nor his followers need say anything so extreme. But what it brings to the fore is the first-personal dimension of our debate. Should we respond to price signals in order to serve others? Or should we simply seek profit full stop? Do we consider ourselves as craftsmen or as moneymakers? Sometimes it is obvious that pursuing profit won’t benefit others. The social function of financiers, we are sometimes told, is to ensure the efficient allocation of capital across society so as to spur economic growth. But suppose that for some reason or other the financial system actually rewards speculation that does not fulfill this function, speculation that actually lowers economic growth in the long run, and imagine—if you can—that our men of finance just happen to be moneymakers at heart…

Plato thought he could rely on a class of philosopher-kings whose craft would be to ensure that each part of society carried out a genuine job. But in The Road to Serfdom—a book that shaped Thatcher’s ideology from her days as an undergraduate at Oxford—Hayek pointed out that a decentralized market economy will allocate social resources far more effectively than a team of experts ever could, since the price system instantaneously collates information about local conditions and needs. Besides, Hayek and other liberals argued, citizens tend to disagree about what is good for society or the individual, and hardly anyone still believes, as Plato did, that there is expert knowledge to be had about such matters. The basic tenet of social liberalism, that the state should not impose a vision of the good on individuals, is justified both in theory and in practice. Being able to shape your own course in life is a prerequisite for that life to be worth living; and experience shows that a society that does not respect individual freedoms will end in oppression. There is no way around liberalism.

The temptation is for socialists to repress the fact of liberalism, to blame elites for refusing to give economic life more ethical direction, and to cocoon themselves in hermetic discussions that pretend a top-down approach were still possible—to become, in short, the mirror image of the Catholics at First Things. Such escapism might well have its pleasures, but it also has its pains, not least psychically. And in any case there is no need: for economic Platonism is in fact compatible with social liberalism.

Socialists cannot force citizens to be craftsmen, true. Nor can they dictate a vision of the good life. But the state can legitimately encourage citizens to work according to their own conceptions of the good life. Just as it is a citizenly duty to look after the physical environment, throwing away litter, placing items in the right receptacles and so on, a duty that is promulgated but not enforced by the state, so it should be considered a citizenly duty to look after the social environment: to play one’s part in producing the kind of institutions and goods that enable us all to flourish—not least our children, whom no parent, no matter how privileged he be as an individual, can isolate from society’s influence. Granted, we may have different understandings of what would constitute a good environment and what would count as a contribution towards it. But within the framework of a liberal state, where no one forces anyone else to pursue a given way of life, we can live with that. This is socialism from the ground up.

The state must provide more than moral support, however, if such socialism is to become a reality. Imagine a stereotypical movie scene with an idealized worker—a fireman, say—nobly ignoring his own well-being for the sake of the common good and steadfastly refusing all congratulations: “I’m just doing my job,” he says. Now imagine a real-life patient protesting to his psychiatrist that no, something really important has come up in the last few days and he just has to talk it over; the psychiatrist responds that he only has fifteen minutes to review the prescription; the patient gets angry and starts shouting; the psychiatrist tries to calm him down by saying, “Look, I’m just doing my job, alright?” What the phrase typically means in real life, in other words, is: “Leave me alone—it’s not up to me.” The psychiatrist might actually want to be a true doctor, yet be constrained to be a “doctor” by the insurers who pay his wage and the bankers who hold his student debt. To turn “doctors” into doctors will therefore require more than a change in their personal priorities; it will require changing the priorities of their institutions.

And this brings us back to the question that socialism has always raised, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, namely ownership. Businesses tend to serve the interests of those who own them, whether shareholders, workers or communities. To make institutions serve people rather than profit, we will therefore have to think about alternative forms of ownership: scholars like Erik Olin Wright and John Roemer have shown that social ownership can come in many forms, and these should be studied with an open mind.[2] What is vital, however, as we renew our assault on the neoliberal dogma of private ownership, is to remember that the ultimate goal is not to strengthen the central state or even simply to benefit the poor, but rather to free workers to use their own initiative to serve the common good as they see it.

When I think of Thatcher and the rage she induces in me and my friends, I can’t help feeling that at the end of the day it’s all quite simple: she won. In the face of her onslaught our arguments about equality feel abstract and phony. We know that we don’t want too much inequality, but how much is too much? And what are we going to do about it? G. A. Cohen pointed out that if you really believe in redistribution, you don’t have to wait for the right government to get elected—you can start giving your money away this minute. His book was entitled If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? but the principle applies to most of us, especially when you start thinking on an international scale. However just the idea of worldwide redistribution may be in theory, few of us are principled enough to really countenance it. And we know that. Our accusations and our insults therefore sound shrill and frail. Lacking an ideal towards which to work, we are impotent and reactive—we can reject but we cannot affirm.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the matter of career decisions. We—my circle, at any rate—tend to despise those who take the “easy option” of corporate labor. As opposed to what, though? It seems to me that to earn a free pass from today’s moralizers all you need to do is not sell out. It’s considered absolutely fine, for instance, to while away your twenties in grad school playing video games, watching reality TV and occasionally turning your thoughts to the writings of some obscure author. A life like that actually gives you some kind of moral purchase vis-à-vis a banker or a lawyer—at least you’re not increasing inequality. Even if we ignore the fact that a disdain for materialism has often been a marker of class distinction, it’s clear that there’s something fundamentally warped about this ethic. It tells us what is bad, but as to the good it is silent.

If leftists are to look neoliberals in the face with confidence rather than bitterness, we need an ideal that can orient us. Is Platonic socialism too distant to serve? I don’t see why it should be. It gives us an overarching logic for resisting the march towards privatization, for one thing, above and beyond outrage at the corruption and incompetence that inevitably accompany such schemes; and it gives new focus to campaigns against personal debt. More than that, though, it gives us something to live by as individuals. For one way to bring about an ideal is to act as if it already existed. And in a service economy you can very easily ask yourself what service your work actually performs. Does it count as a job in the Platonic sense, a contribution to the collective enterprise of society as you see it? To be a craftsman you don’t have to be a saint, running a soup kitchen or helping little old ladies with their shopping. But it might be hard, for example, to combine tutoring rich kids for their SATs with holding others in contempt for selling out, as so many twenty-somethings try to. For Platonic socialism demands that you provide some account of how your work might help constitute a healthy social environment. You can always refuse that demand, of course, but you thereby accept Thatcher’s bequest, however implicitly, and take your place in the neoliberal family alongside the bankers and the rest.

If, on the other hand, you do try to direct your labors towards producing a slice, no matter how small, of the common good, to make your product the best it can be while charging only as much as you consider fair—if you do all this you may end up contributing to the creation of a genuine society. Yet your work need not be in vain even if that larger goal remains unmet. “The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it,” John Ruskin is supposed to have said, and Plato would certainly have agreed. In any case, however, society, like a team, is not an all or nothing proposition: every little helps. We may never produce a true society, sure. But what we can certainly produce is some such thing—and from where we stand right now, that will do just fine.

This essay is the sequel to “Socialism We Can Believe In,” published in Issue 6.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. See, e.g., “Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead To Drug Therapy,” New York Times,
    March 5, 2011.
  2. 2. See Erik Olin Wright’s contribution to The Point’s Issue 5 symposium on the left, “Toward A Social Socialism.”
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