Society and Culture

Book review: “Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World” by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell

Preferences for products and brands can sometimes be surprisingly good predictors of political opinions. If you like Richmond Sausages, HP Sauce, Birds Eye Food, Cathedral City Cheddar or PG Tips tea, there is a very good chance that you voted for Brexit. If you are an active user of Instagram, Spotify, LinkedIn or Twitter, there is a very good chance that you voted Remain. In the US, there is a long list of products which correlate strongly with voting behaviour.

Obviously, this does not work for all opinions. Knowing what type of tea or coffee you like is not going to give me much of a clue about where you stand on council tax band reform, or on whether you think Lisa Nandy would have made a better leader of the Labour Party than Keir Starmer. It only works for political opinions that are wrapped up in a sense of identity and self-image. This is why is works so well for Brexit, which was the ultimate identity issue. You are not a Leaver (Remainer) because you think Brexit will lead to identifiable positive (negative) outcomes. You are a Leaver or a Remainer because that is part of who you are. Therefore, you could not easily change your mind on this subject, in the way you might change your mind on council tax bands. It would mean questioning your sense of identity.

I have never seen a survey enquiring which consumer preferences, if any, are good predictors of whether someone identifies as a “Marxist” or a “socialist”. But there must be some, because being a socialist is at least as much of an identity issue as Brexit.

If there is such a predictor, my guess is that it would be craft beer. It is a decent rule of thumb that if a town or borough is represented by an MP who is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, it will also have a high density of pubs with a large selection of novel and exotic beers. There is no logical connection between those two. It is simply that both craft beer and socialism have become extremely hip and trendy over the course of the past decade. So if you are a fashion- and image-conscious person who wants to be part of the in-crowd, you will be naturally attracted to both.

If a preference for craft beer really is correlated with socialist beliefs, it would be the oddest of all the product-opinion pairings, because it would not just  be arbitrary (they all are), but actively contradictory. The reason is that, in practice, socialism means bad beer. And bad food. And bad hotels. And plenty of other bad things.

Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell document this relationship in their book Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World. More precisely, they visit a range of places with some connection – past or present, actual or perceived – to socialism, sample the beers, and use that as an occasion to tell us some interesting facts about their economies. The book is lighthearted and informal in style; it is not supposed to be an academic study of socialist economics, or an economic history of any country or region. Nonetheless, there is a serious point underlying all this. For people who live through the economic privations of socialism, the fact that they cannot get grapefruit-flavoured IPAs made with four different hop varieties is obviously not their main worry. But a lack of good beer can be a symptom of wider economic disfunctions.

The authors’ first destination is Sweden. This is a short chapter, which merely serves to clear up the misunderstanding, peddled by some of the more confused socialists, that the Nordic economies are somehow “socialist”. They are, of course, nothing of the sort, as all the better-informed socialists will also tell you: the Nordic economies are capitalist market economies, albeit with very high taxes and very high levels of public spending. Beer-wise, this means that you can easily find nice beers in Sweden – they are just very expensive. Which is a fair summary of Nordic social democracy.

They then take us to Venezuela, or rather, to the Colombian-Venezuelan border region. They can easily find a nice-enough beer on the Colombian side, but they have no such luck in Venezuela: a few months before their arrival (in 2016), the country had completely run out of beer. We could see this as a symbolic culmination of more than a decade of economic dysfunction, and as “21st Century Socialism” in a nutshell.

Beer and food in Cuba are, as the next chapter shows, rather bland and monotonous. There is an important distinction to be drawn here between “food in Cuba” and “Cuban food”. The authors finish their assessment of Cuba by visiting a Cuban restaurant in Miami, and find it to be excellent. The problem is not Cuban cuisine. The problem is socialism.

They do not quite make it into North Korea, so their observations from the border areas, both on the South Korean and the Chinese side, have to suffice. But they nonetheless give us a rundown of the North Korean economy, and they do not fail to point out how easy it is to get a decent beer in either South Korea or China.

China then gets a chapter of its own, in which they favourably contrast the mixed economy of modern-day China to the planned economy of Mao’s days. Still, their assessment of China is only “favourable” in that comparison.

In the case of Russia and Ukraine, beer is arguably a less suitable vehicle for a lecture on economics. But Lawson and Powell still manage to tell us the basics about Soviet history, as well as the mismanaged transition to what has to be one of the worst versions of capitalism.

The next chapter shows us a more positive example of a former Soviet Socialist Republic: Georgia. Georgia is a late bloomer, where the liberalisation process only started in the mid-2000s. But they managed that transition in a much better way than Russia or Ukraine. They carried out their privatisation programme via an open, neutral and transparent auction mechanism, which is far less vulnerable to corruption and political manipulation. In absolute terms, Georgia is still a poor country, and its vicinity to a hostile and aggressive military power does not help. But the authors are relatively optimistic about the country’s prospects, and highlight positive developments – not least Georgia’s wine boom.

To round off their tour, the last place they take us to is the Socialism Conference in Chicago, where they observe the antics of the participants (who all address each other as “comrade”, and do a lot of chanting) with a mixture of anthropological curiosity and bemused contempt. The first thing the reader will note is that this is not a stereotypical Marxist conference. This is not a bunch of semi-retired Marxist geography teachers sitting in a stuffy backroom, arguing about the minutiae of some old Marxist text. It is more like a music festival of young and young-ish hipsters. Instead of  dense Marxist economics, the conference deals with a hotchpotch of fashionable progressive social causes, which have little to nothing to do with “socialism” as an economic system, but which the participants nonetheless somehow associate with it.

The participants struggle to explain how a socialist system would work in practice, and have no interest in why socialism has failed so many times before. (One speaker literally says “Socialism has not failed in Venezuela, because it has never been tried!”, which is met with roaring applause.) But they nonetheless somehow know that it would not just be a wonderful economic system, but also a system which would somehow sort out issues like racism, migrants’ rights, transgender rights, war, sexism, and abortion.

In these passages, one can sense the authors’ frustration. How on earth do you argue with that? How do you argue with people who promise everything, but feel no need to explain how they want to deliver it, and refuse to take any responsibility for the real-world outcomes of their ideas?

I have never been to Chicago, and had never heard of this particular socialist convention, but after a few sentences, I nonetheless knew exactly what it was like. Because this is what all socialist conferences, from The World Transformed to the Marxism Festival, are like these days. Socialism has been rejuvenated, re-energised, and above all, “hipsterised”. They did not manage to get Jeremy Corbyn into No. 10, and they did not manage to get Bernie Saunders into the White House, but they did manage to establish themselves as the “umbrella ideology” for every fashionable cause under the sun.

But on the plus side: it is at the Socialism Conference that Lawson and Powell find the greatest selection of beers. When I read their summary of the beer menu, I genuinely wished I could be at this socialist conference for a moment. And that is not a thought which crosses my mind very often.

If you want great beer, you have to go where the socialists are – provided, of course, that they are not yet in power.



Suggestions for further reading/watching/listening:

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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