What Has Socialism Done For Us?
In my last post “What Has Capitalism Done For Us?” I explained how capitalism — what it means, what it does, and how it affects us — is constantly being misrepresented by people intent on pushing their socio-political agenda. Well they do the same with socialism and for the same reasons.
What it means
Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment. Social ownership may refer to public ownership, cooperative ownership, citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these — Socialism — Wikipedia
Basically, the democratically elected government controls resources and regulates enterprise for the benefit of its citizens. Private enterprise and property ownership are tolerated to a certain degree but the state aims to meet people’s needs via tax-funded services. That socialism and communism are often conflated is not the fault of unthinking Americans; communists often use the words interchangeably to make their Utopian ideology more palatable. What they won’t tell you is, if property ownership is based on force, so is ending it. It’s important to note that government intervention is not the same thing as socialism, though it’s often conflated with it. In fact, the government is always in tension with the needs of the people it serves (even in a full-on tyranny) and the donors and lobbyists that influence the politicians and civil servants who run it on behalf of the industries they represent. If people would just stop conflating words and meanings we’d be able to discuss things properly but ideological considerations tend to get in the way of an in-depth analysis.
A brief history of socialism
We have always had some form of anarchist cooperative movement in our societies at one time or another; Karl Marx did not invent socialism. Libertarian icon Thomas Paine was against the unfettered monopoly of landowners over the wealth provided by their produce, and recommended that a tax be paid to subsidise the landless. The UK’s Chartists was a movement born of the social unrest that resulted from the squalid living and working conditions of Britain’s working poor. So then, Karl Marx, whose writings were based on what he saw of the lives of the working poor in my adopted city, Manchester (UK), inherited ideas whose roots went back to the time of the Greek philosophers. The first socialist society that ever existed was the failed Paris Commune (1871).
Industrial revolution: the game-changer
Historical events do not occur in a vacuum. Had there been no Hellenic empire there would have been no Roman empire. The Romans not only conquered a large chunk of the planet and set up trading links with India, China, Africa, and Northern Europe, they facilitated the exchange of ideas and the spread of education by imposing a Roman ideology on the populations of the lands they held sway over. When the Roman empire collapsed their writings were conserved by Persian and Arabic scholars who shared them with Europeans during the Golden Age of Islam. This led to the Renaissance, which led to an upsurge in innovation and exploration that created the Industrial Revolution. Crucially, the humanism that went with it resulted in the individualism that drove the Industrial Revolution. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution had everything it needed to begin: a stable political regime, vast deposits of coal and iron ore, and a growing empire that provided the raw materials required for manufacture and markets to sell them in. It was the rise in demand for the goods produced in Britain that prompted the rise of the factory system and the mechanization required for mass production.
The role of poverty in creating socialism
Whereas socialism in its various forms had previously been about the setup of cooperative societies on land held in common, the appalling conditions endured by the working poor led to the form we know today in which the means of production was to be transferred from the obscenely wealthy factory and mill owners to the people who did the actual production. What I’m saying is, if capitalism had recognised the role of workers in creating value instead of treating them as a cost, socialism would most likely have remained a fringe ideology. It was mass poverty that made it popular — people with nothing don’t tend to worry about having it taken off them. Denying this truth merely stokes the controversy, it doesn’t shut it down. And I’ve seen a lot of denial. Anyone who wants to continue the argument needs to remember that I live in the heartland of the Industrial Revolution and literally walk through living history every day on my way into work, which is near the site of the Peterloo Massacre. To deny the extent of the suffering of the working poor is to suggest that socialism arose because a German Jewish social justice warrior went out of his way to cause trouble among ingrates not content with their improving lot. That’s not what happened.
What it does
Socialism exists in many forms. It has never existed in a “pure form,” it has always had to take the push-and-pull of market forces into account. Therefore, even in regimes where all the main industries were owned and controlled by the state, there has always been a certain amount of private property ownership. The idea that socialism makes everybody poor is an utter falsehood. Privileged members of socialist societies, i.e. party members and particularly their leaders have always had access to the trappings of wealth. As in any other society, those not in a privileged position had to do without.
In general, socialism as an economic system and mode of production can be summarised by the following if I paraphrase the Capitalist theory from my last post:
- Production for usage and the benefit of the citizens of the state as the implicit purpose of all or most of production, constriction or elimination of production formerly carried out on a private commercial basis.
- Non-commodity production: Production for use as required by the state to allocate according to the needs of its citizens; to maximise use-value instead of exchange-value
- Public ownership of the means of production
- High levels of wage labour
- The investment of money for the benefit of the business, ultimately for the benefit of the state and its citizens
- Allocating resources according to need
- cooperation instead of competition
Basically, socialism is about allocating resources to people who need them with the aim of equitably sharing the wealth created by production. In a cooperative society, the restriction of resources and wealth to the most privileged, who then act as rentier/gatekeepers is minimised and the resources and wealth are redistributed. Restrictions on the amount of personal wealth via taxation keeps prevents inequitable accumulation. Wages are seen as an earned benefit so socialists generally tend to advocate keeping them as high as possible.
All of our modern social and civic advances are the result of socialism, which expanded the efforts of private enterprise and made them available to everyone. The NHS? Socialist. Our railway network? Socialist, with private companies running competing train services. Utilities infrastructure? Socialist, privatised in the 1980s. Telecoms infrastructure? Socialist. Motorways (if you’re American, that’s “freeway”)? Socialist. Package holidays for lower income-earners? Socialist from 1948–72. Emergency services used to be run by private enterprises for profit or charitable purposes; here in the UK most of them are tax-funded. State-run comprehensive schools are also a socialist initiative. This doesn’t mean that private enterprise can’t provide essential services to the public, it’s just that the provision thereof is limited by the resources available to them. Governments tend to have more money. Also, the absence of a profit motive tends to drive service for service’s sake rather than to make money so there’s less of the corner-cutting that occurs in private enterprises. Please note that charities are not a capitalist invention, though charities are often proposed by capitalist apologists as a viable means of providing essential services for the poor.
How socialism affects our society
Socialism pervades every aspect of our lives in Western countries. Our welfare states are a direct result of Bolshevik communism in the old USSR. State-sponsored infrastructure and tax-funded services are the result of our governments using socialist ideas to solve local and national problems. That some people see this as a problem is troubling; socialism is a system, and like any system it’s as good or bad as the people running it.
Providing for our essential needs
Socialist idealism, i.e. the welfare of the weakest, underpins the rationale of providing tax-funded and subsidised services even to those who can’t afford them. This is under attack as the public good is being conflated with this, so that any government action to benefit the public is seen as a socialist one in the most negative way possible by certain interest groups on the right. That concern for the public good is seen as a purely socialist sphere of interest is, quite frankly, a damning indictment of capitalist philosophy. Regulatory activity assures the quality of privately provided services for the most part but this can be overly burdensome. For example, it’s not always possible to provide access for the disabled to every building. When the cost of making a restaurant or retail outlet wheelchair friendly is more than a business can afford, it will go under.
Power without responsibility
The reason I’m not comfortable with the idea of a fully socialist society is that the Utopian ideal of voluntary cooperation the advocates promise us is betrayed in the way it plays out in practice. The truth about socialism in practice is that it’s coercive, authoritarian, and stifles individual endeavour unless it aligns with state or party goals. Socialists in Britain hate the Royal family; class is their boogeyman and they deploy it with the same gleeful abandon as American libertarians/anarcho-capitalists and neoliberals do when they talk about socialism. That class is not the actual problem is dismissed when pointed out to them — socialists have their own blind spots. Honestly, I don’t mind using them as leverage to get a better deal but I don’t want people who can’t or won’t accurately describe the world we live in running the country.
Involvement in enterprise
The impact of socialism on enterprise is not just via the reforms wrought by the unions. Socialist and socialism-inspired institutions such as schools and healthcare educate workers to prepare them for the job market and keep them healthy while they’re there.
In America, the majority of low-income earners typically move up the income ladder by improving themselves, not because of the minimum wage. Policies that increase competition and choice in public education, reduce marginal tax rates on capital and labor, and protect private property rights would be positive steps toward increasing economic freedom, workers’ dignity, and prosperity. — Minimum Wage Socialism, by James A. Dorn for the Cato Institute
If Mr. Dorn got his wish and all socialist influences were purged from government and industry, the economic freedom, etc., he speaks of would not occur. That workers have any degree of economic freedom, dignity, and prosperity is not due to benevolent employers assiduously tending to their needs (although I would be lying if I said that never happened), it’s due to socialist agitation via labour unions. The Voluntaryist ideal that underpins this philosophy is that people can move freely between employers on a level playing field. That’s not true. This is why the market value and actual value of labour relative to the revenues produced thereby differ more when there’s not a minimum wage in place than when there is. And since capitalism encourages mass immigration to keep wages down by increasing competition for jobs, good luck with negotiating a pay rise all by yourself without a union to back you up. Look at what happened to Talia Jane when she tried it.
Socialism can work for us, not against us
As I have already stated there is never been a purely socialist society; the nearest thing we ever had to one lasted less than a year. Despite the many failures of individuals and groups to establish a cooperative society based on public ownership of resources and the means of production, the movement lives on. People want to believe that there’s a better world than this one and those who don’t want to wait until after they’ve croaked it want to build it right here. They turn to an ideal in which our innocence is restored and everyone lives in a state of mutual satisfaction. This makes them vulnerable to manipulation by parties and factions that prey on their prejudices. If you tend to be suspicious of authority (which I admit I am) and you’ve had some bad experiences with a bureaucracy, you’re not going to be too keen on socialism. If, however, you’ve been exploited and mistreated in your workplace or didn’t have the opportunity to improve yourself and thereby climb the income ladder promised by the Cato Institute, you won’t be quite so keen on capitalism. So then, we’re presented with a binary choice: capitalism OR socialism. Individualism OR collectivism. Well who says we have to choose from those options when the truth is that neither of them exist in isolation? Socialism can be made to work for us, not against us, as an enabler of capitalism. By providing the infrastructure and essential services required by workers that they may better serve capitalist enterprises, the onus is taken off of business to provide social value to generate goodwill, which frees it up to do what it does best.
People need to stop presenting socialism and capitalism as a binary option in which we are obliged to choose between one or the other. The fact is that due to widespread malfeasance and a lack of consideration for workers if we didn’t have socialism we’d create it; capitalism created socialism because it demanded that workers be left to fend for themselves despite the fact that they had created (or allowed to persist) the problems workers faced, and it’s still not yet grown up enough to take responsibility for this. Reducing it to a binary choice and invoking boogeymen may cause people to polarise and pick a side but ultimately the people who suffer the most are going to work the hardest to effect change. The smart thing to do would be to pre-empt that by taking a proactive approach to public and workers’ welfare but I’m not holding my breath for that. Ultimately we need both capitalism and socialism. They can work together in a balance that ensures the individual’s ability to innovate and the workers’ right to a safe working environment and a wage they can actually live on. This will increase economic freedom, dignity, and prosperity for everyone, not just the ones at the top of the heap.