by Leela Yellesetty
July 20, 2010
Part 1: A crying need for change
At the Socialism 2010 conference in Oakland, Calif., SocialistWorker.org contributor Leela Yellesetty spoke on “What Would Socialism Be Like?” This three-part article is based on her talk. In the first part, she answers the time-worn charge that socialism wouldn’t work with this question–who can say that capitalism is working?
I OFTEN think that one of the tremendous tricks of capitalism is getting us to accept an absurd state of affairs as normal–inevitable even. But to quote one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, “If you tilt your head just slightly, it’s ridiculous.”
To give just one example, the United Nations came out with a report a couple years ago–a study of global wealth that found the world’s richest 1 percent owned 40 percent of all wealth and the top 10 percent owned 85 percent. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 percent–half the world’s population–own barely 1 percent of all wealth.
“These levels of inequality are grotesque,” said Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam. “It is impossible to justify such vast wealth when 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. The good news is that redistribution would only have to be relatively small. Such are the vast assets of the rich that giving up a small part of their wealth could transform the lives of millions.”
This really gets to the heart of what is so crazy about capitalism–this gap between potential and reality. Take food production. There’s enough food produced in the world to make everyone fat, yet millions of people starve. The logic of the system is that the food must be destroyed rather than given away at a loss, or otherwise profits would suffer.
That’s why my first response whenever anyone says socialism will never work is to ask: Exactly on what planet is capitalism working?
But it’s not enough to hate the capitalist system. You need to believe a better world is possible.
Especially when things look really bad, like today, this is the last-resort argument of defenders of capitalism: Even if the system has problems, this is as good as it gets. I want to convince you that capitalism is not as good as it gets–and that a better world, a socialist world, is in fact possible, not to mention necessary if we want to survive as a species.
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THE MARXIST tradition has not had a whole lot to say about exactly what socialism will look like. Why?
It’s worth noting that Karl Marx was not the first socialist. As long as we’ve had class society, there have been people who dreamed of a better world, and the utopian socialists of Marx’s day not only dreamed, but came up with elaborate blueprints of what their wonderful future world would look like.
The utopians had a lot of good insights, but ultimately, there were limitations to their approach.
First of all, they were what philosophers would call “idealists”–meaning that they thought the key to changing the world was the right idea of what to do. The problem is that a future socialist society needs more than good ideas. It needs the natural and technological advances that make it possible to produce the necessities of life and all the other things that people need and want. And it needs an organized human force that can create a new society.
To their credit, many of the utopians realized that simply having a good idea wasn’t enough, so they tried to convince the wealthy to adopt their plans and commit themselves to constructing the socialist utopia. There was a problem with this, though–to the extent that these utopias involved helping out the poor and therefore cutting into the bottom line, the wealthy weren’t all that interested.
As much as many of them sympathized with working people, the utopian socialists saw workers mainly as victims, and not as people who could run society for themselves. Rather, an enlightened ruler or a technocratic elite who know what was best would have to rule on their behalf, at least until the masses could be properly educated.
Marx and Frederick Engels took issue with this idea. Even if we accept that it’s true that people need to be educated, he said we still have to ask: Who educates the educator? Rather than ideas developing in a vacuum in the minds of a few important individuals, Marx and Engels argued that people’s ideas are shaped by the material conditions of the society in which they live.
Put another way, as Marx once wrote, human beings “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” That is, you have to start with the reality of how society is organized to try and understand how change happens.
Marx himself didn’t come to his own ideas in a vacuum. He was living at the very beginnings of capitalism. That’s not something we’re often reminded of–how new capitalism is relative to human history. Not too long before, it was generally accepted that the king was anointed to rule by god, and the serfs did what they were told, and that’s just how it was.
Capitalism marked a tremendous advance over this preceding system of feudalism. Yet even in its infancy, the antagonism between the working class and capitalists was becoming apparent, leading to a wave of class struggle across Europe in 1848–just weeks after Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto was published.
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SO WHAT were the key insights that Marx and Engels put forward?
They were the first to find a material–not just a moral–basis for socialism. They maintained that capitalism produced, in the working class, its gravedigger–a class with both the interest and the ability to paralyze the system and create a new society, because the working class produces all the wealth that the capitalists siphon off.
Second, unlike all other classes in history, the working class has no interests apart from those of humanity as a whole. Unlike the bourgeois revolutions–like France’s revolution of 1789, for example–that replaced the rule of one minority class by the rule of another minority, a working class revolution would ultimately abolish class distinction altogether.
Last and crucially: It is in the process of becoming united and struggling against capitalism that the working class rids itself of what Marx called “the muck of ages”–that is, all the rotten ideas drilled into us by the existing system–and becomes fit to found society anew. For this very reason, the central premise for Marx from the beginning was that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. There is no other way for socialism to become a reality–if you agree with Marx’s definition.
Not everyone does, even if they claim to be following Marx. The debate between socialism from above vs. socialism from below has continued over the years in various forms. The Stalinists who came to rule over the former USSR said their regime was socialism–and there are socialists who believe that we only need to elect socialists into a majority in the government.
Against such advocates of socialism from above, the U.S. socialist Eugene Debs warned: “If I can lead you into the promised land, I can just as easily lead you back out again.”
Those who follow in Marx’s tradition believe that genuine socialism is first and foremost about worker’s democratic control of society. That means, like Marx, we don’t draw up detailed plans of what a socialist society would look like. After all, it will be up to the people who live in that society to figure out and decide democratically.
But while it would be silly to make detailed plans for how, for instance, the municipal water system would work under socialism, we can and should say some general things about what socialism would look like. Here are a few things that I think would be high on the list:
— We’d have real universal health care–that is, everyone gets health care for free. Period.
— We’d bail out homeowners instead of bankers. But why stop there? We could also take all the homeless people and put them in houses that are empty. It’s not rocket science: Just put the people in the houses.
— We’d stop throwing away food and get it to people who are hungry.
— We’d end all wars and use the money for education and social services.
— We’d devote massive resources and scientific research to saving the environment.
These are just a few steps a socialist society would take. They’re all quite simple to accomplish, using just a fraction of the wealth in the hands of the rich and the resources existing in society. For that matter, they’re not all that radical–most people already support them. Only under a sick system do they seem so impossible.
Another kind of society is possible. And the reason we can say this with certainty is a series of historical experiences of struggles and movements that have shown–if only for a brief time–what amazing things are possible when the working class runs the show. Those examples are the subject of the next part of this article.
Part 2: Workers power in action
July 21, 2010
At the Socialism 2010 conference in Oakland, Calif., SocialistWorker.org contributor Leela Yellesetty spoke on “What Would Socialism Be Like?” This three-part article is based on her talk. In the second part, she looks back at the historical examples of working-class struggle that provide a glimpse of a socialist future.
FOR KARL Marx, the heart of socialism was the vision of mass democracy and workers’ control over society. So the best way to see the potential of a future society is to look at the mass working class movements that have shaken capitalism in the past. These historical examples give a glimpse, if only a brief one, of what socialism will be like.
The first example for Marx himself was the Paris Commune of 1871. In the midst of a gruesome war between France and Germany, the working people of Paris, who successfully defended the city from attack, rebelled against the violence and privations caused by the war. The masses of Parisians instituted the Commune as the first workers’ government in history.
The Commune immediately implemented a series of unheard-of measures that included, among other things:
— Universal male suffrage, with all elected officials subject to immediate recall and paid no more than the average worker.
— All rents temporarily suspended, interest on all debts abolished, and the right established of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it was deserted by its owner.
— Separation of church and state.
In addition, the Commune was anti-imperialist–a red flag flew atop the capital and the Commune declared that this “flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic.” After being under siege by the German army for months, the Paris Commune nevertheless elected a German worker as its minister of labor.
Although women didn’t get the vote, the commune gave rise to a radical feminist movement. The Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Injured believed that the struggle for women’s rights could only be pursued through a global struggle against capitalism. Among other things it demanded gender equality, equal pay, the right of divorce for women, and secular and professional education for girls.
Marx was thrilled by the Commune and saw in it a vindication of his ideas. As he wrote in the Civil War in France:
The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce…They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it, that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.
The ruling classes of France, who had mostly fled the city, were terrified by the Commune, to say the least. When they first sent troops to try to retake Paris, the Communards convinced the soldiers to switch sides and shoot their officers instead.
In a final effort to defeat the rebellion of Paris, the old order of France joined forces with Germany–its mortal enemy in the Franco-Prussian War–to crush the Commune once and for all. What ensued was one of the most brutal episodes in history to put down the rebellion–in all, more than 30,000 people were killed and another 38,000 imprisoned.
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WHILE THE experience of the Commune was short-lived, there were many other inspiring examples of workers’ power to follow. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the most prominent, but there were a host of other revolutionary situations in the late 20th century. I can’t go through the details of all of them, but I did want to draw out some key patterns and lessons.
First of all, what strikes you is how rapidly people’s consciousness change, compared to how slowly it can move in normal times.
One of my favorite examples comes from the French May of 1968–one of the most inspiring events during the upheavals of the 1960s. The movement there started out with college students, eventually leading to mass student strikes and battles with the police. It ultimately spread to the factories until there was a general strike across Paris. As Joel Geier wrote in the International Socialist Review:
The strikes led to a dramatic rise in working-class confidence and consciousness. The first night of the occupation of the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt, the workers put up a large banner over the factory. It said, “For higher wages and better pensions.” The second day, they took it down, and they put up a new sign over the factory, which raised the traditional left-wing slogan, “For a Socialist Party-Communist Party-trade union government.” The third day, they took it down, and they put up another banner over the factory, and it said, “For workers’ control of production.”
In three days, they had gone from higher wages to we should be running the show.
Most of the time, as individuals, we’re powerless to control most things in our lives. This is often described as apathy, but it’s a pretty understandable response. Everything changes when people get a taste of their collective power. Suddenly, politics become relevant in a way they never were before.
Everyone should read John Reed’s book Ten Days that Shook the World to really get a sense of this spirit in the Russian Revolution. I love this passage:
All Russia was learning to read, and reading–politics, economics, history…In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper–sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets….
We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us, they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?”
This was a country that until recently had lived under a despotic monarch, where most of the population was illiterate and had almost zero control over their lives. But now they were in the driver’s seat.
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IT WAS in Russia that a new form of organization, called the soviet, or workers council, sprung up and eventually formed the basis of a workers’ government. The same kinds of councils have sprung up time and time again, in every revolutionary or near-revolutionary situation in history.
These councils made decisions about how to run their own particular workplace and elected delegates–immediately recallable, as in the Commune–to local, regional and national councils, which would coordinate overall how much of what to produce and how to distribute things.
It was a chaotic process, to be sure–but arguably less chaotic, and certainly less destructive, than the anarchy of the free market. Like Goldman Sachs making money off betting that the housing market would collapse–or whole countries for that matter. In fact, this system is a lot more complicated to manage precisely because it’s necessary to impose policies that only benefit a minority. A very elaborate apparatus, ranging from subtle means of control through the media to full-out coercive power through the police and the military–all of it exists to prevent us from objecting to the current state of affairs.
In contrast, the soviets in Russia were so successful precisely because they had not only the full confidence, but the direct participation of masses of ordinary people. As John Reed said of the soviets, “No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will has ever been invented.”
All this gives the lie to the popular idea that workers can’t run society. Even short of a revolutionary situation, there are countless examples to show that workers are perfectly capable not only of shutting down production, but also of running things for themselves.
One great example is chronicled in the book called Sin Patron, which tells the story of how workers began to reclaim abandoned factories and run them under cooperative control after the 2001 economic crash in Argentina. Here’s a description of a reclaimed ceramics factory:
The assembly established some rules for the cooperative. Showing up 15 minutes early and leaving work 15 minutes after officially getting off, for example, so the workers can get updated on the latest news. Moya tells about when “a co-worker who was stealing” had to be fired. On the other hand, “one compañero who had a drug addiction–we paid for his treatment and kept his job on hold for him.”
Each worker decides his or her own lunch hour. Moya says, “Everyone knows their responsibilities. Some rules may even be similar to the old company’s, but this is no boot camp.”…
What about the pace of production? Quiñimir, sipping on mate without stopping his department’s machines (moving ceramic pieces into the ovens) describes, “When we had an owner, I couldn’t talk the way we are right now. I couldn’t even stop for a couple of minutes. Now I work calmly, with my conscience as my guide, and without a boss yelling that we have to reach the oh-so-important objective. Back then, we ran very short oven cycles. It got down to 28 minutes, when the recommended time is 35 or more, as we do it today.
What’s the difference? “It was really easy to burn your hands and because of the speed of the machines. You couldn’t stop them to make adjustments. You had to fix them while they were running, which led to many accidents. You could easily lose two or three fingers.”
This could be taken to imply that things don’t move at the speed of the hyperactive capitalism of recent history. Nonetheless, the workers have increased production, profits and the workforce–from 240 when they took over the factory to 400 in 2004.”
Being from Seattle, I have to share one last example: The Seattle general strike of 1919. As Harvey O’Connor describes in his excellent book Revolution in Seattle:
The strike machinery was working a lot more efficiently than the most hopeful had expected. Thirty-five milk stations were functioning in the residential sections; 21 cafeterias were serving meals…hospitals were getting their linen and fuel…The organization of the strike and the ability for the working class to figure out how to shut the city down, but still provide vital services was incredible.
Another thing about the Seattle General Strike–the business press was up in arms that “Bolshevism” had come to Seattle, and all sorts of chaos and violence would break lose. In fact, the opposite was true. O’Connor writes:
A Labor War Veteran’s Guard was organized to keep the peace. On the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: “The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.” During the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers’ committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn’t seen so quiet and orderly a city.
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I WANT to look at the role of oppression in the fight for a better world. There is a common critique of socialists that we just say we have to wait until socialism and then racism, sexism and homophobia will magically disappear.
It’s true that only under socialism will it be possible to rid ourselves of all these forms of oppression once and for all, because the capitalist system constantly breeds them. But on the other hand, there’s no way we will ever see a successful socialist revolution unless we fight against these oppressions in the here and now.
Without explicit arguments and struggles against racism and for solidarity, right-wing anti-immigrant bashing can have an appeal for people–as we’re seeing right now with SB 1070 in Arizona. It’s one of the most time-honored and time-tested strategies used by the ruling class–to sow divisions between workers to keep us from blaming them.
On the flip side, these forms of oppression are dealt the most serious blows in the course of struggles that are gaining ground. When people discover the power of solidarity, prejudices that may have been held for a lifetime are suddenly called into question.
Nearly up until the revolution, Russia was a deeply anti-Semitic society, with a history of violent pogroms against Jews. But in the midst of the revolution, many Jews became popular leaders, including Leon Trotsky, who was elected head of the Petrograd soviet!
This isn’t to say that oppression went away just like that after the revolution. In fact, there was a widespread recognition among revolutionaries of the need to undertake a huge social reorganization to dismantle institutionalized oppression and pave the way for true liberation.
In Russia, the revolutionary government enacted legislation establishing full social and political equality for women. It became one of the first countries in the world to grant women the right to vote and hold public office; it established the right of divorce at the request of either partner, the principle of equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave for four months before and after childbirth, and child care at government expense. Abortion–viewed only as a health matter–was made legal in 1920, and women won the right to obtain free abortions in state hospitals.
The revolution repealed all laws criminalizing homosexuality. Consider this next to the fact that anti-sodomy laws were not completely struck down in the U.S. until 2003.
But legal equality wasn’t enough. The Bolshevik leadership forcefully argued that revolutionaries had a duty to struggle against oppressive attitudes that persisted. German socialist Clara Zetkin recalled lengthy discussions with Lenin where he said:
Very few husbands, not even the proletarians, think of how much they could lighten the burdens and worries of their wives, or relieve them entirely, if they lent a hand in this “women’s work”…Our Communist work among the masses of women, and our political work in general, involves considerable educational work among the men. We must root out the old slave-owner’s point of view, both in the party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks.
So while it’s true that in the course of a revolution, many things can change quite rapidly, it’s also true that a completely classless, oppression-free society can’t be built overnight. The reorganization of society takes time to change, but it’s also a process in which people educate themselves and rid themselves of the previous crap from capitalist society that will doubtless still haunt people like a bad hangover.
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NOW SOME people might object at this point that while it’s true the Russian Revolution brought some positive changes, at the end of the day, they got Stalin. Doesn’t that reinforce the notion that socialism is impossible–that you’re always going to have someone come along who is corrupt and wants to take power?
The problem with the standard morality tale about Russia is it leaves out the glaring fact that the country was decimated by years of the First World War, then the civil war against internal counterrevolutionary forces, which was aided by the intervention of 14 other countries. Just like with the Commune, the ruling classes of other countries could pause from fighting each other if it meant uniting to crush the threat of workers’ power.
By the end of this, Russia’s working class was decimated and starving. Even then, it took years for Stalin to ultimately consolidate his power–which accomplished only after killing or exiling every last leading Bolshevik who had taken part in the revolution.
From the outset, the leaders of the Russian Revolution knew that the only hope for survival was for the revolution to spread to more advanced countries. This wasn’t a ridiculous fantasy: the contagion of the Russian Revolution rippled throughout the world, inspiring by example workers as far as Seattle. There were near-revolutionary situations across Europe, and hopes hung particularly on Germany. But tragically, these revolutions didn’t succeed.
Isolated and in economic ruin, Russia could not sustain a socialist society. As Marcel Liebman points out, “The chief obstacle in the way of the plans for education reform was the general situation in a country where, while the government was publishing cheap books for the education of the masses, households were obliged to burn other books to keep themselves from freezing.”
Socialism is premised on abundance, and while worldwide, there is an abundance of resources to take care of everyone, it certainly wasn’t true in Russia alone at that time. You can call what happened in Russia the result of our bad human nature, but it’s the particular nature of human beings who are desperate and starving.
On the flip side, as American revolutionary leader James Cannon explained:
In the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one’s share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don’t keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden. If you have a guest, you don’t seize the first piece of meat for yourself, you pass the plate and ask him to help himself first.
Part 3: Dreaming of our future
July 22, 2010
At the Socialism 2010 conference in Oakland, Calif., SocialistWorker.org contributor Leela Yellesetty spoke on “What Would Socialism Be Like?” This three-part article is based on her talk. In the final part, she looks at the challenges that would face a socialist society–and the possibilities and resources for meeting them.
HERE, I want to change gears a bit. So far, I’ve dealt mainly with the historical experiences of the working-class movement and what they say about the future. But from here on out, I want to invite you all to do a little dreaming with me. I’ll start by sharing a great passage from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done, which the Russian revolutionary leader begins with the words: “We should dream!”
Lenin imagines the objections of other socialists: “[H]as a Marxist any right at all to dream, knowing that according to Marx, mankind always sets itself the tasks it can solve, and that tactics is a process of the growth of Party tasks, which grow together with the Party?”
He then responds by quoting the Russian radical Dimitri Pisarev about the “rift between dreams and reality”:
There are rifts and rifts. My dream may run ahead of the natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed. In the first case, my dream will not cause any harm; it may even support and augment the energy of the working men…
There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyze labor-power. On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to lend shape, then I cannot at all imagine what stimulus there would be to induce man to undertake and complete extensive and strenuous work in the sphere of art, science and practical endeavor…
The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life, then all is well.
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SO LET’S say we do have a successful revolution in this country, and it begins to spread to others. What will happen?
In the first instance, there will need to be a government and people’s army of some sort to defend the revolution from the remnants of the ruling class, who, as we’ve seen in past examples, will not give up their wealth and power without a fight.
Eventually, though, the point of a workers’ state is to work its way out of a job–because the role of any state is as a tool for one class to rule over others. The capitalist class, as a minority, needs a powerful state to keep down a much larger working class, on which it depends for its wealth and power. The working class, on the other hand, doesn’t need the capitalists at all. Ultimately, any type of workers’ state will eventually become unnecessary and begin to wither away.
The workers’ state can immediately begin implementing a series of measures that, step by step, abolish profits and the free market, replace them with conscious, democratic planning of the economy. Some of these changes I mentioned earlier–for example, taxing the rich and using the money to provide free health care, housing and education for all.
Socialism wouldn’t be able to get rid of money right away, but the banks could be nationalized and put under workers’ control–which, for the record, in case anyone is still confused about what we mean by socialism, is way different from giving billions of taxpayer dollars to Goldman Sachs.
Instead of bankers’ bonuses going for things like a diamond-encrusted SUV with a whale-penis leather interior–that’s for real, I saw it on TV–we could use the money to build, for instance, the best public transportation system the world has ever seen.
It might be fitting here to discuss the idea of private versus personal property. There are many scare stories about how “under socialism, the government will take away your toothbrush” or whatever. But when we socialists talk about collectivizing private property, we’re not talking about personal property, like your house or your television. What we mean are the means of production: factories, hospitals, schools, etc.–i.e., the kinds of property most of us don’t own, even though we may spend most of our lives working on that property and making the few people who own it very wealthy.
Now, there could be an exception for the personal property of the very richest people. Workers could decide, I think reasonably, that no one needs four yachts, for instance.
But for most of us, though, socialism will be about having more of everything, not less. Right away, the workday could be decreased dramatically–first off, just by leveling out all the people who are unemployed, with those working overtime or multiple jobs.
Also, we could get rid of whole industries that are completely useless in any real sense.
Prison construction–that would go. The vast majority of people behind bars are there for nonviolent crimes and should be released immediately. The motivation for most crimes today–poverty–will no longer exist. Some people will be in need of mental health treatment, but ultimately, I think there will be fewer of them, as society becomes less distorting of people’s humanity. For instance, not one more soldier will come back with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the short run, we may need to lock up some CEOs if they put up too much of a fight, but either way, we certainly don’t need any more jails than we already have.
Advertising is another big waste. How many people will be truly sorry to never see another commercial again? All those millions of dollars that go into convincing us that Coke is better than Pepsi, as if it were the most pressing issue facing humanity–think about how else those creative efforts could be spent.
Without the need to sell as much as possible to maximize profits, who gets produced and how it’s made will also change. There will be no incentive to intentionally build products that wear out and break quickly, like my fucking Dell laptop, or come up with 30 different types of toothpaste that do essentially the same thing.
These are just a few examples. And they’ll be all the more possible in a society where we have much more free time. Harvard economist Juliet Schor has concluded that it would be possible to have a 4-hour workday with no decline in the standard of living in a society that made sure every person had a job and that gave free reign to technological innovation.
Meanwhile, years before issues of climate change and peak oil grabbed public attention, economist J.W. Smith forecast: “We’re facing an ecological nightmare as we push to the brink the earth’s ability to support us. We could eliminate much industrial pollution and conserve our precious, dwindling resources by eliminating the 50 percent of industry that is producing nothing useful for society.” More recently, Smith examined the U.S. economy sector by sector and concluded, “We could all work 2.3 days per week with no drop in our living standard.”
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WHAT ALL this means is that in a socialist society, we would have time to focus on the things that really matter to us. We’d also have the time and energy to actively participate in making decisions about how society is run. The communications technology and corporate media that is now used primarily to sell things and perpetuate the ruling ideas of capitalism could be turned loose under public control to facilitate the most widespread and varied debate.
Then there’s the perennial objection: If we lived in a socialist society, who would do the shit jobs. Socialists will know this objection well–people ask us the famous question: Would you pay a doctor the same as a janitor?
First of all, under socialism, nobody would be forced to work a shit job their whole lives, which is what happens under capitalism. A lot of the most unpleasant tasks could be automated if making money wasn’t the highest priority dictating how technology is used. If we have the technical capability to send spaceships to Mars, surely we can invent a machine to take out the garbage.
Unlike under capitalism, where advances of technology often end up hurting workers–think of the automated checkout machines that have displaced grocery workers in many stores–under socialism, these advances could make everyone’s lives easier. And whatever work couldn’t be automated would be shared out, instead of being shoved onto the most desperate and vulnerable in society.
The second part of the answer to the objection to socialism goes to the question of motivation.
There’s a pervasive idea in our society that the only thing that motivates people to work is money, and that without a huge monetary reward, nobody would opt to be, say, a doctor–everyone would want the “easier” job of janitor.
But that’s ridiculous on so many levels. First of all, we should all be thankful that not all doctors are in it just for the money–I’d venture to guess that most have some interest in caring for people.
I also sometimes wonder at why janitors get so much less respect. After all, this is hard and often dangerous work. But beyond that, I once heard a presentation from a public health official who pointed out that public sanitation is one of the biggest public health innovations of all time. Arguably, garbage men save more lives every day than doctors–by stopping all sorts of people from ever getting sick in the first place. Yet like all work under capitalism, this particular job is valued based on the class and pay scale of the people who do it, not by the value it contributes to society.
I’ve been conducting an informal survey for years, asking people what they’d do if they weren’t forced to work all the time to survive. In all my years of doing this, I’ve never had anyone say, “I’d just like zone out in front of the TV all day, every day, for the rest of my life.”
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s something myself and millions of others feel like doing most nights. But that’s because we just got done working all day again at the same stupid job, and we’re exhausted and brain-dead.
In my opinion, nothing people do for their own personal enjoyment and fulfillment should be considered a waste of time. Certainly, we all deserve to take the time to just have fun and relax.
Even so, what strikes me from doing this informal survey is that a lot of what people would want to do for “fun” is actually very productive and creative for society as a whole.
Under capitalism, any time we have for leisure is considered, essentially, useless time. And yet, if it weren’t for this so-called wasted time, we would miss many great works of art and beautiful athletic feats and breakthrough innovations that nobody saw coming. Under capitalism, though, leisure time is mostly the preserve of select few. Under socialism, everyone will have the time and ability to develop themselves to their fullest creative potential.
My mother is a preschool teacher, and therefore a big defender of playtime. In fact, there’s actually a large amount of research on the importance of unstructured play for brain development in children. Playtime can promote important skills like problem-solving.
This got me thinking about a math class in elementary school that was only for supposedly “gifted” kids–in which all we did the whole time was play games! We were learning math and having fun at the same time, and I had to ask: Wouldn’t everyone learn better that way?
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IT’S ONE of the most astounding inventions of capitalism to take essentially human activities as learning and work, and make them so unbearable.
In his pamphlet on The Future Socialist Society, the British socialist John Molyneux described beautifully how the division between work and play, between manual and mental labor, will gradually break down. At that point:
Everyone will become both a producer and a planner of production. Everyone will have the time, the energy and the education to participate in the collective shaping of the environment–work which will require the fusion of artistic, scientific, technical and social knowledge, and that will be a collective, creative process.
In these conditions, work will become–in Marx’s words–“not only a means of life, but life’s prime want.” It will cease to be a wearisome necessity and become a positive pleasure–a means of individual and collective human expression.
One caricature of socialism is that it is all about conformity. But it’s capitalism that stifles human individuality and freedom of expression. Just look at the endless repetition of identical chain stores and fast-food restaurants all over the country. Look at how cruelly young people, in particular, are treated if they look or act even the slightest bit different. For LGBT youth, the consequences can be particularly dire.
Here, I’ll end with a kind of bittersweet thought. The reality is that even if we win a socialist world in our lifetime–and I really, really hope we do–our lives will be a million times better than they are now, but even that will pale in comparison to what future generations will get to experience.
Imagine growing up in a world in which you’ve never known war or exploitation or oppression, a world in which the needs of people and the planet come first. Imagine a world where people have never heard of a prison before–and can’t even get their head around the concept of it.
The possibilities in that kind of world would be endless–and beyond our wildest imagination. What we do know, though, is that’s a world worth fighting for, and I hope our generation goes down in the history books as the ones who made it happen.
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from the archives:
Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (must-see)
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