Socialism as a Practical Alternative

A talk given at the Community Church of Boston on May 11, 2014
(with minor edits for context)

Since the keyword in the title of my talk is “practical,” I’d like to kick things off with a little thought experiment. Could anyone suggest some practical things President Obama might do in regard to the Ukrainian crisis? Just some simple ideas, nothing complicated.

[Write down suggestions, taking a couple of minutes, and have a short discussion. Leading out of the discussion:]

Now let me ask you this: if a plan is “practical,” does that mean that it is supposed to kill or injure people, or supposed to make them unhappy? The Nazis might have answered yes, as long as we were talking about non-Aryans. But however we might set about hurting people, a practical goal should not include that purpose. Otherwise, it is not a desirable goal and isn’t really even practical.

It boils down to a question of ends vs. means: how we carry out a purpose is not affected by the end we have in mind, yet we can’t justify calling plans for, say, a pogrom “practical” in nature. The word “practical” refers implicitly to a positive goal. Using it has the effect of justifying the purpose it serves. If the end is not rational, our common sense balks at the thought of calling the means “practical.” Don Quixote had Sancho Panza carry out many such plans.

So, from the perspective of what is good for people, can anything Obama does about the Ukraine be “practical”? Your suggestions were good ones, but what they amount to is an admission that capitalism is an insanely impractical system of society, because whatever good things it can make happen, all of them in some form or other rest on killing or injuring people or making them unhappy. Government presupposes defending the interests of the ruling class, and we don’t need to have read Machiavelli to understand that making or promoting war is top on the list of things which are bad for people, that governments are expressly designed to carry out.

Bad, that is, except for members of the capitalist ruling class! And even then, when capitalists fall out, they often treat each other like rival thugs. Wars, in fact, are little more than highly organized gang fights. Which is what Clausewitz meant by calling them “politics by other means.”

Practical — and practical!

So what is practical, then? Can a system that is bad for people ever really be practical? Let’s say only that any social and economic order whose fundamental principles don’t tangle society up in complicated ways of living is practical. Who wouldn’t laugh, for example, to hear me speak of “capitalism as a practical alternative”? What isn’t complicated about capitalism? If you know anything about money, it certainly doesn’t simplify your life. No ticket, no laundry. Is that a simple way to live? On a more sinister level: no profit, no production. Even so, we might think of capitalism as the least complicated of all the social orders divided into economic classes.

I would like to share with you, in contrast, a definition of “socialism” as a worldwide system of community economies operated and controlled locally by community members directly for the benefit of all. Socialism does not include businesses owning stocks of capital and forcing those whom they exploit into a straightjacket of employment fused with poverty that you might be able to buy your way out of. The new paradigm will be: no wages, no capital, no money — and no states.

Yes, you heard that right: along with money and capital, what we now know as national boundaries will also disappear. The nation-state was a bourgeois invention, and it will stop working the moment we abolish employment. Everything that evolved into the state will depart with it, just like the trillions of dollars that might evaporate in a stock market crisis.

The New Practical sure won’t be boring.

Now, you may be wondering what I plan to say about how we “get there.” Well, I can’t tell you anything about that. The truth is, we already are there: enough of us just haven’t woken up to realize it yet. But I’ll cover this point a little further on.

Any system that preserves two key components of capitalism — capital and wages — therefore cannot be simple or practical. Trying to mix economic systems is like driving a car in both forward and reverse at the same time. (I don’t recommend it.) Cars aren’t made that way, and neither is the real world. Capitalism in that respect is the “unreal world” par excellence, as T.S. Eliot reminds us in “The Waste Land”:

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Is Socialism “practical”? 

Since what I am here calling socialism is the only really possible antithesis to the use of capital and wages in sustaining communities, only socialism can give us a practical social order that works for everyone in the world, and world socialism can only be practical.

The title of this talk really ought to be “Socialism as the Practical Alternative.” Let me now paint you a picture of how we humans could organize our planet if we would only make that essential preliminary break with the models handed down to us as if they were the Ten Commandments — and actually think for ourselves about what real communities made up of real people really need. No experts, no authorities, no power brokers or leaders can do this for us. This is truly the practical way to go if we want to make full use of our human intelligence. And with the advent of global heating and its threat to our survival, we will sure need to keep our wits about us.

To make all that possible, we first have to take that “impractical” leap in our own minds of rejecting employment and profit as a way of life, together with the notion that merely reforming a bad system can ever amount to a real change for everyone. Whoever feels this way is already part of the “socialist movement,” and when a majority of people do feel this way, we will witness the sudden global punctuation of the socialist revolution, with the first fledgling socialist economies sprouting up everywhere in the wake of national political revolutions.

One very important thing to remember is this: socialist society will lack any universal means of coercing its members, so that administrative bodies will not have the power to force compliance the way governments from time immemorial have done. Resolving disputes will revert to the community at large, as it occurred before homo sapiens invented the state. Socialist revolution won’t have to abolish the state because the power of the state grows out of the power of the capitalist class over the rest of society. All that needs to be abolished directly is capitalism’s system of employment (or the “wages system,” as it is more traditionally called).

The day after tomorrow

It is the power to force people to work for a living that gives the capitalist class its economic and political power; the former working class, by granting themselves the right to access whatever resources meet their needs, will establish everyone’s independence of all employers throughout society in all countries of the world.

The radical rhetoric of the past used to bill this as the “overthrow of capitalism.” We can, more prosaically, peer into the future enough to predict some of the consequences in their broad outlines.

Since no one will be available for employment, all further accumulation of capital will come to a halt; and since the need for money will have been abolished along with wages and salaries, every institution of capitalist society will be deprived of the ability to carry out its mission, by the vote of the people. Whole industries devoted to supporting or enforcing the rule of capital will from then on cease to have a function: banks, armed forces, police, insurance companies, stock exchanges, prisons and so on. Money no one has any need for has no value, and so the wealthy and the powerful will be unable to spend their money on anything, and their efforts to capitalize on their authority and prestige will fall on deaf ears.

Money itself will go out of fashion. Barter, without a ceiling of enforceable contracts, will devolve back into mutual gifting — a very ancient human institution. Without capital to patronize them, the police will not be able to lock anyone up. (Modern police forces were also a bourgeois invention. They exist chiefly to enforce the interests of capital.) No one will have to work to get money, so the day after the revolution, you can be sure restaurants and every other commercial establishment will start to undergo a dizzying radical transformation.

People who formerly drudged away as flunkies for some business will show up in droves to work gratis for the community, as an act of service. They will jump at the chance to do something that really matters — or that they really enjoy. Occupations that don’t measure up will accept the judgment of history and just expire. Many people will not show up for work at all; the much smaller number of people actually required to meet everyone’s needs will allow plenty of room for “slackers.” Getting stuck with stupid or dirty work will become the stuff of conversation, research and invention.

Free your mind instead! 

It bears emphasizing none of this will happen unless most people have already become socialists in their heads and have come to realize that they must act in concert, if only for the space of an election, to criminalize working for a living. No socialists, no revolution! For this reason, during the run-up to the socialist revolution, the main activity of socialists must be to make more socialists, until the trip-wire of a conscious, political majority bent on ending the employment system finally makes its appearance.

Once the socialist majority has deliberately and politically abolished wages, responsibility for meeting people’s needs of all kinds will thenceforward fall on the communities they belong to, from the local level on up to what we historically call the “international.” Taking out of the picture government’s power to coerce society, along with the need for money, thus means that currencies and taxation will cease to be functional possibilities, and so the whole bloody edifice of war and diplomacy based on national frontiers will terminate without a shot being fired.

What defines a “community” in the absence of nation-states? We cannot answer this question from our present vantage point. Having been dominated by nation-states and their predecessors for so long, humans have lost the organic sense of community we are all born with; we will have to reinvent it on a global scale. Try to imagine, for example, a city, county or state operating without revenues: I doubt if we have models for that! My own conception of it can be described as building a “community of communities,” but however we think of it, it won’t be able to avoid taking as its point of departure the existing “realities” we now experience in a distorted way under capitalism.

Remember, we are talking about the problems people will unavoidably have to solve after they have abolished wages, capital and all the rest. Boundaries between communities will therefore depend on the spectrum of needs that people have inherited from capitalist “prehistory” as they move to regroup entire economies around the goal of meeting local needs. Disparities of rich and poor will quickly give way to free access to resources across the boundaries inherited from capitalism.

One of the many lesser repercussions of the changeover to free access, for example, would very likely become obvious in short order. If, after the Revolution, local populations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere cancel the export of their local resources (food), in an effort to meet their own needs, will this cause a retraction of consumption in the more developed regions? That isn’t inconceivable, in the short run. However, instead of just letting things go by inertia, the shortfall could be remedied by a reinstatement of mutual swaps (not trading arrangements!) or an expansion of travel between regions. If the mountain can no longer be brought magically to Muhammad, then Muhammad can at least go to the mountain himself. (At the end of this article, the reader can find extracts from the pamphlet, Socialism as a Practical Alternative.)

Concluding thoughts 

If all this strikes you as “impractical,” ask yourself how practical it is to have invented a system that features such glories as economic downturns (depressions, or “recessions” in current jargon), wars and prisons. The oh-so-practical Yankees have traded on everything from alcohol to slaves to world war — and now they are trading on mass extinctions, including our own — and yet capitalism’s supporters think these can all be encompassed in the word “practical”! A world without wages, money, poverty and war would never work: it’s just not practical. Making a total mess of our lonely planet for the sake of profit — now that’s practical.

Ask yourself too if Adam Smith was really being all that practical in The Wealth of Nations, where he wrote about an economic system that as yet had still not proven itself. (That would not begin to happen until the 1840s.) Smith was an advocate of a theory who could not see how his basic assumptions could be wrong. In the 21st Century we know from experience how flawed his assumptions were; unfortunately, the die has been cast and we are no longer able to extricate ourselves from their consequences. For the sake of our own human survival, we now have no choice but to set aside Adam Smith’s beloved capitalism, and with it the whole world of networked evils that we humans find ourselves presently engulfed in.

When we do that, we will discover we have finally set ourselves free.

— Ron Elbert

Selected extracts from the pamphlet, Socialism as a Practical Alternative (Reprinted 1999 by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN)

Chapter 3, Democratic decision-making 

The FAO already functions as a specialized agency of the UN and could operate in association with a world council in socialism.

It is organized in 147 countries and has 4,000 planners and technicians drawn from all over the world. It produces scientific papers which bring together research material from many different countries, maintains a library of knowledge on food, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, nutrition, conservation, the environmentally safe control of pests and diseases, etc., and has published a census of world agricultural resources.

Other examples of world specialist bodies which could continue to operate in socialism in adapted forms are the International Telecommunications Union, the Universal Postal Union, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, UNESCO and the World Health Organization. Specialist world bodies could also monitor the reserves and uses of finite materials, the control and use of space and environmental problems in general.

Chapter 4 Organization of production for use

Production for use will begin with co-operation between producers and end with the direct supply of goods to the members of the community for whose needs they have been produced. Only socialism can be a practical system for the production and distribution of goods directly for consumption.

[“Modern communications”] traditionally meant means of transport such as roads, railways shipping and, later, air transport. These were assisted by the development of postal and telephone services. Now electronic communications through satellite links provide for instant world-wide contacts, and computers enable millions of bits of information to be stored and processed.

Production for use without the market would also solve the seemingly perennial problem of economic instability. Because the forces of the market govern capitalist production, it moves through uncontrolled cycles of expansion and contraction.

Chapter 5 Planning and development

We must extend health services, education facilities, and further develop communications of every kind. For this to work, socialism would begin with a structure of production which is distorted by waste and the arms race, and is inadequate for all the real needs of the community.

A world planning office, assisted by specialist world bodies, could present proposals for such inter-regional co-operation, through a world council. A world council would be comprised of delegates from every region, and would also have direct links with every kind of regional organization.

Chapter 6 Eliminating the waste of capitalism

There are many other examples of employments [in banking, insurance and finance] which are necessary for the profit system, but which would be immediately redundant in a socialist society — legal workers, chartered accountants, cost accountants, estimators, valuers, claims assessors, underwriters, brokers, taxation workers, marketing and sales personnel, advertisers, social security workers, cashiers and check-out assistants, police, prison workers, security guards, charities, armies, navies, air forces, armament workers, defense establishments, etc.

The armed forces in particular waste vast resources. They use millions of people, and divert the most advanced techniques of applied science. On a world scale, tens of million of people are involved in the war machine.

We can estimate that, with the elimination of all of capitalism’s wasted labor and materials, socialism will probably be able to at least double the numbers of people available for the production of useful goods and services directly for need.

Chapter 7 Choice of productive methods

…under capitalism work takes the form of employment and … this is a means to an economic end — profit and capital accumulation … Capitalism is not primarily a system for producing and distributing necessary goods and services … [It] is governed by economic laws which cannot be socially controlled.

…production is organized in relation to market capacity and at all times under capitalism the capacities of markets to absorb goods for sale are less than the potential ability of society to produce and distribute useful goods … The powers of production which exist are not fully used.

Within the freedom of work carried on in cooperation directly for needs, socialism could set up automated systems handling materials through sequences of production and minimizing the direct application of labor to the materials involved.

…With the increased number of people who would become available for useful production and the wide spectrum of skills which they possess … the setting up of these systems could be rapid and entirely free from the constraints of profit … Their intensity and duration of use will be unconstrained by the limits of market capacity … Such standardized means of production could be put into operation in the most efficient way throughout the world structure of production … Throughout this structure social needs could be immediately communicated [and] it would be the experience of every participant that their every action would be directly in line with mutual needs … It can be seen that socialism could release enormously increased powers of production.

…socialism would be unlikely to use methods like conveyor belt systems which reduce workers to mechanical functions as a way of maximizing output. This cannot satisfy the need for work as a fulfilling activity.

Chapter 8 Conserving resources

…conservation production would mean that once materials became socially available after extraction and processing, they would be permanently available for use in one form or another.

What is meant by production for needs? It should be commonly agreed that society should provide for all its members enough good quality food, clothing, housing, piped clean water, sanitation, energy for eating, lighting and cooking facilities, health services and education facilities, entertainment, communications, means of travel and recreation.

If this is accepted then the first task of socialism would be to apply its productive capacity for the supply of these materials goods and services to every member of the world community. This would involve a rapid expansion of useful production achieved through a definite strategy of development.

We would not follow the example of capitalism where life’s objectives are focused on the acquisition and consumption of material things … The concept of needs will no longer be based on the idea that increased happiness comes with increased consumption and possessions. Such an illusion, expressing the values of a market society fraught with insecurity, will give way to a responsible self-determined appraisal of needs which will reflect the sense of security and belonging inherent in a socialist society.

Chapter 9 Cooperation

In socialism … cooperation … will bring work under the democratic control of those who carry it out. It will be the self-determined activity of individuals, responding to the needs of the community of which they form a part and having responsibility and the real power of decision making and action.

Modern production is world production. The life of every individual is affected by the ways in which modern production uses particular production methods. More than this, the quality of life may be expanded by variety, made possible by world contact.

Involvement of the individual with the wider world community … requires more than technique. It requires a social basis which can provide the individual with responsibility and the real power of decision-making and action in co-operation.

Chapter 10 Conclusion

Central to this disillusion [springing from capitalism’s failure to solve its problems] has been the mistaken idea that the nature of the present system can be changed by reformism of one kind or another, or by state control … Far from being able to control capitalism, all governments have found themselves dancing to the tune played by economic forces. The futility of reformism … is also demonstrated by the practical failure of reform policies. No government has succeeded in controlling the economy or the market system for the benefit of the whole community.

These relations of production, the relations of wage labor and capital, can only be removed from the structure by a democratic majority of socialists undertaking a single, conscious political act, the enactment of the common ownership of the means of living … A society organized as a result of conscious democratic control can only be established by conscious democratic means.

There is no way to “improve” capitalism except to work for socialism and the growth of the socialist movement. Any addition of new members to the existing socialist parties carries with it political implications of the most far reaching revolutionary nature.

— Ron Elbert

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