Thursday, September 01, 2016

Understanding socialism

Ever had that feeling that the world doesn´t work the way they say it should? It’s an insane world, a rat race. Everybody running around as fast as they can – produce, consume, produce, consume. It is a dog-eat-dog world. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening and deepening in different parts of the world, mainly due to social injustice. Some of us think we need a major change to another kind of society that prioritises collaboration instead of competition. We are here not to repair the system. We are here, instead to replace it. It is not our job to mend a broken system but to end it. The problem is not Clinton or Trump. Nor is it May or Corbyn. The problem is capitalism. There is only one revolution and it is to fight for all of the oppressed and exploited. Our country is the Earth. We are citizens of the world.

The issue of ‘socialism’ is surrounded by confusion. One of the reasons for that is that different people use the same word to mean different things. There are people for whom ‘socialism’ means the ‘communist’ dictatorships that used to exist in Russia and other countries. Under these regimes, everything was owned by the state and controlled by government officials. For other people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn ‘socialism’ means a series of reforms to make society fairer and more democratic—more like what exists in Scandinavia. Capitalists are expected to pay more taxes to finance a better welfare system and there will be stronger and more effective government regulation of their business activity. But there is no need to replace capitalism by a fundamentally different system. Some thinkers would now prefer to abandon the word 'socialism' and instead substitute another word for it that would save the ideal and concept once attached to the term. Even in the past, some writers employs what they considered synonyms – cooperative commonwealth or industrial democracy. An alternative word, however, would just have its meaning corrupted in the same manner as the old one. Changing the name would not solve any problem. The real need today is gaining an understanding of socialism rather than changing the word 'socialism.'

There are those who feel that socialism is a long way off and, in the meantime, propose immediate demands to solve the hardships and difficulties that we must face. They consider their policies as realistic and pragmatic thus advocate either palliatives such as either government legislation or even ownership as gradual steps to socialism. Some consider state capitalism (often called state socialism) as a form of socialism, if not socialism itself. Necessarily, these are efforts to administer capitalism. All this leads to mistaken ideas about the nature of socialism identifying it with capitalist relationships. The socialist objective no longer becomes the aim or goal to be pursued. The means becomes the end. And the attitude towards those who understand that the purpose of political activities must be associated with the socialist objective is to accuse them of being purists, sectarians or dogmatists. But the result of being freed from ‘theory’ and given free rein to practical politics has meant workers are bewildered by the deceptions and disappointments of the 'socialist' election 'victories' in all corners of the globe, disillusioned because of their false hopes in so-called socialist reforms.

However, there exists another tradition of socialist thought in which socialism means neither the reform of capitalism nor state ownership. It means social (or communal) ownership—that is, democratic control of the means of life by and for the whole of society (or the whole community). It also means production for use, not profit. Socialism is a worldwide society. The interconnected nature of today’s world makes it impossible to create a new society in a single country. Capitalism is a world system, so socialism too must be a world system. The aspiration of a socialist is to achieve a society from which exploitation will be banished and in which the unfolding of each individual would be the condition of the freedom of all. This is the basic idea of socialism which can serve as a rallying cry to muster support.

Socialism is a classless society is one in which the use of the means of production is controlled by all members of society on an equal basis, and not just by a section of them to the exclusion of the rest. For a society to be free of classes would mean that within society there would be no group (with the exception, perhaps, of temporary delegate bodies, freely elected by the community and subject always to recall) which would exercise, as a group, any special control over access to the instruments of production; and no group receiving, as a group, preferential treatment in distribution. Every member is in a position to take part, on equal terms with every other member, in deciding how the means of production should be used. Every member of society is socially equal, standing in exactly the same relationship to the means of production as every other member. Similarly, every member of society has access to the fruits of production on an equal footing. Once the use of the means of production is under the democratic control of all members of society, class ownership has been abolished. The means of production can still be said to belong to those who control and benefit from their use, in this case to the whole population organised on a democratic basis, and so to be 'commonly owned' by them.

 Common ownership is defined as a situation in which no person is excluded from the possibility of controlling, using and managing the means of production, distribution and consumption. Each member of society can acquire the capacity, that is to say, has the opportunity to realise a variety of goals, for example, to consume what they want, to use means of production for the purposes of socially necessary or unnecessary work, to administer production and distribution, to plan to allocate resources, and to make decisions about short term and long term collective goals. Common ownership, then, refers to every individual’s potential ability to benefit from the wealth of society and to participate in its running.

The use the word 'ownership' may be misleading in that this does not fully bring out the fact that the transfer to all members of society of the power to control the production of wealth makes the very concept of private property redundant. With common ownership, no one is excluded from the possibility of controlling or benefiting from the use of the means of production, so that with reference to them the concept of property in the sense of exclusive possession is meaningless: no one is excluded, there are no non-owners. We could talk of “no-ownership” and how the classless alternative society to capitalism is a 'no-ownership' society, but the same idea can be expressed without having to do this if common ownership is understood as being a social relationship and not a form of property ownership. This social relationship—equality between human beings with regard to the control of the use of the means of production—can equally accurately be described by the terms 'classless society' and 'democratic control' as by 'common ownership' since these three terms are only different ways of describing it from different angles. The use of the term 'common ownership' to refer to the basic social relationship of the alternative society to capitalism is not to be taken to imply therefore that common ownership of the means of production could exist without democratic control. Common ownership means democratic control means a classless society. When we refer to the society based on common ownership, generally we use the term “socialism”, though we have no objection to others using 'communism' since for us these terms mean exactly the same and are interchangeable.

Common ownership is not to be confused with state ownership (or nationalisation), since an organ of coercion, or state, has no place in socialism. A class society is a society with a state because sectional control over the means of production and the exclusion of the rest of the population cannot be asserted without coercion, and so without a special organ to exercise this coercion. On the other hand, a classless society is free of a state because such an organ of coercion becomes unnecessary as soon as all members of society stand in the same relationship with regard to the control of the use of the means of production. The existence of a state as an instrument of class political control and coercion is quite incompatible with the existence of the social relationship of common ownership. State ownership is a form of exclusive property ownership which implies a social relationship which is totally different from socialism. Common ownership is a social relationship of equality and democracy which makes the concept of property redundant because there are no longer any excluded non-owners. State ownership, on the other hand, presupposes the existence of a government machine, a legal system, armed forces and the other features of an institutionalised organ of coercion. State-owned means of production belong to an institution which confronts the members of society, coerces them and dominates them, both as individuals and as a collectivity. Under state ownership the answer to the question 'Who owns the means of production?' is not 'everybody' or 'nobody' as with common ownership; it is 'the state'. In other words, when a state owns the means of production, the members of society remain non-owners, excluded from control. Both legally and socially, the means of production belong not to them, but to the state, which stands as an independent power between them and the means of production.

The state is not an abstraction floating above society and its members; it is a social institution, and, as such, a group of human beings, a section of society, organised in a particular way. This is why, strictly speaking, we should have written above that the state confronts most members of society and excludes most of them from control of the means of production. For wherever there is a state, there is always a group of human beings who stand in a different relationship to it from most members of society: not as the dominated, nor as the excluded, but as the dominators and the excluders. Under state ownership, this group controls the use of the means of production to the exclusion of the other members of society. In this sense, it owns the means of production, whether or not this is formally and legally recognised.

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