By definition, socialism is a society of free people. They cannot be compelled to do what they do not want to do, either by brute force or (as in capitalism) by threats to their livelihood. We have to assume that they will be sufficiently responsible and self-disciplined voluntarily to do whatever may be required to implement a democratically made decision, even if they disagree with that decision – unless, arguably, they have good reason to regard the decision as dangerously incompetent (if, say, a council has approved an unsafe design for a nuclear reactor). Otherwise, socialism will have to acquire effective means of compulsion, but then it will be socialism no longer. This is one reason why socialism has to be established by a majority of conscious socialists.
Recent left-wing writers on post-capitalist society, such as Richard Wolff advocate a ‘market socialism’ in which worker-owned firms still hire labour and compete with one another to sell commodities on the market. We argue that even if such a system were initially to differ in some ways from current forms of private or state capitalism it would inevitably degenerate into them. Our conception of socialism production is guided not by blind market processes but by decisions consciously and democratically made in the interests of the community as a whole. Exchange is replaced by distribution. The World Socialist Movement does not relegate this non-market system to the remote future of a ‘higher stage’ of the new society. It is to be established immediately upon the conquest of power by the working class.
Production in socialism will be for use not for profit and that its purpose will be to meet human needs. This the question of how to determine what human needs are. Ours is a simple answer to this question. Individuals will decide for themselves what goods they need. They will have free access to distribution centres where all desired goods are available in abundance. The advance of automation and robotics has made it technically possible to generate such abundance with a minimum of human labour. Elimination of the waste inherent in the money system will also play its part. A socialist society may for various reasons make a democratic decision not to produce certain things even if quite a number of people want them. The WSM says needs for specific kinds of goods will be met only after they have been ‘socially validated’ – that is, after all the possible negative, as well as positive consequences of their production and consumption for people and for the environment, have been assessed through the democratic institutions and procedures of socialist society. The needs of the community are to be determined socially and not just by aggregating the expressed needs of individuals. Although we propose a society of abundance, we do add a caveat that possibly by the time that socialism is established the humanity will have to deal with severe climatic, environmental and social disruptions and priority will have to be given to the tasks of coping with and gradually overcoming these dislocations. Efforts will be required to halt and reverse global heating, care for environmental refugees, and improve the living conditions of the world’s slum dwellers. Therefore, an abundance may not be immediately fully realized. For instance, the choice of crops to grow will have to depend not primarily on what people prefer to eat but on how susceptible their cultivation is to drought, floods, and other extreme weather events.
Decision-making in socialism consists of two elements. The first is the proceedings of elected councils at various levels, supplemented by procedures of direct democracy such as referenda. The second is the ‘requests’ or ‘orders’ that circulate within the network of production and distribution for material inputs required to maintain stocks of consumer goods at levels sufficient to meet individual needs. It is necessary for the division of tasks between the two elements and their mode of interaction to be clear and effective. For example, the councils could concentrate on major decisions concerning the overall pattern of production facilities and supporting infrastructure. In order to prevent overloading of their agendas, fraught with the risk of neglect of their proper function, they must avoid entanglement in detailed decision making – although they might issue guidelines to assist those responsible for making detailed decisions. Routine operational issues are better handled by direct consultation between workgroups. Provided that requests are reliably fulfilled, their circulation should achieve the desired result automatically.