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The case for socialism
“The alternative is socialism, a society based on workers collectively owning and controlling the wealth that their labor creates.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
You’ve seen the slogans at different protests: “people over profits”; “human need not corporate greed.” They reflect a basic realization among many people that there is something deeply wrong with the market-driven priorities of capitalism.
Take, for example, our private for-profit health care system. Devising ways to provide the least amount of care for the highest possible price is incompatible with providing good health care, and yet this is the logic that drives the health care system in the United States. It is a highly profitable industry that leaves millions with inadequate care. Obama’s Affordable Care Act was meant to fix this broken system, promising to make existing private insurance more affordable while at the same time making insurance mandatory under penalty of a fine. The result a big increase in the number of insured people (to the great glee of the insurance industry), without altering the fundamental problems with the system. For example, the lowest quality care under the ACA, the so-called “bronze-tier plan,” the one that poor people will be the likeliest to afford, offers only 60 percent coverage of medical costs and has a large deductible that requires people with very little money to still pay prohibitive out-of-pocket costs. The new system prohibits insurance companies from citing “preexisting” conditions to deny care, but ACA explicitly allows insurers to charge the elderly three times more than the young. Another way that insurers will keep out high-risk patients (i.e., people who need the most care) is by restricting drug formularies, dividing medicines into tiers, and requiring patients to pay as much as 50 percent of the cost per prescription. This guarantees that the chronically ill won’t enroll in their plans.
The almost 47 million people—one in seven people—who go hungry every year in the United States are not part of the food market because they cannot buy food. It is not simply that capitalism places more emphasis on profit than on meeting human needs, it’s that capitalism places no emphasis at all on meeting human needs—it simply does not factor into how capitalists make decision about production and distribution.
Certainly, capitalists know they must make something useful, i.e., that someone else wants to consume, in order to sell it for a profit. But the aim of the operation is profit. When agribusiness worries about a “grain glut,” it is not because everyone in the world now has enough food.
In fact, millions starve every year even during food “gluts,” because the glut has nothing to do with human need, but only with whether or not the food can be sold profitably. The 800 million starving people on the planet are an irrelevant factor for the food industry.
Now, imagine a society where the means of production are held in common, by free association, and where labor is expended and allocated according to a social plan. Instead of things being produced only if they can be sold profitably, they are produced because they are socially necessary, and their production and distribution is carried out according to a democratically worked-out plan.
Imagine a society where, instead of “overproduction” being a trigger for economic crisis, unemployment and bankruptcies, it merely offers an opportunity to reduce the hours that society spends making that particular thing. Imagine, moreover, that in this society, “overproduction” does not mean overproduction in terms of what can be sold profitably on the market, but in terms of what society needs.
Imagine a society in which all people take from society what they need, put in what they can, and where no one is satisfied until everyone has adequate food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care and so on—including those who through age or infirmity cannot contribute productively or care for themselves.
Such a society would still produce a surplus, but instead of that surplus going to a tiny minority as profit, that surplus would be allocated in ways to enhance the social and personal wellbeing of the whole society. Instead of relying on the blind forces of the market, which impose upon each capitalist the drive for profit as an external law of compulsion, we have a society in which all decision about production and distribution are thought out and consciously agreed upon.
Such a society would have no need for a special body to coerce the population—a state—on behalf of a minority exploiting class. Such a society would have no need to divide the population against itself—to pit men against women, whites against Blacks, and so on—in order to maintain the machinery of exploitation without hindrance.
That society is socialism.
Socialistic and communistic ideas have been dreamed about for centuries. In the 1400s, for example, the Taborites, a religious sect in Bohemia, preached a communism of shared consumption.
“In these days,” went a description of their teachings, “there shall be no king, ruler or subject on the earth, and all imposts and taxes shall cease; no one shall force another to do anything, for all shall be equal brothers and sisters...As in the town of Tabor there is no mine or thine, but all is held in common.”
A tract written in 1649 by Abiezer Coppe, a radical Ranter during the period of the English Revolution, intoned: “The ax is laid to the root of the tree...I will hew it down. And as I live, I will plague your Honor, Pomp, Greatness, Superfluity, and confound it into parity, equality [and] community.”
Later, as industrial capitalism began to develop, there arose socialists who criticized the evils of this new system, but could not offer a bridge from this society to one based on their socialist vision. The could criticize capitalism as being bad, but by way of an alternative could only offer blueprints for a better world.
The modern socialist movement, whose first theorists were Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, saw itself as part of this tradition, with an important difference. For Marx and Engels, “socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes—the proletariat [working class] and the bourgeoisie.”
The overthrow of capitalism, with its “crying contrasts of want and luxury, starvation and surfeit,” cannot be guaranteed simply by the “consciousness that this mode of distribution is unjust, and that justice must eventually triumph,” wrote Engels in his classic book Anti-Duhring.
Socialism is possible as it never was before because in addition to the knowledge that equality and freedom is just, capitalism has created the material conditions, that is, the material abundance, and social forces necessary to effect a change in that direction. The modern call for the abolition of class antagonisms has behind it the development by capitalism itself of untold wealth, its competitive tendency which pushes it to ramp up human productivity and leads to the greater and greater socialization of production; and finally, the creation of a class of wage workers who have the concentrated power to challenge their class oppression.
Engels sums up the reason that socialist ideas began really to take hold most strongly in the period of the rise of modern capitalism:
The reason is that modern large-scale industry has called into being on the one hand a proletariat, a class which for the first time in history can demand the abolition, not of this or that particular class organization, or of this or that particular class privilege, but of classes themselves, and which is in such a position that it must carry through this demand on pain of sinking to the level of the Chinese coolie.
On the other hand, this same large-scale industry has brought into being, in the bourgeoisie, a class which has the monopoly of all the instruments of production and means of subsistence, but which in each speculative boom period and in each crash that follows it proves that it has become incapable of any longer controlling the productive forces, which have grown beyond its power, a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety valve the driver is too weak to open.
In other words, the reason is that both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself, and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.
On this tangible, material fact, which is impressing itself in a more or less clear form, but with insuperable necessity, on the minds of the exploited proletarians—on this fact, and not on the conceptions of justice and injustice held by any armchair philosopher, is modern socialism’s confidence in victory founded.