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What will socialism look like?

Anton Cu Unjieng

November 7, 2014

The richest 8.4 per cent own more than 83 per cent of the world's wealth. This does not exactly mean that they own 83 per cent of the world's things, because we measure wealth not in things, but in money. They don't own the atmosphere, but that doesn't stop them from choking it in smoke. They don't own all the forests (just yet), but that doesn't stop them from destroying them.
To say that the richest 8 per cent own 83 per cent of the world's wealth is to say that they own 83 per cent of the value of things that have already been assigned a value, that have already been commodified and monetized. Nature is a "free gift" to the capitalist accounts: money is an expression of value, that is to say of labour time. To the extent that capitalist's measure their wealth in money, they are measuring the amount of our labour that they have appropriated. In other words, if capitalists own, say, 83 per cent of the world's wealth, that means that 83 per cent of all working hours have gone towards enriching the world's wealthiest 8.4 per cent – just 393 million people. To put that in perspective, the rest of the population (just under 7 billion people) is supported by just 17 per cent of all labour. (This does not account for the "free labour" done at home, mainly by women.)
The question “what would socialism look like?” is first and foremost a question of what might be done if that tremendous productive energy were redirected for the benefit of humanity in general rather than for this tiny minority. The only way to avoid utopianism is to treat socialism as emerging from capitalism itself and the characteristics it forces upon those who struggle against it.
How is society organized?
The richest 8.4 per cent own 83 per cent of the wealth. But the rest of us don't just build their houses and catch their caviar. We also build the factories, the equipment, mine the coal, dig the wells, etc. We not only work the means of production, we also produce the means of production. We produce them, the bosses own them. Which, supposedly, is what gives them the right to the things we produce using the machines that we also produced. Private property in the means of production also means private property in the products themselves: the bosses have the "right" to sell them, dump them, or hoard them just as they please. These are what Marxists refer to as the “social relations of production” under capitalism.
Engels argued “that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; ... in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.” In other words, that the relations of production play a strongly determining role in the shape and structure of society. To change society, therefore, necessarily means changing the social relations of production.
The relations of production under capitalism means that we are forced to spend the majority of our waking hours working for bosses we dislike in jobs that we hate. Fairly often we work to produce, move, or sell shit that we don't even want. But we do it to get paid a wage so that we can buy things we need: food, clothes, entertainment, etc. Often enough these things are shit too, but we learn to get by. But we “get by” as private consumers. Of course, because the things we need are not part of the general wealth of society, we acquire them as private individuals from other private individuals. And as such, we are privately responsible for becoming successful private consumers. As Margaret Thatcher famously claimed, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”
The result is a society more atomized—more anti-social—than any other historical formation. One of the results of this, historically, is a fairly strict division of labour within families. Women work outside the home and also do most of the work raising the kids, cooking and cleaning and in generally working to reproduce not only the labour power of the next generation, but also that of the current one embodied in their spouse (the primary bread winner). The effectiveness of this set-up is maximized if a norm of heterosexuality is enforced.
Forms of oppression—like sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, racism, abelism—all in one way or another, allow the ruling class to exploit this or that section more than the average, to pay the oppressed poorer wages, in worse working environments, perhaps ghettoise them in the worst parts of the cities, places where the ruling class can pollute or dump with greater impunity. But these ideologies also set worker against worker, one section of the oppressed against another, one section of the exploited against another. The goal that we should set ourselves is full human liberation, a world free of oppression.
Capitalism constantly produces oppression, so a different society offers at least the possibility for such ideologies along with the structures and institutions that enforce them to at last be completely dismantled. But if people are as bigoted and debased as all that, how can we ever make a better society? As Marx pointed out ages ago: “for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of (people) on a mass scale is, necessary.”
The question, therefore, is: how is this transformation to take place? The Marxist answer to this is that the struggle for a better world itself transforms people. Active struggle against oppression creates the best opportunities for the development of solidarity. Radicalization and anti-oppression sentiments are contagious. Here in Canada, the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty has immediately been involved with struggles for environmental justice, the social position of women, especially Indigenous women, and even how we should relate to migrant labourers. Perhaps the greatest period of radicalization in living memory—the late 60s—involved struggles against racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, and gave birth to the gay liberation movement; as well as lines of solidarity forged between all of these. Consider the Black Panther Party, a group which when it first started was notorious for its sexism and homophobia but which ended with women's liberation and anti-homophobia as basic principles.
There are several pressures which lead to the development of this kind of consciousness. The most basic is that when one group of people struggle against their oppression, it can inspire other groups to do the same. More importantly, almost every form of oppression intersects with others. Just as black oppression necessarily includes the oppression of black women, or black queer people, so the struggle against black oppression needs to mobilize more than just straight black men. The mobilization of the black community was also the occasion for an internal development in which black women and queers demanded to be recognized and won their right to participate in the struggle. The success of this internal struggle was a necessity for the movement as a whole—which could not possibly have won anything if it had excluded the majority of the black community.
Working class
There is only one social position whose struggles are expansive enough to include the struggles of people of colour, of women, queer people, the disabled, etc. and that is the working class. The working class is divided by these bigotries—and the division helps the capitalist class maintain their rule. The working class therefore must overcome these divisions in order to win anything. The working class contains much more than just straight, white, cis- dudebros. It includes all those doubly oppressed by capitalist bigotry. The struggles of the class are therefore subject to the same pressures which were so transformative for the Black Panther Party. This is why the struggle for the economic emancipation of the working class is coterminous with the struggle for human liberation generally. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”
More importantly: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of (people) on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” So the struggle for socialism lays the basis for a world free of bigotry and oppression.
But what about economic emancipation, what does that mean?
Division of labour
Once again, to get a glimpse of what such a world would look like, we have to first look at capitalism. Any society that is sufficiently complex will involve certain divisions of labour—simply because we can't all be doing everything all of the time. At any given moment, somebody has to be producing crops, somebody has to be preparing food, writing songs, designing buildings, constructing them, somebody has to be minding the children, etc.
As Marx wrote, under capitalism, “each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
But there is one division of labour which exists only in class societies. In class societies one group of people produce the goods while another class—the ruling class—administers over the production process. The ruling class decides how we work, what we produce and how surpluses are invested. On the side of the producers, capitalism has socialized the labour process to an unprecedented degree. The production of goods actually involves a staggering degree of cooperation and coordination. What that means is that production comes to include greater and greater interconnectedness and dependencies within the whole of society. Contrary to the opinion of Margaret Thatcher, capitalism is unique in that it has drawn the majority of the species into a single massive, interdependent society. Nevertheless, because the working class produces and the ruling class oversees, workers do not have a good view of the total production process.
From the perspective of overseeing that production, on the other hand, the capitalist class, which, together with its managerial assistants, is meant to oversee the administration of this great division of labour has next to no understanding of the actual concrete requirements of the labour process, and, because of competition, conspires to horde information, actively preventing itself as a class from fully accessing the knowledge which is really available to it. In fact, because there is very little centralized planning and companies (largely) confront each other as hostile competitors, the precise nature of the social relations that make up “the economy” is inherently mysterious. The resulting chaos is what is typically referred to as the “genius of the market.”
Capitalist waste
Such corporate secrecy and competition are the stock and trade of capitalism. Imagine the world we might live in if pharmaceutical companies pooled their research and data together rather than hid it behind copyright and intellectual property laws. Imagine how much could be saved if food producers weren't all trying to swipe market share from one another, but were instead coordinating rationally to produce the best food in the amounts that were actually needed. We moan a lot about food wasted at homes or restaurants—that  is by private consumers—but the vast majority of food is wasted because too much is produced to be sold in the first place. Too much is produced to be profitably sold, but people go hungry.
The ideologues of the ruling class like to tell us that the market is the most efficient form of economic coordination. In fact capitalism is the most wasteful society in history. Not only in the terms of the staggering amounts of stuff it produces that never gets consumed, but also in terms of the staggering amount of resources thrown at stupid bullshit like war, paying CEOs, the elaborate and bloated system of brutal repression that keeps us all in our place, and Jersey Shore. Think about how much money is spent “rationalizing” production—that is, in forcing workers to labour at the maximum pace, like robots or machines. Think about how much research goes into this kind of “managerial science,” how much “consultants” are paid to “restructure” workplaces—maximizing the output of single factories, throwing workers out of jobs, sucking the joy out of labour from those who keep their jobs—all for what? So that companies like McDonalds can turn a massive profit on a filet-o-fish while paying their workers starvation wages. They tell us that they need to exploit us so heavily to keep the economy running—but they cannot even keep that promise. No ruling class in the developed world has been as successful in keeping wages down than the American ruling class—and that did not stop the recession in 2008, and it hasn't prevented the current “recovery” from being the slowest and shallowest since the second world war.
In place of this conspiracy of chaos, socialism offers rational, democratic planning. In the place of the sham democracy offered by capitalism which maintains the dictatorship of the bosses over all of the most vital aspects, socialism demands the complete democratization of social production. To the problem of homelessness, socialists propose a radical solution: allow the homeless access to the homes. How many people lost their job while factories stood idle and raw materials were dumped or allowed to rust? Another “extremist” solution: open the factories, let the workers in. Let them make the things that people need, let the people who need them acquire them.
A child would think this obvious, but to capitalism, if a profit cannot be made then let people and materials just rot. A capitalist enterprise is like a family with an abusive and dictatorial patriarch forcing everyone else to do his bidding. We should do to the bosses what we should do to abusive husbands or fathers: kick ‘em to the curb, and organize our lives with love and practical cooperation.
One of the reasons that the working class is in a position to wage and to win such a struggle is that the things that they do their work on are not easily divided for personal use. You can't just cut up a modern workplace into self-sustaining bits. So their labour is inescapably cooperative. Like any exploited class, the proletariat have an interest in first improving the conditions of their exploitation and finally of ending it completely. Their individual weakness and their shared class interests also make their forms of resistance spontaneously cooperative in a uniquely democratic way. Several things can get in the way of this spontaneous democratic impulse, union bureaucracy for example. Nevertheless, this kind of democracy has been a feature of almost every major social convulsion that workers have been involved in. This is because when workers organize independently for their own interests they can only do so as equals (that is they are equally dispossessed of the means of production).
Workers' councils have therefore, historically, been the characteristic form of such independent self-organization. These councils, arising more or less spontaneously from the practical requirements of the struggle are what workers use to coordinate that struggle, to deliberate and make political decisions, and to share information but also simply to keep themselves fed, to organize the defence against the police and strike breakers, or even the military. We’ve seen such councils, or their embryos, arise in France, Russia, Germany, Chile, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, and Iran.
The capitalist organization of production has meant that workers must struggle together, not only within a workplace, but across workplaces. Capitalism frequently makes it both necessary and possible for the working class to offer a single united front against the ruling class. Workers councils therefore become the instrument of working class power and an alternative structure by which to manage society—democratically, and from below. In the course of this, we often see capitalists use lock-outs against workers. But this is a double edged sword. Occasionally, workers respond to lockouts by taking over the factories and running it themselves. Workers control—organized through such councils—cuts against the division of material and intellectual labour and makes the workers both producers and overseers of the production process. And this potential is ultimately the basis of socialism.
A better world is possible
This kind of thoroughgoing democracy is what socialism offers in place of capitalism. The question, “what would socialism look like?” is unanswerable concretely because people will for the first time be empowered to freely, collectively, and consciously shape society. Socialism will look like whatever a liberated humanity wants it too look like.
We have already seen that most of the 83 per cent of the world's production has gone to enriching the very rich. If we got rid of those parasites and redirected all that time and resources towards meeting the needs of everyone generally, we could all work far less. There could be so much more time for play, self development, and leisure. With the democratic control of the means of production comes the opportunity to transform labour processes. To maximize the satisfaction we get out of making things, interacting with people, feeding people, caring for people. The sorts of rewards that prevail in art and craft: the sense of concretely expressing your creative powers, of collaborating productively with people who share your interests, and of making things that you yourself value and feel proud of – that could become true for all production.
Imagine a world where labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want—not only a means of gaining satisfying goods, but satisfying in its own right. Under capitalism, we waste half our waking day frustrating our creative powers, degrading our abilities, and just plain bored. All our lives are spent shackled to the profits of the 1%. Imagine a world dedicated instead to human joy.
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