For some, “socialism” means an economy including state or collective property plus market or central planning allocation and corporate divisions of labor in workplaces.
For others, “socialism” only connotes that workers and consumers have appropriate empowerment and receive fair and equitable incomes, without indicating how this happens.
Finally, some use the term “socialism” to refer to a whole desired society. They mean one or the other of the two types of economy noted above, but also new political, kin, cultural, and other relations, though rarely if ever seriously described.
Call these Socialism 1, 2, and 3.
Socialism 1 existed (or exists) in the old Soviet Union, throughout the old Eastern Europe, in the old China, etc. It worked/works rather well by typical economic standards, though with its own array of costs and benefits. The distribution of income and wealth are both typically more just in Socialism 1 than in comparable capitalist economies and there is also greater attention to the social conditions of those who are worst off.
A proper comparison to draw comparative conclusions between capitalism and Socialism 1 is not the Soviet Union circa 1985 compared to the U.S. circa 1985, or Cuba 2000 compared to the U.S. 2000 – but the old Soviet Union and a capitalist country at the same time of roughly comparable size and resources which was in a roughly a comparable state of under development in 1917. Brazil might be a good choice. Or an informative comparison could be drawn by contrasting Cuba to Guatemala or any other Latin American country of roughly comparable size, resources, and conditions as Cuba forty years ago, including compensating for the U.S. embargo on Cuba. By such fair comparisons of societies with comparable starting points, it becomes clear that relative to the capitalist model, the Socialist 1 model is far from decrepit. Instead, Socialism 1 can get at least elements of the economic tasks of a society done, and can do many of these better, in various respects, than capitalism does them.
The real reason Socialism 1, also called Twentieth Century Socialism, ought to nonetheless be off the human agenda is the same now as it was twenty, thirty, fifty, and seventy-five years ago. It is not because Cold War militaristic competition and internal political dictatorship, corruption, and ossification crumbled the Soviet Economy. And it is not because Soviet elites felt they could do better in a capitalistically transformed system regardless of the detrimental effects for other citizens. No, we should remove Socialism 1 from humanity’s agenda because it is not and never has been compatible with the greatest fulfillment and development of an economy’s producers and consumers. Even at its best, Socialism 1 is an authoritarian system with economic class rule of a few over the many and with a propensity that has to be constantly fought against to avoid calamity – for a parallel and worse authoritarianism in its polity. In short, even at its best, Socialism 1 cannot optimally advance desirable values and aims, even though it does permit many gains.
Socialism 1, the economic system, is built on state ownership of the means of production, plus markets or central planning for allocation, plus compatible corporate divisions of labor within production units. This combination of institutions elevates a subset of economic actors (including the economy’s planners, managers, and highly educated and empowered actors in general, who together I call its coordinator class) above all other economic actors (who are busy doing rote and otherwise disempowering labor).
Thus, instead of the privileged ruling class being those who own the means of production, as it is under capitalism, in Socialism 1 the ruling class becomes those who monopolize conditions of work that give them collective control over how all work is conducted, what the outputs are, and who receives the benefits. Socialism 1 is thus an economic model that by its institutions and their inexorable implications necessarily elevates what I call the “coordinator class” into ruling status, even when that was not the intention of those fighting for change. The working class is subordinate to its new boss—which is not the same as the old boss, but is certainly not no boss at all.
Getting rid of private ownership of the means of production as Socialism 1 does, to its credit, eliminates the most egregious sources of unwarranted differentials in wealth and power. But on top of eliminating private ownership and profit seeking, Socialism 1 regrettably retains markets or expands central planning and this is horribly negative, as is retaining old fashioned workplace job hierarchies that elevate about 20% to control economic decisions. These choices for allocation and for workplace organization obliterate all hope for attaining optimal solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management even when many desire to attain such ends. These particular institutional choices instead benefit and elevate a few above the many in income, status, and power, and also tend to create an authoritarianism that then tends to permeate all spheres of social life. So on these grounds our answer should be that yes, Socialism 1 ought to be off the agenda.
Socialism 2, remember, doesn’t posit specific institutions for a proposed economy, but instead seeks for producers and consumers together to self-manage economic outcomes and enjoy equitable remuneration that is not governed by property, power, or any other social or personal advantage such as racism, sexism, or different innate productive talents.
If one thinks Socialism 2 is potentially attainable, then to say it should be off the agenda would be to say that humanity should stop progressing and sit pat with an economic system that falls short of these virtues. To say that would make sense only if we literally desired to have a very few – let’s say 1% — own the bulk of means of production and accrue gargantuan profits; and to have roughly another 4% own most of the rest of the productive assets, thereby also becoming immensely rich and powerful; and to have roughly another 15% or 20% own modest residual productive assets and also, more centrally, monopolizing the economic positions in society that largely determine daily economic outcomes and circumstances as a result enjoying associated status, power, circumstances and, of course, grossly disproportionate incomes.
It is hard for me to imagine a person in full possession of their mental faculties and not morally depraved, who would argue that less solidarity is preferable to more solidarity, that less equity is preferable to more equity, that less justice and democracy is preferable to more justice and democracy, that less control over our lives is preferable to more control over our lives. But this is what it would mean to argue that Socialism 2 should be off the agenda despite being potentially attainable. So in this sense of course we should not willingly remove Socialism 2 from the agenda.
There is, however, another logic that many people use to argue that Socialism 2 should go into history’s garbage bin. They claim that Socialism 2 is simply impossible and that trying to attain it is a deluded pipe-dream taking attention away from useful pursuits. One could even feel sure that Socialism 2 would be wonderful, thus being a morally sound and sensible person, but then additionally feel that regrettably there is no combination of activities and institutions that could bring it about. Any effort to improve economic solidarity, equity, justice, self-management, diversity, etc., would (a) fall short of our intentions, and (b) cause so much loss of output and/or other desired outcomes (such as privacy, say) that the gains it did attain in equity or self-management or whatever else would be outweighed by huge losses in output, privacy, etc. This is the logic of TINA – Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion that “there is no alternative”–which is really, in fact, better termed TINBA, for “there is no better alternative.”
The first reply to TINA or TINBA is why would anyone in their right mind utter such a phrase gleefully? Imagine at some point in history someone yelling TINA, or TINBA about slavery, or about child labor, or about overwhelming illiteracy, or about average life spans in the 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s, or about dictatorship, and so on. Any sane and morally sound person yelling TINA or TINBA about such things would presumably do so only tearfully, and even at that only if he or she had had his or her hopes dashed by a very very powerful set of arguments and associated evidence. Why else would one erect a “do not enter sign” in front of domains that of course everyone moral would like to enter? It would be pathological or grotesquely self-serving on the part of a few who benefit from slavery, child labor, overwhelming illiteracy, short life spans, dictatorship, or, in the modern instance, grotesque inequalities of economic wealth and power, to proclaim that nothing better is possible and be gleeful about it.
The second reply to those proclaiming TINA or TINBA is that there is, in fact, not only nothing compelling supporting their stance, but in fact there is no argument whatsoever on behalf of TINA or TINBA other than the loud pronouncements of sectors of the populace who greedily benefit from such beliefs. There is no operational evidence or analytic argument that economic institutions which empower workers and consumers to impact decisions proportionately as they are affected by them, or that reward actors in accord only with their efforts and sacrifice rather than with their property, power, or output, or that disperse economic responsibilities in a manner which balances empowerment and quality of life impact in our economic lives, are either impossible or fraught with problems so damning that they outweigh their virtues—or with problems at all, for that matter. Quite the contrary. Those who have made preliminary studies of such institutions have found them to be quite promising, while the advocates of TINA or TINBA have (predictably) ignored these analyses.
At a minimum, therefore, until and unless someone makes an overwhelming, unassailable case that equity, justice, self-management, diversity, and other desirable values unmet by current economic institutions are either (a) incapable of being delivered by different economic institutions, or (b) in being delivered would consign us to other horrible ills offsetting the benefits, Socialism 2 should be very much on the human agenda. More, I would urge that a particular proposed economic model currently exists – called Participatory Economics – which can accomplish Socialism 2’s desirable ends, and others as well, without any of the feared negative consequences, and therefore ought to become a plausible starting point for realizing our aspirations.
Just a brief word on this real alternative, since one of the most obvious and compelling ways to argue that some aim should be on our agenda – in this case Socialism 2 – is to indicate what it might look like, why it might work well, and what its diverse properties might be. Participatory Economics – a kind of implementation of Socialist 2 sentiments — accomplishes production, consumption, and allocation efficiently while also furthering preferred social and economic values.
Participatory Economics is built on a few centrally defining institutions: democratic self-managing workers and consumers councils and federations of councils (instead of autocratic corporate hierarchies), remuneration according to effort and sacrifice (instead of remuneration according to property, power, or even output), balanced job complexes that equally empower all workers in their economic activities (instead of invidious divisions of labor and monopolies of information, knowledge, and access to decision-making levers for an elite), and participatory planning (instead of markets or central planning).
This short essay offers no room to fully explicate these structures and their logic and implications, but interested readers can easily find interviews, essays, and even full-length books available online on the topics. Participatory Economics is one positive answer to TINA or TINBA. It is a fully specified alternative spelled out in highly accessible language and in sufficient detail to permit cogent evaluation of the values and outcomes the model would further.
Socialism Writ Larger Than Economics – and the Semantics of the Label “Socialism”
What about folks who use the word socialism to refer to a whole better society? Should this type socialism be on the agenda as Socialism 3?
Well, this will depend which economic model forms the core of the proposed better society. If we start with Socialism 1 for the economy plus other compatible comparably authoritarian changes in other realms (such as adopting political dictatorship, continuing patriarchy only more or less attenuated, and cultural homogenization) then Socialism 3 would of course be undesirable. On the other hand, if we have the attributes of Socialism 2 for the economy and add compatible attributes in other facets of life as well, then Socialism 3 would be a good idea. This much follows immediately from all the above arguments.
The real issue regarding Socialism 3, is (a) should we use this term socialism to refer to something beyond economics, and (b) should we use it, in fact, at all?
I tend to think the answer to (a) should be no. First, the word socialism means nothing specific outside the economic realm so that using it outside economics at best conveys nothing compelling, and arguably nothing much at all. There is no practical “socialist” societal vision spelled out, I think, in any serious detail, for example, for kinship relations, political institutions, or cultural allegiances. And the actual historical experience in countries that have called themselves socialist (which were in fact Socialist 1 or in terminology I prefer Coordinatorist in their economies) have not deserved praise, to be gentle about it. Who would want to celebrate as a goal slightly attenuated or aggravated patriarchy, slightly reduced or horribly obliterated democracy up to and including grotesque Stalinism, and barely altering or horribly homogenizing the problems afflicting cultural communities whether religious, ethnic, or racial? There is, not surprisingly given the inadequacies of Socialism 1 (or Coordinatorism), little to aspire to as ultimate goals in this mix.
We do need a feminist vision, of course, and those who aspire to Socialism 2 should aspire to a positive feminist vision, of course. And the same goes for needing a political vision and a cultural vision, and for those aspiring to Socialism 2 supporting these as well should be a priority. And yes, this does mean that Socialism 2 (in my view, Participatory Economics) needs to be made compatible with preferred and still to be fully enunciated kinship, political, and cultural visions – just as the reverse also needs to hold.
But it is a mistake, I think, to have a conceptual label that is primarily about one sphere of social life stand in for our liberatory aspirations in all spheres of social life. Thus, my answer to (a) is no, we should not use the term socialism (nor the label Participatory Economics) to refer to realms beyond the economy, other than noting that those other realms will need to be compatible with a desirable economy and vice versa.
But what about (b) – should we use the term socialism at all? We have said that Socialism 2 ought to still be on the agenda, and I have suggested that I think the economic model Participatory Economics qualifies as an implementation of Socialist 2 aims. So why not call it Socialist 2 Economics, or perhaps Participatory Socialism?
One might opt to answer that the word “socialism” doesn’t have much communicative value. For most people, due to the history of the past century, socialism means Socialism 1. For me and you, I hope, it means Socialism 2, where Socialism 1 is instead an economic system that we reject. Sometimes it is necessary to wage a war of words, because in losing a word something of great value is removed from public discussion. The thing is, this word, “socialism,” was lost a long time ago, when both the Eastern and Western blocs decided to append it to the Soviet economic model, or to social democracy, for that matter. The West did this to de-legimate the word socialism by making it connote Socialism 1. The East did it to try to append to the Socialist 1 model some legitimacy by making it seem to encompass all hope for Socialism 2. In both cases the word socialism was robbed of its Socialist 2 connotations.
Someone not eager to use the term socialism will likely doubt that the word socialism can be extricated from this mess. And to cap the case, the person may suggest that not very much is at stake.
Do we really need this word in order to be able to stand up for real self-management, real equity, and real justice? If not, we might opt to have Socialism 2 on our agenda in the form of Participatory Economics. We might opt to have Socialism 1 off our agenda, perhaps under the name Coordinatorism. And since we have no more idea what Socialism 3 means than anyone else, we might opt to not have that, per se, on our agenda either, though we very much hope to be able to give our allegiance to worthy political, kinship, and cultural visions in the near future, if people would only hammer those into workable, supportable, shape.
Of course, if we think we really do need the term, then we might opt for Participatory Socialism as our economic vision, and try to find a term for the whole society we favor, as well.
Here is another relevant rationale. Has all this seemed a bit abstract, dry, and academic? If so, to become more alive and engaged I would suggest that we ought to stop talking about vague or even misleading terms like “socialism,” and start talking about well-described economic, political, kinship, and cultural aims in understandable terms that don’t carry extensive baggage. If we do that, then perhaps the abstract, dry, and academic tone may give way to living breathing language that can fire imaginations, hope, and struggle.
For the economy I want workers and consumers to have self managing control over their own economic lives. I want everyone to have fair conditions that fully utilize their talents and potentials. I want incomes that accord with the efforts people expend in their labors so we earn in accord with how long we work, how hard, and for the onerousness of conditions we endure. I want what is produced, by whom, under what conditions, and with who consuming the result – all determined in accord with enhancing human well-being and development and all decided by the people involved and affected in a cooperative and self managing manner. I want an end to hierarchies of power and wealth and to class division with most actors subordinated to an elite few.
To accomplish all these ends I favor the institutions of participatory economics – worker and consumer councils, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
If someone should demonstrate that those institutions somehow fail to accomplish necessary economic functions or have social or personal by-products that outweigh their benefits – I would simply return to the drawing board. Exploitation, alienation, poverty, disempowerment, fragmenting and debilitating labor, production for the profit of a few–much less harsh homelessness, starvation, and degradation–much less war and the annihilation of our environment are not like gravity. They arise from institutional relations established by human beings. New institutions, also established by human beings, can generate vastly superior outcomes. Defining and working to attain those new institutions ought to be our economic agenda.
More, the same broad logic should apply to conceiving, sharing, evaluating, and then fighting for new structures in political, gender, kinship, and cultural relations, as well.