Twenty five years ago the dramatic contest between the Soviet socialist system and Western capitalism reached its tumultuous end. Much has been written since about the failings of the Soviet state socialist model. But much less has been written about how the global “triumph” of capitalism has made extreme inequality and climate change worse. Even less still has been written about the possibility of an alternative to either system.
In the years leading up to the end of the Soviet Union, political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War would open the way to “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But capitalism has failed to address the world’s most pressing problems and, in many ways, has inflamed them.
The world is bursting at the seams. Whether it was the Soviet race to industrialize fast enough to catch up with the West or the Cold War driven arms race, the insatiable appetite for infinite growth in a world of finite material resources has pushed an already stressed planet to its limits. Scientists are concerned that the earth is warming at a pace unprecedented in the last 1,000 years. It stands on the brink of its sixth mass extinction event. Yet capitalism – regardless if it is Chinese, Russian, British or US – incentivizes an accelerating cycle of accumulation, dispossession, exploitation and destruction.
Wars in the Mideast rage on which, along with increasing inequality and climate change, fuel migration and exacerbate refugee crisis. On the one hand, there is plenty of fertile ground for right-wing populist expressions such as “Brexit” and the US election of billionaire businessman Donald Trump. On the other hand, Adrian Wooldridge over at The Economist is concerned that there are similarities between the world’s worsening conditions today and those that produced Russia’s Bolshevik revolution at the turn of the 20th century. It seems that a quarter century of global capitalism is all that was needed to strike a blow wounding Fukuyama’s hoped for “universalization of Western liberal democracy”. Indeed, Wooldridge is today concerned about how to save the liberal order.
The question of how to view liberalism and capitalism is crucial. Is capitalism synonymous with democracy or a fundamentally incongruent system? Are inequalities in power and privilege sociological, a symptom of unbalanced wealth distribution? Or are they structural, rooted in ownership and control over the means of production? Do the structural problems of capitalism provide constant institutional threats to social welfare contracts that always need defending unless they are ultimately ripped to shreds? The answers to these questions inform different understandings about whether liberalism is part of the solution or part of the problem and even whether an alternative to capitalism is possible.
As long as capitalism is the dominant “mode of production”, its insatiable hunger for growth, its market blindness and structurally produced inequalities will wreak havoc on billions of lives, making equality for all and freedom for everyone impossible. The structural problems of ownership of productive assets, and concentrations of wealth and decision-making power, condemn those in disempowering positions to pauperization while elevating those higher on the class ladder to lives of ease, confidence and comfort.
The results are tragically twisted. Aside from war, death and disease that inequality produces and makes worse, hierarchical class systems squander human lives and creative potential at every moment: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops,” the influential scientist Stephen Jay Gould once admitted.
But variations of socialism have no doubt helped some countries to lift themselves significantly out of material deprivation. Cuba is renowned not only for its own domestic education and healthcare programs but also for its international solidarity and decades of resistance to US efforts to undermine it. In many Latin American countries, Cuba’s struggle presented “a good example” and inspired this century’s left and progressive governments south of the US border, who themselves built a regional, even if now waning, historic bulwark against neoliberalism.
These models – currently undergoing a critical period struggling for their survival – have many problems. The model of Soviet socialism, however, was on a fundamentally flawed trajectory. Authoritarianism, growing class inequalities and environmental destruction plagued the project from early on. Civil war, two World Wars, forced industrialization, Gulags, famine, Western hostility, capitalist encirclement, and Stalin’s policy of “socialism in one country”, all challenged the desirability of “actually existing socialism”. But even in theory, we must admit that it had no resemblance to Karl Marx’s communist vision of a freely associated community of individuals and for most the century it seemed to be on a path to somewhere far less desirable.
Nonetheless, despite the plethora of problems, leaders from both the Soviet Union and the US described the USSR as “socialist”. Linguist Noam Chomsky noticed 30 years ago that both the US and Soviet Union agreed “that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and moulded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism…” The Soviet leadership called itself socialist to justify holding state power and to “impose the harsh rule of the ‘Red Bureaucracy’” while the West – holding up the failures of Soviet “socialism” – adopted the same pretense in order to “forestall the threat of a more free and just society.” Soviet socialism may not be desirable. But neither is capitalism. An alternative is necessary, and just so happens to be more feasible.
Over the past 25 years, Internet and Communications Technology (ICT) has evolved to remove many of the technical barriers that may have once impeded alternatives to capitalism and state socialism. Debates in the 1920s and 1930s revolved between socialists who believed that a central authority could use all available knowledge to arrive at the best possible (in their minds) economic plan for society and those free marketeers who countered that, because the problems of modern society are so complex, economic planning is impossible and only markets could coordinate economic activity. These two positions framed other proposals too, that a necessary combination of markets and planning – “market socialism” – could provide a third solution. But the world has changed and there are new obstacles to overcome.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Technologists, academics, governments, journalists, Silicon Valley and others, are today excited by the possibility of the “Internet of Things”, “smart cities”, “smart homes”, “smart grocery stores” and how technology can enable all institutions of society to become more responsive to human needs, wants and desires. Even if internet access and net neutrality are important battles still being fought, mobile devices have made unprecedented inroads to populations previously disconnected. For many, the multidirectional explosion of innovations provides an ever-personalized everyday life and an intoxicating sense that all knowledge is available at our fingertips. Even if this sense is an exaggeration it is more true than ever before and it is possible to imagine a future where everyone is affected.
We could be using today’s technology to feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate everyone and medically treat those in need. Instead, capitalism, having exhausted many material sources of growth, uses technology to turn inward to the exploitation of people themselves – their personal data – as an effervescent commodity. Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School Shoshana Zuboff, has described how the evolution of computer processing power, complex algorithms, and leaps in data storage capability, combine to make what she calls “surveillance capitalism”. It is the process of accumulation by dispossession of the data that people produce.
In substantial ways – as is the model of Apple, Google, Amazon, Uber, Facebook and other robber barons of the digital age – technology has enabled powerful platforms for the amplification of power and privilege, making capitalism worse than could have been previously imagined. ICT has emboldened the process of “primitive accumulation”, as if it were on nuclear powered steroids, forcing whole sectors to find new means of survival. Mark Graham, Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, has researched how the “Gig economy” produces new unregulated and underpaid work, often in problematic working conditions, and that challenge existing divisions of labor for the worse.
While ICT has enabled fewer and fewer people to do more and more harm, it also paradoxically provides more potential for alternatives to both capitalism and state socialism to emerge. In the late 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, Fascists and Stalinists attacked from all sides as widespread experiments in workers’ control stretched between rural and urban areas, in the form of anarcho-syndicalist organization. In 1956 workers in Hungary and Poland revolted against Soviet invasion and domination to form workers’ councils. These examples inspired Greek-French Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis’ model of “Economics of a Self-Managed Society”, which subsequently gave rise to more recent models like Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Participatory Economics, which aims to – without markets – consciously account for the costs of production, consumption and allocation of the material means of life while flexibly adapting and updating scalable plans.
There are examples of networked societies aspiring to gather decentralized data for the purpose of democratic planning. Chile, for example, applied computers across significant sectors of its society between 1971-1973 as an experimental electronic “nervous system”. This system operated in workplaces, voting systems and government departments. An interactive national communications network would link it all together. And the system, which was in some sense designed to overcome the problems of Soviet central planning, aspired to realize more equitable and responsive social relationships.
These days gathering enough information to plan society is no longer an obstacle. Technology has opened new possibilities. Imagine how powerful algorithms, advances in computer processing power and data storage (not to mention mobile devices, the blockchain and smart contracts) could advance each of the above examples. The obstacles today, rather, are those states and corporations – and the powerful fusions between them – which accumulate enormous power and privilege over the world.
Twenty five years after Soviet “socialism”, the “triumph” of capitalism has been a nightmare for the vast majority of people. But new technologically advanced and self-governing worlds – beyond capitalism and state socialism – are, technically, more feasible than ever. But a new contest must emerge between those who want this new world and those who hold on to their present power.
Chris Spannos is Digital Editor for New Internationalist based in Oxford, England. He contributed the feature “Mass Surveillance & ‘Smart Totalitarianism’” in ROAR’s December magazine. Chris wrote “A history of Anarchist Economics as a lens to see the future” in the AK Press collection The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics (2012). He edited a previous collection for AK Press titled Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century (2008). More recently, Chris contributed the essay “Dimensions of Crisis in Greece”, to The End of the World as We Know It? Crisis, Resistance, and the Age of Austerity, AK Press (2014). Chris’ Twitter handle is: @cspannos.