Is Socialism Still on the Agenda?

 [ZNet Editor’s note: ‘New Politics: a journal of socialist thought’ invited Michael Albert to answer the query "Is Socialism Still on the Agenda?" Albert answered, and two New Politics editors replied, and Albert responded. Below is the Albert’s first essay. The four pieces appeared in the bi-annual New Politics journal, linked from the ZNet debate pages for your immediate access.]



To answer the title question, I have to provide answers for three possible meanings of "socialism" and also for a semantic issue, the use of the word "socialism," in any form.


For some socialists, "socialism" means a particular type of economy including state or collective property plus market or central planning allocation and (derivative) typical corporate divisions of labor in workplaces. Call this Socialism 1.


For other socialists, "socialism" is again about economics, but the word doesn’t refer to specific institutions. It connotes that workers and consumers have appropriate empowerment and receive fair and equitable incomes not based on any structural or personal advantage, but doesn’t make reference to how this happens. Call this Socialism 2.


Finally, some socialists use the word "socialism" to refer to a whole desired society, not just to an economy. They mean one or the other of the two types of economy noted above, but they include as well new political, kin, cultural, and other relations in the rest of society, though rarely if ever seriously described. Call this Socialism 3.


To be complete, we must ask about each "socialism" in turn, "is it still on the Agenda?"


"Socialism 1"


Socialism 1 is or at least should be off the agenda. But this shouldn’t be on the usually asserted grounds that Socialism 1 doesn’t work at all. In fact, Socialism 1, which existed (or exists) in the old Soviet Union, throughout Eastern Europe, in China, and in Cuba, actually 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 greater attention to the social conditions of those who are worst off. The proper comparison to draw comparative conclusions is not the Soviet Union circa 1985 as against the U.S. circa 1985, or Cuba 2000 as against 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 comparable state of development in 1917 — and which can therefore be contrasted for the relative impact of taking a capitalist versus taking a Socialist 1 road during the seventy years in question. Brazil would be a good choice. Or an informative comparison can be drawn by contrasting Cuba to Guatemala or any other Latin American country of roughly comparable size, resources, and conditions forty years ago, and compensating for the embargo by taking into account what such isolation would have done to capitalist Guatemala, say, or what its absence would have meant for Socialist 1 Cuba. By such fair comparisons of societies with comparable situations and 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 some of these better, in many respects, than capitalist alternatives, whether we are comparing growth rates, economic diversification, or the plight of those at the bottom of the economies.


The actual reason Socialism 1 ought to be off the human agenda is the same now as 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, or because Soviet elites felt they could do better in a capitalistically transformed system regardless of the detrimental effects for other citizens. No, the real reason we should remove Socialism 1 from humanity’s agenda is that it is not and never has been compatible with the greatest fulfillment and development of an economy’s producers and consumers. What’s wrong with Socialism 1 is not that it must inexorably collapse into chaos, which is actually false, but, instead, that even at its best Socialism 1 is an authoritarian system with economic class rule of the few over the many and with a propensity for a parallel authoritarianism in its polity. In short, even at its best, Socialism 1 cannot optimally advance desirable values and aims that we aspire to.


Socialism 1, an economic system, is built on state ownership of the means of production, plus markets or central planning for allocation, plus corresponding hierarchies and divisions of labor within production units. This combination of institutions elevates the interests of a subset of economic actors (the economy’s planners, managers, and highly educated and empowered sectors in general) above those of all other economic actors (who are busy doing rote and otherwise disempowering labor). Instead of the privileged ruling class being those who own the means of production, as under capitalism, in Socialism 1 it becomes those who monopolize conditions of work that give them collective control over how all work is conducted, what its outputs are, and who receives its bounty. Socialism 1 is an economic model, therefore, that by its institutions and their inexorable implications necessarily elevates what I call the "coordinator class" into ruling status, leaving the working class subordinate, but to a new boss–not the same as the old boss, but certainly much like the old boss.


Getting rid of private ownership of the means of production as Socialism 1 does eliminates one of the most egregious sources of unwarranted differentials in wealth and power–as in Bill Gates having more wealth than the whole country of Norway and, with a few of his buddies, having more systemic power over economic outcomes than whole swaths of humanity combined, numbering in the billions. But on top of the desirable step of eliminating private ownership and profit seeking, Socialism 1 retains markets or expands central planning in their place and this is negative, as is retaining old fashioned workplace job hierarchies that elevate a few to control economic decisions. These choices for allocation and workplace organization obliterate all hope for optimal solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management. They benefit and elevate a few above the many in income, status, and power and create an authoritarianism that tends to permeate all spheres of social life. So on these grounds my answer is that yes, Socialism 1 ought to be off the agenda.


"Socialism 2"


Socialism 2, remember, doesn’t posit specific institutions for a proposed economy, but is instead a label indicating that producers and consumers together self-manage economic outcomes and enjoy equitable remuneration not governed, for example, 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 morally off the agenda would be to say that humanity should stop progressing and resign itself to an economic system that falls short of these virtues. In the U.S. case, it would make sense only if we prefer an economy in which a very tiny few – let’s say 1% — own the majority of the means of production and accrue gargantuan profits as a result; in which roughly another 4% own most of the rest of the productive assets, also becoming immensely rich and powerful thereby; and in which another 15% or 20% own some residue productive assets and also, more centrally to their life prospects and situations, monopolize the economic positions in society that largely determine daily economic outcomes and circumstances for themselves and for others and as a result enjoy associated status, power, circumstances and, of course, grossly disproportionate income. It would mean that we are satisfied with most people obeying orders throughout their whole economic lives, subordinate in their workplaces and even in much of their consumption, much like citizens are politically subordinate to dictators in brutally oppressive polities.


It is hard for me to imagine a person in full possession of their mental faculties and not morally deprived or depraved, who would argue that less solidarity is preferable to more, that less equity is preferable to more, that less justice and democracy is preferable to more, that less control over our lives is preferable to more, and so on. 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. That is, they say that Socialism 2 is simply impossible, and that trying to attain it is a deluded pipe-dream detracting from useful pursuits. One could feel sure that Socialism 2 would be wonderful, we should note, thus being a morally sound and sensible person, but also feel that regrettably there is no combination of 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 relatively modest gains it did attain in equity or self-management or whatever else we seek would be far 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 at that only if he or she had had his or her hopes dashed by a 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, of course, 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, stupendous inequalities of economic wealth and power to decry that nothing more 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 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 is, 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 property, power, or output, or that disperse economic responsibilities in a manner which balances empowerment and quality of life, 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 of us who have made preliminary studies of such institutions have found them to be quite promising, while the advocates of TINA or TINBA have (predictably) virtually 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, of course Socialism 2 should be very much on the 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 more, 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 particular implementation of Socialist 2 sentiments–accomplishes production, consumption, and allocation efficiently while also furthering preferred social and economic values including solidarity, equity of circumstances and income, diversity, and self-management (which is just decision making input in proportion as one is affected by the decisions in question). 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 might take a look at http://www.parecon.org where there are interviews, essays, and even full-length books available on the topics. Participatory Economics is one positive answer to TINA or TINBA. It is a fully specified alternative spelled out in sufficient detail to permit cogent evaluation of the values and outcomes the model would further. Likewise, the question of strategic vision — how we get there from here — is also essential, but beyond the scope of this article. Some preliminary thoughts on the question of left strategy can be found in my forthcoming book, Moving Forward, available in early 2001, from A. K.  Press.


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 political dictatorship, continuing patriarchy only more or less attenuated, and cultural homogenization) then Socialism 3 would be as undesirable as Socialism 1. 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, in my view, 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 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 even at best conveys nothing compelling, and arguably nothing much at all. There is no practical "socialist" vision spelled out, I think, in any serious detail, for addressing sexism, heterosexism, racism, national oppression, or political institutions that fail to empower people. And the actual historical experience in countries that have called themselves socialist (which were all in fact Socialist 1 or in my terminology Coordinatorist in their economics) have been nothing worth serious emulation, to be generous 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 adopting grotesque Stalinism, and barely touching or horribly homogenizing the problems afflicting cultural communities whether religious, ethnic, or racial? There is, not surprisingly given the inadequacies of Socialism 1 / Coordinatorism, nothing much 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, as well. And the same goes for needing a political vision that achieves true democracy and a cultural vision that yields a non-racist society. And yes, this does mean that Socialism 2 (in my view, Participatory Economics) needs to be compatible with preferred, 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 that those other realms will need to be compatible with the 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 Socialism 2. So why isn’t it called Socialist 2 Economics, or perhaps Participatory Socialism?


The answer is because I don’t think the word "socialism" has 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, one that I call Coordinatorism after the ruling class it elevates to economic dominance. 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. The West did this to delegimate the word socialism by making it connote Socialism 1. The East did it to try to append to the Socialism 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.


I doubt that the word socialism can be extricated from this mess. And to cap the case, it no longer seems that 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? So I have Socialism 2 on my agenda in the form of Participatory Economics. I have Socialism 1 off my agenda, as I have always had it off my agenda, but under the name Coordinatorism. And I have no more idea what Socialism 3 means than anyone else, and so don’t have that, per se, on an agenda either, though I do very much hope to be able to give my allegiance to worthy political, kinship, and cultural visions in the near future, if people would only hammer those into workable, supportable, shape.


Has all this seemed a bit abstract, dry, and academic? If so, perhaps it is the question I was asked to address. To become more alive and engaged I would suggest that we ought to stop talking about vague or even misleading "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 I think 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 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. 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. 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 — are not like gravity. They arise from institutional relations established by human beings. New institutions, also established by human beings, can generate other vastly superior outcomes. Defining and working to attain those new institutions ought to be our economic agenda. 

Leave a comment