The basic goals of socialism
And some arguments for it
To what ends does socialism work? Socialism has basic several basic goals.
Democratize the workplace, industry and the state.
This is perhaps the central goal of socialism. The core criticism of capitalism by the left has always been that it is undemocratic. The autocratic nature of capitalism manifests in several ways.
The first is the nature of private ownership of capital. Before large-scale industry developed in the 19th century, this may have seemed as if it were fairly innocuous. The units of economic organization were overwhelmingly small and self-contained, with perhaps the exception of feudal land ownership. Population density was lower, people lived relatively far away from each other and usually worked on small farms that were only of concern to anybody when they went to sell excess produce on the market. This mode of economic and social organization quickly vanished with the industrial revolution starting in the late 18th and early 19th century. Large factories, mines, transportation networks, distribution centers and utilities began to emerge, and people lived more closely together than ever before. No longer was it the case that people worked on small farms where their only workers were their direct family, but now they worked together by the tens of thousands. A steel and iron mill or mills(s) involved not the labor of three or four persons, but of twenty-five thousand persons!
Friedrich Engels references this in Anti-Dühring:
‘’…But the bourgeoisie, as is also shown there, could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men. The spinning-wheel, the hand-loom, the blacksmith’s hammer, were replaced by the spinning-machine, the power-loom, the steam-hammer; the individual workshop by the factory implying the co-operation of hundreds and thousands of workmen.’’
The vastly increasing complexity of the mode of production did not just bring with it more human co-operation than ever before, but also new questions about how to assign and distribute the tasks of labor, who were supposed to be mangers and supervisors (if at all), how much to produce, what to produce and how satisfy the needs of consumers. The effects and consequences of every economic decision multiplied. Industry was now the common concern of everybody in society.
Returning to the first point, the nature of private ownership of capital is to give decision-making power and influence to a relatively limited number of private people, in spite of the enormous collective effects and consequences of all decisions that are made. The justification for the private individual is that his or her decisions and actions do not harm or affect anyone else in any significant way, therefore giving all the reason for these actions to remain in a closed circle of concern. But capitalism has distorted this entirely reasonable principle, for what is being decided privately is not (and by definition cannot) contain itself to the private sphere. If a car company decides to change their prices or stop the production of a particular vehicle, this affects not the ten people making this decision, but millions. Within capitalism, there is an inherent contradiction between what it sees as the exclusive ‘’correct’’ medium of economic action (private), and how capitalist economic organization manifests in practice. As such, there is also a contradiction between capitalism and democracy.
The question that socialism asks is: if everyone participates, shouldn’t everyone have a say? If workers perform labor, shouldn’t they consent to what is done by their own hand and brain? Or more simply stated with famous quotes:
What affects all should be decided by all.
No taxation without representation!
Socialism is, in a sense, the rallying cry of the American Revolution restated for a different age. Private ownership of capital and operation of enterprise thereof has engendered a form of private government. Just as the ideas of the original revolution have been stated again, so to has the monarchy reformed itself anew. At the level of the workplace, employers can make decisions for workers unilaterally and often without respect for their (or what should be their) rights and freedoms. They decide who is assigned what tasks, how these tasks are preformed and what is produced from each shop. These managers that direct workplace activity are unelected and unaccountable. This truly is no different from the absolute monarchies of the past.
Socialism advocates the democratization of the workplace. These measures include co-determination (worker representation on boards), equal and democratic decision-making power for all those involved in the workplace (worker co-operatives) and making all positions of authority in an enterprise electable and recallable.
At the level of industry, private actors and market forces decide what is produced, how it is produced, what resources must be expended from elsewhere and how companies operate in the market. For those socialists that believe in public ownership of major industry or economic planning, it is important to democratize not just the more local activities of the workplace, but also the general economic direction, output, structure and company practices. This is especially the case in large-scale, concentrated industry where market forces have forfeited to private command (such as price administration) and said market forces may have become less useful as a means of transmitting information.
The purpose of democratizing industry is so that society can decide upon its economic priorities and how companies should behave and produce in the community that they affect.
At the level of the state, the objective of socialism is further democratization as well as protecting existing democratic principles. The aforementioned principle of socialism is so that the decisions that affect all, should be decided by all. If the state is to take more control of capital, such a state must be a democratic one and represent the public (whom the state should derive its authority from) for this policy to be labelled as ‘’public ownership’’ in the truest sense of the word. It is also more philosophical than just that.
An undemocratic private capital sphere and a democratic state have an antagonistic relationship. Whereas liberal democracy represents the will of the majority and the collective welfare of all those who participate in it, private capital represents exclusively the welfare of the minority who are privileged enough to own it. If the majority has power, they have the ability to transform social relations that misalign with the welfare and priorities of all. This is why democracy in government is an essential pre-condition to democracy in the economy. Equality in one sphere is the bane of inequality in another.
Conversely, to have economic power and wealth systemically concentrated in the hands of an owning class; this is an inherent threat to the principle of democracy. Democracy requires equality among all of its citizens and to give some citizens more power and status is to invite the appropriation of the state for the purposes of the privileged sections. Economic equality is an essential pre-condition for political equality. If such substantial differences in power and status exist, the maintenance of these structures thereof relies upon competition between the privileged minority (with more resources at its disposal) and the majority.
Socialism advocates democracy both as a means of transforming social relations and as something to be preserved in the face of existing social relations. And in all, socialism seeks to democratize every part of society, wether it be the workplace, industry or the state.
Against social classes and inequality
Socialists detest the division of society into classes. Socialism seeks to reduce or abolish class distinctions, which are mostly based upon the relationship to the means of production. For the most part, those who own a substantial amount of capital are a separate class from those who sell their labor to owners.
Social classes also come with them unnecessary income differences that distort a proper and rational allocation of resources, such as by causing over-saving among the wealthy and under-consumption among the less wealthy.
Most of all, social classes prevent people from living together and engender social division, hatred and authoritarianism. Social class and the wasteful competition for status is a leech upon the mind and spirit. No useful institution, wether it be productive work, democracy, civil liberties, religion or community can survive the degradation of class.
Socialism seeks to reduce or abolish social classes, and to create a distribution of economic results (income) that is most acceptable to all those in society and justifiable upon the grounds of work, effort and productivity. Social classes enable the appropriation of product from a lower class to one that stands above it. Private capital ownership is the greatest and most expansive form of rent-seeking in any economy (discussed in the very next section). It is not merit, work or productivity, but rather status hierarchy and the acquiring of privilege (inherited or otherwise) that forms the basis of most differences in income.
Capitalism relies upon significant exploitation, both in the economic-scientific sense and in the moral sense.
In the moral sense, because it systemically underpays waged-laborers to generate greater profits, unless otherwise forced to do so. This is why the owners of capital frequently oppose minimum wage increases and the formation of labor unions. The wage rates necessitated by the competitive market and the profit motive are not necessarily aligned with the priorities and wants of society as a whole.
In the economic-scientific sense, because the owners of capital profit upon the activities of waged-laborers and machines (some machines still being operated or manufactured by labor) By the very nature of two separate antagonistic classes being involved in the process of producing goods and services, one class must receive a greater share of the output because capital necessitates a return on investment. If an owner of capital invests $10,000 to employ workers for the cost of $7,000 (the cost being their wages) and the owner receives a 50% return of $15,000 from this enterprise, the workers have been collectively exploited by a measure of $8,000! The workers have added value to the owner’s property without a commensurate share in this value.
Of course, in the real world, it is somewhat more complicated. Labor does not directly or formally produce all value, because production is not exclusively labor-intensive. In another scenario, half of this return-on-value is produced by machines and inanimate instruments that the owner invested in (called capital). Therefore, the workers are ‘’only’’ exploited by a measure of $4,000. Exploitation of value by the owners of capital usually exists regardless of how applicable the labor theory of value is in each particular circumstance.
For this reason, socialism aims to transfer (to varying degrees) ownership of capital into society’s possession. The surplus or excess produced by labor and machines is for the benefit of the entire society.
To socialists called democratic socialists or social democrats, this meant public ownership of the commanding-heights of the economy, important economic functions and the gradual increase of social ownership. To other socialists called revolutionary socialists or communists, this meant the immediate abolition of all private capital and collectivization of agriculture.
Distribute according to human and social needs
Socialism aims to ensure human needs, while capitalism distributes these fundamental needs according to the principle of private profit, supply and demand and the price mechanism. All of this contributes to social depravation and severe inequality in these most basic of areas.
Socialism follows this principle of, ‘’from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’’ which means that commodity exchange is opposed in favor of free access to the articles of consumption.
The particular areas that are of importance to de-commodify in the present moment would be goods such as healthcare, housing and education.
Increase the efficiency and productivity of industry
Socialism aims to expand the productive forces of the economy, so that every desire and want can be met and that production serves useful purposes.
Equality and social freedom have always been aided by changes in the material basis of society, especially towards greater productive capacity and industry. Oppression, exploitation and exclusion can only fundamentally be maintained upon the basis of inefficiency.
When feudal land ownership was replaced with more efficient capitalistic industry in the 19th century, this allowed workers for the first time in history to have a choice of employment, profession and intellectual free-thought. Rather than being bound to land forever, the more efficient and productive utilization of labor and machines allowed humanity to specialize more and act more upon their own free will. There is, of course, more work to be done, but the industrial revolution was perhaps one of the greatest catalysts for freedom in human history.
Liberal democracy also became more desirable as the industrial revolution organized society into cities. Where the state was more involved, visible and vulnerable to social upheaval with people living closely together rather than far apart; democracy was demanded and the feudal autocracies gradually fell apart.
The liberation of the slaves in the United States was made (to a degree) possible and desirable because of the development of the cotton gin and improvements in productivity of industrial textile factories, requiring fewer plantation resources.
And just as then, the productive forces of the economy are needed to reduce oppressive working hours, expand the range of goods and services that are produced, increase wages and break down inefficient social structures that bind man. A more efficient use of resources is also needed to protect the environment broadly.
Equality is the creed of efficiency, as oppression is the same to inefficiency.
Eliminate destructive competition
Socialism aims to create a useful social co-operation between the people and enterprises and to heal the spirit from the sharp divisions created by class society and profit.
America’s pre-eminent democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, is quoted as saying in an 1981 interview:
‘’Do I believe that the profit motive is fundamental to human nature? The answer is no. I believe in the spirit of cooperation, that you and I can work together rather than trying to destroy each other.’’
Overly intensive social competition is one of the bases of alienation under capitalism, and therefore the objective of a socialist is quite literally to stop the individuals that compose society from destroying each other and eliminating the basis of useful economy.
For instance, excessive private property in the housing system has encouraged homeowners to compete with those who do not own property. From this, they attempt to maximize home values at all costs (including exclusionary zoning laws), reducing the ability of newcomers to enter the market and causing spiraling homelessness and segregation. This is an example of destructive social competition, which can be minimized through a socialist policy of mixed-income social housing and public / municipal land ownership.
Furthermore, so long as there is technological progress, efficiency and productivity to enable a smaller number of firms to produce the same number of goods and services and meet the needs of a wider public; then socialism aims for a careful reduction of economic competition where it makes sense.
Certain forms of market competition and un-coordinated economic activity gradually decline (and have already declined) as economies have developed, because growing social needs and wants can be fulfilled with an increasingly simplified and efficient economic organization. Whereas once there was the in-keeper and the shop in the 18th century, now there is the hotel chain and the Walmart in the 21st century. If in the more primitive stage, research and development was encouraged by multiple competing firms attempting to surpass each other; in more cases in the more modern world, large conglomerates can cross-subsidize projects and share resources between their internal networks and subsidiaries.
The move from the entrepreneurial inefficiency of the 18th century in-keepers to the relative efficiency of 21st century hotel chains was enabled by advancements in construction technology (servicing more of the market with similar spatial resources) and communications technology such as the telegraph, telephone and internet (allowing one firm to run a chain across large land areas and countries). There are few better examples of how technological progress lays waste to unnecessary economic competition than the example of the in-keepers and the hotels.
Although capitalism preaches the virtues of free-market competition, capitalism is more coordinated than any prior economic system. This is part of capitalism’s immense virtue, as well as socialism’s.
Eliminate the rule of rigid economic laws
Socialism aims to liberate the economy from rigid economic laws, particularly those of the market. This is accomplished through a de-commodifying welfare state, as well as sensible economic regulation and planning. The Swedish socialist, Ernst Wigforss, once wrote that capitalism was a:
‘’…humiliating submission under an economic mechanism…’’
The uncontrolled market merely directs economic activity according to impersonal forces, rather than always what is desired by all. This can have enormously destructive consequences when the market ‘’wills it to be,’’ but it is in total misalignment with the general welfare. In the Great Depression, it was presumably the laws of supply-and-demand (for labor) that had formed the basis of mass unemployment and falling wages. In some cases, the market can have manifestly absurd consequences, such as when shortages of water after natural disasters and hurricanes lead to immense price gouging. Karl Polanyi once said that socialism:
‘’Socialism is, essentially the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.’’
Socialism aims to reform the economic mechanism so that it acts not as a constraint upon humanity that leads to rigid outcomes, but as a means for society to decide upon its priorities.