Arguments for socialism: Would socialism work?

[Green Left Weekly, #270, April 16, 1997]

Socialists condemn capitalism because it has failed the overwhelming mass of humanity in the most decisive way. It promises freedom, democracy and prosperity but spectacularly defaults on all three (as, for instance, the people of the former Soviet Union are today finding out to their bitter cost). Nevertheless, capitalism has one undoubted historical merit: it has developed society's productive powers to the point where everyone on the planet could be assured a decent, truly human existence — on the condition that the capitalist system is replaced by socialism.

Capitalism's driving principle is the struggle between capitalists for commercial supremacy and competitive survival in the jungle of the misnamed "free market". Human needs are met only in so far as they are backed up by purchasing power. Thus, for instance, suppose you need somewhere to live: if you have money you'll get what you can pay for, otherwise you can rot on the streets or throw yourself on charity. Relative prosperity in the west in the postwar period might have clouded this brutal reality but in the Third World it has always been clear. And with the increasing destruction of the welfare state in the western world it will become more starkly obvious here also.

Socialism, expropriating the capitalist class and putting society's productive forces under social ownership and democratic control, would put a stop to this criminal madness. With society in firm control of its economic mechanism, the satisfaction of people's needs — for meaningful work, housing, health, care of children and the aged, education, a quality public transport system, an attractive, livable urban environment and so on — would become the supreme goal of government policy and the main measure of its success.

In our opinion, world socialism could, after an appropriate period of transition, give every single person on the planet a comfortable, decent existence — an overall quality of life such as, for instance, the western middle classes might enjoy today (but purged of any purely consumerist trappings).

Anything less than this will not do. The basis of the division of society into ruling and oppressed classes — under capitalism no less than slavery and feudalism — is material scarcity. Society's small surplus over its elementary needs is appropriated by the ruling class. Only an abundance of goods and services — understood, of course, in a rational sense: we are not talking about gold toilet bowls — will provide the necessary foundation for a classless society.

At this point the question might reasonably be asked: does human society have the resources to accomplish such a program?

From the standpoint of meeting human needs, capitalism is massively wasteful. It doesn't take any great imagination to see that a fundamental change in the social and economic system would free vast human and material resources which could be devoted to building a better life for all.

For a start, there is militarism, consuming hundreds of billions of dollars each year and, directly and indirectly, engaging the energies of scores, if not hundreds, of millions of people worldwide. The end of capitalism would mean the end of the "military-industrial complex" and the unrelenting sacrifice of human happiness on the altar of "defence" spending.

Moreover, in a country like Australia, large sectors of the economy have a purely capitalistic function and wouldn't exist in a rational system: advertising, the financial "markets", the insurance industry, real estate and property "development" (speculation), casinos and the "gaming industry" are some prime examples.

Unemployment is yet another example of the irrationality and waste of the capitalist system. In Australia, for example, official figures tell us that some 800,000 people are currently looking for work; the real figure is undoubtedly at least double that. In a society freed from dependence on the profit motive this would not happen. Everyone could be guaranteed meaningful work and the working week could at the same time be drastically reduced for all — probably to 30 hours or less — without any loss of income.

Would the increased production and development required to qualitatively raise the standard of living of the mass of the world's population be ecologically sustainable?

This is a vast topic but the basic socialist argument is simple and rationally optimistic. The ending of capitalism worldwide would enable society to overhaul its entire economic apparatus. There would be massive changes in what is produced and how it is produced. Once the profit motive is discarded, the reorganisation of the economy along ecologically sustainable lines could for the first time be seriously tackled. Sustainable energy production and closed-loop production processes could be implemented on a truly massive scale.