“But That’s Socialism!”

Last week I pointed out that some may accuse me of “socialism” for suggesting that creating an economy that provides enough for everyone requires a role for the state in stimulating, coordinating and regulating the economy. Does not the failure of socialist regimes to produce the economic growth achieved by capitalism disprove my argument?

Considering this question requires you to let go of the emotions these terms always stir up. We need to consider this matter rationality and dispassionately, and in the process we can clarify any misunderstandings about the role of the state that I am proposing.

The term socialism was first coined in France in the 1830s as a contrast to the unbridled individualism gaining prominence in Britain. These early socialists (Saint-Simon and Fourier in France and Robert Owen in the UK) drew rather on the observable fact that human beings are social creatures who like to live in cooperative and supportive communities. At its heart, then, was a philosophical question about human nature rather than scientific analysis of economic phenomena.

The extraordinary economic growth made possible by the industrial revolution had led to an extreme gulf between the conditions of the rich and the poor. On balance, it seems fair to suggest that those working in factories were marginally better off than their ancestors had been living as subsistence farmers. However, they worked in arduous conditions, typically 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, including the children, for an income only just above subsistence, and with a life expectancy of just 40 years. Meanwhile the owners of industry were amassing huge fortunes.

This situation seemed to many to be self-evidently wholly and grossly unjust. So socialism really begins with the recognition of this injustice in the political, social and economic order of the time, allied with the recognition that human beings are social animals.

The latter point, by the way, is an irrefutable scientific fact (as I pointed out last week). The former, however, is a moral judgement and therefore cannot be scientifically verified. If we cannot refer to a set of moral values that we hold in common (such as a religious or philosophical belief) then morality really just becomes a subjective preference. However, if you’re interested in the question of how we create an economy that creates enough for everyone then it seems likely that you would share to some degree the early socialists’ moral perception. And even if you don’t, hopefully you can at least see why they might have seen the prevailing conditions as unjust.

But from this starting point, there are infinite directions in which you can develop your system of thought. And the socialist movement evolved into distinct groups with very little in common. While we would generally see socialism as advocating collective ownership of the means of production, there are various ways in which this can be achieved. And underlying this are questions about the ownership of private property (as opposed to real property and capital); about the role of the state in achieving socialist aims; and in whether the process of changing society should be gradual and reformist or revolutionary.

Indeed, if you are going to criticise socialism, the first question perhaps has to be which version of socialist thought you are criticising! I am not interested in analysing the various strands of political and economic thinking within socialism. While I absolutely share the starting point of socialist thinking described above, it’s almost as if with the next step in their thinking process most socialists take a wrong turn.

Last week I suggested that for any society to genuinely embrace the philosophy of individualism, such that everyone’s situation in life is a result of their own effort and innate ability, then there needs to be a system of education that enables every individual to develop their full potential. However, those who espouse (whether explicitly or not) the philosophy of individualism, never argue for the creation of such a system of education as the most essential step for the progress of society!

But the same criticism could be levelled at almost all the varied schools of socialist thought (the most notable exception being the work of Paulo Freire). If we are to create a society in which everyone has a fair chance to benefit from the wealth generated by society (society itself being intrinsically a collective phenomenon), and in which everyone is enabled to to contribute to this collective effort, then we need to have a system of education that develops the potential of everyone to participate and to contribute.

The socialist movement came close to realising this concept at its first effort in international organisation. The International Workingmen’s Association was formed in 1864 to bring together all those across Europe working for these new ideas. It was an extremely broad church, and in many ways it is impressive that they could agree on anything. Indeed, the Association broke apart by 1876, and is today known as the “First International” to distinguish it from later efforts at a coordinated international movement. In this context, what they did agree on is noteworthy, and the rules of this Assocation begin with the statement:

“That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves…”

Personally, I would like to broaden this statement and state that the emancipation of all people in the world can only be achieved by all the people in the world, working together. How do we create such a society? What does it look like? No one knows, and that’s the point. The answer to the question how do we create an economy that provides enough for everyone is not a description of a perfect economic system. The answer to the question of how we create it should be the description of a process of social change. It is through such a process that we learn how to build such an economy, but this process of learning will therefore have to identify fundamental facts about the components of a monetary economy, which I have attempted to outline in this blog (and will summarise in a concluding series of posts). Such facts exist independent of our ideological convictions, and need to be considered dispassionately, free of bias.

Perhaps more importantly, this process of change should seek to engage all people in developing their own potential, in learning about themselves and what they are capable of, and also in learning about the functioning of their society and how they can contribute to it. At its heart, therefore, there has to be a system of education that develops these capacities.

So what does this system of education look like? Again, we don’t know – there is not some utopian ideal system of education that we can implement to solve all our problems. We have to learn how to do this, as society working together. The socialist movement should have focused on the development of processes of education that enable every member of the human race, and every community of people, to take charge of their own social and economic development (as, indeed, Paulo Freire strove to do). In this process of learning, we can work out precisely how to manage the ownership of the means of production.

But despite identifying the principle highlighted above, the socialist movement as a whole continued to take the ownership of the means of production as the starting point of its conceptual framework. For me, this is simply the wrong place to start. For some, the collective ownership of the means of production is the defining element of socialism, and rejecting it as the key issue to be resolved makes me by definition not a socialist. But for many socialists, my belief that the progress of society fundamentally requires cooperation, collective effort for the common good, and a stewardship role for the state, does indeed make me one of them.

What do I think? I don’t care. I wouldn’t label myself a socialist because there has been far too much that is unhelpful spoken in the name of socialism, and because it fails to acknowledge that the starting point of our conceptual framework should in fact be a belief in the capacity of every human being – we create a materially and spiritually prosperous society by unlocking this potential. In the end, the label itself becomes unhelpful.

And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful labels, a word has to be said about the experience of the Soviet Union. Any critique of free market capitalism is sooner or later going to evoke the plaintive cry, “But what about Russia?”

This indignant objection will eventually be heard in any conversation in which the need for a role of the state in the economy becomes apparent. The failure of an extreme form of state control, in a country in a unique geographical and historical setting, is seen as a cast iron refutation of the need for any role of the state in any context. It really is an ignorant, even moronic, objection.

The Soviet Union attempted to rapidly transform a completely undeveloped agrarian, feudal economy into an industrial powerhouse, while facing the enmity of the most powerful group of nations on earth and therefore having to maintain a massive military expenditure. It is worthless as an historical example of the potential of the role of the state in economic development.

And in addition, the Soviet Union adopted a very specific and extreme role for the state in managing the economy. It was akin to a someone making a machine, taking personal responsibility for the placement and functioning of every component. In contrast, the role of the state implied by the conclusions of this blog is that of a gardener, not a manufacturer. A gardener needs to understand the environmental factors in their own garden – the soil, the light, the rainfall and drainage, the existing wildlife – and then seeks to sow plants suited to that environment, which will cohere together into a beautiful garden. It nurtures these plants by ensuring they have the best possible environment in which to grow, not by trying to control the exact appearance of every leaf, branch and flower. Similarly, a government needs to understand the factors affecting its own nation – geography, climate, natural resources, existing industries and skills, and the economic context of the wider region – and then seek to stimulate industrial development relevant to these conditions and the needs of its people, by unlocking and enabling their resourcefulness.

I will return to this analogy in 2 weeks. For now, I just wanted to put to bed any knee-jerk reactions that talking about a role for the state means socialism (or communism) and therefore must be wrong.

We cannot make progress if our method for determining truth is first of all to identify a system of thought with which we identify – be it “capitalism” or “socialism” or whatever – and then weigh each proposition against whether it agrees with our understanding of that system of thought. If some of the proposals in this blog remind you of whatever vague notions of socialism you carry in your head, that does not make those proposals wrong. The proposals stand or fall on the empirical evidence and the logic of the arguments. And saying, “But that’s socialism”, is not, in fact, a logical argument, it’s a way to keep yourself ignorant. Next week I will point out examples of what would be considered socialist approaches showing up in the most surprising places…

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