Wednesday, August 03, 2011

society of the future

In presenting a “picture” of a future society, and a scenario indicating how that society might be achieved, the intention is not to present a blueprint. Rather, that “picture” simply points in a certain direction. The goal is to convince the reader that societal system change is not only necessary but possible, doing the latter by presenting a plausible sequence of events. By doing that, the possibility exists that the reader will take the possibility of societal system change seriously, and then begin to act on it. If not in the way proposed herein, then some other way. No attempt is made to present a detailed description of the “look” of a future society because doing so would overly direct (or bias, if you will) people’s thinking about the future. The advantage of a brief sketch is that it can help people believe that our society can be changed as the result of planned efforts; we don’t have to simply let “nature take its course.” Also, because a brief sketch has potential for “whetting their appetites,” they may then be inspired to develop their own ideas regarding the direction we should go, and how to get there.

Socialists caution against the creation of blueprints. Drawing up a detailed blueprint for socialism is premature. For a small group of socialists, as we are now , to do so would be undemocratic. We also recognise that there may not be one single way of doing things, and precise details and ways of doing things might vary from one part of the world to another, even between neighbouring communities. Socialists don't have crystal balls. Socialists cannot determine what the conditions will be when socialism is established. As the socialist majority grows, when socialism is within the grasp of the working class, that will then be the proper time for making such important decisions. It is imprudent for today’s socialist minority to be telling people how to administer a socialist society. When a majority of people understand what socialism means, the suggestions for socialist administration will solidify into an appropriate plan. It will be based upon the conditions existing at that time, not today. We can , however, reach some generalised conclusions based on basic premises and can outline broad principles or options that could be applied. We do not have to draw up a plan for socialism, but simply and broadly demonstrate that it is possible and therefore refute the label of “utopianism”.

By refusing to write recipes for future cookshops, by failing to talk about the future society except in very general terms for fear of being dubbed 'idealist', Marx and Engels in fact signaled that the building of socialism—as distinct from the opposition to capitalism—for them was not high on their agenda. But by exposing the processes whereby capitalism carried out its exploitation of the working class he clearly laid down markers as to what would not exist in a socialist society. For socialists the building of the new society, by spelling out what common ownership, democratic control, production solely for use, and free access mean as a practical alternative that people can support now, must be at the top of our agenda.

What will socialism be like?

At one time socialism was also known as "social democracy", a phrase which shows well that democratic control would extend to all aspects of social affairs, including the production and distribution of wealth. There is an old socialist slogan which speaks of "government over people" giving way "to the administration of things"; meaning that the public power of coercion, and the government which operates it will have no place in socialism. Those who wrongly assume that government and administration are one and the same will have some difficulty in imagining a society without government. A society without administration would indeed be impossible since "society" implies that human beings organise themselves to provide for their needs. But a society without government is both possible and desirable. Socialism will in fact mean the extension of democratic administration to all aspects of social life on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and distribution. There will be administrative centres which will be clearing-houses for settling social affairs by concensus.

Capitalism has developed technology and social productivity to the point where plenty for all can be produced. A society of abundance has long been technically possible and it is this that is the material basis for socialism.Using techniques for predicting social wants (at present prostituted to the service of capital), a socialist society can work out how much and what sort of products and services will be needed over a given period. Men and women will be free to discuss what they would like to be produced. So with social research and after democratic discussion an estimate of what is needed can be made. The next problem is to arrange for these amounts to be produced. Capitalism, with its modern computer that can provide input-output analysis, has developed the techniques which a socialist society can use.

A self-regulating system of stock-control, a system initially built up by supermarkets and other retail outlets in capitalism. This system could work in the following way without the need for a price mechanism. Real social demand would arise through individual consumers exercising their right of free access to consumer goods and services according to their own self-defined needs. Such needs would be expressed to units of production as required quantities such as grammes, kilos, cubic metres, tonnes, or whatnot, of various materials and quantities of goods requiring to be manufactured and produced from the vatious scales of social production (local, regional, worldwide). Calculation in kind - that is- calculation in real quantities. There would be no need for a bureaucratic pre-determined allocative plan. This system would be self-regulating as each element of production would be self-adjusting to the communication of these material requirements. Each part of production would know its position. If requirements were low in relation to a build-up of stock, then this would be an automatic signal to a production unit that production should be reduced. Conversely, if requirements were high in relation to stock then this would be an automatic indication that production should be increased. This system would apply to producer goods also, that is, those goods not intended for consumption but for the production of other goods. The demand for producer goods would arise via the network of consumption outlets signalling their needs to units of consumer production that through the stockcontrol mechanism would in turn provide the appropriate signals for the suppliers of production goods. Where particular factors of production were scarce or difficult to obtain for some reason, this would constitute a signal to economise on the use of that factor and to turn instead to more readily available substitutes. Any overproduction of goods, should it occur, would be in relation to real needs and not market demand and could be adjusted without the threat of slump, the surplus held and stored as a buffer stock reserve.

A typical response to the description of a socialist society with free access and where people work because they want to, on a voluntary basis is such a society would not work because no one in it would do any work. To suggest that work could be pleasant raises a laugh; but this only shows how much capitalism has degraded human life. Working for an employer under capitilist conditions is always degrading, often boring and unpleasant and sometimes unhealthy and dangerous. Yet there is no reason at all why the work of producing and distributing useful things cannot be as enjoyable as are leisure-time activities today. The physical conditions under which work is done can be vastly improved. So can the relationships between people in the work-place. Work will be done by free men and women co-operating and controlling their work environment, getting enjoyment from creating things and performing socially useful tasks. Those who own or control the means of production call the shots whether we are dealing with a small company, a corporation, or a state-owned enterprise. The workers have no choice but to work in the manner assigned to them. No matter how enjoyable the work itself might be, this lack of control over the labour process (not to mention over hiring and firing decisions) contributes to the dissatisfaction we experience at our jobs. The fact that each individual within the “association” or community will be actively involved in making the important decisions regarding production. Those decisions would be made by them democratically, according to the simple criterion of improving the quality of their own lives. That tangible democracy contrasts sharply with the utter lack of influence workers today have on the decisions regarding production and the labour process, which are nominally made by capitalists and politicians but in fact dictated by the impulses of capital. In socialism, the members of the society will be able to decide on the plans for production (and other aspects of life) and then work together to realise them, without sacrificing their own needs for the sake of profitability.

In the process of collectively making those decisions one can imagine all sorts of issues that might be debated. Certainly there is the question of what to produce and in what quantity. But in addition to such matters, close attention will also be paid to what might be called the qualitative or even aesthetic aspects of the labour process, reflecting the fact that the entire society is now oriented towards improving the level of human life. This means that there would be an effort to make the experience of work itself is as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. All of the decisions would also have to take into consideration the resources available, both in the present and future, so that a short-term gain in the quality of life does not lead to disaster for latter generations. These are some examples of the big questions that might be considered, but there would be countless others, covering every imaginable aspect and consequence of the labour process.

It should be obvious that people are far from being lazy by nature. The aversion to work that is not uncommon today is certainly not due to inherent human laziness or the general nature of labour itself. One reason we may underestimate the desire to work is that leisure time activities come under the category of “hobbies,” even though they do not always differ in substance from types of labour performed for wages. What tends to make a hobby enjoyable and fulfilling is precisely the qualities so often lacking in the jobs done to earn a living. Instead of being a way to benefit others, performed under their direction, a hobby is an activity pursued for its own sake that can be a means of self-development and self-fulfilment. The fundamental reorientation of society following a socialist revolution will obviously have an enormous effect on the labour process and the personal experience of work.

The first change that seems likely, for a number of reasons, is a major reduction in the length of the working day. This will be possible, first of all, because production will only be intended to satisfy the needs of society’s members, as determined by them, so there would be little incentive to continue working beyond that point, thereby piling up unwanted goods and squandering natural resources. Unlike today, any increase in the productivity of labour, so that more goods can be produced using less labour-time, could immediately shorten the length of work for individuals. And there would not be the terrible waste of labour we see today under a system where goods are produced for a fickle market, rather than to directly satisfy needs, and may thus rot on store shelves or in warehouses if not purchased. Another reason that the working day may become the working morning or afternoon is that the relative size of the pool of adults willing and able to perform the productive labour, which produces the wealth of society, will increase with the addition of the unemployed and those engaged under the current system in unproductive labour (e.g., bankers, lawyers, salesmen, etc.). The entire financial sector, for instance, will no longer have a reason for existence in a society where products are not bought and sold on the market. The shorter working day is only a quantitative change, of course, but it would bring about an immediate improvement in the quality of our lives, as we can easily imagine. It would make most jobs, at the very least, far more bearable, and allow us to engage in other activities we find much more agreeable.

In a socialist society there will be no social stigma attaching to particular kinds of work. The question "Who'll do the dirty work under Socialism?" often turns up. The questioner usually has in mind jobs such as collecting the garbage, or working in the sewers. The reason why people ask about this kind of work is that it is clearly useful, indeed essential to public health. The standard answer is to say that a socialist society would try to automate as much of such work as technologically possible, or find ways to make it less unpleasant, or organise a rota or call for volunteers. Nobody will be condemned to do such work forty hours a week for years on end. The strangest of objections to socialism is : “I don't want to live in a world without wear and starvation, and where my needs are satisfied, if it means I have to do dirty work once in a while " Socialism can do lots of things, but not make crap smell of roses; that is one little fact of life we'll have to put up with. Capitalism fell heir to a fair amount of dirty work from the past, and over the years it has created many others. Some of these no longer currently exist. Others, no doubt, will also vanish in due course or become less objectionable under the influence of changing conditions of work or changing habits in society.

Marx stated that: "In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic"

On another page he summed up the same thought as follows: "In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities"

A point that must be understood is that socialism will not have to start from scratch. It will inherit from capitalism a going technical system of production which people will be able to adapt to production for use. Some manufacturing methods will cease straight away (or as soon as possible) but others will only require modification and adaption to a greater or lesser extent. Again, once when socialism has cleared up the mess inherited from capitalism, it will become a society in which methods of production need only to change slowly. This will make decision-making about production much simpler.

1 comment:

ajohnstone said...

"The self-emancipatory nature of communism also explains why Marx’s vision does not take the form of a detailed blueprint à la the utopian socialists. As Alan Shandro observes, any such blueprint would only foreclose political debates, conflicts, and strategies developed by the working class itself “understood as a unity in diversity, as a political community.” Marx and Engels’s attempts to envision communism’s basic principles should be seen not as a “master plan” but “as means of organising the workers’ movement and structuring and guiding debate in and around it.” Although their projections need to be constantly updated in light of developments in capitalist and post-revolutionary societies, their basic approach is still relevant today"