Sunday, February 21, 2016

Socialism as a Practical Alternative

A talk given at the Community Church of Boston on May 11, 2014

Since the keyword in the title of my talk is “practical,” I’d like to kick things off with a little thought experiment. Could anyone suggest some practical things President Obama might do in regard to the Ukrainian crisis? Just some simple ideas, nothing complicated.

Now let me ask you this: if a plan is “practical,” does that mean that it is supposed to kill or injure people, or supposed to make them unhappy? The Nazis might have answered yes, as long as we were talking about non-Aryans. But however we might set about hurting people, a practical goal should not include that purpose. Otherwise, it is not a desirable goal and isn’t really even practical.

It boils down to a question of ends vs. means: how we carry out a purpose is not affected by the end we have in mind, yet we can’t justify calling plans for, say, a pogrom “practical” in nature. The word “practical” refers implicitly to a positive goal. Using it has the effect of justifying the purpose it serves. If the end is not rational, our common sense balks at the thought of calling the means “practical.” Don Quixote had Sancho Panza carry out many such plans.

So, from the perspective of what is good for people, can anything Obama does about the Ukraine be “practical”? Your suggestions were good ones, but what they amount to is an admission that capitalism is an insanely impractical system of society, because whatever good things it can make happen, all of them in some form or other rest on killing or injuring people or making them unhappy. Government presupposes defending the interests of the ruling class, and we don’t need to have read Machiavelli to understand that making or promoting war is top on the list of things which are bad for people, that governments are expressly designed to carry out.

Bad, that is, except for members of the capitalist ruling class! And even then, when capitalists fall out, they often treat each other like rival thugs. Wars, in fact, are little more than highly organized gang fights. Which is what Clausewitz meant by calling them “politics by other means.”

Practical — and practical!

So what is practical, then? Can a system that is bad for people ever really be practical? Let’s say only that any social and economic order whose fundamental principles don’t tangle society up in complicated ways of living is practical. Who wouldn’t laugh, for example, to hear me speak of “capitalism as a practical alternative”? What isn’t complicated about capitalism? If you know anything about money, it certainly doesn’t simplify your life. No ticket, no laundry. Is that a simple way to live? On a more sinister level: no profit, no production. Even so, we might think of capitalism as the least complicated of all the social orders divided into economic classes.

I would like to share with you, in contrast, a definition of “socialism” as a worldwide system of community economies operated and controlled locally by community members directly for the benefit of all. Socialism does not include businesses owning stocks of capital and forcing those whom they exploit into a straightjacket of employment fused with poverty that you might be able to buy your way out of. The new paradigm will be: no wages, no capital, no money — and no states.

Yes, you heard that right: along with money and capital, what we now know as national boundaries will also disappear. The nation-state was a bourgeois invention, and it will stop working the moment we abolish employment. Everything that evolved into the state will depart with it, just like the trillions of dollars that might evaporate in a stock market crisis.

The New Practical sure won’t be boring.

Now, you may be wondering what I plan to say about how we “get there.” Well, I can’t tell you anything about that. The truth is, we already are there: enough of us just haven’t woken up to realize it yet. But I’ll cover this point a little further on.

Any system that preserves two key components of capitalism — capital and wages — therefore cannot be simple or practical. Trying to mix economic systems is like driving a car in both forward and reverse at the same time. (I don’t recommend it.) Cars aren’t made that way, and neither is the real world. Capitalism in that respect is the “unreal world” par excellence, as T.S. Eliot reminds us in “The Waste Land”:

Is Socialism “practical”?

Since what I am here calling socialism is the only really possible antithesis to the use of capital and wages in sustaining communities, only socialism can give us a practical social order that works for everyone in the world, and world socialism can only be practical.

The title of this talk really ought to be “Socialism as the Practical Alternative.” Let me now paint you a picture of how we humans could organize our planet if we would only make that essential preliminary break with the models handed down to us as if they were the Ten Commandments — and actually think for ourselves about what real communities made up of real people really need. No experts, no authorities, no power brokers or leaders can do this for us. This is truly the practical way to go if we want to make full use of our human intelligence. And with the advent of global heating and its threat to our survival, we will sure need to keep our wits about us.

To make all that possible, we first have to take that “impractical” leap in our own minds of rejecting employment and profit as a way of life, together with the notion that merely reforming a bad system can ever amount to a real change for everyone. Whoever feels this way is already part of the “socialist movement,” and when a majority of people do feel this way, we will witness the sudden global punctuation of the socialist revolution, with the first fledgling socialist economies sprouting up everywhere in the wake of national political revolutions.

One very important thing to remember is this: socialist society will lack any universal means of coercing its members, so that administrative bodies will not have the power to force compliance the way governments from time immemorial have done. Resolving disputes will revert to the community at large, as it occurred before homo sapiens invented the state. Socialist revolution won’t have to abolish the state because the power of the state grows out of the power of the capitalist class over the rest of society. All that needs to be abolished directly is capitalism’s system of employment (or the “wages system,” as it is more traditionally called).

The day after tomorrow

It is the power to force people to work for a living that gives the capitalist class its economic and political power; the former working class, by granting themselves the right to access whatever resources meet their needs, will establish everyone’s independence of all employers throughout society in all countries of the world.

The radical rhetoric of the past used to bill this as the “overthrow of capitalism.” We can, more prosaically, peer into the future enough to predict some of the consequences in their broad outlines.

Since no one will be available for employment, all further accumulation of capital will come to a halt; and since the need for money will have been abolished along with wages and salaries, every institution of capitalist society will be deprived of the ability to carry out its mission, by the vote of the people. Whole industries devoted to supporting or enforcing the rule of capital will from then on cease to have a function: banks, armed forces, police, insurance companies, stock exchanges, prisons and so on. Money no one has any need for has no value, and so the wealthy and the powerful will be unable to spend their money on anything, and their efforts to capitalize on their authority and prestige will fall on deaf ears.

Money itself will go out of fashion. Barter, without a ceiling of enforceable contracts, will devolve back into mutual gifting — a very ancient human institution. Without capital to patronize them, the police will not be able to lock anyone up. (Modern police forces were also a bourgeois invention. They exist chiefly to enforce the interests of capital.) No one will have to work to get money, so the day after the revolution, you can be sure restaurants and every other commercial establishment will start to undergo a dizzying radical transformation.

People who formerly drudged away as flunkies for some business will show up in droves to work gratis for the community, as an act of service. They will jump at the chance to do something that really matters — or that they really enjoy. Occupations that don’t measure up will accept the judgment of history and just expire. Many people will not show up for work at all; the much smaller number of people actually required to meet everyone’s needs will allow plenty of room for “slackers.” Getting stuck with stupid or dirty work will become the stuff of conversation, research and invention.

Free your mind instead!

It bears emphasizing none of this will happen unless most people have already become socialists in their heads and have come to realize that they must act in concert, if only for the space of an election, to criminalize working for a living. No socialists, no revolution! For this reason, during the run-up to the socialist revolution, the main activity of socialists must be to make more socialists, until the trip-wire of a conscious, political majority bent on ending the employment system finally makes its appearance.

Once the socialist majority has deliberately and politically abolished wages, responsibility for meeting people’s needs of all kinds will thenceforward fall on the communities they belong to, from the local level on up to what we historically call the “international.” Taking out of the picture government’s power to coerce society, along with the need for money, thus means that currencies and taxation will cease to be functional possibilities, and so the whole bloody edifice of war and diplomacy based on national frontiers will terminate without a shot being fired.

What defines a “community” in the absence of nation-states? We cannot answer this question from our present vantage point. Having been dominated by nation-states and their predecessors for so long, humans have lost the organic sense of community we are all born with; we will have to reinvent it on a global scale. Try to imagine, for example, a city, county or state operating without revenues: I doubt if we have models for that! My own conception of it can be described as building a “community of communities,” but however we think of it, it won’t be able to avoid taking as its point of departure the existing “realities” we now experience in a distorted way under capitalism.

Remember, we are talking about the problems people will unavoidably have to solve after they have abolished wages, capital and all the rest. Boundaries between communities will therefore depend on the spectrum of needs that people have inherited from capitalist “prehistory” as they move to regroup entire economies around the goal of meeting local needs. Disparities of rich and poor will quickly give way to free access to resources across the boundaries inherited from capitalism.

One of the many lesser repercussions of the changeover to free access, for example, would very likely become obvious in short order. If, after the Revolution, local populations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere cancel the export of their local resources (food), in an effort to meet their own needs, will this cause a retraction of consumption in the more developed regions? That isn’t inconceivable, in the short run. However, instead of just letting things go by inertia, the shortfall could be remedied by a reinstatement of mutual swaps (not trading arrangements!) or an expansion of travel between regions. If the mountain can no longer be brought magically to Muhammad, then Muhammad can at least go to the mountain himself. 

Concluding thoughts

If all this strikes you as “impractical,” ask yourself how practical it is to have invented a system that features such glories as economic downturns (depressions, or “recessions” in current jargon), wars and prisons. The oh-so-practical Yankees have traded on everything from alcohol to slaves to world war — and now they are trading on mass extinctions, including our own — and yet capitalism’s supporters think these can all be encompassed in the word “practical”! A world without wages, money, poverty and war would never work: it’s just not practical. Making a total mess of our lonely planet for the sake of profit — now that’s practical.

Ask yourself too if Adam Smith was really being all that practical in The Wealth of Nations, where he wrote about an economic system that as yet had still not proven itself. (That would not begin to happen until the 1840s.) Smith was an advocate of a theory who could not see how his basic assumptions could be wrong. In the 21st Century we know from experience how flawed his assumptions were; unfortunately, the die has been cast and we are no longer able to extricate ourselves from their consequences. For the sake of our own human survival, we now have no choice but to set aside Adam Smith’s beloved capitalism, and with it the whole world of networked evils that we humans find ourselves presently engulfed in.

When we do that, we will discover we have finally set ourselves free.

Ron Elbert

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