The Socialist Party has described socialism in terms of abundance and there are those in the environmentalist groups who interpret this as meaning that socialism will be a society of ever-increasing personal consumption, of people coming to consume more and more food and to acquire more and more personal goods, a consumerist cornucopia. But what the Socialist Party means by a “society of abundance” is that enough food, clothing and other material goods can be produced to allow every man, woman, and child in society to satisfy their likely material needs. It is not a reference to an orgy of consumption, but simply to the fact that it is technically possible to produce more than enough to satisfy everyone’s needs.
Meeting everybody’s material needs will indeed involve in many cases an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the for the millions and millions of people in the so-called Third World who are suffering from horrendous problems of starvation, disease, and housing. So, yes, socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for three-quarters or more of the world’s population. Impossible, says some eco-activists because this would exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even worse. Not so, is our answer.
Our critics’ mistake is to confuse consumption per head with what individuals actually consume. To arrive at a figure for consumption per head, what the statisticians do is to take total consumption of whatever and then divide it by the total population. But this doesn’t give a figure for what people consume as, in addition to personal it includes what industry, the government, and the military consume. It a grossly misleading to equate consumption per head with personal consumption since it ignores the fact that consumption per head can be reduced without reducing personal consumption and that this is, in fact, compatible with an increase in personal consumption. This in effect is what Socialists Party proposes: to eliminate the waste of capitalism, not just of arms and armies but of all the overhead costs involved in buying and selling. It has been estimated that, at the very least, half of the workforce is engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity (some estimates go higher). In a socialist society all this waste will be eliminated, so drastically reducing consumption per head.
This will allow room for the personal consumption of those who need it to be increased to a decent level. Diverting resources to do this — and ensuring that every human on the planet does have a decent standard of living will be the primary, the initial aim of socialism — will put up consumption per head again, but to nowhere near the level now obtaining under capitalism.
After clearing up the mess inherited from capitalism, then both consumption and production can be expected to level off (and even decline) to something approaching a “steady-state economy”. In a society geared to meeting human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more.
It is true that this assumes that population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption, and is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, as in the most developed capitalist parts of the world of Europe, North America and now Japan, fertility rates are reducing. Population growth now only feature in the poorer parts of the world, suggesting a link between it and poverty and the insecurity that goes with it (the more children you have the more chance there is of someone to care for you in your old age). The way to end population growth is to eliminate poverty and economic insecurity, which in practice can only be done by socialism. Unless prosperity of the people in the poorer parts of the world is increased, then population growth there won’t slow down. If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation or letting starvation, disease, and wars take their course.