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Pondering the universe


The trouble with socialism

Socialism is becoming more appealing to some as the excesses and instability caused by capitalism is contributing to increasing levels of wealth inequality.

Socialism, at least in its traditional sense, shares many of the same issues as capitalism, being:

  • β€’While purporting to be for the benefit of people, their focus is centred on economics.
  • β€’Leading to massive enterprises in the hands of few people.
  • β€’Ripe for corruption due to the few people in charge.

This convergence comes from the central consideration of money and how it plays out in the regulation of life. This focus seems to come from a lack of knowing what the real value of life is to human beings, often being alluded to in vague terms like quality of life, leisure time, career and family life, before going back to how supposedly central money is to making all of these happen. People are merely seen as consumers of the benefits of whatever economic system is chosen and part of the mechanism of that system's perseverance.

Of course, people under any system are fed the propaganda that is meant to ensure there are no mass challenges to the system. Capitalism and socialism expect a significant level of conformance of people for their smooth working. Those who challenge the validity of the system they live in are often viewed with distain, or at worst, violence. People are expected to work according to the system's rules, even though those rules are largely dictated by those in charge.

One of the criticisms of the capitalist system is that too few people get to decide the conditions of their working life. Businesses are hierarchical with lesser opportunity for those lower in that hierarchy to make the decisions about how their workplace is run, while those at the top have fairly free reign to do what they like. Socialism challenges this model by positing that the bosses should be replaced by the government supposedly ensuring that all workers are looked after.

Well, of those supposedly socialist states that sprung out of corrupt capitalist systems, many failed because they didn't allow the workers any more say than under the previous system, with even less opportunities for social mobility as the government controlled all the levers that defined where workers could work. And like the capitalist systems, those with privilege could influence those in government to favour them.

What about communism?β–³

Karl Marx saw socialism as a transitory stage between capitalism and communism, with automation leading to a surplus so people had enough time to enjoy whatever they wanted.

Communism promises more individual freedom with production democratically regulated and all resources publicly held. People would be free to indulge themselves as they desired, so there would be no need for money. It is clear that something like socialism would be needed to transition to such a society, as currently most have been propagandised into being far too selfish to be willing to self-regulate their desires enough to not lead to rampant resource usage and goods accumulation that would quickly bankrupt the resource capacity of the earth.

It is the mechanics of the transitioning of our thinking that is the key to how quickly we could manage it. It would necessitate a lot of what would be propaganda reinforcing what attitudes are required to keep the process under control. The great experiments in implementing communism have all resulted in a lot of propaganda leading to heavy-handed control of those societies by despots. But they were all transitioning from typically corruption-ridden autocratic societies straight to communism, without really giving people to adapt time to adjust their thinking.

Instead, the thinking required was imposed upon them, which of course was too tempting for those in charge to keep hold of that means of population control. Basically, populations used to being controlled will continue to allow themselves to be controlled, and so a new set of despots took over control of their societies. So the theory of what a communist society should look like never came to be realised in practice.

What needs more exposition is who makes the decisions about what to produce, and the feedback loop that ensures that what is produced is in line with what people want, rather than just what the leaders think that the society needs. Communism is supposed to give people a lot of leisure time, particularly by extensive use of automation. All the so-called communist command-economy states where the leaders chose what was produced absolutely failed to lead to leisure-based societies. Instead, people were exploited and over-worked, with only the leaders getting the real benefits.

How would we prevent such exploitation? How do we maximise personal choices? These are the exact questions we have to have practical answers to if we are to evolve our current societies to be more humane. We need real explanations that layout the mechanics of operation. We can work on these over time, but then we have to have some ideal to work towards. However, that has to be much more than just a simplistic piece of propaganda that assumes that having a name and a bunch of vague promises is good enough. Our current ones of those are failing us.

Time for revisitingβ–³

Traditional socialism is seen as not fit for purpose as a model for societies to follow, but what can be changed about it to make it work better for all?

Modern socialists have tended to find more equitable ways of sharing control of resources, while incorporating our modern aspirations of democracy and social mobility. Fewer now adhere to the clear class structural division lines of Marxist socialism while trying to live up to its ideals.

One of the more recent models to address the lack of democracy in the workplace is worker cooperatives, with elected representatives on their boards and managers hired and evaluated by the workers to run them. These have been proven to scale from quite small to tens of thousands of workers. They don't tend to have excessive CEO salaries nor outsource their production to cheap labour havens overseas to save costs. These would appear to offer the best balance between flexibility and worker welfare.

Certainly, they appear to be the best model for transitioning away from a purely autocratic capitalist model, and any business could transition to them with support from government legislation that encourages and facilitates workers having the first option of buying a company when offered up for sale. Getting people away from businesses that exploit them is the first step in allowing people to have more autonomy in how they want to live their lives.

What usually occurs when people get access to a lot of resources is they find a use for them, with more resources leading to more grandiose projects. Both capitalism and socialism tend to lead to resource hogging by those who can bully, cajole, press-gang or otherwise rope others into their schemes, taking them away from their own interests or projects. This has been what has led to the great white elephants that have dogged both systems.

There needs to be more accountability to prevent such excesses. If everyone is to get to indulge their own ideas, then there needs to be limits to prevent hogging. It comes down to acknowledging that small projects can be just as enthralling as large ones, but without the needless angst. Government has a role to play in this, and things such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) can allow people the time to nurture pet projects that may lead to business opportunities, or not! It could just be for learning, and that is fine.

Whether we could actually get to a utopia like that envisioned as communism is not known. We are thoroughly indoctrinated to be too selfish for our own or society's good, but a lot of the elements that were envisioned as being necessary to getting there are already with us. There may be other society structures that will work just as well for us while not destroying the earth. We will probably be in a hybrid society for a long time, and an evolving version of that may well be our perfect society as we might converge on any one system that works for all.

  • β€’Degrowth – the only alternative
  • β€’Reversing climate change
  • β€’Nationalism creates inequality
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