Notes on socialism

For a long time now, the discussion about socialism has been characterized by truisms and false definitions. It is necessary to finally overcome these.

Two queer persons kissing in front of the Berlin Wall painting of Brezhnev and Honecker

Even in leftist circle, the discourse around socialist theories is constructed around weird, and frankly said, wrong definitions. Most of the times, people arguing in context of certain ownerships of the means of production that always involves the state. In the end, people argue for or against production modes that were found in the USSR or GDR. A society that was not really free in the sense of how a democratic state should function.

To be honest, it is exhausting hearing the same arguments against socialism all the time, because they are built upon wrong understandings of socialism, and do not reflect the certain goal a socialist society tries to achieve: political, cultural, societal, and economical democracy. But the red scare left its marks of centuries of misinformation. The words socialism, Marxism and communism are a big red flag in discussions – literally. Therefore, it is pretty funny to see conservatives agree on socialist theses when you do not mention these certain terms. Suddendly, the average, 62 years old Republican living in the Midwest, who owns a Pickup-Truck, is for the democratization of the workplace.

Of course, freedom is subjective: for a right-wing libertarian, freedom is when they have their freedom of contract, exploiting workers for maximum profit so they can defend their british-styled lawn with big cannons and machine guns. Yet, I will try to argue against following fallacies with a definition of freedom that should be a consensus in the broader public: That freedom is everything, to the point where someone else’s freedom begins.

No, socialism is not about abolishing property.

Opponents of socialist ideas always create images of a dystopic society where we do not own anything. Everything would be the property of a state or some kind of unknown entity. It would not even own the means of production, but also your toothbrush. And you, of course.

This argument is of course hillarious, but I already observed discussions in YouTube comments where idealistic newcomers to leftist ideologies argued for a society in which property does not exist anymore. I hate it to break it for them, but I do not want to live in a hippie commune sharing my toothbrush.

I am certain that this image of ownership is the connection of socialism to modes of production found in the states of the Warsaw pact. This states were governed by authoritarian gouvernments, and the entire agriculture and industry complex was in hand of a bureaucratic state entity.

Here, we have to define the Marxist understanding of property. In general, we differentiate between personal and private property. Personal property is for instance, a laptop you bought, a toothbrush, a cup in your cupboard. Or a image you shooted. Or lines of code you wrote for a little program. These are things you own because you either created or bought them. Personal property is contrary to private property. It implies the ownership of a single person or small group of private investors/owners of the means necessary to produce products from labour, and the managing instance directly linked to it. Most of the times, people are employed by this entity to produce products under their terms of contract.

Private property is, in almost all cases, bad. They are entities that are not democratically justified. Of course, one could argue that every individual is free to choose their employer, so that companies have to advertise for qualified workers, resulting in a free choice illusion between these companies (creating an image similar to political parties). However, this always results in a scenario where a person has to choose between the plague and cholera.

Democratic socialism does not advocate for state ownership with central planning, but rather a form of democratised ownership of the means of production, that can exist in a market. Furthermore, this kind of ownership already persists since centuries already: cooperatives. Its existence and internal structure, including decisions and management is democratically justified, in contrast to private property. Private enterprises are mostly managed in a top-down approach, whereas coops are following a bottom-up approach. Here, it is important to underline that cooperatives do not imply the absence of hierarchies. A cooperative or some other form of collective enterprise can decide if they want to rely on certain hierarchies and can appoint them democratically. Such a system allows for “advancement” according to pure competencies and expertise, thus creating legitimate authorities.

The video I link here (click!) is an interesting, scientific approach to analyse cooperatives in their functionality, trying to observe advantages and disadvantages. I would recommend watching it, to understand the points I’m making in favour of such a form of company, but being fully aware of its potential risks.

What one should keep in mind are the structural conditions we are living under. Of course, one is free to establish a cooperative, but a capitalist system with a hegemonial ownership of capital and its (in)direct control in politics will always wrong cooperatives in favour of private enterprises. To establish a company nowadays, you will have to compete against many big players, maybe even cartels, which potentially also have a say in politics. But for your co-op being able to compete, money will be neccessary. However, this will lead you to be dependent from venture capital firms, which will probably not willing to give you any credits because you are a cooperative, or in other terms: you rather follow a stakeholder approach than a shareholder approach. Thus, a transformation to socialism cannot be done just by people voluntarily creating cooperatives, but to dismantle the structures of a system which hinders the creation of such; it would also be necessary to redistribute wealth, to limit the political power of private enterprises, and to reform monetary policies.

In short, democratic socialism aims not only at democratizing society (which we already observe and strive for in many countries of the world) and forms of property, but also at democratizing the economy as a whole.

No, socialism is not authoritarian.

As you may see in the first paragraph, I am no fan of the former autocratic socialist states. Neither am I a fan of states with a free market economy, because, so I would argue, they even lack freedom in certain senses. On the one hand, I have to work for another person/a company because else I couldn’t survive. I do lack the right of self-determination and a right to a say, and are left to arbitariness of a CEO or an HR department.

And on the other hand, cooperations try to enforce their ideas of how we should live. Of course, they can not force us physically or by law, but instead by FOMO (fear of missing out) and fear of ending as a social outcast mostly leads us in this situation. Or the materialistic conditions do not provide any alternative. In a more detailed context, I do not have any choice to choose an alternative. Technology nowadays is built around profit, which means that it even tries to make profit of the data I do not even wish to share. The alternative? Either choosing to live off-grid, or to buy an old Nokia 3310. Both options potentially make me an outcast in the end. I cannot abstain from computers, because they are necessary everywhere, be it in education, entertainment or at work.

A socialist economy that is democratized, in this case, is much easier to hold accountable. Decision-making processes here are not only in the interest of a corporate management that wants to impose its megalomaniacal ideas in the name of innovation or avant-gardism, but in the interest of the entire working population. And apart from that: democracy in a workplace is not authoritarian.

And again, I am not arguing for state ownership as it was common in eastern bloc states. I am against state ownership, except in the case of infrastructure. But even in this case, the entity of the state must be held accountable for its actions.

If these conditions are not given, we are not talking about a socialist state.

No, socialism is not about everyone being totally equal.

This argument occurs unbearably often in discussions. Socialism is not directly about egalitarianism. Rather, the focus is on equality of opportunity. Yes, even under socialism a doctor would earn more than a foreman on a construction site. If you went to the trouble of studying for six years and passing two state exams, you are entitled to your money. Socialist theories simultaneously recognize that no one, really no one, can accumulate several millions or billions. Such incomes are only possible by lying to one’s own workforce about their wages and collecting their profits for oneself, i.e. one speaks of exploitation in the Marxist sense. Marx, too, already stated in the Gotha Program that the assumption of equal incomes is unrealistic:

To understand what is implied in this connection by the phrase "fair distribution", we must take the first paragraph and this one together. The latter presupposes a society wherein the instruments of labor are common property and the total labor is co-operatively regulated, and from the first paragraph we learn that "the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society."

"To all members of society"? To those who do not work as well? What remains then of the "undiminished" proceeds of labor? Only to those members of society who work? What remains then of the "equal right" of all members of society?

But "all members of society" and "equal right" are obviously mere phrases. The kernel consists in this, that in this communist society every worker must receive the "undiminished" Lassallean "proceeds of labor". 

But it is insane to assume that in this case the difference in income would be great. And we should not forget that lower skilled work in this case should not lead to misery, but must be humane.

At the same time, a socialist society must recognize it and try everything to provide equal opportunities. It is statistically proven that children from working class families are much less likely to graduate from high school, attend university, or even complete their studies. In contrast, these rates are much higher for children from academic families. Social mobility, income, family circumstances, language skills and discrimination based on origin are often the reasons for this. Equal opportunity also means that it is easy to enter or re-enter the world of work without discrimination or incomprehensible hurdles such as financial factors. That the unemployed also receive a humane basic income and are not punished.

No, socialism does not conflict with human nature.

When coming to the close of a short discussion about socialism, some parties use their knockout argument to lead the discussion from a scientific standpoint to an idealistic questioning: “Humans are egoistic, so a system around ‘solidarity’, fair shares of power and means of production cannot work in the first place”. First of all, I argue: yes, to some extent, human are egoistic, and I would even claim that this kind of egoism is fully okay. In fact, I would argue that socialism is one of the most egoistic world conceptions in existence. I, a human person, with human rights, I INSIST on this fair share of the cake. Whether this fair share is a good wage, the right to have a say in a company or the right to fair working conditions and plenty of free time. This sounds great, doesn’t it? Yet we can explore even more fallacies in this argument: Second, if human nature is a problem, then why do we have functioning democracies? Not one sane person would argue against democracies because they wouldn’t work. Clearly, there are some idiots trying to overthrow democracies (because they are either uneducated, bigots, or they fear losing their privilege) but the existence of demagogues did not stopped us from building democratic societies and giving up on this idea. Socialism is, again, build around the idea of a democratized economy, so why would this be any different? Yes, some states that were “democratic” to some extent, but then got worse, such as Russia, Myanmar or Turkey, but this would be a discussion around control mechanisms, not the flaws of democracies.

Last but not least, people are not just plain egoistic. If we would be insist on our individualistic approach, we would be pretty fucked. Human made scientific, technological and philosophical progress and reduced suffering because they cooperate(d) with each other. This reaches from division of labour and knowledge to mutual aid. If we get in trouble, we have some kind of backing in form of infrastructure or humans supporting us.

To put it in short terms: without some kind of altruism we wouldn’t be here able to read, maybe we could have lost the fight of evolution. We survived because we hunted and gathered together, possibly sharing our own gained knowledge, and thus showing ourselves altruistic. Because those who share, profit, those who do not, do not, and may be in a disadvantage. This behavior was already observed in bat species. If one animal was not able to find food, another bat will be ready to provide parts of its own ration for them. Because this is the premise for the animal to be helped in return, if it could not find food itself as well. Bats that are only beneficiaries or do not share do not benefit from this sharing of food and run the risk of dying. In this case, sharing is part of biological fitness here, and we can observe many parallels to human interactions. Hence, one could argue that cooperating and sharing is part of our evolutionary development.

End of discussion?

With certainty, this answer is a big no. I could continue with standard fallacies about socialism, but it would be way too much and I did not plan to write an entire book. In fact, someone already did this.

I mainly intended to shift the focus to more interesting questions in the debate of socialism, be it monetary policies or functionalities of cooperatives, instead of arguments that always include the numbers “1984” or words “Animal Farm” in it.

image source

Marius Sulzer: (CC-BY-SA 4.0)