And so we come to the Marx family, the last stop on this imaginary examination of competing conceptions of unemployment [which, you will recall, is intended merely as an illustration of only the first of the two fundamental obstacles to the formulation of an objective and ideologically neutral conception of society, the second being the problem of index numbers. That is still to come.] By way of the Waltons, we looked at what unemployment might mean in a pre-capitalist society. Next, the iconic figure of John Galt stood in for an examination of unemployment in a capitalist economy. The Marx family is supposed to lead us into a consideration of how unemployment would be conceptualized and understood in a socialist economy.
Immediately we encounter a problem. We know what a pre-capitalist economy would look like. History is for the most part the story of such economies. And since we live in a capitalist economy, we need simply look around us, intelligently and insightfully, to arrive at an understanding of unemployment in capitalism. But there never has been a socialist economy, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to the contrary notwithstanding, so we must at this point engage in genuine speculation. [I really do not want to have an argument about whether the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were ever socialist economies. Read my paper, "The Future of Socialism," for some insight. I am old, and tired, and I have had this argument too many times in my life. If you think they were socialist, because they said they were socialist, then you probably also think the Holy Roman Empire was holy, Roman, and an empire. In any case, you need to seek out another blog.]
A socialist economy is an advanced industrial economy [not a utopian commune like a Kibbutz!] in which the forces of production have been developed to the point at which it is genuinely possible to engage in society-wide economic planning. It is an economy in which the means of production are owned or are otherwise within the control and oversight of the society as a whole. It is a society that is governed democratically by the people as a whole, not by the representatives of capital masquerading as representatives of the people. And it is a society in which economic activity is understood as a human activity satisfying and valuable in its own right as well as for its ability to meet the needs of the people as a whole. It is a society in which the rate of economic growth is determined by the people as a whole, within the constraints of technological possibility and resource availability, not by narrow and local calculations of short-term profitability.
In a socialist society, the needs of the people, not of capital, are primary. Capital exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve capital. What is more, it is the needs of ALL of the people that are to be taken into account, not merely the needs of those people who serve the interests of capital accumulation.
Almost certainly, a true socialist economy is not possible in one country surrounded by a world of capitalist countries, because when the forces of production and social relations of production have achieved a high level of development, as is now the case in the world, capital is thoroughly international in its organization and reach. It would be as futile to attempt to maintain an advanced socialist economy in one country as it would be to try to maintain one level of the water in the ocean while all around the rest of the water is at a different level.
A truly human socialist society would organize itself so as to support and facilitate the natural life cycle of birth, childhood, maturity, old age, and death. In such a society, it would be understood that all men and women have productive roles to play in the society, and all have needs that it is the purpose of the economy to satisfy as well as possible. It would be understood that all human production, even that of the corporate magnate or the architect [pace Galt] or the artist, is fundamentally social and grounded in the historical and collective achievements of humanity. Everyone comes into a world that is already rich in history, technology, and conceptual resources. No one, American popular culture to the contrary notwithstanding, is a Self-Made Man. The labor of mothers is as crucial to the on-going well-being of humanity as the labor of farmers or craftspeople or corporate managers. Children have an appropriate role preparing themselves for productive labor, and the elderly, having lived productive lives, deserve a decent and fulfilling final stage of their particular enactment of the human life cycle.
In such a society, the concept of unemployment has no appropriate place. Broad tolerance is desirable for the widest possible diversity of life trajectories, even for those trajectories that seem to reject the responsibilities that come with accepting the food, clothing, and shelter produced by others. But just as every Walton, from Grandpa and Grandma to the youngest child, can be expected in some way or other to contribute to that family's well-being, so in a socialist society there ought to be, and there is, a way for every person to make some contribution to the well-being of society.
In a socialist polity, there will be vigorous debates and disputes about the best way to allocate and develop the society's resources and productive capabilities. Neither Economics nor Philosophy can provide objective, scientific answers to those questions. They are by their nature political, and are the appropriate subject for public argument. But in a socialist society, the wide disparities in wealth and income will disappear. No one will control vast accumulations of capital, and corporate managers [for there will of course have to be people who perform the functions of management] will not be permitted to use their positions of control to lavish on themselves rich rewards.
In all previous social formations, the concepts people use to understand their social reality have been crafted, either consciously or otherwise, to serve the interests of the ruling portion of the society, to justify its rulership and to justify as well its appropriation of the lion's share of the available product. But in a true socialist society the people as a whole will rule, and the concepts they use to understand their social situation will not need to be mystified.
Or so it would seem. But we are about to examine a more intractable conceptual difficulty whose fundamental insolubility seems to guarantee that even in a socialist society, our self-understandings will be inflected, normatively non-neutral, indeed perhaps ideological.
Tomorrow, we confront the daunting problem of Index Numbers.