A number of lengthy comments, by Tom Hickey and JR among others, raise more issues than I can possibly comment on. It is clear that when we get past quoting passages from the writings of Marx and Engels, the question of what socialism would look like is enormously complicated, as of course it ought to be, since capitalism is enormously complicated as well. I insist on continuing to talk concretely about the actual situations in which we find ourselves, rather than worrying about what Marx said a century and a half ago. I am inspired by Marx, and profoundly enlightened by him, but I simply do not think we can answer the question I have posed by quoting from him. What is more, I am morally certain he would agree.
Let me approach the question I have posed in a slightly different fashion, by talking for a bit about the vast changes that took place in America in my own lifetime, roughly from the end of the Second World War to the nineteen eighties – what Piketty calls, in France, Les trentes glorieuses, and what Krugman and others have taken to calling in America the Great Moderation. This was a period during which real wages rose strongly, home ownership burgeoned, the share of each age cohort going to college quintupled, and there emerged economically, socially, culturally, and politically the great Middle Class that everyone talks about now. Now look: I am not praising this period, or acting nostalgic for it, or suggesting that had it continued a bit more socialism would have arrived. Not a bit of it. I just want you to think about the changes in America that were a part of this relatively minor variation in the evolution of capitalism. If you can stop quoting Marx long enough actually to think about this period, it will help you to think intelligently about what would be required to make the vastly larger and more momentous transition to socialism.
The entire physical layout of America changed dramatically in the period I am talking about. The continental network of interstate highways was constructed. Huge numbers of people with rising household incomes moved to newly built towns and communities called suburbs. Career and job patterns changed for large numbers of people – scores of millions of them. Large numbers of families started taking vacations, and vacation resorts of all sorts sprang up to accommodate them. Inner cities hollowed out, and housing segregation in the new suburbs forced large numbers of African-Americans to stay put. Shopping malls multiplied, and big, famous department stores that had previously been located downtown moved to the suburbs, leaving inner city dwellers without accessible places to shop. Television became the dominant form of family entertainment, displacing radio and forcing movie studios to change the kinds of films they made in an attempt to attract customers. Class distinctions changed in complex ways, hardening some divisions and breaking down others. Men stopped wearing hats and women started wearing slacks. In the forties, if a character in a movie said he was an FBI agent, you knew he was a good guy. In the seventies, if a character in a movie said he was an FBI agent, you knew he was a bad guy.
All of these changes produced huge changes in the physical housing stock and city layouts. Lots of companies went out of business because of changes in buying patterns, and lots of other companies flourished for the same reason. My first father-in-law made a brilliant career for himself as a Sears Roebuck executive. Sears is now all but dead.
Why am I saying all this? Because when I try to imagine what socialism would be like, I realize that a transition from capitalism to socialism would involve on-the-ground changes that dwarf the transformation I have just been sketching. At a very minimum, anything I would recognize as socialism would involve a dramatic flattening of the income pyramid. And this would have deep, far-reaching effects. Just think about housing for a moment. Rather more than one million new homes will be built in the United States in 2015. A great many of these homes would be unaffordable by the families living in a socialist America, assuming that household income was significantly equalized. If we stop allowing individuals to make a million dollars a year, then five million dollar homes are going to be a drag on the market. What is more, all those folks carrying three million dollar mortgages are going to be unable to meet their payments. What will happen to the housing stock? Well, you can say, flippantly, we will hold a lottery and give it to the workers. Which sounds daring and exciting until you start to think through the actual process of transition. Those fancy restaurants where the rich and famous drop eight hundred dollars on a dinner for two are going to go belly up. So are the luxury resorts, the jewelry stores, the antiques stores, and all the other businesses that now cater to the one percent.
In short, the transition to socialism is going to be complex, lengthy, and difficult, involving changes that it is very difficult now to anticipate. And this is just a matter of changing people’s consumption opportunities and patterns; it says nothing about the deep changes in the experience of work or in the public and collective making of large scale investment decisions that are now made chaotically and behind the closed doors of corporate boardrooms.
I draw from these reflections the conclusion that a transition to socialism will be lengthy, complex, and in many ways unpredictable. It will be a grand adventure, not a by-the-numbers tinker toy construction. And although we may be inspired by Marx, his writings will provide precious little guidance.