Inasmuch as I have absolutely nothing at all to say on the matter of Roman Polanski, which seems to be of the very greatest concern to the readers of this blog, I thought I would spend some time, while awaiting the eclipse, musing about what a democratic socialist society might look like. This is not exactly a matter of pressing concern, needless to say, but it interests me, so I shall spend a few moments on it. If anyone wants to follow me down this rabbit hole into Wonderland, I would suggest taking the time to read my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” archived at box.net.
I do not have settled views on this matter. Neither did Marx, of course. He was dismissive and scornful of the various utopian socialist fantasies floated by his contemporaries, believing, as I understand him, that just as capitalism could not have been foreseen in its details by even the most prescient thinker of the feudal era, so we who are thoroughly entangled in capitalist society can only speculate on what socialism would be, grounding our speculations in a rigorous analysis of the reality of capitalism. Consider these remarks therefore in the nature of an old man’s schwärmerai. [Oh, by the bye, even a true democratic socialist state would not be de jure legitimate, as I defined that term in In Defense of Anarchism. Socialism cannot overcome the contradiction between the autonomy of the individual and the authority claims of the state. But that is a subject for another day.]
First, some definitions. By “socialism” I mean an advanced industrial or post-industrial economy and society in which there is collective ownership, management, and control of the principal means of production. Understood in that way, there are now no socialist societies nor have there ever been any. By socialism, I do not mean a capitalist economy with a strong safety net and a low Gini coefficient. Nor do I mean a community of poets and novelists doing a little kitchen garden farming and animal husbandry, nor even a big kibbutz, or a society of kibbutzim.
By a democratic socialist society, I mean a society in which the fundamental decisions about the rate of savings [and consequent economic growth rate], the structure of wages and salaries, and large scale capital goods projects rest with the people as a whole and, in some manner, with their elected representatives. I am not talking about worker control of individual factories or offices, or local agricultural, industrial, and service collectives, admirable as those undoubtedly are.
I am assuming that inherited wealth [not the family homestead] is prohibited, and I am agnostic about whether an individual, within his or her lifetime, will be permitted to accumulate considerable wealth. [If I may make a parenthetical nod to a well-known book by my old friend now sadly departed, Robert Nozick, if sports fans want to shower great wealth on LeBron James, I don’t care, so long as he doesn’t get to invest it in shares of Amazon.com or leave it to his kids.]
The single most important collective decision that a democratic socialist nation would make is the social rate of savings: the proportion of the social product to be reinvested in economic growth, as opposed to being consumed unproductively by the members of society for their pleasure, amusement, or edification. [I have at times been quite critical of the work of John Rawls, so I ought here to note that he seems to be the only major political theorist, other than Marx himself, who has understood the importance of this social decision.] In a capitalist economy, the social rate of savings is not the object of anyone’s decision, but rather is the consequence of the decisions of countless capitalists or corporate managers, indirectly influenced nowadays by governmental decisions about tax rates or interest levels. In some modern states, most notably China, which seems to have in effect a state capitalist economy, a very large social rate of savings has been deliberately chosen, sacrificing the consumption of the present to the comfort of the future. In a state with an expanding or aging population [or both], an appropriate social rate of savings is essential simply to maintain current consumption levels. Note, by the way, that this is entirely separate from the need to set aside some portion of current production for depreciation of the capital stock.
The second important collective decision is wage rates, assuming [as I do] that a considerable share of individual consumption will be paid for out of pocket rather than, as in the case of health care and education, by social spending. It goes without saying that the income pyramid should be very much flatter than at present, even in those European nations with a well-funded social safety net. Would the present situation prevail, in which, to put it in shorthand slang terms, suits make significantly more than shirts? The universal justification among sociologists and economists for this state of affairs is that higher wages are required to attract into socially important jobs those with the special talents or education for them, but I am deeply skeptical of this familiar rationale. The unstated assumption is that we would all rather be day laborers or garbage collectors, but could be wooed away from those jobs into the offices of doctors, lawyers, or professors by sufficiently lavish salaries. Absent those salaries, it is presumed, not many would choose actually to teach classes or see patients or, for that matter, manage factories rather than working on the assembly line or cleaning toilets. Maybe so, but I doubt it.
Perhaps the most important question is this: with the really important decisions being decided in the public square rather than out of sight in boardrooms and corporate getaways, how would we keep those elected to public office on the straight and narrow, so that they do not use their power, as corporate managers now do, to rob us all blind? I am absolutely convinced that some of them will try. I have no expectation that socialism will somehow turn ordinary human beings into paragons of Socialist Man or Woman. [I have lived through the liberation of South Africa, the glory days of Mandela, and the decline and corruption of the ANC, so I am without illusions.]
The greatest challenge facing advanced capitalism is the progressive substitution of mechanical or robotic production for human production, and the creation thereby of a larger and larger segment of the population whose labor is not required by capitalism. That, I believe, is a challenge that socialism is uniquely prepared to face. Properly managed, it can mean the steady diminution in necessary unpleasant labor and its distribution across the entire population, rather than its concentration in one disadvantaged segment of the population.
Well, the eclipse approaches. I shall be curious to see how the birds respond.