Now … and Then
In a socialist society, people will still eat and drink and love and argue, much as they do now. But in other respects, socialism will be very different from capitalism.
Capitalism involves a great deal of inequality, which manifests itself in various ways. We’ll begin with inequality of wealth and income. A look at job ads in the paper will show the differences in wages on offer, but that is only a small part of the story, for the income of the richest people is far higher than anything that comes from a wage or salary. The wealthiest family in Britain is the Mittals whose joint worth is over £17bn, while Richard Branson has a mere £3bn. In contrast the median wage for full-time employees is just over £25,000 a year, and the maximum weekly benefit for a person over 25 on jobseeker’s allowance is a paltry £67.50. In his recent book Injustice, Danny Dorling argues that as many as one quarter of households in Britain are ‘just getting by’. The extent of poverty is shown by the spread of pound shops and charity shops and the increasing numbers resorting to payday loans to survive. Of course such problems do not arise at the top of the wealth and income pyramid, where a couple of years ago Lakshmi Mittal paid £78m for a twelve-room mansion in Kensington.
In contrast, socialism will be a society based on equality. This will not involve everybody consuming the same amount of goods; rather, it means that via free access everyone has at the very least their basic needs and wants satisfied, and nobody is privileged in the way that a small part of the population is now. We can’t make all homes the same, but nobody will live in a twelve-room mansion and no-one will live in a slum or a home that is too small for them either. Likewise, nobody will have to choose between heating their home and eating or have to keep saying no when their child wants new clothes. It is unlikely that socialism will be a consumer’s paradise, and people will soon appreciate what having ‘enough’involves, but it will emphatically not be a society where people are forced to go without.
Inequality is not just a matter of consumption, for under capitalism there is inequality of power as well. This is partly a straightforward consequence of poverty, for being poor means you have less control over your life: you cannot make a genuinely free choice to move house or take a holiday or even have an evening out if you cannot afford these things. More widely, you may have to stick with a boring or dangerous job if you need the pay but have no realistic chance of finding anything else. And being poor creates a great deal of stress in the struggle to make ends meet. But the rich have no such worries, and further they are far more likely to exercise control over the lives of others. When Rupert Murdoch decided to close the News of the World, this was a stark illustration of the power held by a few ‘captains of industry’. The same kind of thing happens when production is outsourced to another country that offers lower wages and maybe less government regulation. It is all very well to say that Britain is democratic, but electing MPs is not enough to make ‘rule by the people’a reality. And the rich exercise massive influence by means of donations to political parties andorganisations(see the US primaries and presidential elections for clear examples of this).
Socialism will instead furnish the context in which people can take control of their own lives, by enabling them to undertake useful and rewarding work, with plenty of leisure time too. In fact there may not even be the clear distinction between work and leisure that obtains now. But people will be able to switch from one kind of work to another, more or less as and when they wish, and they will be able to travel and see the world without restrictions like passports and borders and ticket prices. And at societal level, there will be true democratic control of production. For instance, decisions about the use of resources and the balancing of environmental concerns will be made by those involved or their freely-chosen representatives, without politicians or millionaires or pressure groups of the powerful influencing what is decided (or just deciding on their own). Moreover, decisions will be made by people weighing the pros and cons for themselves, not on considerations of profit. There is no simple answer to the question of how democratic procedures would operate in Socialism, but we can say at the very least that it will be a far more democratic society than capitalism can ever be.
Lastly, we can look at the issue of violence. Capitalism is a violent society in many ways, from the battlefield to the workplace. In the US-led invasion of Iraq from 2003 (misleadingly called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’), 4,800 coalition soldiers were killed and (though estimates vary widely and even rough accuracy is unlikely) several hundred thousand Iraqis. Those killed in capitalism’s wars are by no means all combatants: the nature of warfare has changed, with air raids and bombs and the shelling of towns, so that far more civilians than soldiers are killed and injured. As far as workplace violence is concerned, on official figures there were 171 fatalities among people doing their jobs in Britain in 2010–11. In addition, 24,700 suffered major injuries at work. In the US, the figures are far worse, with 4,547 fatal work injuries in 2010, and over a million cases of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses. More generally, as Studs Terkel wrote in Working, his collection of interviews with American workers: ‘This book, being about work, is, by its very nature about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.’
Socialism will have no countries or classes that compete frantically with each other, so we can say emphatically that there will be no wars. We cannot equally assert that there will be no workplace deaths, just as we cannot say there will be no traffic accidents. But, with the profit motive removed, there will be a stress on health and safety at work that goes far beyond what happens under capitalism. It will be in nobody’s interests to introduce or maintain dangerous working practices, and safety will be the number one priority. Many tasks which cannot be made entirely safe can perhaps be performed by robots or other machines, while others may simply be left undone to see how crucial they really are. Terkel’s description applies not to work in general but to work under capitalism, i.e. employment.
We should not give the impression that socialism will be a society without problems. But in any number of respects it can be contrasted with capitalism to show how it will solve or avoid many present-day problems and how its establishment is a matter of the utmost urgency.