Pathfinders – Bread and butter issues
The proposal to upgrade capitalism to socialism, a global system of common ownership where everything is free at the point of use, is based on materialist arguments, not moral judgments about good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unfair, motivating though such considerations can also be. And this proposal stands or falls on a key question: can a world socialist society actually deliver what it promises?
People sometimes ask this in relation to the politics of socialism, for example querying whether, despite socialism’s egalitarian ethos, informal hierarchies might nevertheless emerge. Or they might claim ‘unintended consequences’, such as the idea that science could be retarded by the absence of the capitalist lash of competition. Or that certain antisocial tendencies and attitudes are to some extent genetically built in and will therefore persist. We argue not, in all these cases, but it’s not possible to give definitive answers to everything, and in any event we don’t claim that socialism is a ‘perfect’ society, whatever that means, only one that is considerably better and more efficient than capitalism.
One issue however cannot be up for debate, and that is food, the most basic human need. Capitalism depends for its existence on scarcity, whereas socialism presupposes a society where there’s enough for everybody. If people don’t have enough to eat, the assumption is that the fabric of socialist society might break down in civil strife, spawning some retrograde form of private property society, with all its attendant features including war, oppressive hierarchies, rampant inequality and the like.
There is some reason to think this doomsday view is itself a product of the capitalist mindset, and that historically, and prehistorically, people’s response to crisis was often one of cooperation, not mutual fighting. It is well known that people help each other after major disasters (tinyurl.com/37k6s86r) in what has been termed ‘catastrophe compassion’ (tinyurl.com/2s46p56t). In studies, one-year-old human children display empathy towards other children in distress (tinyurl.com/5d5e6nj4). Prehistoric human societies were largely cooperative and egalitarian (tinyurl.com/mrxcs3sc), but even the Neolithic farming revolution, itself very likely a response to climate catastrophe, depended on large-scale cooperation. Socialism could well be a far more robust and durable society than even socialists imagine.
Nevertheless, food security is not negotiable, and we have often described socialism as a ‘world of abundance’. But the word ‘abundance’ might conjure up fantastical notions, like the medieval tales of the Land of Cockaigne, where the rivers flowed with wine, the skies rained cheese and ready-to-eat roast chickens flew through the air. A better term might be ‘sustainable sufficiency’, which suggests the idea of enough without implying an infeasible cornucopia, though this consideration clearly did not worry the people behind the notion of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
The matter of food would be fairly straightforward were it not for two factors. One is the widely held ‘common sense’ view that there are too many people, a subject often refuted in this magazine (eg, Baby Bust, December 2022). The other is the confusing statements coming out of various UN food-related bodies. Last year, as reported by the Food and Agricultural Organization, the chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) declared that ‘we have enough food to feed 10 billion people’ (tinyurl.com/yejhc3wk). But the FAO has previously stated (2009) that ‘feeding a world population of 9.1 billion in 2050 would require raising overall food production by some 70 percent’ (tinyurl.com/27sxk4tv). So which is it? Is there enough or isn’t there?
The crucial factor in such projections is the model used, whether business-as-usual (FAO) or paradigm shift (CFS). If humans want to carry on as they are, with all the wasteful characteristics of capitalism, a huge increase in food output may very well be necessary. But there is growing awareness that the current state of things is unsustainable, and basically self-destructive. 30 percent of all food is wasted, much of it before it even reaches the end consumer, because of lack of refrigerant facilities in developing countries to preserve crops which tend to harvest all at once, creating gluts. Plastic packaging also reduces food waste by up to 75 percent, but companies use cheap plastics which maximise their profits but are not biodegradable, causing massive pollution through the food chain and inspiring a self-defeating popular backlash against the use of any and all plastics. Meanwhile, food grown is not necessarily food directly intended for humans to eat. 60 percent of European wheat is fed to animals, as is 80 percent of the world’s soya crops. 40 percent of US maize goes into cars, while 23 percent of global palm oil is used for diesel (tinyurl.com/3rd4285j). All this on a minority of the world’s agricultural land, while the other 60 percent is used for livestock grazing to supply the rich world’s meat diets (tinyurl.com/3ew7ncub). And that’s to say nothing of the heavy fertiliser use, involving nitrogen run-offs that pollute rivers, cause algal blooms, and exacerbate climate change.
A recent Paris study found that sustainable nitrogen-free organic farming could feed between 3 and 14 billion, depending on the degree to which meat and dairy farming were reduced. Conversely, it concluded that if everyone insisted on a Western diet, consisting of around 55 percent animal protein, feeding 9 billion people would be impossible even with increased nitrogen use and the conversion to agriculture of an extra swathe of grassland the size of Russia (tinyurl.com/bdf6b9kx).
So is there enough food for socialist sufficiency? The answer is yes, but not necessarily without some hard trade-offs. Socialism is a materialist proposition, not a magical fairyland. But if today’s exploited and oppressed workers get the opportunity to choose between wage slavery or a truly free life in socialism, we think they’re more than capable of weighing up the pros and cons and deciding where their best interests lie.