What is Socialism?

I publish here my introduction on the subject ‘What is socialism’ that was given in Athens during a three day conference of the TANIT-project. It is far from a worked out position. What I hoped to do, was to give a very different approach than the ones that are usually given by the Marxist left. My only “ambition” was to give some elements that we need to clarify and develop further in order to arm the left movement with a radical but –also credible- alternative. So, it is far from a finished ‘product’ and rereading it, I would already put things differently on the basis of the discussions we had in Athens

What is Socialism?

Today, even a child can answer the question ‘What is Socialism?’ If you would ask a twelve year old what socialism is, the child would run to the computer and ‘Google it’. If it were an English child, it would probably panic, not only because of the length and the complicated nature of the definition, but also because of the many different versions of it. A Dutch-speaking child would be in more luck. It would find a very short definition that I here want to translate into English: “Socialism is a society based on equality, social justice en solidarity, or the collective term for a variety of political and ideological currents that strive to that kind of society.” There.

Peer production

Off course, we can argue about this definition, but I do not think the definition of socialism is the main issue we should concentrate on. There is a matter of fact, it would probably be a better idea to discuss Wikipedia and other examples of so-called peer production that are challenging traditional hierarchical capitalist business models. Wikipedia is a profoundly anti-capitalist and even communist way of producing and distributing knowledge. It is based on the principle ‘to each according to need, from each according to ability.’ The contributors or editors are not paid and the users are not charged, which again flies in the face of all capitalist logic. Furthermore, Wikipedia is egalitarian produced on the basis of horizontal reciprocities rather than hierarchical control.

Another famous example of peer-production is Linux. Thanks to the Internet Linux was build by thousands of computer programmers worldwide, most of them working for companies such as Microsoft, IBM and others, who collectively and voluntarily build a new and –according to many better and more stable computer operating system that today is used by major corporations like BMW and in a country like China. Open-source production could (and probably will) revolutionise businesses worldwide, but these developments are hardly discussed by the left. The early defenders of open sources and peer production were – and often still are- branded by the establishment as the “new communists”. In fact, there is a group on Facebook called ‘Telekommunisten’, that I enthusiastically support, although I often hardly understand what they are saying. It has more then 2000 supporters and I strongly recommend you to ‘like it’. They are for instance campaigning against intellectual property rights and are strong defenders of piracy, which of course get them into conflict with capitalist interests.

Of course, as with every new technology, capitalism tries to use these new developments into their advantage. Google started an on-line encyclopaedia that introduces the concept of monetary rewards depending on the amount of visits of the page you made. It remains to be seeing if they will be able to produce a better online encyclopaedia than Wikipedia, but I doubt it. I do not think that the Internet and peer production by themselves will ‘automatically’ create the conditions for a superior system that will destroy or replace capitalism, as some of the theoreticians of peer production argue. But we must consider them as an important bridge to a future “social-ist” society and the demands of the peer movement should be integrated in a socialist programme. These examples teach us important lessons. It shows money and material gains are not the main motivators of scientists, intellectuals and high skilled technicians. Once their material needs are met, they are driven by curiosity, the challenge of solving problems, the joy of working collectively on a project, of contributing to a better world, etc.

Behavioral Economics

By the way, modern psychology, anthropology, behavioural economics and other social and human sciences provide us hundreds of other examples that not only contradict the ruling ideology of the free market, but confirm socialist ideas. For instance, Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist and expert in behavioural economics, who won the Nobel Prize Economics in 2002, did a large Gallup survey on happiness amongst 600.000 Americans. The most interesting result they found, which they absolutely did not expect to find, was the following. They looked how feelings of happiness vary with income. It turned out that below an income of 60.000 dollars a year, people got progressively unhappier the poorer they got. But above that income, extra income did not make any difference for the so-called ‘experiencing self’. But for the ‘remembering self’, there was no limit: the more money you make, the more satisfaction you get.

It would lead me to far to explain the difference between the two selves, but it goes like this: there is a difference between being happy in your life and being happy about your life. People can be very satisfied about their life, without experiencing happiness in their life. The first relates to the remembering self, the second to the experiencing self. This is for instance the reason why for the remembering self (your memory) there is absolutely no difference between a good holiday of two weeks and one of just one week or even a long weekend. The extra week of good times spent do not ad extra happiness in your memory. I think the same rule goes for having a good night out drinking beer. So, above a certain limit, extra money will not make you happier in experiencing your life. That is why rich people who go bust and even go to prison because they committed fraud often find themselves happier afterwards. Sometimes they write a book and become rich again, but this is another story.

I want to tell you just one more story that I found inspiring. Dan Ariely, another famous expert in behavioural economics, did an experiment with some students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He gave them a bunch of games that involved creativity, motor skills and concentration. The students got three levels of rewards: a small reward, a medium reward and a large reward. The better the performance, the larger the reward. What happened? As long as the tasks involved only mechanical skills, bonuses worked as expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. Think of Stakhanovism. But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skills, a larger reward led to poorer performance. Then they said, okay, perhaps there is a cultural reason behind all this. So they went to Madurai in India and did the same test. After all, a modest reward according to American standards can be substantial there. What happened? This time, people offered the medium reward did no better than people offered the small rewards. But people offered the highest rewards, did the worst of all. In 8 of the 9 tasks they examined across three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.

Behind this study was not a socialist conspiracy. Economy professors from the IMT, Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh and the University of Chicago carried it out. And the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States sponsored it. The London School of Economics, alma mater of 11 Nobel laureates in economics, looked at 51 studies of pay-for-performance plans inside of companies. They came to the conclusion that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance. A lot of other examples can be given, not in the least the negative impact of big bonuses to bankers and CEO’s of multinational corporations. There is an enormous mismatch between what science knows and what capitalist businesses do. And they do it because of ideological reasons, and, off course, greed.

By the way, when I talk about the wiki model and behavioural economics, I talk about a layer in society of high skilled workers, intellectual professionals, scientists, etc. that we should and can win over to the ideas of socialism. I totally agree with the comments made by Harry Rattner on this issue. To me it is obvious we need the active support of these professionals in building the new society. And again, many other examples within modern capitalism can be given. Take the IT-people. The majority is not organised, although most of them – as many others that do not belong to the traditional industrial working class- are wage earners. There is a matter of fact, and these are old figures from 1990, 80% of the population in Europe and 90% of the population in the United States are wage earners. If you add to this figure the self-employed whose income depends often exclusively on the work they do for the big corporations, plus small business owners, the actual capitalist class is a very tiny, even insignificant proportion of the population.

On the other hand, the traditional industrial working class in the West has been declining over the last decades, although it is still a substantial minority. But on a world scale the traditional working class is still growing. What we see developing in Western Europe, North America, Australia and many parts of Asia, is the so called knowledge society, where cognitive and creative skills are becoming more and more important and where the old methods of the stick and the carrot do not work anymore. On the other hand, more and more work in the service sector becomes also routine-based and is ‘exported’ to the countries of the underdeveloped world: certain kinds of accountancy, computer programming, etc.

A Very Heterogeneous Working Class

That brings me to another point: the composition of the working class in advanced capitalist societies. In Marx’ time, the working class was mainly male, industrial and homogeneous, although there were also huge differences between for instance the work of a coal miner, a steel worker, a seafarer and a mechanic. These differences were not much greater than those between a worker in a modern factory and a white-collar worker in the service sector. It was the experience of social conflicts and common struggle over many years that caused the traditional working class to feel itself as a united whole, and to place its common interests above narrow professional distinctions. In a sense, I think it will be necessary to rebuild the labour movement in the same way as more then a hundred years ago. The modern ‘proletariat’ will have to go through similar experiences, taking into account that is far more heterogeneous then in the old days: half are women, you have the immigrants, part time workers, households with mixed social compositions, etc.

However, what is lacking more than ever is a coherent socialist programme that unites this modern, heterogeneous army of wage earners and that scares the hell out of the capitalist class. And here is the main contradiction of our time. Neo-liberalism is collapsing before or eyes, yet the working class feels totally impotent because it lacks an ideology, a clear programme and a credible alternative. These fundamental weaknesses do not stop the class struggle, as we see on a mass scale in Greece, Spain, Portugal and France. But the working class needs desperately a project to fight for, and that is impossible without at least a vision and a prospect for a better alternative to capitalism. Let us not forget that capitalism is not popular. In Liege, a group of young people protested, carrying placards with titles: “More money for the rich!”, “Africa, pay your debt!”, “More cuts in the health system!” And so on. Some people that did not understand that it was a fake demonstration by left students were horrified. If you make the programme of the right parties concrete, many who vote for them won’t agree. But without the weapon of a socialist alternative, we are completely unarmed against the attacks of the ruling class.

This alternative is today much more important than in the time of Marx and Lenin, because not only in the minds of the ex Stalinist and reformist leaders of the labour movement, but also in the consciousness of broad layers of workers, the possibility of an alternative to the free market system no longer exists. The collapse of Stalinism did not clear the decks for Trotskyism, but pushed the revolutionary left into a deep crisis, showing the bankruptcy of their political and organizational methods.

Need for a Clear Alternative

The Communist Manifesto written 162 years ago was not only a venomous attack on capitalism, but it breathed confidence and optimism about the future. Marx thought that capitalism was doomed because of its inherent contradictions. The workers would take power and create a socialist society based on egalitarian and democratic principles. Marx did not have a blueprint of this future society, nor did he thought that this was necessary, hence his attacks against the utopian socialists and anarchists. He relied on the capability of workers to run the future socialist society by themselves. You could argue that Marx had a determinist view of capitalism, and a voluntaristic view on the working class and its organisations.

To a large extent the same can be said about the Bolsheviks. They did not have a clear idea how society would look like after taking power. The establishment of Soviets was not a part of their original programme. But when the Soviets were formed, the Bolsheviks recognized the dual power developing in Russia and were creative enough to call for ‘all power to the Soviets’. It is also worthwhile to mention that the masses did not follow the party of Lenin on the basis of ideology or a clear vision on the future society. They supported the Bolsheviks because they were promised peace, land and bread.

After taking power in 1917, given the circumstances of Civil War and the defeat of the revolution in the West, the Bolsheviks needed to improvise. They did not follow a roadmap to a preconceived plan for a socialist society. They in fact relied on revolution in the West and tried to cling to power. However, The Russian Revolution has been used always as a ‘model’ for the revolutionary left, and you couldn’t say anything bad about the Bolsheviks before Lenin’s death in 1924. This way of thinking is typical for a cult and has nothing to do with scientific socialism. It is not because you support the Russian Revolution and consider it as a major victory of the working class in that time, that you need to present and defend it as the perfect example or the only road to socialism.

We can give all the reasons in the world why the Russian Revolution led finally to a Stalinist dictatorship, but the fact of the matter is that by the early nineties, it ended in the conscious break-up of the USSR by the bureaucracy and in capitalist restoration. However, the existence of an alternative to capitalism in the USSR throughout a whole historical period, and the formation of similar states after the Second World War in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and other underdeveloped countries, had profound effects on the balance of class forces on a world scale. The fear of ‘communism’ helped the workers in the West to obtain huge concessions from the capitalists in the form of the welfare state. This provided an objective basis for the ideas and position of reformism. By the way, I think that the difference between the traditional reformists and the present day leadership of social democracy is that the former really did believe in changing society. Today, as the Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky (whose books I consider as an important source of inspiration) points out, Bernstein would appear as a radical from the left.

Splits of 'Revolutionary Left Cults

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the unprecedented economic successes as a consequence of the market reforms in China, which are perceived by the masses as successes of capitalism, have a huge impact on the moral of the left all over the world. Again, with the bankruptcy of both Stalinism and reformism, you would expect that the revolutionary left would finally experience a break-through, but exactly the opposite happened. The CWI, the IMT, the Fourth International and other cultic organisations also entered a period of crises, probably more serious than the one they experienced in the early nineties.

By the way, I do not think it is a coincidence that the first split of the CWI happened after Stalinism collapsed, and that the IMT went into a similar, if not even more serious crisis in the aftermath of the collapse of the international financial system. And the reason of these crises is because they offer no real alternative that workers can believe in. They brag about the correctness of their analysis, depict a catastrophic perspective for capitalism and put forward some slogans about socialism. The concrete question: what will you do if you take power, remains unanswered. And -off course- they do not have a democratic organisational structure necessary to adapt to new challenges. They are led by guru-type leaders who consider every doubt or criticism as an attack against their political ability and authority. And just like the reformists, they are stuck in the past, trying to mechanically apply old formulas to present day society.

So the most important question we need to answer is this: what would we, and by “we” I mean the left, do if we came to power? This is, what Shakespeare said, the question. After 150 years of experiences, we cannot just say: leave it to the workers. But we also have to realise that a lot of the work is already done, outside this group. Today, there are hundreds of books analysing the capitalist crisis, explaining the evils of the free market and neo-liberalism and arguing for an alternative society. But a lot of them are written by academics who often do not have real links with the organised labour movement. Most of them write in a wooden language not understood by ordinary people and then they wonder why their books don’t sell, although there are popular authors criticizing the capitalist system like Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and others. They are excellent in criticising capitalism, but also lack a clear alternative. It is always fighting against, never fighting for.

"Nuts to Crack"

So we need a clear alternative. In order to do draw up this socialist programme, I think we have to go back to the basics of Marxism. To me, the main questions that need to be resolved are the following:

Public ownership of the means of production, posing the question of the right of ownership
The state and the question of democracy
The relationship towards inter-state and international organisations such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the Nafta, the EU…
The market: to which extent will the market play a role in a socialist society.

It is obvious that they are all interlinked and I do not have a worked out proposal, and even if I would, I would not have the time to deal with them here. So will limit myself to some general remarks concerning those four main issues.

Private Ownership of Means of Production

Let’s start with the private ownership of the means of production. This means that the owners can sell and buy the means of production and that they are entitled to their surplus. In a modern advanced economy however, ruled by very large transnational corporations, there is already a division between the ownership, the shareholders whose interests are supposed to be defended by the board of “independent” directors, and the control by professional managers led by a CEO. The owners seldom run their own companies, except in old, traditional family owned corporations such as IBM. Furthermore, depending on the corporation, a substantial part of the shares is owned directly or indirectly by small shareholders, even workers through the medium of pension funds.

Multinationals are large, highly bureaucratic organisations. They are ruled from offices in Washington, New York, London or Moscow, and suffer from the same illnesses as the centralized economy in the former Soviet Union. When trade union delegations negotiate with the local management of a company belonging to a multinational, they find sometimes a sympathetic ear. But then they complain that the real bosses in America do not understand them. Furthermore, these institutions are using the national states and international organisations to defend their interests. So the impotence of the state that we are thought nearly everyday is very relative.

The State

That leads us to the second point: the question of the state. In the time of Marx, the state was mainly an instrument of coercion and oppression: the police, the courts, the army, and the state officials. Hence the need was raised to ‘smash’ the state. But in a modern economy, the state stands also for education, culture, health insurance, public transport and other public services, in brief, the welfare state. These are elements of the new society within the old. When the neo-liberals talk about the need of cutting the state sector, they do not talk about the army, the police, the courts, the prisons, etc. In fact, the repressive elements of the state are strengthen because the break-up of the welfare state creates more inequality, more violence and more crime.

So we need to consider the state as a hybrid, and not only defend the social or socialist elements, but we also need to develop a programme for the democratisation of the state and the public sector. We should acknowledge the fact that the present state institutions are run in a very bureaucratic, hierarchic and often inefficient manner. Without a programme of the necessary transformation of the state sector, we leave the reform of it in the hands of the right.

You see, I think that the left in general lives far too much in the past. Society screams for radical solutions, but the left is seen as the defenders of the status quo because it lacks an alternative. The vicious demagogues of the so-called populist and extreme right parties and movements such as the Tea Party in the US are filling the gap. As for the other sectors in society: revolution is ‘le mot du jour’: they speak about the technical revolution, the digital revolution, the bio-technical revolution, the scientific revolution, or talk about the need for a revolution in education, in business models, etc. There is a matter of fact, the only people who don’t speak about revolution, is the revolutionary left. I can give lots of examples. Workers understand that you won’t solve the budget crisis, the debt crisis, the migration crisis, mass unemployment, etc. with a tax on wealth or the establishment of a public bank. They know that radical measures are needed. In Belgium, the idea of splitting the country is winning more and more support. The nationalists are saying sure, in the short run, a split will lead to economic difficulties and we will become poorer. But keeping Belgium as it is and the status quo will be worse. So, they are proposing a radical solution that will off course solve nothing and make matters much worse, but the party that put forward this idea is the main party in Flanders, with 30 percent of the vote.

So, I think we need to develop an offensive programme defending the need to expand public services instead of cutting them. We should explain that this is necessary to solve the ecological crisis, the environmental crisis, the traffic crisis, etc. We should explain that the use of modern communication networks should be free! Why pay huge amounts of money for bits and bytes that can be easily and freely transported through the Internet. The culture of ‘free knowledge’, ‘free software’, ‘free music’ etc.’ that rules the internet but is under threat by capitalist property rights should be extended to areas like public transport, energy, etc.

That needs huge investments in environmental friendly energy: solar energy, wind energy, the heat of the earth energy, etc. Then, the question arises what sort of institution can do these kinds of investments? We should really point to the fact that the “collective” state sector in Europe build a tunnel under the English Chanel, build the massive particle accelerator for CERN in Geneva, developed Airbus, etc. The Internet as so many other inventions was an invention of the Pentagon. In fact, probably a majority of the developments in science and new inventions is done by the state, not in the least during times of war when the state usurps more powers.

So yes, we should defend “the state” or rather the public sector, but link it with the democratisation of the state institutions, and expose the lies of the neo-liberals about the so-called impotence of the state. And if we go back to the question of property rights: what institution or which power will be able to expropriate the owners? If we talk about socialisation of the means of production, we need to start somewhere. Capitalism tries to overcome the limitations of the national state by creating international institutions like the EU, but the only instrument the EU gas to impose its rules, are the national states. They gave the European parliament more power over the Commission, in order to give the EU some democratic credentials, but the fact of the matter is that in reality, bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism is in decline. And even in its high days, parliamentary democracy is a very limited form of democracy anyway, that has nothing to do with real power of the people over their representatives.

Democracy and the market

Also on the question of freedom and democracy, which is supposedly a neo-liberal value opposed to bureaucratic state dictatorship, I think we should stand for “radical democracy” (I think that the concept of workers democracy is out of date and that using that kind of language is a barrier that alienates ourselves from workers), defending the idea of maximum freedom for the individual for matters concerning our personal life (choice of education, euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, personal consumption etc.) but that people should have a say in all the collective decisions that have an influence on their personal life. These are decisions concerning the workplace, the local community: infrastructure, shops, parks, schools, Medicaid, etc., the regional community, the national and finally the international community. Some issues really have to be solved on a continental or even a world scale: the environment, the climate crisis, the use of natural resources, international transport, etc. The question of we should pose these issues as transitional demands aimed at existing international institutions is to me a secondary or tactical question. The main thing is that we need to develop a programme for all these different levels and work out in practice international alternatives based on the existing international organisations, not only of the working class, but also of different world social movements such as doctors without borders, NGO’s, Greenpeace, the anti-global movement, the P2P movement, etc.

Finally, that leaves us with the question of the market. I think that price mechanisms and the market would still play a role in the allocation and accounting of the means of production. I think that planning as perceived by classical Marxism is quite unrealistic and we need to learn from historical experiences of the NEP in Russia and present day reforms in China. In its own way, capitalism has already integrated the world economy. Financial markets are global, multinational are global, corporations are more and more integrated through all kinds of networks.

The main developments in modern technology did not follow a rational plan, but followed rather the laws of chaos theory: the Internet, Linux, Wikipedia, Flicker, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But the old, vertical hierarchic structures of the traditional capitalist business model is more and more a fetter on further development, just as intellectual property rights are a fetter on the further development of science and knowledge. Never before in history the means of communications have been more powerful and ‘democratic’ than today. With the use of the Internet and a cheap camera, everyone in the world can contribute to news channels. The possibilities of today’s technology are beyond our imagination. Education, culture… could be totally free and accessible to everyone on the planet. But this is not happening under capitalism. It will only become possible under socialism, on the condition that we can integrate all these possibilities (and necessities) in a clear and coherent socialist programme and arm the left again with a realistic vision of a new, socialist society.

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