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What will socialism look like?

By Paul D'Amato | June 24, 2005 | Page 10

IMAGINE A society where all its members organize production and distribution on a cooperative, democratic basis according not to profit, but solely on the basis of need.

Such a society has no exploiting minority or exploited majority. All property other than personal property is held in common, for the benefit of all. Consequently, there is also no money.

If you are hungry, you can eat from the collective store of food. If you want to work, work is always available, and each contributes what he or she can. When you are sick or old or too young, society always takes care of you.

Women play a prominent role, and are not the property or handmaidens of men. All decisions are made collectively, and leadership is chosen rather than imposed. There are no prisons, no standing army, and no state bureaucracy. The threat of social ostracism is sufficient pressure against anyone who threatens the collective or harms another.

It is an attractive world, but is it realizable? The truth is, similar societies have already existed in one form or another, in all parts of the world, in what is known as "primitive communism."

"The brotherly sentiments of the Redskins," wrote the Jesuit Charlevoix of the new world Indians he observed, "are doubtless in part ascribable to the fact that the words mine and thine...are all unknown as yet to the savages. The protection they extend to the orphans, the widows and the infirm, the hospitality which they exercise in so admirable a manner, are, in their eyes, but a consequence of the conviction which they hold that all things should be common to all men."

The question, then, is not: Is such a world possible? but: Is it possible again? The material prerequisites for such a society certainly exist. The previously undreamed-of material abundance created by capitalism, driven by incessant competition, renders hunger, want and even class divisions obsolete.

There is, according to Food First, enough food produced today to provide enough for every person on the planet to make them fat. The fact that 850 million go hungry ever year is purely a product of the fact that food is produced for profit rather than for need.

The introduction of ever-more-advanced machinery and technology has rendered labor productive in previously unimagined levels. The result is unemployment for some, too many hours of work for others, and the degradation of work into a series of mindless, repetitive motions.

Yet productivity has advanced to the point that the workday could be reduced to three or four hours. In a socialist society, improvements in labor productivity would be a means to shorten the workday and reduce the time and drudgery of necessary labor to a minimum in order to free people up as much as possible to devote their energies to other pursuits, including participating in the running of society.

Moreover, since workers would own and control the labor process, work would no longer have the sense of emptiness it often possesses today. Instead of workers dreaming of Fridays and working only in order to receive a paycheck, work would be a source of fulfillment.

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A COMMON argument against the possibility of creating such a society is that the majority is incapable of ruling, and, therefore, we need a minority at the top to run things.

But those at the top of society, the multimillionaires and billionaires, today play no function in its running--they merely collect the rewards of ownership. Workers, specialists, managers and technicians run things. In this sense, the ruling class today has become entirely parasitic, siphoning wealth but serving no useful social function.

As early as 1881, Frederick Engels wrote that the capitalists of his day do little but "cash in the half-yearly dividend warrants." "We [can] manage very well without the interference of the capitalist class in the great industries of the country," writes Engels. And he concludes: "Stand back! Give the working class the chance of a turn."

Society could do away with the ruling class and suffer no more than when tonsils or an appendix are removed from a human body. Workers, after all, are the ones producing the wealth, and it is often their first-hand knowledge that engineers and managers use to figure out how to improve production.

True, today's experts and scientists would still be needed for a time even under socialism, until the education system was improved so that the majority received education that today is only reserved for the privileged few.

But with society's vast resources diverted toward education, the distinctions between mental and manual work would break down, and the majority would be capable of doing many different kinds of jobs, from manual work to scientific work to administrative work.

If workers, through their own directly elected representatives, were to seize control of production, no doubt mistakes would be made. But they would be the mistakes of the collective and could quickly be remedied by experience.

For example, if the workers of Chicago ran the city instead of corporate bigwigs and their corrupt political hirelings, they would immediately begin solving the city's most pressing problems. The homeless would be quickly housed in unused homes, excess hotel space and the requisitioned second and third homes of the rich.

Meanwhile, unemployed construction workers would be organized to begin building houses. The ill-gotten gains of the city's patricians and their hangers-on would be seized and used to feed the hungry, improve dilapidated schools and provide better park services, improved transportation and real after-school programs for all.

The run-down, destroyed ghettos of the West Side would become beautiful neighborhoods by redirecting the millions in parking-ticket money siphoned off to crony capitalists, as well as funds earmarked for boondoggle stadiums--and by giving real jobs (and real job training, where necessary) to the thousands of able-bodied young Black men who are left to rot on the streets or in prison.

On a national level, billions earmarked for the utter waste of weapons of mass destruction production would be diverted into projects that benefited the mass of the population. The solution to homelessness is simple--build homes for the homeless.

But in our society nothing is done if it isn't profitable. In a society run by the collective producers, these problems can be solved because social need, rather than the market, will determine how decisions are made.

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ANOTHER ARGUMENT against the possibility of socialism is that human beings are naturally greedy and competitive.

There are plenty of examples of spontaneous acts of sharing and cooperation in our present society that contradict this one-sided picture, for example when people pitch in during a disaster. But the real problem with this argument is that in a society based upon abundance, people don't fight over resources.

American socialist James P. Cannon wrote in defense of the idea that in a socialist society money, indeed, even a system for accounting for what was produced and how it was allotted, would eventually disappear: "In the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one's share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table?

"You don't keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden. If you have a guest, you don't seize the first piece of meat for yourself, you pass the plate and ask him to help himself first."

The point is that under socialism, society's surplus wealth would be collectively used to enhance the welfare of all rather than that of a small group. Based as it is on the collective solidarity of the producers, it would also be compelled to socialize household functions, freeing women from bearing primary responsibilities for taking care of kids and home, and create a society in which all discrimination based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or sex were erased.

Such a society may seem too utopian. But as Cannon said: "What's absurd is to think that this madhouse is permanent and for all time. The ethic of capitalism is: 'From each whatever you can get out of him--to each whatever he can grab.'

"The socialist society of universal abundance will be regulated by a different standard. It will 'inscribe on its banners'--said Marx--'From each according to his ability--to each according to his needs.'"

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