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Fernand Léger mosaic, Grand parade with red background (1985)

What will socialism look like?

Originally published: Red Flag by Sarah Garnham (April 23, 2019)   | 

Socialism is the rational alternative to the disaster that is capitalism. Its basic premise is that production and distribution should be organised to satisfy human need. Already we have the resources, the technology and the infrastructure required to provide every human with the necessities of life and more. So in one sense, socialism is the simple call for a rationally organised society.

But socialism is also radical. The creation of a rational society will require revolutionary transformation. The capitalist class and its institutions will need to be defeated and destroyed, not primarily with arms or well-rehearsed rhetoric and propaganda, but with the mass, coordinated power of the popular majority.

Leon Trotsky described revolutions as the “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”. This is not just a metaphor. Footage and accounts of revolutions from Petrograd 1917 to Cairo 2011 involve hundreds of thousands of people occupying public squares, marching on state buildings, seizing the banks and taking over the airwaves and TV stations. The old rulers are rendered impotent, and decisions start to be made by their former subjects in mass democratic assemblies.

Social transformation on this scale also involves the transformation of individuals and the ways they interact with one another. At such times, people who have been trodden on their whole lives begin to take control of the entire future direction of their society. They are no longer deferential to authority or disengaged from political decision making. Suddenly, their opinions and actions matter. There are countless examples, from both revolutions and major strikes, of peoples’ consciousness shifting in this way. In his famous account of revolutionary Barcelona in 1936, Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell gave a taste of it:

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size has been seized by the workers … Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised … waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal … The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town, were crowds of people streaming constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night … I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

From this transformation, a new form of government emerges, but it is unrecognisable to those of us used to the drab and depressing spectacle that passes for government under capitalism.

As debates rage and collective control spreads to every corner of the new society, grassroots committees are established in every workplace, neighbourhood and region. Such committees have been set up again and again in revolutions over the past 100 years, called variously soviets (in Russia), cordones (in Chile), shoras (in Iran) or councils. They exist to make both political and economic decisions at the workplace and in relation to the broader objectives of the revolution and society.

Socialism involves the expansion and entrenching of these organs of democratic, working class control.

Unlike today’s politicians, who receive salaries that place them in the top income bracket, delegates elected by these committees would have the same income and experience of life as the workers they represent. And they would be accountable on a day-to-day basis, through regular workplace meetings as well as larger regional or industry meetings. This goes beyond simply ensuring that the mass of the population have more of a say. It removes any separation between those making decisions and those carrying them out.

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Work under capitalism is dehumanising. There are very few who get to choose a job they love and even fewer who enjoy work. This is because work today, whether in the private or public sector, is dictated by market forces. The material things we collectively produce are made for profit, not use.

Services like health, education and transport are privatised, commodified or budgeted on a shoestring. And in every workplace, human labour is itself a commodity–the time of our lives is bought by bosses, and we are expected to do what we are told with little to no control over the conditions in which we do it. Nor do we control the products of our labour, how they are used or by whom.

But there is nothing inherently miserable or degrading about work. Under socialism, work would be collective, creative and meaningful. And it would be under the control and direction of those performing it. We have seen glimpses of how fundamentally gratifying work can be when it is in aid of something worthwhile. In Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, thousands of people volunteered to wash the streets, divert water run-off and pick up trash. When they are our streets, being defended in order to bring down a 30-year dictatorship, even the most menial work suddenly has meaning.

This is not to say everyone under socialism will spend their days cleaning streets in an ecstatic fervour. Tedious or unpleasant tasks could be distributed on rotation until automation makes them redundant. But it does show that the context in which work happens, and the social meaning attached to it, is as important to the way it is experienced as the substance of the work itself.

As well as work being more fairly organised, there would also be a lot less of it. Useless industries that waste time and resources like advertising, insurance, weapons development, fossil fuel burning, corporate consulting and border protection would be abolished. For the jobs that will need to be done, the best labour-saving technology could be employed to reduce the working day to a couple of hours per person.

Capitalism is of course famous for developing labour-saving technology. But as with so many of its achievements, it has perversely become just another source of misery. Mechanisation means people lose their jobs and hence their livelihoods. And at the same time, competition over profits means that the overall number of people, and hours spent, enslaved in wage labour perpetually increases.

Under socialism, robots taking our jobs would no longer be a doomsday threat but a welcome development that provides more leisure time and frees up more resources to be put towards scientific, philosophical, cultural and artistic breakthroughs.

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One of the most urgent tasks in a socialist society will be to carry out a full-scale transition to sustainable energy and environmentally friendly production practices. Under capitalism, this will never be achieved. Supposed “market solutions” just shift the deckchairs around the Titanic. Only in a society based on sharing information and maximising the collective good, rather than amassing profits, will we be able to mobilise all of the existing research and technology to convert to sustainable practices and start to turn back the clock on many of the processes of capitalist destruction.

This would also radically change our day to day environment. Instead of the heat-trapping, SimCity™ hellscapes that working class people are forced to live in, we would build cities and suburbs fit for use. In the 1970s, the radical Builders Labourers Federation organised strikes to save parkland, theatres, Aboriginal housing, schools, nursing homes and other public buildings. Jack Mundey, then secretary of the union, described their outlook:

Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices… Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build.

This was the approach adopted by workers in a position to exercise some control over the built environment. It would be developed further in a socialist society, leading to the demolishing of so many of the dehumanising and brutal structures of capitalism and the creation of new possibilities for life and work. And even without altering a single structure, the social scourge of homelessness could be eradicated overnight in a socialist society, as there are already more empty houses and apartments in Australia than there are homeless people.

On an international scale, socialism could end the refugee crisis, which is not an inevitable human tragedy but instead the product of multiple and intersecting crimes of capitalism. The conditions that have led to a global population of more than 65 million refugees–imperialist wars, civil wars, military coups, famines and economic crises–are products of competition within the capitalist class.

But in addition to ending the horrors that force people to leave their homes in desperation, a socialist society would allow for and encourage freedom of movement. People would be free to migrate to warmer or cooler climates depending on the season and could go on holidays anywhere in the world. There are no sacred and immovable properties of borders or nations. They exist to police, commodify and brutalise people. And under socialism there would be no need for any of that.

The same goes for other structures and systems of oppression. Racism, sexism and many other forms of social inequality are nurtured in and necessary to a society in which a minority seeks to control the majority. They need to find ways to channel the mass of oppressed people’s discontent towards one another rather than towards the powerful. But unequal pay, Indigenous land theft, religious persecution, sexist objectification, gender binaries and police violence would make no sense in a society geared towards meeting people’s needs under democratic control.

And without the economic structures and imperatives that underpin oppression, the prejudices that it produces would also eventually dissolve. When people walk looking each other “in the face” as George Orwell described, they stop looking over their shoulder for the next threat or group to blame for their problems. And if or when people do express backward attitudes, they will quickly be set straight by those who no longer expect to be victims.

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This is only a small, and probably conservative, sampler of what will be possible in a socialist society. When generations of people have been born into the first ever human society based not only on abundance but also on equality, there will be neither material nor ideological limits on what they can achieve. The kinds of practices that people will establish in conditions of total human liberation are impossible for us to imagine today, though it doesn’t hurt to try.

All we can definitively say, based on the history of capitalism so far, is that socialism is a state of affairs worth fighting for. It is worth fighting for because of the plentiful and accumulating horrors of capitalism. But also because every revolution has shown us that when people are given the opportunity to challenge their oppression and exploitation, they display enormous ingenuity and humanity.

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