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Socialism in the 21st Century

Green designs for 21st century socialism

Originally published: Socialist Project by Richard Westra (August 13, 2019)   | 

Before turning to the subject matter at hand two abiding issues in Marxist thinking need to be addressed. First, when Marx inveighed against Utopian Socialist futuristic model building, he never intended it to become a mantra dissuading socialists from thinking practically about socialist institutional design. Rather, Marx simply insisted that such endeavors only be undertaken after knowledge of the then forming capitalist economy had been produced. This is the task of Marx’s magisterial economic writing Capital that he devoted much of his life to completing. Second, while Marx’s pithy theory of historical materialism in the (in)famous Preface spells out in broad brush terms the general process of historical change: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production,” in Capital Marx offers a far more precise means of conceptualizing the specific historical transformation from capitalism to socialism.

For Marx, the most fundamental contradiction of capitalism from which its delimitation as an historical society derives is that between value and use value. Use value is the substantive foundation of all human existence. To survive, all human societies are established upon the metabolic interchange between human beings and nature from which a labor and production process furnishes the concrete, heterogeneous, qualitative useful goods human beings require for their sustenance and flourishing. Value, on the other hand, is the historically delimited, abstract, quantitative homogenizing principle of capital. When Marx adverts to the contradiction between value and use value he captures the “alien,” “upside down” character of capitalist society. That is, capital must reproduce material life of human beings to exist as an historical society. Yet it does this only as a byproduct of its basic social goal of value augmentation or profit making. Further, while capital strives to reproduce the use value life of a human society as a byproduct of value augmentation an existential threat to capital remains the resistance of diverse use value life to it.

Contradiction Between Value and Use Value

Thus, explicit in Marx’s Capital is the way the contradiction between value and use value plays out with industrial capital struggling to maintain labor power as a commodity while producing surplus value and distributing it as profit, rent and interest. What periodization of capitalism and study of stages of capitalist development demonstrates are the mounting contradictions heavier, more complex use values such as steel or automobiles pose for value augmentation compelling capital to shape-shift away from laissez-faire and recruit an ever enlarging scope of extra-economic, extra-capitalist supports to survive.

Yet implicit in Marx’s Capital is another dimension of the contradiction between value and use value. While much Marxist writing of late has engaged in painstaking textual exegesis to confirm Marx’s environmentalist pedigree, Marx himself establishes his environmentalist credentials in his theorizing of the basic contradiction of capitalism. Use value life and the metabolic interchange between human beings and nature that reproduces it presuppose the ecological sanctity of nature, the biosphere and geosphere. Value augmentation as the abstract, quantitative “extra human” goal of capital is fundamentally anti all the foregoing notwithstanding the fact that capitalist trampling of use value foundations in nature never reaches its apex in Marx’s lifetime.

Humanity, in the above senses, has arrived at a crossroads. In the simplest economic terms of use value production, capitalism has been outpaced by history. The panoply of new use values beckoning humanity from the horizon of the future – eco-sustainable mass transportation and de-automobilization, sustainable reconfigured smaller cities and eco-infrastructure, wind, solar, hydro, tidal energy matrices, sustainable clothing, packaging materials and so on – all manifest levels of use value recalcitrance to value augmentation which ensure their perpetual marginalization in capitalist society. Further, the ecological footprint of capital in current technologies and energy sources of value augmentation constitute the ultimate revenge of use value in pushing humanity to irrecoverable environmental crises points as captured in analysis of the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries.

Economic Foundations for Human Flourishing

From what has been said thus far, rather than socialism being conceived as being “built” by capitalist development of the productive forces as socialists had been led to believe by a one-sided reading of the (in)famous Preface, socialism in Marx’s more precise sense must be grasped as the antithesis or undoing of capitalism. If capitalism in its fundamental incarnation constitutes an “alien,” “upside down” order which reproduces human use value life as a byproduct of “extra human” value augmentation, socialism in its fundamental incarnation must be conceived as a society which reinstates the reproduction of use value life for the concrete purpose of human flourishing.

Before turning to the question of how reinstatement of reproduction of human use value life is given institutional expression, several more bases need to be covered. After all, reversing the ills centuries of capitalist wielding human material life for its abstract purpose have saddled humanity with is a tall order. Commodification of labor power, central to the subsumption of human use value life by capital, fosters alienation which must be eliminated. In socialist experiments of the past it was expected that through public ownership of the means of production labor power would be decommodified and worker alienation vanquished. Unfortunately, Soviet style experiments not only retained vestiges of capitalist alienation with their centralized planning systems but also resurrected precapitalist alienation in which workers found themselves enmeshed anew in interpersonal social relations of domination and subordination.

Remember, bourgeois society based its liberationist claims on “freeing” workers from precapitalist interpersonal social relations with their extra-economic compulsions for work. Instead, labor, paradigmatically at least, is subjected only to impersonal economic compulsions of the market under capitalism. Yet, no matter how high wages rise in capitalist society, the fact that as a commodity labor power makes itself available on the market to capital to produce any good according supply and demand shifts and opportunities for profit making determined by capital, the life energy of human beings in the working class is expended as a disutility and alienated. A genuine socialist society must eliminate both interpersonal precapitalist extra-economic compulsion and capitalist economic compulsion to exorcize alienation in all its forms. Marx argued that to accomplish this demands self-motivation for work such that work becomes “life’s prime want,” as he puts it in Critique of the Gotha Program.

But there is a further dimension to capitalist alienation beyond subjection to impersonal market dictates and economic compulsion for work. Inhering in this dimension are also devastating ecological consequences. Under increasingly “roundabout” systems of production, exacerbated by current globalization where production and consumption are geospatially sundered, capitalism fosters indifference among workers to use value in production. Soviet style command economy and enterprise giganticism perpetuated this indifference. Simultaneously, geospatial sundering of production and consumption fosters a disinterest among workers as consumers in the wherewithal and eco-sanctity of production. Whether it is children’s toys springing from prison labor, electronic goods from iSlaves or “sexy” jeans the dyes from which destroy global aquacultures, workers find themselves consuming commodities that undermine the human and environmental integrity of their very material reproductive livelihood.

As well, there is the question of persisting inequality of income and wealth in past socialist experiments. Whether the new socialist society is birthed by electoral democracy or revolution and breakdown of the decaying capitalist order (a topic for a follow up paper), many vital services, management of technological systems and governance functions will need to be performed by those who had benefitted financially from such expertise in bourgeois society. It is instructive how within debates swirling around the class character of the erstwhile Soviet Union the fact that a managerial cohort reached an income differential of around 8:1 in relation to ordinary workers was posited as a sign of capitalist resurgence. China, today, renders this measure rather Quixotic. Home to one of the largest concentrations of billionaire species China is one of the most unequal societies on earth. It is true, of course, that socialist ascendance is accompanied by a great leveling as capitalist property is expropriated. But analysis tends to be fuzzy on the precise institutional mechanisms that will forestall reemergence of class divisions in ostensibly socialist societies.

Further, there is the question of the specific economic principle or kind of economy socialists will adopt. Marx, in the Grundrisse (his workbook for Capital) observes: “In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others.” What Marx captures here is the fact that while “markets” of sorts and economic forms such as wages and profits existed in precapitalist modes of production, one “kind” of economy or economic principle predominated such as slavery or feudal corvée labor, and was central to material reproduction of those societies. Similarly, macroeconomic social democratic programming marked post World War II welfare states. Yet its role was as a policy device to support capitalism rather than a step toward planned economy which overrides the market to foster socialism.

Writings of economic historian Karl Polanyi dovetail with Marx’s historical distinctions separating modes of production. Polanyi’s conception of “reciprocity” as cooperative, person-to-person human economic relations of sharing, gift giving, customary communal practices of give-and-take and so forth corresponds to Marx’s primitive communism. Polanyi’s “redistribution” captures economic practices of larger, more advanced economies where goods, tribute, tithes, taxes and so on are moved from the hands of scattered production units to the “center” and redistributed according to hierarchal social relations as in slavery and feudal modes of production. Arguably both the capitalist welfare state and Soviet style central planning deployed this economic principle to varying extents. Polanyi and Marx concur that the “self-regulating” market principle is a defining feature of capitalist societies. Nevertheless, Marx is crisply clear on the fact of early market practices operating in precapitalist economies at the “borderlands” separating communities and external to their cardinal principle of material reproduction.

Finally, socialists of all-stripes today call for vibrant, potentially direct, democracy which expands social participation well beyond that achieved in bourgeois societies even in their social democratic heydays.

Ecosocialist Interventions

If, as stated above, capitalism in its most fundamental incarnation is an “upside down” society which reproduces human use value life only as a byproduct of value augmentation, to turn material reproduction of society right side up demands the reinstatement of human use value life as the concrete core of human flourishing.

What capitalist history, history of socialist experiments and study of past modes of production confirm is that particular economic principles or “kinds” of production prove particularly suited to economies of specific classes of use values. For example, in both capitalist and socialist economies, heavy industry is managed under similar extra-market economic planning/programming “control mechanisms” prompting no less than bourgeois Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz to admit that during the “window of time” where such use value production predominates in societies “some variant of socialism may have been able to work.”

On the other hand, central planning in socialist societies failed miserably in agriculture to meet human use value needs in terms of both social demand for foodstuffs and eco-sustainability. Evidence from the erstwhile Soviet Union attests to the fact that it was only due to (illegal) support of economic practices akin to Polanyi’s reciprocity and Marx’s primitive communism that Soviet style central planning in agriculture endured as long as it did.

Agribusiness in today’s advanced economies as a state subsidized corporate bio-tech, capital intensive version of Soviet centralized control is environmentally unsustainable, gobbling up far more energy to produce “food” than the calories it yields. Evidence from across the globe therefore supports the ecosocialist position that small scale farming practices of agroecology will not only feed the world’s population nutritiously but are eco-sustainable in the long term. Agroecology “mimics” nature by integrating varying crop varieties and livestock with the environment.

Current ecosocialists, however, are vague on how postcapitalist society, beyond adoption of agroecological practices is to be shaped. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, for example, define socialism in terms of “(1) social ownership, (2) social production organized by workers, and (3) satisfaction of communal needs.” They further suggest ecosocialism implies “social use” rather than ownership of nature, “(2) rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between human beings and nature,” and (3) the satisfaction of communal needs “of future generations.” But what does it mean in concrete economic practice to “rationally regulate” the labor and production process? And how will “communal needs” be assessed and satisfied. In fact, what is the “communal”? What “kind” of “social production” will be “organized by workers”? Who are the “workers”?

Ecosocialist proponents such as Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams go into somewhat more detail calling for reductions in size of urban agglomerations and investment in networks of sustainable public transport connecting increasingly dispersed populations. They also propose de-automobilization with cars replaced by varying weights of rail system. Magdoff and Williams foresee new modes of sustainable waste disposal, water supply, architecture and so forth, the ultimate environmental purpose of which is to reintegrate human living conditions into rural and urban ecosystems.

Most prescient in their work is a point which potentially links up to questions of reinstating use value at the center of economic life. They suggest that specific types of production requiring greater economies of scale and “heavier” resource inputs be concentrated in single areas with sustainable transportation networks connecting these to the varying communities such production caters to. But the bulk of production, agricultural and otherwise, is to be undertaken near to where it is consumed.

Magdoff and Williams, as well as Michael Löwy begin to address questions of the “kind” of economy or economic principles ecosocialism will operate with. They assert that democratic planning will be adopted and all production “collectively self-managed.” Though what precisely this means in practice is not addressed. Instructively, however, it is made clear that planning is to govern the “main economic options, not the administration of local restaurants, groceries and bakeries, small shops, and artisan enterprises or services.” This suggests that some role be maintained for what I dub small-m market interaction.

Use Value and Sectoral Economic Organization in the Green-Socialist Future

As Richard Swift points out, as is the case with diversity in the natural world, anthropological research shows “that diversity in rules, habits and social forms has always been the human way.” And different kinds of economic practices are certain to “bring out a variety of different potentials in human beings, encouraging some while discouraging others.”

Let us imbibe this insight as we proceed to sketch out a green socialist institutional system with the reinstatement of concrete human use value needs as its foundation.

First, to instate eco-sustainable agroecology as the basis of human use value life, extirpate alienation in all its forms, realize socialist precepts as noted above to “socially control,” “rationally regulate,” “collectively self-manage” production to meet “communal needs,” as well as ensure vibrant, potentially direct, democracy, current economic and political scales will need to be broken down and production and consumption reconnected with a nexus recreated between agriculture and industry and science and ecology.

In the design proposed here the bedrock of ecosocialist life will reside in community scale light use value producing sectors shaped with around 150,000 to 200,000 people, depending upon the population of the region, country and so on where the social change is taking place. Such economies will produce as much of the gamut of final consumption goods they require in-house. They can be formed either adjacent to deconstructed major urban centers or honed by incorporating smaller towns and rural districts. Depending on local conditions food staples as well as any other food crops for which there is community demand and supportive soil conditions are produced. Aquaculture, hydroponics, greenhouse gardening and so forth may be adopted to expand the array of products beyond that limited by climate zone. Most “lighter” building construction material, furniture, apparel, household sundries, bicycles, children’s toys, crafts, and so on are produced in the community sector. These communities will strive be as responsible as possible for their energy needs as well waste recycling.

In such small scale light use value producing sectors modalities of reciprocity and primitive communism reflected today by community currency (CCs) regimes, local exchange/employment and trading systems (LETS), cooperatives, “anarchist” solidarity barter or personal “exchange” specifically of services may be deployed as the “kind” of economy or principle. Community democratic planning is only required to meet communal needs for basic foodstuffs and provision of socialized services such as health care, child care, aged care, education, and so on. Property in this sector is held communally but may be divided up into allotments that include “private” residences which, according to individual “family” or micro unit choice, can be repurposed in part as cafes, massage clinics, kick boxing clubs, and the like.

Within the community scale light use value sector where inhabitants largely work “for themselves” through a mix of individual and cooperative forms production and consumption is reconnected, alienation in work ameliorated, and industry reembedded in sustainable agriculture of agroecology. Excessive wealth accumulation in private hands will not be possible as money is decommodified by CCs. That is, with CCs, money functions as unit of account and medium of exchange but not as store of value. Wealth in the new socialist society is measured concretely in terms of human flourishing.

To refine Magdoff and Williams suggestion for production requiring greater economies of scale and “heavier” resource inputs being concentrated in a given area and operated to serve several communities, my institutional schema entails creation of a heavy use value state production sector. Goods ranging from communication devices and systems, information and computer technologies, medical equipment, transportation equipment and infrastructure, specialized construction materials, heavy construction equipment, standardized tools and implements, scientific laboratories, and so forth outstrip scale economy of light use value community economic sectors. Even the eco-sustainable energy matrix called for by ecosocialists including wind turbines, solar power plants, panels, miniaturized power generation and micro-grids that power small scale communities defy production by each community sector economy. Within the state production sector the operating principle of economy will be participatory planning as a mode of redistribution.

What is paramount in the socialist institutional design set out here is that “ownership” and control over the state production sector is vested in the community sector economies it services. One way of doing this is through shareholding by the community sector economies and their members. This activates the “social control” over complex production systems and directing of production “for socially useful purposes.” As well, transactions between the state production sector and community economies are conducted by way of state currency. Importantly, a firewall must be emplaced to separate intra-community sector economic activities undertaken with CCs and other modalities of reciprocity like LETS and those of the state sector where state currency is used. Further, it is vital to recognize that it is not going to be possible to completely eliminate alienation in work within some industries of the state production sector. Yes, automation will help. But ultimately some production workers are going to be working at difficult routine tasks greatly distanced from their consumption. What is suggested here is democratic rotation of labor forces from the community sector economies.

Finally, a third, administrative sector is proposed. To be sure, in highly urbanized societies these discrete use value economic sectors will not be geospatially separated in any great degree. The important questions here are the democratic constituents of the administrative separation as well as that of the ways incomes and remunerations for tasks are treated and the scope for any private accumulation of capital institutionally firewalled.

Dealing with the question of incomes and remuneration, most consumption within the ecosocialist society as a whole unfolds at the level of the community sector economies. If these light use value production sectors are within close proximity to the state and administrative sectors then both production workers and state administrative functionaries can return via free, eco-sustainable public transport and spend their incomes which are paid in their community CCs. Otherwise, some accommodations and sustenance support production will need to be carried out around the state sector economy and state administrative sector and a separate CC developed for consumption purposes. Even state administrative functionaries who will have access to allocation of state funds and the state currency will only be able to consume privately with the CC.

Democratic decision making is direct within cooperatives, LETS, “neighborhoods” and so on of a few thousand people each as part of the larger, 150,000 to 200,000 member community sector. Elections can then be held to choose immediately recallable and answerable representatives to community sector bodies and for community sector representatives and management personnel for the state and administrative sectors. Again, given the fact that a firewall is emplaced preventing use of state currency for personal consumption, which takes place in community sector economies by CCs, no special privileges accrue to representatives and management ensuring that only those committed to public service seek it.

As addressed at length in earlier work, at any given point in the process of material reproduction the only new cost to society is the allocation and expenditure of human labor. From Marx’s two accounts of the relationship between necessary and surplus labor all social labor may be considered necessary labor in the ecosocialist economy. Deductions from total incomes to workers and community stakeholders are then taken to cover all social, investment and administrative costs. With “exchange rates” established between the state currency and CCs a metric for assessing basic income levels in CCs can be undertaken for all members of society who are not productive workers.

On the other hand, given that the goal of society is to minimize labor time across communities devoted to necessities, including social and administrative necessities, and the fact that much of the variety in consumption will flow from free individual or associational initiatives in LETS, cooperatives and so on, a flowering of multidimensional potentialities can be expected to ensue in community sector economies. This will certainly result in some level of inequality, “status” differences, and variations in personal and group life-styles within society. But that will not impact life chances the foundation for which is socialized. Nor does any basis exist for the reinstating of social class divergence as avenues to capital accumulation and property aggrandizement are firewalled.

Finally, beyond all the issues of eco-sustainability entailing agroecology, alternative energy sources and so on, detailed in the ecosocialist literature, the three sector economic edifice as a whole will be able to apply variants of ecological footprint analysis over all connected production sectors through the state administrative sector.

In the end, the vision is to fashion a global commonwealth of ecosocialist “states” or regions all modeled on the three use value sector, multiple economic principle ecosocialist economy. Small “states” or regions will be composed of several three sector edifices. Larger regions are going to be composed of more, though certainly, for democratic administrative purposes, large transcontinental states that exist today must necessarily be broken up into independent bioregions.

Where the market principle of capital may have some continuing purchase in the future socialist commonwealth is in competition and exchanges between ecosocialist regions. International transactions will be conducted through state currencies that are firewalled from operating within community scale economies. Like the operations of merchant capital at the dawn of the capitalist era which did not transform internal production relations in much of the world, so persisting mercantile relations between socialist competitors need not impact ecosocialist relations or transform the socialist mode of production in any given region.

However this all plays out, as economic, political and social interrelations between regions and three sector economic edifices become regularized, both within “states,” regions and the global socialist commonwealth, the state, as such, will “wither away” as Marx projected.

This article draws upon the author’s recent book Socialism in the 21st Century.

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