From the June 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialism won’t be a problem-free society but it will allow problems to be dealt with rationally.
Capitalism is a society beset by problems, from poverty, unemployment and homelessness to war, violence and insecurity. As the current recession shows, even those who consider themselves to be comfortably off and with a relatively ‘good’ job may still be thrown out of work with little notice. The housing market is in such a state that many people cannot sell their homes and estate agents are closing almost as quickly as pubs. The fact is that capitalism throws up problem after problem, and this is an in-built aspect of the system’s operation.
Now, socialism will not be a society without problems. There will doubtless still be personal disagreements and dislikes, and natural disasters to disrupt the straightforward functioning of everyday life. But we can say with some assurance that the problems of socialism will be very different from those of capitalism.
We may distinguish two situations. The first consists of problems of capitalism which will simply not arise in socialism; the second of problems that socialism will be far better equipped to address and to solve than capitalism is.
All the economic difficulties of capitalism will automatically be things of the past in a socialist society. The idea that there could be people who want to work but are forced to sit around idle, while at the same time there are others who badly need the goods or services that the first group could provide, would be totally alien. There would be no unemployed building workers alongside homeless people or inhabitants of slums. No unemployed agricultural workers alongside the starving. Anyone who wishes to contribute to production will be able to do so, without considerations of profit and the market being of any relevance. Poverty will vanish in a society based on free access and production for use, and people will not starve while food is exported. So all the problems of destitution, insecurity and worry will be gone, since these are created by capitalism’s rationing of goods and its exploitation of the working class. Concepts like booms and slumps and recession and unemployment will have been confined to the history books.
Equally, war will no longer exist. With no contending countries and no ruling classes, there will be no need for vast armies making use of the latest weapons technology. Issues such as ensuring the availability of raw materials like oil will not arise, since they will be the common property of all the earth’s people. Resources, both natural and human, will no longer be wasted on killing and inventing new ways of killing other humans.
At the same time, there will be other problems which will exist in socialism, and for which the establishment of a co-operative commonwealth will not automatically provide a solution. Environmental issues would be a prominent example of this. Under capitalism, the profit motive and the short-term nature of planning combine to cause pollution and destruction of the environment. Socialism would be unable to simply stop interfering with the world we live in, since production of any kind assumes some sort of interaction with our environment. Nor can we say now how much mess capitalism will leave behind for socialism to grapple with. To what degree, for instance, will global warming have gone beyond the point of no return? How much oil will still be available, and how will energy be produced?
There are no easy answers to such ecological questions, and we cannot just dismiss them by saying that socialism will evince a concern for the environment that capitalism never can. Rather we can point out that satisfying human need and caring for the environment will be at the forefront of socialism’s priorities. If they come into conflict, decisions will have to be taken about whether to emphasise one or the other in a particular case. The answers cannot be given yet, since we do not even know just what the questions will be. But from anything other than a capitalist perspective, caring for the world is part of satisfying human need, since we are part of the planet and must always live within it.