Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Socialism: A Class Interest or a Human Interest? (2010)

The Material World column from the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sometimes socialists argue for socialism as being in the interest of the working class. Sometimes socialists say that socialism is in the interest of humanity as a whole. Surely there is a logical contradiction here? What about the capitalist class? Is socialism in their interest too, or is it not?

I see no real contradiction. After all, what is an “interest”? The dictionaries, rather unhelpfully, tell us that an interest is a benefit or advantage. Short-term benefit or long-term? Self-perceived advantage or advantage in some objective sense? How we understand all these words depends on how we view human beings, on what we think makes them happy or miserable.

Clearly, the great majority of capitalists do consider it in their interest to preserve – and, indeed, expand – their wealth and all the privileges that go with it. What many of them value is not so much a life of luxury and indulgence (some prefer to live modestly) as power and superior status, the sensation of towering way above the common herd (see: “Why they keep piling up manure: the psychology of wealth accumulation,” Material World, Socialist Standard, October 2009).

Socialist capitalists
However, a minority of capitalists have been socialists. Some have made important contributions to the socialist movement. The best known is Friedrich Engels, the friend and collaborator of Karl Marx. Before Marx and Engels there was Robert Owen, whose ideas had enormous influence on socialist thinking and are still relevant today. There are quite a few others.

Did these socialist capitalists see themselves as altruists sacrificing their own interests for the sake of higher ideals? Or did they think that socialism was in some sense in their own interest? No doubt the answer varies from case to case.

For the writer and artist William Morris, or the writer and playwright Oscar Wilde (who inherited substantial property though he died in abject poverty), the most important things in life were beauty and creativity. From this point of view, they regarded the replacement of capitalism by socialism as being in the interest of everyone, regardless of class. In his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Oscar Wilde wrote:
“ The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising... In fact, property is really a nuisance. It involves ... endless attention to business, endless bother... In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it... [Under socialism] nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things.”
The interest in human survival
The emergence of weapons of mass destruction and the ecological crisis have radically changed the calculus of interests. There is now a very material sense in which all people and classes have a common interest in socialism as the sole means of ensuring the survival of the human race.

Unfortunately, the common interest in human survival does not eliminate the difference between the real interest of humanity and the working class and the perceived interest of the capitalist class. The interest in human survival is a relatively long-term interest, while capitalists tend to focus on the short term. This tendency was reflected in a famous riposte that the economist John Maynard Keynes once made to an argument about the long term: “In the long run we are all dead.” In other words, the fate of future generations counts for nothing.

In the short term the working class bear the brunt of environmental degradation, while those who are the most responsible for causing it are the best protected from its effects. It is working class areas that are exposed to chemical and radioactive pollution from mining operations, factories, toxic waste dumps and other sources. The capitalists maintain their country estates in idyllic, unspoilt surroundings – although even they cannot escape the ultraviolet rays that penetrate through holes in the ozone layer. In the imaginary future world of Alexander Zinoviev’s The Human Anthill, nature survives only in small enclaves that people must pay to enter, the price being such as to exclude all but the wealthy.

Interests and interests
So there are interests and interests. In several very important senses, socialism is certainly in the interest of every human being. In other senses socialism remains above all in the interest of the working class. Both aspects of the matter require emphasis. There is no conflict between them.

Election Madness (2010)

From the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
If we simply moan and complain from our armchairs what will change?
Mention politics and you'll probably get a shrug of the shoulders, a huff of contempt or a rebuff that tells you they're just not interested. And why would they be? World politics of any colour, as currently structured, equates to lies, corruption and furtherance of the aims of a minority. Think of any country from A to Z and someone will come up with an example of corruption, cronyism, nepotism or deceit somewhere on the scale from petty and fairly insignificant (in comparison), to in-your-face, downright perversion whether for money or power.
Likewise all countries from A to Z are organised on the capitalist system, from China to Venezuela, as it is impossible to exist as a socialist entity in isolation – whatever the aims may be for the future. The system has developed as intended and has been shaped to be ideally suited to advantage the few at the expense of the vast majority so we really shouldn't be surprised to discover politicians scrambling for their piece of the pie. It's just part of the logic of capitalism.
Personal enrichment or the quest for ongoing power and access to what that brings, whether of elected representatives and their cronies or of self-imposed dictators, can be achieved in many different ways: profitable deals with arms corporations; involvement in or control of drugs smuggling; siphoning off aid donations; accusations, imprisonment or execution of opponents (on home or foreign turf); fact-rigging (e.g. about reasons for invading other countries); rigged elections; removal of opposition from candidate or ballot lists; conflict of interest as with advisory posts to companies or seats on boards of corporations whilst supposedly representing their constituents' interests. In some countries the electorate can't even criticise, lampoon or caricature the elected without risking arrest, a court case, imprisonment or disappearance.
Why do these different degrees of lack of openness or downright oppression result in some of the electorate thinking that “theirs” isn't that bad after all? So what that I can use our flag as a floor cloth without reprisal or ridicule the prime minister in print? It may release frustration and tension but it doesn't improve the democratic content of my daily life. How ludicrous the lengthy list of UK representatives found to have had their snouts in troughs – the ‘expenses scandal’. This simply made them a laughing stock in the US and various other countries around the world where their 'false accounting' antics were seen as small fry. But not so by many of the British electorate who had expected better. An electorate, many of which were scandalised by the unwanted invasion and occupation of Iraq, and which will probably also be bitterly let down and disappointed at the likely outcome of the Chilcott enquiry. Is there anyone left out there who seriously believes these people are working in our best collective interest?
With a general election coming up soon what exactly will be on offer from the main contenders? No doubt more of the same but couched in terms intended to give us confidence that this time promises will be kept, regulations will be tightened and adhered to, unemployment will be tackled and reduced (figures can be manipulated). A minor change here, a cosmetic tweak there, but the status quo will endure regardless. As for the fringe parties, they will have strictly limited agenda; get out of the EU, ban immigration, make some concessions to cleaning up industry and creating greener jobs but what else they will want for us will remain a mystery.
When reading or listening to the pre-election promises and then thinking back rationally to other, similar pledges by previous candidates and recalling the reality of U-turns, excuses and failure to deliver over the years, how could anyone doubt the absolute imperative of addressing the question of what’s gone wrong with politics with the utmost seriousness? If we simply moan and complain from our armchairs what will change? A compliant, too passive electorate is repeatedly defrauded. At the other end of the scale we have seen that, en masse, out on the streets campaigning for peace or an end to global hunger or action on climate change, dissenting heads get cracked by the armour of the state.
At this time of election madness if you think you've been cheated over the years you're right; capitalism is nothing but a racket. The proof of the failure of the world capitalist system to meet the needs and aspirations of the majority of the population of every country of the world is there for all to see, clear and manifest, if only they will open their eyes wide and acknowledge the overwhelming evidence.
Politics, the activities associated with how a country or an area is run, is something which should engage the interest and activity of every citizen world-wide as it bears directly on all aspects of life. The reason for contempt or indifference towards politics comes from a history of being excluded, the expectation of being excluded and the acceptance of being excluded. To be heard, to be considered, to be represented honestly we need to be involved in the decision-making processes, not to be told what is in our best interest by such as those described above. We need a system that works for us all, of which we're all an integral part, a system we're prepared to work to attain. What we need is socialism.
Janet Surman