Saturday, March 28, 2020

Seeing Visions (2019)

From the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘revolution’? A spinning vinyl disc, a marketing cliché, heroic Bolsheviks clambering over iron railings, or queues of innocents being lined up for the firing squad?

The reason why more people don’t consider revolution as a serious political option is because their thoughts are instantly derailed by the mental pictures that this conjures up. Either revolution is meaningless because everything nowadays is a ‘revolution’ of some sort or other, or it is a blood-soaked Armageddon where nobody wants to go, no matter how desperate things get.

Arguably the lack of a mainstreamed, coherent vision of revolution, or of the society made possible by it, is what holds people back more than anything else. People already know that capitalism is a miserable system that’s rigged by and for the rich, and they don’t need to be told over and over again. But who’s offering a clear, understandable alternative, with a roadmap for how to get there?

The Socialist Party has, over the years, attempted to fill in this blank, however, we’ve always been reluctant to speculate too wildly, for several reasons. First, technology changes almost by the day, and what’s possible changes along with it. If we’d cared to describe our vision of a future socialist society, when we started out back in 1904, we would no doubt have been thrilling at talk of gas lamps in every street and a telephone in every town hall. Second, taste is a very time and culture-specific thing. What appeals to you might be off-putting to someone else, and there’s no point deterring people from building a free society simply because of idle speculation about what some of the furniture might look like. Third, and most importantly, it’s not up to us anyway, it’s up to the people who will establish socialism, which is you and people like you. If you want to live in bucolic forested idylls, as William Morris supposed back in the industrial 1890s, then doubtless you’ll make the arrangements. If you hanker for futuristic circular cities and gadgets galore, as Jacque Fresco and Zeitgeist imagined ten or so years back, then you’ll do what’s necessary to make it so. Or perhaps you’ll do both.

Not everyone shares our reservations about building castles in the air. In this issue, we consider two other images or ‘models’ of non-market socialism, which come at the subject from very different perspectives. First, there is the notion of fully automated luxury communism (FALC) devised by Aaron Bastani and James Butler of the alternative news outlet Novara Media. The idea of this is simple: machines are going to do all the work so we can just kick back and relax – once we’ve relieved the capitalist class of global control, that is.

Without rehearsing any of the criticisms that follow, or rehashing earlier ones (see Pathfinders, May 2015), it’s worth asking ‘is this the right strategic vision to put to workers’? FALC is a very clever approach in that it challenges head-on the idea of inevitable scarcity which is drilled into us today as part of capitalism’s manufactured artificial reality, and thus informs people’s too-ready assumptions about revolution as a time of misery, shortages, hard work and self-denial. Moreover, it imparts an appealing tongue-in-cheek humour to a subject more often plastered with a po-faced puritan frown. It feels young and fresh, and new, and now, in a way, no Marxist tract ever seems to. Trouble is, it might be going too far to the other extreme and risk looking like a Pollyanna paradise that’s got drunk on its own optimism. Workers might be seduced by a vision of luxury communism that makes it all sound easy and fun, but on the other hand, they may recall that if a thing sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Are they going to gamble everything on an idea of revolution that doesn’t seem to have considered all the externalities?

Externalities are also a problem in the second view, the model of ‘Walmart-socialism’. This is the idea that if a huge global company with hundreds of thousands of staff can operate perfectly well without its own internal market, then so could the entire planet, and that large global companies are in fact leading the way towards this new social reality. Leaving aside the whole question of central planning which we look at elsewhere, one or two obvious differences between a capitalist megacorp and socialist society present themselves. In the first place, capitalist companies are not democratic but autocratic, even if some limited decision-making is distributed through the system. ‘Citizens’ (ie workers) are not free not to do as they’re told, or free to do something else, or free to change their mind or walk off the job. No matter how managers like to pretend otherwise, a coercive element runs through capitalist companies like Brighton through a stick of rock. This is in stark contrast to socialist society which is predicated on the idea of nobody being anybody’s boss. Secondly, companies like Walmart are not obliged to factor in their wider impact on society, people, or the environment, when devising their future growth strategies. The only thing that really counts in a capitalist business is money, and how much they are going to make over their overheads. What this means is that people, society and the environment are inevitably pushed down the list of priorities, and they suffer accordingly. That’s why we have global warming, and the ‘bottom billion’, and famines and wars. In this sense using a capitalist enterprise as a model of a kind of proto-socialism seems more than bizarre, it’s a travesty.

All in all though, it’s good that people are discussing visions of the future, even if they can’t always agree on the details. Despite the risks inherent in such speculations, workers arguably have to see the goal before they can kick the ball in that direction. Hopefully, this discussion will help to focus minds, without moving the goalposts too often.
Paddy Shannon