Socialists often describe socialism as a society where there will be free access, but what could this mean in concrete terms?
Socialism will be a society of free access to what has been produced. This does not mean alcohol being made available to children or anyone being able to get hold of guns. But there’ll be no money, credit cards or cheque books, no artificial barriers to people having what they’ve decided they want. But how would free access work, and would it lead to a free-for-all and chaos as people just took more and more?
It doesn’t matter whether they’ll be called shops, stores or warehouses, but there will be places where people will go to collect goods. Whether it’s food, clothes, electrical gadgets or whatever, these places will in some ways be like the shops that exist nowadays but in other ways will be rather different. There will be no price tickets, check-outs or security guards. There’ll be no ‘buy one get one free’ offers, no brightly-coloured promotions trying to pressurise you into buying certain goods. There may well still be shop assistants, whose task it really will be to assist people rather than talk them into purchases. There will still be plenty of choice, and probably more real choice than exists today, when you can ‘choose’ among masses of near-identical products. If you want food, no doubt you will go with a shopping list and make sure that you load what you want into the shopping trolley. And then you’ll just leave, since you won’t have to pay for anything.
Another big difference between the shops of today and the warehouses of the socialist future will concern the quality of what is in them. Everything will be the best quality, as production for use means there would be no point in producing cheap food or shoddy goods. Nowadays, the cheap and tacky are for those who cannot afford to buy the best, an idea which will be completely alien in socialism. A ‘prestigious’ brand name or logo will not be used to inflate the price of something or to make the consumer fit in or feel a cut above the rest.
Having only the best doesn’t mean that we’ll be eating caviar all the time, just that — even if you’re having bangers and mash for tea — you’ll be having the best of its kind. Furniture or TVs won’t be designed to wear out: a sensible use of resources would involve making things to last and recycling as much as possible.
The standard objection to the socialist account of free access is rooted in a view of human nature. People would take and take, it may be claimed, irrespective of what they actually wanted. But a bit of thought should show that this objection does not hold water. For one thing, the people who live in socialism will be convinced of the superiority of this way of organising society and will not act against its interests. And further, think about the things you consume and whether you would really benefit from hoarding them. Most people can only consume fairly limited amounts of milk or bread or toilet paper and won’t need to keep cupboards full of any of them. Even in these days of home freezers, where people do stock up on some foods, they don’t keep massive amounts of anything. In a society of free access, you’ll always be able to get more butter or dog food from the local warehouse, so you won’t need your own mountain of either.
But aren’t there other goods for which these considerations won’t apply? Well, again, people won’t need several cars or ten dining-room tables. There probably are some items which people may well want a lot of: no doubt it will vary from individual to individual, but clothes, books, CDs and DVDs might be good examples. In some cases, producing extra copies (say of a CD) requires very little extra resources. There might well be first-class public libraries or comprehensive book-recycling schemes, which would obviate the desire to own individual copies of some books. And clothing won’t be subject to the whims of fashion as it is now, so people won’t want new outfits each year. In general, the whole idea of consumerism, of possessions making you happy, won’t apply.
The point is not that we can explain in detail now just how the demand for every item will be realised in socialism. Rather, we can just set out some general principles about how free access would function and suggest that the human nature objections to it are based on a very narrow view of how human beings behave under capitalism. The combination of socialist consciousness and good old common sense will ensure that people will take what they need rather than all that is available or all they can carry.
A society of free access, then, will mean what it says. People will select their weekly food needs and take home what they’ve chosen, without anyone asking them to pay for it. They will choose clothes, furniture, sports gear, lawnmowers in the same way. And they will know that none of what they’re eating or using is dangerous or nasty, that none of it has been produced in an environmentally-unfriendly way or to make a profit for a few rather than to satisfy the needs of the many.