This article is one of a series in which I am trying to understand the issues facing socialists, particularly but not exclusively in the UK, today.
Capitalism globally is in the midst of its worst crisis since 2008. Democracy is proving ineffective at finding solutions to the rapacious greed of big corporations. People are generally frustrated at how little control they can exercise over their own lives. For a social system that not too long ago thought it had reached the ‘end of history’ the crisis looks terminal.
Fuelled by this obvious sense of decay, the appeal of socialism has remained undiminished . A poll carried out by YouGov in 2016 found that 36% of British respondents held a favourable view of socialism, compared to 33% who had a favourable view of capitalism. In Germany the figures were 48% for socialism, 26% for capitalism.
Alex Mays, the youthful leader of electoral hopefuls the Breakthrough Party referenced research for the Institute of Economic Affairs that found that among 16-34 year olds surveyed in 2021, 67% said that they would like to live in a socialist economic system, whilst over three quarters blamed capitalism for the housing crisis, climate change and as a threat to the NHS.
The young people in this survey identified socialism with words such as ‘public’, ‘equal’ and ‘fair’. By contrast they associated capitalism with ‘exploitative’, ‘unfair’, ‘the rich’ and ‘corporations’.
Although this all sounds very positive, it is important to understand what people mean when they talk of socialism. The Pew Research Centre in 2019 asked Americans with a positive view of socialism to state, in their own words, why they held that view. Their responses make interesting reading:
The views expressed here are hardly revolutionary. What they describe is a mixed economy controlled by a benevolent government. Although this would undoubtedly be an improvement on what we have now, it contains a major flaw. It fails to see capitalism as a total system. The idea, popular with many who call themselves socialists, that you can have a kind of pick and mix approach to political economy has been tried, tested and failed.
In essence, what American supporters of socialism advocate is Keynesianism, a system based on public sector funds being used to prop up capitalism when it fails to invest in the public sector. Forgetting the inflationary pressures associated with Keynesianism, capitalist companies have always been the first in line for a handout when times are tough but advocates for a minimalist state when times are good.
At the moment we are living through bad times for capital. This might seem a strange thing to say when some corporations are posting record profits. But the means to get those profits are not greater productivity but rather by squeezing workers through below inflation wage increases and by transferring the cost of public provision onto private individuals. Health, education, even postal services, which were once public services, are now slowly and surely needing individuals to have private insurance or to pay higher point of use costs.
If all socialism means is being more efficient, then those processes cannot be prevented. Certainly the UK Labour Party is preparing itself for government without having a single radical proposal to challenge unbridled capitalism. The biggest obstacle to the asset stripping of our public services is strong trade unions taking action, not only to defend the pay of workers in these industries but fighting for the very existence of the public sector. On one thing both Tory and Shadow Labour are united. The final say in how the public sector is run must be with government ministers and not the workers who give their lives to providing services for others or the public who rely on their sacrifice.
Support for a mixed economy
In essence public support for nationalisation is not support for socialism but support for a mixed economy. A poll carried out by Survation for We Own It found majority support for renationalising water, buses, rail, the NHS, energy and Royal Mail.
This is clearly good news in as much as it shows that there is an audience for ideas associated with socialism, but we should not believe that this amounts to an endorsement of a change in our social system.
Socialism cannot be achieved simply by a change in government or by bringing some parts of the economy under state ownership. It’s important to see socialism as a total system not as a variant of capitalism. Socialism is not efficient or compassionate capitalism; it is nothing more than a total change of social system. It cannot be achieved through evolution but by revolution.
In writing this I am more than aware that it will be off-putting to many and terrifying even for some who count themselves as socialists. The reaction is both a reaction to the very concept of change but is also rooted in the success of a capitalist system which is itself a total system.
In a way capitalism’s greatest success cannot be measured in wealth creation or productivity, but in its ability to convince people with little to gain from its continuance that anything else will be worse. Martin Wolf, FT economist, argues that “full socialism is inherently antidemocratic and anticompetitive. This is because, at bottom, it is yet another system in which political power and control over valuable resources are fused”. Wolf, like other apologists for a system that leaves half the world starving, is fully aware of the defects of modern capitalism but believes that with a bit of tinkering it is a system that can be made to work.
Left-leaning economists are not the only ones who believe that the ‘problems’ of capitalism can be wished away by careful management. Many who regard themselves as socialists do not seek the transformation of society but simply the alleviation of the worst excesses of capital, as if these were some oversight rather than built in to the very fabric of the system.
Capitalism is currently in a slump which anybody with a faint understanding of the way the system works could have predicted. The crisis is one of over-production, which happens when the economy is buoyant, followed by a slump when the system tries to hollow out production. You might think the losers in all this are ordinary people who lose jobs, homes, opportunities, self-respect and much else besides. In fact capitalists lose too. And whilst it is true that not all capitalists lose, not all workers do either.
It is plainly in the best interests of people living in poverty, or who work in jobs they hate or are facing an uncertain future to support change. Why they don’t is a combination of factors, but what we do know is that the numbers taking part in organised action to change the system are a tiny minority. Whilst some people might be comfortable as things are and others too damaged to even contemplate change, many more are either justifying the system or simply refusing to believe it is anything to do with them.
Harvard Business School researcher Rosabeth Moss Kanter gives ten reasons why people resist change (she is talking about in the workplace but it is probably true for all change). One factor is uncertainty, “People will often prefer to remain mired in misery than to head toward an unknown.” Socialists can offer no guarantees that the future socialist society will be an improvement. Our belief is an act of faith and, whilst humans have the potential to believe all kinds of fantastical things, they tend to be suspicious of ideas that seem too good to be true.
What does that mean for socialists? Do we tell the truth or make promises that we cannot be sure we can keep? The honest position is one that says we cannot guarantee that socialism will be any better but it sure as hell can’t be worse. Is that a compelling argument?
As Moss Kanter says, “Change is meant to bring something different, but how different? We are creatures of habit. Routines become automatic, but change jolts us into consciousness, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.” If that is true for the minor changes that get introduced into a workplace, how much more so is it true for a change in social system?
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.