Building a world where we share the work and the rewards, where we minimize inequality, where we ensure the basic needs of all are met, requires real democracy. That means socialism.
By Joshua F.
At the highest level, socialism is democracy in the economy. The aim is to build a society devoted to political and economic equality for all people unlike the current system which concentrates power, wealth and income in the hands of a few. But that’s pretty abstract, so let’s break it down.
The US, like many countries, has a degree of political democracy and, like most, has virtually no democracy in the economy.
The political democracy is flawed—those who have great wealth have far, far greater power than everyone else. Because of past victories, it is now possible to elect some candidates who represent the interests of workers. Those who came before us fought and sometimes bled to defeat laws that permitted only wealthy, white, male landowners to vote and hold office. But we have to work far harder than the opposition: they are funded with blank checks from wealthy business owners. They fight tooth and nail to prevent meaningful shifts in the balance of power and wealth toward a fair and more equal society. We should take advantage of the rights won in the past, but those gains have not created real democracy.
It is not possible for politics to be democratic while the economy is not. Wealth and power will always heavily influence decision making. So, we must bring democracy into the economy. This means business decisions cannot be left in the hands of managers, executives, shareholders and the politicians they own. At the level of the company, workers should have democratic control of the job. At the level of the industry, workers should democratically control the direction. At the level of the economy as a whole, we should all democratically make the basic decisions because they affect us all. Until we organize and win power on the job and in government to make these decisions, business leaders will continue to make ones that benefit themselves and leave us under their thumbs forever.
What decisions are we talking about? To start with, what are we paid? In the current economic system, employers take part or most of the value we create. That’s the major source of profit. Every dollar we earn but don’t get is a dollar the shareholders and executives get but didn’t earn. Many employers pay workers far less than the cost of a decent living in their communities, dumping the actual costs on others: the government, our families, the community at large.
Another important decision is the daily running of operations. Who gets assigned the worst and best work? Why are some jobs still dangerous after decades or centuries? Why are many jobs so mind-numbing and unrewarding? How long do we have to work each day to earn the minimum needed for a decent life? Currently in non-union jobs, all these decisions can be made without ever considering the interests of workers.
It’s important to note that “workers” refers not only to those with blue collars on the assembly line or construction site. Office workers are workers. Teachers and child-care workers (even if they are your own children), nurses and lab techs, programmers, artists, fruit pickers and waiters are workers. If you don’t live off profits from someone else’s labor, chances are good you are a member of the working class and your employer is profiting off your work.
A few workplaces have some degree of democracy: in those where we have held onto labor unions and the even smaller number of worker cooperatives, we have some say in the workplace. But without a dramatic increase in the number and power of union members, we will not be able to take economic control away from the rich and powerful. We will not have meaningful and rewarding work. Unions are not sufficient to fully democratize our society, but they are essential to give us a say in pay, benefits and conditions.
The Rest of Our Lives
Of course, our lives extend far beyond the workplace. We have families and friends; we have neighbors and hobbies and sports and many other pieces of our lives not part of work.
Another major aim of socialism is ensuring everyone has the basics needed for a rewarding life. We spend half or more of our waking hours at work and for the vast majority, that’s the source of our income. That’s a big part of why we start by thinking about work. But the other side of income is spending. We believe in democratic control of that side of the economy as well. As a huge part of that, housing is central. Everyone should have the right to decent and safe housing and neighborhoods. The flip side of “good” neighborhoods is that many are left living in unsafe parts of town in derelict buildings and of course, many have no home at all. No one should have to live that way.
That’s why a core aim of socialism is the guarantee of basic human needs: shelter, food, clean water, good education and quality health care. A person without these basic needs is unlikely to be able to participate as fully in society as one who has them. Guaranteeing them strongly contributes to a more equal society.
And the World Around Us
If we are to create a society and an economy geared toward general human well-being rather than profit for the few, we must also consider the world around us. Modern socialism understands that a fair and decent world requires substantially changing how we affect the planet, in part because our actions damage not only the environment, but also enormous numbers of people who don’t have the wealth to avoid those effects. Nobody wants pollution, waste or an overheated planet but our current system encourages environmental devastation. If it is more profitable to generate waste and pollution, then industry will do so. Only by replacing profit as the driving motor of industry and government can we seriously address climate change and pollution and avoid dumping their effects on those least able to handle them.
A Little Vision
There is no easy, self-evident road to creating this better world and repairing the damage done by the current economic and social system. There is no perfect, utopian, pre-defined structure that will magically solve all problems. However, there are some certainties. A system built on the profit motive ensures vast inequality, endless war and environmental destruction which can only take us in the opposite direction.
Building a world where we share the work and the rewards, where we minimize inequality, where we ensure the basic needs of all are met, requires real democracy. Democracy requires not simply occasional elections in which the winner is usually the one with the most money and closest ties to bosses in the district. Democracy requires equality. Democracy insists that labor, all of work, be controlled by the people most affected, primarily those who do the work. Democracy demands socialism.
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