In Episode 11, we explore Socialism as an alternative to Capitalism. This is a piece written by our researcher, Katja Rackin, using research, facts and personal analyses to further explore the topic.
At times of crisis, like the current covid-19 pandemic, society is reminded of the fragility of our security. We see how decisions made by capitalist leaders and the elite affect the welfare of the working classes, whilst leaving the upper class untouched. When we talk of the working class, we are talking about 99% of the population, the people who work to make our societies function: nurses, teachers, bus drivers – ordinary people. It is we, the people, who are made to pay for the mistakes of the upper class, and to carry the weight of the consequences of decisions that we have had no part in making, either by paying more taxes to bail out the rich or by accepting cuts to welfare and public services. Economic and financial crashes are an inevitable part of capitalism, with its boom-and-bust cycles, and have happened throughout its history. It is often during these times that interests in alternatives to capitalism peak.
Our demands and discussions for equality and social change have developed and progressed to transcend what capitalism can offer. Our solutions therefore also need to progress, to stand as powerful and absolute as our realised desires for equality. To fight for social change within an economic system that is dependent on exploitation simply cannot provide meaningful solutions. A change in government, a shift from private property to state ownership or minor social reform, will do nothing to disrupt the foundations of the hierarchical capitalist system, nor to remove the economy’s reliance on cheap exploitative labour, racial discrimination, class inequality, and so on.
The last couple of decades have seen a gradual rise in support for Socialism. As people grow increasingly disillusioned by capitalism and seek alternatives to it, political figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have emerged into mainstream politics. Support is especially high amongst younger generations, with polls showing that Brits under 60 are more likely to view Socialism favourably than capitalism, and 70% of American Millennials saying they prefer socialist candidates. After the 2008 financial crash, sales of Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ increased by nearly 300%, and Marx’s ideas began to resurface in popular debate, and have continued to increase till the present day.
So, what is Socialism? Socialism is a movement, a system, a struggle and an attempt to humanise society by transforming our system to respond to the needs of humanity instead of profit. It is a movement that belongs to the working-class, and which opposes the domination of one class over another – capitalists over the majority. Despite capitalist efforts to expel Socialism as an infeasible solution, many feel that its strategies to end capitalist inequalities provide answers which we can no longer ignore. To understand why Socialism is of fundamental significance to our world we must first begin to understand the demands of capitalism and to identify what it means to live in a capitalist society.
Capitalism, labour and sustained exploitation
Children work at a construction project in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, India (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Inequality is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. The world’s largest corporations stand at the peak of wealth and power, accumulated through years of exploitation in the pursuit of maximum profit. In a 2012 survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it was estimated that a profit of $150 billion was made annually from the use of forced labour worldwide. This figure is just in reference to forced labour – which amounted to around 21 million people at the time – it does not include workers in other exploitative conditions. In 2016, it was estimated that this figure is now closer to 40.3 million people and that 11% of the world’s children are being exploited for work. Under capitalism, exploitation acts as an economic engine, fueling the world’s largest corporations, and increasing at catastrophic rates. Exploitation has become a natural repercussion of capitalism because, under a capitalist system, human worth is linked to productivity. This mindset is also something that contributes to other societal ills, such as inadequate care for pensioners and attitudes towards Disabled People, due to the perception of their reduced ability to be productive labourers.
Capitalist leaders in the West play an active role in creating and maintaining economic divides, in order to sustain their need to outsource cheap labour and trade, with nations that support their industries. This includes orchestrating regime changes, election interferences and coup d’états, often to replace left-wing movements and governments with right-wing dictatorships that will support their needs by suppressing human rights. For example, the United States government was largely responsible for the overthrow of Chile’s president Salvador Allende. Allende saw himself as a socialist and had made moves to nationalise large-scale industries such as copper and healthcare, reduce unemployment, increased salaries and wages, and more. A Church Commission Report shows that the CIA spent $8 million between 1970 and the September 1973 coup, when the Nixon administration replaced Allende with Pinochet. This unleashed a brutal dictatorship which resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, but served to eliminate what the US saw as a threat to their economy and power. Nicaragua is another example, in which the US allied with the Somoza family’s leadership in a bloody dynasty which lasted for 43 years. The final Somozan president, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, owned Plasmaferesis, a company which collected blood plasma every day from 1000 of the country’s poorest, to sell to the United States and Europe. These are just two examples in the history of capitalist exploitation and the West’s role in sustaining and protecting inequality for the purpose of economic growth. Other examples of US and British interference for profitable gain include Iran (1953 coup), Guatemala (1954-55 coup), Dominican Republic (1965), El Salvador (1979 – 92), Iraq (2003), Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti… the list goes on, yet it only goes some way to addressing the gravity of the situation that we are currently in. When personal profit, self-interest and competition are the leading principles of a society, social unity, equality and welfare become mere token gestures, and will forever fail to be connected with adequate funding, planning and results. Political developments and a realisation of human rights are a direct threat to the whole notion of capitalism, and will forever be treated as attacks rather than progress, and so we see the impossibility of creating permanent change from within the confines of capitalism.
When we think about capitalism, it is not enough to just take into account our own individual positions, or even our nation’s isolated position. If you were born in the West, you were born into a certain level of privilege – a privilege that is directly connected to the sustained poverty and exploitation that our economies rely on in order to flourish. We must question – who makes our clothes, our phones, our cars and our other objects of daily comfort? We cannot absolve ourselves from responsibility when we are consuming products with histories as bloody as the wars that we claim to protest. It is no longer enough just to disagree; we have to accept that the system that we live in is waging a silent war on people every day. The West’s reliance on superiority and control over countries in the East for exploitative labour, also fuels an undercurrent of racist and discriminatory ideals. This ideology also permeates our education and media systems, shaping collective attitudes towards non-white races and non-Western nations. Through propaganda and biased journalism, racism serves as a tool for governments to justify their exploitation of other races. It also allows our leaders to deflect blame and responsibility for the millions of people who flee from warzones and the dictatorships that jeopardise their lives – dangers which those in power have enabled, supported and fought for. Patriotism serves as a deliberate weapon against social equality, and is one of the many reminders of capitalism’s dependency on discrimination and divides.
Capitalism and excess
People scavenge for plastic from an Indonesian garbage dump (Juni Kriswanto / AFP / Getty Image)
As well as exploitation of people, capitalism relies on exploitation of the environment. A system which demands continuous economic growth is incapable of putting the needs of the environment first, just as it is incapable of putting the needs of human beings first. The pace of monetary growth that capitalism demands in order to survive is attacking ecosystems and natural habitats at a rate that has led to an environmental crisis. Through processes such as over-fishing, over-farming, deforestation and general excess demand, capitalism is pushing us to extinction, and draining the Earth’s natural resources at an irreparable rate. Through shortcuts to maximum profit, businesses continue the harmful production of plastic and disposable products, and despite a growing awareness of its catastrophic effects, production rates are increasing. From 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, production of plastic is expected to double by 2050. We are trapped in a destructive cycle of creating constant surplus whilst also disposing of things at an alarming rate. Take the fashion industry. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the industry ran on four seasons a year: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. Nowadays, ‘fast fashion’ brands produce about 52 micro-seasons of clothes a year—or one new collection a week. According to Fast Company, “apparel companies make 53 million tons of clothes annually. If the industry keeps up its exponential pace of growth, it is expected to reach 160 million tons by 2050.” These cheaply made, trendy pieces have resulted in an industry-wide movement towards overwhelming amounts of consumption and waste that ultimately result in harmful impacts on the environment and garment workers. This way of operating is reflected in almost every industry. Mobile phones are built to malfunction so that you maintain a desire to discard and re-purchase. This design idea, called “planned obsolescence”, exists across most consumer goods that are manufactured under capitalism. The value that is placed on these non-essential objects creates abstract values, as determined by an ever-changing market, not by the individual, based on their needs or benefit from these products. Value is manipulated by advertising and marketing strategies whose role it is to influence habits through creating a false sense of need. This abstraction of value, is what dictates excess production and hence also excess labour. We create and produce in order to satisfy our economy’s never-ending thirst for profit and growth, rather than the needs of people and society.
Capitalism is not our safety net
Suffragettes picket for the release of their imprisoned leader Alice Paul in 1917 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
As one of the richest nations in the world, the UK is deemed a prime example for capitalist success. Despite this, we are estimated to have over 14.3 million people living in poverty, 4 million of which are children; there are 2 million people in minimum-wage jobs, whilst housing, taxes and utility costs are increasing at alarming rates; there are currently 280,000 homeless people in the UK, a figure that’s been steadily rising year by year. These hardships have only increased since the covid-19 pandemic began: 800,000 minimum-wage workers have lost their jobs and unemployment now stands at 1.7 million, the highest rate in the last five years; 2.5 million people have died worldwide as a result of coronavirus, over 120,000 of those were in the UK. This is only predicted to rise as the pandemic has placed us at the peak of collective vulnerability, and capitalism will not prioritize welfare and lives ahead of profitable gain. To do so would be to accept economic collapse. A system which cannot survive when welfare (even temporarily) is prioritized is one that creates constant justification for avoidable illness, death and hardship.
The history of capitalism is a history of class struggle – a minority of people with a huge accumulation of the world’s wealth and resources create the laws that govern and dictate the conditions of the majority of the world’s population. The more a government is willing to exploit the working classes for cheap labour, the more the economy can flourish through the maximization of profit. We live in a system which grows and prospers by reducing minimum wage, cutting welfare support, raising taxes for the poor whilst simultaneously cutting them for corporations and the rich. In an economy which thrives when reducing people’s welfare, sustained change only exists as false and temporary gestures in order to dispel public doubt and maintain state control. It is in times of civil unrest that capitalist governments make surface level contributions in addressing public demands. The NHS was not just a product of Labour Party reformism, it came in response to fears of social discontent after the war; slavery wasn’t abolished out of capitalist guilt and an acceptance of its brutality, it was after years of protest, deaths and civil rights movements; women did not get the right to vote due to an acceptance of gender equality, it came after a long struggle through the suffragette movement; and, most recently, it was after global BLM protests, after countless African American deaths, that conversations about race entered government debates. Under capitalism, welfare support and the acknowledgment of human rights are mere peace tokens offered to the public in minimal doses, in order to avoid civil unrest – they are not backed with strategies that will guarantee permanence in the eradication of injustices. As long as you have two different classes, one living off the labour of the other, you continue to make room for exploitation and inequality. In the most basic of answers, capitalism is not working.
Many see capitalism as the natural order of humanity and civilization, but it hasn’t always been the way – it emerged in the 17th century as a substitute to Feudalism. Progression is a natural part of our existence, yet despite the fact that our ideals and our political consciousness have moved beyond what capitalism can offer us, people maintain that this is the way of the world. It is important to understand that, although the system is tied to the labour of people, we are not tied to the system. If you change the system, people will adapt. Our class society and monetary values are our creations, our constructs, our civilization – and our existence and survival is not interchangeable with capitalism – nor is our capacity to work, progress and innovate.
So, why socialism?
At its core, Socialism is a social and political movement that prioritises the needs of human beings, through equal access to resources and goods, universal social welfare and common ownership of the means of production. To prioritise a collective is to prioritise a society’s needs, and that includes that of the individual human being. Prioritising the collective does not mean that we suffer as individuals. But by transforming the conditions of a society to adapt to the needs of people, Socialism encourages individual development, gives rise to individual desires and the freedom to express without dictated constraints. When we talk about Socialism, we are not just talking about decreasing differences or gaps between the ruling and working classes, we are not just talking about reducing exploitation and poverty — we are demanding an end to the entire class system and hence also an end to the inevitable by-products of capitalism.
A logical evaluation of capitalist history up until today shows us that we cannot continue in the current system – we live in a time of progress, where discussions of racial equality, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, climate change are at the forefront of mainstream political debates. Capitalism stands in contradiction to our realised desires and demands for equality, social welfare and progress. In attempts to sustain itself, capitalism has absorbed the language and gestures of these debates, but without making any real systemic change to address the routes of what they are based on. From huge corporations like McDonald’s, Gillette and Nike making solidarity statements against oppression to Boris Johnson who promised to review racial inequality – these actions create an illusion that we are succeeding in movements towards social justice, but in reality, these are deliberately hollow actions, used to distract and dispel, rather than solve. There can be no unity between capitalism and equality, when one thrives on discrimination and the other defines its end. There is no in-between, no ‘best of both’, no middle-ground between capitalism and socialism – either you abolish the class society or you don’t. The acceptance of capitalism is the acceptance of barbarism.
Though there have been many revolutions and struggles against capitalism, from the Paris Commune to the October Revolution, none have succeeded in permanently abolishing the class society. When faced with the daily failures and dangers of capitalism, it is only inevitable that people will try again. In an age of communication and technology, the daily crimes and atrocities of capitalism are laid bare, with the entire world as its audience. And, for the first time in history, we have the resources to achieve global organisation. We’ve seen it in the growth of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which started as a response to police brutality in America and has now grown to represent world-wide struggles against capitalist oppression. In the summer of 2020, 60 countries protested simultaneously, from Iran, chanting ‘we can’t breathe’ in their continuous fight against the Islamic Regime; to Kenya who protested against extrajudicial killing and excessive government force; Indonesia, where people rose against decades of government abuse; Cyprus, where people stood up against class inequality and discrimination of the poor; to the UK where realisations of systemic racism and government interference in education flooded social media and even headlines. We have more power than we are led to believe. We are the organs, the veins, the blood that keeps the heart of capitalism beating. Recognising this vast power is the first step. Through realisation, we can learn to direct our dissatisfaction at the routes of what creates it. The second step is to organise – to know how to use this power and when. It is not just about the protest, but about sustained strategic action which targets sources of power.
‘If the workers have intelligence enough to make the machine, and intelligence enough to use it, they have intelligence enough to own it. They must be the masters of the tools with which they live, and that is just what socialism proposes to make them.’ – Eugene V. Debs
As human beings we all have this in common – we all want to live in security, we all want to have dignity, the right not to be exploited, oppressed and discriminated against. Socialism provides a progressive move towards equality, which serves to address these desires. Despite heavy criticism and slandering from the right, Socialism is not based on a fantasy of utopia – it is a process based on logical strategy, extensive research and planning over the course of nearly 200 years. Since The Communist Manifesto its practicalities have been analysed and theoretically implemented into the structural aspect of our society – it comes armed with a wealth of academic and political expertise – it is a blueprint for positive social change.