Steady State Socialism
By Alan Johnstone
04 April, 2015
In 1923 the communist activist Sylvia Pankhurst opened an article with the declaration that ‘Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance…We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.’ (1) We have the technology and the know-how to end deprivation and offer everyone on this planet the decent and comfortable standard of life they deserve that Sylvia advocated and it need not take decades to come about. Yes, socialism can bring security to billions within our lifetimes. It is achievable.
Along with folk like Herman Daly, socialists are seeking ultimately to establish a steady-state economy (or ‘zero-growth’) society, a situation where human needs sits in balance with the resources needed to satisfy them. Such a society would already have decided, according to its own criteria and through its own decision-making processes, on the most appropriate way to allocate resources to meet the needs of its members. This having been done, it would only need to go on repeating this continuously from production period to production period. Production would not be ever-increasing but would be stabilized at the level required to satisfy needs. All that would be produced would be products for consumption and the products needed to replace and repair the raw materials and instruments of production used up in producing these consumer goods. The point about such a situation is that there will no longer be any imperative need to develop productivity, i.e. to cut costs in the sense of using less resources; nor will there be the blind pressure to do so that is exerted under capitalism through the market.
It will also create an ecologically benign relationship with nature. In socialism we would not be bound to use the most labour efficient methods of production. We would be free to select our methods in accordance with a wide range of socially desirable criteria, in particular the vital need to protect the environment. What it means is that we should construct permanent, durable means of production which you don’t constantly innovate. We would use these to produce durable equipment and machinery and durable consumer goods designed to last for a long time, designed for minimum maintenance and made from materials which if necessary can be re-cycled. In this way we would get a minimum loss of materials; once they’ve been extracted and processed they can be used over and over again. It also means that once you’ve achieved satisfactory levels of consumer goods, you don’t insist on producing more and more. Total social production could even be reduced. This will be the opposite of to-day's capitalist system’s cheap, shoddy, “throw-away” goods and built-in obsolescence, which results in a massive loss and destruction of resources.
In a stable society such as socialism, needs would change relatively slowly. Hence it is reasonable to surmise that an efficient system of stock control, recording what individuals actually chose to take under conditions of free access from local distribution centres over a given period, would enable the local distribution committee to estimate what the need for food, drink, clothes and household goods would be over a similar future period. Some needs would be able to be met locally: local transport, restaurants, builders, repairs and some food are examples as well as services such as street-lighting, libraries and refuse collection. The local distribution committee would then communicate needs that could not be met locally to the bodies charged with coordinating supplies to local communities.
Of course there will be a short phase where there an increase in production will be necessary to relieve the worst problems of food shortages, health-care and housing which affect billions of people throughout the world. There will also be action to construct the means of production and infrastructures such as transport systems for the commencement of the supply of permanent housing and durable consumption goods. These would be designed in line with conservation principles, which means they would be made to last for a long time, using materials that where possible could be re-cycled and would require minimum maintenance. When these objectives have been accomplished there would begin an eventual fall in production, and society could move into a stable mode. This would achieve a rhythm of daily production in line with daily needs with no significant growth. On this basis, the world community could reconcile two great needs, the need to live well whilst sharing and caring for the planet, sparing it from excesses.
Whether it is called ‘the market economy, ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘free enterprise’ (or even ‘mixed’ or ‘state-command’ economy”), the social system under which we live is capitalism. Capitalism is primarily an economic system of competitive capital accumulation out of the surplus value produced by wage labour. As a system it must continually accumulate or go into crisis. Consequently, human needs and the needs of our natural environment take second place to this imperative. The result is waste, pollution, environmental degradation and unmet needs on a global scale. The ecologist’s dream of a sustainable ‘zero growth’ within capitalism will always remain just that, a dream. If human society is to be able to organise its production in an ecologically acceptable way, then it must abolish the capitalist economic mechanism of capital accumulation and gear production instead to the direct satisfaction of needs.
The problem for a great number of people in the environmental movement is that they want to retain the market system in which goods are distributed through sales at a profit and people’s access to goods depends upon their incomes. The market, however, can only function with a constant pressure to renew its capacity for sales; and if it fails to do this production breaks down, people are out of employment and suffer a reduced income. It is a fundamental flaw and an insoluble contradiction in the green capitalist argument that they want to retain the market system, which can only be sustained by continuous sales and continuous incomes, and at the same time they want a conservation society with reduced productive activity. These aims are totally incompatible with each other. Also what many green thinkers advocate in their version of a “steady-state” market economy, is that the surplus would be used not to reinvest in expanding production, nor in maintaining a privileged class in luxury but in improving public services while maintaining a sustainable balance with the natural environment. It’s the old reformist dream of a tamed capitalism, minus the controlled expansion of the means of production an earlier generation of reformists used to envisage.
David Pepper in his ‘Eco-Socialism’(2) suggests we start from a concern for the suffering of humans and look for a solution to this. This makes us ‘anthropocentric’ as opposed to the ‘ecocentrism’ – Nature first – of many ecologists. The plunder and destruction of Nature is rejected as not being in the interests of the human species, not because the interests of Nature come first. Environmentalists can learn from Marx’s materialist conception of history which makes the way humans are organised to meet their material needs the basis of any society. Humans meet their material needs by transforming parts of the rest of nature into things that are useful to them; this in fact is what production is. So the basis of any society is its mode of production which, again, is the same thing as its relationship to the rest of nature. Humans survive by interfering in the rest of nature to change it for their own benefit. Those active in the ecology movement tend to see this interference as inherently destructive of nature. It might do this, but there is no reason why it has to. That humans have to interfere in nature is a fact of human existence. How humans interfere in nature, on the other hand, depends on the kind of society they live in. It is absurd to regard human intervention in nature as some outside disturbing force, since humans are precisely that part of nature which has evolved that consciously intervenes in the rest of nature; it is our nature to do so. True, that at the present time, the form human intervention in the rest of Nature takes is upsetting natural balances and cycles, but the point is that humans, unlike other life-forms, are capable of changing their behaviour. In this sense the human species is the brain and voice of Nature i.e. Nature become self-conscious. But to fulfil this role humans must change the social system which mediates their intervention in nature. A change from capitalism to a community where each contributes to the whole to the best of his or her ability and takes from the common fund of produce what he or she needs.
Present-day society, capitalism, which exists all over the globe is a class-divided society where the means of production are owned and controlled by a tiny minority of the population only. Capitalism differs from previous class societies in that under it production is not for direct use, not even of the ruling class, but for sale on a market. To repeat, competitive pressures to minimise costs and maximise sales, profit-seeking and blind economic growth, with all their destructive effects on the rest of nature, are built-in to capitalism. These make capitalism inherently environmentally unfriendly. It is a highly misleading notion that society can live with a market economy that is ‘green’, ‘ecological’, or ‘moral’, under conditions of wage labour, exchange, competition and the like.
Humans behave differently depending upon the conditions that they live in. Human behaviour reflects society. In a society such as capitalism, people’s needs are not met and reasonable people feel insecure. People tend to acquire and hoard goods because possession provides some security. People have a tendency to distrust others because the world is organised in such a dog-eat-dog manner. If people didn’t work society would obviously fall apart. To establish socialism the vast majority must consciously decide that they want socialism and that they are prepared to work in socialist society. If people want too much? In a socialist society ‘too much’ can only mean ‘more than is sustainably produced.’ For socialism to be established the productive potential of society must have been developed to the point where, generally speaking, we can produce enough for all. This is not now a problem as we have long since reached this point. However, this does require that we appreciate what is meant by ‘enough’ and that we do not project on to socialism the insatiable consumerism of capitalism.
If people decide that they (individually and as a society) need to over-consume then socialism cannot possibly work. Under capitalism, there is a very large industry devoted to creating needs. Capitalism requires consumption, whether it improves our lives or not, and drives us to consume up to, and past, our ability to pay for that consumption. In a system of capitalist competition, there is a built-in tendency to stimulate demand to a maximum extent. Firms, for example, need to persuade customers to buy their products or they go out of business. They would not otherwise spend the vast amounts they do spend on advertising. There is also in capitalist society a tendency for individuals to seek to validate their sense of worth through the accumulation of possessions. The prevailing ideas of society are those of its ruling class so then we can understand why, when the wealth of that class so preoccupies the minds of its members, such a notion of status should be so deep-rooted. It is this which helps to underpin the myth of infinite demand. It does not matter how modest one’s real needs may be or how easily they may be met; capitalism’s “consumer culture” leads one to want more than one may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this hierarchal culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation. What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy and that will be unsustainable as more peoples are drawn into alienated capitalism.
In socialism, status based upon the material wealth at one’s command, would be a meaningless concept. The notion of status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services. Why take more than you need when you can freely take what you need? In socialism the only way in which individuals can command the esteem of others is through their contribution to society, and the stronger the movement for socialism grows the more will it subvert the prevailing capitalist ethos, in general, and its anachronistic notion of status, in particular.
All wealth would be produced on a strictly voluntary basis. Work in socialist society could only be voluntary since there would be no group or organ in a position to force people to work against their will. Free access to goods and services denies to any group or individuals the political leverage with which to dominate others (a feature intrinsic to all private-property or class based systems through control and rationing of the means of life.) This will work to ensure that a socialist society is run on the basis of democratic consensus. Goods and services would be provided directly for self-determined needs and not for sale on a market; they would be made freely available for individuals to take without requiring these individuals to offer something in direct exchange. The sense of mutual obligations and the realisation of universal interdependency arising from this would profoundly colour people’s perceptions and influence their behaviour in such a society. We may thus characterise such a society as being built around a moral economy and a system of generalised reciprocity.
Capitalism is not just an exchange economy but an exchange economy where the aim of production is to make a profit. Profit is the monetary expression of the difference between the exchange value of a product and the exchange value of the materials, energy and labour-power used to produce it, or what Marx called ‘surplus value.’ Defenders of capitalism never seem to ask the practical question about what the critical factor determining a production initiative in a market system.
The answer is obvious from everyday experience. The factor that critically decides the production of commodities is the judgement that enterprises make about whether they can be sold in the market. Obviously, consumers buy in the market that they perceive as being for their needs. But whether or not the transaction takes place is not decided by needs but by ability to pay. So the realisation of profit in the market determines both the production of goods and also the distribution of goods by various enterprises. In the market system the motive of production, the organisation of production, and the distribution of goods are inseparable parts of the same economic process: the realisation of profit and the accumulation of capital. The economic pressure on capital is that of accumulation, the alternative is bankruptcy. The production and distribution of goods is entirely subordinate to the pressure on capital to accumulate. The economic signals of the market are not signals to produce useful things. They signal the prospects of profit and capital accumulation. If there is a profit to be made then production will take place; if there is no prospect of profit, then production will not take place. Profit not need is the deciding factor. Under capitalism what appear to be production decisions are in fact decisions to go for profit in the market. The function of cost/pricing is to enable a business enterprise to calculate its costs, to fix its profit expectations within a structure of prices, to regulate income against expenditure and, ultimately, to regulate the exploitation of its workers. Unfortunately, prices can only reflect the wants of those who can afford to actually buy what economists call ‘effective demand’ – and not real demand for something from those without the wherewithal – the purchasing power – to buy the product (I may want a sirloin steak but I can only afford a hamburger.)
Socialist determination of needs begins with consumer needs and then flows throughout distribution and on to each required part of the structure of production. Socialism will make economically-unencumbered production decisions as a direct response to needs. With production for use, the starting point will be needs. By the replacement of exchange economy by common ownership basically what would happen is that wealth would cease to take the form of exchange value, so that all the expressions of this social relationship peculiar to an exchange economy, such as money and prices, would automatically disappear. In other words, goods would cease to have an economic value and would become simply physical objects which human beings could use to satisfy some want or other. (One reason why socialism holds a decisive productive advantage over capitalism is by eliminating the need to tie up vast quantities of resources and labour implicated in a system of monetary/pricing accounting.)
Humans are capable of integrating themselves into a stable ecosystem. and there is nothing whatsoever that prevents this being possible today on the basis of industrial technology and methods of production, all the more so, that renewable energies exist (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and whatever) but, for the capitalists, these are a “cost” which penalises them in face of international competition. No agreement to limit the activities of the multinationals in their relentless quest for profits is possible. Measures in favour of the environment come up against the interests of enterprises and their shareholders because by increasing costs they decrease profits. No State is going to implement legislation which would penalise the competitiveness of its national enterprises in the face of foreign competition. States only take into account environmental questions if they can find an agreement at international level which will disadvantage none of them. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Competition for the appropriation of world profits is one of the bases of the present system. So it is not “Humans” but the capitalist economic system itself which is responsible for ecological problems and the capitalist class and their representatives, they themselves are subject to the laws of profit and competition.
Yes, socialism is a real alternative and the only viable means to achieve the steady state economy sought by so many.