by Robert Wolfe (February 2014)
When I was young growing up in New York in the 1950s socialism was still considered a respectable political philosophy. Communism was more or less banned and socialists were accused of an affinity with Communism but the socialist concept still had many advocates. There were socialist governments in Western Europe and many industries there had been nationalized in the wake of the Second World War. Socialism in the United States was no longer a mass movement but the idea that government should play some kind of role in economic life was not seen as strange or unusual. Socialists differed on just how extensive this role should be but all agreed that “natural monopolies” like the railroad, phone service and electricity should be nationalized.
Times have changed. Today in the United States there are not only competing phone companies but competing mail and package delivery companies, in effect competing post offices. It has become an article of faith that so-called “private enterprise”, meaning large corporations, are more efficient and productive than anything the government can do. Many of the socialist enterprises established in Western Europe after the Second World War have been privatized and even in the Communist and ex-Communist world most economic activity has been taken out of government hands. What remains of the socialist ideal is mainly the concept of the welfare state, the notion that the government is or should be responsible for providing health insurance, welfare payments, unemployment benefits and old age pensions. And even this truncated concept of socialism is under attack both in Europe and in the United States on the grounds that it is too expensive to sustain much longer.
I always thought of socialism as a kind of intermediate term between capitalism and communism. Socialism to me meant government ownership, and you could combine government ownership of some industries with capitalist ownership of other industries and call it socialism. Conversely you could have government ownership of almost everything, as was the case in the Soviet Union and most other Communist countries, and call that socialism. But the essence of communism is rule by the Communist party, just as the essence of capitalism is rule by the capitalist class. What is the essence of socialism? Some say economic democracy, others a planned economy, still others humane social values. In my opinion these are all worthy ideals, but they have never inspired the kind of dedication shown by Communist party members or the kind of deference accorded to the members of the capitalist class. At one time socialism was thought to mean the rule of the working class. That was a concept which commanded respect, but in practice it turned out to mean rule in the name of the working class. Socialism today needs to be redefined if it is to achieve the power and popularity it once had.
The need for a socialist alternative to the international capitalist system stems from the failure of this system to cope with the three most pressing problems confronting the world today. They are:
(1) The large and growing gap between rich and poor both within individual countries and between rich nations and poor nations.
(2) The degradation of the earth’s environment due to population growth, unchecked use of fossil fuels and other human activities.
(3) The intense violence of the endless conflicts both within the Muslim world and between the Muslim world and its neighbors.
The question is: could a socialist international system do a better job of coping with these problems than the capitalist international system? What would such a socialist system look like? And above all, how could it be put into practice?
Lenin said that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, but actually it would be more accurate to say that capitalism is the highest stage of imperialism. First came the European empires of the early modern period, founded on the power of the gun, and then came the industrial revolution and the emergence of a capitalist system based on a set of unequal relations between the industrialized countries and their colonies or semi-colonies. The former produced manufactured goods, especially textiles at first, which they exchanged for minerals or cash crops provided by the latter. What was grown or mined, by whom, at what price, was determined by the industrialized countries, not the colonies or semi-colonies. The bottom line was the military domination of the latter by the former, which tended to increase as industrialization proceeded.
In theory this state of affairs was supposed to have been transformed by the overthrow of colonial rule throughout the world in the wake of the Second World War. And in fact significant changes in the international capitalist system have taken place in the past fifty years or so, but the system itself remains much the same. The industrialized countries are rich, the non-industrialized countries are poor. The former have overwhelming military force at their disposal, the latter do not. What has changed is that relations between the various Great Powers have become much more harmonious than they once were. Also there have emerged certain countries, such as China, India and Brazil, that are still very poor but are industrializing at a rapid rate. And a whole set of international institutions, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, have been established whose avowed function is to promote world peace and prosperity. Yet despite all the attention that has been directed to stimulating economic development in the Third World in the past fifty years, the gap between rich and poor countries has actually increased during that span of time.
The big problem is that the majority of the countries that emerged from the colonial era do not constitute natural economic units. Unlike China, India and Brazil, most of them are too small to contain a variety of natural resources or provide a large home market for their products. If the countries of Europe with their long history of industrialization have nonetheless found it necessary to form an economic union in order to maximize their productive potential, how much more necessary would such a union be for the many impoverished small countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America? They have no possibility of industrializing on their own and even their capacity to export minerals and cash crops is threatened by depletion of the minerals and declining fertility of the soil. What now passes for economic development in most of these countries is the presence of multi-national corporations in search of a cheap labor force.
There is, however, one group of countries whose industrial production is very slight yet which do not fit the profile of the other non-industrialized countries. That is the group of countries which export large quantities of oil. Oil differs from minerals and cash crops in that it is not merely a desirable but an essential commodity for all industrialized countries. Those who do not have it must import it and this gives the producers of oil a leverage which is reflected in much higher payments for their commodity than for any other. With the income they receive from the sale of oil they are in a position to purchase heavy weapons, provide domestic social services and in general throw their weight around on a world scale. And since the majority of these countries are dominated by the followers of the Muslim religion, much of their activity around the world is directed towards enhancing the power and prestige of Islam. This activity takes many forms, some of which are peaceful, others of which are not.
Opinions differ on whether or not Islam actually mandates aggression against non-Muslims. In any case, as is shown by the history of Christianity, you don’t have to preach violence in order to practice it. The big difference between Christianity and Islam is that the Christians still have their empire whereas the Muslims do not. Most of the dominant countries in the world, including four out of the five members of the UN Security Council, are countries in which Christianity is the majority religion. The Christians have hydrogen bombs, whereas most of the Muslims cannot even manufacture their own tanks and planes but must buy them from the Christians. There is no possibility of the Muslims mounting a serious challenge to Christian world domination any time soon, yet they remain obsessed by the memory of the great Muslim empires of the past. From this contradiction results on the one hand terrorism against the perceived enemies of Islam, and on the other, sectarian violence on a massive scale between contending versions of Islamic rule.
What the Muslims lack in addition to industrialization is an indigenous model of political authority separate and apart from the Muslim religion. Christianity does not rule the world in its own name but as the religious component of Western liberal democracy. There are no non-Christian “Western” states, but you don’t have to be Christian to adopt liberal democracy as a political system. What you do need is a literate middle class but for that you must also have industrialization. The problem is, the more industrialization, the more pollution and degradation of the environment. Add to this the pressure on available resources exerted by global population growth and the need for a more rational system of planet management than the international capitalist system becomes apparent. It is foolish to think that the pursuit of profit as the main motive of economic activity can successfully address the problems which face the world today. The welfare of all must be the goal and socialism is the most commonly accepted term for a system designed to benefit the human race as a whole.
The main reason why the capitalist system has become so dominant on a world scale over the course of the past 30 years or so is the advent of globalization. Multi-national corporations that can roam the world in search of the perfect combination of cheap labor and cheap raw materials have a tremendous advantage over state owned enterprises that must employ local workers at a reasonable wage in local production facilities. Although socialism was always in theory an internationalist movement, in practice socialist organizations have operated mainly within the framework of the individual nation states. What is needed today is a socialist form of globalization, a system of planning and production that transcends the boundaries of the individual nation states. The goal of socialist globalization should be the treatment of the entire world as a single economic unit within which the provision of necessary goods and services would be maximized and the damage to the environment minimized. The goal is clear: the question is how to get there. The answer is that socialist globalization must be founded on the principle of global democracy.
The concept of global democracy implies not only the extension of democratic institutions to every country on earth but also the establishment of international organizations based on the democratic principle. No such organizations exist at the present time. The United Nations is a manifestly undemocratic institution. A democratic international organization would be one based on the accepted democratic principle of one person one vote. The only reason why countries with large populations accept the operation of the UN’s General Assembly on the basis of one country one vote is because the General Assembly has little real power over anything. The greater the authority of an international body over the world’s economy, the greater would be the pressure to establish it on democratic principles. Socialist globalization therefore requires global democracy in every sense of the term. Only a truly democratic international organization could hope to acquire the authority to make meaningful decisions affecting the economic well being of the entire human race.
But before such an organization can come into being, democracy must first prevail in all or most of the world’s nation states. At present there are two main obstacles to the further spread of democracy: Communist ideology and Islam. I have no doubt that these obstacles will be overcome in time, but in how much time is hard to say. Both China, the main remaining country with a Communist government, and the Muslims would find an international organization based on the principle of one person one vote very much to their advantage. This might incline them to look more favorably on the concept of democracy than would otherwise be the case. Adoption of democratic institutions by the individual Muslim states would also tend to reduce the level of violence which presently characterizes both their internal and external relations. The bottom line is that there exists a mass movement in favor of democracy throughout the world and sooner or later it will bear fruit in those countries now under some form of authoritarian rule.
Yet even if democracy spreads throughout the world a major obstacle to socialist globalization will still remain. Those wealthy countries which are already industrialized are unlikely to look with favor on any plan which threatens their control of the world’s economy. Even if they would feel compelled to accept the principle of global democracy in the abstract they would oppose it in practice for fear that it would result in a loss of their ability to appropriate a substantial part of the world’s resources for their own use. This opposition will not go away, but over time it will weaken. Fossil fuels and minerals are not renewable resources; when they are gone they are gone and the whole structure of the industrialized world will be threatened with collapse. Over the long term the pressure in favor of a slower and more equitable use of the world’s resources will therefore tend to increase. And a truly democratic international organization would be the natural place for the conflicting interests of the industrialized and non-industrialized countries to play themselves out in a peaceful way. A planned world economy would be to everyone’s benefit, although more for some than for others.
Ultimate authority for a planned world economy should rest with an assembly in which countries are assigned seats proportionate to their population. The function of this assembly would be to formulate general policy guidelines for the economic development of the various regions around the world. Long range planning based on these guidelines should then be the task of a body composed of experts in the various fields, such as economics, agronomy, geology and so forth, relevant to economic development. This body should in turn assign responsibility for the implementation of its plans to an appropriate mix of private, state owned and cooperative enterprises. It would be a utopian exercise to attempt a detailed analysis of just how such a system might work in practice. The transition from capitalist to socialist globalization will be a complex process whose precise outlines cannot be decreed in advance. One thing is for sure: for this transition to take place a revived international socialist movement is needed.
Globalization in and of itself is not a bad thing but a good thing. It makes possible a more efficient use of the world’s resources than can be achieved within the framework of the individual nation states. But in order for globalization to realize its potential, democratic decision making and long range planning must replace the pursuit of profit as the basis on which the world’s resources are allocated and employed. Socialist globalization is what socialists today ought to be advocating. In time we will prevail, because our cause is both reasonable and just.
Robert Wolfe is a professional historian and scholar with 40 years experience teaching history on the college level in the United States. He made aliyah to Israel in 2001 and lives in Netanya with his wife.
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