Greetings, friends — or should I say comrades…?
Because today’s article will invite you to take a truly fresh & open-minded look at an often maligned & misrepresented idea that has been derided, dismissed, & disparaged by more than one hundred years of propaganda & power-struggles — that’s right, today, we’re going to take a look at socialism! ( cue le dramatic music ) But wait –! This will not be the vague & threatening “socialism” of the 1950s in America and it will not be the dry, un-readable “socialism” of Marx’s Das Kapital ( sorry, Karl ). No, today we will take a good, honest look at a profound but simple idea — an idea that has inspired a number of interesting folks throughout history from Mark Twain & Helen Keller to Albert Einstein & Martin Luther King….
What Socialism is Not
Before we get into what socialism is, we should emphasize what socialism is not. Firstly, socialism is not a system of government and it does not mean that everybody must be “equal” or have the exact same things. Socialism has absolutely nothing to do with sharing everything & it is certainly not a program of forced wealth-redistribution! All of that is nothing but a truckload of hogwash, rubbish, & plain, old nonsense.
Whew, glad we got that out of the way!
Some would describe socialism as an “economic system,” which is a bit closer to the truth of the matter but that still doesn’t quite describe it. The best way to think about socialism, in this writer’s humble ( yet frequently accurate ) opinion, is to think of it, not as a “system,” but as a kind of economic technology…
An Economic Technology
If we define “technology” as inventions, methods, or processes that help accomplish a goal or address a problem, then I say that socialism is a kind of economic technology. Just as scientists have pioneered sanitation techniques like pasteurization in response to the problem of disease, socialists have formulated economic techniques in response to the problems of poverty & inequality.
Now, consider this — a technology like pasteurization would probably seem weird, unnecessary, or possibly even scary to someone who doesn’t understand the nature of the problem being fixed, which is food-borne illness. For the same reason, it can be difficult to make sense of socialism without considering the problem it is addressing. So, before I can explain the “technology of socialism,” I need to explain the problem that it was developed to fix — that problem is the dysfunctional relationship between “capital” & “labor,” which causes poverty, inequality, & many other injustices…
A Quick & Hopefully Painless
Crash-Course in Economics
The combination of capital & labor is how basically everything in human civilization is produced. The science of economics basically tries to describe how the products of capital & labor are distributed. But what is meant by “capital” & “labor?”
Capital includes all raw materials, like grain, iron, & oil, as well as stuff like land, machines, & factories, which are used to produce various materials & commodities. Capital also includes money because money can be exchanged for any of those things and they can be exchanged for money. Now, labor can be understood in a lot of different ways but the easiest way is to think of labor as time. In the same way that grain is measured with pounds or money with a dollar amount, a person’s life can be measured by time. A human being’s time is special because it can be used to create or transform things — it can turn iron ore into steel or steel into car parts! Labor can turn land & seeds into a harvest of grain & turn that grain into flour, bread, or refined sugars — labor is even turning this blank page into an article, as I write!
Think of it this way: labor transforms resources (aka capital) into products. Each is useless without each other — without labor, capital is just a pile of resources and, without resources (aka capital), labor can’t produce anything!
E is for “Exploitation!”
Notice that, in each of the transformations that I just described, the product is more valuable than the resource — bread is more valuable than a handful of grain and an engine is more valuable than a pile of iron. The extra or “surplus” value comes from labor.
resource + labor = a product
So, the product’s value, minus the value of the resources it took to make it, equals the value that labor added to the resource, right?
product’s value – resource’s value = value of labor
This increase in value, from the resource to the product, comes from the labor, or time, that the human used on the resource. Simple, right?
A Silly Story to Illustrate
the Problems of Exploitation
And here’s where the problems begin! Let’s say that Jacob has capital in the form of materials & money. John only has his own labor. Jacob decides to open a “stuff-making” factory & so he invests his materials & enough money to pay John for the labor he uses to turn the materials into stuff. John uses his labor/time to make some stuff, then goes to Jacob’s office to get paid for all the stuff he made. Now, obviously Jacob can’t pay John for the full value of his labor because Jacob wouldn’t make any money from his new stuff-making factory — remember, the stuff’s value, minus the material’s value, is the value of labor! Jacob has to pay John less than the value of his labor so that he can make money. The technical term for this is “exploitation.”
Now, we could say that Jacob created some value by using his labor to organize the materials, money, & John’s labor in such a way that valuable stuff was created — then, Jacob would be called a “manager.” But what if Jacob already has enough materials & enough money to hire someone named Jeff to do the organizing-labor for him? If that happens, Jacob has become a capitalist. If Jacob already owns enough capital, he can set up a system of exploitation that will extract the value of both John’s & Jeff’s labor, without ever doing any labor himself — and, if he gets away with it for long enough, he can open up a second stuff-making factory, which will double his profits!
I think we can all agree that the laborer, the organizer, & anyone else who uses their labor/time to create a product, all deserve to share some of the new value they created. The only problem, at the moment, is that there’s nothing to stop people like Jacob from exploiting labor & living off of the exploited value, which — at the very least — seems pretty unfair. But this problem becomes more extreme as Jacob stockpiles more & more value — if Jacob continues to invest his exploited profit to purchase more stuff-making factories, his profits increase at a faster rate, enabling him to purchase more factories, which increases his profits, & so on. This results in increasingly large organizations which compete to control the society’s resources, which are mainly land, machinery, resources, & money. People who don’t already possess capital are left with less & less until there’s just one abundant resource remaining — their own labor.
The majority of society’s resources are now in the hands of capitalists & the rest of the people have no choice but to trade their labor for money, which mostly goes back to the capitalists for food & rent because they now own the land where everyone lives & grows food. Now that fewer & fewer people control resources, however, more & more people have only labor to trade — which means labor’s supply is going up and, when the supply of a resource goes up, demand goes down, which means its price goes down, too — which means wages drop lower & lower!
Do you see the problem? That is the problem that socialism was designed to fix. And, now that you understand the problem, it will be easy to understand the solution…
Socialism Was Engineered
to Fix Poverty & Inequality
The idea of socialism is simply that the people should control the resources which they use to produce the wealth of society. That is all — really! In super-boring Marxist economic jargon, this is called “worker-control of the means of production” & that little phrase is literally the definition of socialism. The “means of production” are simply the things that are used to produce the wealth of society — that includes land, factories, & natural resources, like minerals, forests, & water-ways. To put it another way, it’s the stuff that no one personally uses — for instance, no individual needs a factory or an entire river. A person might choose to labor at a factory to produce something valuable, but no one personally needs to possess a factory in the same way people need to possess a bed, a car, a house, or a cell-phone — those are “personal possessions” & socialism doesn’t care about those. Socialism is only pointing out that —
We can eliminate exploitation by giving the people democratic control of the means of production, instead of giving autocratic control to whoever has the most money, at the time.
But How Would Collective Ownership Work?
If any of you are thinking, “yeah, but collective ownership of resources would never work,” you should prepare to feel really silly because I’m about to point out a real-life example of effective, organized, public ownership — airspace! Unlike land-ownership, which we’ve completely handed over to the giant capitalist real-estate companies who charge us all rent until we die, no one’s really allowed to own a “plot” of air. This is probably because, luckily for us, the capitalists haven’t figured out how to build air-fences, yet.
Since human-flight was invented, many different businesses have made use of the airspace, like airlines, mail-carriers, sky-writing services, & scenic tour companies — and, not only businesses, but individual pilots can make use of airspace for recreation, too! Now, because no one really “owns” the sky, which is a resource people want to use, for both business & pleasure, we created a system called “air traffic control” or ATC. Unlike real-estate agencies, ATC simply organizes the use of airspace so that two planes are never using the same airspace at the same time. Instead of a plane’s access to the sky being based on how much money they have, which would be stupid, access is based on practical considerations, like what direction you’d like to go or whether another plane is using that particular bit of sky. This way, everyone gets to use the resource, whether you’re a business providing useful, paid, services or a person having fun — and no one gets exploited!
Isn’t that nice?
To Sum It All Up
Just imagine what it would be like if we treated airspace like we treat land — there’d be sky-rent, travel would be more expensive, &, in addition to having to deal with land-lords, we’d have to deal with sky-lords who could tell you to keep your kite off of their air-lawn! But why stop there? Since we can imagine that, why not imagine the opposite — why not imagine how it would be if we organized factory-use, access to resources, & land in the same spirit that we currently manage airspace? If you can imagine that, then this article’s task was successful — you’ve understood socialism!
Anyway, I hope that this article helped to clarify & shed some new light on the strangely-controversial idea of socialism and that at least a few people learned about a few new things. Oh! And one last thing: if you found this article useful or helpful or maybe even just interesting, please consider sharing it with friends or on social media — thanks, comrades!
*If you appreciate the articles on this site, please consider buying the author a cup of coffee at this link to his PayPal or, if you appreciate them a lot (& if you have the means), you can also pledge a monthly $1, $2, or $3, through John’s Patreon page — think of it like a magazine-subscription, except it’s a subscription directly to a writer & artist…