The Socialist Utopia: Why socialism is ‘misunderstood and misrepresented’ – Ivo Vegter

In this article, Ivo Vegter discusses socialism and its core principles, as espoused by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the World Socialist Movement. Noting that socialists view society as a collective where people voluntarily work to help each other, with individuals taking only what they need, and contributing what they can. Vegter argues, however, that such a society would require altruism, and notes that capitalism, despite its flaws, is a system where people satisfy their own needs by satisfying the needs of others. Read below for more, as Vegter explores the implications of socialism, including the absence of money and barter, and the voluntary production and supply of goods and services to meet people’s needs. This article was first published by the Daily Friend.


Socialists in their own words

By Ivo Vegter*

If you want to know how socialism will work, and why it’s so much better than capitalism, all you have to do is ask the socialists. They’ll tell you.

‘Jack’s a carpenter. His neighbour Jean’s a baker. Jean has some doors with loose hinges. Jack says he’ll fix them. Jean says she’ll give him some cakes as a thank you. Scale up a willingness to help others, where all will receive what they need, and you have a socialist society.’

This description of an ideal world, alongside an image of a button that reads: ‘Socialism: the radical idea of sharing,’ was recently tweeted by the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB).

At first, this seems to describe a barter economy, but it doesn’t. You see, Jack doesn’t require payment from Jean. He helps her without any expectation of recompense for his time, effort or materials. Jean, in turn, voluntarily offers him the cakes, when a simple ‘thank you’ would have done.

So, scale up a society in which people help others out of the goodness of their hearts, and you have a socialist society.

Socialists envisage, in the words of the SPGB, ‘an entire society – a whole world – of people happily contributing what they can, and taking what they need’.

Of course, there is nothing about capitalism that stops people from ‘happily contributing what they can’ (although ‘taking what they need’ is generally frowned upon as theft).

So if people are prepared to just do things for others for free, I wonder why a kindly fridge repairman hasn’t yet shown up at my house. I could write him a few paragraphs of purple prose, extolling his virtues as a fridgologist and recommending his free services to the community, as a thank you.

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Misunderstood and misrepresented

‘Socialism is almost globally misunderstood and misrepresented,’ complains the World Socialist Movement (WSM, founded by the SPGB in 1904) at the start of its Frequently Asked Questions page.

Fair enough, let’s explain socialism purely in their own words, then.

Socialism has never been tried, they say, predictably: ‘Socialism, as understood by the World Socialist Movement, was never established in any country.’

Not in China. Not in Russia. Not in Cuba. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.

And to be fair to them, in 1918, the SPGB noted in its journal, the Socialist Standard, that the Russian Revolution of November 1917 was not socialist, so they didn’t change their tune only after the supposedly socialist experiments of the 20th century led to famine, deprivation and vast numbers of deaths.

In their words, socialism is ‘a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of society as a whole.’

Sounds nice, but what does that entail? They have bullet points for that:

  • If there are wages and salaries, it is not socialism.
  • State ownership is not socialism.
  • Social programs are not socialism.
  • Socialism means democracy at all levels of society, including the workplace.
  • Socialism means a wageless, moneyless society.
  • Socialism means voluntary labour.
  • Socialism means free access to the goods produced by society.

So, no money. No central planning. No buying and selling. You produce what you feel moved to produce, perhaps in voluntary cooperation with others in your community, and then consume whatever you can lay your hands on.

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No altruism

But, they hasten to add, ‘Socialism isn’t based upon altruism.’

‘Socialism will work even if everyone suddenly decides that they dislike everyone else. Supporting socialism involves recognising the fact that the current system just doesn’t work for most people. Socialism will be a society in which satisfying an individual’s self-interest is the result of satisfying everyone’s needs. It is enlightened self-interest that will work for the majority.’

Ironically, that is a very good description of capitalism. After all, as Adam Smith wrote: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.’

No capitalist enterprise can exist if it does not satisfy the needs of other people. Producing what society wants and needs is the reason people organise together in what we know as companies. And the ability of those who co-operate together in companies to specialise enables the division of labour that makes it feasible to produce very complex products.

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No money, no barter

In a socialist world, however, you couldn’t buy the machinery to set up a factory to produce the refrigerators other people need. You’d have to either build the machinery yourself, or you’d have to convince some other co-operative to build the machinery for you, out of the goodness… no, wait, that’s altruism… out of their own ‘enlightened self-interest’, but for free.

If they do so, they can simply take the refrigerators that your co-operative produces. If they don’t do so, but someone else does, they can also simply take the refrigerators that your co-operative produces.

If it wasn’t clear from previous quotations, here’s the WSM again: ‘In a socialist society, there will be no money and no barter. Goods will be voluntarily produced, and services voluntarily supplied to meet people’s needs. People will freely take the things they need.’

They actually believe this to be a feasible economic system.

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World socialism

Socialism cannot work within the confines of one country. Says the WSM: ‘One country cannot establish socialism. No country is completely self-sufficient in the resources people need to satisfy their needs. No country can really isolate itself from the rest of the world in a peaceful manner, so a peaceful “socialist nation” would be easy prey for the outside capitalist world. Just as capitalism is a world system, socialism will have to be a world system. Socialism will be a world without countries. Borders are just artificial barriers that belong to a past and present that is best left behind.’

Capitalism doesn’t require countries or borders either, and I would prefer the movement of both capital and labour to be entirely free in my ideal world of economic freedom.

But capitalism is not so fragile that it cannot survive other countries going socialist. It has done so for over a century. Although this does remove trading partners from the global trade equation, the outcome has always been far worse for the countries who tried socialism (but not real socialism, of course!).

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No over-consumption

People won’t want ‘too much’, because wanting too much is a feature of capitalist society, in which ‘there is a very large industry devoted to creating needs’.

So in a socialist society, I won’t want a sports car or a luxury sedan. I won’t want rare wines or fine, aged whisky. I won’t want a top-of-the-range computer just to play the latest video games on ultra-high quality. I won’t want a yacht, or a large mansion with an indoor swimming pool, a gym, a home theatre and a large undergound parking garage for my collection of pristine classic cars. Because, say the socialists, I don’t need any of these things, and they do not make me happy.

I quote: ‘Socialism will be a very different society. Goods will be built to last. The buy-buy-buy advertising industry will no longer exist. People may decide that they have better things to do rather than produce goods that are widely seen to be extravagances. And people may discover that more material goods don’t make them happier.’

The WSM continues: ‘Society already has the knowledge and technology to satisfy all of our basic needs sustainably. There is every reason to believe that socialist society will supply every human being with all the material goods that they need for a comfortable, pleasant, enjoyable life.’

They don’t bother to explain that this knowledge and technology was created in a capitalist world. When they say ‘there is every reason to believe’, they don’t specify those reasons.

They add that if ‘people decide that they (individually and as a society) need to over-consume then socialism cannot possibly work’.

One has to conclude, then, that since a socialist society can work, nobody will decide that they need to ‘over-consume’.

Luckily, socialism will not mean equal shares for everyone: ‘People are different and have different needs. Some needs will be more expensive (in terms of resources and labour needed to satisfy them) than others.’

So maybe I can have the classic car collection of my dreams after all. Goodness knows, nobody is going to produce worthy new cars in a socialist utopia. Why would they?

Useless jobs

Capitalism, so the socialists argue, creates hosts of useless jobs just to keep the population occupied with drudgery because ‘a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger’.

The SPGB provides a very long list of such jobs, which I can’t be bothered to transcribe here, but it includes ‘work involving the production of inferior clothing or other shoddy products’.

Nice to know that in a socialist society the things we voluntarily choose to produce will also be things of high quality because… well, because that’s socialism. And everyone will know that we produce these items without the benefit of marketing or public relations, because, you know, you’re not selling them, so marketing and public relations are useless jobs. Maybe you just put them out on the kerb for passersby to collect as needed.

The unnecessary jobs also extend to government functions, including soldiers, police officers, judges, civil servants and prison guards, none of which are needed because why would we possibly need them in our socialist world?

Childish utopia

As described in their own words, world socialism resembles a utopia as envisioned by young children.

Yet even children know better. Infants at the dawn of consciousness already possess an instinct of acquisitiveness, desiring to possess things and protect them from harm or theft. Children have an innate sense of fairness that says if they lend their toys to their friends, their friends ought to reciprocate. Barter and trade feature in the play of even very young children.

Describing socialism as childish is an insult to children.

What really baffles me is that more than half of today’s young people view socialism favourably. Many mainstream journalists proudly identify themselves as ‘eco-socialists’, with a perfectly straight face.

Socialism sounds idyllic, and our present, quasi-capitalist world surely has problems. Yet who with a modicum of economic comprehension could think that a society in which there is no mechanism for expressing needs (as the price mechanism does in market economies) would by happenstance produce exactly the things that meet those needs, and distribute them spontaneously to exactly where they are needed, without any actual incentives to do any of this other than the common desire to sustain a socialist society and perhaps earn some gratitude?

Such a society simply cannot exist. It would quickly be over-run by an exploiting class, and a larger exploited underclass.

Civilisation

Every society that has ever achieved any significant level of success has developed the concept of money, first as a unit of account, and then as a means of exchange. The vast majority of the oldest examples we have of writing consists of accounting records, yet accountants are first on the list of ‘useless jobs’ proposed by the SPGB.

Trade and the division of labour are the fundamental mechanisms by which civilisations – all civilisations of any significant size – have grown and expanded. They are the means by which societies have provided for their members and secured the prosperity to overcome the vicissitudes of nature.

This isn’t advanced knowledge. In an article aimed at nine to 12-year-olds, National Geographic explains: ‘The earliest civilisations developed between 4000 and 3000 B.C.E., when the rise of agriculture and trade allowed people to have surplus food and economic stability. Many people no longer had to practice farming, allowing a diverse array of professions and interests to flourish in a relatively confined area. … All civilisations have certain characteristics. These include: large population centers; monumental architecture and unique art styles; shared communication strategies; systems for administering territories; a complex division of labour; and the division of people into social and economic classes.’

But no, socialists think we don’t need money. They don’t think we need any of the basic building blocks of every successful civilisation ever created.

They think if enough people simply agree to forgo the trappings of capitalist society, a new and perfect socialist world can be born, in which everyone produces what they want and everyone takes what they need and everyone is happy.

The stupid, it hurts.

*Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend, the IRR or BizNews.

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