Ten Questions about ‘Socialist Optimism’
We asked Paul Auerbach, author of Socialist Optimism, to explain why it is necessary now, more than ever, to take notice of socialism and how it can be utilised for social transformation.
Why write about an old-fashioned, defunct topic like socialism?
Since the late nineteenth century, socialism has functioned as the radical alternative for those concerned with capitalist inequality and instability. Socialism was long identified with a muddled combination of two notions that, in principle, are quite distinct - it had a focus on human development, social and economic equality and security, and a deepening of democratic participation, but was also linked to a particular means of delivery of these goals, namely central planning. Centrally planned ‘socialism’ in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had been a point of reference even for many socialists highly critical of the system there. With its demise in the period 1989-1991, little in the way of an alternative vision for organising society has been forthcoming.
Isn’t this all a bit grandiose and abstract?
Social movements inevitably have to confront the big picture and have a sense of direction. The political wave of neoliberalism that has swept much of the world since the 1980s could not have attained such dominance without the foundations built over decades by free market economists, philosophers and political theorists. What were initially abstract and outrageous musings, such as the desirability of privately owned prisons, have emerged in the present day as mere common sense for many people.
What’s there to be optimistic about?
Socialism as central planning failed because it could not match or replicate capitalist dynamism or innovatory power. The other notion of socialism, however, closely matches the exigencies of present day societies: the promotion of human development in the form of formal education is the basis of even the most hard headed contemporary economic strategies. But formal education is no magical elixir – it needs to take place in the context of high levels of equality and security if households are to act as platforms for formal education. Equality and the absence of social exclusion also promote the important forms of learning that take place ‘in the world’ and at work. Thus unlike central planning, this second notion of socialism is congruent with a realistic strategy for contemporary economies and societies. The presence of a viable alternative to capitalist development gives grounds for a form of optimism.
Doesn’t economics teach us to just ‘follow’ the market?
The state has invariably played a key role in the trajectory of economic development. Even in that supposed paradigm of free enterprise, the United States, lavish state funding of education from the late nineteenth century as well as the post Second World War financing of the electronics industry were central to US economic predominance. Free enterprise and free markets did not, and probably could not, have substituted for the state because of the extensive external effects surrounding education and the production of knowledge. The highly social nature of education and knowledge precludes an exclusively individualistic, free enterprise approach to economic development.
So is socialism just a better way of promoting economic growth?
Socialism as conceived here focuses on human development, social and economic equality and security, and a deepening of democratic participation. It is thus intimately linked with Enlightenment ideals. A focus on human development means offering to all individuals in society a full and equal opportunity to develop their capacities and skills. Serious programmes of this kind will involve a substantial redistribution and reallocation of resources to address shortfalls due to family and class background from the time of birth. Economic and social equality, as well as household security, are necessary complements to this programme of human development and have become issues of increasing urgency in the context of rising inequality across the capitalist world and the instabilities most evident in the wake of the crisis of 2008. And democratic participation involves not only a real voice in affairs at the workplace (in the context of participation in management and the presence of functioning labour unions), but a distribution of income and wealth that does not reduce democratic processes to a farcical auction among property owners.
How do the ideas in ‘Socialist Optimism’ compare to other ideas for social transformation?
Current writings that offer an alternative to present day capitalism usually focus on the development of cooperative forms of enterprise governance. Such approaches are useful and important, but do not even hint at a path to a society with true social and economic equality, stability, security and participative democracy for the second half of the twenty-first century. A truly radical approach to transformation begins by noting that class background dictates that from birth (or even before) there is a vast gap in the human development resources available for different members of society - from the quality of the ‘tutelage’ by adults in the household to the physical environment in which the child grows up. These gaps have been widening with growing inequality, reinforcing the prejudice that those at the top are ‘born to rule’ and those at the lower end are a burden and a threat to societal order.
A successful educational system promotes social mobility and helps to overcome differences in social background. It creates expectations and habits in which a broad base of the population presumes that employment will yield personal satisfaction not only because the learning environment of the school is stimulating and individual initiative have been encouraged, but because habits of democratic control and collective organisation have been engendered that can be transferred to the workplace. The ideal to be strived for is genuine equality of opportunity with, for instance, sufficient resources devoted to children until their 14th birthday so that, from that age, the school environment is (as it is in elite contexts) one of learning and not, as it is now, that of a prison.
In our present day highly unequal societies, even lavish and systematic attempts to match the human and physical resources that elite households accord to their children, from prenatal care to education in early adulthood, will be inadequate to engender true equal opportunity: a focus on human development demands the cultivation of equality and security as complementary factors: households need both sufficient resources and security (including full employment) to avoid placing all the burden of social reform on formal institutions such as pre-schools. And this transformed environment in which individuals emerge at school, work and in the world also facilitates the creation of a democratic polity – a knowledgeable citizenry raised in habits of participation and decision making in all aspects of society.
No other plan is even on the table to help us envision a world in which the presence of ‘bad neighbourhoods’ has been liquidated, genuine equal opportunity instituted, and oligarchic control of political affairs replaced by democratic control.
How would you contrast the ideas in the book with those surrounding political movements such as those of Senator Bernie Sanders and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn?
Successful political movements have to be sensitive to people’s immediate and pressing needs: it is quite appropriate for the Sanders campaign to focus, for instance, on policies to alleviate the heavy and increasing burdens that college tuition imposes upon young people. From a socialist perspective, however, the demand for free college tuition today is merely part of a longer term strategy whose goal is the emergence of a society in which the opportunity for the full development of human potential is offered to all members of society from birth. In the building of a movement for social change, day-by-day policies need to be supplemented by a clearly delineated, coherent vision of the future that gives meaning and direction to measures pursued along the way.
Aren’t robots putting us all out of work?
The substitution of robots for human beings in the performance of mechanical tasks should be a cause for joy. It is symptomatic of the pervasive pessimism generated by present day capitalism that such a development is viewed as an incipient social catastrophe. There is plenty of work to do: the resources released by this increasing productivity can be redirected, in a socialist context, to a substantial enhancement of the resources devoted to education and human development across society, to the provision of decent care in old age for all (without the need for poaching nurses from poor countries), and the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure to cope with past underprovision and to deal with the exigencies of environmental issues, including climate change. The fulfilment of these tasks, along with a gradual reduction of the working week to 30 hours, would put off the doomsday scenario of the robot takeover for a long time to come: we have much more pressing, and real problems to deal with.
How does a focus on education, equality, security and democracy help deal with emergent ecological crises and relations with poorer nations?
Dealing with these issues may well involve the need for material sacrifices on the part of the population. Sustained support for such policies must have a democratic legitimacy emerging from an educated population equipped to understand the challenges being faced, in the context of high levels of economic equality and security. Equality serves as a material basis for sacrifice in a narrative suggesting that ‘we are all in it together’: all governments, even the most hierarchal, paid lip-service to this notion during the Second World War. Such an attitude of equal sacrifice may well have to be invoked in the context of a range of challenges, most straightforwardly that of climate change. Security for households includes sustained full employment, a ready and affordable supply of amenities including medical care, transport and housing, and in general, the notion that life even at the bottom of society is tolerable. In the past, the engendering of a sense of economic security in the population may help account for the relatively generous record of social democratic countries in aid to the poorest. Socialist policies taking place in a domestic context may help rich countries to become good citizens of the world.
Can you summarise the thrust of your approach in a single trenchant phrase?
Socialism with a focus on human development, equality, security and democracy.
Paul Auerbach received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, USA, and has been Reader in Economics at Kingston University, UK, since 1990. He has published work in academic journals such as the Journal of Economic Surveys and the Journal of Economic Issues as well as the New Left Review, and is the author of Competition: The Economics of Industrial Change (1988). His research interests include the measurement of economic growth, the economics of competition, and the relationship between education and economic development.