Socialism is like total equality y'know.

(also at Orange)

My socialism diary today was prompted by this otherwise laudable video, now making the rounds on Facebook:

Short synopsis: most people think the distribution of wealth is X, which isn't really half as skewed as it really is. In reality, the top 20% own practically everything. So we don't need "socialism" (defined here as total equality in ownership for everyone) if things in America are to be better.

My objection to this video, of course, has nothing to do with its rather accurate portrayal of the distribution of wealth under capitalism in America. Rather, I disagree with its portrayal of socialism. Let's go back to the definition of socialism that we find in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online:

: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

When I am discussing public (or "collective or governmental") ownership of the means of production, I don't mean that everyone owns "the wealth" (and here I mean the means of production, not some definition of "wealth" that has been inflated by financial games) equally. Rather, with socialism you have a new category of wealth, collective wealth, and the means of production falls entirely into this category.

The author of the above video does not, unfortunately, envision a concept of collective ownership. His purview is limited to the question of who owns what, without reference to the possibility that everyone might collectively own something, or rather a whole lot of somethings (the means of production). In the absence of such a concept, I suppose that it's only natural that the video's author would misread the idea of "socialism" as "everyone owns everything equally." Equality, however, does not mean collective control. This is the main point, then: socialists do not seek to "make everyone equal." Rather, they seek to form the public into a collective.

Let me suggest, furthermore, that the argument about whether "socialism" is or isn't about "equality" is an old one. It dates back, at least, to Karl Marx's famous tract The Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx's idea of a newfound communism, or rather what is often called "socialism," goes as follows:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society -- after the deductions have been made -- exactly what he gives to it.

Marx, then, was interested in founding the new society on meritocratic principles -- he wanted the public (in charge of the new society) to give more to the deserving, to those who worked hardest and longest to build the new society. It would not, then, be a capitalist society, in which the top 20% got everything because they (or rather for the most part the top 1% among them) owned everything. Capiitalism, as McNamee and Miller have thoroughly demonstrated, is not meritocratic.

Now, as for Marx's concept of a new society, its ultimate foundation was to be a society in which wealth was distributed "from each according to his (sic) abilities, to each according to his (sic) needs." It was to be a society in which people didn't worry about the distribution of wealth, because the problem of social classes was to be solved once and for all. In the beginning, however, Marx argued that the new society would have to consider a "right of inequality," in order to move into a collective consideration of contribution, and thereafter to move into a collective consideration of who actually needed what:

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only -- for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

Socialism isn't going to be a society in which "everyone is equal," contrary to popular lore, because everyone isn't equal, and because everyone won't be equal. Men can't get pregnant, short people can't reach as high as tall people, and those in northern climes must work harder to stay warm than those who live in the tropics. Human inequality, then, is a fact of life. Socialists have no problem with it -- their complaint is with class society, the concept of creating fixed inequality among people by dividing them into one class of triumphant owners and another, much larger, class of people just struggling to get by.

Socialism, then, will work to produce genuine public rule, without the class-stratified society of capitalism. I've described the process, the how of socialism, in this diary here.

NB: The wealth apportionment described in the video above is a product of the normal operation of capitalism. Under capitalism everything is a commodity, thus everything can be bought by money. The power of money under capitalism, then, is its power to buy everything. The principle is recursive, too: capitalism is the natural product of a society in which, according to common lore, "it takes money to make money." So you want to regulate this? The regulations, too, can be commodities which can be bought by rich people.

In light of all this, should we be at all surprised that the top 20% own practically everything? They are merely parlaying advantages.

Misconceptions of Socialism diaries:

Socialism has never happened before

Socialism is like Sweden y'know.

Socialism is a utopian fantasy.

Socialism is dead/ Socialism is against human nature.

Omigod the Soviet Union!

To those who freak out about "socialism"

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Comments

This is clarifying for me

geomoo's picture

I'm not familiar with these theories, so it is very helpful to have such concepts laid out clearly. Also provides a basis for sound rebuttal.

Gee, socialism sounds a lot like democracy in which the government owns the means of production--not such a radical idea after all, or it shouldn't be.

There is an irony here, as well, I believe, in the ways in which many of the same people who sneer at socialism for wanting equal wealth embrace notions of equality among obviously unequal people, such as between the physically handicapped and those whose bodies are fully functional. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a parody of such thinking which I saw enacted on television ages ago. Dancers who were stronger wore weights on their feet in order to keep them "equal" with those less able. The point being that it seems fine in America to discuss equality so long as it doesn't encroach on the most sacred of thing of all, material wealth.

Anyway, a little wandering there. Thanks for this straightforward explanation of a central idea.

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