Modern Socialism #1: The Craze Not Sweeping The Nation

modern socialist triangle
Not the Modern Socialist triangle, but nice and spinny nonetheless

THE GIST: As the name suggests, Modern Socialism is an attempt to modernise socialism. It’s not about ‘modernisation’ in the toxic, principles-shedding, status quo-pandering New Labour sense of the word. It’s about revamping the radical left into something far more open, accessible, flexible and ecologically-focused.

The Marxes and Engelses of the world thought they’d created a ‘scientific’ socialism, one based on processes and principles they’d divined from studying economics, sociology and history – and that therefore was much better than the wishy-washing moralising of the socialisms that had come before. But a lot of their ‘scientific’ analysis was wrong. A lot of their predictions didn’t come to pass. Meanwhile, it’s always going to be wrong that millionaires exist in a world where people starve.

Rather than some grand, sweeping theory of everything, Modern Socialism needs to be more humble – a values system and a set of priorities used to approach the problems the species faces. A lot of these (appropriately) red lines should be the same ones the Left has always had – egalitarianism, libertarianism, public ownership of crucial services and industries, etc. But there are also areas the conventional Left has tended to neglect, and, unfortunately, they happen to be staggeringly important.

Unforgivably often, left-wingers have ignored immense human suffering in the global South, caused by entirely preventable poverty, starvation and disease. They’ve also been distinctly rubbish about embracing eco-politics on a planet where another hundred or so years of the status quo will probably leave the environment irreparably damaged – and our prospects of survival along with it.

To be properly viable in the twenty-first century, we need a socialism that’s both radically humanitarian and ecological – that takes humanitarian suffering as seriously as it takes anything, and that aims at making genuinely sustainable, egalitarian societies free from dependence on economic growth.

THE FULL RAMBLE: This is the first in a series of posts about what I’ve resorted to rubbishly calling Modern Socialism. It’s unsurprisingly based on the premise that socialism-as-practiced and as commonly understood isn’t fit for purpose any more, and that we need a ‘modern’ version to replace it.

Across a string of posts that’ll gradually appear on here over the next few months, I’m going to try and elaborate on what that actually means. Among other things, we’ll look at the radical politics of the twentieth century, and what bits we need to keep and what bits need to go. We’ll look at how, if it ever does, the kind of society we’re aiming at might come about, and what we can do to try and make it happen. And in ways that will probably overlap with my parallel sister-series on what for now I’m calling Radical Atheism, I’ll bang on about ethics and morals like the strange far-left vicar I’m increasingly coming to resemble.

In this introductory bit, though, I’m just going to sketch an outline of what Modern Socialism is, what it isn’t, and why it’s needed.

What/why it is?

Even as a sort of placeholder until we/someone else can think of something better, the ‘Modern Socialism’ label has downsides aplenty – first and foremost, that it sounds quite a bit like New Labour. But if there’s one thing that needs to be made clearer than clear from the off, it’s that this emphatically isn’t about retreating from long-held political positions to try and accommodate a skewed, morally bankrupt status quo. Instead, it’s about knocking together a new, accessible radical left-wing politics addressing the world as it is now.

What does socialism need to do to be viable in the twenty-first century? Ditch the Marx worship, the Bolshevik fetish and the strange, clunky, cult-like language of the twentieth century Left. Get away from tiny elites squabbling over dense academic texts impenetrable to anyone without a PhD. Use ‘thinkers’ and ‘theorists’ – critically and selectively – for what they were: flawed human beings very much of their time, who were very right about a few things, wrong about quite a lot of others, and, obviously, entirely incapable of foreseeing how radically civilisation would change in the decades after their deaths. Rather than some grand, unquestionable theory of everything, modern socialism needs to be a flexible, non-dogmatic but uncompromisingly egalitarian and anti-capitalist way of approaching the problems facing the species.

But it also needs to right two of the biggest, most damning failures of the conventional Left, too. One, its near-silence on extreme global poverty and the plight of the bit of the human population suffering the most, territory it’s effectively abandoned to market evangelists. And two, its lukewarm-at-best response to the emergence of radical green politics, despite the civilisation-imperilling ecological crisis just around the corner.

Humanitarianism and environmentalism aren’t just features that should be casually tacked on to existing worldviews, either. They’re central to the whole endeavour. Capitalism has had a fair roll of the dice, and it’s performed abysmally. It’s brought the planet to the brink of ecological catastrophe, and presided over such ludicrous inequality of development that one part of the world has so much, and wants so much more, than it threatens the continued existence of everything alive, while another has so little that millions starve.

What we call Modern Socialism, then, tries to combine an accessible, non-dogmatic democratic radical socialism – and a passionate commitment to the welfare of the poorest, most vulnerable bit of the species – with the emerging anti-growth ecological agenda.

Because we’re a simple-minded and very visual blog-based non-phenomenon, we always see it as a triangle – three sides, three components.

One, what you might call conventional anti-capitalism: the traditional left-wing fight against corporate dominance, unaccountably, society-disfiguring inequality and the abuse, exploitation and waste of ordinary people.

Two, radical humanitarianism: treating poverty, starvation, drought, preventable disease and the like with the utmost seriousness, and arguing that society needs to be comprehensively restructured to wipe them out.

And three, radical anti-growthist green politics – because there’s absolutely no chance of achieving the objectives of one and two on a dead planet.

If I start spooling out some vision of what a Modern Socialist future might look like, there’s absolutely no doubt that the result is going to sound laughably far-fetched to almost everyone.

I’m very relaxed about that. ‘Far-fetched’, after all, essentially just means ‘very different from the way things are now, in a culture that’s catastrophically, self-destructively short-sighted and dominated by those with the biggest interest in preserving the status quo’.

The way things are now is also very different from the way things were for 90% of the time humanity has existed, when we lived in roughly egalitarian, co-operative groups of hunter-gatherers with negligible environmental impact. If we don’t start living more like that – the kind of existence homo sapiens evolved to uniquely suit over hundreds of thousands of years– then we’ll consume ourselves to extinction, and our annihilation will be very well deserved. In the increasingly unlikely event we do survive, the idea that economies can and should grow endlessly will have been filed away alongside the one that held the earth was flat, and millionaires will be looked back on as baffling historical oddities.

And with that cheery preamble out of the way, here’s a brief sketch of the kind of political situation we need to be aiming for – one that, no doubt, we’ll be lucky to come anywhere near during my lifetime, but that can provide us with something to strive towards, and to point to when people say ‘it’s all very well you criticising us, but what’s your alternative?’

What it would look like?

Modern Socialism’s primary objectives should be to drastically reduce our environmental impacts, both as individuals and as societies, and maximise the wellbeing of everyone alive. Advanced Western economies like the UK need to shrink, not grow – to undergo ‘degrowth’, and be reconfigured to meet real human needs rather than serve the profit motive. We also need ‘deglobalisation’ – to return the main focus of economic activity to locally producing goods and providing services to meet local needs.

To achieve all this, food and necessary consumer goods need to be produced as close to the place they’re consumed as possible – which would have the added bonus of providing manufacturing and agricultural jobs for millions of people, a neat counter to all those who claim green politics means massive job losses. International trade needs to be done away with, except when absolutely necessary.

That said, affluent countries need to commit a vast and sustained programme of aid, material, financial and technical support to less affluent countries, continuing until such a time where poverty and hunger have been eradicated, and now-impoverished areas of the world are able to support themselves.

As soon as possible, 100% of our energy requirements need to be met renewably. Thanks to World War Two, it’s an extremely evocative word, but energy use, like food, individual carbon output and material consumption, needs to be rationed. Since cutting down the amount of meat you consume is the best way of reducing your carbon footprint, our diets need to become far less meat-centric – to the extent where we only have one or two carnivorous days a week.

Socially useless sectors of the economy need to be unsentimentally culled to help it shrink – the UK’s £100bn advertising industry, for example, should be the first to go. For the same reason, working hours need to be reduced to between three and four days a week.

That amount of work either needs to pay as much as full-time hours do now, or be boosted by a Citizens Income scheme, where everyone in the country receives a monthly payment for no other reason that happening to be alive. In their spare time, people can do what they like, albeit within very strict environmental limits.

The number of cars on the roads needs to be massively cut, and public transport needs to be massively expanded – providing more jobs. Short-haul air travel needs to effectively cease. Long-haul flights should only be allowed in cases of proven need – and a weekend in the Seychelles won’t count.

There needs to be permanent, comprehensive redistribution of wealth. The repulsive gains made by the very richest over the past forty years simply need to be seized back – they can put up with having their assets frozen and just be thankful we don’t throw them in jail. Like everyone else, they’d be eligible for comfortable and, crucially, energy efficient and eco-friendly council housing.

And there needs to be steep progressive taxation, a generous Living Wage and a legal maximum wage. The difference between the income of the richest and that of the poorest needs to be narrow – cut to 10:1 for a conservative start, then ratcheted down to 5:1, then to 3:1 or even 2:1.

The whole idea that land can be ‘owned’ by an individual should be done away with. Instead, all land should be publically owned, and individuals should simply rent it out for as long as they need it.

A long list of social functions need to be declared too important to be left to private, profit-making business. Healthcare, education, food production, food sale, the pharmaceutical industry, power production, telecommunications, public transport, law enforcement, defence, emergency services, social services, and care of the elderly and disabled all need to administered under some kind of public ownership (and lots of different forms of public ownership can exist in tandem – with some services being planned and run at state-level, some at local level). The financial sector needs to be entirely public-owned too, restoring public control over the all-important money supply.

‘Big’ business needs to effectively cease to exist. History has conclusively shown that when private wealth and power is allowed to grow beyond a certain size, it begins to use its massive clout to warp societies in its own narrow, self-seeking interest.

Private companies need to be small to medium-sized by definition, operating in a small and heavily regulated private sector – restricted both in terms of the kinds of goods and services it can provide, and how much money individual enterprises can make. That marketplace needs to be made up of a much wider range of enterprise types, too – with employee-owned co-operatives, mutual societies and the like featuring far more prominently.

And wherever possible, the focus of political decision-making needs to be local, with local people given real, decisive power over what happens in the places they live, through localised referendums, pop-up citizens’ assemblies that could be convened when required, and other, similar measures – with people being excused from work with full pay to take part. Employees and service users also need to participate in the running of public-owned entities, able to overrule management if necessary.

Where some sort of representative democracy is needed, citizens need to have the power to recall the people they’ve elected, and to collectively come together and overrule them or local government bureaucracies if they choose to do so. Elected representatives themselves need to be embedded in the communities they serve, receiving no special perks or extra pay, either continuing to work in normal jobs on the side (using your political influence to make money, of course, would a sackable, imprisonable offence), or receiving an average worker’s wage for politicking full-time.

The same should apply to situations when national-level decision-making is required. It started as a joke, but the idea of a Skype parliament has a hell of a lot going for it – letting representatives vote and debate in cyberspace, without the need for second homes and bulging expense accounts, while still living and working among the people that vote for them.

If there’s one thing for sure, any society organised like this won’t be a utopia. People won’t get everything they want. They’ll have more say over what goes on in their locality than they ever have done, but the range of choices will be limited. Society just won’t have the resources – or to put it more accurately, the environment just won’t have the carrying capacity – to provide anything frivolous or luxurious. It won’t be flashy, at times it might not be especially fun, but it’ll survive, without obliterating the very ecosystem that sustains it.

Modern Socialism #2: What Is Socialism?