When the serious work of building a better world starts, we will have no choice but to use some of the bricks of the current world as we begin that construction.
A social or economic system does not completely eradicate all traces of the immediately preceding system overnight. Nonetheless, the repressive elements of the prior system must be eliminated as quickly as possible, with new structures and thinking capable of defining the better world. If socialism is to be that better world, what structures might be necessary? Socialism can be defined as a system in which production is geared toward human need rather than private profit for a few; where everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed; that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs; political decision-making is the hands of the communities affected and quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights. There is no class, vanguard or other group that stands above society, arrogating decision-making, wealth and/or privileges to itself.
A blueprint for such a future is not possible but a better world will still be created in its making. But neither can we leap to a different world empty-handed or without a compass. Tangible counter-examples and concrete ideas are necessary if working people, the vast majority of humanity, are to break free from their acceptance of capitalism as “common sense” or the “only alternative.” When ideas become rooted in masses of people, they become a natural force. These sentiments from Michael Lebowitz in his book The Socialist Imperative.
He uses the example of the “socialist triangle” to explicate a structure for a better, democratic system. The three sides of the socialist triangle are production for social needs, social production organized by workers and social ownership of the means of production. None or any two of the three sides stand on their own; each is dependent on the other two.
Lebowitz reasons that production for social needs is production accomplished for our common needs envisioned as production in which humanity would go beyond self-interest and therefore create a “solidarity economy.” Social production organized by workers is essential for developing the capacities of working people. Decisions in the workplace are made by the workforce as a whole, developing the capacities of all. Social ownership of the means of production does not mean the state owns all enterprises; it “implies a profound democracy” in which people, in their capacities as workers and as members of society, determine the results of their labour.
In order to create a society in which all can freely develop, Lebowitz proposes a “Charter for Human Development,” intellectually offered as “self-evident requirements”: Everyone has the right to share in the social heritage of human beings, an equal right to the use and benefits of the productions of the social brain and the social hand to develop his or her full potential. Everyone has the right to be able to develop his or her full potential and capacities through democracy, participation, and protagonism in the workplace and society, a process in which these subjects of activity have the precondition of the health and education that permit them to make full use of this opportunity. Everyone has the right to live in a society in which human beings and nature can be nurtured, a society in which we can develop our full potential in communities based upon cooperation and solidarity. The goal of these three points, Professor Lebowitz writes, is to” redefine the concept of fairness and remove the unfairness that some people monopolize the
These are guiding principles for a world that has a new concept of “common sense.” Any ideology, if its hold on a sufficiently large percentage of people is strong, becomes a material force. Industrialists and financiers, who constitute the dominant class in the present world and thus decisively shape contemporary belief systems, can and do wield an enormous and deadly apparatus of violence to maintain their dominance. Capitalism “tends to produce the workers it needs,” Professor Lebowitz argues, drawing on Karl Marx’s insights. People’s need to sell their labor power , that is, their need to obtain employment in order to survive and the creation of perpetual unemployment creates a dependency on capital that has continued for so long that the capitalist mode of production comes to be seen as “self-evident natural laws.” Struggles are therefore contained within the confines of capitalism. Thus an alternative common sense must be constructed.
Interestingly Lebowitz calls for socialism that goes beyond the limitations of the past models. Neither the Soviet model, overly centralized nor lacking in democracy, nor the Yugoslav model of cooperative enterprises constitute that alternative common sense. The Socialist Imperative argues that the Soviet system discouraged innovation because workers and managers saw it as disruptive. Moreover, initiative was monopolized by central planners and party elites, reproducing problems of alienation even if workers’ expectations of guaranteed employment and rising consumption were sufficiently strong to constrain leaderships. Solidarity across society and a decoupling of consumption with work capacity are offered as the keys to a new socialist society.
Permanent inequalities are products of capitalist relations. We are stunted individuals under capitalism; paid a small fraction of the value of what we produce and, given the dictatorial nature of relations in the capitalist enterprise, where we are told we are incapable of making decisions and thus unable to develop ourselves. We are also kept divided along gender, racial, religious and national lines and fighting among ourselves, helping keep capitalists in power. A social state can only be constructed from the bottom up, The Socialist Imperative argues. Lebowitz envisions neighborhood councils as the basis of local decision-making, with successively larger representations through councils established on city, regional, state/provincial and national levels. Mechanisms would be needed to transmit information up and down these levels for national-level decisions to be made as democratically as possible and for communities to have proper input. Needs and capacities would be assessed to democratically plan to meet those needs and make adjustments based on available capacities.
Enterprise transparency and worker education would be established in the workplace to begin the process of social production. Worker decision-making would be increased step-by-step through negotiations between workers and management on the basis of social contracts filed with a ministry of work. These would be steps toward social ownership of the means of production necessary for the full development of human beings and society rooted in social solidarity. The movement must go beyond simply taking state power, Professor Lebowitz writes, but must create spaces for the grassroots to transform into active agents.
This book provide a thorough grounding in why the salvation of humanity and Earth itself rests on a transition to a rational, democratic system, one based on human need and not the profits of a privileged few. We have a world to win, a goal for which Michael Lebowitz has given us an inspirational guide.