What is Socialism?
Socialism revolves around the people doing the decision-making so that there is equality of opportunities and production for use rather than for profit. Generally, socialism works to regulate the economy through the social ownership of the means of production. Ideally, socialism creates a free and equal society that empowers the community with a state controlled by and for the working class.
Socialist thought originated with two categories: utopian socialism and revolutionary socialism. Utopian socialism moderately aligns with democratic socialist thought, while revolutionary socialism is the root of more authoritarian or dictatorship forms of socialism.
Principles of Socialism
At the heart of socialism, there are five important principles: equality, democracy, individual freedom, self-realization, and community. In terms of equality, socialism promotes equal access and equal opportunity, mainly through the distribution of monetary surplus and the emphasis on societal well-being. Democracy is a big facet of socialism in the sense that decision-making is done by the people. In a socialist system, active participation is a must. It is thought that by empowering the people through a democratic decision process, there will be a more involved state and an overall more content and benevolent society. In terms of individual freedom, socialism provides citizens with the security and capacity for their individual pursuits. Further, socialism promotes self-realization; easily said, socialism encourages pursuits outside of work or relaxation. Self-realization is encouraged in an effort to cultivate contributions to the well-being of society. Lastly, community and solidarity are important values in socialism. The core of socialism revolves around social ownership, and this stems from the value of community. Socialism hopes to bring about a concern for others’ well-being that will create a society of strong morality. With these in mind, let’s move to an in-depth look at the characteristics of socialism.
Economics of Socialism
The variations in socialism usually concern disagreements around levels of planning the economy and reliance on the market. This creates divides between classical socialists and market/democratic socialists. Further, these divides are increasingly present in modern times. The unchanging foundation of socialism revolves around social ownership of the means of production or ‘productive property’. This entails a myriad of things. Firstly, social ownership requires active participation of the people for democratic decision-making. Having the power decentralized to the people is one of the more attractive qualities of socialism, however, it has proved very difficult to implement this aspect of it in the real world. Secondly, social ownership is implemented through nationalizing the economy, or putting the people in control of the economy, and through decentralizing economic power, which prevents authoritarian rule. Lastly, social ownership involves compensating for all the work that an individual does by eliminating the goal of profit in production.
One of the main reservations about socialism is the implementation of such a system. Although this is a serious concern for any system, we must remember that all systems that an economy is based on result in hybrid systems, meaning that no country could perfectly and purely implement a particular system/model. This provides flexibility for a country using socialism as a model for its economic system. In socialism, there is planned production for use rather than market production for profit. This allows for the efficient use of human labor. More specifically, ‘occupational specialization’ allows for a division of labor that (ideally) puts individuals’ talents or abilities to use. Further, socialism follows the idea of the ‘All Affected Principle’: individuals should have as much influence on decisions as proportionate to how much the decisions affect them. This returns to the concept of social ownership. Socialism also works for the actual equality of opportunity rather than formal equality. The effectiveness of such equality leads us into the next topic: freedoms.
Freedom in Socialism
In ideological systems, there is a distinction between formal freedoms and effective freedoms. Formal freedoms are the lack of interference, while effective freedoms are the presence of capability. There has been a history of (claimed) socialist countries oppressing people’s formal freedom. However, it can be easily seen from this discussion that modern socialism and the theory of socialism (rather than imperfect implementation) is a democratic and decentralized system. The main idea surrounding formal freedoms in socialism is that all systems will affect formal freedoms, with each system extending some freedoms while restricting others. In socialism, it is thought that everyone should have their basic needs met and the ability to flourish in life. To flourish is to have the capabilities of consumption and self-realization. Socialist thought claims that equality removes the material barrier in meeting the basic needs of life, while the decentralization of the economy encourages self-realization.
To clarify, socialism allows for the equality of resources and welfare as well as opportunities for both. However, equal opportunity does not equate to equal conditions. In this sense, inequalities are seen as just if the individual is responsible for the consequences of their choices. On the other hand, the emphasis of community in socialism provides that inequalities of any kind are unjust in terms of communal solidarity and promotion of the well-being of all.
The Three Models of Socialism
In socialism, there are three models: centrally planned socialism, participatory democratically planned socialism, and market socialism. As you will see, there are stark differences in these models that result in arguments over whether some models are truly socialist. This could possibly be the main reason for the misuse of the word “socialism” in today’s world and how socialism is warped into a distorted concept by the historical use of the term. Below we will break down each of these models and their core elements.
Centrally Planned Socialism
In centrally planned socialism, there is planned production for use. There is a hierarchy where most of the power is vested in the hands of the central planners. This model advocates for a classless yet harmonious society, supported by the concept that the free development of everyone will result in positive developments for all of society. With this model, there are many economic and normative problems that arise. Because of the giant task of planning an economy, the main problem is accumulating information and creating a cumulative plan with this information. Further, this often creates a kind of domination by the “coordinator class”. This kind of model usually results in the disempowerment of workers because of a lack of incentives and low quality of life.
Participatory Democratic Socialism
In participatory democratic planning, there is economic coordination based on a network of worker and consumer councils. This stems from the ideal that everyone should have a proportionate influence on choices and societal decisions. This model features democratic workplaces where the workers have a majority of the power/control, and they are compensated based on effort and need. One of the main differences in this model from central planning is that there is a web-like distribution of power rather than hierarchical. The main problems that this model faces are coordination of the planning process and a dilemma of consumer preferences
In market socialism, there is a combination of capitalist aspects and socialist aspects to form a more market-oriented system of socialism. This model features worker self-management where workers have control over production, yet the overarching aim of production is profit. In terms of human labor, this model does stick to socialist thought in the compensation system; workers are given monetary surpluses after the cost of production is paid, and their income is linked to their effort. In this model, there is social control over investment. From a tax on enterprises, the national investment fund is created; from there, the people have control over how much investment is used, which correlates to the economic growth of the country. Most of the criticisms of this model are whether it is a kind of socialism and whether it offers the economic freedoms of a true market system.
Because of the flexibility and variety of economic systems and ideologies, socialism is often misunderstood in today’s world. In applying your knowledge of the facets of socialism to today’s world, I urge you to look at the specific policies that political figures are advocating for rather than the labels used to describe them. This allows for a truer understanding of their political stance that doesn’t rely on biased or misunderstood third parties. Additionally, remember that no country can implement a “pure” system and all countries are mixed economies that have aspects from multiple systems. Socialism is an ideology, a theory devised in pursuit of regulating capitalist economies. No system is perfect, but socialism provides a system of democratic economic regulation that keeps certain values at heart.