Hail readers! As promised, here is mine and Oli’s essay on Socialism. Read on for a detailed look into Socialism’s philosophical, moral and economic underpinnings; an argument concerning its validity and place in 21st century Britain; and, to finish off, a debate on the Labour leadership contest.
The question that many a political novice fails to ask is one of ‘What, exactly, is Socialism?’ This is in fact a question with no definitive answer—thinkers have used the word to mean many different things, across various time periods and nations. But we can, at least, define what we mean when we say Socialism.
To me, Socialism is a political and economic theory based on the core idea of, simply, ‘we are not alone’. A Socialist views the world not necessarily through the lenses of ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ (though these ideas have their merits) but rather, we tend to take a more pragmatic view: we believe that a democratically elected state can—if its citizens are willing and its administrators competent—improve the lives of the citizens it cares for, to great effect. We believe that capitalist markets are flawed, but that they can be made more successful with judicial state intervention; that all citizens have the right to equal opportunity; and that through our collective endeavour, we may make the world a better place.
Oli’s point is an important one: many Conservatives attack Socialists for being ‘statists,’ but in fact Socialism doesn’t view the state as being an end in an of itself. Rather, Socialism takes the view that the state is a tool of the grassroots community; that it is there to serve their interests, not dictate to them like some drunken bureaucrat. Socialists are also accused of being ‘technocrats’; and this is true, insofar as both wish to advance mankind in some form. In the case of Socialists, this is usually—though not, as you can see, necessarily—through the state; for technocrats, it is through technology. Since the two are far from mutually exclusive, technocrats often agree with Socialists.
It is also no secret that Socialism acts on a moral impetus, not merely a broad technocratic one. Many Socialists—like Capitalists, in fact—are Utilitiarian; we view the state as a creation capable of increasing society’s utility, of improving life. It is also true, however, that Socialists are concerned with poverty and social justice—sometimes, to the possible detriment of Utilitarianism. It could be said that Socialists have a vision: that of creating a society where relative prosperity is available to all. Interestingly, however, the principle of decreasing marginal utility may actually imply that a more egalitarian society—as Socialism desires—is actually also a more prosperous society overall, despite mean wealth being lower than a comparable ‘Capitalist’ state. (Though, as I shall argue below, Socialist nations may actually be wealthier than Capitalist ones.)
But is it Convincing?
Interestingly, Conservatives usually don’t argue that Socialism is undesirable; that they would, in an ideal world, be Capitalists rather than Socialists.
Economically, Conservatives propose a number of arguments for why they believe Socialism cannot work (or work well); and chiefly among these is the idea that, since a state must rely on taxation to fund many of its enterprises, a Socialist society would lead to individuals having less ‘incentive’ to be successful—due to, of course, being unable to keep more of their money. Thus, a Socialist society becomes impoverished when compared to its Capitalist counterpart.
Conservatives, you see, believe that high rates of taxation result in individuals (always the individuals) obtaining less benefit from extra work, and so not wishing to work more, or become more successful.
The problem with this argument is that it ignores the other side of the coin—that, by lowering individuals’ net income, it is actually the case that individuals wish to work more in order to achieve the level of wealth they find desirable, as opposed to remaining content with what they already have. Conservatives also fail to consider the varied reasons for why individuals strive to become wealthier; in the case of entrepreneurs, it is to pursue a dream, a vision. Entrepreneurs are a rare class of the damned; they’ll never be content with the nice life.
And if you’re inclined to disconsider all these theoretics as mere speculation, consider instead the conclusions offered by empirical data: why is it that Japan—a government with relatively low taxation levels—has very similar GDP per-capita to Germany, a country with relatively high taxation levels? Both were severely damaged after WW2, and yet their wealth is entirely comparable. Surely, if taxes have such significant disincentivising effects, wouldn’t there be much larger differences?
Oli has also illustrated another fundamental misconception that troubles thinkers of both political stripes: believing that the state only redistributes wealth, as opposed to creating it. This is patently false. Such thinkers confound money—a proxy used as a denominator for the exchange value of goods—with what wealth actually is: the utility gained by the production of goods. For example: when a carpenter makes a table, his life becomes better. Why? Well; because he has a table. He may place his tools, his books, his plethora of miscellany on top. He has created what we know as ‘wealth,’ or what the classical economists call utility. Utility, you see, is fundamentally metaphysical in its nature; it cannot be represented by money. Money is only a quantitative abstraction representing what other agents are willing to exchange for the table, e.g. two shirts of linen.
And the state does precisely this sort of ‘wealth creation’ when it, for example, builds bridges; treats broken bones; and teaches children. This is wealth creation. The reason why the state taxes is because otherwise there would be inflation; and there would be inflation because of what is known as opportunity cost—since labour is finite, employing workers to, for example, treat an eye condition implies that there are no workers left to build a Mercedes as well. Thus, when the state taxes a wealthy individual, all it does is match the money supply to resources by keeping the money supply constant; a drain to the money supply (taxes) is matched by an increase to the money supply (paying NHS nurses).
Another economic argument presented against Socialism by critics is that of ‘competitiveness’; in an almost apologetic tone, the Conservatives tell us, if we become Socialist (by which they really mean to say ‘if we increase welfare’) then we will be unable to compete with China.
After the argument is made, the debate often becomes one of globalisation; ought we really engage in free trade if we are forced to make such sacrifices? The argument concerning globalisation is a complex one; and indeed not the one I shall be making. Rather, I argue that if we wish to be competitive, we should be Socialists—precisely because it allows us to be more competitive.
‘But Alex!’ you cry; ‘how can this be so? Surely, as the Conservatives tell us, Socialism would make us less competitive?’ The trouble is, Conservatives rely on a number of argument for why they think Socialism is uncompetitive—or, rather more accurately, why they think Socialism is inherently inferior to Capitalism insofar as the economy is concerned. I have already debunked one such claim concerning taxation, and another with regards to the role of the state. Against global competitiveness, I shall abandon theoretics, and instead content myself with empirical evidence.
China is a big country. A big, big country; it has 1.3 billion people, in fact. Curiously, however, Germany—a country with ‘just’ 80 million people; less than a tenth the population of China—is able to export approximately two-thirds as many goods (by international exchange value) as China. Why is it that a country with high levels of unionisation, safety laws, and yes, welfare, is able to produced ten times as many goods (in terms of value) per capita compared to a country with little welfare, laughable safety laws, and low unionisation? Why is the Socialist country beating the Capitalist country?
For that matter, why is it that the European Union—which has 500 million people—has greater total wealth, and far greater prosperity, than a nation with 1300 million people? Despite, it seems, taxing more, and spending more?
What determines competitiveness is nothing to do with the nebulous insinuations of the Conservatives—of welfare leading to fecklessness and laziness. No: competitiveness is determined by such factors as an educated workforce; a stable and well-run financial system; capital availability; infrastructure, competent leadership, and, believe it or not, a society where every member contributes to its success.
Many of those feckless poor are actually poor because of such factors as unemployment—and not because they don’t want to work, but because there is no work—because of disability or sickness, and because of social problems. None of those will be solved by cutting benefits; on the contrary, doing so will aggravate the problem. Nor is this to say, however, that benefits are the solution. The poor need education and training, but businesses must also be willing to hire them; and social problems are a complex issue that require solutions far beyond what the market can offer. Indeed, all of these problems are beyond the market’s ability to solve. And so, you see, it is precisely why we should be Socialist; if not for the goodness of our hearts, then for the money in our pockets.
Let us now leave the matter of Socialism as a theory—for which, suffice to say, if we have not convinced you already then we never will—and instead deal with another matter: how to bring more Socialism to Britain.
Labour, Leaders, and FPTP
It is no secret that first past the post is a voting system that allows the voter but two choices: Left, or Right? And, inevitably, any pretence of nuanced thought gets left by the wayside. Though this essay is concerned with Socialism, we believe the matter of FPTP is important enough to merit a sidenote. Indeed, it could be argued that successful Socialism cannot function without successful democracy.
There are two alternatives to first past the post: the foremost is a form of proportional representation practised in Germany, and involves a complex system of vote-transfers between constituencies; the second, as practised by Denmark and numerous other nations, is a simple raw vote count—independent of regionality—from which parties are permitted to elect members to the Parliament.
The Devil’s Advocate that I am, I must take issue with this. Yes, we may keep constituency elections for a second house of Parliament; but the first house—that of the national government—remains subject to a different issue: MPs being elected on the basis of ‘party favourites’ rather than their ability to sway the electorate.
Alternately, I would suggest a completely different solution—fix the party, not the system. British political parties are too authoritarian; too much weight is given to the leader and the Cabinet, and not enough to ordinary MPs and grassroots members. This not only leads to ‘party favourites,’ but also to internal tension and strife. (This can become so poisonous as to lead to open rebellion; Major’s bastards and Blair’s Brownites serve as prime examples.)
Furthermore, what critics of PR fail to understand is that British political parties are coalitions. One need only look at the Conservative party (where Cameroonians battle Eurosceptics) and the Labour party (where Corbynites war with Blairites) to understand the phenomenon. Indeed, PR would therefore result in more stable governments; factions of a party, instead of fighting WW3 with one another, would instead agree to co-operate under the set terms of a coalition.
So: let’s ditch FPTP. Let’s embrace a modern, representative, and effective democracy.
So: You Want us to Vote Labour?
As far as I’m concerned, Labour needs to win, in order to enact change. But that doesn’t mean it must abandon its principles; on the contrary, it is principle that will make the party strong—both at election time, and when governing.
To win, Labour must confront the reasons for why it lost. Here are five ways it can do so:
‘Labour didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining.’ Throughout the election campaign, this remained unchallenged. Milliband made apologies; he did not repudiate, he did not offer a counter-narrative, and he was weak. This must change. Though Labour may accept a small degree of culpability only in that it could have run a more fiscally sound administration (though Thatcher actually borrowed more, for example), it must make one thing very clear: the banks caused the crisis. It must spin its own narrative—and it must be a relatable, accessible one; abstracts won’t do it. ‘The banksters gambled the nation’s bank accounts,’ would be a start. In politics, offence is the best defence.
Scotland. Labour needs to deal with the SNP Problem. And no: denigrating the SNP, or making what ultimately amounts to minor administrative quibbles (about NHS waiting lists and so on) won’t do it. Labour needs to make a strong case for why Scotland should stay in the Union; it needs to be rational, yes, but also emotive. Look to Gordon Brown.
Immigration. Labour needs to sort out the immigration problem. How? Not by peddling to UKIP; but by making a convincing, impassioned case for why the UK should allow immigration.
As for who should be leader? Let’s start with a rundown of the current candidates:
Andy Burnham: A centre-left candidate; he voted against IVF for lesbian couples and he has the support of the unions. In some ways, he’s a continuity candidate; but he also talks about popping ‘the Westminster bubble’ and he has a Mancunian accent (or is it Scouser?) He is willing to appoint Corbyn to the Shadow Cabinet, or serve under him if he gets elected.
Yvette Cooper: a ‘centre candidate,’ Yvette has spoken on the possibility of re-introducing the 50% tax rate, and plans to build 250,000 homes. She is Shadow Home Secretary, and has a good record on civil rights. She has said that she would consider appointing Corbyn to the Cabinet, though she wouldn’t want to serve under him.
Liz Kendall: Coined as a ‘Blairite’ by the media, Kendall wouldn’t raise the minimum wage, but would work to ‘persuade’ employers to offer a ‘Living Wage,’ and would introduce requirements on minimum wages for companies that have government contracts. She has also said she would free up more land for housing. She says that if Corbyn got elected, the Labour party would be ‘at least a decade out of power’ and that she would not cooperate.
Jeremy Corbyn: A left-candidate, Corbyn has proposed to introduce a £10 minimum wage; to not renew Trident; to bring in the 50% rate; and to nationalise the railways, among other policies.He says he would ‘find common ground’ with all the candidates, including Kendall.
Jeremy Corbyn has been called ‘unelectable’ by the Guardian, and a ‘Trotskyite’ by the Telegraph. It feels almost redundant to say that such accusations are absurd (Trotsky despised democracy; Corbyn is a firm democrat) but there is one point that must be addressed here. A party doesn’t get elected by selling policies in the manner befitting of a corporation; it gets elected by convincing a large portion of electorate that their way, is the right way.
It is true that it is very difficult to convince the electorate of one’s policies if one’s policies are directly against most of the popular opinion. And yet—despite whatever the media tell you—Corbyn’s policies aren’t against the popular opinion. Quite to the contrary, in fact.
But let us discuss some of these policies…
Nuclear Disarmament: After much debate, we have decided that we disagree with Corbyn’s policy insofar as we wish to keep a nuclear deterrent—though not necessarily in the form of Trident.
For this, I would suggest setting up an ‘EU Defence Fund’ in which all EU member states pay for the upkeep and construction of a small, but sufficiently credible, nuclear defence system. The specifics would be for military experts and other EU politicians to discuss—likely this will involve trans-continental missiles, submarines stationed in Sweden or Denmark, and upkeep paid according to GDP—but this solution would be cheaper for us, and fairer for the EU.
Corbyn’s policy is ultimately unrealistic, but I will point out that in today’s world, there is nobody whom you will agree with completely; and, practically, the Labour party would never vote to scrap Trident, even if Corbyn does become leader.
Corporation Tax Increase: Another issue that presented itself was that of Corbyn’s plan to increase corporation tax. Though we are not opposed to increasing taxes, I for one consider this particular tax rise counterproductive and misguided. Allow me to elaborate…
Corbyn has presented a vision for the economy; one that involves high economic growth, supported by investment—not cuts. But for high levels of investment to occur, businesses must be able to keep their profits; if they cannot, they will have none with which to invest.
It is true that the additional government revenue could be used to invest—in roads, rail, education, and all manner of valuable causes. But we are not communists; we live in a world where private firms, as well as government enterprise, contribute to the economy. We need private investment, as well as government investment, in order to succeed.
What Corbyn should really be tackling is high rates of executive pay in relation to the pay of other company employees; and while increased income taxes, for example, can be beneficial in generating increased revenue for the government (Corbyn indeed plans to reintroduce the 50% rate) this fails to address the root cause of much of inequality—a neoliberal, ‘winner-take-all’ corporate culture that disempowers the many in order to remunerate the few. We need to change the very way today’s corporations think; we need increased rates of unionisation (as Sweden has, for example) and ways to address CEO bonuses. ‘Tax, tax, tax,’ may be a popular Socialist mantra, but it shouldn’t be the only one.
And let’s not forget, Oli, that even tuition fees for ordinary students have been introduced with an agenda at play. The Coalition government wouldn’t raise the marginal tax rate; but it did triple tuition fees—precisely in order to make the less well off (namely, recently graduated students just entering the job market) pay more of the burden, instead of older graduates and better paid graduates.
The Right may respond ‘but shouldn’t students pay for their education’ to which I respond: not necessarily. For, after all, it is the rich that benefit most from an educated workforce. Apple wouldn’t exist if universities didn’t train computer science graduates; retailers would struggle without the roads designed by state-schooled engineers; and it is therefore only sensible to make the rich pay for universities, not because of envy, but because they are the ones most able to pay for the system that so enriches them.
So is Jeremy Corbyn Right?
My answer is: yes and no. Jeremy has a vision—a real alternative to neoliberal austerity programmes; and, more than that: he’s right on so much. He’s right on tuition fees, he’s right on nationalisation, and he’s right that Labour shouldn’t become Tory-lite; if not for principle, then for electoral success.
He has his flaws. He’s too keen to tax, tax, tax; he speaks too much in the abstract, with ‘grotesque inequality’ rather than Polly at Asda and bankers buying Bentleys; and on some of his policies—nuclear disarmament, foreign policy—he’s too idealistic.
Ultimately, he has the right ideas. He speaks of an alternative that the other candidates are too shy, too self-doubting, to speak of. So: the ideas are right. But is he the right man to sell them? He stutters (albeit occasionally), he speaks in the abstract, and he doesn’t always have the necessary pragmatism. So, no, he isn’t. Is he more likely to win the election than, say, Cooper or Burnham? I’m not sure. Will I vote for him? Yes. If none of the candidates will succeed in bringing Labour to power, then at least we will have a strong opposition.
Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest, I will give the winner one word of advice: politics isn’t about aping your opponent. It isn’t about ‘matching the electorate’ or selling goods to consumers. It’s about conviction. A strong leader must speak with charisma, in a language voters understand, and they must always hold true to what they believe in. To compromise is to be pragmatic; to capitulate is to accept defeat before the battle has even begun.