Imaginable Socialism


 Let’s imagine the revolution.  We’ve just replaced the old state with some kind of new popular state, based on workers’ councils, direct democracy, or whatever.  Through a combination of employee seizure and nationalize, the means of production have been seized.  Laws are passed providing essential public services to everyone for free.  Maybe people take up the idea of voting on national issues as they arise by phone.

Typically Marxists will tell you that we shouldn’t draw too many blueprints of what the future society will be like, because that’s up to the people who make it happen.  The problem is, we are the people who make it happen (or who fail to), so we need a concrete plan!  Furthermore, people looking to us for answers as the movement progresses will ask, “so what structure are we actually creating here?”  It doesn’t mean there has to be one plan.  There can be many competing and/or complementary plans.  People aren’t willing to enact a radical change in the way our entire society is structured, from the government to the workplace to the macro-economy, without knowing what that structure will be, or at least a few different ideas to choose from.  So actually as socialists it is our job to “build castles in the sky,” as Marx scoffed.  We have to build them conceptually first, because we intend to build them in reality!

So – the state has been radically transformed (by either structural rearrangement or replacement), and the means of production has been seized.  Do we immediately get rid of all money and all jobs?

I say, no.  Or at least, not necessarily.  I think initially it would be wisest to pursue a path that leaves a great deal of the economy running as it did before, except under new management and under new ownership.  Private capital is replaced with public ownership of the workplace and major institutions, but people still have to work to get paid, and can still spend their money as they like when they go shopping.



Do you really trust the entire population, coming fresh out of capitalism with all its imposed bad habits and ideologies, to continue working without having a material incentive for doing so?  I don’t.  I doubt most non-cadre would trust that plan, either.  The gift economy ethic is something that develops later.  For now we just have to expropriate the rich and collectively own the commanding heights of the economy.

People will see the idea of immediately rejecting all private property as some kind of hippie bullshit. Share everything? Fuck that. The whole point of socialism was so I could have more shit, not less.

The advantage my model has is that when people say “HOW WOULD THINGS POSSIBLY WORK?!” it’s simple and familiar. It leaves the world as it exists, in an aesthetic sense, but still achieves the major transfer of ownership and power to the working majority.  There’s a reason it’s called socialism…it’s not full communism, but a transition toward it.

I’m a pragmatist.  Americans are fanatics about the freedom of consumer choice, and may die before giving up on their right to choose what they buy and don’t buy.

Also we must keep in mind, there is a potential conflict between personal savings and public capital. What if society votes to do something a worker hates? But they are somehow compelled to keep doing work which directly or indirectly contributes to that thing? That’s kind of like exploitation. Not all workers’ produce should go to the collective pool. They should be able to keep some kind of material compensation to dispose of individually.

For me it’s not just about full communism. I do sort of have a problem with the idea that people could be doing dramatically different amounts of work and all receive the same compensation.

This model is persuasive to the American public, because they fear that revolution could possibly end in chaos and collapse.  People might reasonably worry that we could quickly consume the entire surplus if there are no checks and balances on how much people can consume, or how much they are incentivized to work.  This method keeps people at work, keeps people fed, does it in ways that are familiar, and maintains public peace and order.

Of course for humane purposes there should be a minimum provided even without doing paid work – guaranteed minimum income, healthcare, food, housing, etc.  Lenin supposedly once said that the rule of socialism is “Whoever does not work, neither shall they eat” (apparently quoting the Bible?).  That’s actually a lot harsher than what I’m proposing!  Basically, the system would be that survival necessities are covered – modern technology can typically sustain survival needs without remotely jeopardizing the actual surplus.  However if you want nice non-essentials like a smartphone, a car, or any non-essential consumer item, you need to work – work and get paid a salary you spend.  I’m hoping the True Bums will start to feel sheepish about all the free stuff they’re getting, and want to contribute to the world.

But the rest of America is not so trusting, so we cannot dismantle the apparatus so soon. People need to feel like things are still adding up, that goods are being granted and work is being done, and there is some kind of accounting system and a relationship of incentive and balance between the two.



Capitalism is based on private ownership of workplaces.  Capital is private investment in the means of production.  That’s what we have to ban – you can buy a car, but you can’t buy a business; they’re all public property, and not for sale.  The problem isn’t wages, the problem is the exploitation that comes with private ownership of the workplace.  As explained in Capital, private workplaces allow companies to take what workers create (services included), and sell it for a higher value than the workers are collectively paid in wages.  This is the source of profits and growth under capitalism, and a business must do this or go out of business.

In socialism, only the direct-democratic state and its many enterprises should be able to employ people.  This way, workers can be fully compensated instead of exploited, and society as a whole controls what is created.  A more moderate model would perhaps allow small businesses like mom & pop shops or freelancers to continue for a time, or forever (and has been done).  Myself, I think this can be opened to too much abuse.

We can use “public capital” – the macro-coordinated means of production, publicly owned and direct-democratically managed – to collectively address problems.  We need better transportation? We collectively own the means of production, let’s put it to use creating mass, public transport.  We need sustainable energy?  Let’s build power plants and solar panels, because we can do that.

But all of that worker-controlled macro-economic planning can still happen in the context of currency, personal consumer property, and work-for-pay.  This is often a big shock for people who are new to socialism, completely different from what they were expecting, and probably seems more imaginable, familiar, and immediately practical to most people.

One issue with my own model is as follows: what if someone attempts to convert consumer items into a business?

We distinguish between personal and commercial property. As stated above, we won’t nationalize the car out of your garage, we’re just going for workplaces and major institutions.

The reason most consumer items are not capital is because you simply cannot build a business out of most of the things you buy in a grocery store/Home Depot/Walmart.

However, any commodity can become capital in a large-enough quantity. You can buy and sell it in an attempt to turn it into an ingredient in a business operation, or you can just speculate on it.

Fortunately this is not an insoluble problem. We can take measures like banning private individuals from mass-purchasing/wholesaleing/speculating on commodities of which no one has any conceivable personal utility for a mass quantity. (And if they are hoarders, we can direct them to our free, public, and robustly-funded psychological services.)



Yes, but it would still allow for the possibility of exploitation by the state, and it would therefore still allow for the rise of a new state-based ruling class.

If the state is worker-owned, then the workers adding labor to the public capital is just workers working for themselves, collectively not individually. The hope is that state accumulation and workers’ accumulation would become the same thing.

If we’re talking about the state enterprises ending up with a surplus, essentially profits, off the backs of their workers, yes, exploitation may happen. But as long as the collective workers’ control of the state remains genuine, it’s really just us exploiting ourselves to create a public capital for our own benefit that we all have a say over.

If workers’ control does not stay genuine, then we have problems.  To me, that’s what the whole experience of Stalinism was. If we lose control of the state and it becomes a managerial bureaucracy, then currency is not really the problem.  We will have exploitation regardless.

Exploitation would happen in state-based system, if the state enterprises extracted more labor from their workforce than the working class received back (whether in the form of wages, or payment-in-kind via free services, free stuff, or general infrastructure usage).  If we’re talking about abstract labor-time, we could discuss the social exchange in terms of work-hours. If workers are working 40 hours a week, are they getting back 40 hours’ work’s worth of goods and services?  Or less?  The state planners would know – they must count somehow.

I’d actually rather keep currency around to act as a unit of measurement precisely for this reason, so we could measure the social exchange. This way we could compare, in a real quantitative dollar amount, how much workers are giving vs. how much they are getting, and thus stand vigilant against the rise of a new exploitative regime, or at least understand the tradeoff of personal pay versus public goods provided free by the state.

Of course, any socialism can be slandered by purist-anarchists as state capitalism, because it’s got state management of the economy, and if there is even a smidgen minority element of bureaucracy still remaining. Anarcho-statists do not have this problem…we are capable of understanding that a direct-democratic state is the property of the people, and don’t automatically dismiss it as state capitalism or tyranny – so long as the conversations in society aren’t being watched by secret police with the continual threat of sending non-reactionary dissenters to the gulag or death, as happened to most of the original Bolsheviks.

When we say “workers will own their own product,” that could happen three ways. (1) They add it to the state accumulation, which they collectively own. (2) The iPod workers take all the iPods they made at the end of the day, and divide them up evenly between each other (stupid). (3) The workers get paid in wages, but FULL wages equal to the value of the labor they contributed, NOT exploitation wages historically determined by the low standard of living under capitalism.

(1) is the full communism method (and also the war communism attempted method), (3) is the currency socialist method.  Both are socialism.



3 thoughts on “Imaginable Socialism

  1. Hey! On the subject of imagining socialism, I wanted to ask whether you were familiar with _Towards a New Socialism_ ( by Cockshott and Cottrell or _After Capitalism_ by Schweickart.

    The former is an attempt to imagine how a planned economy might work with modern computing technology. It was written pre-internet, however, so I think it deserves yet another reinvestigation.

    The latter is an extended description of and argument for a form of market socialism called Economic Democracy (I’ve written a brief summary of Economic Democracy here:

    They’re both definitely worth a read. If you’ve already read them or are already familiar, I’d love to know what you think.

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