Under what conditions can socialism work?

We need to talk more about socialism

The Crisis of Society and the Crisis of the Left: Why Talk About Socialism?

For many years the political space was hermetically sealed and the utopian imagination sedated: criticism of capitalism and socialism led an absolute marginal and niche existence. Accordingly, the left was hardly called upon to make its political future and target perspectives plausible. In these times, the self-image prevailed among many leftists of promoting the criticism of capitalist society below the threshold of perception and relevance of social discourse, in order to offer an elaborate political alternative at the moment when the political and discursive space is opened up. This opening has taken place for a few years. We are experiencing a “crisis within a crisis”, which consists in the fact that the economic crisis cannot be regulated either politically or ideologically by the functional elites: a new, stable mode of economic accumulation and political regulation is not foreseeable. Western “prosperity liberalism” has been greatly weakened in its powers of persuasion, loyalty and legitimacy, or has even completely lost it.

Contrary to what had been hoped, it is not the left that benefits from this crisis-ridden opening, but the right. Whether self-inflicted or not: the left has largely failed to convince and inspire enthusiasm for the criticism of capitalism and the idea of ​​socialism. Their absence from the current social debate is downright eerie, almost a perverted return of the "ghost of communism". The left seems more on the defensive today than it did before the economic and political crisis. A strategic retreat into the echo chamber of criticism would be the wrong way out of this misery. The path must not shyly go back or inwards, it must courageously go forwards and outwards: Politics is always a question of social, individual and existential moods, atmospheres, feelings and energies. These are currently largely geared towards fear, withdrawal, walling in, pettiness, mortification and regression. This tendency does not stop at the left, which too often withdraws from the challenges of the world into the cheap grandeur of a sterile and elitist moralism or into a vain insult. On the other hand, the left must confidently and happily take the opposite direction: The really other world, the real future, is currently a void, and that leads to political and normative disorientation and uncertainty for those who are not in the mood for retreat. The left must therefore fight the lack of the utopian and the loss of the future. But this must not lead to a renewed escape from the world in castles in the air. Rather, the left and socialist idea of ​​the future must be formulated in such a way that it can provide perspectives, orientation and support for the political present and open up room for maneuver. Only then is it more than an idea, namely also the "real movement that cancels the current state" (Marx). The future can only be opened up seriously if one is not afraid of the present and of reality. In the current political and normative upheaval, the world and its future are slipping into their fingers for many. The left must therefore open up a world and a future in which people want to live and which they can achieve. The left must be able to say clearly what it wants and how it wants to get there. In times of incipient political nihilism, this is apparently the only way out of the defensive.

The Socialism Discussion: Left Avoidance Strategies

In the discussion on the left, however, the question of what is actually meant by socialism and how it can be achieved is often avoided. Socialism remains a vague black box, an empty catchphrase, a blind spot. However, this means that it is not really clear to the left themselves or to all other people what exactly is meant by socialism. It is not naive to want to say more about socialism than rudimentary and ultimately meaningless generalities. Conversely, it is rather naive to believe that a credible political alternative capable of receiving a majority can be justified in a blind spot. It does not have to be about designing a future socialist society in its entirety and in detail. Rather, it is a matter of identifying and discussing basic questions and problems of socialism in the "middle distance" that are also relevant for the left and social discussion and practice in the present.

A first objection to such a discussion of socialism is that the goal, namely an approximate idea of ​​what is meant by socialism, is necessarily missed in such discussions: the horizon of such discussions, according to the objection, can only include history and the present, but not the still outstanding future, and the future potential of socialism is therefore falsified by the present perspective. A “ban on images” is therefore imposed on future society. But if the future is to be reached from the present, then the present always bears the traces of this. Socialism is not a political theology of redemption, but a real liberation of the present. A related second objection is that such discussions are presumptuous, even authoritarian and incapacitating. Because they would dictate what and how to do it to the actors who will one day realize socialism. These actors, one variant of this objection, will face completely different problems and challenges than we imagine today, and due to the changed social situation will also have a completely different and new perspective on these challenges. But if that is true, it is at least not harmful to try to get closer to the socialist project even today. The changed perspective of future actors will probably hardly perceive outdated ideas from the past as an obstacle or even a regulation. Conversely, it rather seems obvious that discussions that have already been held and problems and perspectives that have been developed can serve as a starting point and orientation point for future discussions. And after all, leftists are themselves already agents of change, which does not only begin with the actual transformation of social institutions, but at least has its prehistory in previous debates, approaches and attempts.

Such objections to the discussion of conceptions of socialism are often secretly linked to “revolutionary perfectionism” and “singularism”: Social change is understood as a one-off act that either succeeds - or fails. In contrast, it seems more plausible that change is always a process, a development in non-simultaneity, in long attempts and with spurts, and that failures, failures and unsuccessful attempts are inscribed in the socialist project itself and must be taken into account, also as productive and instructive ones Moments. “Linear or fractional change”, “reform or revolution” thus seems to be a wrong and unproductive alternative - but this view is already a specific position within a discussion on how socialist change can succeed.

A third objection to the discussion of conceptions of socialism is that it is simply superfluous and premature as long as the objective conditions are not yet "ripe". Objective conditions are understood to mean either social conflicts and struggles or the level of development of the productive forces. In contrast to the first two objections, the position is not taken here that it already supports the socialist project harmful could be "premature" to discuss the foundations of socialism. Since this third objection is based on a certain historical-philosophical conception that could be wrong, it could be argued in a socialist-secular variant of Pascal's bet: It is possible that these discussions are superfluous, premature and ineffective. But since there is a possibility that they will have an impact on social development and social struggles, nothing is lost by devoting oneself to them.

A stronger counter-argument is that the social and political struggles and conflicts can gain orientation, certainty and self-confidence through a developed socialist perspective and are not determined solely by objective conditions. The argument of insufficient development of the productive forces is sometimes heard in the variant that socialism can actually only function in a fully automated social production context. However, this argument leads to techno-deterministic resignation and political defeatism and does not actually seriously question capitalism as a social mode of production: economic liberals defend capitalism with the argument that it is the most efficient and fair way to date of coordinating social production and consumption; precisely because it is uncontrolled and unplanned. If this market-mediated coordination of production and consumption were no longer necessary, because all consumer goods can be produced by machine without any effort, then of course the market as a coordinating body would also be superfluous - even the most staunch market advocate would admit that. If a socialist position is based on this argument alone, it is trivial and politically meaningless. The litmus test for socialism, on the other hand, consists in whether - as long as we are not yet living in the paradise of full automation - it enables a "better", that is, a more efficient, fairer, more democratic or "more humane" coordination of production and consumption. As long as it cannot be shown plausibly how this could succeed, it is no wonder that hardly anyone is convinced of socialism.

Questions and challenges of socialism: norms, politics and economics

So it is urgently time for the left to discuss socialism and also to communicate "outside" what it actually imagines. Such an open, pluralistic and controversial discussion of socialism would be a clarifying and reinforcing field of experimentation and testing for the left as to which society one actually wants. In the best case scenario, it would expand into a social self-understanding on this question. The discussion of what socialism is and what the society in which one wants to live should look like has at least two levels, namely an “ideal-normative” and a “real-institutional” level.

On the “ideal” level, negotiations are taking place as to which normative basic convictions and which utopian motives should guide the socialist project. As the current discussions between “cosmopolitan universalists” and “local or national political communitarians” show, there is no agreement even with regard to the normative reason for a better, freer and more just society. Terms such as freedom, justice, solidarity and dignity are open and must be filled with concrete content. The utopian basic impulses that motivate socialism can also be very different: Does the utopian impulse consist in the greatest possible freedom, in permanent self-development and personal development, in enhancing and intensifying life to expand and network the social context? Or does this utopian impulse consist more in a slowing down of life, in a liberation from the pressure to grow and progress and in the calm of idleness?

On the “real” level, on the other hand, the structural and institutional questions and problems of the socialist project are discussed more intensely: The central economic challenge of socialism is a successful coordination of production and consumption. Often the answer to this challenge is that in socialism the principle applies: "Everyone according to his abilities, everyone according to his needs" (Marx). As in the ultimately apolitical sci-fi-techno conceptions of socialism, with this information the coordination or allocation problem is "solved" by simply denying the prerequisites for this problem. Because if social production and consumption is organized in such a way that everyone really produces and consumes according to their abilities and needs, then there is simply no more coordination problem: Consumption and production are then always mediated with one another, i.e. immediately identical and any agency for mediation is superfluous. But it is questionable whether such a state will ever be achieved.

First of all, the idea of ​​rapid automation of the entire production process is a naive fantasy that vastly underestimates the time and resources required and the specialization and professionalization of the workforce that is required; Second, machines must also be produced, operated and maintained; and thirdly, it is questionable whether a fully automated production context in the sense of reducing social alienation, increasing social transparency and self-determination and a non-instrumental relationship to nature is desirable at all. As long as labor and consumer goods are not available indefinitely, the coordination of production and consumption remains a basic social problem that can at best be postponed but not resolved by automation. As long as socialist societies adhere to economic complexity, differentiation and division of labor, the various activities must be coordinated and matched to social needs: It is very likely that there are different individual ideas of which goods must be socially produced and which are foregone can, and divergent preferences about social, economic and technological development paths are to be expected (investment of social labor in better health care or luxury goods production?). And the individual willingness to work will probably also differ from one another. Furthermore, there are certain goods that cannot be made available to all people, such as certain attractive residential areas. And then there are again particularly dangerous and unpopular activities, such as steel cooking, or activities that cannot and should not be automated, such as care work.

The problem of the coordination of production and consumption will not be resolved by the nationalization or socialization of the economy: If market and money as mediating authorities cease to exist, the question arises as to which authority, by which criteria and according to which principle this coordination will be organized in a socialist manner should. Furthermore, nationalization and socialization do not automatically mean that this coordination will be more just, fair and humane. Rather, the opposite can happen: if the distribution of labor and goods is either mediated by new political authorities or organized without intermediary authorities and solely through political deliberation, new forms of inequality and rule can arise quickly in the first case, or social conflicts in the second to even increase this distribution.

Just as complicated as the socialist transformation of the economic is the socialist transformation of the political. Will the bourgeois parliamentary state apparatus simply be taken over or will the political form also change with the changed political content? After the failure of the real socialist nationalization of society, it seems obvious to socialize the state on the other hand. But how is the socialist community then organized politically? In what arena are political decisions made and how are binding agreements ensured? How are political and social dissent and controversies conveyed and in which mode are conflicts moderated?

What does socialization actually mean?

Against this background, the question arises what exactly the socialization of the economy and the state actually means. Often is under Vergesellschaftung first Dedifferentiation, that is, taking back the differentiation of society into various subsystems (politics, economy, law, culture, etc.), and secondly Demediatization, that means a dismantling of mediation and mediation, and then, thirdly, the total dismantling politicization - or more aptly: Agoraization - of all areas of life, so that literally everything can or must become the object of collective deliberation and free decision-making. Such a dissolution of the social mediation in immediacy or the difference in identity is highly problematic: So the question arises, for example, whether such a dissolution does not lead to hopeless excessive demands on the political? Doesn't such a politicization turn people into political activists who are stressed and exhausted by long-term plans? Does it make sense to subordinate the historically developed subsystems of a society to one system alone? In the case of the law, is it not even associated with considerable dangers? Do not mediating bodies experienced as "alienating" also have a civilizing and relieving effect? Is it desirable and possible to break up society into a huge council system? Social differentiation harbors the risk that subsystems become independent from the whole and assume a dominant position. The dissolution of differentiation, on the other hand, harbors the risk that, in the appearance of social unity, social differences will be carried out without mediation and control bodies and create new anarchic relationships of domination.

But maybe it is also a misunderstanding to understand socialization as total politicization? Because in such a politicization, politics is retained as the only particular subsystem and expanded into the overall system of society. This is a kind of «dedifferentiation while maintaining the difference». On the other hand, a successful «dedifferentiation» of the social subsystems - instead of the renewal in politics, for example Repeal the antithesis of politics and economics - don't just consist in founding a new unit that encompasses the differentiation and thereby dissolves the sub-systems as sub-systems? Only then is a really new unity established, instead of making an element of difference the principle of a unity that becomes one-sided as a result. But this in no way diminishes the problems because it is not at all clear what the form of such a "true" and comprehensive social unit could be.

These considerations only touch on many questions in perspective, on an experimental basis and in the beginning. A socialist project can only gain self-confidence and convince if the questions, challenges and problems associated with it are not avoided, but addressed aggressively and the related controversies are resolved. Of course, changes are hardly initiated solely through sophisticated theoretical concepts, but rather through political and social practice. A controversial, solidarity and matter-oriented, not one-sided debate about this change, in which the different views do not entrench one another, is itself an integral element of genuine socialist practice. [*]

Georg Spoo is doing his doctorate on Kant and Fichte and works as a research assistant at the University of Freiburg.

Editing: TEXT-ARBEIT, Berlin

[*] In this sense, this text is not a private production either, but would not have been possible in this form without the exchange and discussions with friends. The discussions with Philip Bergstermann, Samuel Strehle and Michael Brie were particularly inspiring.