Socialism and the struggle to be fully human

Mike Phipps reviews 21 st Century Socialism, by Jeremy Gilbert, published by Polity, price £9.99 pbk

This may be a short book but it contains a wealth of creative and thought-provoking material. Many writers have tried, with varying degrees of success, to pin down the essence of socialism in a word or two. For Jeremy Gilbert, if capitalism seeks to turn every facet of human existence into a marketable commodity, then the struggle for socialism is all about decommodification. An early example, introduced by the Attlee government, was health.  The NHS took healthcare out of the market place and provided it free for all. Globally the healthcare market is worth around 10 trillion dollars so it’s unsurprising that apostles of the neoliberal agenda in the UK eye the NHS as a prime target for recommodification. Human wellbeing will become another marketable commodity, available according to one’s bank balance.

I think this is a fundamental point. Marx in the third volume of Capital, declared a world dominated by money-making to be a form of life “not appropriate to and worthy of our human nature”. Using this logic, the struggle for socialism is the struggle to be fully human.

In an interesting discussion, also about the meaning of socialism, the late Marxist Cyril Smith developed this idea. “Marx,” he wrote, “did not study an economic system called ‘capitalism’ and seek its replacement by a different one called ‘socialism’. His subject was capital, which stands over us all as an omnipotent, inhuman social power, but which is the falsified form of truly human social relations. It determines the way that humans treat each other, and themselves, not as free ends in themselves, but as mere means, as things. Conversely, things – for example money or machines – take on the character of subjects, dominating individual human lives. The life-activities of individuals, their human creative potentials, are subsumed under these inhuman powers, and are turned into enemies of their own humanity.” Marx, concluded Smith, considered this to be “insane”.

Returning to 21st Century Socialism, Gilbert doesn’t address this idea directly but finds some popular illustrations of the point. A contemporary example is how MP3 file-sharing technologies offered the possibility of decommodifying music, making it something everyone could access for free. Instead the old system of selling records and CDs has been replaced by one where customers pay for access to a vast database of files. This makes immense profits for companies like Amazon, while granting far smaller royalties to those creating the music – a very effective recommodifcation, but in the interests of neither consumer nor artist.

21st century society, argues Gilbert, has undergone unprecedented globalisation and ‘post-modernisaton’ – “No human society on record has come close to accepting the diversity of lifestyle, personal philosophy, religious practice or sexual identity that most of us now regard as normal.” In contrast, the political system in most countries lags behind by about 100 years. It still presupposes a society where millions consume the same media, do similar jobs and have similar pastimes – a society which may simply no longer exist.

The solution entails greater democratisation of our lives, but in practice the opposite has happened. Governments have responded to the growing fragmentation of society by scapegoating immigrants, demonising minorities and suppressing alternative ideas. To which we could add: Populist movements have flourished, by prioritising some identities over others, setting themselves up as arbiters of what is truly ‘authentic’, sidelining cosmopolitan and internationalist orientations as elite luxuries far removed from the concerns of ‘real’ people. The left must avoid these false binaries at all costs. In any case, unfortunately for this analysis, most of the most pressing problems facing us, from global capitalism to the coronavirus, can be tackled only on an international scale.

Looming over everything and adding urgency to the debate is the climate emergency. It clashes frontally with the needs of capitalism and requires us to reorient production towards durable and sustainable commodities, rather than just profitable ones. This will necessitate far greater coordination than the market can ever offer.

Such coordination could be provided either by more authoritarian government, or by greater democracy. The latter is immeasurably preferable and also more effective. So socialism – putting community needs ahead of individual profit – becomes more necessary than ever and in the ecological context, it has to be internationalist too.