On January 23, The Daily published an article by Angelo Manaloto entitled “Is Socialism Dead?”. His answer was an emphatic yes. Manaloto’s argument, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what socialism is. Manaloto tells us that socialism fails because human nature is “inclined to greed and selfishness” which leads to dictatorship and disappointment.
Socialism is an egalitarian ideology, and because of its ambitious, benevolent intentions, many mistake socialism for a utopian dream. It is for this reason that writers like Manaloto are able to make the sweeping generalization that socialism has been a failure because no socialist country has succeeded at abolishing poverty or ending state violence. If one expected the initials U.S.S.R. to stand for Utopia of Sparkling Socialist Rainbows, then indeed socialism has failed.
But socialists, especially those in the Marxist tradition, are not utopians. Socialism is not about envisioning a perfect society, but rather is based on the understanding that capitalism is a fundamentally unjust system that inevitably leads to crisis. Advocating for socialism is not about building a perfect world, it’s about building a bearable one. As Fidel Castro once said “They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?”
Capitalism is a system wherein wealth is not shared, but competed for. As such, it is a zero-sum game in which the accumulation of billions by some leaves only crumbs for others. Capitalists argue this problem can be overcome because economies can grow. But growth cannot happen unless capitalists pursue new sources of wealth. In practice, this can look like brutal invasions to secure the economic resources of countries in the global South (for exmaple, as Donald Trump crudely puts it “taking the oil”). It can also look like the fossil fuel industry spewing toxins into water supplies and disregarding the problem of climate change as they seek out fuel sources like tar sands.
This is a problem that plagues all capitalist systems. Imperialism and extraction are not just on the agendas of hardliners like Trump and Dick Cheney, but are also seen as essential by more likeable capitalists like Justin Trudeau. After approving the Kinder Morgan and Line 3 tar sands pipelines (while rejecting a third pipeline), Trudeau explained that his position was a way of reconciling Canada’s environmental and economic interests. Given that climate change has the potential to destroy substantial amounts of infrastructure and make much of the world uninhabitable, one could easily argue that approving pipelines is not in Canada’s long-term economic interest. However, from a capitalist, constant pro-growth perspective, Trudeau’s approach makes sense.
Socialism is not a utopian view that can be assessed in a vacuum. It has to be evaluated relative to the current capitalist system. When Manaloto claims a government planned economy will fall victim to human greed, he neglects to mention that in capitalism, greed is a legitimized part of the system. Politicians like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan argue that eliminating environmental regulations, cutting minimum wages and lowering taxes create jobs. This is a mainstream, legitimized capitalist viewpoint even though it is essentially code for, ‘If we allow the wealthiest in society (who fund our election campaigns and media coverage) to have additional millions of dollars on top of their billions of dollars of wealth at the expense of workers and the environment, maybe they’ll create a job or two.’
Similarly, Manaloto makes a sweeping generalization when he claims that socialist states inevitably become dictatorial. For instance, he cites Venezuela as an example of an authoritarian state, which is a highly contested assertion, to say the least, he fails to contrast it to capitalist societies, which may not have dictatorial single-parties, but are subject to the rule of the 1 per cent (dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, as Marx called it).
In the last U.S. presidential election, voters were forced to choose between two candidates whose views left many people unrepresented. Voters who support open borders had to chose between a party whose last president (Obama) deported a record number of people, and a party whose candidate ran on an explicitly anti-immigrant platform. Voters concerned about police brutality and racial injustice had to choose between a pro-death-penalty candidate who had historically advocated for mass incarceration, and a pro-death-penalty candidate who has vowed to combat what he calls a “dangerously anti-police atmosphere.” America’s imperialist foreign policy had to choose between a candidate who has championed disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya, and a candidate who openly calls for torture and imperial plunder. Voters concerned about state civilians had to chose between a candidate who insists on trying Edward Snowden and a candidate who has hinted at a desire to execute Snowden.
Manaloto concludes his argument by saying we can only pursue justice by looking beyond systems and instead focusing on values like fairness. But no matter how we reframe our thinking, we can’t change the fact that our world is organized into economic hierarchies, and that these hierarchies limit how we behave. In 2015 Greece elected a new government headed by prime minister Alex Tsipras that sought to end EU imposed austerity. Tsipras, however, insisted that Greece stay a member of the European Union, an organization that essentially forces member states to maintain capitalist, often neoliberal (right-wing) economies, and as such has continued making welfare cuts, introducing regressive tax-increases and privatizing state services, much as his right-wing predecessors would have wanted.
Building socialist systems can be a challenge — history has shown us that. But the destructive potential of capitalism means that our current system of economic inequality, imperialism, racist police violence, and environmental destruction cannot continue. We must heed the words of Rosa Luxemburg who said: “[we] stand at the crossroads, [and must] transition to Socialism or regress” and answer Che Guevara’s call to “be realistic [and] demand the impossible.”