Many on the left still seem to be trapped in the strange concept of ?human nature? as something solid, rigid and fixed. And to justify this ? rather having little to do with science ? approach they claim that in fact, ?human nature? is predisposed for socialism which many aspects of today?s capitalist decay show. Such a reasoning can only be described as utopian.
No matter what social and economic transformation in history we take it has never been based on any kind of shifts in human nature, but on conditions around the people, that is around the ?humans? and their ?nature?. And no matter how important the latter is it can hardly have any priority before the first. What we should be looking for is not socialist traits in human nature but processes within capitalism that exhaust its possibilities and render existing relations among human beings obsolete.
A social system is in essence a set of relationships among human beings. More precisely, power relationships. Ownership of capital is important not so much because it provides its owners a disproportionate amount of goods, but because it enables them to exert power over the nonowners, ?the proletariat? as classical Marxism calls them.
This is why
the question of ownership of the means of production
is probably the most important issue in revolutionary, socialist politics. In fact capitalism has developed probably all the tools and methods for social production within the existing forms and structures of business. Any large enterprise worth its name, has moved beyond the control of its owners; it is run by managers who plan its activities in much the same way that a business in a socialist society would be run.
The crucial difference lies in the objectives these managers try to achieve. In a capitalist context, they seek to maximize profits for the owners (although even this is being blurred as companies grow to monstrous proportions). In a socialist society these same managers could work as efficiently with different objectives: optimize the provision of goods required by society. They would use the same theoretical tools, the same methods but in a different context. They would probably be even more efficient since there will be no conflict between production of goods and production of profit.
Here are some examples of this conflict, of the
irrationality of today?s capitalism.
In the pre-war years an oligopoly was already developing in the light bulb manufacturing industry. An agreement between the manufacturing companies secured high prices and production levels. At one stage one of the companies put to the market a light bulb that features double the lifespan of the usual bulbs. Philips promptly complained that such an action would decrease sales to the detriment of all the producers. What was ?profitable? for the company was manifestly wasteful for society.
The next case I want to mention is the case of Panadol. Its success was assured by an aggressive advertising campaign whose costs raised the selling price to a few dollars while the production cost was not more than a few cents. Of course generic products of the same nature were not allowed to be produced for years, meaning that people were forced to buy the product at a price of a hundred or so times more than they needed to. This is still the case for most of today?s medicines. Their exorbitant prices are not in correspondence with their production costs, they are expensive simply because, under capitalism, the pharmaceutical companies have to recoup their research costs, thus denying the world of life saving cheap medicines in order to make profits.
A similar picture is seen in the music industry. As piracy has shown, one could have best quality music, films or software for the price of a blank CD or DVD. The inability of capitalism to provide a rational way of distributing music while at the same time securing the rights of artists and, most importantly, record companies, has led the producers of CD and DVD players to spend years of research, costing billions of dollars, to introduce technology in their gadgets that prevents copying discs. Most of this technology reduces at the same time the quality of music. The only thing they succeeded was to push piracy to the internet and the development of the new technology of MP3s, more or less destroying the traditional music industry based on CD and DVDs. The piracy war is now raging on the Internet with no solution on the horizon.
Another scandal is to be found in the software industry. Having cheap software for everybody is the easiest thing these days. Today?s companies have to buy software costing thousands of euros, and some of them have to buy this software several times over, when they could get it for free. Again, it is the basic research cost that has to be recouped that drives up the price. Consequently, huge amounts of money are spent on research to combat piracy, further reducing the overall efficiency of the capitalist mode of production.
The point I am trying to make is that
we don?t have to invent the wheel again.
All these structures are there for the taking. The basic issue remains the taking over of ownership of the means of production. By changing owners, all these companies can switch from producing for the sake of profit to producing for the sake of the common good. A change in ownership inverts the power relationships, makes planning possible. Planning not in the sense of detailed directives on every aspect of production, but planning of a general nature that directs production towards the real needs of society. The good old slogan of nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy is a very potent one and can still serve us well. The problem with it was that it became stylized, it was used as a ritualistic chant rather than as a vibrant and living demand, adjusted and streamlined for specific needs of specific times.
P.S. In this context, it is worth narrating another weird story of modern capitalism. The unification of Germany was in fact a takeover of East Germany by the West. The totality of West German laws and market practices were imposed overnight in a society run by central planning. One of the first tasks the new rulers had to perform was the break-up of the huge public enterprises. Most of them were old, with obsolete machinery and technology and all they did was to bankrupt them and provide the money to close them down. In the energy sector, however, they were faced with a different problem. Under the central planning of the old state production and distribution of electricity were managed separately, with the national grid joined at various points to the wider grid of Eastern Europe. This contrasted with the West German practice of integrated production and distribution under common management. The West German model was, of course, imposed. Some twenty years later, western thinking on production and distribution of electricity changed. The new realities of the diversification of energy sources, of trans-national grids and all European integration of energy distribution led to the separation of production from distribution of electricity. Despite the fact that this separation was imposed as part of the privatization of electricity in most countries, it was perfectly in line with the central planning philosophy of the old East German state.