The word socialism has had its definition stretched to a point where it can be taken to mean almost anything. Godfrey Moase from the UWU explores what it really means, and what that means for workers.
Socialism is the simple idea that all people should be in power. Such a straightforward idea, however, cuts through the hypocrisy of the present state of affairs like Alexander the Great slicing the Gordian Knot in a single stroke of his sword. Every form of oppression, injustice and inequality is challenged by this notion of socialism.
What does it mean to say that all people should be in power? It is above all else a commitment to democracy. For if democracy is the rule of the people then by definition democracy and socialism are equivalent to each other.
Using this definition, democratic socialism may appear to be a redundant and tautological term, it nonetheless has two chief uses. It is a way of critiquing those who have or would deny people power in order to deliver socialism for them such as occurred in the authoritarian Soviet Union. Moreover, it is a vantage point from which to criticise the very real limits of political democracy in capitalist systems. For democracy is more than the inalienable right to vote in parliamentary elections. Socialism is the recognition that democracy should not end here.
Democracy is greater than the freedom to choose between a demeaning, dangerous and insecure job, and destitution. It is more than the choice between healthcare and bankruptcy. Democracy should not disappear when you swipe into your office at the beginning of a work day.
The idea of socialism challenges the limits of political democracy in two main ways.
Firstly, it disrupts the idea that a person’s capacity to meet their needs depends on their ability to pay. Every person deserves to have access to services such as education, healthcare and housing independent of their own ability to pay. The idea that some people will receive a better quality of education because they have access to more money should make any socialist feel nauseous. From a socialist perspective, the fulfilment of basic human needs is a matter of social responsibility as opposed to an outcome of the operation of the market. Scarce resources, such as hospital beds, should not be rationed on the basis of how much money one wields but on how much one needs it.
Secondly, socialism rebukes the notion that economic democracy is equivalent to “one dollar, one vote”. Ultimately, the present corporate system operates on this “one dollar, one vote” basis and that is why the views of one or two billionaires is news and the opinion of millions can be safely ignored. That an Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest or a Rupert Murdoch have a greater influence on the public discourse about the cause of bushfires than any two environmental scientists speaks to the irrationality and danger of limiting democracy. This is what happens when capital is sovereign over labour. Socialism, however, stands for the sovereignty of labour over capital. In our workplaces and private corporations decisions can and should be made on the basis of “one person, one vote”.
Who counts as people, what are our relationships between each other and the natural world, and how do we exercise power? These are the questions that need further exploration for a more fulsome understanding of socialism, and why it matters to a society facing existential crises.
Godfrey Moase is the Executive Director of the United Workers Union. He can be reached on Twitter at @gemoase.