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Over the past months there has been a debate in some newspapers regarding socialism and/or socialism vs. capitalism. It is a great thing to see happening, especially as the globalised economic downturn intensifies and is sure to be a long-lasting one.

In this debate, however, it is sometimes hard to see what is exactly meant by the word ‘socialism.’ For example, many people term the policies of the Bandaranaike governments as socialist – because there was a tendency to have the government run certain industries, such as transportation, steel and insurance, or to have state welfare programmes. If such is the definition, then most European countries and even the United States would qualify as socialist on some ground or another. Others seem to define socialism as being what existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries: this involved a heavy state hand in not only industrial and agricultural production, but in controlling dissent and thought via undemocratic systems. Again, on such grounds the United States, for example, would qualify by way of its systems of government subsidies to agriculture and certain industries (and economic planning during war) and systems of dealing with dissent (old and new forms of McCarthyism). In both these definitions the underlying assumption is that all potential socialist systems would be run in the same manner. These are convenient constructs, making it then easy to dismiss all attempts in total, and to dismiss socialism in general.

I come from an upbringing in the United States – including by family, education system, church and media – that is famous for its demonisation of socialism. Indeed, it is rather embarrassing to admit that this construct, in the 1960s when it entered my young radar system, produced images of masses of people who own nothing privately, not even their clothes (which tend to look like a standard gray or blue uniform) – as if there was one central laundry and everyone’s clothes were interchangeable, even the underwear, yikes!

Certainly when Marx wrote of the means production, and critiqued the capitalist system for its ownership as lying in private hands, he did not mean that all production had to be controlled by a state, and certainly not that all goods would be collectively owned. His concern was capitalist private ownership, which precluded the use of society’s assets for all, and indeed assured use for only a few. And he certainly wasn’t talking about state capitalism, where the state controls some things but most business is conducted via private relations, and often with some crony relation with the state.

In my studies of McCarthyism and the system of demonisation and punishment perfected in the United States, I have come across enough readings about who was actually at the receiving end and what they supposedly supported. In my view, the most useful construct by which to view socialism, in comparison with capitalism (which is actually existing and alive with very apparent consequences), is in terms of key values. In short, capitalism concerns hierarchy and competition, and socialism concerns equality and cooperation. A system of equality and cooperation has not been seen in any country, although it has within smaller social groups. In addition, socialist conditions are something to work for, over time. This means that related systems will play out in different ways, within different structures, in every nation, society and, indeed, within every organisation of people, no matter the size.

It is clear that in today’s form of capitalism, hierarchy rules supreme, and is growing. This is true regarding the massive drain of the world’s resources from poorer countries to richer ones. It is also true regarding the massive transfers of wealth within societies from lower to higher classes. The working class is expanding (defined as people who earn only enough for the basics), as is the mass of people in debt. Many in the middle classes (those who supervise others’ labour or are in the professions) struggle not to fall, and the upper class (the owners of the means of production) are enriched at an ever increasing rate. The United States is not unique in this – one sees it everywhere. Also clear is the link of such inequality to a lack of real democracy – in the sense of popular participation in decisions concerning society.

And who can question the existence of competition as the overriding value of existence and evaluation of individuals. I have also heard it said that socialism stifles competition and thus advancement, in the sense that people are then lazy, or not motivated, or do not feel rewarded – that the individual has to operate in his own self-interest in order to advance intellectually. In fact, I can think of no more competitive environment than, say, a system where any person talented in engineering is given such training, the products of which are then evaluated according to the level of expertise and contribution to society in general. Capitalism in this sense is, on the contrary, highly exclusionary. It must also be noted that while competition as a value is upheld, the largest corporations operate in a situation of monopoly – in the sense that several within most industries control pricing.

I would rather view the debate from the basis that, first, socialism has not been established anywhere, and neither has democracy. Further, there will be no socialism without democracy and vice versa; and further, the transition to socialism by definition must be non-violent. Too much of the debate now seems to be conducted at cross purposes, perhaps satisfying to some, but not productive to the many. At this stage, concerns regarding government and social organization must be taken out of the arena of  competitive games and sport.

The good news is that socialism need not be some ideal that is not reachable, or one that someone else with more ‘knowledge’ or ‘experience’ has to work on – it is there for everyone to work towards, in every kind of organisation of people, but especially in our schools, workplaces and families. And such work starts by questioning standards of judging superiority and inferiority, and norms of assumed personal entitlement vis-à-vis accepted consequences on others.

The bad news is that mankind is running out of time. As stated in a fundraising letter I just received from the Monthly Review in New York, socialism can be defined as the “basis for a society of sustainable human development.” In that sense we are now on a very slippery slope, within countries and globally.