Political Economy was the precursor to modern economics. It often combined ideas about economics with political and social theories. Socialist political economy is possibly the most controversial topic of the current era, in academia, and in public conception, especially in the west. The aim here is to present a plan for how to improve the quality of human life for as many as possible, for as long as possible. Through Marxist analysis, I will expose the roots of many problems our society faces and present a template for necessary organization of political economy, or the basic structure of society, in relation to survival and well-being.
Creating a better world, one that maximizes well-being, means creating a world free of environmental degradation and human degradation, a sustainable world. For this, we need a society which operates its politics, economy, and culture for the benefit of as many as possible, one that meets the needs of the majority of people, one that maximizes happiness. Happiness does not increase continually relative to wealth. It is therefore most reasonable, if possible, to maintain a system which distributes wealth according to principles of happiness. Currently, global wealth distribution is aligned with private interests of growth and power. Extreme concentration of wealth in few hands is antithetical to a world in which happiness is put first.
Both social and environmental problems impede sustainable well being. The most pressing problems are those which impact the most people, most severely. Global warming from greenhouse gas emissions is accepted by most experts to be one of the most disastrous and momentous phenomena. The UN Secretary General stated this year that “Climate change is the defining challenge of our time... Science tells us that, even if we are successful in limiting warming to 1.5 °C, we will face significantly increased risks to natural and human systems.” Heatwaves, droughts, fires, rising ocean temperature and acidity, and intensified extreme weather patterns are some of the most severe results of anthropogenic climate change. (WMO Statement on Climate Change in 2019). Greenhouse gas emissions must be lowered to achieve sustainable living.
Additional ecological problems include deforestation, plastic pollution, and fertilizer runoff, and these are fundamentally linked to all the rest. We live in an increasingly globalized economy reliant on long supply chains, with for-profit production at the core of it all. Ecological and social problems plaguing masses of people are inseparable from the global economic order. Wealth inequality, not preferable in the extreme, has increased for the past two hundred years, with the one percent owning more wealth than the bottom fifty percent of humanity. Many problems are increasing in severity, and our understanding of these individual issues is constantly expanding. The problems we face are not due to a lack of scientific understanding and potential capability to solve, but rather a lack of coordinated, planned action to face them, and the status quo which is conditioned to serve the interests of the entrenched power of the minority.
These problems often disproportionately affect nations in the global south, and the poor among them, who do not have the capacity to address the problems they face; climate change, plastic pollution, and deficiencies of social programs ail those who have little power over international economic trends. These problems are increasingly the result of a highly advanced system of production that is disconnected from the suffering it creates. The disconnect between civilization and its social and ecological ramifications is the manifestation of a system that concentrates power and externalizes damage for maximum profit. John Bellamy Foster, a distinguished University of Oregon professor of sociology, says this of capitalism: “the system increasingly demands, simply to keep going under conditions of chronic over-accumulation, the production of negative use values and the non-fulfillment of human needs. This entails the absolute alienation of the labor process, i.e., of the metabolic relation between human beings and nature, turning it predominantly into a form of waste.”
To the extent happiness can be achieved, it is a state in which certain definite requirements are satisfied. We all need adequate food and shelter, and to have meaningful and supportive relationships. Studies show that, in general, happiness peaks when basic needs are steadily satisfied and with enough strong relationships and community. Beyond these, it is necessary to maintain these capabilities with strong medical care and education, things which are not prioritized even in the most advanced countries in the world. About half of US citizens forgo medical care because of the cost, about half cannot pay for an unexpected 400 dollar emergency, and rents and mortgages are increasingly hard to pay, especially during this time of crisis. The healthcare industry, dominated by private insurance and pharmaceutical firms, did not prepare for the likely possibility of a pandemic because it was not profitable. Neo-liberal policies cut healthcare spending. For example, the number of hospital beds declined in New York over the past decades. It is not hard to see the power imbalance enforcing these conditions while billionaires and institutions hide trillions in hidden tax havens. It is not the case that the economy “cannot afford” to provide healthcare for all, increase welfare spending, or address environmental issues. The problem is the use of the resources we have.
It is no secret that corporations must maintain a competitive profit margin to stay alive and that increasing profit provides a competitive advantage, securing longevity. Another way to secure longevity and profit is to eradicate any chance of increased taxes, price controls, or even reduced subsidies. These policies are influenced by “big money” in politics. Oil companies taken together spend about 200 million dollars per year to block climate change policies. They have also spent decades denying climate science. Money in politics is central to how capitalism functions. Private corporations cannot afford to lose their grip on policy, and this fact will never change. Beyond policy, corporations push their destructive interests upon the public through economic control, advertising, and influence on the media. This long standing fact is evidenced by tobacco companies knowingly misleading the public, pharmaceutical companies doing the same as well as providing bonuses, and all product advertising pushing consumerism to the maximum. In a system run by and for money, hoping for slight reform is ultimately counterproductive to our aims of a sustainable society. Anything besides changing the system of for-profit production will be insufficient to displace corporate hegemony.
These social problems are not all new, and some researchers argue that much progress has been made in terms of various forms of equality (gender, race, and other minority groups), in terms of violence, and in terms of absolute poverty. However, progress towards equality, increased wages and benefits, and even reduced conflict, has not been because of capitalist forces, but rather the struggles and persistence of the working class. It is also true that imperialism and poverty are integral to capitalism itself, that geopolitical domination and extreme exploitation are enabled by those two phenomena. It is not unrealistic to aim for a world in which these needs are met for everyone and one in which cooperation conquers competition for power.
U.S. expenditures in such areas as the military, marketing, public and private security, highways, and personal luxury goods add up to trillions of dollars a year, while much of humanity lacks basic necessities and a decent life, and the biosphere is being systematically degraded. This inevitably raises issues of communal needs and environmental costs, and above all the requirement of planning if we are to function with ecological sustainability, freedom from oppression, and the ability to equitably determine our own future. With improved technological capability, absolute resource scarcity is possibly eradicated. The problem then is not absolute resource production, but the distribution of resources. The modern paradigm of wealth distribution is shown by the gross disparities in money. Jeff Bezos, the richest man on earth, has wealth equivalent to working full time for over 100 years at 500,000 dollars an hour. This accumulation is not due to his superior intellect or work ethic. It is simply because he has control over the profits made from his nearly one million employees. Exploitation, as described by Karl Marx’s capital, is obvious at its core. Owners of the instruments of labor are able to take a portion of worker’s produce simply because the worker is powerless without the apparatus for production. This is how surplus was extracted from slaves, prisoners, serfs, and other indentured servants for all of modern civilization. Workers produce more goods than they consume, and the left-overs go to the owners of the land, machinery, and resources; the profit goes to the exploiters. This destructive process is the norm for global production today. To securely alter the distribution of wealth requires an alteration of the mode of production, the ownership and control of productive forces.
One fundamental contradiction of capital as outlined by Marx is the increasing oppression of workers. Marx says “All means for the development of production… become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment, they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process” (Marx, 1887, p. 451). The second contradiction of capitalism is the “tendency toward the amassing of wealth at one pole and the accumulation of conditions of resource-depletion, pollution, species and habitat destruction, urban congestion, overpopulation, and a deteriorating sociological life-environment... at the other" (Foster, 2010, p. 208). Under capitalism, “the greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth", the greater are capital’s ecological demands and environmental degradation (Foster, 2010, p. 208).
Martin Hägglund, a Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University, also sees a need for a change of consciousness to aid in the development of a sustainable world. Hägglund says “When I return to the same landscape every summer, part of what makes it so poignant is that I may never see it again. Moreover, I care for the preservation of the landscape because I am aware that even the duration of the natural environment is not guaranteed. Likewise, my devotion to the ones I love is inseparable from the sense that they cannot be taken for granted... Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever.” Hägglund also acknowledges that capitalism is systemically committed to exploiting workers, which means maximizing working time and minimizing welfare, at the expense of freedom and well-being. Capitalism treats the producer of profit, labor, as if it were the purpose of life. But, to enjoy life, labor has to be an end in itself. “The real measure of value,” Hägglund says, “is not how much work we have done or have to do but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us.” To organize our time in this way requires abandoning the profit motive and embracing production for human wants and needs, joyful production.
The only way to collectively balance our resources for the most benefit, to prioritize the environment, our well-being, and sustainability, is to collectively and intentionally balance our resources. This cannot be done while the economy is dictated by competitive private firms and individuals or while capitalists are allowed to control surplus and direct production for it. Soviet socialism abolished capitalism with the help of Marxism. The first socialist nation undoubtedly accomplished amazing feats. “The Soviet Union not only eliminated the exploiting classes of the old order, but also ended inflation, unemployment, racial and national discrimination, grinding poverty, and glaring inequalities of wealth, income, education, and opportunity. In fifty years, the country went from an industrial production that was only 12 percent of that in the United States to industrial production 85 percent of the U.S… No society had ever increased living standards and consumption so rapidly in such a short period of time for all its people. Employment was guaranteed, Free education was available for all… Free healthcare for all, with about twice as many doctors per person as the United States” (Keeran and Kenny, 2004, p. 4). The Soviet system rapidly developed itself into a powerful political, economic, and ideological force, defeating Nazism, supporting socialism in other countries, and opposing U.S. imperialism globally. This is not to say there were no problems, but many problems would be averted if the capitalist threat had been eradicated; resources could have been directed away from military production towards the improvement of the quality of life. Given a higher level of development at the outset, Soviet socialism would have been much more capable of meeting all needs and coordinating production, although it did do an outstanding job anyway.
Saving our ecosystem is only one of the many positives of socialism. It can quite easily be argued that central planning (which in no way neglects decentralized input, but relies on it) can reduce poverty through wealth redistribution, and provide economic security and greater human development with guaranteed employment and education. Additionally, the power of intentionally directing all resources for human well-being would reduce incarceration by restructuring the justice system, reduce opioid addiction by eliminating the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry, provide healthier food by eliminating the profit-driven agriculture industry and standard, and enable shorter work weeks, better benefits, higher pay, unfettered democracy, less crime, and a happier, more human centered world. This sounds like fantasy, but with the technological capabilities in the hand of a working class society, every deficiency of distribution can be overcome. The only impediment to these changes would be the work needed to fix the ecological catastrophe and to keep government accountable, which would be all the more possible without private profit.
Although central planning is necessary to transition away from our current hegemony of capital, small scale cooperative communities must replace privately owned housing and workplace structures to facilitate both the efficacy of central planning and the increased well-being of people. Without destroying capital’s grip on the global economy and way of life, these power-driven structures will endure. However, once overturned, there must be new organizations on each scale of human organization, from family and community, to town or municipality, city, state, region, nation, and continent. Quite simply, organizing these structures must build on the already existing infrastructure and adapt to the directly to small scale, decentralized, independent units is not viable. For example, half of the global population living in urban centers rely on many imported goods; population density is high and only specific industries can operate locally. Decentralization, if desired, requires a very high level development to maintain current standards of living. Medicine, food, and housing require a high level of productivity to provide for people who do not do these tasks themselves. If every community were expected to adopt all of these responsibilities today, many would go hungry, sick and homeless simply because of the time it takes to develop the means by which to do all of those functions ourselves. The urban population can not grow their own food without all resettling rurally. Throwing out modern, globalized technology would result in a reversion to the dark ages, out of which civilization would encounter the same problems of resource scarcity, conquest, and exploitation.
This argument requires explanation for those who see or imagine the benefits of decentralized living but do not account for the process by which such a development would happen. Productivity of the same intensity and duration of work increases with advanced methods of production, centralization and machinery (Marx, 1887, part 4). Productivity provides an advantage of wealth, and this inequality exacerbates with time. To overcome this requires consistently meeting the needs of the majority and preventing exploitation. Many functions cannot be met by a decentralized economy, especially large scale action to undo climate change or provide disaster relief. Hierarchical governments (with centralized power) would be mediators between smaller units, and centralized decision making is needed for functions like setting prices, reorganizing global supply chains, investing capital in new infrastructure or development projects, and redistributing labor across industries. Government power still needs to be held accountable and needs to be free of corruption, and this can happen once politics escapes its current corporate servitude. It is also now much easier to manage large scale economic functions and planning; modern computing would make planning and modelling very efficient. The technicalities of this planning and governance would be for economists, policy makers, scientists, and the population to decide as a cohesive collective.
Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York, 2010. The Ecological Rift:
Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels; Transcribed by Zodiac, Hinrich Kuhls, Allan Thurrott, Bill McDorman, Bert Schultz and Martha Gimenez (1995-1996); Proofed by Andy Blunden and Chris Clayton (2008), Mark Harris (2010), Dave Allinson (2015). Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR. First English edition, 1887.
Keeran, Roger; Kenny, Thomas. Socialism Betrayed: Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. International Publishers, New York, 2004.