Many people understand that socialism is an alternative to capitalism, but few know what socialism really means. The nature of an economic system depends upon which social class controls the means of production. Power over the means of production enables the controlling class to govern the entire economic system.
Three basic economic systems (each with many variations) are possible in a modern technologically advanced society: capitalism, state collectivism and socialism. Under capitalism, the owners of productive property (i.e. capitalists) control the means of production. Capitalism is the economic system that currently exists in most parts of the world. Under state collectivism, the government bureaucracy controls the means of production. State collectivism was the economic system of Communist countries like the Soviet Union and is often mistaken for socialism. Under socialism, working people collectively control the means of production. Although some societies have adopted a few socialist institutions (e.g. economic planning, free health care, cooperative banks) there has never been a full-fledged socialist society in the modern world.
Socialism has five principal goals. 1. Sustainability: The economic system must be organized to sustain human life on our planet for the indefinite future. 2. Equality: The economic system must move toward complete economic equality. All forms of work are equally valued. Complete equality is the long-term goal, but limited inequality based upon differential contributions to the economy exists initially. 3. Comprehensive Democracy: All major economic and political decisions are made through genuine democratic processes. 4. Personal Security: All fundamental personal needs are guaranteed by society. This guarantee includes food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, child care, elder care, etc.
What social institutions can achieve these five socialist goals? Socialists have different views on this subject, particularly on the issue of whether socialism should use markets. Here are some of the institutions proposed by socialists: (a) a democratic state that invites maximum participation and frequent circulation of political officials; (b) democratic and self-governing councils of workers and consumers; (c) jobs balanced for difficulty and desirability by workers councils (hazardous and unpleasant work being divided among all competent adults); (d) compensation according to effort as determined by fellow workers; (e) democratic and participatory economic planning in which workers councils have a major part; (f) use of computers and extensive feedback to reach a feasible and sustainable economic plan.
Building socialism in the context of a capitalist society involves a three-prong strategy: (i) consciousness raising — developing socialist consciousness within the capitalist public; (ii) institution building — creating socialist institutions based upon cooperation, equality and rational planning within capitalist society (e.g. workers cooperatives, strong labor unions, environmental regulation); (iii) political organizing — establishing an effective political party committed to socialism that contests for power within the capitalist political system.
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