Whither socialism?

Darwin wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’. Marx, if he had made the necessary modifications to his theory, could have written ‘On the Origin of States’. Just as the survival of particular species is the product of eons of biological evolution, so is the survival of particular kinds of state the product of millennia of social evolution. While the organism is the fundamental unit of natural evolution, the state is the fundamental unit of social evolution. I consider these points in my recent post comparing Darwin with Marx. We can trace the steps of social evolution not just in ‘modes of power’ but in their corresponding kinds of state:

  1. Hunter-gatherer states (communalism),
  2. City-states and imperial states (extractivism),
  3. Nation-states and private states (capitalism),
  4. Public states and the world state (socialism?).
Meet Bernie Sanders—a democratic socialist

It’s worth noting that ‘structural variation’, a key condition for social evolution, is aided by a degree of macro-structural disunity—or separation of power among several structures. This can be quite problematic, as structural disunity often causes crises and closure, driving marginalisation and racist scapegoating as competing states try to legitimate themselves to their unstable citizenry. Sadly, in history, not all good things go together. For a better world to be possible, where we could establish a single world state (with macro-structural unity), we had to go through a period of many competing states (with macro-structural disunity). The multistate system was made possible by the fall of Rome and the lack of any single European empire at the end of the Middle Ages, creating interstate competition which fuelled the rise of capitalism.

In history, then, interstate competition tends to be a dynamo of social evolution—hence why capitalism began in Europe, where there were many competing states, rather than in China, where there was one imperial state. This is also why extractivism began in the Middle East and ancient China, where there were tightly-knit multistate systems of dynamically competing units, in contrast to other parts of the world where states were fewer and/or further apart. Multistate systems are bad for peace, but good for spontaneous evolution. They increase structural variation, and thus increase techno-productive competition among states over scarce resources, ramping up selective pressures and accelerating social evolution.

That being said, if you concentrate enough information through a single state, such as through Big Tech, you wouldn’t need spontaneous social evolution—everything could happen by design, rather than by spontaneity. That’s why a world state may be possible today, but wasn’t possible in the past—we have better technology than in the past, so can still ‘evolve’ even if we lack the incentives of a multistate system, which may now be festering—rather than accelerating—technological change by giving each state incentives to free-ride on climate-change mitigation agreements. A world state would change that by enforcing our contracts to one another and to the Earth. But that depends on the end of the status quo.

Communalism, extractivism, capitalism, and (perhaps) socialism are the (three or) four modes of power in history. Communalism, extractivism, and capitalism have existed. But socialism has never existed—because so-called ‘socialist’ Russian and Chinese states under Stalin and Mao arose under feudal ‘extractivist’ conditions, not under advanced ‘capitalist’ conditions. As socialism is—by definition—that which succeeds capitalism, not that which precedes it, no state has ever been socialist, since no advanced capitalist state has ever tried out socialism.

‘Actually existing socialism’ has therefore always been authoritarian in order to adapt to feudal conditions, Tsarist political institutions, and capitalist sanctions—i.e., conditions opposite to those Marx thought right for socialism: the conditions of advanced capitalist states like Germany, France, and the USA. ‘Democratic socialists’ like Bernie Sanders are thus the ‘true socialists’ for Marxist theorists, as they want to try out socialism in advanced capitalist democracies—not backward feudal autocracies. They want real socialism. That means going beyond the ‘nation-states’ and (what I call) ‘private states’ (i.e., nation-states under the neoliberal conditions of the 1990s onwards) of capitalism, towards the ‘public states’ and eventual ‘world state’ of socialism.

Some people are ‘communists’—which, formally speaking, means the anarchist belief in abolishing the state. Communism, for Marx, is where the state ‘withers away’. Nobody is a communist today or in history; because the conditions for state abolition (i.e., true socialism) have never been established. Today, there are two choices—capitalism, and socialism. To be precise, there are two kinds of state we can choose between: private states where inequality rises and market integration accelerates; and possible future public states where inequality is suppressed as social protection and political integration replace stratification and marketisation as the dominant trends of contemporary states.

Ultimately, we must choose between nation-states (broadly conceived) incapable of addressing climate change, and a world state capable of doing what is necessary to address the problem. The reason why a world state is necessarily ‘socialist’ is that it is impossible to legitimate massive political integration using more marketisation and stratification—just look at Macron, whose poor-trashing fuel tax and market-oriented labour-market reforms have catalysed massive protests and strikes, delegitimating any further initiatives towards EU integration. We can ‘combine’, or ‘collapse’—we can have socialised integration, or privatised disintegration. The middle ground has withered away. Either we collapse under the weight of economic and ecological debt, or we combine our powers by fusing states together, legitimated through wealth redistribution, public investment, and social protection. Socialism, far from being what Hayek called ‘the road to serfdom’, may be the only alternative to serfdom today. The choice is clear and stark.

Which path will we take?

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