I’m interested in socialist ideas, but I’m worried about a few things. Like for one, would I get to keep my Kenny Loggins records?
Can an exception be made for me, or is this going to be a commune-like situation where we have to sit around and talk about our feelings and listen to John Lennon all day?
John Lennon’s iconic 1971 single “Imagine” asks listeners to envision a world without possessions, one without greed or hunger, in which the Earth’s treasures are shared by all humanity. It’s not surprising that the song became an anthem for generations of dreamers, but it also captures something about the socialist vision — the powerful desire to end misery and oppression, and help every person reach their fullest potential.
But the picture painted by Lennon’s song might be a bit worrying for those of us who don’t want a world without personal possessions — a sort of global commune where we’re forced to wear hemp bracelets and share our Kenny Loggins records.
Thankfully, socialists are not interested in collectivizing your music. It’s not because we don’t love Loggins. We simply don’t want a world without personal property — the things meant for individual consumption. Instead, socialists strive for a society without private property — the things that give the people who own them power over those who don’t.
The power created by private property is expressed most clearly in the labor market, where business owners get to decide who deserves a job and who doesn’t, and are able to impose working conditions that, if given a fair alternative, ordinary people would otherwise reject. And even though workers do most of the actual work at a job, owners have unilateral say over how profits are divided up and don’t compensate employees for all the value they produce. Socialists call this phenomenon exploitation.
Exploitation is not unique to capitalism. It’s around in any class society, and simply means that some people are compelled to labor under the direction of, and for the benefit of, others.
Compared to systems of slavery or serfdom, the hardships many workers face today are less immediately obvious. In most countries they have real legal protections and can afford basic necessities — a result of battles won by labor movements to limit the scope and intensity of exploitation.
But exploitation is only ever mitigated in capitalism, never eliminated. Consider this (admittedly abstract) example: let’s say that you’re getting paid $15 an hour by a business owner in a stable, profitable firm. You’ve been working there five years, and you put in about sixty hours a week.
No matter what your job is like — whether it’s easy or grueling, boring or exciting — one thing is certain: your labor is making more (probably a lot more) than $15 an hour for your boss. That persistent difference between what you produce and what you get back in return is exploitation — a key source of profits and wealth in capitalism.
And, of course, with your paycheck you’re forced to buy all the things necessary for a good life — housing, health care, child care, a college education — which are also commodities, produced by other workers who are not fully remunerated for their efforts either.
Radically changing things would mean taking away the source of capitalists’ power: the private ownership of property.
In a socialist society — even one in which markets are retained in spheres like consumer goods — you and your fellow workers wouldn’t spend your day making others rich. You would keep much more of the value you produced. This could translate into more material comfort, or, alternatively, the possibility of deciding to work less with no loss in compensation so you could go to school or take up a hobby.
This might seem like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely plausible. Workers at all levels of design, production, and delivery know how to make the things society needs — they do it every day. They can run their workplaces collectively, cutting out the middle-men who own private property. Indeed, democratic control over our workplaces and the other institutions that shape our communities is the key to ending exploitation.
That’s the socialist vision: abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use — factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure — and replacing it with social ownership, thereby undercutting the power of elites to hoard wealth and power. And that’s also the ethical appeal of socialism: a world where people don’t try to control others for personal gain, but instead cooperate so that everyone can flourish.
As for personal property, you can keep your Kenny Loggins records.
In fact, in a society free from the destructive economic busts endemic to capitalism, with more employment security, and necessities removed from the sphere of the market, your record collection would be free from the danger zone because you wouldn’t have to pawn it for rent money.
That’s socialism in a nutshell: less John Lennon, more Kenny Loggins.