A simple definition of socialism: ‘expand the commons’

Robert Donoghue
3 min readAug 17, 2021

The viability of socialism in the global North clearly suffers from the average voter not having a clear understanding of what it is — something certainly more true in the United States than Europe. This is deeply unfortunate, as its full uptake may be the only thing that saves our society and planet from inevitable ruin.

It seems to me there are several different ways one could present socialism to the uninitiated. The most common refrain is that it involves ‘democratizing the means of production’. There is nothing wrong with this articulation, technically speaking, but I would raise two minor quibbles with it.

First, it conjoins two difficult concepts together. The ‘means of production’, as Marxist terminology, might be opaque to those unfamiliar with his work, and ultimately off-putting. Additionally, this goal raises the question of how the means of production are ‘democratized’? Is that aim achieved through state takeover of industry? Or the proliferation of worker self-directed enterprises? In short, this definition inescapably raises more questions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a simpler route may be preferable.

My second issue is that is pigeonholes socialism to the workplace or sites of production. If we take socialism to be fundamentally animated by the principle of anti-exploitation, then it is absolutely fine to place such emphasis on how workplaces are organized. But there is arguably much to gain from a broader depiction of socialism that isn’t tied to one particular dynamic, especially considering that many individuals do not associate with ‘worker’ as their primary identity (the retired, students, children, unemployed, etc.).

I want to suggest an alternative description of socialism. Socialism is a commitment to expanding the commons. By ‘the commons’ I mean those goods and services that are collectively owned and produced. Put it all together now: socialism is about expanding the number of things we collectively own and produce.

This slight alteration is likely an easier sell because it isn’t very difficult to conceptualize. People already know and love the commons. They love emergency services, public parks and waterways, the NHS, libraries, and K-12 education. In fact, the commons is so deceptively large that most people don’t even know how much they actually benefit from it! June Sekera, at the Public Goods Post, has listed out the hundreds of collectively produced goods and services that we enjoy from day to day. Marianna Mazzacuto is right to bemoan that public agencies, unlike private companies, are so terrible at marketing their successes. This leaves voters with a painfully skewed perception of what the public economy does for them.

Expanding the commons satisfies a number of objectives inherent to socialism. In one sense, it does bring the productive assets of society under collective control. The commons can be managed by a local town, a community, or even a federal government. Some of these are more democratic systems of management than others, but they are all forms of collective ownership, placing assets under the governance of the users as opposed to profit-seeking capitalists.

Expanding the commons promotes decommodification. When things are converted from private to public goods, they are no longer exchanged in a market but equally available to all members of society through public administration and provisioning. Not only does this improve access to the basic necessities for the poor, it eliminates the profit motive as the guiding logic of production for that good or service. This allows production to be oriented towards what best promotes the common good, not the interests of a small group of investors.

Does expanding the commons solve the problem of worker exploitation? I’m not sure. If we take exploitation to be underpayment for work, then arguably it’s not guaranteed. There is abundant evidence that employees who work for public service providers are underpaid. NHS nurses and staff are a prime example. However, if we take exploitation to mean that the producers of surplus value are different from the appropriators of surplus value, then the question becomes stickier. NHS staff are, in some way, both the producers of surplus value in the healthcare system and the appropriators of it as care recipients and voters.

To conclude, I am not saying this is the ‘best’ presentation of socialism or the most ‘accurate’ one. I am simply suggesting that it could be a useful articulation because it makes socialism something that is familiar and widely liked.