Socialism is often imagined as a political project that sacrifices our ability to live in luxury for the higher moral good of social justice. This notion must be dispelled both because it is untrue and because it dampens support for a socialist transformation of our economic system.
To be sure, private opulence would (or should) be non-existent in a socialist world. In fact, it is hard to imagine a ‘socialist’ society that does not enforce a limitarian-inspired riches line, i.e. imposing a cap on how much wealth any one individual can accumulate. As the common refrain goes: every billionaire is a policy failure. So, for the billionaire class, the onset of socialism will inescapably spell a loss of wealth — but that is nothing to worry about!
What about for the mass of people, though? Will the transition to socialism entail a lower standard of living? The short answer is no, we will all end up better off. But how?
The longer answer is that socialism promises massive gains in everyone’s ‘social income’, even if (and there is no guarantee) there are declines in money incomes. This is an important distinction that is often — and convientntly I might add — glossed over in commonly cited income statistics.
Take the simple question: what is your annual income? You might be tempted to answer that question by stating the figure on your pachecks. You might even include the returns on your investments — what is rightfully called ‘uneanred income’ not ‘passive income’ as has become so ubiqitious in business and life coaching books. But these figures are only part of your income, even though they are often spoken about as the only kind of income individuals recieve. Economist Guy Standing elaborates:
money income is only part of what can be called ‘social income’ — income in kind as well as in cash that contributes to the resources people draw upon. Social income includes non-wage company benefits and perks such as paid holidays and sick leave, maternity and paternity benefits, company pension schemes and subsideised transport. And it includes community benefits — informal support from family, neighbors and friends, and access to public services and the commons.
A key argument in Standing’s work is that traditional measures of income look exclusively at money incomes, and fail to include these other resources that people utilize to satisfy their needs and wants. A major impact of neolibrealization has been the destruction of alternative non-monied income sources through the dismantling of company and community benefits. In this sense, the stagnation of real wages for the past several decades is an even worse outcome when the loss of other incomes is included. People feel poorer because they genuinely are!
Monied income is extremely important in our current ‘capitalistic’ system where individuals mostly acquire the things they need as private commodities in the marketplace. If you need to get from Chicago to New York you have to purchase a plane ticket from an airline or buy a car and drive yourself. If you need someone to watch your children when you’re at work, you have to hire a sitter or pay for them to attend a childcare center. If you want to attend university, you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
Notice that this is a very expensive way to live. Each of us must struggle alone to obtain not only the necessities of life, but also those things that make our existence enjoyable. What you have and can do is entirely based on the money income you can collect through your labour and investments. If you can generate high money income, then you may simply purchase what you need and want; but if you can only fetch a small amount of money income, you’re doomed to a much more miserable situation.
Socialism offers a different approach by emphasizing community income as the primary source of needs satisfcation. That is, instead of each of us privately buying and selling goods and services, we produce, manage, and consume them collectively — that is, we rely more heavily on the public, not private, economy. This is a core feature of the socialist vision: the transformation of our economy away from competition for private gain to one based on cooperation for the public good.
In fact, our community income at the moment is, to many people’s surprise quite large. We currently enjoy the provision of hundreds of collectively produced goods and services ranging from side walks to public K-12 eudcation to public beaches to bank deposit insurance and so on. Indeed, when I take stock of the things that truly make my life good, I realize that many of them are free (at the point of use): books at the local library, outdoor space in public parks, health care (via the NHS), public transporation infrastructure, bike lanes, BBC produced tv shows and films, etc.
The existence of these accessible goods and services makes my life rich. And the prospect of expanding the public economy, and a rise in my community income, sounds even better. Additionally, it is worth stressing that a rise in my community income is simultaneously a rise in my neighbors community income. Instead of competing against one another for a higher pay packet in the private market-economy rat race, our lots can improve together.
This is the promise of socialism. A world in which all of us are enriched together through collective production and consumption of those things that make life meaningful and enjoyable. People already get a small taste of it when they draw on the vast public economies we already have: when they call emergency services, or use technologies and medicines developed through public funding, or stroll through gorgeous public lands, or buy food without fear of it being contaminated. Socialism promises a fuller, richer life for the many, and we should eagerly embrace it.