Three future options
The attempts to build socialism in some nations during the twentieth century have not been successful. The promised land of abundance, free from exploitative relationships, did not arrive. Instead, there was marked tyranny through centralised control of political power, the curbing of liberties, and the stagnation of individual material prosperity. The critics of socialism persistently maintain that there is no alternative to capitalism as embodied by an economic system of private property, markets, and individual incentives. Capitalism comes in many variations on these themes, but it is claimed that whatever be the variant, it is always preferred to socialism, which is marked by excessive government control and restrictions on private profits and property. The dark side of socialist failures has been well-documented, publicised, and ingrained in public memory over decades.
Two trends are, however, worth noting. Firstly, governments in societies marked by free markets and private property are becoming increasingly autocratic through controls over individual liberties and neutral institutions. There is a clear rise in the popularity of right-of-centre, illiberal regimes with strong fascist traits. Capitalist societies are also showing an alarming increase in inequalities of income and wealth. Poverty and unemployment have not become things of the past. Uncertainties of everyday living have risen sharply. The degradation of the natural environment brought about by consumerism is leading the planet towards a point of no return.
The second trend is, that despite its formidable critiques, the idea of socialism refuses to die. Many young people are turning away from consumerism as a sufficient condition for living well. For instance, many are not buying cars or homes, are very perturbed at the deterioration of nature, and believe that we are moving towards unacceptable levels of inequality and concentration of political power.
Is it possible to filter out a few enduring values that both capitalism and socialism have thrown up, such as liberty and equality, competition and cooperation? These could constitute the nucleus of thinking about the future where all human beings could thrive. Even before that, the most important aspect of the good life has to lie in being in harmony with nature, where human beings as a species share the planet with other species. Without this transformation in our relationship with nature, the world might cease to be the way we have known it since the industrial revolution. Whether this can be achieved without a major social and political disruption remains a troubling question. Even if it were possible, there would still remain questions of such a society’s dominant values and the role of its public institutions.
One thing patently evident from the ability to live in harmony with other species is that it requires far more of cooperation than competition. If we are to survive by the end of this century, we have to be more engaged with the public good than with private material prosperity. This implies that the State has to plan its policies and actions in a more comprehensive way to induce and manage deep shifts in people’s beliefs and imaginations. Yet, if one considers the institution of the family, an important value of ideal socialism still holds good: the belief that each individual contributes to the common good according to ability, while receiving support according to need. Families have survived for millennia by adhering to this belief.
The great shift — living in harmony with nature through more cooperation — is hugely complex and is likely to be severely disruptive. Even if human society achieves this in a reasonably short period of time, there will be other concerns. Governments of these transformed societies would have to be much more hands-on in ensuring the public good in terms of the management of the natural environment, provision of infrastructure, basic goods, education and public health services. In so doing, governments have to be fair and transparent and policies arrived at through inclusive public debates.
One ideological tenet of capitalist societies is that human beings are essentially consuming animals. Hence, we produce more to consume more. Therefore, economic growth, measured in terms of increasing production, becomes a goal of the highest priority. The importance of economic growth is considered independently of how additional income is distributed and who has more access to the fruits of growth. It has become clear during the past three or four decades that indefinite material growth can not only accentuate social ills but also disrupt natural resources and planetary systems of resource regeneration.
Scientists always knew that no physical system can grow indefinitely. Growth for growth’s sake is like cancer where proliferation of cells take place without any nourishment to the hosting body. No economic system can grow indefinitely without collapsing. Any sustainable future society will have to seriously re-think whether unlimited economic growth is to be seen as a desirable value.
All these changes would eventually transform the way we think about individual liberties and fairness of public institutions. There has to be individual freedom of choice in terms of careers, life styles, personal liberties and civil rights, but with more constrained choices regarding material consumption. Similarly, with new concepts of liberty, the institutional architecture of these societies, the political system of law-making, the courts of law, how the bureaucracy operates and, above all, what voices ordinary people have would be sharply different from the present times.
An enduring and alluring aspect of the discourse on socialism has been the importance given to the idea of equality in a society that was considered fair in terms of outcomes rather than processes. The equality of income is granted more importance than the equality of opportunities. The values of a new society will take on many aspects of socialism that we once turned down — environmental concerns, the dominance of public good in the political discourse, some measure of equality in outcomes, liberties that encourage cooperative behaviour, and a set of institutions that appear fair and transparent.
The list we have laid out might appear nothing short of utopian to most readers: something never likely to happen, impractical, perhaps a figment of a run-away imagination. But the future is always part of our imagination. We may think of two alternatives that are more likely to emerge in the not-too-distant future. One would be the rise of technology and the arrival of artificial-intelligent entities that could rapidly learn to think and emote, do things at astonishing speeds, never become tired or sick, and hardly ever be wrong. These machines or super humans, whatever way we describe them, could make most of us useless and unwanted. Our species could be surpassed by these super-beings. What happens to us is hazy. Most likely we would become, by and by, extinct.
The second future, very likely to be realised if we do nothing at all, would be to head towards a world where climate devastation and natural disasters make the planet unlivable. It would feel like being on the sets of a disaster movie — a dark science fiction with great violence and unthinkable sufferings. The only difference from an actual film studio would be that no one would announce it was time to pack up and leave. It is for us to collectively choose one of the three futures — all of them part imaginary, part real. The final outcome depends on where we wish to go.
Anup Sinha is former Professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta