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“Socialism” can mean a couple of different things, thanks to the life-changing magic of semantics.

In one meaning, it is about different ways workers can control the means of production (for example, through cooperatives) instead of being hired by an owner class. Opinion differs on where to draw the line between personal property vs private property, the former being defined as like the sweater on your body or the pillow under your head, the latter as factories or fields where people are working. The idea is to bring about economic democracy, having a say in how your workplace is run and how to distribute its gains. This type of socialism is to address capitalism’s exploitation problem.

Taken a little bit more broadly, it’s a general view of a society where people help each other, a more broadly diminished or abolished owner class. “Socialized medicine”, like most countries do have (get with it, United States), is an example. We used to have socialized postal services here in Sweden, too. Until some corrupt politicians sold it off and pocketed the profits (in the name of “liberty”). Frustratingly, these institutions have been just as hierarchical and exploitation-prone as most private corporations. This type of socialism is to address capitalism’s inequality problem.

There have been situations where these social (or intra-firm) solutions have been more efficient (most corporations, even some pretty evil ones, are run internally that way, in that second sense of working together as opposed to through a market) and there are situations where it has gotten messed up and clunky.

Socialism is not enough

These days, it’s becoming more and more clear that market capitalism has an even bigger problem than exploitation and inequality. Externalities. The unaccounted-for, under-rug–swept costs (like pollution and other waste) and limits (like network monopolies, compatibility, platforms, political corruption) of transactions.

Capitalism tried to fix one of these for itself. No, not climate change (that would’ve been good). When the printing press was invented, there was a cost of researching and writing and editing a book that was an external cost to the transactions of printing and selling that book. So capitalism invented “copyright”. (This kind of ended up really sucking once home tape recorders were invented because it turned from an industry regulation to consumer policing.) That’s right, capitalism’s solution to the externality was an even worse externality, one that created artificial scarcity, overhead costs in legal fees and licensing, inefficiencies, bureaucracy, monopolies (Disney is powerful because people wanna dream in the worlds of Marvel, Star Wars, Tangled etc).

The silver lining is that there is precedent to trying to patch externalities. To try to account for the external costs. The unsolved problem (probably better known as homework for y’all) is to figure out how to do it sustainably. Who is to shoulder the costs and where do we go when the wealth we rely on is based on plundering the Earth? Of course, one of the horror stories I have in mind right now is Śrī Laṅkā’s economic crisis. They mandated organic farming, let the farmers shoulder the costly transition, and their economy crashed so bad that even after backtracking on the organic stuff it didn’t recover.

Zero Waste isn’t enough either. There was this idea in the nineties that pollution is waste in both senses of the word. Instead of throwing it away, you could use it. You could build systems that used it all. And that’s great and please go for it but that leaves out the flip side of environmental transaction externalities: looting. The issue isn’t just with what corporations toss away and litter, it’s with what they steal. What resources from the Earth that they mine and extract and entangle and let enter our messy, leaky economics system.

So while Marx and his pals were right about how market capitalism would lead to an ever-increasing wealth gap and never make much of a dent in the forty-hour work week, their solutions were co-opted by slave-drivers and exploiters (probably better known as “same as the old boss”), and did not address the externalities bug that’s running roughshod over our elections, our computers, and our atmosphere. So let’s keep trying to find ways to fix that.♥