Socialism and Industry

Over the last year, I’ve been slowly re-reading notable intellectuals in the socialist canon and recording podcasts about them. My “Socialism Series” currently has 8 episodes spanning from François-Noël Babeuf to Moses Hess.

In the podcast so far, I have covered only pre-Marx socialists (Marx is next) and tried to emphasize a few things about them, including that most “Marxist” ideas come from earlier socialist thinkers that Marx read and was influenced by and that socialists are a varied bunch with varied ideas about how to replace the capitalist way of organizing production.

A lot of early socialism, including Marx, is really focused on what to do about industrialization. During this period, many western European economies were shifting a lot of workers out of agricultural employment and into manufacturing and other kinds of industrial employment. Industrial employment was a lot different than agricultural employment and so there was a lot of debate about how this transition should be managed.

PJ Proudhon describes the problems caused by this shift clearly. After noting that agricultural employment is much more inherently decentralized and thus more autonomous, he explains that:

It is otherwise with certain industries, which require the combined employment of a large number of workers, a vast array of machines and hands, and, to make use of a technical expression, a great division of labor, and in consequence a high concentration of power. In such cases, workman is necessarily subordinate to workman, man dependent on man. The producer is no longer, as in the fields, a sovereign and free father of a family; it is a collectivity. Railroads, mines, factories, are examples.

When presented with this new situation, there are at least three possible responses to it:

  1. You can reject industrialization due to the subordination and dependency that goes along with this kind of production. In its place, you can advocate that we instead maintain a society of farmers and small artisans who have less dependence and more autonomy. (Populism?)

  2. You can embrace industrialization in its current form and argue that the enormous increase in productivity it generates outweighs the concerns about a capitalist class dominating a propertyless working class. (Capitalism)

  3. You can embrace industrialization but reject the capitalist way that it is currently organized. In its place, you can advocate for the industrial sector, and perhaps the economy more generally, to be organized along socialist lines, meaning that industry is collectively owned and governed by the working class or society more generally. (Socialism)

This taxonomy is simplified a bit, but it’s interesting to see how it maps on to debates you still have today. The debates no longer revolve around industrialization but around big corporations in general.

One group of people that generally organize under the antitrust banner these days places a lot of value on farmers and small business owners as economic forms and would like to see big corporations devolved into those forms. Recently, these groups have become more professionalized and are therefore more likely to make kitchen-sink type arguments that say this economic reorganization would improve every single economic indicator. But not so long ago, they were more willing to talk about how the freedom from subordination and dependence that this would bring was worth sacrificing a significant amount of output for.

Another group of people, which include both human-progress libertarians and progressive “neoliberals,” have generally slotted into the second position and touted the efficiency and output gains associated with large companies such as Walmart.

Then there is the last group, which I include myself in, that would like to keep the economic gains achieved by scale while changing the way large-scale enterprises are owned and controlled. According to this view, there is not actually an unavoidable clash between the high output of large-scale production and the non-domination of small-scale production. Through collective and democratic ownership of large-scale production, you can get the best of both worlds.

Of course the first two groups will say this isn’t so. The capitalists will tell you that reorganizing the large-scale production along socialist lines will actually reduce its output and the populists will tell you that it will simply replace capitalist domination with socialist domination. I don’t think this is necessarily true — it depends on how exactly you set up your socialist system — but it seems unlikely that a total persuasive victory will be won on this front.