Posted 6 months ago on June 7, 2013, 5:45 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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A Socialism for the 21st Century
Friday, 07 June 2013 00:00 By Richard D Wolff, Truthout | News Analysis
What to Do Now
Where communists achieved government power, they made many of traditional socialism's prescribed macro changes. As a result, genuine benefits accrued at the micro-level in the forms of much improved job security and wages and much improved access to education, housing and medical care. Where socialists gained governmental power, they made parallel (albeit slower and more modest) macro changes in the same direction, with corresponding benefits for the micro level. The changes and resulting benefits won for communists and socialists the considerable supports they enjoyed across most of the 20th century. At the same time, the political power concentrated at the macro level (and institutionalized in the party and the state) and narrow ideological conformity provoked considerable criticism and opposition over much the same period.
But neither the macro-level changes nor the micro-level benefits ended the exploitative employer-employee relationship that defines the capitalist workplace. At that micro-level, employed workers still used their brains and muscles to produce outputs whose values exceeded the values of what they obtained in return as real wages. In some communist countries, that value relationship was denominated in the administered prices set by central planners. In most countries, the value relationship was denominated in market prices. In either case, what matters is the difference between what workers added in production to the value to the raw materials, tools, and equipment used up in production, and the value of their wages. That difference (the "surplus" in Marx's theory or "net revenue," "profit" and other terms in other theories) continued to be appropriated and distributed by persons other than those workers nearly everywhere that socialists or communists shaped economies. True, the surplus-appropriators could be state officials (e.g., commissars) rather than privately elected boards of directors, or perhaps they were heavily state-regulated private boards, but in any case, they exploited the surplus- producers precisely as Marx specified in his Capital. In simplest terms, in actually existing socialism and communism, the workers who produced the surplus continued to be excluded from appropriating and distributing it. A parallel from slavery may prove instructive here. Critics of slavery often defined their objectives as improving slave conditions: achieving better diets, clothing, housing, integrity of slave families and so on. Other critics took a very different approach: they demanded abolition of slavery. Socialists and communists, who often began as abolitionists in their relation to capitalist exploitation, evolved over the last century into advocates of the improvement of workers' conditions while leaving intact the workplace relationship of employer and employee. Communists, in effect, substituted state for private capitalism, whereas the socialists stressed state-regulated versus private (relatively less regulated) capitalism. Workers got better working conditions where communists and socialists were powerful, but they did not get an end to exploitation and all its social effects. 
A socialism for the 21st century must include and stress the importance of micro-level social transformation at the base of society in the workplace. Ending exploitation in workplaces is that transformation. Instead of workers producing surpluses for others to appropriate and distribute, they must now do that for themselves collectively. They must become their own board of directors. Ending workplace exploitation means that non-workers, whether private individuals or state officials, can no longer appropriate or distribute workers' surpluses. As "producer cooperatives" or "democratized enterprises" (among other names), such transformed workplaces represent a priority goal of a new socialism. That socialism stresses the micro-level transformation of society - the end of exploitation wherever people work - as the necessary companion or counterpart to the traditional macro-focus on property ownership and distribution mechanisms. The macro and micro components of socialism would both become equally necessary, conditions of each other's existence, mutually reinforcing as well as mutually dependent. Neither will be viewed or treated by policy as determinant of the other. Both will shape one another much as they both shape and are shaped by the larger social and natural contexts.
Such a socialism for the 21st century situates the workers - the majority - as key micro-level agents of its project and of the new society being established. Workers will transform their factories, offices and stores into producers' cooperatives or what are increasingly called worker self-directed enterprises (WSDEs).  They will likewise defend them both from regression back to capitalist enterprises and from subordination to any state or party apparatus. Workers will operate their enterprises as the continuing core of the transition from capitalism to socialism. As their own boards of directors, workers will collectively appropriate and distribute the surpluses they produce. They will thereby have replaced capitalists. Workers' democratic self-government in the workplace will then have superseded capitalism's undemocratic organization of the workplace.
Other social institutions formerly dependent on receiving distributions of capitalist surpluses from the appropriators will then be dependent instead on workers directing their own enterprises and thus distributing their own surpluses. Government revenue, for example, to the extent it depends on taxes on enterprise surpluses, would then flow from (and hence be responsive to) workers in their capacity as enterprise self-directors. The state would then become directly and financially dependent on the organized (in and by their enterprises) workers in a way and to a degree unequalled in human history. Correspondingly, the risks of power passing from the mass of people in their residences and workplaces to a state bureaucracy - a serious problem for traditional socialism - would be reduced.
When the workers collectively and democratically distribute the surpluses they produce, they will have a powerful influence on how the society's surpluses are distributed. That influence will likely work against the sorts of extreme inequality in the distribution of personal income typical of capitalist societies. For example, workers in WSDEs will not likely distribute wildly disproportionate shares of the surplus in the forms of huge salaries for top executives while the mass of employees barely get by. There will be little need for redistributive tax systems because enterprises' initial distributions of income - both as individual wages and as distributed shares of the surplus - from WSDEs will be far more egalitarian. The long history of capitalism's failed efforts to avoid highly unequal distributions of wealth, income, political power and cultural access can finally be overcome by a transition to a non-exploitation-based economic system.
The socialism for the 21st century sketched above combines the traditional macro-focus on socialized productive property and planning with the micro-focus on a democratization of workplaces. Removing workplace exploitation represents a major step toward achievement of the French Revolution's goals: liberté, égalité and fraternité. Capitalism took some steps but prevented others. Its spokespersons and defenders forever celebrated (and still do) a democracy that is rigidly excluded from the system's enterprises (where most adults spend most of their active lives). Capitalism's history repeatedly demonstrates that the absence of democracy inside enterprises undermines it elsewhere in society (or else yields caricatures, as in "democratic" elections corrupted by the system's economic inequalities).
By including the democratization of enterprises - as embodied in WSDEs - a 21st century socialism can also recapture, renew and refocus the hope, commitment and passions inaugurated in the French Revolution. Revolutionary upsurges have punctuated capitalism ever since despite all the efforts of modern societies finally to extinguish them. A socialism for the 21st century can build on the centuries-long interest in communal and cooperative work organizations among both religious and secular communities. It can partner with present-day cooperative institutions whose multiplicity and potential have been celebrated by Gar Alperovitz.  Imagine democratic enterprises interacting with democratic residential communities - economic and political democracies reinforcing one another and making one another real, not merely formal. Jointly they would co-determine how society functions and changes. That vision and goal animates a socialism for the 21st century. It builds upon, while also critically departing from, traditional socialism's contradictory history. It embodies the aspirations of all those who contemplate the present in the spirit of knowing that we can do better than capitalism.