Stave 4: The Ghost of Socialism Yet to Come
Owen woke up again, to the sound of classical music coming from the kitchen.
He got up, and went to see what was going on there. It was the old man, who had announced the ghosts a few hours earlier.
“You again”, Owen said.
“Me again”, the old man confirmed.
“So I take it, you are also the Ghost of Socialism Yet To Come”, Owen asked.
“Economies of scope”, the ghost explained.
“I see.” Owen sighed. He had a feeling that he was not going to like what he was about to see. “Ready when you are”, he nonetheless told the ghost.
They were back at the debating hall. Owen looked around himself. A woman was speaking on stage. Some of the students were using electronic gadgets that Owen could not make any sense of. Their hairstyles, and the way they were dressed, seemed just as baffling to him.
For a second, the speaker disappeared. Then she returned. It was a hologram. She finished her speech, and everyone applauded. Everyone, except for an old man with long, white hair, who sat in the front row, looking uncomfortable. Owen felt that he knew him from somewhere.
The Q&A session had started. The old man stood up, and said:
“Your case for socialism was eloquently presented. But I couldn’t help noticing that you avoided mentioning any previous examples. It’s not like this has never been tried. You are all far too young to remember this, but when I was younger, Britain did briefly experiment with socialism. It was a huge disappointment for everyone involved, and it had to be abandoned after just a few years.”
A murmur went through the crowd. People were scoffing, and rolling their eyes. Now Owen realised where he knew him from: it was his opponent, who had spoken against the motion this evening, just a few hours earlier. Except that then, his hair had not been white, but dark blond, and he had been more than half a century younger. The old economist continued:
“And then it was tried again elsewhere. There were various attempts in the 2030s, in a number of places, and then of course, in 2043, there was the revolution in…”
“Oh, please!” somebody interrupted.
“This is embarrassing!”, somebody else added.
The hologram-woman smiled, and said: “Look. I don’t want to sound patronising. But I would really urge you to educate yourself a little bit about what socialism actually means.
“The examples that you’re alluding to, including the British example, had nothing to do with socialism. Yes, they were nominally socialist. But they tried to impose it in a top-down way, and that’s why they failed. Socialism doesn’t work that way. It cannot be imposed by diktat. It can only be built from the bottom up. It must come from the grassroots. It must be rooted in working-class communities.
“And that’s precisely what is happening now in…”
The sound faded, and the room became blurry. Suddenly, they were in a different place. A dark, cold and scary place. It was a cemetery. Owen knew it well. Highgate. They stood in front of the grave of Karl Marx.
“So… is this it?”, Owen asked the ghost. “Are we just always going to forget that we have been here before, that we have said the same things before, that we have used the same slogans before? Are we just forever going to insist that no one has ever thought of this before, and that this time will be different?”
“Yes”, the ghost said bluntly.
“And this is the lesson you, and your ghost colleagues, were trying to teach me?”
“Basically – yes.”
“But… WHY? Why does socialism always have to turn out that way?”
The ghost explained:
“In order to achieve their ends, the planners must create power – power over men wielded by other men – of a magnitude never before known. By concentrating power so that it can be used in the service of a single plan, it is not merely transformed, but inﬁnitely heightened. By uniting in the hands of some single body power formerly exercised independently by many, an amount of power is created inﬁnitely greater than any that existed before, so much more far-reaching as almost to be different in kind. It is entirely fallacious to argue that the great power exercised by a central planning board would be ‘no greater than the power collectively exercised by private boards of directors’. There is, in a competitive society, nobody who can exercise even a fraction of the power which a socialist planning board would possess. To decentralise power is to reduce the absolute amount of power.”
Owen started pacing up and down in front of Marx’s grave. “Fair enough”, he replied. “But why is a concentration of power a problem, as long as it is strictly democratically controlled, and democratically accountable to the people? As far as I’m concerned – it’s only a problem as long as it’s unaccountable.”
The ghost explained:
“To draw up an economic plan in a democratic fashion is even less possible than to plan a military campaign by democratic procedure. It would become inevitable to delegate the task to the experts. Yet the difference is that, while the general who is put in charge of a campaign is given a single end, there can be no such single goal given to the economic planner. The general has not got to balance different independent aims against each other; there is for him only one supreme goal. But the ends of an economic plan cannot be defined apart from the particular plan. It is the essence of the economic problem that an economic plan involves the choice between conflicting and competing ends. But the alternatives between which we must choose, can only be known to those who know all the facts; and only they, the experts, are in a position to decide.”
“Who says that only the experts can know all the facts?”, Owen objected. “Surely, this can be improved, with better education, more democratic engagement, more initiatives to raise awareness and… and…”
The ghost explained:
“Modern market economies rely on gigantic bodies of knowledge that is dispersed across the minds of millions of people, and not accessible in its totality to anyone. Assume that somewhere in the world a new opportunity for the use of tin has arisen, or that one of the sources of supply of tin has been eliminated. It does not matter – and it is very significant that it does not matter – which of these two causes has made tin scarcer. All that the users of tin need to know is that some of the tin they used to consume is now more profitably employed elsewhere and that, in consequence, they must economise tin. There is no need for the great majority of them even to know where the more urgent need has arisen, or in favour of what other needs they ought to husband the supply. If only some of them know directly of the new demand, and switch resources over to it, and if the people who are aware of the new gap thus created in turn fill it from still other sources, the effect will rapidly spread throughout the whole economic system and influence not only all the uses of tin but also those of its substitutes and the substitutes of these substitutes, the supply of all the things made of tin, and their substitutes, and so on; and all this without the great majority of those instrumental in bringing about these substitutions knowing anything at all about the original cause of these changes.”
“I suppose that makes sense”, Owen said. “Maybe I should just…”
He tripped over a stone, and fell.
He landed in his bed. It was early morning.
He got up, still feeling dizzy. He went to the kitchen, made himself a coffee, and switched on his laptop. There were no intruders this time. No ghosts. No music.
He logged on to Twitter. His pro-Chávez tweet from last evening had been retweeted more than 12,000 times, and liked more than 18,000 times.
He started to wonder. Had those ghosts really told him the full story?
Maybe those were not REAL ghosts. Maybe there would be another ghost tonight, telling him something completely different. Or maybe next week. Or next month, or next year, or in ten years, or in twenty years.
Yes. It was probably that.
Owen smiled. Next time would be completely different. He just knew it would.
Kristian Niemietz is the author of “Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies”.