Socialist socioeconomic formations
Lessons from real socialism in the global South
Socialist Economic Development in the 21st Century, by Alberto Gabrielle and Elias Jabbour, is recognized as an important book by intellectuals of the global Left, that is, intellectuals from all regions of the world who appreciate the significance of socialist projects in the global South as an empirical foundation for understanding the meaning of socialism. Gabriele is a Senior Researcher at Sbilanciamoci, Rome, Italy. Jabbour is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, Postgraduate Programs in Economic Sciences, and International Relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
Gabrielle and Jabbour undertake a reconceptualization of fundamental categories originally formulated by Marx, a reformulation that takes into account developments during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the emergence real socialist projects in the global South. They then proceed to analyze the particular cases of China and Vietnam.
In today’s commentary, I will review their reconceptualization of Marx. I intend to reflect on their discussions of China and Vietnam in subsequent commentaries.
For Gabrielle and Jabbour, socialism is characterized by, first, the elimination of capitalist exploitation; secondly, the distribution to each person according to work; and thirdly, the public appropriation of surplus, such that the surplus is allocated to various forms of investment and social consumption. Socialism can have centralized planning, as was the case with the Soviet Union; or it can have “socialist-oriented planned market-economies,” as in the cases of China and Vietnam in recent decades. In their definition, national economies are socialist-oriented if they officially and credibly claim to be engaged in a process aimed at establishing and developing a system characterized by the elimination of capitalist exploitation, fair distribution in accordance with one’s contribution to the society, and the use of the surplus generated by productive labor to develop the national economy and to provide for the needs of the people; and if they have advanced measurably toward these officially proclaimed goals.
Gabrielle and Jabbour are defenders of the socialist-oriented planned market economies, noting that in contrast to capitalism, planners in such economies can set the speed and direction of capital accumulation. They suggest that socialist-oriented planned economies are superior, with respect to productivity and in responding to human needs, to both the neoliberal capitalism of today as well as Soviet centralized planning of the twentieth century.
Socialism is the first mode of production to emerge, they note, not from the autonomous evolution of the productive forces, but from collective action on behalf of the majority of the people in certain nation-states. No reasonable evaluation of socialism can be made, they insist, without analyzing the experiments in constructing socialism that have been carried out in the real world to date. And given the enormous obstacles that such projects confront, they ought to be analyzed from a long-term perspective.
Gabrielle and Jabbour review recent scientific knowledge on human characteristics, including the field of neuroeconomics. Noting that socialism is associated with cooperation, and capitalism with selfishness, they conclude from their review of the literature that there are not compelling scientific arguments for the claim that socialism is incompatible with human nature. That is why, they maintain, many countries have embraced socialist-oriented development projects.
Modes of production and socioeconomic formations
Gabrielle and Jabbour use the construct “socioeconomic formation” to refer to a social and economic system with a degree of internal consistency and stability, which historically prevails in a specific place and time, like a particular nation-state. In socioeconomic formations, a mode of production (hunting and gathering, feudal, capitalist, or socialist) is primary, and the primacy of a certain mode of production in a specific historical context can be absolute or relative. In some socioeconomic formations, the primacy of a single mode of production is overwhelming. In other socioeconomic formations, two or more modes of production coexist. This has been common in human history since the agricultural revolution; but generally, one of the modes of production is dominant.
Organized individuals can attain systemic change by subverting the social and economic structures of a socioeconomic formation, Gabrielle and Jabbour maintain. Lenin and Mao, who conceived socialist-oriented socioeconomic formations, are important examples. However, visionaries and revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Mao could not fully implement their projects, giving rise to mixed socioeconomic formations. Accordingly, Gabrielle and Jabbour maintain that several national economies, including China, are characterized by mixed socioeconomic formations, in which capitalist and socialist modes of production coexist, in the framework of a socialist-oriented development strategy, in which the state exerts a high degree of direct and indirect control over the national economy.
Such mixed socioeconomic formations with socialist-oriented development strategies are obligated to construct their projects in a global context in which the capitalist mode of production, with market-based relations of production and exchange, is dominant. Even though no socioeconomic formation is fully contained, each is constrained by the larger prevailing worldwide and globally dominant socioeconomic formation, Gabrielle and Jabbour maintain. Each socioeconomic formation must adapt to the hegemonic interests of the strongest and most advanced countries of the world-system and the dominant social classes/social groups within the nation.
The worldwide socioeconomic formation also has constraints placed on it by various historical, political, economic, and technological factors. Therefore, any quixotic, subjective political action that ignores such constraints are futile and counterproductive. However, Gabrielle and Jabbour maintain, the global socioeconomic formation is not immobile or eternal. Several alternative forms of socioeconomic systems can be developed, and some socialist oriented economies have been developed in the South.
Gabrielle and Jabbour maintain socialism cannot escape the laws of economics. The law of value, for example, according to which prices of commodities tend toward the costs of production, applies to both capitalism and socialism. As does the classical distinction between productive and non-productive labor, and the necessity of funding non-productive labor (e.g., public health and public education) through the surplus generated by productive income-generating labor. To be sure, there is a major difference between capitalism and socialism, in that socialist economies are directed, and a greater share of the surplus is channeled to social or development-oriented investment. Nevertheless, socialism cannot attain its goals if it ignores the laws of the science of economics.
For this reason, Gabrielle and Jabbour are advocates of socialist-oriented planned national economies, as against centralized socialist planning. They maintain that simplistic overly centralized solutions to problems of economic governance and planning are not ultimately sustainable. They maintain that socialist-oriented planning must be compatible with market considerations; they advocate “value-based planning.”
Gabrielle and Jabbour believe that, although the dominance of the capitalist mode of production worldwide continues, it is not absolute, and it is weaker than it once was. The current weakness of the capitalist mode of production provides socialist-oriented economies opportunities for economic integration with each other, which they are seizing.
Socialism, communism, and leftist idealism
Gabrielle and Jabbour maintain that communism, with its idealist notion of each person receiving according to need, is an ideal that can never be fully attained. Communism is not a concrete mode of production that can be implemented in a historical time period. In contrast, socialism, which operates on the principle of each person receiving according to work, and in which the capitalist anarchy of the market is replaced by “conscious market-compatible planning,” has proven itself to be a historically feasible socioeconomic formation.
However, Marx and most of his followers saw socialism as a transitional phase leading to communism, understood as a concrete mode of production. Gabrielle and Jabbour believe that Marx and his followers are wrong on this point; socialism, more realistically, is a long-term alternative project under construction, and not fully attained. In a similar vein, they believe that the basic characteristics of international relations, dominated by the few countries with advanced economies, will not be changed radically in a relatively short period of time.
I see this issue in a different way. U.S. imperialism is in decadence, with its economy in decline and its political system incapable of addressing systemic problems. Meanwhile, nations of worldwide economic and political importance are taking the alternative road of planned socialist-oriented market economies. They are developing practical trading relations and political ties among themselves, which implies that they are constructing, concretely and step-by-step, an alternative world-system based on cooperation among nations. For its part, Europe appears conflicted on whether to side with decadent U.S. imperialism, or to cast its lot with the more sustainable emerging alternative world-system.
There is a probability, no one can say how great, that the number of nations joining with the emerging cooperative world-system will reach a critical mass, which would stimulate a global social process in which many nations will quickly join the emerging alternative world order. If this were to happen, the existing patterns of international relations would rapidly disintegrate. Many signs point to this scenario, and the key question is whether imperialism, in its decadence and desperation, destroys human civilization before the alternative can emerge.
If such a structural global turn emerges, human beings will still be human, and they will be capable of freely deciding for sinful ways. But this would occur in a context in which the prevailing structures of the world-system and many nations would promote the human quest for truth and for just relations among humans.
We who are the defenders of social justice in the context of a decadent capitalist world-economy ought to lift high before our peoples the possibility for a more peaceful and prosperous world, built on a foundation of collective action toward the taking of political power by and for the people, occurring step by step, nation by nation. As Fidel taught us, “No one has the right to lose faith in the future of humanity.”
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