It is the task of social critique to identify what is fundamentally broken in a society and say what does not and what cannot work. Social critique looks at crises aiming to understand how they come about and uncover systematic reasons that show that a given crisis is not just a result of random chance. Such an analysis is important because otherwise any attempt to overcome the crisis only leads back into a repeat of the same crisis or possibly into a subsequent one. Each and every time. To fail again is then always new, but never better.
Just knowing what is broken is not enough to overcome a crisis without falling back into familiar patterns. Overcoming crises requires designs for how society can function differently, and indeed better. Kim Stanley Robinson writes in The Ministry for the Future that such perspectives have long existed; “it’s called socialism. Or, for those […] reacting allergically to that word, call it public utility districts. They are almost the same thing. Public ownership of the necessities, so that these are provided as human rights and as public goods, in a not-for-profit way […] food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, health care, and education.”
The universal satisfaction of such basic needs (regardless of how the catalog of basic needs may be determined) is, of course, a noble perspective. To call it “socialism” is to abandon the hope that capitalist growth can ever produce anything other than abject poverty in the midst of plenty. Another kind of economy that satisfies human needs must therefore replace the for-profit economy. There is already a name for such an economy, too: socialization.
Where the capitalist economy forces people to work against each other, to separate themselves from each other, and to compete for life chances and material resources – instead of looking together for how to overcome social problems –, socialization is supposed to make the social social again. Economic relations, which systematically produce competition, exploitation, and inequality, organize the social in such a way that its real character largely disappears behind individual goals, interests, and needs. Economic relations are thus systematically transformed into amoral relations. Even though they, for their part, depend on society functioning with a minimum of binding norms and values. Economic action does not submit to any compassion for others. On the contrary, it is characterized by simply ignoring the wishes and needs of many fellow human beings.
But what would it mean to break up these amoral economic conditions? What could the socialization of the social look like? Answers to these questions have been sought since the beginning of the 20th century. The focus of the debate on socialization has shifted over and over again. Key industries and necessities were once just as much at the center of socialization campaigns as the question of affordable housing in urban centers and the possibilities of a decarbonized energy supply are today. And the strategies of socialization have also been diverse throughout history. They have ranged from mere nationalization to forms of collective disposition and co-determination.
Socialization is supposed to be a response to the amoral economy of capitalism. And the understanding of what socialization can and should be depends very much on which aspect of capitalism is the focus of the respective debate. Against the broader backdrop of crises that require a fundamental transformation of society, however, it becomes evident that, on the one hand, debates on socialization seek solutions to very concrete problems, but also, on the other hand, raise the big questions of social change: How does democratic co-determination and collective decision-making work? How are the needs and demands of minorities taken into account? Who plans future developments? And how can social solutions be implemented without their implementation turning out as amoral as the problems they set out to resolve?
At a recent conference in Berlin, Lea Ypi pointed out that socialism, too, can be amoral. Amoral in Ypi’s sense was socialism under Stalin in the Soviet Union or in Albania under Enver Hoxha, a socialism that was founded on repressive measures, prison, torture, murder, and lies. Even if this “actually existing” socialism is now history – a claim applying also to Cuba and China, where the rule of nominally communist one-party governments continues – this does not mean that it is no longer affecting the present. In cultural memory, amoral socialism continues to intervene between criticism of existing society and ideas of a different, better way of living together. It is one of the sources of the allergy that Robinson diagnoses.
Robinson therefore immediately adds to the demand for public utility districts the goal of a democracy that is not “just a cover story for oligarchy and Western imperialism” but means “real political representation”. We want to name this ambitious project that seeks a combination of new socialism and new democracy “solidarity”.
Consequently, for us solidarity is no longer the somewhat dusty expression that to some refers to the social security systems of capitalist welfare states and in others evokes the interconnectedness of all liberatory struggles worldwide. Solidarity, instead, is the title word for the perspective that is necessary for the overcoming of the current crises.
Even if we already have names and ideas for such a perspective, it will be important to fill it with more life. This will certainly be done with a view to the venerable debates and failed implementation attempts, but above all be driven by the current crises and the new approaches used to confront them. After all, a concrete understanding of what title words such as solidarity, socialization, and socialism are supposed to mean in the transformation process does not fall from the sky. It emerges from social struggles and out of concrete problems. We therefore do not want to use words like “socialism”, “socialization”, and “solidarity” as surrogates for answers that we do not have, but rather to look at concrete social conflicts and search for these answers in order to fill these old terms with new life. This, too, is what we mean when we say social critique.