As the Occupy movements signify, there is an ever greater questioning of the current way society is organised, with many questions the capitalist economic system itself. For socialists, it is incredibly encouraging to see wide layers of people criticising the current economic system, but one feature of the present questioning of capitalism, is confusion and a lack of any definitive alternative. Therefore all sorts of ideas are being thrown up and seized upon by people eager to find a way out of the current economic impasse. Yesterday the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP) published an article ‘Is the golden age of capitalism over?’ (see http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latest-news/central-leeds/is_the_golden_age_of_capitalism_over_1_4110218), which discuss this and raises some alternative views, in particular steady-state economics.

Iain Dalton

The main thrust of steady-state economics is that rather than aiming for growth within an economy in terms of production of resources, people should be content with maintaining what already exists, or as the article puts it “instead of continually accumulating more things, we would have to be content with what we have – we would be encouraged to fix things instead of buying new, to grow our own vegetables or buy locally produced ones”.

This questioning of the need for growth, is something that is common to many of the people taking part in the occupy movement. For many it is synonimous with environmental destruction, wastage and greed and as one of the interviewees in the article explains “the economy simply cannot grow forever on a planet which has finite resources and we can see that happening right now with the price of oil”.

For socialists, the question of growth has to be related to the needs of people, the very essence of socialism relies upon the democratic planning of the economy to ensure the production and distribution of the resources that are required by people to live a full life. But to take a glance at the consumption levels for most people even in the advanced capitalist countries such as the UK, reveals the high levels of poverty currently existing, let alone the neo-colonial world. For the majority of people “most of us changing to a more modest lifestyle” (ie a majority, not simply the super-rich 1%), would simply not be viable and is an attempt to turn back the clock of development.

Critics of socialism often accuse socialists of wanting to level down everyone’s income in such a manner, but as is pointed out “The idea with the steady state economy is to accept we have this low level of growth and that we are happy with it and to figure out how we live within that. It sounds like socialism but it’s not.”  Or as another interviewee comments “A steady state economy is simply another version of capitalism.”

But is such a steady-state even possible under capitalism?

Some of the ideas put forward by the article and the interviewees certainly differentiate them from the advocates of neo-liberal, free market capitalism. Indeed some of them such “More resources… (being) directed toward eradicating poverty and allowing people to become more educated” would be supported by socialists.

Indeed some of these measures we would argue wouldn’t go far enough, for example, the article talks about “ushering in a shorter working week”, but this would need to be linked to mainting the living standards of ordinary workers. It also talks about implementing a maximum differential between wages, suggesting that “the maximum wage be 200 times the minimum wage”, but if a retail worker, for example of a low earner, earned £10,000 a year as a minimum wage then that would mean the maximum wage would be £2m a year, so much for seriously reducing the wealth gap!

But in essence, the steady state system differs from neo-liberal capitalism in that ” …you create a framework which recognises our resource limitations.” In other words, it attempts to put controls onto capitalism, a sort of hybrid of the market with elements of attempting to control and plan it. But as the dictum goes, ‘you can’t plan what you don’t control and you can’t control what you don’t own’.

If you allow “People (to) still run private businesses, invest their capital in the market for profit…” then you still have a market in existence and competition between different capitalist concerns. The very dynamic of the capitalist system is the constant accumulation of wealth, driven by competition by different capitalists for greater share of the market, and paid for by the surplus value (profit) produced in the course of production itself leading to further growth in the economy.

To put it more simply, capitalism by its very nature requires constant growth to maintain itself in equilibrium, therefore a steady state is impossible under that system. On the other hand, under a planned economy, it could be envisaged arriving at a situation where a steady state is possible, where enough resources are produced that would fulfill the needs of people.

Of course, this leaves the question of the destructive techniques we see around us at present which are used in the process of production, if growth were to continue with the same methods in place then it would obviously lead to an environmental catastrophe. But for socialists, reducing the environmental impact of these techniques would be key, through technological developments, reducing waste and other methods, all of which could be developed more effectively with a rational planned organisation of society, especially one which was subject to the democratic control of everyone who would be effect by such environmental impacts.

How can change happen?

There would also be serious disagreements between socialists and the advocates of steady-state systems in this article on how we can acheive change. One of the interviewees discusses the process of how a steady-state system could be adopted as follows “Throughout history, every now and then people get sick of old systems which no longer work for them. What happens at that point is they adopt a new system, which is why we want to be in a position so that when people are ready to move to a new system, the steady state economy is the one they choose.”

This far too simplistic and misunderstands the very nature of how most people come into conflict and question economic systems. People, generally, do not question an economic system in the abstract, they tend to question how it specifically impacts upon themselves, those close to them etc and from there can generalise further. Moreover, it is not people as a whole that generally question economic systems, but particularly those who suffer and are exploited under it.

But also societies do not just one day go from one economic system to another. Historically, economic systems have privileged groups within them who will not let those priveleges go easily. Therefore organisations must exist to allow their resistance to be overcome, to disucss and debate what way forward for realising the aspirations of those wishing to change society.

In their conception a change wouldn’t be “…like a normal revolution where someone like Karl Marx writes a book”, yet Marx wrote about many pieces precisely to draw out some of the essential points made above about how to change society, lessons that the haughty advocates seem content to live in ignorance of.

Their main approach is to demonstrate the efficacy of their system in the present, as the article points out “One of the ideas being discussed at the moment, even by officials in Leeds, is to use some of the available green space – possibly things like roundabouts and grass verges – to grow vegetables, which would then be used in the local area, thereby reducing the need to bring them in from outside.” A similar scheme is actually underway at present in nearby Todmorden. In their conception “As a city, Leeds could set an example for other cities by adopting some of the principles of the steady state economy.” Yet this is precisely what utopian socialists, such as Robert Owen did nearly 200 years ago in attempting to establish self-sufficient communities to demonstrate the efficiency of their ideas for running society.

We must also question who they are attempting to convince of how effective their system is? Amongst a few other references, one that gives the game away somewhat is where one of the interviewees talks about “…most chief executives are privately terrified by the state of the economy…” Indeed, their method like Owen’s is to attempt to convince the ruling capitalist elites. But like Owen found out, most capitalists will not sacrifice the source of their wealth.

Socialists will continue to argue for and rely upon the organisation of the mass of ordinary working people to bring about a fundamental change in society, and to work with those in the trade unions and the Occupy movement to build a mass movement to make that a reality.

Socialist Party member Pete Dickenson’ pamphlet Planning Green Growth contains interesting further reading on democratic economic planning, the enivronment and a further critique of steady-state economic theories (see http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/314).