Why socialism can be nothing else than ‘real’; Lessons from ‘really existing socialism’ — Part II.

In Part I of this essay, we have seen some of the oppositions used in thinking about socialist economies (static vs. dynamic, closed vs. open economies, plan vs. market coordination). In this second part, I will deal with some of the premises on which thinking about the social consequences of socialist economies is based. I will look more particularly at the role of consumerist desires and informal networks of relations as a way to challenge how we think about both socialism and capitalism today.

Social inequalities and their mitigation: networks of social relations vs. autonomous consumerist identities
Another common accusation against socialism is that it generated important social inequalities that went counter its professed goals of proletarian brotherhood. The economy of shortage struck disproportionately the large masses of workers while shielding the nomenklatura, and resulted thus in an unequal society based on privilege and positions. By contrast, capitalist societies generated general abundance that trickled down the social ladder, while social mobility inscribed in market competition made for shifting, if still present social inequalities.
But again, the picture is skewed. If we compare before (socialist) and after 1989 (capitalist) societies in the East the reverse appears to be the case. Indeed, even during the dark decade of the 1980s, socialism did not generate social inequalities to the scale of current neo-liberal capitalism. By contrast, more than two decades of neoliberal reform brought the new capitalist ruling class to pinnacles of power never achieved by socialism’s nomenklatura.
This is because under socialism market-induced inequalities were strongly contained by the dominance of redistributive mechanisms and the special place given to workers in the socialist society. The valuing of work, and especially of physical work, meant that pay differentials between the latter and intellectual work were not very high. Given official ideology and the specificities of production processes under socialism, workers had relative power, especially at the shop-floor level. If real socialism stood for various levels of political surveillance, especially of its intellectual strata, it also stood for social mobility, and, in its last decades, universal access to employment, healthcare, and education. The irony is that not only the working classes benefitted from them, but also the intellectuals, including those who sought to conquer a dissident voice in the West.
Moreover, under socialism, the development of black and gray markets has resulted in the diffusion of market control among a significant portion of the population, namely small farmers and other actors in the second economy. Finally, socialism also provided the institutional setting for forms of living that encouraged social amalgamation in the new socialist blocs built for the increasingly numerous working classes following from industrialization; as well as for those that encouraged a more balanced urbanization and the continuation of rural living revolving around a combination of commuter industrial labour force and small subsistence farming (seen now as a pathway to sustainable living).
The transition from socialism to capitalism led to the sharp downsizing of the social and economic functions of the state, as well as to the concentration of market control at the top of society. Indeed, successive privatizations, combined with the increasing importance of informal and illegal transactions in post-socialist capitalism led to the increased control over the market by large players, such as local entrepratchiks and CEOs of Western multinationals. Class inequalities in CEE thus became much higher after its demise than during the socialist period.
Social redistribution had also been strong in capitalist societies after the Second World War, a strange echo resulting from workers’ struggles and ruling classes’ fears of contamination with the East’s version of socialism. After the 1970s, as the state was progressively hollowed out, capitalist societies downplayed redistribution and social solidarity to the profit of the idea of an autonomous consumerist identity as an area where social inequality would be resolved. Consumption was thus seen as an area where socialism, plagued by shortages, notoriously failed. And the urge to consume as a means of self-realisation was presented as a major driver behind its fall in Central and Eastern Europe.
But while socialist citizens definitely wanted access to material wellbeing, this does not mean that their standards of what constitutes a good life covered the same range of consumer goods, nor that they gave the same meaning to these goods as in capitalist societies. Importantly, access to collectively produced goods such as healthcare, education and social benefits, rather than strictly individual consumer goods, was paramount in their scheme, as it continued to be after socialism’s demise. But most interestingly, socialism also provided the setting for some (unwanted) experiments in non-commodity forms of exchange and access to goods – through the proliferation of the informal and unplanned economy, and in social arrangements that put a premium on the development of networks of personal relations – as opposed to contractual, commodified ones. Under socialism, consumption had thus channels that departed from commodity ones, and aims that were linked not so much to personal, autonomous self-realisation, as to the improvement of one’s family standing in a web of personal social relations. Thus, CEE populations went to the streets to demand “down with communism” not because all they wanted was to quick jump into a consumerist and thoroughly capitalist paradise, but because they wanted socialism to live up to its promises: that of access to consumer goods, but also, more importantly, to a larger set of social rights (decent work, universal education and healthcare, etc.).
Personal informal networks are not, however, the monopoly of socialist societies or of disenfranchised post-socialist citizens. Depending on the institutional context and on their content, they can change from benign alternatives to individualist consumerism into predatory practices reproducing blatant social inequalities. Neoliberal capitalism generates with increasing speed these latter types of informal networks – such as those involved in lobbying or the funding of political campaigns, in the “creative accounting” that companies use to avoid paying taxes, or in the corruption linking public officials, private entrepreneurs and multinational companies. In this respect we could wonder whether contemporary capitalism, post-socialist or not, is not, in the end, more about patron-client relationships than contractual ones. Corruption would thus be a prerequisite not so much of socialism and its legacies, but of our own contemporary neoliberal capitalism.
We need thus to move our thinking of really existing socialism beyond the image of a static, closed shortage economy, and into grasping it as a dynamic space of social struggle and transformation in an evolving global context. The story of socialism thus still needs to be told. We know very little about socialism (and its aftermath) from the point of view of labour history. Even less do we know of workplace experiences and struggles in general, or of socialist and post-socialist experiments in worker self-determination in particular. Many of those who have had a direct experience of socialism as workers have quit the world of employment in the meantime. These means we have less and less informants for studies in the oral history of socialism, but also less and less witnesses who could invoke their direct experience under socialism as lived testimonies to the possibility of alternatives. It’s true that they are worn out after half a century of relentless attacks on their worker status and marginalisation of their voice, but at least for now we still have them with us — waiting for a bridge to be made towards their once mighty experience of a different world.
Further reading:
Stan, S. 2008. “Faire marcher le marché: l’anthropologie à l’épreuve de l’économie post-socialiste, Anthropologie et sociétés, special number on Mondes socialistes et (post)socialistes, 32, 1-2 : 43-64.

Stan, S. 2005. “De la nostalgie à l’abjection: la mémoire du socialisme à l’épreuve de la transformation post-socialiste”, Ethnologies, 27, 2 : 79-105.

Sabina Stan is Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at Dublin City University, Ireland, and currently a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.