Socialism 101: Wouldn’t socialism stifle innovation? 

By James McCabe

Capitalism constantly bombards us with its self-serving ideology, including the idea that the system relies on and encourages innovation, such as inventing new products that improve our lives. We’re told that the grinding slog we experience as workers is compensated for by access to technologies that our distant ancestors couldn’t have imagined, whether washing machines or smartphones. 

While it’s indisputable that the capitalist system has raised the technological level of humanity by comparison to the feudal or hunter-gatherer societies that existed before it, the fact is that capitalism is now fundamentally holding back humanity’s creative potential. 

These days there’s much talk and not a little worry about automation and AI technologies. These worries are not unfounded, because while there’s undoubtedly huge potential in these technologies, everyone knows that under capitalism such innovations in the workplace don’t result in less arduous toil or more leisure time for workers, but replacement of skilled jobs, and worse pay and conditions. 

Innovations under capitalism are utilised to make more profits – by intensifying the exploitation of workers – not to make life better for people, whether workers or consumers. Indeed, so much innovation under capitalism, e.g. advertising, is just about finding new ways to make people buy things they don’t need or want.

Investment in research and development (R&D) for things that don’t immediately garner huge profits rarely comes from private companies, i.e. from daring, “risk-taking” entrepreneurs; it comes primarily from the public or state institutions. Corporate figureheads such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos all profited immensely from research conducted and breakthroughs made mainly by workers from the public sector, state-funded universities or the military. The key components of smartphones, such as microprocessors; memory chips; batteries; touchscreens; and the Internet were developed by the concerted efforts of a public research apparatus, not by a handful of plucky, self-interested profiteers. 

However, even where such R&D investment does take place, it’s done chaotically and inefficiently with each company, university, or government gate-keeping information – with patents and intellectual property rights – rather than pooling all the research in a collective database for the common good.

Another smartphone component, the Global Positioning System (GPS), was developed from research spearheaded by Gladys West, an African-American mathematician who calculated the exact shape of the earth while working for the US military in the 1960s. It’s certainly an indictment of capitalist society that so much of its recent innovations come from the military or arms industry; institutions that are ultimately focused on finding ways to more efficiently end human lives prematurely. 

In fact, total global military expenditure reached $2,443 billion in 2023 – a grim example of the state of our world. Imagine if these sums were invested in meeting people’s basic needs for food, housing, healthcare and education, or on the urgent need to transition to a zero carbon economy. 

Under capitalism, someone who is lacking in any of these basic needs is forced to spend the great majority of their time working, usually in a way that has little to do with their abilities, just to survive. As such, an incalculable amount of innovative capacity just goes completely to waste. How many people exist today who have the same potential to innovate as Gladys West, Marie Curie or Albert Einstein, but are toiling away as office drones, child soldiers, or collecting scrap metal in dump yards? 

Socialist change would mean replacing private ownership of the economy with democratic public ownership, and market chaos with rational planning. It would mean providing everyone with the housing, healthcare, and education they need as a basic right, as well as jobs with proper pay, benefits and security. Therefore, people could pursue careers they enjoyed rather than jobs that just allow them to get by, which would make people far more productive. 

If workers collectively owned and managed their workplaces rather than taking orders from a boss, they would be much more motivated. Every new innovation would directly benefit themselves and their co-workers. Furthermore, by sharing out the work and using the latest labour-saving technology for the good of all, not the profits of a few, everyone’s free time could be dramatically expanded. This is time people could use to develop their own particular talents and abilities, whether artistic, industrial, scientific or social.

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