Self-Expression in a Socialist World

Soviet Farmers Circa 1931 Soviet Farmers Circa 1931

Lonely men in long black coats trudge resolutely along a rod-straight road while Arctic snow billows around them. Women’s dark, drab, unflattering dresses hang limply in folds while, frowning, they make their way through the cold on foot. Even children walk with them: boys with thinning, sallow faces and tatters of hair adorning upper lips, girls who greet each other with stony eyes, breaking into brief hard smiles despite the utter lack of color. Even the bows in their hair are not adornments, but are pure functionality. The miserable masses embark on this collective, dreary journey every morning. It is dictated that they must work.

Such is the bleak and colorless fantasy of socialism we all know. The specter of socialism has this shadow cast over it, a shadow of misery, sameness, and bland bare life. Capitalist imaginations of the post-capitalist world depict downtrodden Soviet families working long hours each day in fields or factories in order to sustain themselves. Images of forced labor in Siberian gulags preponderate, filling our schema of socialism with men in identical, state-produced fur caps and garments slaving for hours.

It’s no surprise that we capitalist subjects share this fantasy. After all, most experiments with actual socialism throughout history have been grim realities. Stalin’s repressive policies, like collectivization of the food supply and the transformation of the Union into a prison state, ensured that capitalist societies would connote socialism with dull repetitiveness and de-individuation. Before the 2011 economic reforms, Cuba was similarly repressive, with a state that ensured that self-expression, whether artistic or vocational, could not freely take place. Private employment was highly restricted, and privately held wealth and property, which are often mediums for self-expression and construction of identity, was similarly limited.

Moreover, the Soviet Union actively fostered an aesthetic image of traditionalistic banality. State-sponsored art like socialist realism enforced an aesthetic of plain, unassuming, quotidian lifestyles. Even socialist culture’s internal understanding of itself was rhythmic, unchanging, boring—how could the external viewpoint be expected to be any different? Our associations leave next to no room for a conception of socialism that could be bright, colorful, exciting, individualistic, eccentric, or innovative.

But is socialism really so unswervingly stifling to creativity and self-expression? Does any economically egalitarian society necessarily sacrifice individualistic expression in its establishment of material equality? Is there any alternative to high-inequality, high-poverty society that does not require an oppressively de-individualizing regime? Here, I define “creativity”, “aesthetics”, and “self-expression” broadly and in similar senses, using them somewhat interchangeably to emphasize their inherently open, democratic natures.

Contemporary late capitalism, even of the conservative laissez-faire stripe, ironically crushes free expression. Despite the supposed liberty of the free market, global poverty and wealth disparity ensures that most people don’t have disposable time to devote to self-expression or creative works. Labor exploitation and low wages produce a set of circumstances in which the global working class must labor long hours just to make enough money to survive. Struggling to get by, aesthetic pursuits are left to the bourgeois, who have ample time and wealth to devote to art.

But even the artistic class of contemporary capitalist society is not free to produce art. Artists can work to produce art, but they will only be compensated for their self-expression if their art sells. Art is therefore again subjugated to the will of the market. Art that doesn’t conform to the will of what the market wants goes unsold; and insofar as the market is the indicator of artistic success, art cannot truly be free as long as it must align itself with the market’s demands. This, of course, is not to say that art is better off subjugated to the state’s commands—as the Soviet Union endorsed Socialist Realism as propaganda to repress the Futurists’ avant-garde work—but it is the case that neither Soviet nor capitalist art have achieved freedom from repressive, subjugating forces.

But capitalist society, one might object, is free! Walk down any American street and an astounding variety of colors, patterns, designs, insignias, and images meet the eye. Capitalist society is a freewheeling bundle of dynamically shifting and vivid expressions of self, one might say. Words like “vibrant” and “glittering” echo in rhetoric deployed by defenders of capitalist culture who favorably compare capitalist culture to repressive and propagandist socialist culture that constantly censors “free speech”, art, and expression that would weaken the regime or party doctrine.

And yet the colors of capitalism are beholden to forces other than the free and dynamic demos conjured up by the rhetoric of capitalists. Bourgeois members of society—even those whose self-professed vocation is artist—actually produce relatively few of the goods and surroundings that structure their physical milieu, rendering them subjugated to the a priori forces that structure their environment. We eat and drink products the origins of which we know next to nothing about (except that they are produced by the forces of capital for profit); meanwhile, firms and designers that seek profit over artistic achievement construct our homes, clothes, shoes, personal goods, machinery, and aesthetic elements of the contemporary cityscape. Bourgeois society is not constructed on the basis of free pursuit of self-actualization, self-expression, or creativity, so much as it is predicated on the pursuit of wealth. In fact, in the neoliberal age, the pursuit of wealth actually works to undercut self-expression by validating only those creative works that appeal to the wealthy, while excluding the poor from pursuing self-expression at all.

While the bourgeois’ creative alienation is manifested in its subjugation to the pursuit of wealth, the poor are doubly alienated from aesthetic self-articulation. Needing to work long hours for low wages just in order to survive, they lack requisite expendable time to devote to aesthetic pursuits. But in addition, the division of labor internal to capitalist society results in artistry’s relegation to a subcultural zone. The creative class is a cultural enclave, inaccessible to many, and not just for reasons of wealth. Personality, temperament, and disposition all can incline or decline one to or from artistry. In capitalist society, therefore, aesthetic expression is often only supported for those who inhabit bohemian or counter-culture social circles. And as David Howes has noted, commercialization results in the appropriation of aesthetic works by profiteers seeking to turn self-expression into a dollar by re-selling it to the masses. Pragmatically hindered from devoting themselves to aesthetic self-expression and largely excluded from artistic subcultures—as evidenced by the derision with which urban poor view bohemian gentrifiers—the working classes are excluded from artistic expression, joining the capitalist bourgeoisie.

But what can socialism offer as a rejoinder? Some possibilities present themselves. Primarily, a socialist economic structure could allow for all members of society to ensure that their daily needs are met. This freedom from necessity would open up time for the masses to engage in creative works and self-expression. Only after they are liberated from the shackles of labor can people discard their pragmatic reasons for refraining from aesthetic pursuit. A world filled with beauty would result from the liberation of humanity from necessary labor. J.S. Mill noted that humanity’s progress in technology and machinery had done little to lighten our toil, an observation that Marx seized on to emphasize that machinery (and the means of production more generally) must be socialized, to provide for the masses. When Keynes predicted in 1930 that technology would soon allow humanity to shorten its workweek to fifteen hours while maintaining ample production, he didn’t consider that people would be alienated from the fruits of their labor and conditioned to always desire more consumption and more work, in the style of the modern subject par excellence.

The contemporary circumstances of labor have us working longer hours than ever before. The forces of capital demand long hours to produce cheap goods that can then be sold back for profit. The end of this cycle would mean the rebirth of the human capacity to freely engage in artistic pursuit, unfettered by necessity. Redistribution of wealth would produce a situation favorable to art: the development of the latent expressive capabilities of all, made possible by the end of necessity, would spring humanity forward into a golden age of aesthetic experimentation.

Though we might imagine socialist society as entailing state monopolization of ideological expression contained in art, it is altogether likely that a stable socialist society, resulting from a unification of workers seizing the means of production, would have no need or desire to limit artistic expression. Indeed, socialism in this sense would be coextensive with what Kant called Enlightenment. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” Kant wrote, indicating that when society reached enlightenment, people would have the courage to think for themselves. People today are cowed by the necessity to work, produce, consume, be cheerful, and belong to defined social circles; socialism would liberate people to become enlightened, to think for themselves, and to exteriorize their innermost truths into material self-expression. Whether this expression takes the form of art, poetry, clothing, infrastructure, or another form, enlightenment would broaden and deepen the range of expression possible, not only for the poor, but also for the would-be bourgeoisie.

The transformation of the means of production into the means of liberation from labor would entail the efficient use of machinery for the production of necessities, coupled with fair distribution of produced goods to all people. But this must, it seems, be coupled with cultural change. Consumption in general must decrease in order for us to truly live the Keynesian fantasy. We all dream of working fifteen hours a week and spending our leisure time in self-expression, self-actualization, and beautifying the spaces we inhabit. But this is not possible unless the transformation of machinery coincides with a decrease in consumption among the wealthy and aspiring bourgeoisie. Fortunately, this will be eased along by the cessation of advertising, marketing, and the consumerist conditioning they occasion.

Socialism can be a force for artistic rebirth and exploration. By opening up the gates of necessity, socialist economy will democratize aesthetic practice. This will give more people time to self-express while radically opening the artistic community, creating opportunities for dialogue and collaborative aesthetic exploration. Socialism will be a utopian force for all who find existential meaning in art, beauty, and ideological liberty.

Radically free enterprise, untethered from libertarian shackles and catapulted into a socially supported, ecologically sound network of people. Artists and artisans, craftspeople, builders, musicians, and poets—equipped with the requisite time, space, and mutual support to engage in their work—imagining a utopian world. Egalitarian mores create space for forms of self-expression that tear down the walls of gender presentation and social posturing. The socialist world will be an exciting world of self-actualization and fulfillment; in knowing each other as class comrades, we can come to know ourselves.