By Andy Douglas
Is Prout a form of socialism? Socialism with a spiritual face? Or is it something completely different?
Anyone who critiques the excesses of capitalism and posits an alternative might be, fairly or unfairly, labeled ‘socialist’, but in truth the question is much more complex.
When you hear the word socialism, perhaps you envision a society based on principles in which everyone is provided with the necessities of life. On the other hand, perhaps you picture an oppressive Soviet-style society where people have little freedom to express their individuality.
The exercise can be a kind of ideological Rorschach test, reflecting as much one’s own background and prejudices as anything else.
Defining one’s terms is always a good first step. There are many types of socialism, and this is part of what complicates the question. Socialism refers to a variety of economic and political theories. As noted in an article on prout.info, “most of these ideas contrast themselves with capitalism by opposing private ownership, competitive relationships, and free, unrestrained markets. Within the range of socialist thinking, there are differences regarding if and how much the government should control the economy and whether it should be implemented through gradual reforms or revolution.”
The roots of socialism go back to the ideals proclaimed in the 1789 French Revolution, followed a half-century later by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who called for dialectical clash between classes, violent revolution, and eventual worker control of the means of production. They were good at diagnosing capitalism’s problems, but less agile in their solutions, particularly in the realm of equal distribution of wealth and providing incentives for people to work. We can see the failure of many of Marx’s ideas in Soviet Russia. Nobody admires Stalin and the immense loss of life that accompanied that Communist experiment.
Indeed, this is what makes communism, and by extension, socialism, a dirty word for many, especially people of a certain generation who fought against “the Red menace” across several wars. Anti-communists often embrace capitalism because they see no alternative. But being anti-anything doesn’t necessarily mean that the ‘opposite’ is the solution.
On the other hand, when it comes to championing the rights of the poor and oppressed, many socialists throughout the 20th century were generally at the forefront. If you look at movements for human rights and resistance against oppression, socialists have often stood for justice. In the Spanish Civil War, socialists fought against fascism. Throughout Latin America, they have often worked for real social change. In the US, too, socialists helped bring reforms to the society like better working conditions, better pay, an eight-hour workday, etc.
And the practice of socialism has evolved over the years. We can say that socialism branched out from the Soviet model of communism and developed into what is often called ‘the new Left’, critical of Soviet-style orthodoxy.
Several of the economies of Western Europe, and particularly of Scandinavia, for example, offer many ‘social democratic’ benefits to their citizens – free health care, education, etc. – without some of the revolutionary fervor, serving as hybrid models of socialism, (though not everyone agrees that this is socialism.) There are things to admire here.
But does the economy need to be socialist in structure in order to redress the problems of capitalism?
Isn’t there another possibility?
Proutists would offer a resounding ‘yes.’ One of the many things unique to Prout is its concept of the three-tier economy. Prout supports private ownership of businesses, but only of smaller businesses. In this sense, it is drawing from a market-oriented approach, on a very limited scale. Medium- and larger-scale enterprises work more equitably as cooperatives, Prout believes. These two types of worker-ownership – small-scale private ownership and cooperatives – can work in tandem to stimulate innovation and empower a larger majority of people, in a framework of equity and democracy.
Large industries that are considered ‘key’ – energy, steel, etc. – could best be overseen as state-owned public utilities.
However – and this is a distinguishing feature of Prout – the entire framework would be organized in a decentralized way, focusing on local decision-making, local planning, and local retention of wealth. Prout also prioritizes incentivization of work, something not always considered in Marxist economies.
Another big difference between Prout and Marxism is that Prout doesn’t consider human beings to be simply material entities. It recognizes a spiritual dimension. People can grow and connect with a transcendent realm. Love is a quality that plays a crucial role in human affairs. The full use of human potential is an important point, and Prout believes the economy should be structured in order to allow people time for subtler, creative pursuits. Prout is also profoundly ecological, recognizing that humans, plants and animals are part of an interconnected web of being, and so dedicated to protecting all aspects of nature.
These deeper dimensions of life are not necessarily recognized in either capitalism or socialism. Capitalism’s profit motive drives people to pursue the accumulation of wealth to the neglect of, well, their souls. Although Marx never opposed spirituality, many of his followers were dismissive of any kind of non-material aspect of life, especially in the Soviet and Chinese Communist models. It was perhaps this material disposition that allowed these Marxists to go to such extremes in their ends justifying their means.
In a sense, Prout borrows a little of what works from existing economic models, and rejects that which has been shown to be exploitative, inhumane, destructive, and simply doesn’t work. But really, Prout is something entirely new.
Prout can best be positioned as a third thing, in a third space, an alternative to both capitalism and to communism, certainly, and many aspects of socialism. This third space is one of ethical, ecological, cooperative, democratic, and even spiritual possibility. It is the rational alternative we’ve been waiting for.