16 March 2009

"Reimagining Socialism," Within Limits

Since some people are quick to say that Socialism is upon us with the advent of President Obama, The Nation magazine decided to round up some real socialists to see what they thought of the current prospects for their movement. The discussion is led by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr., who take a pessimistic view of general conditions.

What is most galling, from a socialist perspective, is the dawning notion that capitalism may be leaving us with less than it found on the planet, about 400 years ago, when the capitalist mode of production began to take off. Marx imagined that industrial capitalism had potentially solved the age-old problem of scarcity and that there was plenty to go around if only it was equitably distributed. But industrial capitalism -- with some help from industrial communism -- has brought about a level of environmental destruction that threatens our species along with countless others.

In political terms, Ehrenreich and Fletcher take this to mean that socialists can't simply promise "more" to the working class. But if they can't promise material benefits, socialists can at least promise to make a real effort to solve the world's problems. That is, they can promise a planned economy, a taboo concept for free-marketers. But look what their purposeful lack of planning has gotten us, the authors note. "The absence of a plan, or at least some sort of deliberative process for figuring out what to do, is no longer an option," they write.

Ehrenreich and Fletcher promptly add that they, as individuals, don't have a plan, either for solving the current crisis or for creating a system for formulating a plan. The best they can offer is some enlarged form of participatory democracy. "Any system for mass democratic planning will be messy," they predict. "It will stumble; it will be wrong sometimes; and there will be a lot of running back to the drawing board." But they depend on some renewed and global sense of solidarity to hold the project together through all the bumps and potholes.

The magazine printed four responses to the original article. Immanuel Wallerstein, a historian of "world systems," predicts a competition between socialists and post-capitalists to establish a new system. Capitalism as we know it is played out, he writes, "not because it can't guarantee welfare for the vast majority (it could never do that) but because it can no longer ensure that capitalists will have the endless accumulation of capital that is their raison d'etre." He closes with vague exhortations:

Promote intellectual clarity about the fundamental choice. Then organize at a thousand levels and in a thousand ways to push things in the right direction. The primary things to do is to encourage the decommodification of as much as we can decommodify. The second [priority] is to experiment with all kinds of new structures that make better sense in terms of global justice and ecological sanity. And the third thing we must do is to encourage sober optimism. Victory is far from certain. But it is possible.

Bill McKibben restates the ecological pessimism of Ehrenreich and Fletcher. He questions his own socialism, since that "faith," in his word, was "rooted in an earlier moment ... a moment when the problem was growth and how best to make it happen and share its fruits." Marxism, he claims, runs on fossil fuels as much as capitalism does, and with oil and other resources declining, life "is necessarily going to be tougher." He proposes a de-globalization of the economy, "reducing the inherent vulnerabilities that go with a heavily globalized economy." He'd have governments encourage more people to take up farming while cultivating solidarity after decades of "hyper-individualism."

Rebecca Solnit chides some of the previous authors for failing to notice that "there was and is a revolution, just not one that looks the way socialists and a lot of '60s radicals imagined it." The right kind of revolution, she suggests, is one that doesn't bother trying to take over existing states, but circumvents them instead "to go straight to becoming other people doing other things without state permission." She points to ongoing experiments in "guerrilla agriculture" in inner cities and elsewhere as commendable exercises in local self-sufficiency and solidarity building. Her ideal sounds like de-globalization as well, with an emphasis on "direct democracy." She admits that state power may be the only force that can "drag us back out of what the corporations and international markets dragged us into," but once the immediate crisis is past, she'd like to see socialists think small, since "big beyond accountability or comprehension got crazy as well as ugly."

Pakistani socialist Tariq Ali (an enlightening guide to politics in that country) warns comrades not to underestimate capitalism's resiliency. Capitalism has a capacity to deal with crises, he contends, since crises "are part of the deadly logic of an economy based on a state-buttressed market system." Capitalism has been counted out before, but has gotten up more often than Rocky Balboa. That's my analogy, not Ali's, but it expresses his point.

Capitalism won't be finished "until the emergence of a viable sociopolitical and economic alternative, perceived by a majority as such," Ali writes. Given that socialism has supposedly been that alternative for more than 150 years, that's bad news for socialists. But like several other writers, Ali looks to South America for inspiration, from the Porto Allegre based World Social Forums to the populist movements in Bolivia and Venezuela, where governments "represented a new form of radical social democracy that seeks to combine state, socialized, cooperative, small-scale private and individual enterprises. He hopes that Hispanics in the U.S. will be inspired by South America's examples to press for reforms here, but he admits that this depends on enough being inspired to counter all the emigres who come here to denounce those countries as dictatorships.

There are four more responses online, but there's little different in them apart from a prediction that labor unrest should hit the U.S. by the end of Obama's first term, on an analogy with labor's delayed reaction to the Great Depression. The overall tone is perhaps too modest, since these socialists don't feel capable of offering people more than "fairness" or "equality" while most likely demanding from them self-sacrifice, renunciation of wants, and scaling down of ambitions. Would it really be enough to sell all this to tell people that "we're all in this together?" Or do socialists have to risk embarrassment by actually promising people "more" -- not just better lives than now, but better than before the crisis? Maybe not materially better in every way, but better in some way that would justify promising socialism as a positively life-transforming experience? But here's where my modesty kicks in: I'm not sure what they could propose, or how they should propose it. But unless the only viable alternative is a return to the Dark Ages -- which would still appeal to some people -- I don't see Americans rushing to embrace what these socialists offer. But all that means is that they've got to keep trying.


Anonymous said...

How about just find a way to prove that the alternative is corporate feudalism, a polluted and destroyed planet and a bunch of fat, rich people laughing at them?

Samuel Wilson said...

If that were enough we'd have socialism already. But Americans are less ready to believe such predictions than they are to embrace more optimistic prospects like the Rapture. We'd probably need the things you predict to actually be upon us before most folks would wake up.