Change Socialists Can Believe In
We--Ehrenreich and Fletcher--are not entirely unanimous about the nature and outcome of this discussion, having been shaped, in varying degrees, by such different ideologies as radical feminism and black nationalism, as well as by our decades of participation in antiwar and labor struggles. We may occupy different points on the spectrum between classical Marxism and an inclination to "make the road by walking"--between traditional, class-based socialism and feminist-inflected utopian alternatives. But we are both socialists, which means, fundamentally, that we believe in the human capacity to solve our common problems collectively in an egalitarian, participatory and democratic fashion. As we wrote in our original essay, we share the conviction that the time has come for so-called ordinary people to step into history and take control of their own destiny.
This is not a trivial, feel-good point of agreement. For one thing, it rules out continued reliance on "the market" to dictate the availability of basic goods like healthcare, food and shelter. Furthermore, it rejects hierarchy as a basis for social organization, whether the traditional hierarchies of gender and race or the faux-meritocratic hierarchies of class and formal education. Perhaps most important, it demands a collective response to crisis, as opposed, for example, to a frantic scramble for individual survival. While average Americans stockpile guns and the superrich, for all we know, are buying up waterfront property in Antarctica and reserving suites in new luxury space stations, we, as socialists, insist that we are all in this together and will survive only through our collective efforts.
Where could a vast conversation about alternative economies and ways of living take place? In left publications like this one, obviously, and we are profoundly grateful to The Nation for hosting this forum. Another site would be multi-issue left organizations, and we hope that the uptick of interest in socialism encourages the formation of some that are broader and less esoteric (or sectarian) than the existing ones. Right now, the American left--the only one we have firsthand knowledge of-- is fragmented into hundreds of concentrations on particular issues and identities, as well as countless local struggles, and it seems unlikely to congeal anytime soon into a single-minded, coordinated movement. But even in its messiness and diversity, the left can do better at creating spaces in which to begin democratic deliberation of fundamental issues. For example, we are intensely interested in efforts to organize the unemployed. But these need to go beyond the usual mutual support and advocacy efforts--such as helping with job searches and pressing for more generous unemployment benefits--to encouraging people to imagine very different ways of doing things. We would like to see laid-off manufacturing workers discussing what to do with the empty factories and putting forward concrete plans in their communities. And instead of abandoning workers who get laid off, labor unions should encourage their continued membership and begin to function, among other things, as think tanks for the rebuilding of America.
Rising unemployment opens up a number of basic questions. Why should the means of survival--income and, in this country, health insurance--be conditional on one's state of employment? And what about all the human skills that employers seem to have so little use for at the moment? We should be encouraging laid-off engineers, social workers, teachers, software writers, mechanics, welders and others to begin the work of imagining a society that could actually make use of their precious skills and experience. Similarly, we would like to see groups that work with the homeless--including all those who are reluctantly squeezed in with relatives or acquaintances, as well as those living in their vehicles or on the streets--create forums for discussions of universal housing and how it might be designed to strengthen communities. How do we want to live, and what does each have to contribute to get there? No question is too large to tackle, no person too insignificant to participate in framing the answers.
Some of our respondents took us to task for our parochialism as American thinkers and activists, and we humbly acknowledge this limitation. Obviously, the economic/ecological crisis is global, and solutions will require international cooperation at a grassroots level--which is to say that the vast conversation we are calling for can only be enriched by extending it across national boundaries. Already we are seeing a certain amount of cross-fertilization, as when a general strike in Guadeloupe sparked workers' protests in France, or when the example of South American workers' movements helped inspire a worker takeover of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago. We need many more forums for international discussion, and not just for those who can afford long-distance travel. Let the conversation begin, informed and accompanied by concerted action for change.