Change Socialists Can Believe In
In our March 23 issue, we published "Reimagining Socialism," a forum inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.'s provocative essay "Rising to the Occasion: Do Socialists Have a Plan?" At TheNation.com, we posted additional contributions to the forum from leading voices of the left, including Mike Davis, Saskia Sassen, Vijay Prashad, Doug Henwood, George Papandreou and many more. Below, Ehrenreich and Fletcher answer the replies. Please visit the website to view the exchange in its entirety. --The Editors
We are honored by the many fascinating and challenging responses to our essay, and we are happy to have a chance to clarify and expand on it. If there was one misunderstanding--for which we, of course, take responsibility--it is that we announced the collapse of capitalism, with all the opportunities and dangers that may present. On the contrary, we expressed great appreciation for the resilience of capitalism in the face of the crises it perpetually generates. At the moment of this writing, the finance industry may be sufficiently refreshed by infusions of taxpayer blood in the form of bailouts to rise up and return to its old ways. In which case the immediate crisis will pass, and we on the left can resume our usual tasks of critiquing "the system" and seeking modest, cumulative reforms within it.
This might, in fact, be the best we can hope for. Without a strong left, the alternatives to capitalism are more likely to be nasty than liberating. Fascism was one response to the crisis of the 1930s, and we may be seeing adumbrations of that in the far-right outcry against Obama's "socialism." Or we may be heading for a collapse, not of private capitalism but of the state--drained by war and the ongoing appallingly large transfusions of public money into the private profit-making sector. There is no historically inevitable outcome here, and there is always the possibility of apocalyptic collapse leading to barbarism, warlordism or worse.
We do seem to differ from some of our respondents in our appreciation for capitalism's capacity for self-destruction. Not only are key industries like finance and auto faltering, not only is unemployment rising at a rate unprecedented since the '80s but the credibility of capitalism as a system is in serious disrepair. A nationwide poll released on April 9 shows that an astonishingly low 53 percent of Americans prefer capitalism to socialism, with 20 percent favoring socialism and 27 percent undecided. We are not entirely sure what this means, because the poll question offered no definition of capitalism or socialism, and it may be simply that the right has gone too far in equating a hyper-popular president's centrist policies with "socialism." If "capitalism" is represented by right-wing populist blowhards like Limbaugh and Beck, while "socialism" bears the far more appealing face of Barack Obama, the choice is not too difficult.
We do know, however, that despite our best efforts, we on the left cannot take credit for this stunning shift away from cold war attitudes--any more than we can claim to have organized low- and middle-income homeowners to bring down the system by defaulting on their mortgages, beginning in 2007. That system had become increasingly based on fantasy and blind optimism--substituting easy credit for decent wages, and delirious overleveraging for actual corporate assets--to the point where phrases like "Ponzi scheme" and "house of cards" applied not just to some of the more reckless enterprises but to an entire way of doing business. This was not a sustainable situation, even in the narrowest economic terms, as many of the formerly wealthy now understand.
Could trillions of dollars in bailouts revive that system, so that those of us who have not yet lost our homes and livelihoods can go rushing back to the malls and the car dealerships? Possibly, but then we run headlong into the brick wall of ecological limits. This is not 1848, when the first working-class socialist movements were flexing their muscles, when America still had a frontier and the planet seemed to offer an inexhaustible wealth of resources. We know now that perpetual growth--the hallmark of a successful capitalist economy--is no more possible than perpetual motion. We cannot continue the project of transforming nonrenewable resources into carbon dioxide, algae, air pollution, space junk and urban mountains of trash. At least, not if we want our progeny to survive.
So there's nothing alarmist--or opportunistic--about our declaration of a crisis that demands more of us than the kind of slow, reformist work that has characterized most of our efforts so far. For the millions of unemployed, the system has already collapsed, and in a broader ecological sense, a whole way of life is coming to an end. With almost half of Americans unsure about the viability of capitalism and many leaning toward socialism, we who have called ourselves socialists--or to be ecumenical about it, anarchists, eco-feminists, radical syndicalists, etc.--have a responsibility to initiate at least the discussion of fundamental change.