Socialism’s all the rage. “We Are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we’re already living in the U.S.S.A. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 23, 2009, issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “Rising to the Occasion” as the opening essay in a forum on “Reimagining Socialism.” TheNation.com will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.
Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail
In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.
–W.H. Auden, August 1936
I have spent my entire adult life struggling to bring capitalism to its knees. Now it stumbles–and I am anxious. In the first sixty days of 2009, 1.2 million people lost their jobs in the United States, and the tremors of this financial mayhem have shaken the foundations of billions more across the planet. Things are at such an inglorious pass that even the World Bank has had to writhe out of its neoliberal obligations. Its head, Robert Zoellick, once the captain of neoliberal globalization from his perch as US [Free]Trade Representative, now says, “This global crisis needs a global solution…. We need investments in safety nets, infrastructure, and small and medium size companies to create jobs and to avoid social and political unrest.” Neoliberalism is dead. We have now entered a different phase: neo-Keynesianism, perhaps?
I am anxious. Neoliberalism has succumbed to its own contradictions. The dominance of finance, always an empty house, has finally been undone. And yet, we are not prepared. Even with the rise of a left in Latin America, of a new slumdog populism in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran, Bangkok–the dragons of the old order remain in power. They have weathered the economic crisis, keeping their authority legitimate. They assent, with a shudder, to this or that concession (even to the idea of bank nationalization); but know full well that their opponents are ragged, grasping, without the kind of powerful foundation to overwhelm them. Correct ideas are never sufficient; they are not believed or enacted simply because they are right. They become the ideas of our time only when they are wielded by those who come to believe in our own power, who use it to struggle through the institutions and to consolidate that power. We, the representatives of the unwashed, have little power, even as we have an overstuffed portmanteau of the best ideas.
In their remarkable 1966 book Monopoly Capital, Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran wondered why the recovery from the Depression of the 1930s had to await the massive expansion of federal spending for World War II. The New Deal was important to conduct a “salvage” of what had been broken by the Gilded Age, but it was itself incapable of being a stimulus. Powerful interests refused to allow a pliant Roosevelt administration to increase government civilian consumption and investment beyond an outer limit of around 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (it was 14.5 percent in 1938). This ceiling was not a strictly economic barrier, for other societies are able to spend above this limit without following the yellow brick road to serfdom. It is, rather, a political barrier. Rehearsing this argument, John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney argued recently that this barrier could not be broken “without a massive, indeed social-transformative, struggle, despite a relatively progressive administration and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression…the forces holding down civilian government spending are too strong to be affected by anything but a major upsurge in society.” The Dragons, in other words, have to be chained.