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 4, 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.
It’s great to see The Nation trying to rehabilitate socialism. It’s too bad that it takes a massive financial and economic crisis to prompt the forum, though. There’s a tendency on the radical left to look to crisis to do a lot of the political heavy lifting. Sure, people may be more likely to consider systemic overhauls when the system isn’t working very well. But that’s not a certainty. Fear can also make people hunker down. The economic troubles of the 1970s benefited the right more than the left.
Socialism needs more than foul-weather friends. Most of the time, the system works more or less well by its own standards. GDP grows, people go to work every day and make money for the boss, and no one really rocks the political boat. Yet many features of capitalism’s “working well” are fairly appalling. In the United States, one in eight are poor, by a very undemanding official definition. Downsizing and a million personal bankruptcies a year came to be the new normal. Globally, a billion get by on a dollar a day or less. Whole regions of cities, nations, continents are written off as hopeless. We’ve come to live with a daily sense of impending environmental catastrophe. And that was in the good years.
Now, we see capitalism’s gravediggers eagerly hoping the thing will kill itself and allow us to perform the burial. That could always happen, but it probably won’t. The system has faced massive crises before and recovered. It emerged from fifteen years of Great Depression and world war to embark on its greatest run, the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.
I also want to dissent from another prescription: Rebecca Solnit’s contention that the revolution is already happening, via “gardens and childcare co-ops and bicycle lanes and farmers’ markets and countless ways of doing things differently and better.” While many of these things are very nice, they’re well short of a transformative vision. The package draws heavily on an ancient American fantasy of self-reliance and back-to-the land escapism. It’s no model for running a complex industrial society. Such a system couldn’t make computers or locomotives, and it probably couldn’t feed 6 billion earthlings either. Maybe Solnit wants to give all that up. If so, she should tell us.
So, not to coin a phrase, what is to be done? I don’t think off-the-shelf utopias like Parecon are very helpful; there’s just no imaginable roadmap from here to there. We have to work with what we have rather than invent finished products de novo. If we don’t have a model of how a socialist economy would work, we do have some principles, like a more egalitarian distribution of income, greater economic security, a friendlier relationship with the earth, more popular control over investment and technology, and worker control of the workplace.
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While the current economic crisis probably won’t be the magic intervention that will deliver us to a post-capitalist future, there are opportunities to advance the socialist cause. The mass insecurity and impoverishment produced by the imploding labor market are wonderful arguments for a more civilized welfare state. The need for a new dynamic sector to generate an economic recovery is a perfect opportunity to promote high-speed rail and alternative energy research (and in far greater quantities than the Obama administration is proposing). Our banking system is being rescued with public money. Why shouldn’t the public get something in return for that, like publicly or cooperatively owned financial institutions that could provide customers with low-cost services and communities with economic development funds? And with the housing market not likely to recover for at least several years, why not experiment with different models of ownership? For example, instead of foreclosing on houses, why not turn them into limited-equity co-ops, which take the speculative motive out of that essential of life? These things won’t happen spontaneously; they need state action, prodded by organized and thoughtful activism. The public isn’t with us yet, but we’re a long way from the days when The Market seemed like a fresh idea.
Other Contributions to the Forum
Immanuel Wallerstein, “Follow Brazil’s Example.”
Bill McKibben, “Together, We Save the Planet.”
Rebecca Solnit, “The Revolution Has Already Occurred.”
Tariq Ali, “Capitalism’s Deadly Logic.”
Robert Pollin, “Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic.”
John Bellamy Foster, “Economy, Ecology, Empire.”
Christian Parenti, “Limits and Horizons.”
Mike Davis, “The Necessary Eloquence of Protest”
Lisa Duggan, “Imagine Otherwise”
Vijay Prashad, “The Dragons, Their Dragoons”
Kim Moody, “Socialists Need to Be Where the Struggle Is“
Saskia Sassen, “An Economic Platform That Is Ours“
Dan La Botz, “Militant Minorities”
Michael Albert, “Taking Up the Task”
Dave Zirin, “Socialists, Out and Proud”
Joanne Landy, “I Love Bill Moyers, but He’s Wrong About Socialism”
Hilary Wainwright, “I Love Bill Moyers, but He’s Wrong About Socialism”
George A. Papandreou, “The Challenge of Global Governance”