Posts Tagged ‘socialism’


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Capitalism Is Dying

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Millennials may be the largest, best educated, and most diverse generation in U.S. history. But they’re also generation screwed. As a result, they’re more likely than their elders to think of themselves as working-class and less likely to identify as middle-class.

The large downshift in class identity among young adults is explained by the fact that they are being left behind—with lower earnings, fewer jobs, more part-time employment, and a higher unemployment rate than any other generation in the postwar period.


And while it is true that recent college graduates make more than young workers with a high-school diploma, the annual real wages of both groups have declined since 2009.

So, it should come as no shock that most Millennials have nothing saved for retirement, and those who are saving can’t save nearly enough.

According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, in research that was recently reported by CNN, two-thirds of working Millennials have not been able to save anything for their retirement. That’s true even though two-thirds of Millennials work for an employer that offers an employer-sponsored retirement plan. But they’re often not eligible, because they work part-time or have too little time in their current job—and, if they are eligible, their low pay and high indebtedness make it impossible to set aside anything for retirement savings.


The fact that Millennials aren’t following the recommendations of financial and retirement experts has a lot of people worried. But Keith Spencer [ht: ja] presents a much more hopeful perspective: many millennials honestly don’t see a future for capitalism.

The idea that we millennials’ only hope for retirement is the end of capitalism or the end of the world is actually quite common sentiment among the millennial left. . .

Older generations, and even millennials who are better off and who have managed to achieve a sort of petit-bourgeois freedom, might find this sentiment unimaginable, even abhorrent. And yet, in studying the reaction to the CNN piece and reaching out to millennials who had responded to it, I was astounded not only at how many young people shared [Holly] Wood’s feelings, but how frequently our expectations for the future aligned. Many millennials expressed to me their interest in creating self-sustaining communities as their only hope for survival in old age; a lack of faith that capitalism as we know it would exist by retirement age; and that alternating climate crises, concentrations of wealth, and privatization of social welfare programs would doom their chance at survival.

Creating a world in which individual retirement savings are made irrelevant is a kind of real talk from Millennials that makes a helluva lot more sense than the constant barrage of so-called expert advice to educate “Millennials about the value of retirement savings and how employer-sponsored retirement plans and employer matches work.”

In fact, socialism may be the best way “to improve the retirement preparedness of America’s largest generation.”


Just nine years ago, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, Newsweek declared that “we are all socialists now.”

Now, it’s true, editor-in-chief Jon Meacham demonstrated little understanding of the term socialism, identifying it simply with more government spending and regulation in a capitalist economy—something akin to “a modern European state.”

This is not to say that berets will be all the rage this spring, or that Obama has promised a croissant in every toaster oven. But the simple fact of the matter is that the political conversation, which shifts from time to time, has shifted anew, and for the foreseeable future Americans will be more engaged with questions about how to manage a mixed economy than about whether we should have one.

And that may be what millions of Americans—especially young Americans—think of when they express a favorable image of socialism. But I suspect there’s something more to it, and that their interest in socialism also includes a desire for less inequality and more fairness in economic and social outcomes and support for proposals that others (including probably Meacham himself) consider utopian: universal healthcare, free public higher education, large increases in workers’ wages, a guaranteed basic income for all, and so on.

But that still leaves us a large step removed from—and frankly far behind—the trenchant criticisms and ambitious projects of the utopian socialists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteen centuries. I’m thinking of such figures as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. They sought both to radically remake people’s understanding of how human beings and social relations operate and to transform society itself by designing new economic and social institutions, all in an attempt to improve the condition of the working-classes of the time. They criticized everything, from private property and the structure of the family to the role of money and the degradation of workers being forced to submit to their employers and then sought to correct those problems—not just by promoting more government involvement, but by imagining and implementing radically different ways of organizing economic and social life.

There is a great deal to admire, then, in the ambitious theoretical and practical work of that first generation of utopian socialists. And yet today, utopian is a label that is invoked to dismiss any and all suggestions that things could be radically different—that socialism, however defined (beyond, of course, Meacham’s restrictive conception), is simply a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, people continue to hold to the idea that Marx and Engels, still the most important source for contemporary socialist thinking, likewise dismissed the ideas of the utopian socialists as unattainable or fanciful hopes or schemes. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

The main source of that view is, of course, the Communist Manifesto—specifically, chapter 3 on “socialist and communist literature.” There, Marx and Engels do in fact refer to “castles in the air” and the “fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.” But they’re only talking about the disciples of the utopian socialists, those who in the middle of the nineteenth century continued to “hold fast by the original views of their masters,” because from the perspective of Marx and Engels they attempted “to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms.”

But the authors of the Manifesto held a much more positive view of the writings of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. Marx and Engels credited them with attacking “every principle of existing society.”

Hence, they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.

They used the utopian label to refer to the practical measures proposed by the early socialists—”such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the function of the state into a more superintendence of production”—that did not lead to “political action on the part of the working-class,” which by the mid-nineteenth century was beginning to take place.

The voluminous writings of Marx and especially Engels include many other discussions of the utopian socialists, many of them much more flattering than in the polemical Manifesto.

For example, Engels, of scientific socialism renown, wrote a series of articles on the development of radical social movements on the continent, between 1842 and 1844 in, of all places, Robert Owen’s periodical The New Moral World. They include this paragraph on Fourier:

Nearly at the same time with Saint-Simon, another man directed the activity of his mighty intellect to the social state of mankind — Fourier. Although Fourier’s writings do not display those bright sparks of genius which we find in Saint-Simon’s and some of his disciples; although his style is hard, and shows, to a considerable extent, the toil with which the author is always labouring to bring out his ideas, and to speak out things for which no words are provided in the French language — nevertheless, we read his works with greater pleasure; and find more real value in them, than in those of the preceding school. . .It was Fourier, who, for the first time, established the great axiom of social philosophy, that every individual having an inclination or predilection for some particular kind of work, the sum of all these inclinations of all individuals must be, upon the whole, an adequate power for providing for the wants of all. From this principle, it follows, that if every individual is left to his own inclination, to do and to leave what he pleases, the wants of all will be provided for, without the forcible means used by the present system of society.

We also need to take into account a much later text, the three chapters of Engels’s 1878 Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, which were published two years later as the famous pamphlet, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.”

There, Engels explains the appearance of utopian socialism in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries by the disappointment with the social and political institutions created by the “triumph of reason” of the French Revolution.

All that was wanting was the men to formulate this disappointment, and they came with the turn of the century. In 1802, Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared; in 1808 appeared Fourier’s first work, although the groundwork of his theory dated from 1799; on January 1, 1800, Robert Owen undertook the direction of New Lanark.

What follows is what can only be considered effusive praise for the ideals and ideas of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and especially Owen. Here he expresses his admiration at some length for Owen:

At this juncture, there came forward as a reformer a manufacturer 29-years-old – a man of almost sublime, childlike simplicity of character, and at the same time one of the few born leaders of men. Robert Owen had adopted the teaching of the materialistic philosophers: that man’s character is the product, on the one hand, of heredity; on the other, of the environment of the individual during his lifetime, and especially during his period of development. In the industrial revolution most of his class saw only chaos and confusion, and the opportunity of fishing in these troubled waters and making large fortunes quickly. He saw in it the opportunity of putting into practice his favorite theory, and so of bringing order out of chaos. . .Whilst his competitors worked their people 13 or 14 hours a day, in New Lanark the working-day was only 10 and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. . .

In spite of all this, Owen was not content. The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. “The people were slaves at my mercy.” The relatively favorable conditions in which he had placed them were still far from allowing a rational development of the character and of the intellect in all directions, much less of the free exercise of all their faculties. . .

His advance in the direction of Communism was the turning-point in Owen’s life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honor, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. . .But when he came out with his Communist theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage.

He knew what confronted him if he attacked these – outlawry, excommunication from official society, the loss of his whole social position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without fear of consequences, and what he had foreseen happened. Banished from official society, with a conspiracy of silence against him in the press, ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working-class and continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.

I could go on. Clearly, Engels admired both Owen and his utopian socialist proposals and projects.

There’s no doubt that Marx and Engels engaged in running battles with other radical (socialist, anarchist, and so on) thinkers of their own time, reserving particular scorn for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (best exemplified by the Poverty of Philosophy) but, even then, they retain their respect for the utopian socialists, both of which we can see in Marx’s 1866 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann:

Proudhon has done enormous harm. His pseudo-critique and his pseudo-confrontation with the Utopians (he himself is no more than a philistine Utopian, whereas the Utopias of such as Fourier, Owen, etc., contain the presentiment and visionary expression of a new world) seized hold of and corrupted first the ‘jeunesse brillante’ the students, then the workers, especially those in Paris, who as workers in luxury trades are, without realising it, themselves deeply implicated in the garbage of the past.

But we do know, of course, that Marx and Engels did in fact reject “utopian socialism” for their own time, in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the formation and development of the First International. On what basis?

As I see it, their rejection of utopian socialism (and their defense of so-called scientific socialism) rests on two main pillars: the role of the working-class and the project of critique.

There’s no doubt, Marx and Engels envisioned the movement beyond capitalism not in terms of realizing some ideal scheme, no matter how well inspired and worked-out, but as the task of the growing working-class. In other words, the idea was that capitalism produces its own grave-diggers. The growth of capitalism—the widening and deepening of capital—was accompanied by the growth of a class that had both the interest and the means to overturn the rule of capital. A class that could challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to criticize and eventually abolish the wages system itself and lay the basis for a different, noncapitalist way of organizing economic and social life.

Today, as capitalism continues to produce ever more obscene levels of inequality and to leave workers in ever greater depths of despair, we need both to defend utopian thinking—to recover the radical spirit of earlier utopian socialists and their critics—and to take up the challenge of defining what a socialism for our own time will look like.


Every public opinion survey I’ve seen in recent years shows a growing interest in socialism, especially among young people.*

Socialism is an obvious solution to the most pressing economic and social problems threatening the world today, from growing inequality to climate change. But, as I’ve written before, socialism has many different meanings—both what it is or might be, and what it is not.

John Quiggin [ht: ja] suggests that what we need today is not “soft neoliberalism” (what I have referred to as “left neoliberalism,” of the sort that came to be articulated in the trajectory of the U.S. Democratic Party defined by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and the Labor Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), much less the tribalist politics of Donald Trump’s Republicans and Teresa May’s Tories, but a radically new vision—what Quiggin refers to as “socialism with a spine.”

I couldn’t agree more. Moreover, Quiggin is right to point out that,

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”. It’s expressed in support for proposals that break with the cautious incrementalism of the past, and are in some cases frankly utopian: universal basic income, free post-school education, large increases in minimum wages, and so on.

That’s important, but a real alternative needs more than attitude and a grab-bag of policy ideas. After decades in which the focus has been on critiquing neoliberalism, the task of thinking about positive alternatives is urgent, but efforts in this direction are only just beginning.

But I’m not convinced by much of the rest of Quiggin’s argument, which is focused on looking backward to what he considers to be the “social democratic moment of the 50s and 60s” and forwards in terms of “a genuine sharing economy based on the internet and other technological advances.”

The backwards move uncritically celebrates the supposed successes of Keynesian macroeconomic management and, looking forward, narrowly focuses on the possibilities opened up by digital technologies.

While I’m all in favor of articulating a vision of a “genuine sharing economy”—because, if socialism is nothing else, it certainly means, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, “You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else”—I think we can do better than limiting ourselves to Keynesian full employment and the production of information.

We have to remember that the middle of the twentieth century, which turns out to have been a unique period of sustained economic growth and full employment in developed market economies, also meant long hours of drudgery in factories and offices to the benefit of employers, who retained both the interest and means to evade and ultimately overturn the regulations that had been implemented during the first Great Depression. Which of course they did, culminating in the crash of 2007-08. Why would we want to repeat the mistakes of that period?

And, looking forward, the emergence of new digital technologies, by themselves, doesn’t make socialism any more possible than the waves of innovation we’ve witnessed in the past. And focusing on the new technologies just puts the idea of socialism beyond anyone who is not already enamored of digital connectivity and social media—and therefore all but the youngest members of the working-class.

The task, it seems to me, is to articulate a vision of socialism that is predicated not on a nostalgia for the past or the role of a particular set of technologies, but on the persistent and growing gap that exists between the conditions of contemporary life and the possibilities created by existing forms of economic and social organization.

Thus, for example, instead of railing against Wall Street and increasingly concentrated industries, why not imagine the possibilities that capitalism itself has created both to eliminate the need for capitalists and to easily administer large parts of the economy to the benefit of everyone?

By the same token, why not build on the idea that, today, it is increasingly recognized that decent jobs, healthcare, education, and retirement are rights, not privileges, but that those in charge prevent those rights from being fulfilled?

Socialism is born out of that yawning crevasse between reality and promise—by articulating a set of changes in the existing reality that move us closer to that real promise.**

And here I think Quiggin and I may actually be in agreement:

Socialists have always seen short-term political struggles as part of a long-term project of transforming society for the better.


*For example, according to the 2016 Gallup Survey, 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism (itself a remarkably high figure, given the Cold War legacy in the United States), which rises to 55 percent for Americans age 18 to 29. And while only 13 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners have a positive view of socialism, 58 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners view socialism in a favorable light.

**To be clear, it’s not just a question of defining socialism; we also need to discuss the strategic issue, of where and how a reborn socialist movement can build a political and social base. As Bill Fletcher explains, with respect to “the growth in interest in socialism, broadly defined, among a large number of people, particularly younger people.”

That is fantastic!  But it is far from clear that they are wedded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that difference is fundamental. It’s not just an ideological question; it is also a strategic question.


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As I argued a couple of days ago, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. In short, they’ve rocked the neoliberal boat.

The question is, where does this leave us?

Thomas Edsall thinks it means we’ve reached the end of class-based politics. I’m not convinced.

Yes, the response to the problems with neoliberal globalization has challenged and cut across traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters, in the United States as in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean the differences between the Left and the Right have disintegrated or that class politics have become irrelevant.

To take but one of Edsall’s examples, just because there’s no one-to-one correspondence between people who have lost and gained from existing forms of globalization and those who voted for or against Donald Trump doesn’t mean class has declined in political importance, much less that it’s been displaced by a simple “globalism versus nationalism” opposition. Plenty of voters in economic distress voted for Trump and for Clinton—in part because of their different ways of framing class issues, but also because class politics have always been overlain with other, salient identities, resentments, and desires. The 2016 presidential election was no exception.

What this means is battles take place not only between political parties, including newly resurgent ones, but also within those parties. Thus, for example, the mainstream of the Democratic Party was and remains wholly committed to a liberal version of neoliberalism, and its inability to respond to the “economic distress”—the class grievances—of large sections of the American working-class led to its loss last November (which means, of course, the battle inside the Democratic Party has become even more intense). Similarly, Trump’s campaign rhetoric—although certainly not his actual economic and social program—galvanized many who were dissatisfied with “business as usual” in Washington. And, of course, the response to those different positions was affected by the framing of the issue of globalization (for example, Trump’s focus on job losses versus Clinton’s call for more education and reskilling), race (Trump’s dog-whistle invoking of the “inner city” and the need to build a wall in contrast to Clinton’s calls for diversity and inclusion), and much else.

But, in contrast to what Edsall sees, the future of the American left does not lie in mimicking Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of France’s National Front. While Macron’s campaign did represent a rejection of the “racialized and xenophobic politics” that served as one of the pillars of Trump’s victory, there is nothing in Macron’s proposed domestic policy reforms that represent anything other than a French version of “left neoliberalism,” and therefore a real threat to the French working-class.

No, we’re going to have to look elsewhere for an alternative common sense.

Espen Hammer suggests we return to the “rocking of the boat” that has been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture.

It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.

It is a tradition, beginning with Thomas More, that involves not only thought experiments, of what might be, but also—and perhaps even more important—a critique of the existing order, and therefore what needs to be changed.

Finally, Bhaskar Sunkara suggests that the history of socialism suggests the way forward.

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

As I see it, that conception of socialism—an expansion of democracy that capitalism promises but simply can’t permit—is capable of satisfying both Edsall’s aversion to a “racialized and xenophobic politics” and Hammer’s utopian “rocking of the boat.”

It’s the start of something new precisely because, in Sunkara’s words, it “allows so many now crushed by inequity to participate in the creation of a new world.”


It should perhaps come as no surprise that Sunkara’s view of the contemporary relevance of socialism, appearing as it did in the New York Times, should invite a backlash reminiscent of the kind of red-baiting and ahistorical analysis that socialists and Marxists were often subjected to during the Cold War. In this case, Jonathan Chait [ht: sm] uses Venezuela as his whipping-boy, decrying the authoritarian elements of the left-wing governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, without any mention of the upper-class roots of the contemporary opposition or of the crisis in Venezuelan society (exemplified in El Caracazo, in 1989) and the subsequent election of Chávez a decade later. No, Chait can’t let actual political and historical analysis get in the way of his broad-brush indictment of what he, echoing generations of liberal anticommunists, considers to be “the inherent authoritarianism that is embedded in an illiberal thought system.”