Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

socialism

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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Special mention

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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.”

Update

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.”

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Today, thousands of scientists, science educators, and others are protesting in hundreds of cities around the world against what they see as a global political assault on science.

According to Lucky Tran, who serves on the steering committee of the March for Science,

We need another scientific revolution. The first scientific revolution transformed our understanding the natural world and changed civilization as we know it, making us healthier, happier and more productive. Today, we have huge scientific challenges ahead such as climate change, genetic engineering and automation. And yet we are stuck with the hand brake on and unable to act effectively as a society, because a few privileged people are blocking progress at the expense of the rest of us.

Tran might also have invoked Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of the twentieth century, who in 1949 expressed his support for socialism in the name of social values but with a perhaps more humble view of the role of science.

we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

And the problem?

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

To which Einstein offered a solution:

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

I wonder if today, in addition to defending science, scientists are willing to criticize the existing economic and social institutions and participate in the project of imagining and creating an alternative.

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 15 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn considers socialism—which he defines as “You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else”—to be obvious.

As it turns out, socialism is increasingly obvious for folks on this side of the pond, too. Like Bernie Sanders. And Mark Workin and Melissa Young, who made the film Shift Change. And Richard Wolff, through Democracy at Work.

Now they’re joined by Shannon Rieger, a recipient of the Janice Nittoli “Forward Thinking” Award from The Century Fund.

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Rieger’s argument is that, in the face of growing inequality (such that “the top 1 percent wage has increased by 138 percent since 1979, [while] the wages of the entire bottom 90 percent of earners have grown by the comparatively meager margin of just 15 percent—and an even more unequal distribution of wealth”), it’s imperative that the United States “develop policies that not only mitigate existing economic inequality and poverty, but that actually reverse these trends for the long term.”

And her proposed solution? Enterprises that are owned and managed by their employees.

By creating a policy environment to support and promote democratic employee-owned businesses, the United States could promote a more equitable employment system and a more just distribution of wealth. Doing so would not only help the country recover from the recent economic devastation of the Great Recession, but also begin to reverse the deep wealth and income disparities that have plagued American workers and families for decades.

Worker-owned cooperatives (which, across the world, employ more than 250 million people, and in 2013, generated $2.95 trillion in turnover) are a particular form of democratic employee-owned business that Rieger considers to have particularly rich potential in the United States.

But they need support, to “help grow the sector to scale.” So, as Rieger explains,

it is crucial that the United States establish a national-level regulatory framework for worker-cooperatives. Foundational components of such a framework could include a clear, universal definition for worker-cooperatives and a national worker-cooperative incorporation code; financial support mechanisms, such as a dedicated worker-ownership fund; and cross-sector partnerships with the existing decentralized network of employee ownership service providers.

Using examples from around the world (including the Marcora Law in Italy) Rieger makes the obvious case for the growth of democratic worker-owned enterprises in the United States.*

Worker-owned enterprises, as a key feature of a socialist transition from capitalism, are certainly obvious to me.

 

*The Marcora Law, which was passed in 1985, offers Italian workers an array of financial support options and a “right of first refusal” opportunity to purchase and re-launch troubled businesses as worker-cooperatives. As Rieger explains,

a U.S. worker-buyout policy modeled after the Marcora Law should become a component of federal-level policy framework for worker-cooperatives. By creating federal legislation that recognizes the worker-owned cooperative business as a distinct form of democratic employee-ownership, and that aligns existing state-level incorporation codes and the worker-ownership service provider network under universal regulatory guidelines, the United States could make a meaningful, effective commitment to expanding the democratic worker-ownership sector.

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Now that Bernie Sanders has endorsed the not-Trump Democratic candidate, it’s time to sort through the debris of Sanders’s own campaign.

Kshama Sawant [ht: ja] has authored one of the most insightful responses—and I mostly agree with her critical analysis of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party and her understanding of how the Sanders campaign challenged mainstream political discourse in the United States:

Bernie’s campaign has shaken the foundations of U.S. politics with its bold challenge to the corrupt political establishment and the domination of Wall Street and the super rich over society. Tens of thousands of people became politically active for the first time, and a broader discussion about socialism has been put back on the agenda. But the issues Sanders ran on, like a national $15 minimum wage, opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Medicare for all, will in no way be advanced by his capitulation to Clinton.

And, yes, “Bernie’s endorsement will be used in an attempt to prop up that same rotten establishment, including the corporate-owned leadership of the Democratic Party which has fought against him at every step, and which just booed him in the last week.”

But, even though I share her dismay in Sanders’s announcement that he was endorsing Clinton (I felt physically ill as I watched it) and his plans to campaign on her behalf to defeat Donald Trump (although I think whatever campaigning he does will be more for “his” issues and his opposition to Trump than for Clinton herself or even many of the mainstream down-ticket candidates), I don’t think Sawant gives enough credit to Sanders nor does she appreciate what his campaign achieved. Her statement that “Sanders [sic] endorsement of Clinton is a fundamental failure of leadership” is simply too harsh.

As I see it, precisely because Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination, he was forced to conform to one of the unwritten rules—that he accept his defeat and endorse the winner. Not to do so would have delegitimized anyone coming after him, from local politicians and national legislators to presidential candidates who are willing to take up the banner of socialism within the Democratic Party.

Of course, there’s still the issue of whether Sanders should have run for the Democratic nomination. Sawant certainly believes he shouldn’t have, that it was a fundamental mistake not to run an independent campaign.

Again, I disagree. The fact is, at least at the national level, the Democratic Party, for all its faults (and there I’m in substantial agreement with Sawant and many other critics), is the place where many people can learn and hone their political skills. Hundreds of paid staffers and thousands of volunteers, most of them young, acquired the kind of knowledge and experience—about their fellow citizens, contacting and mobilizing voters, organizing a political campaign, and so much more—precisely because they participated in a broad-based, national political movement. And millions of their fellow citizens, members of the 99 percent, were able to recognize themselves in the multitudes who came out in support of Sanders.

Those multitudes, in turn, were able to hear their issues defined and enunciated on a national level, issues that were then amplified for millions of others, including those who (for whatever reason) didn’t vote for Sanders. Those ideas—about the corruption of the democratic process, the need for universal healthcare, the trade deals that only benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals, the need for publicly funded higher education, as well as socialism itself (or at least one version of it)—are now a material force that won’t simply disappear.

To simply conclude that Sanders is a sell-out, that he never should have run for the presidential nomination within the Democratic Party, and instead should have become involved in one or another small party or movement on the “real” Left, represents a denial of the issues that were taken up at the national level and the millions who obtained a political education in the process.

Nothing can take those away—not Clinton’s victory nor the left-wing denunciations of Sanders.

As I see it, we shouldn’t lose sight of those achievements even as we pick through the debris of Sanders’s campaign after Tuesday’s endorsement.