Change Socialists Can Believe In
[Nation Editors Note: 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.]
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.
We--Ehrenreich and Fletcher--are not entirely unanimous about the nature and outcome of this discussion, having been shaped, in varying degrees, by such different ideologies as radical feminism and black nationalism, as well as by our decades of participation in antiwar and labor struggles. We may occupy different points on the spectrum between classical Marxism and an inclination to "make the road by walking"--between traditional, class-based socialism and feminist- inflected utopian alternatives. But we are both socialists, which means, fundamentally, that we believe in the human capacity to solve our common problems collectively in an egalitarian, participatory and democratic fashion. As we wrote in our original essay, we share the conviction that the time has come for so- called ordinary people to step into history and take control of their own destiny.
This is not a trivial, feel-good point of agreement. For one thing, it rules out continued reliance on "the market" to dictate the availability of basic goods like healthcare, food and shelter. Furthermore, it rejects hierarchy as a basis for social organization, whether the traditional hierarchies of gender and race or the faux-meritocratic hierarchies of class and formal education. Perhaps most important, it demands a collective response to crisis, as opposed, for example, to a frantic scramble for individual survival. While average Americans stockpile guns and the superrich, for all we know, are buying up waterfront property in Antarctica and reserving suites in new luxury space stations, we, as socialists, insist that we are all in this together and will survive only through our collective efforts.
Where could a vast conversation about alternative economies and ways of living take place? In left publications like this one, obviously, and we are profoundly grateful to The Nation for hosting this forum. Another site would be multi-issue left organizations, and we hope that the uptick of interest in socialism encourages the formation of some that are broader and less esoteric (or sectarian) than the existing ones. Right now, the American left--the only one we have firsthand knowledge of--?is fragmented into hundreds of concentrations on particular issues and identities, as well as countless local struggles, and it seems unlikely to congeal anytime soon into a single-minded, coordinated movement. But even in its messiness and diversity, the left can do better at creating spaces in which to begin democratic deliberation of fundamental issues. For example, we are intensely interested in efforts to organize the unemployed. But these need to go beyond the usual mutual support and advocacy efforts--such as helping with job searches and pressing for more generous unemployment benefits--to encouraging people to imagine very different ways of doing things. We would like to see laid-off manufacturing workers discussing what to do with the empty factories and putting forward concrete plans in their communities. And instead of abandoning workers who get laid off, labor unions should encourage their continued membership and begin to function, among other things, as think tanks for the rebuilding of America.
Rising unemployment opens up a number of basic questions. Why should the means of survival--income and, in this country, health insurance--be conditional on one's state of employment? And what about all the human skills that employers seem to have so little use for at the moment? We should be encouraging laid-off engineers, social workers, teachers, software writers, mechanics, welders and others to begin the work of imagining a society that could actually make use of their precious skills and experience. Similarly, we would like to see groups that work with the homeless-- including all those who are reluctantly squeezed in with relatives or acquaintances, as well as those living in their vehicles or on the streets--create forums for discussions of universal housing and how it might be designed to strengthen communities. How do we want to live, and what does each have to contribute to get there? No question is too large to tackle, no person too insignificant to participate in framing the answers.
Some of our respondents took us to task for our parochialism as American thinkers and activists, and we humbly acknowledge this limitation. Obviously, the economic/ecological crisis is global, and solutions will require international cooperation at a grassroots level--which is to say that the vast conversation we are calling for can only be enriched by extending it across national boundaries. Already we are seeing a certain amount of cross-fertilization, as when a general strike in Guadeloupe sparked workers' protests in France, or when the example of South American workers' movements helped inspire a worker takeover of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago. We need many more forums for international discussion, and not just for those who can afford long-distance travel. Let the conversation begin, informed and accompanied by concerted action for change.