Left Crisis of Imagination
By Chris Spannos at Mar 12, 2009
The Nation magazine is to be commended for its effort to "kick off a spirited dialogue" on "Reimagining Socialism," and especially for putting the ball into the very capable hands of two leading Left thinkers and doers of our time -- the team of Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. Their opening essay appropriately asks, "with both long-term biological and day-to-day economic survival in doubt, the only relevant question is: do we have a plan?" And after adding that capitalism is in a "death spiral" they bluntly declare "no," we do not have any plan and argue that a "great project of collective salvation must be undertaken." Since being posted many others have responded to their opening essay.
As a young adult who believes "Another World is Possible," and knowing I am not the only one from my generation who thinks so, I place much hope in such a dialogue. But people from all generations should be able to see the importance of Ehrenreich and Fletcher's call and we are all united by common concern for the future.
Respondent Immanuel Wallerstein suggests the U.S. Left follow the example of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil, the largest organized social movement on earth, to apply pressure on Obama and to "work in the short run to minimize pain, and in the middle run to ensure that the new system that will emerge will be a better one and not a worse one..." Wallerstein points to the spirit of Porto Alegre and the World Social Forum and says we need to experiment with new structures. More experimentation and discussion about vision and possible structures for a new society is very much needed.
A potential "wave of environmental destruction" and "how to deal with a crisis that will define our world for the foreseeable future" is Bill McKibben's primary concern. However, a number of his statements, for example "The fuel for free-market fundamentalism and Marxism was fossil fuel," perplex me. If rubbing our thumbs together produced enough energy to fuel the world elites would be just as happy with hands in shackles as they are with occupying whole countries, if we let them... The point is undoing elite power and imagining new social structures that will give that power to people most affected so they can exercise their ability to judiciously determine what is environmentally sustainable and what is not.
Ehrenreich and Fletcher place the hard question of what a new society may look like in the hopes of a broad Left tradition when:
people got tired of trying to live on the crumbs that fall from the chins of the rich and rose up in some fashion--preferably inclusively, democratically and nonviolently--and seized the wealth for themselves. Such a seizure would have looked nothing like "nationalization" as currently discussed, in which public wealth flows into the private sector with little or no change in the elites that control it or in the way the control is exercised. Our expectation as socialists was that the huge amount of organizing required for revolutionary change would create an infrastructure for governance, built out of--among other puzzle pieces--unions, community organizations, advocacy groups and new organizations of the unemployed and nouveau poor.
This context leads us to question "what happened to the revolution and why?" which many people have poured over for decades and to which Rebecca Solnit surprisingly replies "there was and is a revolution, just not one that looks the way socialists and a lot of '60s radicals imagined it." In response to the lead essay's call for a "plan" Solnit says "We have thousands of them, being carried out quite spectacularly." Are these plans being carried out in isolation from one another or together in some fashion? Would Solnit agree that coordination among movements in a decentralized non-hierarchical way could galvanize movement ability to achieve their own objectives rather than working alone against the forces that inhibit their progress? Wouldn't the ultimate conclusion be for movements to build their own structures eventually transcending and replacing the ones blocking them from doing so? Can we imagine that these structures should be classless, self-managing, solidaritous, diverse, non-sexist, and non-racist? Fundamental transformation of society's defining institutions -- revolution -- is necessary so that all can harvest the fruit of our struggles for new social and material relations. As long as there is class segregation, political powerlessness, alienation and anti-social behavior, sexism and racism then revolution will be needed for our emancipation. Has this revolution happened on a scale that can reverberate around the world and inspire others to join? Has it happened in one of the most powerful and interventionist countries in history? Simply asking these questions is to answer them.
Solnit concludes that "one of the questions for the long-term [for state and economy] is about scale," but the only ones who should have any decision-making say about that are workers, consumers, and people who are affected by political and economic outcomes. Imagining and working toward implementing the institutional structures to convey the necessary information and empowerment to people so that they make these decisions is the task today. The answer to the question, and there will be many different answers, belongs to tomorrow.
Today's hopes for this new world are in many ways the same as those of the past. As Ehrenreich and Fletcher put it, we, "not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners--have to control our own destiny." However, as Tariq Ali argues in his contribution, "Until the emergence of a viable sociopolitical and economic alternative, perceived by a majority as such, there will be no final crisis of capitalism." Thus it would seem discussing, debating, and sharing ideas should be of the highest priority.
Responding to the task Robert Pollin makes the next contribution in the symposium and says that the problem is that "we do not know what a socialist economy would look like." This is not true. As recent as last century there were the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. There was the Yugoslav model of "market socialism" or "market coordiantorism" and of course there are also the examples that Ehrenreich and Fletcher suggest in their opening essay. Not to mention many of this century's examples in Latin America and others mentioned in other symposium contributions. There is a lot to learn from, discuss, debate, and share. Now we need to put ideas through the sieve to see what these candidates offer for the future and try to develop a shared coherence and direction.
Pollin also says "We need to stop consuming fossil fuels and defeat global warming over the next twenty to thirty years," and he is right, however, not only will doing so take at least as much coordination of energy and resources as moving toward a post-capitalist economy, but as long as capitalism's defining features of private ownership of productive assets, markets, and corporate hierarchies exists, any progress made toward a "green economy" will always be threatened by market pressures pushing for production and consumption of private goods and services over public ones and hiding the true social and material costs of economic activity.
Pollin admits embracing the sentiment "Be Utopian, Demand the Realistic" rather than the revolutionary "Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible." If the symposium were "Reimagining Capitalism" and this were an effort to give capitalism a human face then this might make sense. But conditions long before, during, and after the current crisis, while needing immediate reforms, will ultimately require fundamental transformation of society's defining institutions to ensure the success of reforms and their eventual melting into the attributes of a new society.
All of the symposium contributors note the worsening conditions of capitalism and additionally John Bellamy Foster highlights global resistance outside the U.S. and proposes that "Today the prospect of a revolt from below in the United States, which could well gain momentum within several years under conditions of deep economic stagnation, promises new space for a radical/socialist movement." However, as Foster and the others would likely agree, social revolt is not like chemistry, in the sense that there is no "boiling point" at which social and material conditions worsen so much to trigger a Left resistance. In conditions of severe social and material crisis public opinion is prone to extreme swings -- either to the Right or to the Left. In fact it should be a sobering reminder that although John McCain lost the 2008 presidential ticket he had 45% of the popular vote. Similarly to the South, despite his victory, 46% of Venezuelan's who came out to vote last month did so against Chavez's proposal to remove presidential term limits. It would be wise to balance our optimism about today's social movements and further potential for mobilization while offering an idea of where we want to go in an effort to build a mass coordinated movement with shared vision to help ensure we remain on course in route to victory.
Considering capitalism's current crisis Christian Parenti echoes other contributor's proposals that we need a "program of progressive restructuring." And when considering global climate change he writes, "The disastrously, apocalyptically, compressed timeframe of climate change will not wait for revolution. Realistically all we have time for is a program of reform that will get us to capitalism with a green and social democratic face." Almost everyone will agree with the need for short-and long-term reforms to address the immediate problems we face. But our reforms should be made with an orientation and consciousness towards, well, ultimately, revolution. And if the situation is urgent than we should take up the lead essay's challenge all the sooner. On "Reimagining Socialism" Parenti writes that we need to reimagine our intellectual lives in the sense, I think he means, that the poor and working classes in the U.S. should have access to more political education. But who on the Left would disagree?
(Note March 14: Actually, I don't think I interpreted Christian's words how he meant them. But re-reading them I am still uncertain what he meant. He was speaking of his impressions of popular political education and culture in India but summarizes with "So in facing the big question of reimagining socialism, one small task for us might be to more rigorously reimagine our intellectual lives. We might do well to be more grown-up and less self-righteous, to address and accept contradictions." Does he mean less self-righteous in that U.S. Leftists should be careful to comment on movements in other countries? Most would agree... Does he mean that we should accept contradictions such as, for example, class rule in other countries or our own government's imperialist interventions? I really don't think he means this either. Does he mean the lead essay authors shouldn't be proposing we discuss vision? I doubt it too. I just can't figure out what is meant here.)
Movements pressuring government to make more resources readily available for popular education (and health care, and welfare, national infrastructure, etc.) should be part of a larger program at mobilizing for more far reaching and long-term change aspiring to reduce and eventually abolish class society.
For me, the call made by Ehrenreich and Fletcher to imagine the kind of future society we want, how to develop shared commitments to it, and also how we arrive at that mutual conclusion, is like trying to cure a horrendous disease. Only the disease is not new and people have been working on its treatment for centuries. The lead authors ask others to consider how to cure it -- not only because daily conditions living with the disease cause immense suffering, death, and damage, but now especially because it is cycling worse than usual. Those responding to their call for a cure fall into the following categories:
(a) Look at some of the most effective resistances, work to reduce the suffering, experiment more, and hope that a cure will emerge but do so warned in advance that it will be difficult.
(b) The disease has already been cured! It's just not cured how you thought it was going to be...
(c) The disease could cause apocalyptic catastrophe. In the meantime we will have to adapt to the suffering, accept many of the symptoms, and take care of ourselves better.
(d) Until a widely accepted cure is on the table there will be no
end to the disease.
(e) The disease is getting worse, there is resistance outside the center of the problem, let's hope resistance in the center grows.
Real life is much more complicated than any metaphor and social change is not medicine. But the analogy does highlight a range of responses from support of the lead authors call for vision to various degrees of Thatcher's "There Is No Alternative" (TINA) to capitalism -- both without much reimagining overall.
Imagining a new society should be about proposing ideas and examples from the past and present about how to empower all to control their own social and material destinies. It should mean reorganizing society's institutions to realize egalitarian relations between sexes; balanced divisions of economic labor for classlessness; for decentralized and participatory self-managed decision-making; for cultural inter-relations and multiplicity; and for environmental stability. The most inspiring propositions for a new world are often the most simplistic and bold: organizing and activism with the ultimate conclusion being transformation of society's defining institutions and the totality of social and material relations. We only need to try a little harder to imagine what that may look like.
See also Michael Albert's response to the symposium "Taking Up the Task."