* A shorter version of the following speech was given at the 2010 “Socialist
If I’d known you were doing music today I might have brought my electronic keyboard and tried to pull off a version of the old radical tune about a precocious group of 17th century English anti-capitalists called “The Diggers” – a song called “The World Turned Upside Down,” where one lyric says:
They make the laws to chain us well
Their clergy dazzle us with heaven and they damn us down to Hell.
We will not worship the God they serve.
The God of greed who feeds the rich while poor people starve.
I am, for what its worth, a revolutionary socialist. I’ve been one since I was two years old but I only knew it for sure when I was 18. That’s when I read the Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It was like a bright light bulb going off in a dark attic. I read the Manifesto because it was assigned in a political science class I was taking at
“All That is Holy is Profaned”
There are lines in the Manifesto that get etched in your mind forever. At one point Marx and Engels point out that under capitalism, under what they call the rule of the bourgeoisie, everything in the society, everything in the politics, everything in the culture gets hopelessly soaked in the cold nothingness of the cash nexus, the heartless reckoning of monetary self-interest. “The bourgeoisie,” The Manifesto observed, “has …left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value…All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned.” Boy, that sure happened! It’s its still with us, to say the least. Just watch American television: it’s about whatever sells and more often than not its one’s very self and soul that gets put on the market. Just look at the millions who get tossed out of their jobs and evicted from their homes and dropped from the insurance rolls and denied care and who can’t get enough to eat all because of selfish profit and money considerations
“The bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels continued, “has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” Yikes – that’s still going on. I just spoke with a law professor about all the law students who go in to his institution thinking their going to do public interest law and then end up working for big corporations so they can make the money to pay off their student loans. I was just talking to an anthropologist about how most of the PhDs in her field now end up working for multinational corporations, helping them de-code indigenous cultures to more effectively sell people things like KFC and McDonalds and cigarettes and other nice stuff so that people can experience endemic lung cancer and childhood obesity and diabetes in the developing world just like us. Another bunch of anthropologists have worked for “the bourgeoisie” a bit more indirectly by helping the Pentagon work up its Counterinsurgency Manual, which assists the U.S. “defense” department in its efforts to invade, occupy, police, and otherwise assault other nations to (among other things) deepen multinational corporations’ control of those nations’ natural resources.
“Unfit to Rule”
The “bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels wrote in 1848, “is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within its slavery,” The bourgeoisie’s “existence,” Marx and Engels added, a bit prematurely perhaps, “is no longer compatible with society.” I revisited that quote the other day and I went up into my den and pulled off this book I’d almost forgotten about. It’s by a French ecological writer named Herve Kempf and it’s called How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007). Kempf shows how the rich and powerful feel amazingly indifferent and invincible in the face of global warming and other ecological disasters – disasters that they themselves have created by plundering the Earth to boost their profits, by using their wealth and power to thwart any public and governmental action to protect livable ecology, and by relentlessly promoting the cancerous ideology of growth, which tells us that endless economic expansion, not the redistribution of wealth is the answer to poverty and insecurity. According to Kempf, “the predatory oligarchy” (what Marx and Engels called the bourgeoisie) is “the main agent of the global [ecological] crisis, directly, by the decisions it makes. Those decisions,” Kempf adds, “aim to maintain the order that has been established to favor the objective of material growth, which is the only method, according to the oligarchy, to make the subordinate classes accept the injustice of the social situation.”
If the tide keeps rising, capitalist growth ideology hopes, then all the boats keep rising and we can be more easily convinced to disregard the fact that 1 percent of the boats – the people in the big yachts and cruisers – own more than a third of the wealth in the ocean, leaving 99 percent of the people in their often leaking rowboats and canoes to fight it out for the rest. When the tide recedes the disparities are more clearly exposed.
Well the literal sea is rising along with global temperatures. And the glaciers and snow-caps are melting and the floods and mudslides are increasing and the great forests are in epic retreat. Marx and Engels’ “no longer compatible with society” comment isn’t premature anymore.
“All our problems,” Dorothy Day once said, “stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system” (and I would add, of that system’s ruling class).
Obama the “Socialist” (Give Me a Break)
I wandered into a crowd of tea-baggers in
Last weekend I was on this peace and justice panel in Urbana, IL and this old time militant working class activist from central Illinois gets up and says (among other things) that "people think they got a black president with Obama but all they've really got is a green president – green as in money, not the environment.” “Obama,” the activist added, “is just another ruling class asshole." There was a brief hush around the room as everyone digested the comment and then it was like, "yeah, right on. You said it brother."
Is anybody else here as nauseated as I am by this constant relentless Orwellian nonsensical description of Obama and the Democrats as socialists? Good God, the man is the Kingpin of Corporate Subsidies ….he’s set new records in the transfer of taxpayer dollars to so-called private corporations starting above all with the leading parasitic financial behemoths that crashed this economy in the first place. His auto bailout included subsidies for GM to set up yet more plants in cheaper, non-union plants around the world, just like something out of the Communist Manifesto’s discussion of the bourgeoisie’s relentless quest for profit across the world system.
Obama cut a health reform deal that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, making sure to leave single payer health insurance out of the discussion and making corrupt bargains with those companies long ago – last summer – to keep even a public option out of the package. Obama went to
Obama’s not really going to seriously control Wall Street; he sure isn’t going to cut its “too-big [and powerful]-to-fail" behemoths down to size. He hasn’t done anything real and he won’t do anything real to move on his campaign promise to push the Employee Free Choice Act, which could have re-legalized unions in this country, where union density is back to historic lows at 6 percent – yes SIX Percent (we’re talking early 20th century here, people) – of the private sector workforce. Capital opposes the EFCA and therefore so does Obama, who went to the headquarters of Caterpillar to sell his stimulus bill last year – to Caterpillar, the first major American manufacturers to smash labor with permanent strikebreaker replacements during the Reagan era. That was a big raised middle finger to the working class and to organized labor, what's left of it.
By the way Noam Chomsky was the first person I saw to point out that Caterpillar connection (he isn’t just about foreign policy). Another thing that Chomsky has been pointing out lately is that Obama is “offering federal stimulus money to Spanish firms to produce the high-speed rail facilities that the
How’s that for “socialist” policy -- shutting down auto plants in the Midwest, exporting jobs to
Meanwhile, Obama has passed the biggest Pentagon budget in history, itself a giant subsidy to high-tech corporations like Boeing and Raytheon and along the way he has kept the U.S. global military "machine set on kill" (Allan Nairn) as he conducts his child-bombing five-front petro-imperialist terror war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and as he militarizes U.S. policy in Latin America and Africa and provoking nuclear Russia.
So don’t talk to me about this guy being a leftist radical. Don’t give me this Tea Party/talk-radio crap about Obama being a "socialist."
Socialism is widely and very weakly understood – misunderstood – as little more than simply government intervention in the economy. That misunderstanding is a big part of how so many right wingers can get sucked into idiotically thinking that Obama and the Democrats are socialists. But it isn’t just right wingers who get lost. “Oh, I believe in government intervention,” a liberal told me last year, “so I guess I’m a socialist.”
No. That statement leaves out the critical question: government intervention and social policy and practice by and for whom? What we’ve seen with Obama and the Republicans and other Democrats before him is top-down state-capitalist intervention like the Wall Street bailouts and the insurance mandates and subsidies and people confuse that with left ideology. That’s government intervention for the rich and powerful few – corporate socialism if you like. We actual socialists are (among other things) about government intervention for the working class many.
Socialism for me starts with two key core and overlapping things: (1) participatory, bottom-up and institutionally empowered workers’ control of the work process in the interests of equality, democracy, social use value, and ecological sustainability; (2) democratic planning of the overall economy for human needs, for social use value, for the common good and not the profits of the few. Socialism is the democratic negation and transcendence of capitalism or, if you prefer, of the profits system.
The Filthy Rotten Profits System
What is Capitalism? My second unabridged edition of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines that filthy rotten system as follows: “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution, as land, factories, railroads, etc., are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc."
Please note four things about this definition:
One, the definition contains ample room for significant government involvement: there is plenty of state allowed in capitalism by the official definition. In and of itself, government intervention is not a negation of capitalism; it is in fact part of it.
Two, the definition does not see the rise of giant corporations as anything but the natural outcome of capitalism as it develops over time. It offers no support to petit bourgeois reformers who want to set up a dichotomy between (A) the supposedly good proprietary capitalism of the past and the (B) bad corporate capitalism of the present. B emerges quite logically from A and those who just want to get rid of corporations (and corporate personhood) without developing a deeper alternative (workers control + democratic economic planning) to the profits system as such are not doing the radical-democratic cause a favor.
Third, Webster’s deletes capitalism’s pronounced tendency to reduce much of the working age populace to wage and salary slavery - dependent employee status - in any society it takes over.
Fourth, the definition quite properly contains no reference to the "democracy" and "freedom" with which is routinely and falsely conflated in "mainstream"
But, it’s not just different than democracy and liberty. More than being merely dissimilar to cherished Western ideals of popular self-governance, freedom, and (we should add) the common good, capitalism is fundamentally opposed to all those core principles. Its key characteristics include
* A consistent drive towards the ever-greater undemocratic concentration of wealth and power
* A constant and unequal battle between the wealth of the capitalist Few and the income, security, autonomy, health, and sanity of the working class Many.
* The relentless reduction of the majority of the working-age populace to the dependent and vulnerable status of employees – to wage and salary slavery.
* The authoritarian and hierarchical division, command, distortion, perversion, and stultification of the human work process.
* The contingency of employment for many on profitable exploitation by a business firm: no work and hence no wages/salary unless some capitalist interest finds it profitable to employee you.
* A disconnect called surplus value between the amount of wealth you create for or transfer to your employer and the compensation you are granted for renting out your labor power.
* The soulless, dehumanizing hegemony of exchange value over social and human use value.
* The private ownership and propagandistic management of core opinion-forming, and “reality”-distorting cultural and communications sectors from the New York Time and NBC to American Idol and the Disney Channel.
* Wildly disproportionate political influence for the capitalist elite, with much of its surplus pooled and protected in giant, impersonal corporations, whose directors are legally mandated to privilege investor profit over any and all other concerns
* A dangerous addiction to militarism and the production of means of mass destruction both as a direct source of profit and as tools to expand the global reach of the profits system and to protect elite investments across the planet.
* Last but not least and related to all of the above, capitalism entails a relentless profit-addicted, “cost-externalizing” business assault on livable ecology. This last assault has reached the point where it is I think fair to say along with the great Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros that “if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, then there can be no future of humanity itself.” We have come to a point where the really dangerous and unrealistic utopianism – the truly fantastic belief – is to think that we can advance the human and democratic prospect without getting rid of the eco-cidal rich and their filthy rotten profits regime, with its underlying unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.
Recall that quote I gave at the beginning from my good friends Marx and Engels, the one where they say that the bourgeois is “unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within its slavery.” Now in the rich nations of the world you could look around at the living standards for millions of people and raise some problems with the statement – no doubt about it. Lots of people have been living pretty damn well. Their existence seems pretty assured. But how did the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy, pull this off? How did they create the American and European and Japanese half-century of phenomenal economic expansion and mass consumerism? Among other things, by exploiting and expanding a global shantytown economy in which more than 2 billion people struggle to live on less than a dollar a day. Eighty percent of the human race lives in the global South people…they live and die and struggle many of them in the periphery of the world capitalist system and in much of that periphery life is cheap and existence is less than assured. Another thing the oligarchy, Marx’s bourgeoisie did to achieve its great 20th century take off was to rape the world of its natural resources and then recklessly shit solid, vaporous, and liquid waste back into the water, land and air to a degree that now threatens the near-term existence of the human species so that is now reasonable to say along with Meszaros that its “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”
At the same time, sound material existence is ever more less assured to millions right here in the world’s richest and most powerful nation, where we now have an unemployment rate that (if it were properly calculated to include involuntarily part-time workers and people who have given up on finding work) rivals that of the Great Depression. I know of at least five neighborhoods in my home city of
The Enemy At Home
The big question is of course what to do about it, how to turn our rejection of the God of greed (the essence of capitalism) into a relevant movement of an actual Left. Let’s be honest:left true progressives right now lack anything close to the organizational and political presence that is required at this moment of peril when, as Meszaros says, is “there can be no future of humanity" if no radical mass movement emerges “in our time.”
Some, much of this weakness is our fault. Much of it is not, for the power elite logically invests a lot of surplus social and political capital in defeating progressive and solidaristic ideas in this country, where the stakes of wealth and power are incredibly high – higher than anywhere else on the planet.
I want to get into that key question – what is our fault and what isn’t – in the Q and A. Before doing that, however, I want to conclude with a quotation from a young ex-soldier named Mike Prysner – a comment he made while speaking to Iraq Veterans Against the War last December. After characterizing the Iraq occupation as Washington sending “poor and working in this country “to “kill poor and working people in another county [and] to make the rich richer,” Prysner focused on the real threat to “homeland security” in the United States. "I threw families on to the street in Iraq,” Prysner said, “only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis.” Prysner related his realization “that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They're not people whose names we don't know and whose culture we don't understand. The enemy is people we know …people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it's profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it's profitable. It's the insurance companies who deny us health care when it's profitable. It's the banks who take away our homes when it's profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home.” “Without racism,” Prysner noted, “soldiers would realize that they have more in more in common with the Iraqi people than they do with the billionaires who send us to war.” (See Prysner’s remarkable speech at www.youtube.com/watch?v=akm3nYN8aG8)
That’s how actually radical American activists, workers, soldiers, and intellectuals have felt and thought since the first labor struggles in this country and up through the Haymarket Martyrs and Joe Hill and Eugene Debs and Howard Zinn to the present day. In the 164 words I just read, the young veteran Mike Prysner spoke more genuinely radical, root-and-branch truth than the great bourgeois speechifier Barack Obama has spoken in the hundreds of all-knowing, stealthily conservative orations he has given over the last eight years. Thank you very much.