Socialism in the U.S?: Smart, Slow, and From Below
Sunday, June 21, 2009
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
The article by Ehrenreich and Fletcher on "Re-imagining Socialism," as well as the many responses it has elicited, are evidence of Socialism's resounding appeal to those who yearn for a more just, humane, and equitable world. The increasingly tired question, though, has much to do with the way in which this vision can—and should—become realized, if ever.
"Reform or Revolution?" First Worry About What You Do Next Time You're Shopping
As many other responses are likely to focus on the practical and theoretical grounds for a socialist society, I will devote some time toward thinking about broad strategy. Inevitably, the question of ‘reform or revolution' comes quickly to the fore. And if we are talking about socialism in the developed capitalist world—specifically in the United States—the question of ‘reform or revolution' becomes even more heatedly contested. My first point, then, is to say that while the notion of a popular revolution in the U.S. (say, one which comprises a staggering 15% of the population) may at first appear endlessly romantic (and perhaps even formidable), there would be immense dangers lingering in the remaining 85%--i.e., those tenacious qualities which comprise the so-called logic of capital.
To put it another way, if a socialist revolution were to happen tomorrow, the new government's first priority—even before the not-so-tiny task of democratically planning out the thorough, historically-unprecedented, socialist transformation of the entire society—might very well revolve around how to successfully accommodate and integrate the nearly 60 million people who voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin last November (not to mention the 70 million pro-capitalist Liberals, moderates, and social democrats who voted for Obama). The point is, even after the extremely unlikely event of a quasi-popular socialist revolution, the pervasiveness of fiercely anti-socialist sentiments could conceivably cause the real revolution—i.e., the thorough transformation of all social and economic relations—to stall before it ever actually starts. Thus, a socialist revolution—if not supported by at least a simple majority of the citizenry—could potentially prove more disastrous for the socialist cause than no revolution at all.
So, without a popular revolution, what are the prospects for a socialist project within the U.S.? The somewhat discouraging answer is understandably what has prompted so many on the Left to ‘look South' for inspiration, for hope, and for guidance—myself included. Indeed, it is essential that those on the Left work tirelessly to be constructively critical of these international projects; to both defend against propagated untruths, while also measuring leaders and parties against their rhetoric and against the misguidedness of past historical projects.
But we should not merely constrain ourselves to the role of critical spectator. What too many on the Left have often forgotten is how they themselves represent individual forces in society; that they can each impact a substantial network of people in powerful ways. I am talking about the self-proclaimed Socialist who nevertheless maintains the patriarchal division of labor within the household. I am talking about the self-proclaimed Socialist that is able to recite the first chapter of Capital Volume 1 nearly verbatim, but treats the cashier at her local grocery store with just as little respect as her bourgeois counterpart. I'm talking about the self-proclaimed Socialist who works a lousy retail job and takes his frustration out on the perceived, but not actual, enemy—the customers. As Socialists, it is our responsibility—if what we believe is to mean anything at all—to thoroughly cleanse ourselves and our own lives of the social hostilities that are relentlessly reinforced and perpetuated by capitalism: man versus woman, consumer vs. producer, producer vs. consumer, and many others. This is precisely the importance of starting from below. And by that I don't only mean in small, grassroots groups. I also (and especially) mean as individuals; each of having our own impact on every other human being we come into contact within our everyday lives. Our actions can either reinforce the mantras the general public has learned under capitalism, or subtly—positively—chip away at them. William Greider, in a recent issue of The Nation, speaks to this point when he states that, "Government can do many things, but it cannot transform the society. Only the people can accomplish that. They change society gradually and in unannounced ways with their behavior and creativity..."[i]
Therefore, no socialist project—no matter how calculated, committed and self-critical—will ever survive if the individual forces that comprise society are, on a daily basis, actively perpetuating the very modes of thought and social relations which are antithetical to socialism. To think of it in another way, how well will any ‘green movement' fare, even if it succeeds in getting powerful legislation enacted, if the great majority of citizens decline to do the very simplest of ‘green' measures? In such a scenario, the U.S. might be the ‘greenest' it has ever been on paper and inside the halls of Congress, but in the individual household, there are still three air conditioners and two giant televisions on...with no one home. In this respect, power rests firmly with the people; not necessarily because they've demanded it or are entitled to it, but because it is what individual people do—whether consciously or unconsciously—that ultimately decides the fate of any major social project.
The Bigger Picture: Turning Around This Obstinate Ship
Believe it or not, many voters still look to legislators to do the "right thing"—or even, more vaguely, a "good job" (e.g. "Yes, I think he's going to do a good job," or "I don't like what s/he did; it wasn't the right thing to do"). Of course, those of us who care about the social sciences know how absurd statements like these are. And yet, they are real—very real. When people say these statements, they say them in earnest and believe that what they are saying has some degree of merit and depth. But before we scoff and dismiss, we should recognize that what they are saying must be grounded in something. Now, the definition of "right" or "good" is, of course, totally subjective. But what makes something "right" or "good", I believe, has much to do with what is already accepted as good (or bad), or right (or wrong). An example: Consider the social security system having never been created. I strongly believe that the general consensus would be that instituting a Social Security system would effectively represent government overstepping its bounds and that such an act would create perverse incentives. "Why then would these people work," asks this hypothetical average American, "when they could simply sit home and collect social security checks? And, moreover, why should I the taxpayer pay for it?" These arguments probably seem a bit strange—maybe even ruthless—at first; and that's exactly the point.
What I am getting at is the power of norms—the tendency for the current parameters and dimensions of governance to effectively define what is "good" and what is "right". What currently exists, what the current relationship between the government and the people is, has a tremendous effect on what is conceivable in the minds of average American citizens—i.e. the people that the Left should care most about. In case the example of social security didn't illustrate this point, consider the universal health care issue. There are large groups of people who would benefit from this, yet hold moderately persuasive, often passionate arguments against it. Why? Because they are under some infectious, supply-side spell? Maybe in some cases, but in large part I believe it has to do with the inability of these people to relate it to something which already exists. This is why many commentators (such as Paul Krugman, for example), when making arguments in favor of universal health care, will do their best to make the connection to Medicare and Medicaid. Why? Because these programs already exist and, to the best of my knowledge, do not have armies of opponents marching on Washington, calling for their immediate termination.
Changing norms leftward effectively places conservatives in an awkward position. There is much truth when the leftist points out that, in many historic cases, the conservative factions of the U.S. have been "on the wrong side of history", whether it be on child labor laws, food and drug regulation, segregation, and numerous other issues. The irony is that currently conservative people will often rather easily accept this argument. But in accepting it, they are almost implicitly accepting that U.S. history—i.e. the course of changing norms in our society—was a determined, destined, inevitable path. The truth is, of course, that it wasn't inevitable—it happened. But in their admission, we can see a valuable insight: the death of the reactionary; the death of believing that an entire course upon which the U.S. set out could possibly be altogether wrong. After it has stood the test of time, sewn itself into the everyday lives of (especially working class) Americans, it was generally realized first as a relatively "good" and/or "right" idea, and then, in further retrospect, as the inevitable idea. Again, whatever the issue, its outcome was—in reality—by no means inevitable. It was likely the result of immense, prolonged social struggles that, perhaps with less support, less organization, and less passion, may have failed. If it had, it too might have come to be understood as an inevitable failure. (Part of me suspects that this phenomenon is at least partially rooted in an unspoken social consensus that US policy, when done over the long-term—i.e. over the course of numerous administrations, headed by presidents of both parties—could not possibly be wrong. Saying otherwise would appear unpatriotic, which is generally not socially acceptable, thereby reinforcing this consensus in perpetuity.)
So how does this all relate to socialism in the U.S.? How can a socialist U.S. be realized? Of course, no one—nor easy—answer exists, but I would argue that shifting the center of the political spectrum leftward is key. That is, instituting new forms of social relations and government interaction which will one day appear as though they were the inevitable outcomes; that things should have gone as such because they were ultimately "right" and "good". How much easier it would be to argue for national housing and food projects when one could simply point to a successful national health care project! How easy it would be to argue in favor of a national (and international) political, economic, and social system which identifies as its primary objective the perpetual enhancement of human potentialities when we could point to successful programs which use precisely this kind of language!
But as of now, the Left is forced to make only tacit connections—such as pointing to Medicare when arguing for universal health coverage. And in working with developmentally disabled individuals for several years, I've come across another interesting—even if tacit—connection. A manual from the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) emphasizes the need for individuals to have an individualized ‘life plan' and advocates "assisting people to attain the highest quality of life and live as independently and productively as possible." It doesn't take much reflection to realize that these objectives—if universally applied to fully functioning people (i.e., society as a whole)—would represent a serious challenge to capitalism. As Michael Lebowitz has argued, "Knowledge of our needs and capacities is radical because it goes to the root, to human beings."[ii] This type of knowledge and terminology, at this very moment, is alive and well in a variety of social work fields that provide care to disabled individuals. Somehow, we've yet to consider holding ourselves to the same standards.
True, one might argue that disabled people aren't on ‘a level playing field' with fully functioning adults (as if all fully functioning adults were on a level playing field), and therefore warrant this kind of governmental support. But again, imagine a world in which there was no Medicaid or Social Security to fund these government and non-governmental agencies. The counter-argument, rather predictably, would then likely be something along the lines of, "Yes, it's a shame about those disabled people, but it's not the taxpayer's fault that they were born that way. A lot of times, such disabilities are the result of irresponsible parents during the pregnancy. The government shouldn't be footing the bill for people's irresponsibility and personal problems." Sound cruel? Sure, but is it really that far off from arguments that we hear every day on a variety of other issues that deal with some form of inequality? But again, the fact that Medicaid and Social Security—and, of course, the enormous number of agencies dedicated to providing care to these individuals (again, largely funded by Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security)—have existed for so long make it seem as though the act of governments and taxpayers getting involved in enhancing the capabilities of disabled individuals was inevitable. No one would dare argue against it now—not even as these government programs are currently stretched for funds and are encountering increasingly high demand.
That being said, the current obstacle is that only relatively tacit, sometimes tenuous connections currently exist (hence me trying to make an argument for Socialism by talking about the small percentage of the population which is deemed developmentally disabled). Therefore, expanding the number of connections, the pervasiveness of these connections, and the depth of these connections will enable leftward arguments to become increasingly resonant as the public becomes increasingly receptive, and will—one day—make the transition to socialism likewise seem to have been inevitable.
The strategy, then, must of course differentiate between the long and short-term. And for Socialists, I would say, there must be a stronger emphasis on progressive campaigns, even when they may be led by non-Socialist groups. These short-term victories can help to turn the capitalist ship around by changing what is acceptable, what is ‘normal', and what is ‘right'. Thus, getting behind "green" initiatives which either implicitly or explicitly discourage/stigmatize consumption may be a worthwhile cause for Socialists, even when these movements may be spearheaded by those who have no deliberately anti-capitalist ambitions.
However, it is equally crucial that Socialists do not forget their long-term objectives either. For example, in the case where the government designs programs to assist children in obtaining a good education, we should be careful. While those on the Left may typically support such activity, Socialists must exercise restraint when the form of government assistance involves, for example, paying children money in exchange for good academic performance, as has been practiced in New York City schools.[iii] This effectively engenders the money-worship and material-incentivizing that Socialists, in the long-term, must whole-heartedly work to eradicate. Therefore, supporting such a program would effectively be counter-productive over the long-term. It is precisely this kind of calculus with which socialists should operate as they begin to put more energy into the small, winnable battles that, at least on the surface, rarely appear to be Socialist in nature.
Of course, some socialists will predictably resent this position insofar as it would likely be slow in producing meaningful results. But to these people let me say this: Socialists must essentially do by argumentation what capitalism did for centuries by force, compulsion and propagation. Therfore, we must gain the trust, respect and loyalty not of those who currently sit atop the commanding heights, but of the great majority who for centuries have come to accept each word the capitalists preach as gospel and reason, and each word we speak as heresy and treason.
[i] From "The Future of the American Dream", The Nation, 5/25/2009 issue, p. 13
[ii] From "Build It Now" p.46
[iii] A clear demonstration of what I mean, one supporter of the program commented, "We are in a capitalist society and people are motivated by money across race and across class, so why not?" Available @http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/nyregion/19schools.html