The Case for a Socialist America
On the road the other day, I saw a bumper sticker that made me laugh out loud. Placed next to a “Bernie 2016” sticker, and in the same design, it read, “Giant Meteor 2016” and in smaller print, “Just end it already.”
Leaving aside the particular disgruntlement of a beaten Bernie Sanders supporter that it expresses, we can see in the bumper sticker a gallows-humor cry from the heart that broad sections of the population can appreciate. After all, with the official nomination in Cleveland last night of Donald Trump as the Republican party’s candidate and the certainty of a Hillary Clinton nomination next week at the Democratic party’s convention in Philadelphia, the American electorate are faced with two intensely unpopular candidates for the presidency. The quick mercy of a cosmic doom might look preferable to a continuation of our slow descent into near-universal debt peonage, environmental destruction and endless war under the thumb of an increasingly merciless plutocracy.
We are indeed on the gallows, Americans along with all humanity. We stand condemned by forces of greed and destruction, the psychotic race for profits among the elite that “externalizes” the costs of climate change, poisoned water, decrepit schools, impoverished cities and rural areas, slashed social programs and raided pensions. They are costs foisted upon us with the help of a complicit media that serves to apologize for and distract us from the reality of our sentence. And when the opiate of the media fails to keep us feeling numb and helpless, when we rise and join together to protest our condemnation, we are met with a militarized police and a surveillance apparatus the likes of which the world has never seen. A grim joke about a giant meteor might seem like a last act of defiance. But is it just a joke?
There is a meteor, a mighty force that can shatter this gallows and shake the corporate state to its foundation. This meteor is us, the ordinary people, and the elite are terrified of us. When we choose to strike, we will “just end it already.” We will end the control of our resources, our time, our labor, our minds, our planet by a small class of murderous thieves. We will end the obscene disparity between rich and poor, the shame and despair of poverty, the human destruction of mass incarceration. We will end the stultifying grip the profit motive has on our neighborhoods, our families, our bodies, our identities. These are words, but they aren’t just words. They are the challenge that lies before us.
Capitalism, the chase after profits, is dying a violent death. From the potential disintegration of the Republican and Democratic parties to the potential disintegration of the European Union to the potential disintegration of NATO, the political, economic and military structures that have enabled capitalism to bribe, cheat and steamroll the people of the world are crumbling. Why? Because the contradictions at the heart of capitalism have finally caught up with it.
Wealth is created by work. Wealth is increased when workers are paid less. But of course, under capitalism, wealth depends on selling the stuff that work produces. When workers are paid less, they are not able to buy more. In America, the answer until recently has been to maintain two separate groups of workers—the haves and the have-nots. For a while these workers shared the same cities, the gap between them causing local resentments that resolved themselves in local customs like having separate social clubs and separate churches and undergoing the occasional labor war. With the rise of unions, the wealth gap narrowed, and the so-called “middle” class grew and prospered, though there were still have-nots. These groups included African Americans and women at home and, abroad, an invisible underclass whose resources were plundered and whose “markets” were thrown open to American goods. This was already a global economy, but with the 1980’s came true globalization. And the great decline began.
Now work could be cheap again, performed by workers who lived in other countries where there were no unions or mandatory minimum wages, and where governments had a free hand to deal with labor movements. Exit the American middle class. Capitalism had solved its labor problem, but at the expense of consumption. If foreign workers are being paid less and Americans are losing their jobs, who will buy more? The answer was that Americans, many of whom had fallen from the middle class to the class of low-wage “underemployed” and unemployed, would continue to buy the props and scenery of the middle class spectacle. But they would buy on credit. Corporations would profit, banks would profit, many Americans would live well. These were the 90’s. What we must remember about the 1990’s, however, is the growth of homelessness, the cold Clinton-backed “workfare” that devastated so many poor families, the creeping unemployment. The decline continued.
By 2007, the game was up. An economy built on debt cannot stand, and the collapse was felt throughout the world and continues to be felt. In America, capitalism survived only by looting the national treasury and printing trillions of paper dollars. In Europe the age of “austerity” was begun. Whole countries, like Greece and Spain, collapsed under debt to foreign banks. What comes next?
American consumers have maxed out their credit cards, a generation of students have racked up student loan debt they may never pay off, a living wage becomes increasingly hard to find, and more and more people are falling out of the middle class into a life of disadvantage that others have known for generations. In a race to the bottom, American workers are increasingly “contract” workers, with no real employer and so with no real benefits and, once out of work, no source of unemployment insurance. Capitalism has more cheap labor than it can use because there is no one left to buy what the workers make. The contradiction can no longer be evaded, and the elite have no answers. Trump, a reactionary nationalist, talks of protectionism, which would only cause an international seizing of capitalism’s gears and throw the world into depression. Clinton, a neo-liberal, promises more of the same imperialist adventuring abroad and debt-based economy at home—another dead end. The answer must come from us, and it must begin with the abandonment of capitalism. It is sinking, and it wants to tow us under.
Abandoning capitalism means discarding the profit motive. It means that the people control the factories that make our necessities and the forests, fields, mountains, rivers and oceans on which we depend for life. When I say the people must control these resources, I mean it literally, I do not mean a centralized government a la the Soviet Union. Stalinism was not socialism. And the people’s control must be democratic. How many of us would vote to worsen climate change? To leave an ocean dead, to pollute a river, to decapitate a mountain? There would be hard choices to make about what gets produced, what forms of energy are to be used, what technologies will receive our investment. But they would be our choices, and they would be made with the goal of maximizing human well-being, not maximizing the profits of a few. There would be no more profits, no more cheating a worker or fleecing a consumer. No more advertising. No more generations of children abandoned to inadequate education. No more poverty and no more wealth, which can only exist as poverty’s shadow.
Is this vision utopian? Of course it is, if by utopian one means optimistic of what we can achieve. And as I look at the fix we’re in, I am nothing but optimistic that we can do a whole lot better than this. We need not pretend life would no longer be hard, that we would not still be hunted by sickness and death, disappointment, boredom and heartache. But we would not be hungry, and we would not carry within ourselves the anxiety of knowing others are hungry. Nor would we likely have to devote fifty hours of every week to soul-crushing work that serves little purpose other than to enrich a few people in a class above ourselves and to keep the wheels of capitalism rolling.
And war? That man-made evil that we are always told is part of “human nature” would shrivel and die along with banks and insurance companies. It never was the farmboys and shophands of one country that suddenly decided to invade the country of other farmboys and shophands. War would vanish because the causes of war would vanish. In an international order of socialism—and only international socialism qualifies as socialism—no oil barons or arms manufacturers would stand to gain from the conquest of a piece of land or an exchange of missiles. There would be no such barons or manufacturers.
Would there be greedy individuals who would seek to acquire more than their share? Certainly it possible. And they would be treated as having ideas that family, education and society are responsible to correct, and perhaps psychiatry to cure. But there would be no mechanism, no business college, no stock market to provide them with an outlet for their perversion. And the profit motive is a perversion. It takes all that is best in human beings and human society and turns it on its head. It is time we outgrew it. Between here and there is a dark forest. It is mysterious and it is to be feared. But if we head down the forest path together, it may be that the journey will be shorter and easier than we think.
Or maybe not. But we have no choice. No meteor is coming to destroy us in the blink of an eye, and we deserve better than such a misanthropic fate. We must face the reality of the present in all its ugliness, and we must be the force that creates a future we can bear. Whatever the cost. The other side will be violent. Violence is, after all, their strength. We must not be violent. We cannot win at their game. Instead, we must act together, as a species, to dismantle this dysfunctional order of things and build one that makes sense and takes care of people.
So thank you, Bernie Sanders, for giving the word socialism back to the people. Now it is up to the people to make socialism more than a word.
Photo source: freebeacon.com