Socialism: Worth Another Look in Light of Economic Crisis?

The Nation is Hosting an Ongoing Debate About the Relevance of Socialism in Light of Capitalism's Failings

The March 23 edition of The Nation introduces a four-issue series entitled “Reinventing Capitalism, Reimagining Socialism.” The series is of note because it boldly proclaims socialism’s pertinence in the midst of our collapsing capitalist economy. This discussion has not taken place in the United States for quite some time–progressives should seize the moment and engage in society-wide anti-capitalist conversation.

The cover features two articles: “A Bank Bailout That Works” by Joseph Stiglitz, former head of the World Bank and leading critic of globalization, and “Rising to the Occasion” by Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and prolific author, and Bill Fletcher, executive editor of The Black Commentator. In response to Ehrenreich and Fletcher, prominent leftist figures Immanuel Wallerstein, Tariq Ali, Bill McKibben, and Rebecca Solnit discuss their feelings on socialism’s relevancy for the current financial crisis.

While Stiglitz is somewhat more centrist than many of the writers on this blog, his piece does a solid job explaining some of the finer points of how our economic system ended up in such freefall. In addition, he argues against bailing out the bankers, those whose greed got us into this mess in the first place, and forcefully condemns the old neoliberal dogma that the market can be relied on to distribute goods efficiently to citizens (although any rational being, even those who haven’t won the Nobel Prize for Economics, can surely come to this conclusion after taking a cursory glance at our what’s left of our economy).

Of more interest, however, are Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s and Wallerstein’s articles, if for no other reason than their attempt to reclaim the rich legacy of socialist thought in remaking our country and world into a more just and equitable place.

Socialism became a dirty word thrown at Barack Obama by right-wing pundits and politicians alike in a sad attempt to squeeze a few last drops of milk from a cow that has given so abundantly to them in the past, the Red Scare. The sliming attempts have continued (although in my opinion they simply make the Republicans appear more irrelevant and out of touch than ever), but there seems to be a noticeable shift in the dialogue–seen most clearly in Newsweek’s February 16 cover story “We Are All Socialists Now.” The story’s analysis is shallow, to be sure–as Naomi Klein has argued, throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at banks without giving the citizens who are keeping them afloat any democratic control is not socialism–but it seems to represent a shift in the larger discourse of US society about how to get out of our current financial mess.

Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s article is a call for socialists and like-minded progressives to step forward and show that they have an alternative to the way business has been done under American hypercapitalism. The neoliberal insistence on the infallibility and inherent logic of the market has been proven terribly, terribly wrong; we have to step up and point out that we socialists (and anarchists and other anti-capitalists) have been right all along.

“The great promise of capitalism, as first suggested by Adam Smith and recently enshrined in “market fundamentalism,” was that we didn’t have to figure anything out, because the market would take care of everything for us. Instead of promoting self-reliance, this version of free enterprise fostered passivity in the face of that inscrutable deity, the Market. Deregulate, let wages fall to their “natural” level, turn what remains of government into an endless source of bounty for contractors–whee! Well, that hasn’t worked, and the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we–not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners–have to control our own destiny.”

Though Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s piece begins The Nation’s series on Reimagining Socialism, it is Immanuel Wallerstein’s article that is most impressive. The article is particularly helpful for the millions of progressives (myself included) who find ourselves unsure of how to think about Barack Obama and organizing for social change while his administration is in power.

Wallerstein argues that there are “two occasions which require to plans for the world left”: the short run and the middle run. The short run has to do with the immediate conditions of misery faced by the market’s collapse: homelessness, unemployment, lack of health care, loss of life savings, and the like. The middle run is about dismantling the undemocratic, inequality-laden, environmentally destructive system of capitalism that causes these problems. Obama can deliver on the former, but not the latter:

“What we want from Obama is not social transformation. He neither wishes to, nor is able to, offer us that. We want from him measures that will minimize the pain and suffering of most people right now. That he can do, and that is where pressure on him may make a difference.”

When compared with our two options in the last election, Obama and McCain, Obama is certainly the one who is more likely to respond to grassroots pressure to address the most visibly painful results of capitalism. We should be thankful that we do not have as callous of a president in the Oval Office as John McCain. But Wallerstein makes clear that when it comes to long-term structural change, Obama is no different from McCain or any other politician. We need to distinguish between where he is our enemy and where he is our friend, because he is not solely one or the other.

“The middle run is quite different. And here Obama is irrelevant, as are all the other left-of-center governments. What is going on is the disintegration of capitalism as a world system, not because it can’t guarantee welfare for the vast majority (it never could do that) but because it can no longer ensure that capitalists will have the endless accumulation of capital that is their raison d’être. We have arrived at a moment in which neither farsighted capitalists nor their opponents (us) are trying to preserve the system. We are both trying to establish a new system, but of course we have very different, indeed radically opposed, ideas about the nature of such a system.”

The Nation’s inclusion of these pieces will hopefully be a part of a larger shift in society that brings anti-capitalist ideas to the forefront. It is tragic that a global financial meltdown has been required to achieve this–although it should be remembered that for the vast majority of the world, capitalism has never entailed anything but disaster–but we have to seize the opportunity.

Check The Nation’s web site in the next few weeks for the ongoing discussion.

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Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org