Trashing capitalism now in vogue, but its generation of misery is nothing new


As the economic crisis has worsened, confidence in capitalism seems to be sinkin’ like a stone.

I wrote about a month ago that The Nation–widely considered the most influential progressive publication in the country–started a series of stories in print and online on socialism and its relevance in the midst of havoc the unfettered free market has wreaked on the country and the planet. Others have followed suit: the cover of this month’s issue of In These Times magazine features the headline “The Meltdown Goes Global: It is time to rethink capitalism.” Hell, even the New York Times–certainly no bastion of anti-capitalist thought–ran a piece at the end of February whose tone mocked conservatives’ obsession with using “socialist” and “socialism” as dirty words, entitled Socialism! Boo, Hiss, Repeat.” And shockingly, some of their coverage of the G-20 actually treated protestors who identified as anti-capitalist, with anti-capitalist demands, as legitimate!

And the shift isn’t just in the media. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll indicates that barely more than half–53%–of American adults think capitalism is a better economic system than socialism. And Republicans thought big government bailouts and stimulus packages were scary! It can’t be long before conservative pundits look at those numbers and start calling for that 53% to start arming themselves for a fight against the impending tide of Communists coming to take away their guns and plasma screen TVs in service of The Party.

Yes, all signs seem to be pointing towards a growing number of Americans realizing that maybe the free market isn’t the same as freedom, and that capitalism might actually be causing all kinds of global misery rather than economic prosperity. And that’s certainly a very good thing.

But the framing of this discussion has really been irking me lately. The recession is being called a meltdown, a catastrophe, a disaster. And it is all those things, to be sure: working- and middle-class folks’ retirements have evaporated into thin air, unemployment is at astronomical levels, foreclosures are happening left and right. And this is all quite tragic.

But the misery bred by capitalism is no new development. I was thinking about this as I read that In These Times cover: “It is time to rethink capitalism.” Now is the time, now that “average folks” are being hit by the free market’s latest temper tantrum? Everything was cool before, but now we’ve gotta rethink this capitalism business?

News flash: the majority of the world has been getting screwed by global capitalism since its inception. Pick your poison: Columbus’ landing in Americas and the subsequent slaughter of millions of indigenous peoples, slavery and present), the fact that the average CEO in this country makes 344 times that of the average worker, the fact that half of the world lives on $2 or less a day, the incredible amount of violence and environmental destruction required to keep the system a-churnin’. The list goes on and on. These things have been happening for hundreds of years but few in the mainstream media and general populace in this country have batted an eye–quite the contrary, they’ve been ardent defenders of what is supposedly the greatest and most free economic system in the world. Once folks start losing their jobs, houses, and retirement, though, they begin rethinking capitalism.

I suppose this is the way things work in this country. The Vietnam War was rotten from the get-go, but it was poor and working-class folks who were the ones fighting and dying at the outset. It wasn’t until years into the slaughter, when bright-eyed middle-class kids–you know, the ones who were supposed to become doctors and lawyers and upstanding, all-American citizens–started coming home in flag-draped coffins that popular opinion turned against the war.

The same is true of our current economic collapse: it has taken a society-wide bludgeoning for folks to rethink a fundamentally unjust economic system. It’s just a shame there had to be so much suffering before we got here.

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.

Reviews: Black Liberation and Socialism, Confronting Fascism, and Strip Show

Three new book reviews—Black Liberation and Socialism, Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement, and Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire—have been posted in the book review section of the site. While all of there books offer valuable background information for those organizing broadly for a better world, Confronting Fascism and Strip Show address issues that have been of particular concern for activists in Grand Rapids—the increase in neo-Nazi activity and the question of how to deal with sexploitation (“sex industry”) clubs such as Showgirl Galleria. Similarly, Black Liberation and Socialism offers an essential overview of black history and race in the United States.

Black Liberation and Socialism

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Ahmed Shawki, the editor of the International Socialist Review, has authored one of the most compelling books on radical black history and black liberation, with Black Liberation and Socialism easily being essential reading for anyone interested in the ongoing struggle against racism and the historical achievements and failures of the movement. Beginning with the context of Hurricane Katrina and the deeply-rooted racism in the United States and the prejudices and priorities of the federal government, Shawki begins from the premise that the United States is headed towards an “inevitable and tumultuous conflict” in which race—and African-Americans in particular—will be at the center. To Shawki, this is a logic conclusion as he argues in the opening of the book that blacks have always been at the center of every period of radicalization in US history.

Shawki begins his analysis of black history with the abolitionist movement, which he describes as one of the most important social movements in US history in that it not only showed that racism was not immutable but that it can be successfully challenged both by blacks and whites. Abolitionism was a vibrant movement that grew from the margins of society to gather mass appeal, incorporated a variety of differing tactics and political philosophies, and set the foundation for black separatism and radicalism. Shawki moves on through the reconstruction period that challenged white supremacy and describes the failure of populism and the almost total disenfranchisement of blacks that resulted from its failures and the attempts of Booker T. Washington and the interracial unions in the early 1900s to confront racism. From here Shawki moves on to describe the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Communist Party all of whom were integrated organizations that worked to organize poor workers regardless of race in an effort to challenge the working class. However, this progress was stunted by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and retreat of the labor movement, which ultimately gave rise to the independent black civil rights movement because the left and the organized political parties failed to address the plight of black Americans. Out of this context, Malcom X and Martin Luther King arose, whom Shawki describes as the most successful and inspirational of African-American leaders. Shawki analyzes both the successes and failures of the civil rights movement and brings the reader to the present day, all the while making a variety of intriguing and useful interpretations of history.

For the most part, Shawki’s insights as a socialist give the book a strong focus on class—a focus that is often absent from history books and especially those dealing with the black liberation and civil rights movements. While there is one section in which Shawki gives a disproportionate amount of attention to fairly obscure socialist and communist political parties and organizations, his socialist background is otherwise a strong asset to the book. Shawki approaches the history of racism in the United States not only as a history of black oppression but also as a history of how the ruling class has been able to use racism to maintain its own power and wealth. To that end, Shawki examines the economic origins of slavery, examines the way class functioned in the populist era, examines the ruling class’ response to the upheavals of the 1930s, and examines the way in which racism continues as a tool of the ruling class. For Shawki, this class analysis is essential to understanding the struggle for black liberation and explains why these movements have failed many popular movements have been co-opted by the white ruling class that has been willing to accommodate some level of black integration—for example participation in the political process—as long as the underlying framework of capitalism is never challenged. Throughout the book, Shawki also describes how racism has been used to divide poor white and African-American workers, who on a basic level, are both being used by the ruling class and capitalism as a means to prevent each other from joining a common struggle for liberation.

Shawki presents his history as a means of continuing the struggle, making it clear that there is both much to learn from and much to be inspired by in the rich history of resistance in black history. His brief historical sketches and analyses of key historical movements provide valuable insights into the origins and functions of both racism and the movements against it, resulting in a book that helps illuminate why contemporary society functions as it does. Black Liberation and Socialism gives the reader an analysis and framework for understanding black history and resistance and charges the reader with the task of taking the lessons of history and using them to build an organized movement both against racism and for liberation. With the rich traditions of resistance profiled in the book, it is no easy task to be sure, but its necessity is indisputable.

Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left

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James Weinstein, a socialist and former member of the Communist Party, is currently the editor of In These Times and is a former editor of Studies on the Left and Socialist Review. Given his experience with such publications, he certainly seems qualified to write a history of the American left, although his attempt fails in numerous ways. The Long Detour: The History And Future Of The American Left, focuses on both the historical successes and failures of the American left in addition to providing his recommendations for the future of the left. By evaluating the historical development of the left and attempting to learn lessons from it, Weinstein offers the potential for this generation of “leftists” to avoid one of the biggest mistakes of previous lefts–the failure to learn from history and adjust strategy accordingly.

In analyzing the history of the left in the United States, James Weinstein makes a series of arguments that have become rather common knowledge to those identifying with “the left.” Weinstein primarily focuses on the Populist, Progressive, Socialist, and Communist movements and their legacy for both the left and the United States as a whole. He recounts the achievements of the Populist movements in running candidates that were able to win office and make concrete changes, the achievements of Progressive reforms, and the successes of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party’s success, according to Weinstein, was in its ability to get large portions of its program adopted by the two major parties, despite its failure to seize power. While this can be an effective short-term strategy, the failure of the Socialist Party to establish itself within the government shows the limits of this strategy. The piecemeal and distorted implementation of socialist programs by non-socialists attempting to “pacify” the population has resulted in the lack of a developed socialist left as seen in Europe and a failure for left ideas to get mainstream attention. Much of the rest of Weinstein’s history focuses on the failures of the Communist Party and the failures of Bolshevism, points that have been argued to great length over the past forty years, and indeed, little new insight is offered.

Moreover, rather than engaging the activity on the left by this generation, Weinstein instead seems to belittle them by either not mentioning them or throwing out thinly veiled insults at contemporary organizing methods. After first coming to prominence in this country in June of 1999, the anti-globalization movement has been arguably the most dynamic and energetic movement on the left, and the only movement that has achieved sustained participation over the past few years (large summit protests still attract thousands). However, Weinstein barely mentions this movement, making only passing references to creating “fair trade” policies. He also dismisses anarchism, a decentralized system of organizing that has gained considerable currency in the anti-globalization movement, as having a “lingering appeal” to “newly radicalized young people” despite what he claims is its complete inability to achieve any meaningful change. Weinstein also neglects to mention other expressions of the anti-globalization movement such as the World Social Forums and the large number of “counter-summits” that have been organized–many along anarchist principles–to develop an alternative vision of what a better world might look like. While Weinstein talks about the need to focus on “universal principles” and the need to develop an underlying framework for the left, he ignores some of the more serious attempts to do that over the past five years.

It is with his recommendations for the future that the book falls completely flat. While Weinstein highlights the successes of the trade union movement and the socialist movement of the early twentieth century, he rejects any attempts to create similar movements in the contemporary period. Weinstein, expanding on an argument advanced in his historical analysis, argues that the best way to win victories is to work within the two major parties. He rejects what he terms “love affair” the left has with creating their own party, arguing that such efforts are a “serious impediment to the creation of a coherent and effective movement to humanize our society.” Instead of creating a party which would truly represent the desires of those on the left, and quite likely, resonate with many others, Weinstein proposes a strategy of competing in local congressional districts as either Democrats or Republicans and using these campaigns to push the two parties towards the left while working within the existing Progressive and Black Caucuses in the United States Congress. He identifies areas in which successes could be achieved–health care reform, education, and the domestic and foreign policy ramifications of the military-industrial complex–although there is no explanation of concrete ways in which the two major parties might become more responsive to these issues.

The left is clearly in a dismal state in the United States, as there has not been an effective left movement in quite some time. However, Weinstein’s suggestions would do little to improve the status of the left. While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what needs to be done to move the left to a position where it can win victories and make concrete achievements in peoples lives, at this point it seems pretty clear that participation in the two corporate parties will not do that. Sadly, Weinstein’s opinions are representative of the arguments emanating from books written by many older leftists, and while they do represent one side of a debate, they often fail to take into account the more salient points of opposing arguments. With the future portion of the book lacking and the history featuring a fairly common analysis that can be found in any number of books, most on the left interested in learning from the past will have either already heard these perspectives or will be able to learn more valuable lessons by looking elsewhere.

James Weinstein, The Long Detour: The History And Future Of The American Left, (Westview Press, 2003).

It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States

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It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States should be essential reading for anyone that has ever been frustrated by the lack of a substantial left movement in the United States, as it offers a detailed historical and sociological study of socialism’s failure. Among leftists and academics there has been much discussion about why the United States never developed a substantial radical movement, although much of this talk is often based on hypothesis rather than the more detailed analyses put forth by Lipset and Marks.

The two authors take the most frequently cited arguments for why socialism failed in the United States–American exceptionalism, the electoral system, the relationship with the labor movement, the relationship with immigrants, sectarianism, and political repression–evaluating each argument with both analysis of movements within the United States and comparative analysis with socialist and left movements in other countries. This methodology works well and helps move the analysis beyond the hypothesizing of many others who have discussed the question.

Their approach illustrates the fact that there was not one reason why socialism failed; rather there are numerous explanations for its failure. Some of the reasons have to do with the socialists’ approach–they were overly dogmatic and unwilling to compromise in order to build a mass organization, socialism was perceived as a “foreign” doctrine brought by immigrants (although at the same time, “old” immigrants did not make a significant appeal to “new” immigrants because of perceived superiority), and they failed to connected with the mass of working people in the United States. Other reasons for socialism’s failure had to do with external circumstances–an electoral system that has an entrenched two-party system that is adept at absorbing and neutralizing radical movements, government repression, and the limits of Marxist theory.

I was not convinced by some of their claims–that the American Federation of Labor had syndicalist leanings and that Americans are characterized by an “antistatist” outlook (I do not equate skepticism of the federal government with antistatism) and that consequently anarchism had more of an appeal, but those were minor details. Overall, It Didn’t Happen Here is a thought-provoking that presents a detailed analysis of a question that has been asked by many and rarely answered so thoroughly. Understanding the failure of socialism in the United States is essential to understanding the failure of the general “left. However, I was left with one question after reading the text: in light of the failure of socialism, what will emerge as the viable alternative to capitalism and how can we avoid making the same mistakes?

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, (W.W. Norton, 2000).