Imagining Socialism in Our Lives

Against the Current, No. 171, July/August 2014

Ann Menasche

Living in a Socialist USA
Edited by Francis Goldin, Debby Smith and Michael Steven Smith
New York: HarperCollins, 2014,294 pages + index, $15.99 paperback.

WITHOUT A COHERENT vision of a better world and the organization that goes with it, even mass protests of ordinary working people in response to injustice will likely go nowhere or worse. Witness the disappointing results of the Arab spring in Egypt, the present mess in the Ukraine and the lack of staying power of promising movements like Occupy.

Thus, the anthology Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith and Michael Steven Smith could not have been published at a better time. With its 31 diverse contributions, part of the book’s importance is that it’s put out by a major commercial publishing house — thanks in large measure to the influence of veteran literary agent Frances Goldin — giving it access to a potential audience broader than the already existing left.

With the defeat of what used to be called “actually existing socialism,” and with the stark, repressive reality of these societies discrediting the ideas of socialism that had sustained generations of activists, American workers, even some of the most conscious, have been left demoralized and disoriented — yet the need for a socialist transformation has never been greater.

Whether we look at the existential crisis of civilization posed by global warming, the increasing impoverishment of the 99%, the perpetual wars abroad and the violence in our own communities, the dismantling of the public sphere in favor a soulless casino capitalism that continues to transfer wealth to billionaires and big corporations regardless of the impact on the lives of everyone else; or we observe the beginnings of the reversal of many of the gains won by the Civil Rights Movement, the union movement and the feminist movement over the last 60 years — without fundamental change, the younger generations are facing a bleak future indeed.

As stated in the editors’ Introduction, “We are running out of time. There must be a future for a radical mass movement, or there will be no future at all.” (xiii)

The first, though perhaps the easiest step in recreating this vision is taking the blinders off about our so-called democracy and telling the truth of the state of our current society. Paul Street does this effectively in his piece, “Capitalism: The Real Enemy.” He tells the story of Mike Borosky, laid off after 30 years on the job, losing health coverage and ending up with $63,000 in medical bills.

Street then generalizes to the outsourcing of jobs overseas, the growing poverty, and the 15 million still unemployed (all falling hardest on communities of color) despite record corporate profits and the accumulation of obscene fortunes (for example, the Walton family, founders of Walmart, with a net worth of close to $70 billion). He reminds us that Obama is beholden to big money, bailing out the big banks but failing to bail out ordinary Americans. Street concludes that “(f)undamental social change leading us beyond the profit system is essential” to “meaningful democracy” and to averting the pending ecological disaster. (21)

The Challenge of Imagining

More challenging is imagining the society we want to create. Joel Kovel presents an eco-socialist vision of creating “a society that serves the well-being of humanity and nature alike,” recognizing that there are natural limits that must be respected. (28)

This is somewhat of a departure from traditional socialist thinking, which lacking our present ecological knowledge, deemed productive capacity to be infinitely expandable. Kovel sees eco-socialism not just as a vision for the future, but as a movement in the present both confronting capital’s drive for ever more destructive methods of extracting fossil fuels and at the same time creating (“pre-figuring”) models of sustainable communal zones (such as community gardens).

Notably, in the Socialist Workers Party the dogma I was exposed to many years ago counterpoised mass action to building “counter-institutions,” the latter being deemed a “utopian” retreat from radical politics. Kovel embraces both forms of movement-building work.

Ron Reosti, in “A Democratically Run Economy Can replace the Oligarchy,” similarly looks to current non-corporate ownership — cooperatives, employee/community owned businesses, publicly owned utilities, government run agencies — as showing that running a non-capitalist economy is eminently possible. The intention is admirable, but I found his inclusion of the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Administration among examples of non-corporate efficient operations to be problematic.

In fact, vets with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from multiple deployments have been treated abysmally by the VA and have had to fight for their benefits (and the current scandal shows that the VA is certainly not “remarkably free of corruption”). (36) The Social Security Administration is similarly dysfunctional, routinely denying valid claims for disability benefits resulting in years long delays as applicants plod through the appeals process.

Rick Wolff’s piece (“The Shape of a Post Capitalist Future”) on the other hand, recognizes that the top-down corporate model cannot simply be transplanted into a socialized system of property but that workers must participate democratically in decision-making at work along with participation from the community. He outlines a “transition to workers’ self-directed enterprises” as a model for achieving “a radically different way of organizing the production, appropriation, and distribution of the enterprise’s surplus.” (50, 47)

However, I find disappointing that neither author (nor anyone else in this book) directly addresses how a post-revolutionary socialist society can avoid bureaucracy, and ensure that the society truly remains democratic and under the control of workers and consumers.

Two ways that immediately come to mind are by ensuring that everyone has the leisure time to participate actively in decision-making by drastically reducing the work-week (Ernest Mandel); and by keeping control as localized as possible — “municipalization” rather than nationalization (Boris Kagarlitsky).

In addition, the creation of a multi-party system that allows for diverse and minority views to be heard is essential to maintaining democracy, something Trotsky recognized.

Also, how do we guarantee access to the media for minority views or views critical of the government? Fred Jerome’s piece “Media in the Socialist USA” points to part of the answer when he envisions a diverse media owned by a variety of working-class organizations, not just by the elected government. However, this doesn’t go far enough in addressing this problem.

Vision or Utopia?

There is bound to be disagreement among socialists as to the details of our vision. We can only see into the possibilities that the future may hold, based on our own experiences as political activists that defines for us the possible. Based on my own life experiences, I found some of the authors in this anthology not visionary enough, while others felt too utopian.

On the “too utopian” side, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Davis (“Alternatives to the Present System of Capitalist Injustice”) rightly criticize the profit-driven system of mass incarceration of people of color and the poor (the new Jim Crow), but in calling for the complete abolition of the prison system in favor of restorative justice , they raise more questions than they answer.

 Restorative justice may work fine for certain offenses, but not say for rape or murder, where you wouldn’t want the victim or victim’s family to be forced to interact with the person who harmed them. Certainly, a socialist society could immediately reduce the prison population by 90% or more by eliminating the racist war on drugs and ending prohibition in favor of a sensible harm reduction strategy, as proposed in the thoughtful and nuanced article by Steven Wishnia (“Drugs in A Society Where People Care About Each Other”).

A socialist government could also immediately put an end to ridiculously long sentencing practices (along with ending the barbaric death penalty) and the war on undocumented immigrants. (A federal Public Defender recently confided in me that a majority of federal criminal prosecutions are for “illegal reentry” — in other words, immigrants without papers who crossed the border more than once.) Taking measures to end poverty would reduce rather quickly both gangs and street crimes.

In the short term, I can think of some people I would like to throw in prison who aren’t there now, including the CEOs of the major banks, heads of General Motors, and war criminals (including current and past presidents). But even many decades or centuries post-revolution, will humanity ever be perfected to the degree that it becomes completely free of serious violence or corruption — no crimes of passion, etc. — so that there would be no need at all for jails or prisons? My imagination gets stuck on that one.

Likewise, Michael Steven Smith in “Law in a Socialist USA” seems too abstract and pie-in-the-sky for my taste. “Legal institutions as we know them,” he states, “must gradually disappear as commodity relations die out…There will be no need for law as we know it.” (57)

I see a socialist society providing for an expanded set of fundamental rights including economic, social, civil and democratic rights, and lawyers (along with journalists) having a role to play as watchdogs of those rights. I also expect that individuals, couples, and groups may still have disputes that may at times need to be decided by a court.

However, lawyers would no longer be the purview of the rich and most working-class people left without assistance ( or at best with an overworked public defender), as it is now. Instead everyone would have a right to free quality legal representation. Maybe one of these days we may not need courts, law or lawyers, but my vision just doesn’t go that far.

Problems of Gender

 At the same time I found the essay “How Queer Life Might Be Different in a Socialist USA,” by Leslie Cagan and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, disappointing. Having cut my teeth on second wave radical/socialist feminism and the radical lesbian/gay liberation of the 1970s, I believe that putting an end to a system of male domination or patriarchy is eminently achievable through the combined power of socialist revolution, and a mass feminist movement led by a highly self-organized female population. (Of course, such a fundamental transformation would neither be easy nor quick.)

The authors posit that “(i)n a socialist culture, the current norms of male and female gender identity would be things of the past. Gender identity would not be based on the biological differences between male and female, although we would certainly not hide or deny those differences [and] (a)t the same time, the decision to alter one’s body or change one’s gender would also be respected and accepted.” (103)

When it comes to the gender system that assigns distinct roles, jobs, dress, skills, styles, personalities, behaviors and abilities to males and females on a social basis, I am an abolitionist. From this point of view, transgender — usually referring to gender non-conforming (“gender dysphoric”) individuals who modify bodily appearance through hormones and/or surgeries so sex appears to conform to the gender role the individual feels comfortable with — serves as a safety valve for maintaining a gender system, rather than liberation from or a challenge to it.

Cagan and Kaye/Kantrowitz  instead foresee a continuation of the gender system, even if in modified form.   They also  appear to give some credence to biological determinist theories of gender when they ask “Are our sexual desires and needs determined by biology — are we born that way?” (101) This is not an insignificant point. In my opinion, without an end to gender, the form in which male domination has been organized for many millenia, female liberation cannot be achieved.

I feel the same way about prostitution. While Cagan and Kaye/Kantrowitz say they “can imagine that there might still be some type of sex workers within a socialist culture” (103-4), albeit with very different “work relations,” I find myself agreeing with recent essay by Katha Pollitt in The Nation (“Sex Work: The New Normal?” 4/21/14) in which she writes, “when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area. They accept that sex is something women have and men get (do I hear rape culture anyone?)…The current way of seeing sex work is all about liberty — but what about equality?”

Fundamental Rights for All

At the same time, there are many things discussed in this anthology that virtually all socialists will agree with (even if we may disagree on some details). For example, getting the profit out of the medical system and putting money into research based on human need in order to provide quality — and not rationed — medical care for all; ensuring decent housing, good food and nutrition to all in a sustainable food system, the right to quality education from preschool to university, and the right to a job and a livable income for all (including for those who due to disability or age are unable to work); also, the right to rest and leisure that also allows time needed to participate in shaping one’s society.

These are all fundamental human rights that capitalist society violates every day.

Though not that much is new here, it is useful to remind ourselves — and the larger audience this book hopefully can reach — of these things. Every time I see an ad for drugs to treat “low T” based on its potential for large market share while real serious diseases are ignored and people suffer and die needlessly, I am reminded of the intolerable injustice of this society.

One essay stood out. William Ayers’ “Teach Freedom!” is a powerful indictment of the test driven trivia machine that the education system has become, while presenting an alternate  vision of a creative, joyful and democratic system that instills critical thinking and love of learning.

The most difficult section of the anthology, because it confronts the most challenging issue of all, addresses how do we get from here to there.

There are a number of useful ideas in this section, most of them having been around for a very long time: building mass struggles independent of the capitalist class (Paul LeBlanc); use of the general strike and building a labor party (Clifford D. Conner); plant occupations and taking over plants slated for closure (Dianne Feeley); fighting for a new bill of rights encompassing economic and social rights (Michael Moore); and planting the seeds of socialism “through the lens of the Black radical tradition,” including organizations like the Black Food Sovereignty Network in Detroit, and “people’s assemblies as democratic spaces for community control” (such as community control of the police) (Kazembe Balagun).

Clearly, as Michael Zweig points out in the speech he gave at Occupy Wall Street in 2011 included in the anthology, only “the organized strength of working people in unions and out” can effectively challenge the power of capital. (221)

However, there is no blueprint here or anywhere else for that matter for how the socialist left can break out of its current isolation and in the 21st century and beyond help organize this powerful force — the large majority of the population — toward the society we dare to imagine.

We are living in extremely frightening times. Life is becoming more difficult for most and many of the causes we have fought for are being pushed back. In this climate, all we can do is do the hard work we do each day in working for peace, justice and equality and involving ourselves in whatever struggles unfold. One never knows what seeds will take root, as the late Pete Seeger said.

Actually, there is one more thing with can do. We can also build communities and cultures of human solidarity and struggle through poetry, music, and in a word Che Guevera used, love. Such communities, in line with Joel Kovel’s ideas, could prefigure the future we wish to create, while helping to sustain us for the long haul.

There are no guarantees, of course, that humanity will ever get there, though some of my comrades in the olden days tried to convince me otherwise. Global catastrophe is a real and growing possibility. But it is important to keep the dream alive and continue to imagine. The one poem in the book, “Imagine the Angels of Bread” by Martin Espada (263-5), says it all:

“This is the year that squatters evict landlords…
That shawled refugees deport judges…
So may every humiliated mouth,
Teeth like desecrated headstones,
Fill with angels of bread.”

July/August 2014, ATC 171