So you say you want a revolution …
… well, we all want to change the world. In How to Destroy the Democratic Party … I explored an approach that could lead to an independent party with more than symbolic strength. But recalling the dog who finally caught the car he’d been chasing all these years, it would raise the question of what we would do when we finally catch it, i.e., had some serious parliamentary strength backed by an energized mass base. In that light, I’ve been mulling over the various 3rd party platforms, in terms of serious power politics.
I’ve noticed that some writers on FDL seem quite moderate, while others are flaming revolutionaries ready to take to the streets and launch general strikes and have 5 million people seize the halls of Congress and smash the two-party system (and indulge in a strange nostalgia for “saver of capitalism” Franklin Roosevelt). But if one takes a closer look, what they are fighting FOR is often quite vague (end control of our elections by the rich) or quite moderate (some version of European social democracy — which seems to be doing so well these days), and sometimes radical indeed. Furthermore, while some advocate socialism, the collective understanding of socialism is utterly muddled, with some progressives actually arguing that ANY government regulation of business is socialism.
(This latter is merely a version of taking the plutocrats’ definition of any restriction on their god-like powers to be flaming bolshevism. No. Socialism entails POWER for the working class. There have been two major variants of this, the British post-WWII nationalizations of certain heavy industries such as the coal industry, steel, BBC and transportation under the Labour Party, and the state capitalist versions under the former Soviet bloc. Social Security doesn’t make the U.S. socialist any more than the poorhouses made 19th century England socialist.)
So, I’ve taken a look at various 3rd party programs, and would like to focus on the Greens, as their program is the most developed. While it is not explicitly socialist, it nonetheless raises the issues and contradictions endemic to even an explicitly socialist party.
Many of their platform points are quite good, sensible environmental measures, clean government processes, logical corporate regulations, i.e., liberal reforms, the perfection of capitalism. Others are what I would call system-busters — changes that would not be able to be implemented within the boundaries of capitalism as we know it, or changes that would be system-busters if rigorously carried out, such as the Greens “Participatory Democracy, rooted in community practice at the grassroots level and informing every level, from the local to the international.”
Let’s look at the system-busters:
COMMUNITY BASED ECONOMICS Redesign our work structures to encourage employee ownership and workplace democracy. Develop new economic activities and institutions that will allow us to use our new technologies in ways that are humane, freeing, ecological and accountable, and responsive to communities … Establish some form of basic economic security, open to all … Restructure our patterns of income distribution to reflect the wealth created by those outside the formal monetary economy: those who take responsibility for parenting, housekeeping, home gardens, community volunteer work, etc.
For discussion purposes, lets change “encourage employee ownership and workplace democracy” to REQUIRE. Encouragement comes cheap.
WELFARE: A COMMITMENT TO ENDING POVERTY: All people have a right to food, housing, medical care, jobs that pay a living wage, education, and support in times of hardship … Work performed outside the monetary system has inherent social and economic value, and is essential to a healthy, sustainable economy and peaceful communities … federally funded entitlement program to support children, families, the unemployed, elderly and disabled, with no time limit on benefits. … We call for a graduated supplemental income, or negative income tax, that would maintain all individual adult incomes above the poverty level, regardless of employment or marital status.
UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE: … universal, comprehensive, national single-payer health plan … Lifetime benefits for everyone. No one will lose coverage for any reason.
LIVEABLE INCOME: … universal basic income (sometimes called a guaranteed income, negative income tax, citizen’s income, or citizen dividend). This would go to every adult regardless of health, employment, or marital status, in order to minimize government bureaucracy and intrusiveness into people’s lives. The amount should be sufficient so that anyone who is unemployed can afford basic food and shelter.
In summary, food, housing, medical care, decent jobs, education, and a strong safety net as basic human rights, with the economy accountable to the community in a serious way. The Socialist Party (SP), the Green New Deal Coalition, and the NY Working Families Party (WFP) have more or less parallel positions, the SP a little stronger on government control of the economy and union matters, the WFP more short-term legislation-oriented.
Why do I call these reforms system-busters? One common left attitude is that the capitalists are driven by greed, they amass obscene amounts of personal luxuries, and are rolling in dough. Thus we can simply tax (or seize) their obscene wealth and use it to provide jobs and safety net for everyone. Sorry, wouldn’t work. While individual capitalists may drink their Bloody Marys mixed with the blood of proletarian babies, the capitalist SYSTEM isn’t doing so well. We can point to corporate profit margins and all that. But those profits are illusory.
Consider that supposed powerhouses such as Lehman Brothers (assets of $691 billion), Washington Mutual ($327.9 billion), Bear Stearns ($28.9 billion), AIG ($1 trillion) and General Motors ($91 billion), CIT ($71 billion), Chrysler ($39 billion), and Thornburg Mortgage ($36.5 billion) went into bankruptcy. Citi ($1.9 trillion) was considered seriously threatened, but ran to the Middle East for funding, and Fannie Mae ($890.3 billion) is considered very precarious. Ford ($203.1 billion) and Delta Air Lines ($44.9 billion) have buzzards circling overhead. (various sources)
Yes, their executives reaped obscene salaries and bonuses, yes, some were held together by federal bailouts, yes, some were devoured by other Wall Street predators. But the point is that their balance sheets just didn’t cut it when the 2008 collapse hit. Paper assets just didn’t hold up when one sector met a sharp pin, and the shock waves went around the globe.
In addition to so much of their gazillions in assets being nothing but the paper, er, I mean, the electronic spreadsheets they are entered on, there is this thing called capitalist competition. While the 2008 collapse showed plutocrat solidarity against we common people, they had no compunction in slitting each other’s throats at the same time. Then there is the matter of oil hitting peak production, and then declining FOREVER. Economists may argue whether that point has already been reached, or merely looms a few years hence. But either way, that has to enter their calculations.
As they try to shore up their empire, the bloc emerging around China and Russia is solidifying its positions while the American empire deteriorates daily. That has to enter their calculations.
There are massive bubbles aplenty, waiting to burst just as the mortgage bubble burst, with untold shockwaves to come. Billions in student loans that will never be paid back because graduates can’t get jobs is among the most obvious. There is a massive credit card bubble out there. Various European debt crises. Banks and insurance giants have been trimming their reserves of cash on hand, setting up row after row of teetering dominoes. A corporate favorite, Credit Default Swaps, result in a situation where, as Rodrigue Tremblay put it in Economic Bubbles and Financial Crises, Past and Present, “nobody really knows who owns or owes what to everybody else.” (You should really read that whole piece.)
Oh, and did I mention global warming?
It used to be understood that capitalism worked best under a free and open system. That it is becoming increasingly constrained and repressive is not a sign of strength, but of profound weakness and fragility. That it appears to us as strength is not due to their actual strength, but to the abject weakness of progressive forces in this country.
So let’s vote for socialism
Suppose in the 2012 election, it was discovered that Obama and Biden did it with billygoats in a menage a trois caught on tape by the ASPCA, the Republican presidential nominee was found in bed in a hotel room with a donkey that was here illegally from Mexico, and at the 2012 State of the Union, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court were caught on national TV dropping acid in a massive sex orgy with the entire barnyard. The scandal was such that a Green/Socialist Party coalition took the White House and swept Congress. Their first bill was the comprehensive “Let’s Have Socialism Act,” passed unanimously by both houses and signed by President Greenbottom, with the full support of 80% of the American people.
Banking, insurance, transportation and communications would be nationalized within a reasonable time-frame.
Their second bill was the “Get the Fuck out of the Middle East” law. Troops there would start leaving by cars, trains, airplanes and boats as soon as possible. All of them. They would be decommissioned and put to work rebuilding the American infrastructure, including a comprehensive national rail system, and urban mass transit. New Orleans would truly rise again.
Healthcare would be provided gratis by the government, and a decent income guaranteed to all. All would be provided by massive taxation of corporate income. An emergency control board would be created to manage any dislocations. Funds would be put into medical — especially paramedical — training to cover any shortage of doctors.
Then the shit would hit the fan.
They’d get us like they got Allende. To refresh our memories, the Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970. He pursued a policy of nationalizing mining and healthcare, collectivizing agriculture, and improving the lot of the poor. In response, the CIA and ITT conspired with Chilean landowners to “make the economy scream,” through disinvestment and sabotage, while urging the Chilean military to stage a coup. In 1973, Chilean generals led by Augusto Pinochet staged a coup, killed Allende, and instituted a fascist regime that hunted down and murdered the left.
Setting aside how the military and fascist right would respond to President Greenbottom, consider what would happen to healthcare. Government-supplied healthcare would provoke the insurance giants and big pharma to shut down healthcare in this country. Before the country was able to train new doctors and reorganize the system. Banks would stop lending, and money would disappear in the trillions. Communications would break down. Even the mildest of reforms would trigger domino effects that would disrupt every aspect of the economy. The middle class would be clamoring for a military solution to restore order.
I have little patience with those who carp that electoral politics are useless. They are a useful tactic, a place where organizing can take place, they give the left an aura of legitimacy. But you can’t just legislate socialism, and you can’t just legislate the near-socialism embodied in the Green or SP platforms. The essence of socialism, real socialism, is that the working class — or the people, if you prefer — runs society. Not just passes laws for running it.
Thus, if an industry were nationalized, it would be inadequate to merely give new orders to the old management structure. It would mean that the workers in that industry would have to find a way to organize that industry. With the help of individuals from the old regime? Certainly. But new ways of operating would have to be created, whether union committees or wholly new structures.
Could it be done quickly if the people were sufficiently organized? I would guess there would have to be some kind of transitional period.
Naked legislation is a prescription for catastrophe
All right, set aside this best/worst-case scenario. I believe that the precarious position of so much of the economy renders even modest reforms perilous. Suppose government passed and enforced open and honest accounting for the banking and insurance industries. Given the phony assets out there, could even that trigger a massive banking crisis? And where would that ball stop rolling? Set up a serious public option (no mandate) in competition with corporate healthcare. Could the insurance industry survive that? And consider how interpenetrated the insurance industry is in high finance, could our financial institutions stand that? Could the insurance industry even stand enforcement of existing requirements for reserves?
If we cut half the military budget just in half, what would be the shockwaves to aerospace, weapons, local economies dependent on military bases?
The bullshit left argument is that if we shut down certain parts of the economy, that money can be invested elsewhere. Maybe, if that investment were government-directed AND managed, with no requirement that it turn a profit. But remember the health of an economy is not determined by how much money the capitalists have, either personal or corporate funds. Rather, that health is determined by whether the capitalists believe that money can be re-invested at a profit. This is why a rising stock market is indicative of absolutely nothing. This is why the banks are drowning in cash while small businesses go begging.
One might argue that the capitalists would hardly commit suicide like this. Maybe not once upon a time. (And remember that Allende was murdered, not a suicide.) But the empire has become detached from its U.S. base, operates globally. At this point, it is clear that the U.S. economy is expendable if it comes to that.
Yes, Virginia, there is a crisis of capitalism.
So the doomsayers are right?
No way! I’m not writing this to discourage anyone. Don’t be packing your bags. Rather, I’m trying to put into perspective the immensity of the task. Which has to be taken on, if we are to survive the slow (and not so slow) motion collapse we are in the midst of. It is going to take a level of organization this world has never seen. On a practical level:
(1) The broad politic of resistance should be firmly populist, not socialist or quasi-socialist. The disparity between the level of social organization and the highly-interwoven system held together by spit and gum is too great, and people’s gut sense of this — whether or not explicitly articulated — is too great, and deters parties like the Greens from making serious inroads, quite aside from their lack of aggressive organizing.
(2) On a practical level, there are no easy fixes, and any short-term solutions are just that, short-term. The system is structurally broken, this is a dying empire, and its potential to collapse on our heads rather than inspiring spontaneous uprising is terrifying. Resistance such as in Greece is inspiring, but cannot reach into the heart of the system. We need a vision that embraces serious structural changes to the economic and political system, whether socialism, a new world order, or something unforeseen, with the organizational strength to make it stick.
(3) Hence we need a high level of social organization, such as actually emerged in the South and Midwest during the populist period in the 1800’s, where entire communities banded together with the urban labor movement to oppose the robber barons. And that organization must be able to operate on a populist level tactically, while simultaneously working towards long-term structural change.
(4) Elections are a tactic. The exact role they play is yet to be determined. They could create an Allende-like crisis, where the fight has to be finished in the streets, or they could be used to “seal the deal” following a broad range of struggles. The notion that elections are useless for serious change is both trivial and, in fact, useless.
(5) The crisis is international. Whatever conclusions we may draw, international developments will call many of the shots, and open up the potential for strong alliances.
Thrilling days of yesteryear
In the 30’s, the organizers of the industrial unions had a good slogan, “Organize ourselves! Organize the organizers! Organize the masses!” You can’t just have people organizing willy-nilly as a bunch of individuals. Goes nowhere. People remain as (heroic) individuals, and that individuality renders them impotent.
(1) Organize ourselves. Even a group of two has vastly more power than any individual. Develop a plan. Develop a common perspective on how the system works, how to approach it strategically. My piece How to Destroy the Democratic Party … tries to lay out a partial perspective. I note with some excitement the recent pieces by Liz Berry, The majority of Americans are fed up with the Tea Party/Republican AND the Democrat Parties, and matthewj, No Confidence Protest Vote 2012. I have serious disagreements with both, but both have a strategic/organizational component that is a cut above. Then there is the New Progressive Alliance (NPA), which has a much more sophisticated perspective, working both within and outside the Democratic Party to build a crossover alliance of progressives.
(2) Organize the organizers. With a plan in hand, and a core grouping to carry it out, you can organize others AROUND THAT PLAN itself.
(3) Organize the masses. (Okay, maybe the lingo can be updated from 1930’s CP-speak.) With critical mass achieved, campaigns can be launched to build new base organizations at different levels. We absolutely cannot just leap to this level. As heroic individuals, the problem is to get everyone out of the pool — the same pool — at the same time. There may be spontaneous events, but neither the events in Wisconsin or Egypt were spontaneous. There were organized forces behind them. If they appeared to “come out of nowhere,” that has to do with the acquired blindness of the media, the State Department, and the American left.
As usual, I raise more questions than I answer. But I firmly believe that we need to start with step one. We need to discuss actual plans, not just battle cries, and begin to coalesce around those plans. They don’t have to be perfect. It is in practice that their merits will be tested.