Socialist Solutions for America's Problems

by Hans Rollman

5 May 2016

A growing array of America’s leading thinkers and activists have gone from critiquing the excesses of capitalism to charting the future of American socialism.
 
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The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century

Sarah Leonard & Bhaskar Sunkara (editors)

(Metropolitan)
US: Feb 2016

What sort of future do we want? “A better future, one where technology makes the pace of work more and not less tolerable, where democracy is radically expanded into our workplaces and our homes, where competition and exploitation eventually become barely remembered relics of an inhumane age,” write two of the contributors to The Future We Want, one of several new collections hitting the shelves in recent months with progressive and left-leaning aspirations. If the quote sounds flowery, the agenda the book lays out is unabashedly straight-forward: these scholars and activists want a socialist future.

Two key editors of the left—the Nation’s Sarah Leonard and founding editor of Jacobin Bhaskar Sunkara—have put together this collection of short essays visioning what that socialist future could look like. It’s a brief sketch of ideas and arguments spanning a broad gamut, each of them insightful and provocative.

Chris Maisano lays out the case for full employment. Let’s throw out the bogus notion that some level of unemployment is always necessary in an economy. The only purpose that serves is to benefit the rich bosses, who are able to balance an unemployment rate that’s low enough to prevent truly explosive revolutionary protest, yet high enough to keep wages down and workers divided, anxious and fearful for their livelihoods. Today’s movement for full employment needs to take a step further and also discard the historical ‘work ethic’, which holds that work is a virtue in itself and pleasure and leisure are sinful.

Quite the opposite. Our society’s true worth is determined not by what we produce in the capitalist economy, but by what we do and create in our free time. Full employment for fewer hours at the same rate of pay and more leisure—that’s what we need to be demanding, says Maisano. Such demands hold the same potential they did 100 years ago: they’re something workers of all types, genders, ages and ethnicities can unite behind; they require labour activists to engage with the broader political arena instead of just seeking more money for their own members, and they target the right of managers and the wealthy to organize and control the labour process. “[T]he program is clear: tax the rich, put people to work, shorten hours, and build the welfare state,” demands Maisano.

Megan Erickson targets the growing segregation of rich and poor that is occurring in America’s education system. A small slice of American children attend exorbitantly priced private schools (tuition at many of the top ones averages $45k annually) while public schools decay and more resources are spent on militarizing them with police and metal detectors than are spent on teaching resources. No one benefits from the current system: instead of learning life skills, public school students languish under relentless and pointless regimes of standardized testing; while private school students pay ludicrous amounts to learn life skills, yet live in a bubble, which utterly fails to simulate the real world they are ostensibly being prepared for.

The only solution is “a truly ‘public’ school system in which every child receives an equal and democratic education”; however, a prerequisite to education reform is going to be the need for social and economic reform. “Changing the style and substance of the experience inside schools is impossible without changing the material inequities outside them,” warns Erickson.

Jesse A. Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, and draw attention to Martin Luther King’s eventual realization that economic equality is just as vital as civil and voting rights in the struggle to achieve complete equality. Black Lives Matter urgently needs to build on its successes in drawing attention to civil rights violations to demand an economic program. This program ought to include measures like full employment (with an unemployment rate of 95 percent, teenage black high school dropouts from poor families dominate the unemployment statistics); a universal basic income that is not attached to employment; tax reform (a shift from taxing labor toward taxing monopoly and land rents, which are important parts of how white America maintains its privileged position in the US economy); and baby bonds directed at poor black families, a reparations-style initiative “eliminating the wealth advantage that white Americans command over their black countrymen.”

Leonard tackles sexual equality, tearing into the notion that women can “have it all” (which is just another way of saying that women should ‘do it all’). Moreover, “the women who are lauded for ‘doing it all’ usually have help”—poor and racialized immigrant women. The “have it all” version of feminism ignores the plight of poor women on which the fantasy of a work-life balance is based.

Part of the solution involves redistributing care (men still escape most of the burden here) and acknowledging care work as labor. Practically, this means universal public childcare, which has the potential not only to tackle inequality within the US, but by extension to start tackling inequality globally (given America’s reliance on underpaid female immigrant labor to fuel the success of its upper and middle classes).

Alyssa Battistoni tackles the relationship between socialism and environmentalism. The solution to our economic woes is not green jobs; overproduction and overconsumption will remain rampant even if we’re producing solar heaters instead of cars. What’s more, the overconsumption problem is not borne equally throughout society (as we’re often led to believe); rather, it’s predominantly the fault of the wealthy. She quotes Princeton’s Stephen Pacala: “the rich are really spectacular emitters… the top 500 million people (about 8 percent of humanity) emit half the greenhouse emissions. These people are really rich by global standards. Every single one of them earns more than the average American and they also occur in all the countries of the world.”

What’s more, simple austerity is not the answer to overconsumption. It can exacerbate the problem, as people produce and consume privately in order to compensate for cuts in public services. The fact that countries are competing to be at the forefront of the green economy threatens to simply perpetuate the destructive competition of the consumption-based economy.

The solutions, again, lie in doing less for more: reducing working hours (so as to reduce production) without reducing pay; increasing leisure time. If the US emulated Europe’s more generous work regimes (35-hour workweeks, extensive vacations), suggest some researchers, energy consumption would drop by 20 percent. “The sociologist Juliet Schor says we could work four-hour days without any decline in the standard of living; similarly, the New Economics Foundation proposes that we could get by on a twenty-one-hour workweek,” Battistoni points out.

Tony Smith looks broadly at the impact of capitalism on technological development. As is increasingly being pointed out, yet contrary to popular opinion, the private market does a poor job of technological innovation. Most of the technological innovations on which our world now relies emerged from publicly-funded research steered by the state. The private market, by contrast, tends to avoid risky experiments or research without clearly practicable results, leading to very little innovation and few breakthroughs.

However, living in a capitalist society means that the outcomes of research that could be used to improve our daily lives—by reducing workloads, for example—winds up intensifying them instead. Technology becomes used as yet another weapon in the battle between capital and labour. Hence despite a century of breakthroughs, which could have made life easier and more comfortable for everyone, here we are more overworked and burdened than ever.

Finally, the global system of capitalist inequality means that technological research and development remains a preserve of the wealthy West, with poor countries locked out of the potential for contributing to scientific research in what becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Solutions? More democratic control of the workplace, more public ownership of large-scale productive enterprises, abolition of capital markets, abolition of intellectual property rights. Smith reflects on what such broad initiatives could look like in practice.

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones follows this by taking aim at capitalism’s destructive impact on scientific research. The shift toward profit-oriented and privatized research has slowed down innovation and scientific advancement alike. It’s had other negative effects as well: capitalism encourages bad science. Groups like Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Centre estimate that in 2010 alone more than $200 billion was wasted on studies that were “flawed in their design, redundant, never published, or poorly reported.” This is the result of allowing research data to be kept in private hands where it isn’t subject to the review of the entire scientific community, and to the pressure researchers find themselves under to produce innovative, profitable and quickly publishable work. Only boringly prosaic and repeat experiments validate conclusions or reveal weaknesses; and today’s scientific funding agencies are only interested in funding new research that promises sensational, breakthrough outcomes.

Moreover, the flaws of capitalist science are interwoven with the flaws of neoliberal post-secondary education. By failing to fund public universities (and make tuition free) the US (and Canadian) government has downloaded education costs onto students through massive tuition fees, which accumulate into student debt. Such debt keeps students away from the sort of research we need to be doing—both the boring basic research that receives less and less funding in today’s world, as well as the risky and experimental research that could jeopardize a stable career—and this has a negative impact on our society’s store of scientific knowledge as a whole.

Kate Redburn zeroes in on LGBT rights, here too flagging the continued importance of the struggle for economic equality for LGBT persons. The struggle for marriage equality prioritized civil rights over economic justice, and while the tremendous gains achieved have helped to smash stereotypes and improved some couples’ finances through access to the fiscal benefits of marriage, the struggle for broader economic equality has languished. Trans people are twice as likely as cisgender Americans to live in extreme poverty (seven times more likely for Latin trans people). African-American gay male couples are six times more likely to experience poverty than white gay male couples. Trans women are still being murdered.

When it comes to funding LGBT struggles, only 0.015 percent of foundation spending across America goes toward trans communities, and of that amount, only four percent goes toward tackling violence and two percent toward economic issues. Has marriage equality—a struggle whose face has been middle class and white—derailed the struggle to draw LGBT communities, especially those that aren’t white, out of the poverty they’ve been forced into? “The problem,” writes Redburn, “is not the marriage litigation itself, but that it has been prioritized at the expense of directly battling economic inequality and violence.” Again, civil rights cannot bring about equality unless they are coupled with economic justice.

Tim Barker offers a provocative challenge to the populist truism that small business is better than big capitalism. That’s a superficial and often incorrect analysis, he warns. Large companies are often much more efficient, due to the benefits of centralization and concentration. Small business often leave a much larger proportional ecological footprint than large ones, while small business owners are notorious for prioritizing their profit margins over their workers, and then justifying it as a price to be paid for the virtue of small business.

What sort of virtue is embodied by a small business that pays its workers substandard wages and treats them harshly? At least larger corporations are more effectively brought to heel through unionization drives, public pressure or government legislation (suggests the author—this is arguable), and many of them offer admittedly basic schemes for health insurance or other benefits that are still well ahead of those provided by localized small businesses (the prohibitive cost being a primary factor for small businesses).

Meanwhile, organizations representing small businesses, i.e., the National Federation of Independent Business in the United States, donate prodigiously to conservative politicians and lobby vociferously against social welfare policies (their counterpart north of the border, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, serves a similar function, it should be added: battling against public social spending, minimum wage increases and other progressive initiatives).

Of course, this doesn’t mean big business is better, just that small businesses aren’t the best solution, either. “[T]he politics of small is better is so insidious precisely because it allows an aesthetic of consumer qualities… to stand in for real politics, allowing liberal shoppers a countercultural thrill while leaving basic economic structures unchanged.” This is key, Barker notes: “the fetish for small business endorses a deeply flawed ideology of human fulfillment.” It treats small business owners as heroes (and often martyrs) while ignoring that they are often just as cruel and regressive as the corporate leaders they struggle against.

Meanwhile, it ignores the truly heroic component of both sectors: the workers. “By posing the issue as one of big business against small, it cedes pride of place in the struggle for social justice to managers instead of workers,” writes Barker.

Of course, he notes, the instinct to support small business derives from a good place—an acknowledgement of the wrongs of capitalism. It derives from a desire for greater transparency in economic decision-making, a desire for greater class mobility. But those won’t be served by small business-owning tyrants any more than they’ll be served by captains of industry. Instead, urges Barker, we must look toward models that give greater control to workers: workplace cooperatives, guaranteed basic incomes, barter networks. These offer a direction for positive reform, not high-end independently-owned boutiques. “[T]he problems with large and small businesses share a common source—the private ownership of productive wealth and the unchecked power that employers exercise over workers as a result.”

The collection is rounded out by two larger, more ambitious pieces. Seth Ackerman pens a smart essay reflecting on what really worked and didn’t work about the planned economies of the Soviet era, and what has worked and not worked about the free market economies of the West both then and now. He argues that we need to set aside, for the moment, the essentially moral question about whether human nature is more compatible with free markets or planned economies.

Instead, he suggests, the immediate questions are technical ones: how to manage the vastly more complex divisions of labour required to maintain contemporary standards of living; and how best to balance these against honest measures of product value and labour. He offers intriguing suggestions for new directions through which to pursue the separation of ownership from control in a socialized economy.

The volume also contains a transcript excerpted from a 2015 panel discussion on the topic of “American Policing: Lessons on Resistance”. The panel brought together activists to discuss the racialized violence of policing in present-day America, and how to pursue its reform and abolition. The comments are instructive both in their varied suggestions for alternatives to the status quo, as well as their passionate and gut-stopping indictment of the racialized brutality of policing in the US, and its role in upholding the power of white America.

In closing, Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara propose a strategy for uniting today’s disparate interests and protests into collective struggle: an anti-austerity coalition for the United States organized around the demand that social spending for public welfare—which is currently often downloaded to the state-level—be federalized. Federal welfare programs have historically been more successful than state-level ones; federal programs tend to have less stigma attached to them and are thus less easily targeted by the moral attacks of conservative elites, and centralization allows greater efficiency, consistency and scale in the delivery of social welfare programs. This, they hope, will help to shift the direction of American politics away from austerity and back toward social democracy (or even socialism), and will unite the country’s fragmented activists in the process.

The Future We Want offers a combination of short, smart critiques of contemporary social and political issues from a socialist perspective, as well as a feisty and unapologetic demand to reinvigorate socialist politics in the United States. The collection comes at a time when socialist analyses of society are exploding in popularity and scale, and the bestselling nature of many of these books suggests that if they are preaching to the converted, then the masses have already converted. If not, then the future depicted herein certainly offers hope. As Frase and Sunkara conclude,

“We can’t go back to the postwar Golden Age of the American welfare state, but we can build a system in the twenty-first century that embodies what people remember most from that era—an overriding sense of freedom. Freedom to give their children an education without rival. Freedom from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible health care. Freedom to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to organize with fellow workers for redress.”

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