We are fewer than ten days removed from the 2018 midterm elections, but it would be easy for old guard U.S. liberals to conclude that they are on a path to containing, co-opting and neutralizing the new socialist movement that has taken shape rapidly since the global financial crisis convulsed our economy and our politics a decade ago. Much of that movement consists of young people who were traumatized and embittered by the economic hardships and stagnation of the Great Recession. For them, the recession came as a broken promise and generational betrayal. But as the economy improves, at least for one half of the population, some of the dissident energy mobilized by the economic crisis may dissipate. As these young adults continue to move into better paying jobs, gradually lessen their heavy education debt loads, and form more traditional households, the desire for radical change may abate.
Also, the term “socialism” has been bandied about in confusing and inconsistent ways. For some of the new self-identified socialists, it is hard to detect much difference between their ostensibly new socialist views and earlier forms of liberalism or progressivism, although perhaps the new variants are being pushed with a more strident and demanding enthusiasm. So, liberals might conclude that the socialist wave can be safely absorbed into previously existing, mildly reformist tendencies in the liberal capitalist tradition. Already, aspiring candidates are probing the political zeitgeist and lining up for the Democratic nomination in 2020, and the main contenders so far don’t look much different from the party regulars of the past. The election industry in double-party America tends to exert a pulverizing, flattening pressure on activism and is deadly to radical ideas, so if people are shifting their political focus from grass roots activism to party politics and elections, socialist radicalism might well be tamed.
So, is the new socialism expiring before it has even entered its prime? I think not.
The resurgent socialism in America is just getting started and has yet to develop its full, confident and mature voice. But new political breakthroughs are on the horizon, and when they arrive the powerful new voice of 21st century American socialism will become part of a resounding global voice of renewed leftist vision and progress, and resistance to fascist oppression. We are currently in a reactionary post-recession interregnum that will be short-lived. This brief period of intense and obstreperous backwardness and belligerent fascist thuggery will not be followed by a sustained liberal capitalist restoration, but by a more dynamic and exciting era of radical socialist transformation.
Why do I say this? To explain, I should first say what I mean by “socialism”. Toward what kind of society do socialists ultimately aim?
First, socialists share a vision of a radically egalitarian society, one without hierarchies of wealth, social status or political power. Since in an egalitarian society there are no significant differences among people regarding the quantities of productive resources they control, a socialist society is one in which no individual or elite class of individuals is in a position to direct and exploit the labor of others via undemocratic control over the resources used in production. An egalitarian society is necessarily one that places limits on the accumulation of property and wealth, democratizes economic decision-making, and curtails the ability of economically privileged owners of capital to extract incomes from that ownership.
An egalitarian society also must be, in some fashion, a vigorously democratic society. There can be no equal distribution of the goods available to human beings if there is not an equal distribution of political power, since political power is in itself one of those goods, and also a means to the acquisition and control of other goods. Socialists recognize there can be no effective separation wall between wealth and political power, despite the occasional efforts of liberal capitalist reformist politics to erect such walls, since exorbitant control over the resources most human beings desire always gives people exorbitant control over those desirous human beings as well. A society that aspires to a democratic equality in political power must also aspire to an equality in wealth.
But socialists do not just aim at a society of equally provisioned individuals, each ruggedly pursuing a private egoistic happiness through transactional exchanges with other individuals. Socialists have always added a critique of liberal capitalism’s culture of extreme individualism, and they promote an ideal of a society in which people are linked by strong bonds of community, solidarity, sharing, cooperation and mutual obligation. They seek to integrate all members of society harmoniously into the cooperative life and eliminate the sad condition of capitalism’s many lost and marginal individuals, cast away by the owners of the system of production, and left adrift on the fringes of society to struggle with homelessness, addiction, purposelessness and friendless destitution. Socialists promote strong ties of sociality and solidarity – in a word, comradeship.
The commitments to equality and comradeship entail a characteristically socialist attitude toward work. All societies require a great deal of human labor to produce the goods they enjoy. Some of that work can be rewarding to some degree, at least for some people, but much of it will always be burdensome. Socialists want the burdens of labor to be shared as equally as the fruits of that labor. Each person is to contribute something important to society, according to and commensurate with their abilities, and no person should carry a labor burden heavier than others. Socialists don’t believe that the benefits of our organized economic life should fall on people in proportion to the productive value of their labor input – even if it were possible to measure such a thing – since nature and fortune do not bestow equal gifts on people, and it is unfair to reward individuals disproportionately simply for being disproportionately gifted. People should be rewarded based on principles of teamwork, and each of us should receive a full economic share if our contribution is reasonable given what we are able to contribute.
The socialist tradition has also continually raised challenges to the supposed efficiency of capitalism. A vast literature on market failures and market inadequacy now chastens the thinking of even liberal capitalists themselves, insofar as they are aware of this literature. But socialists often add deeper critiques of the impoverished liberal capitalist understanding of human nature and human happiness, with its sometimes well-meaning but generally obtuse neutrality with respect to conceptions of the human good. The laissez faire impulse in capitalism, an outlook that seems to suggest that a decent society will emerge nearly magically from a culture of purely negative liberty, and that human life will flourish so long as individuals are free to pursue market-obtainable forms of happiness in an economic society based on free enterprise and free exchange of labor power, has usually been found naive by socialists. Experience shows that what actually emerges from such laissez faire practices is a noisy, pimping equilibrium in the satisfaction of mostly short term and debasing consumption impulses. Laissez faire ideology leaves the higher realms of human intelligence and spirit, and our most advanced capacities for intelligent planning and complex cooperation, out of the political and economic picture. It also promotes a slavish fatalism, in which thinking about the future takes the shape of mere predictions, of the kind purveyed by so-called “futurists” and capitalist market advisers, in a discourse full of passive prognostication but bereft of agency and choice. Socialists insist we can deliberate about the future, make democratic decisions about the kind of future we want, and then use our intelligence and planning skills to bring about that future. We don’t have to accept passively the haphazard society capitalist entrepreneurs build for us in their slapdash, profit-seeking way.
Finally, socialists resist imperialism and militarism. They recognize that most war and organized violence exist only because the people who most benefit from that violence are able to conscript others to do the suffering and dying for them. And nothing is more exploitative than the use of violent coercion to extract labor, political submission and humiliating terms of trade from the subjugated. Ownership and political control by the few over the means of coercion, the power of life and death, and the implements of torture and pain is the most savage and hateful kind of inequality human life knows, and socialists aim to eliminate it.
So why do I believe a new era of democratic socialism has come, and is here to stay? There are five main reasons:
First, socialism will be necessary because the capitalist model no longer works. We are at a unique point in the history of human habitation on our planet, and the capitalist formula that generated so much dynamic growth and human progress over the past few centuries – while also exacting a heavy human cost in the process – will no longer suffice, even in its own mercenary terms. Capitalism developed during a period of much smaller human populations and brought expanding technological prowess and liberated entrepreneurial energy to bear on a planet full of untapped resources. But the resources are not as abundant and easily extracted as they once were. Meanwhile, human beings are rapidly transforming their environment in dangerous directions, while destroying the biosphere at an alarming rate. The effectively infinite horizon of resources and space our ancestors knew is gone, and a crowded, stressed and overheating planet is our inheritance. In our new Anthropocene era, we are going to have to grow accustomed to more strategic economic planning and intelligent organization than was common in the recent past. We will have to learn how to plan and manage energy extraction and utilization, and more thoughtfully regulate our interaction with the natural world. Liberal friends of capitalism still haven’t come to grips with this new reality. The degree of cooperative organization that will be necessary won’t happen as a result of a few market tweaks, and it is incompatible with a system of technological life dominated by powerful entrepreneurial free agents, driven only by lust for profits and acting outside the sphere of political deliberation. Our technological future must become what we all, collectively, decide to make of it, not what some profit-hungry inventor decides to sell to us.
A second reason to expect an ongoing increase in the pressure for socialist transformation is technological. We continue to see rapid evolution in moral consciousness, social awareness and critical views of history and institutions driven by social media and other online communications. The new online information environment is the most revolutionary change in human communication since the creation of the printing press – and we know what kinds of energies were released by that invention. These technologies are leading to enhanced transparency, increased speed in grass roots political organization and mobilization, and more effective resistance to the pious, rationalizing propaganda narratives of exploitative and oppressive power. It is no wonder this turn of events has led to elite panic and a new censorship drive. Establishment opinion leaders have developed a deeply negative view of these new technologies, and they have launched a paranoid McCarthyite fear campaign designed to convince us that these platforms are mostly festering information swamps filled with fake news and subversive foreign penetration. Powerful organizations, including the establishment media anchors of corporate capitalism and the non-governmental organizations funded by the military industrial complex, are partnering with the larger social media monopolies to shut down dissident voices. It won’t work. The technology cannot be controlled and will continue to be used by ordinary people to spread real and useful information about the kind of society they live in, and about how to organize to change that society.
Another factor hastening radical transformation is, curiously, the administration of Donald Trump, who vividly manifests in his very person the exhaustion of liberal capitalist civilization. Trump is both an exemplary product of U.S. capitalism and a travesty of it. Throughout the neoliberal era of the past four decades, characterized by an enthusiastic celebration of markets, the subjugation of labor and the deregulation of capital, Trump became a popular celebrity hero of the new acquisitive order. He exemplifies the sheer ridiculousness of modern capitalist civilization: its barbarous grasping, its unhinged lusts and heedlessness, its debauched addictions and love of reckless, predatory gambling in the casinos of Wall Street and Atlantic City, and its intellect-rotting, commerce-addled philistine stupidity. Trump’s rise beyond what the neoliberal capitalist managers of society ever imagined possible has sparked a reactionary movement to restore the old, respectable norms of the polite plutocratic empire that had previously managed to keep crass figures like Trump in the background. But it’s too late. Trump is U.S. capitalism unmasked, in its full, ugly and atrocious glory, and when he is vomited out by society, as he will be, much capitalist rapine and excess will be vomited out along with him.
A fourth reason to expect a continuing turn toward socialism is the likelihood of recurring financial crises, with shorter gaps between each crisis making it harder for people to forget the pain of the previous crises. The extractive, flim-flammy and overly financialized economy that led to the 2008 collapse has not been dramatically transformed. The asset-owning classes continue to farm the lives of the less well-off debtor class for profit. Corporations continue to use financial and political alchemy to conjure extremely high profits for their wealthiest stakeholders from low productivity growth and suppressed wages. Student loan debt is now at $1.5 trillion, and former Fed chair Janet Yellen warned recently about the dangerous unsustainability of heavily leveraged corporate debt, also now valued at about $1.6 trillion. Another crisis will come, and this time it won’t take years for people to grasp what is happening. The gigantically wealthy and predatory financial and corporate institutions of capitalism will be blamed. The wealthy, who know this, have been attempting to shield themselves and vast shares of global GDP behind physical enclaves and financial walls to protect their wealth from the aggressively redistributive state they anticipate is coming. But their separation is itself a weakness. Wealth and economic power depend on complex social relations. Income and economic spoils need to get through any separation wall so that they can be used and enjoyed. And the assets that the wealthy instrumentally control lie outside the separation wall, where they can be seized.
Finally, socialism will thrive, and increasingly appeal to just and freedom-loving people, because liberal capitalism will prove to be an inadequate ally against the emerging right wing neo-fascist movements on the rise all over the world. The Wall Street Journal recently endorsed the far-right Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a blunt-speaking lover of dictatorship, oppression and fascist ideology. A more vivid illustration of the consilience of interests between big capital and fascism could scarcely be imagined. Capital’s drive to dominate, subjugate and control the laboring masses dovetails with the aims of fascists, who just love control, torture and domination for their own sakes. So, growing solidarity across previously disunited groups in the struggle against fascism will in turn lead to solidarity in the cause of justice, and to a growth in the spirit of comradely equality. Those truly committed to fighting fascism will finally surrender their hearts to radically democratic and egalitarian ideals, which are in the end the most authentic expression of opposition to fascism’s will to power.