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O My America: Imagining Socialism, Chapter by Chapter, Part 3

April 8, 2014
by Lawrence Bush Click here for previous entries in this series. karl_marx beachChapters Three and Four of Imagine Living in a Socialist USA reckon with the prospects, productivity, and organizing principles of a worker-owned economy. Ron Reosti, an attorney and radical activist from Detroit, argues with old-fashioned socialist confidence (in “A Democratically Run Economy Can Replace the Oligarchy”) that “democratic decision-making will ensure the most efficient use of resources (including labor) and the most efficient and equitable distribution of goods and services.” He uses as evidence the tens of thousands of cooperatively owned businesses in the U.S., which are, in fact, generally more productive than businesses that lack elements of worker ownership. (For an excellent Jewish Currents article about coops and the American economy by Noémi Giszpenc, click here.) Reosti also believes that a “democratic socialist society can . . . correct itself in ways capitalism can’t,” including regarding “the most obvious solutions for the environmental crisis and the shortage of health care, because capitalism’s interests oppose anything that would diminish the fortunes these interests make from the status quo.” The excellent socialist writer and academic Rick Wolff (in “The Shape of a Post-Capitalist Future”) then focuses on the internal structures by which corporations run themselves and maximize their profits — “a basic four-part internal structure,” he writes, consisting of a board of directors, the major shareholders, the workers who “directly produce the goods and services sold by the corporation,” and the “managers and supervisors, clerks, and others who . . . buy the supplies, sell the products, do the administrative and support work.” This structure, Wolff observes, was basically preserved, rather than challenged, under Soviet- and Chinese-style communism. As a result, “The tensions, oppositions, and struggles that division created eventually undermined those societies’ socialization of property and economic planning. Exploitation left intact inside state enterprises can work to convert them into private enterprises and dismantle planning in favor of markets.” As alternatives, Wolff proposes, with brevity, several models for, or examples of, democratic governance within companies, and suggests that such transformations within the economy would “also transform cultural life.” For example, when “all workers have to participate in running their enterprises, they will need and demand correspondingly integrated and comprehensive educations at schools where what is taught, how it is taught, and what resources are provided to support teaching are equal.” Along the same lines, “The cultural norms, tastes, and pursuits of Americans will be democratized, and much of the discrimination summarized by terms like ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture will atrophy.” That both Reosti and especially Wolff move beyond attacks on capitalist exploitation to highlight specific tools and structures of transformation is commendable, and I am easily seduced by their optimism about the prospects, economic and cultural, of cooperatively-oriented enterprise. I am reminded, nevertheless, of a conversation I had some time ago with my friend Bob, who has made a habit of traveling to “Axis of Evil” countries, after his return from Cuba. Bob was nervous about the reintroduction of a class system to Cuba through tourism and small private enterprise. My concerns were more along the lines of: “Bob, what if you have a great idea for a new product in Cuba? How do you get it made? Bob, what if you want to build an extra wing on your house and don’t have the skills yourself? How do you get it done?” Bob’s basic response was: You don’t. Entrepreneurialism is not on the fast track in Cuba. Short working days and lots of street music are, instead. And here’s what Bob said to me: “Larry, you love your work. That’s one basic way that you’re middle class: Your work is fulfilling, it’s a career, it’s what you want to be doing. But for most people, work means selling their hours so that they can have what they need to get by, and they do what they want to do in their spare time. So if a society empowers those people — if you empower the working class — you’re not going to have the most productive economy in the world.” It’s something to ponder. It seems to me, then, that the question is not whether a socialist enterprise or a socialist economy be as productive as a capitalist enterprise or economy. Socialist idealism will only get us so far in terms of inspiring workers to work hard, to participate on workers’ committees, to keep the workers’ democracy vibrant and real. (And what do we do with those who are individualists, who are shirkers, who are anti-authoritarian and don’t like their neighborhood committee and like to deface the socialist billboards with graffiti?) I think it’s clear that without the coercive fear factor of capitalism, an economy will NOT be as productive — thank heavens! What neither Wolff nor Reosti muster as argument is the fact that we are already in a post-scarcity era, thanks to all of the magic-making technology and science of our day — and that the socialism we need to be promoting is a socialism that will deliver us there, past capitalism’s obstacles, to a fifteen-hour work week, with lots of robots to do the dirty work, and a highly developed leisure and arts culture. With lots of street music. That old tractor-counting concept of “We shall bury you” socialism is obsolete. It’s time, as Karl Marx put it, to go fishing in the afternoon and philosophizing after dinner. Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and JEWDAYO and is the author of BESSIE: A Novel of Love and Revolution, among other books.