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O My America: Imagining Socialism, Chapter by Chapter, Part 4

April 26, 2014
by Lawrence Bush Click here for previous entries in this series. Sun's RaysChapters Five and Six of Imagine Living in a Socialist USA are about the legal system and how it might change with the fall of capitalism. Chapter Five, by attorney Michael Steven Smith (who sits on the boards of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Brecht Forum), is entitled, “Law in a Socialist USA,” and can be boiled down to two alarming statements: that under socialism — that is, a “democratically organized society that has done away with capitalist private property” — “the rule will become ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,’ ” and there “will be no need for law as we know it. Human relations will become regulated more by custom, as they once were before the advent of class society.” Oy gevald! Forgive me for being harsh, but I find it appalling to read this blend of “new socialist man” and Walden School thinking (the Steiner educational philosophy idealizes pre-capitalist society), given the reality of what has been defined as “socialist legality” under communist rule all around the world. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” — without any contractual understandings of mutual responsibility? Without any enforceable accountability? Without legal checks on those in positions of leadership and power? Will a post-scarcity society really turn all human beings, notwithstanding our evolutionary history and our social history, into lovely, cooperative, giving, socially responsible individuals? Will there be no conflict requiring outside intervention and a fair system of adjudication? What if I come up with a neat idea — will Chaim Yankl next door be entitled to take it and run with it because I have no patent protection? And will I be just fine with that if it happens, because in a socialist society I’ll have no desire to be recognized and appreciated for my individual achievements? And what if Chaim Yankl then sexually harasses me and calls me nasty names because, in fact, Chaim Yankl is a sociopath — to whom can I complain and from whom can I seek protection, my neighborhood committee? And what if the people on that neighborhood committee prefer Chaim Yankl’s flattery and gifts to mine . . . ? As for “human relations regulated more by custom . . .” Like where, in Afghanistan? In the Satmar community? Are we really going to do away with the legal system, including Constitutional law, because it has roots in private property protection? Are we really going to return civil rights, civil liberties, marital law, labor law, etc. to the rule of “custom”? Chapter Six, “Alternatives to the Present System of Capitalist Injustice” is written by Angela Davis and the incarcerated Mumia Abu-Jamal. They presents a scorching three-page critique of America’s system of mass incarceration and its direct links to slavery and racism. They then turn creatively to the Iroquois Confederacy and to Navajo (Diné) society to explore systems of non-retributive, community-based justice. A “nonracist community,” they argue, “. . . could create social policies that conform more to the innate humanity of all persons, rather than to the exploitation of fear that typifies the regnant structures of criminal justice.” So far so good; the vision of restorative justice is one to which many people of many different backgrounds can relate. Rather than proceeding to give inspiring if speculative examples of how such social policies might operate, however — particularly within as geographically large and culturally diverse a country as ours — Abu-Jamal and Davis end their essay by simply returning to the issue of mass incarceration and the need for a new abolitionist movement. How disappointing. As with the earlier essays in this book, there is no grappling here with the possible contradictions that a socialist America might have to face, and no exercising of social imagination, just another fusillade against the easy, broad target of capitalism. Yet readers of this book don’t need to be convinced about the failures of capitalism — we’re convinced, that’s why we’re reading the book! What we need is to be convinced of the genuine possibilities of socialism as an alternative. What we need is to have our imaginations and our critical minds awakened. Instead, I’m reading about visions of a better world that depend, almost entirely, upon the belief that human malevolence, greed, aggression, competition, etc. are entirely the product of life under capitalism — rather than the other way around — and I am embarrassed by the naiveté implicit in that belief. But there are many chapters to go . . . Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents and JEWDAYO.