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O My America: Imagining Socialism, Chapter by Chapter

March 24, 2014

Part One

by Lawrence Bush Click here for further entries in this series. In the late 1990s, just a couple of years before the millennium, I proposed to my literary agent at the time, the estimable and radical Frances Goldin, that I create a facsimile of the New York Times dated January 1, 2000 and filled with marvelous news about a world redeemed. I drew a cartoon showing the front page of that imaginary edition — “Earth Observes Millennium with Worldwide Jubilation; International Truce on Armed Conflict, Now Global, Extended ‘Indefinitely’ ” — and proceeded to line up commitments from a few progressive thinkers, including Noam Chomsky, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Arthur Waskow, and Julius Lester, to write lead articles on topics in which they specialized. JY Times Jan 1My idea was to have activists create actual reports about solutions to our world’s multiplicity of crises, in the matter-of-fact style of the New York Times. At the bottom of each article, there’d be a blurb: Want to make this real? Contact such-and-such an organization. The parody would serve as an organizing and fundraising tool, and challenge leftists to move beyond critiquing what is to the harder task of envisioning what might be. Unfortunately, the project never made it past the drawing board. Frances told me that publishers would not be willing or able to distribute a facsimile newspaper, period. We dropped the idea. 9780062305572Fourteen years after the millennium, the same Frances Goldin — a life subscriber to Jewish Currents who is nearing 90 — has come out with her own vision of a world redeemed, as co-editor (with Debby Smith and Michael Steven Smith) of IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (Harper Perennial, 304 pages). I’m going to spend the next few weeks reading and writing about IMAGINE here, with a basic question in mind: Do these writers actually envision a socialist-oriented solution to the problems they cite, and wrestle a little with the contradictions that each solution might produce — contradictions, especially, that have plagued real-life “socialism” in our lifetimes, between “planning,” “regulating” and “sharing,” on the one hand, and “individual liberty,” “freedom,” and “creativity” on the other? Or do they, like Karl Marx himself, present a whopping analysis and condemnation of capitalism (Capital) but only an idealistic, even utopian, vision of the socialist alternative (The Communist Manifesto)? I don’t yet know the answer to this question, as I’ve only begun to read the book. Its chapter titles are very promising: “How Queer Life Might Be Different in a Socialist USA,” by Leslie Cagan and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz; “Prometheus Completely Unbound: What Science and Technology Could Accomplish in a Socialist America,” by Clifford D. Conner; “What I Would Do as Attorney General,” by Michael Ratner; etc. Rather than digesting it all and trying to write a single, meaningful review, however, I’m going to tackle IMAGINE chapter by chapter, and hopefully get some discussion going before I reach the end. It’s my guess that my comments will consist mostly of questions that I think need asking (Passover’s coming, after all, with its four questions). Perhaps we can fetch some answers, too — if readers will read the book themselves, and write about it here, and/or circulate these pieces to people with some vision and expertise. Tears happyThere’s a Jewish story about the meaning of the Sabbath that I heard years ago — don’t know its textual source — that informs my single-minded desire for an actual vision of socialism, and an actual reckoning with its contradictions. In this story, a righteous Jew is seated by God in front of the Console of the Universe, the control panel, with invitation to change anything he likes by pushing a button or shifting a lever. The Jew thinks, Easy! and reaches for the lever that will end world hunger. Then he thinks, Wait, how will it happen? He thinks about overworked farmers and overtaxed water supplies and over-harvested animals and overpopulated countries and huge migrations of people from inhospitable to hospital lands . . . and he hesitates. He tries to tackle a different problem, instead, but he’s a thoughtful guy and keeps running up against complications and contradictions. Finally, he just bows his head and says, “There’s nothing I can change.” And THAT, said the teller of this story, is how we’re supposed to feel on the Sabbath: that the world is in proper balance, and there’s nothing we need to do to it. Well, that’s fine, perhaps even mentally necessary, one day a week — but it’s clear that our world is NOT in balance, and that on those six other days, we should be thinking about which buttons to push, which levers to shift. In my experience, however, while many progressives can complain eloquently about what’s wrong with the existing system, they seem satisfied to make their critique, and perhaps live their lives in an “alternative” way — and thereby claim a kind of innocence because they’re not part of “The System.” It’s much more rare that people ask the difficult questions about what happens after we nationalize an industry, after we pass laws that restrain private wealth and power, after we topple capitalism’s ideologues and taste-makers from their positions of influence, after we empower women to take more decisive public roles in society . . . not to mention how to do it all, how to revamp the motion picture industry’s codes about sex and violence without exercising censorship, how to create a sustainable, no-growth economy without wrecking creativity and entrepreneurial energy, how to overturn militarism without surrendering to warrior cultures, how to restrain carbon and methane emissions without surrendering our material possessions, how to surrender our material possessions without coercing people into making some Great Leap Forward . . . ? If we don’t ask such questions, we leave the “Get Real” discussion about socialism in the hands of capitalist skeptics and anti-socialists. And if we don’t strive to envision what the socialist future might actually look like — not only the absence of oppression, but the reality of something different — we leave optimism and enthusiasm about the human future in the hands of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and capitalist cheerleaders, who are really whooping it up these days. So let’s get to it. IMAGINE begins predictably, with its own denunciation of capitalism by Paul Street, a political researcher and writer in Iowa City. As Street notes in this lead essay, “Capitalism: The Real Enemy”: • While Chase CEO Jamie Diamond is earning $57,000 per day, “a record-setting one in fifteen Americans now live . . . on an income of less than $11,157 for a family of four . . .” More than 46 million Americans, over 15 percent of the population, live under the federal poverty line. • One in six Americans had no health insurance as of 2011, and one in seven was “food insecure.” • Half of all U.S. children, and 90 percent of black U.S. children, are dependent on food stamps at some point in their lives. • Everything bad is several times worse for people of color in the U.S. • Capitalism, and its logic of relentless growth, “lies at the heart” of our “ecological crisis.” • The growing power of oligarchy in America makes social change more and more difficult to achieve and democracy more and more illusory. And so on. Paul Street’s stage-setting condemnation is blunt and tidy and, of course, upsetting. He ends with a quote from what he calls the “great democratic socialist Martin Luther King Jr.” advocating “ ‘the radical reconstruction of society itself.’ ” Street does not begin to address the question, however, of how to go about turning the dissatisfactions of the American people into visions of unity and communal feeling, of striving for transformation, of popular empowerment, of social response-ability — that is, the ability to respond — rather than into scapegoating, conservative rage, racism, rugged individualism, isolation, gun-ownership, domestic abuse, and so on. These are the kinds of questions the “four children” in my head are constantly turning every which way in their search for insight. How much does “the radical reconstruction of society itself” depend on organization (unions, associations, faith-based groups, etc.), and how much on art, cultural innovation, education? What kinds of television shows do we actually need to build socialist consciousness and inspire rather than stupefy — and couldn’t we today, with greatly broadened media possibilities, create such shows? How do we cultivate fruitful intersections between social work and social justice work? What is there to inspire people about socialism when they have been so trained, educated, and molded by the ways of capitalism? Discussion of such questions would be much more illuminating than our litanies of complaint. Perhaps one starting point is to change the frame of how we talk about capitalism and face the fact that capitalism is us. It’s not something entirely foisted on us, it’s something we participate in, with varying degrees of autonomy and will. Capitalism is the external construction of our competitive selves. If we are serious about building something else, it’s going to take a lot more than dissatisfaction. It’s going to take self-transformation, self-surrender, and new wisdom about integrating who we are with what we would like to be. Coming Next: Joel Kovel on Eco-Socialism. (Click here to read Part 2. Click here to read Part 3. Click here to read Part 4.) Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents and of JEWDAYO, a daily blast of knowledge and pride.