Life After Capitalism

Life After Capitalism

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I Need a Dollar

“A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.”

Terry Eagleton

I think the commercial that sums up our world of late stage capitalism, 2020 style. – Burger King selling hamburgers over Aloe Blacc singing ‘I Need a Dollar.’ A song that’s very much concerned with telling the story of poverty is reduced to a marketable hook to sell a cheap hamburger to people hit hard by COVID capitalism.

I had a job but the boss man let me go

He said: I’m sorry but I won’t be needing your help no more

I said: Please Mister Boss man I need this job more than you know

But he gave me my last paycheck and he sent me on out the door

Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar that’s what I need

But in Burger King’s rendition all we hear is the hook, “I need a dollar dollar, a dollar that’s what I need” like he just really wants a dollar to get some Burger King, because boy oh boy that’s a good deal on grilled cow meat, my friend.

And the song isn’t even subtle about how it speaks to desolation and struggle;

Well I don’t know if I’m walking on solid ground

‘Cause everything around me is crumbling down

And all I want is for someone to help me

What in the world am I gonna do tomorrow?

Is there someone with a dollar that I can borrow?

Who can help me take away my sorrow?

Maybe it’s inside the bottle

But the loop in the commercial is energetic, almost uplifting out of context.  This is how capitalism sells its own flaws back to us as features.  At this point, I’ve already talked about why it can be difficult to meaningfully engage with capitalism and how it has failed us in the last 13 years, and before we move on, I’d like to remind you of how it’s failing us even now in our post pandemic world.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead because of an intersection of bad leadership, bad policy, and one virus.  As it got colder, and people began moving inside, cases surged just like many had been predicting they would for months.  Capitalism demanded we get back to work, our leaders ignored the experts almost completely across the board as they crafted legislation.  Millions lost jobs because we didn’t pay employers to keep them on.  Most of them lost their employer based health insurance.  As we had to shut down longer and longer, small businesses closed and people lost jobs permanently. We didn’t want these sometimes beloved fixtures of our communities to fail, and for many we rallied money to help them survive, but we had little to spare leaving us no choice but to watch as they died right before our eyes.

Congress tried giving small businesses a life raft in the Paycheck Protection Program, but greedy chains quickly ran the coffers of the bailout dry, while smaller and typically minority-owned businesses couldn’t even make appointments with the bank to talk about getting relief through the program.

Meanwhile, Congress bailed out the one industry in particular – airlines.  It’s a little ironic that we’d spend Green New Deal level money to save one of the biggest polluters in the world, while leaving much of the middle class and petit bourgeoisie to wither on the vine without sufficient aid.  They also printed up 1.5 trillion to prop up the stock market, most of which is owned by the 1%. 

We saw Congresspeople of both parties using insider information on the pandemic to make millions, as well as avoid losing millions with the companies they had invested in before the pandemic would cause them to lose all of their customers.  Millions face eviction as moratoriums come to an end and the people are still broke.  Socially distant bread lines are at historic lengths, and all the while food banks can’t even begin to keep up with increased donations, much less distribute food effectively.

While a pandemic rages, more and more become homeless even as Mother Nature summons hurricanes and snowstorms 3 and 4 at a time.  COVID-19 ravages our prison and rest home populations alike, catching like a wildfire amidst kindling.  Speaking of, several states on the West Coast catch fire and burn for weeks, turning the skies over the whole of the west coast an eerie hazy orange that remains bright and lit even in the dead of night.

Voting was harder for many than ever before, and yet, easier for many as well.  In person voters faced record waiting time exacerbated by historic turnout despite the pandemic.  Meanwhile, the many who voted by mail for the first time found the process easier than ever before in their lifetimes.

Large up-front investments from governments around the world kickstarted another record: the shortest length to develop a vaccine to date.  While many advances came together in this, the governments of the world coming together to throw billions into research and development certainly shaved at least months off of the process.  Compared to the governments of the world, contributions made by people like Bill Gates were paltry, despite all the memes saying he was their major funder. 

I’m sure there’s a lot that I’ve left out, like the militaristic crackdown on Black Lives Matter, because really I could go on forever, just about the inequity in the past year of our lives.  Instead, I want to look forward to a more equitable future.

What is a Socialist?

“Where there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Eugene Debs, who was five times the Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America

Let’s imagine that we’ve transcended capitalist realism, and we can clearly see that another world is possible.  What is that world?  Is it anarchist?  Is it socialist?  Is it Marxist-Leninist?

I really enjoy the way Current Affairs founder Nathan J Robinson explains this question of “what is a socialist?” in an article on his website

“Once you believe in socialist values, what do you do with your beliefs? What does socialism mean in practice? When we ask the question ‘What does it mean to be a socialist?’ we might typically answer by describing socialist convictions. But, that doesn’t fully answer the question. What does it mean to be a socialist? What do you do? Each of us in this room is a person moving through the world, not just an abstract set of ideas floating in space, and so we have to figure out how to behave, how to actualize our politics, how to put socialist ideals into action. And that part, in many ways, is much, much harder than the part where you become convinced that leftist politics is intellectually or morally sound. Proving that socialism is a good idea is the easy bit. Building a more socialist society, knowing what each of us is supposed to do in order to make it work, that is the nearly impossible task we have once we are committed to the cause.”

“Elementary moral principles compel us all to be leftists and socialists,” he writes in his lively and enjoyable voice as an author in 2019’s Why You Should be a Socialist.  Robinson’s is a socialism of feeling. From an early age, he “couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t constantly enraged by” the vast inequalities of the world. He’s still angry about those and thinks you should be, too—that anger is the basis of his socialism. “I didn’t read Karl Marx and suddenly reinterpret old facts in a new light,” he writes of his politicization. “It was a visceral, emotional reaction that came from encountering the facts.”

I found this relatable, and I think a lot of first-day leftists can relate.  That feeling that’s always been there, a subtle rage at the injustice in your surroundings.  Suddenly you ask yourself, “is this socialism?”  To Robinson, and frankly, to me, it would be.  Socialism is less about a position on a political spectrum at any point in time or any set of talking points, but a moral swell in our chests that compels us to continue to do better by our fellow man, whatever that means at the time.  In the same way that capitalism ravenously chases profit, a good socialism would doggedly pursue increases to the human good.  

This doesn’t even have to entail a particular economic or political system.  In the early 1900’s American socialism didn’t just mean worker ownership of the means of production, it was also about 40-hour work weeks, labor unions, an end to child labor, and weekends, but as those things became (mostly) the norm, meaning they weren’t socialist or even all that progressive anymore.  Socialism is the march forward of, for, and by the people, whereas progressivism can be co-opted and used to easily sell you a Senator.  Socialism, as Robinson notes in a conversation about his book on CSPAN, is just a little too radical to ever be reflected in the mainstream position. 

“I find the word socialism useful and I want to save it in part because many labels are easy to co-opt and drain of them meaning, like, you know, left (or) progressive, and socialist kind of plants its flag and claims loyalty to a political tradition that has had that is sort of more difficult to say isn’t radical.  If you’re a socialist you have to share with other socialists, a very radical critique and a kind of radical vision for change.  Whereas everyone who calls themselves a progressive, like Obama calls himself a progressive…  Obama would never call himself a socialist and I think the difference between the fact that Obama wouldn’t call himself a socialist and Bernie Sanders board captures a very important difference.”

Once the mainstream finally catches up to a demand of socialist reform we, as socialists, will shift our goalposts and try to claw a little more back for the worker, while a liberal progressive might fight for a watered-down, capitalism friendly version of our previous position.  As socialists, we are always looking for the next fight to bring more freedom into this world we share together.

In exploring the difference between liberals, who tend to be the ones to co-opt old socialist norms after they’ve become more mainstream, and how they differ from leftists like Socialists, let’s listen to fellow political content creator Second Thought:

“Both leftists and liberals care about democratic governance and believe in universal human rights, but liberals – contrary to what many conservative newspapers will tell you – still put their faith in capitalist market based economics. They believe that the problems in our capitalist society stem from corrupt individuals, and if we simply root out these bad actors and pursue incremental reform the system can function properly. Leftists have a different perspective. They believe that the problems we face are inherent to capitalism, and that the system is functioning exactly how it’s supposed to the left sees the problems identified by liberals, not as problems within capitalism, but as a byproduct of a properly functioning capitalist machine. Capitalism cannot solve the problems that creates because that would impede growth. So let us believe that we need to move beyond capitalism in favor of a better system.”

Whereas the neoliberal standard fare in our government is focused on aggregate numbers and individual responsibility, socialists tend to look at the responsibility of the system to the people it represents and a material focus on individual lives.  That is, to say, the material realities of people’s lives and circumstances.

Second Thought gives an example in 2020’s Why You’re Probably Already a Socialist: “let’s take an example policy proposal – student debt cancellation. For a liberal, canceling even $1,000 of debt would be a huge symbolic victory; for a socialist, the amount canceled and the total amount of indebtedness are less important than most people’s more immediate concern – being able to pay the installment every month. The material reality for most students is the challenge of affording the monthly payment. If that challenge is not addressed, then the policy does not materially improve that person’s life, and is therefore insufficient.”

Socialists also have a very different and more inclusive meaning of freedom than even progressive liberal capitalists.  As Robinson explains,

“I start from this principle of solidarity of looking at judging a society by what happens to the worst off people in it, looking at looking at the bottom, not just looking at the aggregate that says like is our average numbers going up over time, but bringing it down and looking at individual lives and saying, do we really feel and and a very important part of this is, is, is freedom, I mean I talked about the socialist meaning of freedom, which is like, Are people able to do the things with their lives on earth that are the things that they want to do?” 

This is opposed to the freedom of capitalism to be able to potentially have anything you want (if you can get the money). 

Furthering this point, Second Thought might add,

“we believe that capitalism stands in the way of real freedom, and we want to fix that. Are you really free to live your life if you spend 10 or 12 hours a day working for someone else?  If you don’t have health insurance because your employer won’t provide it and it’s too expensive on the free market, are you really free to buy the medicine you need?  Are you really free to buy a home if you’re barely able to make rent? Sure, capitalism allows for the possibility of such things, but you’re not really free to achieve them if the very system is hell-bent on making them impossible to reach…”

Democracy and Socialism

For a lot of Americans, Bernie Sanders was the first American socialist they could name…  

But, wait, is Bernie a socialist?  

Yes and no; if you define socialism by the historic kind of definition of worker ownership of the means of production. That wasn’t in the Bernie 2016 platform. However, in 2020 he pushed a workplace democracy initiative as a part of his platform, which further muddies the waters.  

As Robinson puts it,

“Bernie has the socialist ethic that I talked about (earlier). He starts really from the same place that you hear echoes of Eugene Debs speeches in Bernie’s speeches where Bernie talks about when he talks about. No, you have to fight for people who don’t have problems that you don’t share… he operates with a socialist political tradition, whether you think there’s some people say he’s a social democrat, Jacobin thinks he’s a thing they call a class struggle social democrat.”

So what is this democratic socialism that Bernie champions?  In his own words in a speech to George Washington University,

“Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

In order to accomplish that goal, it means committing ourselves to protecting political rights, to protecting civil rights – and to protect economic rights of all people in this country.

As FDR stated in his 1944 State of the Union address:

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.

Today, our Bill of Rights guarantees the American people a number of important constitutionally protected political rights. And while we understand that these rights have not always been respected and we have so much more work to do, we are proud that our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, a free press and other rights because we understand that we can never have true American freedom unless we are free from authoritarian tyranny.

Now, we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights – the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights.

That is what I mean by democratic socialism.”

Of course, many of you who study political philosophies might be saying that this is actually social democratic, which is basically democratic socialism but more liberal and capitalist.  Bernie critiques capitalism, but he stops before he says that it should end.  And because he stops there, many would say that’s exactly what makes him a social democrat and not a democratic socialist.

Are there any differences between the word socialism and the word democracy?

Nathan Robinson:

“I think that democratic socialism should be redundant, and one of the reasons you have to use  that time is because so many regimes that call themselves socialists have not been democratic, so you really want to emphasize, but the principle that socialism starts with is that people should be in control of their own lives, which is the same principle of democracy.  

If we evaluate the workplace like we evaluate the government, would it conform to democratic would it have democratic legitimacy? – and the answer is no most corporations are top down hierarchies and would call them dictatorships if they were governments.  Ultimately, socialism should be about democracy because they come from the same instinct.”

“Democracy is about as American as apple pie, we’re always talking about how we have a strong democracy, how democracy is what makes our country great. And yet, our elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, fight tooth and nail against expanding democracy, they’re constantly making it harder to vote or giving corporations more power over their workers or refusing to acknowledge the rights of certain groups, socialists want to expand democracy… we should have a say in how our workplaces are run, not be beholden to every counterproductive corporate initiative.”

Democracy, as it’s practiced in the US, gives the people some power in government, but no meaningful power within the private world.  When looking at a lot of the economic socialist arguments you’ll find that many are just applications of the political principle of democracy to economic institutions instead of just political ones.

Another World is Possible

What can be even harder than defining a nebulous socialism or what makes a good socialist, defining an ideal socialist world is an even more difficult task.  To get us started, Robinson suggests that we each imagine our ideal utopia and describe the things we see within it.  Hmm, sound familiar?  Then we tell each other what kinds of things we want in our utopia and work together on the ideas we agree on to make as ideal a world as possible.  This can make it almost impossible to imagine that world, because the answers can be as varied as the individuals giving them, and while we have extensive polling data to tell us what ideas are popular among the people, it’s hard to say what we would be able to find consensus on.  But it’s important that we try.  It really is the only way to ensure the freest world possible from both a democratic and socialist sense.

So, what would be in my utopia, you ask?  One place that both myself and Second Thought suggest is the most obvious, healthcare. 

“This is a big one for the left because making healthcare free at the point of service will have an immediate and enormous material impact on the average person’s life. If you can afford to go to the doctor, you could literally be extending your life by having access to the medicine you need.”

I’d also like to see an end to hunger and homelessness through proper allocation of the resources that we already produce.  Instead of increasing SNAP benefits, the government could purchase excess and irregular food early in the supply chain before it’s disposed of and make it into a supplemental food source for the American people, like the program that gave us “Government Cheese”.  Due to failures in the supply chain early on in COVID, we wasted even more food than usual in 2020, and food banks are too critically underfunded to take the excess food even when farmers try to do the right thing and donate it to those in need.  The private market has failed food banks, and there should be a large scale government program to address the food that is wasted just because food banks are at capacity. The government should encourage farmers to donate more food, and maybe even compensate them for this extra production at a rate that’s below the general market cost.  Enough to encourage donation, but not so much that it would encourage intentional overproduction.

This would mean that everyone would have increased access to food at no cost, though the variety would be limited to irregular fruits and vegetables and dairy and eggs in a form that’s most shelf-stable.  Those who work hard would be able to have a choice of food as they do now, but no one would have to go hungry, and all of this could be done without increasing farm production.  If anything, this might even lower production due to a lessened demand on the private food market.

As I suggested in my previous video, in my utopia the government would make short-term (like shifting to a fleet of federal vehicles fueled through sustainable power, expansion of solar and wind) and long-term (investments into nuclear power to stabilize intermittency) solutions to the country’s energy production problems and begin the transition to a fully decarbonized power grid starting right now. 

In my utopia, there would be abundant government jobs created by an investment in modern infrastructure as well as the greening and retrofitting of old infrastructure.  Private sector jobs would pay a living wage that would increase or potentially even decrease annually based on the change to the cost of living of the year prior.  People could also receive a modest amount of money to stay home and care for children or loved ones, and similar support could be given to people starting a business as well, all in the name of allowing people to have the freedoms to pursue their dreams, even when those dreams don’t include private employment.

Even in private companies though, the voice of the worker would be heard.  Workplaces would be democratic, with workers having more say over their immediate work domains, as well as limited say in the overall operations of the business.  This would limit the power of the ownership and managerial classes.  This might be enough that unions would be unnecessary, but in the case that it isn’t, workers would be unshackled from laws preventing union formation disguised as “right to work” laws.

Prisons wouldn’t exist as they do today.  There would be a focus on reforming and reeducating the criminal elements of society, but this would be focused on empowerment and not carceral punishment and even torture.  The imprisoned would no longer labor for a wage below the minimums required by law, and prisoners would be allowed to save any extra money they make while they are being rehabilitated for a nest egg when they leave – because theoretically, prison life shouldn’t be more expensive than the cost of living outside of prisons.  This is too morally delicate a business to be left to the private market, and all rehabilitation of criminals must be done in a highly accountable manner by the public sector.

These are the more near-term solutions I’d devise, but I think that the world really needs to change more than that to reach an equitable and sustainable future.  In the long run we have to abandon the ideas of private property and individual accumulation and shift to a more resource-based economic model (which, for the record, makes a lot of sense alongside Modern Monetary Theory because the two ideas have similar constraints) and cities that are built to both maximize sustainability and communally used space to ensure that everyone within them has maximal freedom and access to the resources that could give them a life worth living (not unlike the ideas proposed by Jacques Fresco’s Venus Project).  It’s also easy to imagine much of modern work being automated and humanity shifting to a more creative and even soulful form of work and personal fulfillment through it.  In this world, the alienation of the capitalist economics of employment are replaced with the drive to better humanity through a shared second renaissance.

Or as Second Thought puts it:

“Beautiful public parks for everyone to enjoy, high speed public transportation that will make commuting much less stressful and cut pollution, libraries where anyone can borrow books or movies or take classes, state of the art schools for our children.”

So why should YOU be a socialist?

In another interview with The Nation, Nathan J. Robinson says there are many reasons why. 

“The argument around which I build the book is that, when you look at the world around you—and when you see the facts of the world around you, the condition of the people around you—you are sort of compelled, as a human being with even a shred of moral conscience, to be outraged by the things that you see.

Socialism is born out of this frustration and rage with the class system: having a small number of people who own the stuff and give the orders, and a large number of people who don’t own the stuff and who take the orders and do the work. To me, why you should be a socialist starts with having to be the kind of person who wakes up and looks around at the conditions of the people around you, and who feels a strong sense of solidarity and appreciation for the pain and suffering of others—and a determination to make sure that all people have access to whatever the ingredients we think are necessary for a decent life.”

My own opinion on whether or not you should be a socialist comes down to something Second Thought said in their video:

“this is a vision of the world that is possible if we can move beyond the toxic greed of capitalism, does this all sound like you? Do you believe we need to address the material concerns of average people?  Do you believe that everyone is created equal, that we should expand democracy, that health care and a decent standard of living are basic human rights, that we should work together to build a better tomorrow for everyone that we need to move beyond capitalism to ensure a Livable Future? If this does sound like you, congratulations; you’re a socialist.”

You don’t have to agree 100% with all of the ideas in this video, on the contrary, I think we need conflicting ideas competing to show us a more inclusive utopia than any one person can come up with.  I wouldn’t say my utopia is a definitive one, nor that there can even be a definitive socialist utopia.  The only real socialist utopia is the one we build together, and if you’re still watching you probably have the moral fortitude to join such a movement and help us design this new world together.

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