I grew up as the child of liberal parents in the 1960s. One was an astronomer who was active in the women’s movement against the Vietnam war; the other, a musicologist then working as a journalist and book critic whose scholarly reviews were sympathetic to lefty and liberal ideas. Both were committed supporters of the civil rights movement. My father insists that our phone was tapped during those turbulent years. I think that’s uncertain, but by no means implausible.
After going through a more or less apolitical period in my teens and 20s, I gradually became a political animal, watching public affairs ever more closely. And the more I paid attention, the more I understood that notwithstanding the occasional battle won by progressive elements, the United States is fundamentally not a participatory democracy, but rather is ruled by the wealthy and corporations. Not coincidentally, wages for the many have stagnated over the past few decades even while total productivity has increased, and of course economic inequality has skyrocketed. These propositions are not controversial, but well established by objective data.
Meanwhile, in the realm of foreign policy, we’ve seen such monstrous criminal misadventures as the Iraq war, with complete impunity for its perpetrators. Now, under Obama — the darling of so many liberals — mass surveillance of the population, indefinite detention without charges, and assassination have become institutionalized in the name of the so-called War on Terror. On the domestic front we have rampant unemployment and underemployment; millions in debt servitude for the sin of attending college; mass incarceration on a scale unparalleled anywhere else in the world; no sign of serious response from the Obama administration in the face of catastrophic climate change; and the list goes on.
Financial deregulation, and the spectacular display of greed and corruption that ensued, resulted in the meltdown of 2008, coming around the same time that candidate Obama was absurdly being called a socialist by the far right. I began to think, would that it were so. Capitalism is a disaster for most of the world’s population. True, the middle class generally has done pretty well during boom times when there’s enough to go around, and with a labor movement driving some reforms. But with the hegemonic power of the USA in decline, those post-World War II days are gone. So long gone, in fact, that millions belonging to the generations born in the 80s and 90s have never experienced those Leave It To Beaver days of prosperity, as my friends at the Socialist Equality Party point out in lucid detail. Hereagain, this should not be too controversial a proposition. Even the cream of global elites get together for their conference in Davos to worry about inequality getting out of hand and causing severe unrest. In a sense, capitalism is the victim of its own “success.” The more rich and powerful the top layer gets, the more its rigs the system so it can grab more wealth and power — in a vicious circle that has long since gotten out of control. Hence the crisis of capitalism.
But I still didn’t quite get it. I was in what I now think of as my middle-class protest politics period. For years I gave what money I could to progressive causes; emailed and called my elected officials to urge them to this or that; went to street demonstrations. Weary from the Bush years, I dropped to my knees and voted for Obama in 2008 even though I well knew both parties were owned by big business. In 2009, the uproar broke out around Obama’s much-acclaimed, much-maligned healthcare “reform” legislation. I got involved in Single Payer activism, and even suffered the inconvenience of spending a night in jail for doing civil disobedience — sitting in at the offices of a large health insurance company.
Of course, all that effort came to naught. The healthcare fiasco provided an instructive example. There were four main guys in the House and Senate who advocated for Single Payer during the Obamacare debate: Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, and Anthony Weiner (before he was disgraced for emailing pictures of his dick). When the time came, each and every one of them sold out and voted for Obama’s massive bailout to the profit-driven private health insurance industry, a piece of legislation substantially written by its lobbyists. This is just one case, but it illustrates an essential point that I have since come to understand: reformism doesn’t work. Capitalism subjugates social need to private profit, and it requires inequality — that’s how it works. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, capitalism itself has to be abolished, not reformed.
I wondered: what’s the alternative? I knew about socialism approximately as much as the average reasonably educated US citizen who grew up in the Cold War: not much, really. I had never actually read anything by Marx or Engels. I stumbled across the World Socialist Web Site, started reading it regularly, and became even more curious. I had never seen anyone state the political truth with such unrelenting bluntness. Who were these guys? Just as my theoretical curiosity was thus aroused, my father happened to lend me Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton, in which he assures us that if you haven’t read anything by Karl Marx, no worries, this book makes a good introduction. (I have since talked with serious Marxists who scorn Eagleton as a “Catholic Marxist,” but the book was nevertheless a useful introduction.) Then I took the trouble to read some texts by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky to see for myself what they actually say, and was struck by their prescience and continuing relevance. I followed up with some more current writings, such as David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky, The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party, and the SEP Statement of Principles.
Once exposed to a bit of Marxist theory, I began to get it. The history of human social organization goes from slavery-based societies to feudalism to capitalism to… what? It is by no means a foregone conclusion that capitalism is the end point of the evolution of human society (Francis Fukuyama’s famous, now discredited, assertion to the contrary notwithstanding). If it turns out that capitalism is the final word, it will be because the human species extinguishes itself under capitalism, most likely by way of environmental catastrophe, before it gets its shit together.
So what sort of world socialist society do I envision? One in which the wealth of the planet is utilized rationally and democratically, i.e., with the priority on social need over private profit and accumulation — the inverse of capitalism. If that sounds somewhat vague, it is. I haven’t mastered all the implementation details. If it sounds ambitious, it is; history teaches that the struggle has been and will likely continue to be long and bitter. If it sounds like so much dreaming, it isn’t. Dreamers are those who think the human species has any chance of survival under capitalism.
Martin Luther King once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Although his statement may have been partly rooted in religious faith, there is some objective historical evidence that the principle is correct. A few centuries ago, genocide and enslavement were commonplace. Now world opinion is in general agreement that genocide and enslavement are wrong, and people get upset when they happen. Some day people will likewise look back at history to an economic system where the many — i.e., the working class — suffered and were exploited so that a few could become fabulously wealthy, and they will find it appalling and unacceptable, just as we consider slavery appalling and unacceptable today. In the future, the revolutionary Marxists of today will be recognized as having been ahead of their time.