Sunday, August 24, 2014

Failures of Imagination

When I saw the book Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA on the shelf of my local library, I was not sure what to make of it. Given the usual types of "non-fiction" political books acquired by the small library in the mostly upper-middle-class Maine town where I live, I thought it might even be a right-wing scare tract. "Imagine the horrors after just a few more years of Obamacare!" A quick glance at the list of contributors on the back cover assured me otherwise.

For someone who considers himself a socialist, the question to be asked in considering a book like this is, will it serve the purpose of making more people into socialists? Which is where we get to the book's first failure of imagination: that it is a book. Yes, it is published by HarperCollins, so it's a snazzy looking trade paperback with decent distribution. Decent enough to end up on the shelves of a small-town library in Maine. But how many people will pick it up off the shelves of libraries and bookstores, and check it out or buy it? (I note that only two people checked it out before me. I have a feeling I know who one of those people is.) Are books the primary way that people today engage with points of view with which they do not necessarily agree?

The next failure of imagination is embedded in the title: "Socialist USA".

This is not to say that there is not some value in imagining what a particular country might be like after capitalism. Even the fellow whose picture I put up there once wrote an essay entitled "If America Should Go Communist". It's even got something about neckties. Apparently, American workers were big into neckties eighty years ago.

But the international significance of a transformation of U.S. society is almost wholly unremarked in this new book. There are essays about seemingly every topic under the sun--as well as a poem and a science fiction story--but none focusing on warfare or the role of militarism in U.S. society. To the extent that imperialism and war make an appearance, it is only as a costly waste of resources, whose reduction might help to fund the types of social programs the more reform-minded of the authors tend to advocate. Only one author--Terry Bisson, in his science-fiction story "Thanksgiving 2077"--dares to suggest that socialism might mean a temporary decline in U.S. workers' living standards, for the betterment of the rest of the world.

"If co-op farms are so good, how come we only eat meat twice a week?" grumbled Les.

"So others around the world can eat it once a week," said Grandpa. "What kind of world would it be if half the people were skinny so the other half could get fat?"

One barely gets a sense, from the story or from the other contributions, of the kind of cultural transformation that would be needed for such a conversation to take place, especially in regard to that most American of viands, meat. Certainly neither Bisson nor any other contributor contrasts this international altruism to the nationalist protectionism of the book's most famous contributor, Michael Moore, with his usual shtick about how "our jobs are our most important national treasure".

Even from an opportunistic perspective, this narrow focus on what takes place within a given set of national boundaries is a problem: Returning to our hypothetical not-yet-convinced reader interested in socialism, that part of what puts her off about the capitalist present in the U.S. is the militarism. In my experience, there is a strong correlation between openness to the one and questioning of the other. From a principled perspective, though, it's just appalling.

So the next question we have to ask about our hypothetical reader is whether, if she decides to check it out from the library and gets a chance to open the book, will she be convinced by the contents. The problem here is that one gets the sense, reading the book, that the contributors did not read each other's essays. There are no open polemics between contrasting views, only implicit contradictions between different standpoints. Our hypothetical reader could be forgiven for surmising that the socialists are not clear on what exactly they collectively stand for.

Consider, for example, the first three contributions in "Part 2: Imagining Socialism," in which Joel Kovel, Ron Reosti and Rick Wolff each lay out their visions of how socialism, as distinct from capitalism, will function economically. The theses of Kovel's and Reosti's essays can be read in their titles: "The Future Will Be Ecosocialist, Because Without Ecosocialism, There Will Be No Future" (Kovel) and "A Democratically Run Economy Can Replace the Oligarchy" (Reosti). Wolff's "Shape of a Post-Capitalist Future" will be familiar to anyone who has heard him speak--an emphasis on workers' self-management of individual enterprises, with some mechanism for community input, albeit still on a local scale. In contrast to Wolff's localism, Kovel's vision of ecosocialism can only be conceived on a global scale--though, like the other contributors, Kovel is vague about the types of international political and economic collaboration his vision would entail. The democratic will of the hydraulic fracturing crews of North Dakota to continue fracking and burning would have to be subordinated to categorical imperative of human survival. Reosti can be read as advocating a kind of pragmatic, federalist balance between various levels of local, regional and national collaboration, though like Wolff his emphasis is on the formal mechanisms of democracy rather than a substantive direction toward which human productive activity must be transformed. Unlike Kovel, he hardly even gestures toward the global as a scale for meaningful decision-making.

That I most agree with Kovel should not surprise readers of this blog. What is disappointing, however, is the degree to which the three essays are siloed off from one another. Each addresses separate issues, all of which are important, in apparent isolation. Our hypothetical reader, if she comes in with little prior knowledge of what "socialism" is, may emerge even more confused.

This is not the only example where different essays implicitly contradicted one another, but in the interest of length it is the only one I will give. There were even some cases where individual essays sketched a vision of socialism that I found frankly repellent. Unfortunately, most of those were the ones that attempted to weld a socialist perspective with a feminist one. By which I mean to say, not that I oppose socialist-feminism--I do not--but that if the essays in this book were fully representative of that spectrum of thought, we would need a better socialist-feminism. Fortunately, they are not.

An even bigger problem than that is that "Section 3: Getting There: How to Make a Socialist America," does not live up to its billing. While some essays (Clifford D. Conner and Paul Le Blanc) give fairly orthodox Marxist accounts of how socialist revolution could come about, and one ("The Capitalist Road: From Chinese Sweatshops to Detroit's Decay" by Dianne Feeley) puts forward promising tactical ideas applicable to at least one locality--Detroit--none of the essays bridges the gap between what is happening now and what could, plausibly, take place in the hopefully-not-too-distant future. Our hypothetical reader could be forgiven for thinking that not even the socialists believe that their visions realistically could come about.

One thing that is not a weakness of this book is its attitude toward the Democratic Party. While there are contributors whom I know for a fact called for votes for Obama not only in 2008, but even more shamefully in 2012, they thankfully maintain a tactful silence about their own lesser-evilism. The contributors who reject that as a strategy do so forthrightly. So our hypothetical reader, if she were able to overlook or at least be gracious about the book's self-contradictions, could plausibly come to the conclusion that the Republicans and Democrats are both capitalist parties, and what we therefore need is a socialist party.

"And how would I join that?" she might ask.

To which I would reply, click here.

But I would be dishonest if I did not tell her before she joins that she won't be meeting the authors from this book at party functions. Either they belong to other parties and organizations, or they belong to none, preferring to maintain a regal, ivory tower autonomy, or if they do belong to the SP on paper, they aren't particularly active. And she might ask, "Why?"

Well, it's complicated. And unfortunately, the book won't give you any insight into that, either.

No comments:

Post a Comment