Monthly Archives: April 1991

Socialism Based in Community

(This article first appeared in the April 22, 1991 issue of The Nation)


The left is, and was always, wrong: Capitalism is, and
will forever be, triumphant. The condemning propositions
ring from every source of conventional wisdom.
In his widely quoted essay, Francis Fukuyama
tells us that even history IS over. Many on the left seem to
agree. The argument needs to be dismantled, or as some put
it, “unpacked.”

Does it follow that because (1) undemocratic, (2) state socialist
systems in (3) the poorly developed countries of the
Soviet bloc, which (4) for the most part had little previous
history of democracy, (5) manifested enormous economic
inefficiencies and (6) carried out repression of their people
(7) during periods of war and cold war tension, therefore all
forms of (8) democratic socialism (9) must necessarily fall,
and (10) what we call capitalism (11) must inevitably prevail,
(12) now and for all time?

Might there be efficient, democratic, nonstatist forms of
socialism that liberate the citizenry more than centralized corporate
capitalism? Especially in advanced, developed countries
with a long history of democracy-countries that are not struggling
up the steep mountain of capital accumulation? And
above all in time of peace rather than of war or cold war?
And IS the conventional projection of twentieth-century
political-economic history-and the lesson drawn that nothing,
really, can ever change-a useful guide to the possibilities
of the new century we are about to enter?

The implicit assumption that all forms of public enterprise
and economic planning are inefficient begs additional questions.
In the West, for instance, there are numerous public industries-
from energy utilities to European airlines and auto
producers – that are quite as efficient as private firms. Nor
do most comparisons between free-market and socialist systems
reckon with such obvious capitalist failures as America’s
backward-looking steel industry-to say nothing of several
hundred billion dollars in savings and loan losses. And if all
forms of socialism are inherently inefficient, just why is it hat
the Soviet space program so often outpaces America’s?

None of this is to excuse the irrationalities of the dreary,
state-socialist command economies, nor is it to contend
against the utility of market mechanisms in any future alternative.
However, most conventional accounts have so lost perspective
that we need to jolt ourselves out of media-induced
nodding if we are ever to make rational judgments about the
real-world options we actually face.

Serious conservatives who are truly concerned about democracy
are on stronger ground in arguing that highly centralized
states are destructive of liberty. But here, too, there
is extraordinary confusion. If one considers civil liberties, for
instance, the most democratic and “civil libertarian” Western
nations include some with very large state sectors, and the
most repressive include some in which the state plays a relatively
small role in the economy. The share of the government
sector in economic life in civil libertarian Sweden, for instance,
is more than double that of the state sectors in repressive
El Salvador, South Korea and Turkey.

Obviously, factors other than the size of the state sector
enter into the equation that determine whether a society will
develop civil liberties and democracy. Among them are the
level of economic development, the previous history of democracy
and the existence of internal or external siege that may
result (legitimately or not) in repressive measures. The experience
of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Romania with autocratic
or fascist histories prior to their adoption of socialism
is radically different from that of the Scandinavian nations,
Britain, the Netherlands, the United States or Canada.

It is also held that planned systems are necessarily inefficient
at the so-called macro level – that is, the overall level
of employment and the rate of economic growth. However
(though our statistics leave much to be desired), many economists
Judge that despite enormous waste, growth in the Soviet
bloc between 1950 and 1980 was better on average than
in much of the West. For all its many problems-and the
choices facing all developing nations are agonizing-development,
especially of heavy industry, was much more impressive
than many seem willing to acknowledge. Where these systems
have been particularly weak is in agriculture and consumer
industries, areas where markets can be especially helpful if
properly structured.

Again, it is by no means obvious that the fundamental
problems of Western capitalism have been solved. A good case
can be made that after a highly unusual postwar era the U.S.
economy is gradually returning to a pervasive pattern of stagnation
that began early in the century. The “interruptions”

of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the
cold war are now fading-and so too, it may well be, is America’s
“moment” of high economic growth.

Indeed, the stagnation of the post-Vietnam 1970s was countered only when the Reagan Administration opted for very
(albeit conservative) Keynesian measures: tax cuts,
military spending and large deficits. When those ran their
course, the only remaining policy card left to play was a dollar
devaluation to stimulate exports. Now, as they stare dumbly
at the politics of the deficit, policy-makers are empty-handed.

We shall soon also learn just how efficient capitalism will
be in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, now that the initial
excitement is over, and now that the confusion between
the desire for democracy and the idea that capitalism will solve
all problems is beginning to be dispelled. Whether these societies
will actually remain democratic as the new stresses hit
is, in fact, a major question: Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia
are dubious candidates for democracy from the outset –
and Lech Walesa in Poland and even Vaclav Havel in
Czechoslovakia already seem to be positioning themselves for
rule, at least in part, by presidential decree.

More fundamentally, there are obvious difficulties with the
meaning of “democracy” in Western capitalism and with
the relationship of the economic system to inequality. In the
most recent U.S. Congressional elections only about 36 percent
of those eligible voted. Construction worker Bobby Machicek
speaks for many in his bitter reflection on politics and

When it comes time to vote they all pretend they care about
people, and they start cutting on each other, but it’s all Just
a rat race. It doesn’t mean anything. One guy says he’ll change
things, he gets In, and then he leaves and the next guy talks
about how bad the last guy was. It goes on and on like that.

And it was not a radical critic but Ronald Reagan who pointed
Out – before the recent Gorbachev reform – that in the House
of Representatives, “with a 98 percent rate of re-election, there
is less turnover . . . than in the Supreme Soviet.”

Democracy, if it is to be more than a facade for special

interest-group maneuvering and indirect control by the wealthy,
requires that all have roughly equal capacity to participate.
Yet money and television tend increasingly to dominate elections.
And when there are vast differences in wealth, education,
free time and personal security, citizens with low incomes are
fundamentally disadvantaged. They do not have the money
to influence politics, their education does not give them as
many skills, they don’t have the time and often, fearful of losing
their jobs, they prefer silence to speaking their minds.

Democracy dies when inequality grows-and capitalism
generates extraordinary degrees of inequality: The wealthiest
20 percent of the population now receive approximately 50 percent
of all income (including Interest, rent and dividends).
About the same number of human beings at the bottom make
do on less than 3.7 percent of such income. Long before the
Reagan era, there was scant evidence-even at the height of
the New Deal-that the welfare state did more than marginally
alter relative income distribution. Only war has had any significant
positive impact. The absolute gap between those at the
top and those at the bottom has been increasing for decades.

In short, as we approach a new century all the existing systems
seem to be exhausting their capacity to achieve underlying
values and affirmed goals. Consider the possibility
that even as the East decays, the West-especially the United
States-may be entering a period in which the economy neither
booms nor collapses and the welfare state neither succeeds
nor totally falls. Substantial economic stagnation (with
minor boomlets and significant recessions) generates slow
decay and growing frustration, but there is no dramatic crisis.
Global economic integration increasingly produces local
economic distress. Minor wars occur but, given nuclear weapons
and the public’s loss of appetite for extended combat,
there are no large “economy-organizing” wars like Korea and
Vietnam. Nothing works; movements oriented around specific
issues regularly appear and fade away; alienation grows;
revolution is not possible. Populist or progressive upsurges occasionally
occur but are unable to alter fundamental trends.
Meanwhile the (state) socialist model disappears as a meaningful alternative. Add to this a growing ecological crisis.

It may be that in such conditions, ultimately there will be
a significant social democratic, populist political realignment
to complete the welfare state. But given America’s racial, ethnic,
regional and other divisions-and its huge size, historic
conservatism and longstanding social and economic trends – in
my judgment the odds are against anything more than’ a
temporary upswing of modestly enduring impact. More likely
is a continuing trend of decay and failure that will slowly destroy
all the old beliefs, leading first to ever deeper disillusionment,
then to profound apathy, then to delegitimation of the
existing system, then to anger-and possibly, after a long dark
winter of discontent, to a demand for something different:
for perestroika, for reconstruction, American style. Not, as
in the Soviet Union, away from state socialism but rather in
reaction to the strange and painful experience of late twentieth-century
American capitalism.

In such an extended, eerie, half-light context, as unsolved
problems build at the local level, as reform fails, as the traditional
vision of socialism falters, any serious demand for
change would ultimately have to define a completely new direction.
In 1948, the philosopher Martin Buber argued that
all the major traditions were already at a dead end. He urged
a slow and agonizing reconstruction of local, cooperative
community economic institution in a “long march” to a different
future. Even earlier – in 1934 – W.E.B. Du Bois argued
that the only hope in a continental power system like the United
States was to rebuild from the bottom up. Du Bois, too,
urged collective, community economic institutions as a central
requirement of any serious black alternative, however difficult
their development might be.

In recent years Andre Gorz, Murray Bookchin, Harold
Cruse, Herman Daly and Robert Bellah, to name only a few
thinkers of varying political perspectives, have reached roughly
similar conclusions. One also finds echoes of the argument
for a third-way, community-based vision, organized step by
step, locality by locality, in the writings of Lewis Mumford,
Paul Goodman and Jacques Maritain. There are also numerous
experiments and examples-from worker-owned firms
and co-ops, to new energy and ecological approaches, to community
land-banks and land trusts-that suggest possibilities
in this as yet only vaguely defined direction.

The deadlock of the national system may well have other
implications: The late William Appleman Williams argued
that a national stalemate could force the question of a long-term
regional regroupment. If the federal government cannot
act, then problems must build up at the state or regional
level; this defines another focal point for serious politics. In
many states new economic planning techniques are being developed

that could have implications for a community-building
strategy-if new political coalitions would bend them to such
purposes. Larger-scale, publicly accountable industry ultimately
might best be located at the regional level as well.
In some large polities-Texas and California, perhaps-a
slow movement toward substantial political-economic self-determination
might well gather real momentum in the context
of long-term national stalemate. In others, groups of
states-New England and the Pacific Northwest-might
begin to act together.

A society in stalemate-one that generates alienation-is
also clearly a breeding ground for violence. There have already
been major community-police face-offs in Miami, Los Angeles,
New Jersey, Shreveport, Louisiana, and other cities. We
can expect more. Both George Bush and Jesse Helms have
demonstrated their callous understanding of how to manipulate
racist politics, and we can also expect more of this. Combined
with crime, drugs and confrontations with the police,
this factor provides good reason to expect serious repression
in the future. We face a judicial system dominated by Reagan-
Bush appointees and supervised by the Rehnquist Supreme
Court. It is an open question whether the 1990s will bring a
form of Bertram Gross’s “friendly” (or not so friendly) fascism
or merely scattered and decentralized repression.

Still, Chile survived its Pinochet, and in dark political days
it is all too easy to despair. Cynicism, Sartre once warned, is
just another way of being bourgeois-and, he might have
added, of giving away the future by default. It is, of course,
possible that nothing can ever be done. But it is also easy to
confuse a difficult moment In history with inevitability.

There remains the overwhelming need for progressives to
consider what, specifically, they want. If state socialism is
dead and the welfare state is fading, what makes sense over
the long haul? Some form of community-nourishing, regionally
decentralized system-one that also intelligently faces
problems of ecological balance and the need for economic coordination
and planning-seems to honor the values of equality,
democracy and community. Such a system could also
nourish the development of the free individual, and it addresses
honest conservative fears of centralized statism as inherently
destructive of liberty.

Were the left to rebuild its vision in ways that truly honored
such values, and were it to undertake a long reconstructive,
community-building march through the painful debris of a
society in stalemate, a new progressive movement might ultimately
find that it speaks to the concerns of the American
people more directly than any of the old, dying traditions.
Quite possibly it might write a radically new and dynamic
chapter of history in the new century.

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