Is there an alternative to capitalism’s great injustices? Activist and journalist Danny Katch has written an introduction to socialism that manages to be not just accessible, but hilariously funny. Socialism … Seriously is essential reading for the budding socialist in your life, and maybe even a few skeptics. Make a donation to Truthout to order your copy today!
The following is an interview with Danny Katch, author of Socialism … Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation.
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Mark Karlin: You have entitled your new book: Socialism … Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation. How do you feel socialism, in its purest form, facilitates human liberation?
Danny Katch: I meant the subtitle to be both humorous and earnest – like the rest of the book. Presenting a “brief guide to human liberation” is … ambitious, to put it mildly. But it’s important to bring back words like “liberation” that have faded from our vocabulary. As our energies have shifted almost entirely to defensive struggles to preserve our rights and standard of living, our expectations about the possibility of a fundamentally better world have been relentlessly lowered.
The incredible potential of human beings has always been limited by the need for most of us to spend all of our waking hours struggling to survive – either because of our limited tools and technology, or in more recent times because of social structures that concentrate wealth and power among small minorities of people. By redistributing that wealth and power to be democratically controlled by all of us, socialism could both liberate billions of individuals currently chained by poverty and exhaustion, and liberate our entire species from the need to restrict our cultural and ecological aspirations to whatever can make a profit for a tiny handful of jerks.
Let’s go to a timely question bearing upon the presidential primaries that is the subject of much progressive analysis. Briefly, how does Bernie Sanders’ concept of democratic socialism differ from your vision of socialism?
Bernie’s socialism is based on the model of Scandinavian social welfare states. I’m thrilled that Sanders is using the platform of the presidential election to educate millions of Americans about their universal health care and paid family leave policies – those are exactly some of the higher expectations that we need! Unfortunately, Sanders is running inside the Democratic Party, which is not a Scandinavian social democratic party but in fact is one of the pillars of our two-party oligarchy. The party hopes to use Sanders’ exciting campaign to pull his left-wing supporters into eventually supporting the far-less exciting campaign of Hillary Clinton.
“Just as social-ism is about the needs of society, capital-ism is about the needs of capital.”
Beyond that, the difference between “Scandinavian socialism” and the Marxist vision that I put forward isn’t that the former is more “democratic” but actually that it is less so. Power and wealth is still concentrated among Scandinavian elites – they have just been forced to hoard less of it than their counterparts here in the US. On the international level, meanwhile, their support for US wars in the Middle East and the growing hostility to the refugees (among some Scandinavian nations) that those wars have created demonstrate that they don’t offer any type of significant alternative – which unfortunately is also true of Bernie Sanders when it comes to foreign policy. The revolution, in short, won’t be funded by IKEA.
Chapter 7 of your book is entitled, “Worker’s Power.” You state in that section: “The workers would do a much better job, not the class as it exists right now but the one that can come into being through future struggles.” Let me offer just three of a multitude of examples of current loosely categorized demographic groups of workers in the US: unions, workers with a high school education or below, and the primarily young people who have conducted actions to raise the minimum wage to $15. To draw some broad generalizations, many members of the declining union base are very loyal to the capitalist system, many of the individuals with a high school education or below are perceived to be supporters of the capitalist demagogue Donald Trump, and the movement toward a $15 minimum wage is an implicit acknowledgement of the capitalist system, with an incremental tweak, not a rejection of it. In short, in the US, where would you see a transformation of workers into the kind of socialist force that has propelled radical transformation in other nations?
The transformation can come among workers in all the categories you mention, as well as others: undocumented immigrants, young people bouncing back and forth between college and low-wage work and tech workers who think they’re upper-middle class until the next bubble bursts. All types of workers are more likely to support the status quo or reactionary ideas when we are being cowed by our bosses and divided against each other. It’s when they start figuring out how to come together and resist that many of them become more politically open to radical politics.
There is currently a historically low level of strikes in the US – which is one reason an anti-union billionaire like Donald Trump is getting a hearing among some workers. At some point that is going to change, but it’s difficult to say where or when. Not many of us could have predicted a few years ago, for example, that two of the most militant sections of the working class would be fast-food workers fighting for $15 an hour and public school teachers rebelling against corporate education “reform” schemes. These days when conservatives rail about striking “union thugs” they’re often talking about you’re old second grade teacher.
What is the inherent flaw of the assertion that capitalism equals democracy?
In my book, I talk about the fairy tale we learn in grade school about the dashing economic system named capitalism who meets democracy, the fairest political system of them all, and how together they lived happily every after. Meanwhile in the real world, capitalism hooks up with any government that protects its investments – from military dictatorships to Islamic republics to whatever you want to call that thing we have in Washington, DC.
Far from promoting democracy, capitalism limits it, both by greatly restricting our basic rights to expression and assembly while we’re at work (imagine what that would look like!) and by creating monstrous economic inequality that inevitably flows into political inequality. Socialism is about extending democracy – by extending popular decision-making into arenas currently controlled by unelected institutions like corporations and police departments and by creating many new democratic institutions such as neighborhood assemblies and workplace committees.
Would it be fair to assert that there is a direct correlation in the relationship between the mythical narrative of the rugged individualist and capitalism, and that since the nation’s foundation we have seen a tension between that concept and the relationship between the public good and government?
I think there’s some truth to that but I’m also wary of automatically equating government as it currently exists with the public good. I understand the good intentions but disagree with those who try to defend socialism by reducing it to any government program so that they can say, “Don’t be afraid of socialism; it’s just highways and public schools!” Actually, the highways were built so that the military could quickly move around the country and most public schools are designed to instill literacy, obedience and limited critical thinking in future employees. We have to fight for more support for many government institutions, but also fight within those institutions for community control. And we also should learn and benefit from the best aspects of our country’s individualist traditions: the freethinkers and rebels like Margaret Fuller, “Big Bill” Haywood and Muhammad Ali.
You mention the impact of Citizens United in your book and that “capital outranks humans” in many nations, including our own. You then assert that capital is “a parasite that uses humanity as a host body to multiply itself even as it weakens” that which makes us distinct as humans, including love and compassion. In this world, have many people become commodities as the corporations and entities that amass and control money assume the rights belonging to people?
The most stunning example of this is of course our failure to reduce carbon emissions to stop global warming. Many news outlets are reporting that the recent climate negotiations in Paris are a turning point because the lower costs of renewables and drop in oil profits are finally creating “market incentives” to switch to a less destructive form of energy production – because you know, the mere continuation of human existence beyond this century hadn’t really been much of an incentive for these guys.
Just as social-ism is about the needs of society, capital-ism is about the needs of capital. The US Supreme Court has made this quite explicit, both with Citizens United declaring that corporations have the rights of people and its decisions allowing unjustified police searches and government spying, which basically means that people don’t have the rights of people. We then internalize this logic: We root for property value to rise in our neighborhoods even if that forces longtime neighbors to move, and judge our kids by standardized test scores designed in the interests of future employers to measure their ability to follow whatever instructions they’re given.
How does your chapter entitled “Imagine” reflect the late 1960s protest slogan, “Be realistic, demand the impossible”?
My version of that fabulous paradoxical slogan is that I imagine a lousy day in a better world. I take the reader through a day under socialism in which everything goes wrong: You get in trouble at work because you don’t get payment from one of your customers – it’s easy to forget now that everyone has plenty, but money is still the way society keeps track of its resources. You argue with your mother because you belong to generations that have very different understandings of family: You don’t feel an obligation to visit a despised uncle who was active in the counterrevolution and she thinks you’re being a bad nephew. My intention – beyond demonstrating my neurotic inability to imagine simple joy – is to counter the idea that socialism is some type of utopia, which of course would mean that it’s impossible. I find comfort in that because, like most people, I think utopias are creepy.
On page 134, you make the argument that liberalism implies incremental reform that if followed by supporters of socialism ends up embracing capitalism. Can you expand on that?
I think it’s important to push for incremental reforms – from raising the minimum wage to winning full spectrum equality for all – both because we desperately need them and because it’s in those protest movements that people learn how to fight in their own interests. That’s what creates the potential for socialism – but only if there are already socialists out there. The problem is when socialists drop the S-word and try to water down our ideas to make them more appealing. That’s when we ourselves end up adapting ourselves to capitalism. It’s true that the socialist label has been greatly damaged both by anti-socialist propaganda and by the many dictatorships that have called themselves socialist. But it’s also true that capitalism keeps pushing new generations to look to an alternative. We have to be willing to be in the minority most of the time so that we can be there when opportunities arise.
Why won’t a socialist world be boring, as you explain in chapter 10?
I begin the chapter by invoking some of the dystopian visions of socialism from science fiction, in which equality is interpreted to mean everyone being exactly the same, which of course is horrifying. But socialism isn’t based on the premise that people are the same, only that they have the same rights and resources. Socialism wouldn’t be boring because it’s a society run by and for people, and people are fascinating.
Sure, many of us become a little drab after decades of spending most of our waking hours in dull jobs before plopping down in front a screen to watch supposedly more interesting people play superheroes or score touchdowns. But when ordinary people are able to enter the public arena – think Black Lives Matter or the Arab Spring – they are anything but boring. Socialism is about expanding social movements like these into a full participatory democracy. It might be hectic and full of challenges – remember we’re not about utopias here – but it definitely won’t be boring.
You employ a lot of humor throughout your book. Many dedicated political advocates are quite uncompromisingly serious about social justice; why do you think evoking laughter occasionally adds to your explanation of socialism?
When I first started hanging around socialists and activists, I was surprised at how many of them were really funny. I had fully accepted the cultural stereotype of protesters being humorless downers who believed that nobody should laugh until everybody in the world has food, water and shelter. And I’m not saying you’ll never find that type at a demonstration, but you’ll also find them in the next cubicle or family gathering.
One of the points of this book’s humor is obviously to make it appealing to a wider audience. I’ve had a number of people tell me that they’ve given it to their friend or cousin that won’t read “serious” things – and that’s part of the idea. But laughter isn’t just sugar to help the political medicine go down. It’s a tool to demonstrate that capitalism is not only destructive and dangerous but also irrational and silly. And sometimes adopting the stance of a comedian instead of a radical gives me a different way of approaching or explaining an issue that can connect with people in a unique way.