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Thanksgiving and the Socialist Imaginary

Mainstream progressive politicians lack utopia, a vision of a fundamentally different society.

(Image: Giving thought via Shutterstock)

A national rock star in the Democratic Party, Wendy Davis recently lost the Texas Governorship by a nearly 20 percent margin.

She tried to outflank the GOP by embracing guns and capital punishment, demonstrating that the left’s right cannot beat the right at its own game. It fails to distinguish itself, as Elizabeth Warren seems to get – at least in domestic policy.

Looking into the exit-polling numbers, Davis lost white voters in a red state by a reported 72 to 27, but the deeper story is low voter turnout among the less well off and young in a mid-term that saw older white voters highly mobilized.

As ever, turnout matters because the bourgeoisie is outnumbered by the proletariat; it is not yet clear that the lumpenproletariat (those with “no role in useful production”) secured the photo IDs needed to vote in some states. Two-thirds of the electorate typically do not vote. Turnout isn’t the only issue.

Utopia is a whole narrative of profound change in the lives we lead involving our work, leisure, bodies and relationship to nature.

“False consciousness” leads people to vote against their class, race and gender interests, explaining why Wendy Davis lost Texas women by 52 to 47 (with only a third of white women voting for her).

The Democratic Party’s rightward shift began in earnest with Bill Clinton and the former Democratic Leadership Council, and it has accelerated since the Tea Party was given life by the 2008 bailout. But the problem is more profound.

Mainstream progressive politicians lack utopia, a vision of a fundamentally different society. Utopia is a whole narrative of profound change in the lives we lead involving our work, leisure, bodies and relationship to nature. And I contend that we can find the intimations of this in Thanksgiving, which is surely a Hail-Mary pass by any standard!

This twisted story begins with a comparison of the platforms of the US Democratic Party and the policy book of the Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s social-democratic party. Far from being fringy, the NDP has controlled provincial governments in Canada (Manitoba today and Nova Scotia until 2013), and it holds the second-largest number of seats in the federal Parliament. The party has roots in the rural Canadian Midwest, it grew under the charismatic leadership of the late Jack Layton.

Social democracy derives from a branch of European and English Marxism that seeks socialism at the ballot box. Figures such as Lassalle, Bernstein and the Fabians built on Marx’s acknowledgment at the 1872 Hague Congress, five years after he published the first volume of Capital, that socialism could be voted in, precluding a revolutionary cataclysm which, he predicted, would emerge from a great depression. His economic meteorology was vindicated as the “Great Depression” occurred right on schedule. But workers of the world didn’t unite, divided by nationalism during the Great War. And capitalism developed internal coping mechanisms such as the welfare state, which addresses financial crisis, and the culture industries, which soften psychic crisis. Hindsight is perfect: How could Marx have anticipated FDR’s first 100 days in 1933, Keynesian economics, radio, television, film, the Internet?

The left’s right in the United States defends the Protestant ethic whereby diligent work pays off, with a Platonist nod to an unequal distribution of human potential.

For reasons explained in Mark Kann’s American Left, the United States, with its two-party political system, has lacked viable socialist third-party alternatives, precluding coalition governments and genuine political debate and dissent. The United States has had its share of fellow travelers, all the way from Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace to the New Lefts, both white and black, of the ’60s, who drew upon antiauthoritarian socialism, pragmatism and existentialism. As Tom Hayden, author of the SDS’ 1962 “Port Huron Statement,” quipped, he was the New and the sociologist Dick Flacks was the Left.

The NDP’s policy book summarizes social-democratic intent:

“Around the world, social-democratic governments have successfully shown that the goals of equality and economic well-being are not in conflict, rather they depend on each other. A New Democrat government will pursue these goals and build a green and prosperous Canada where no one is left behind.”

By contrast, the 2012 US national Democratic Party platform begins this way:

“Today, our economy is growing again, al-Qaeda is weaker than at any point since 9/11, and our manufacturing sector is growing for the first time in more than a decade. But there is more we need to do, and so we come together again to continue what we started. We gather to reclaim the basic bargain that built the largest middle class and the most prosperous nation on Earth – the simple principle that in America, hard work should pay off, responsibility should be rewarded, and each one of us should be able to go as far as our talent and drive take us.”

NDP social democrats seek equality, within a Green context. The left’s right in the United States, by contrast, defends the Protestant ethic whereby diligent work pays off, with a Platonist nod to an unequal distribution of human potential. American political discourse is dominated by paeans to the middle class, but there is a sense that the chips should be allowed to fall where they may. By contrast, Canadians do not leave economic justice to chance, even as they appreciate the role of manufacturing and markets in ensuring abundance.

Canada has had a viable left since the origins of the NDP in the prairie CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), and it embraces a cultural “mosaic,” rather than the melting pot. The CCF formed a social-democratic government in Saskatchewan as early as 1944.

Numerous Canadian intellectuals, from Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and George Grant to Margaret Atwood, Gad Horowitz and John Ralston Saul articulate a distinctively Canadian intellectual and cultural identity that is defined in some measure with reference to its alterity, its differences from the United States. The magazines Canadian Dimension and Canadian Forum advanced this tradition.

Canadians are more open to socialism; they eschew manifest destiny; and they have dealt dexterously with the difference-within-unity of a nation that makes room for Quebec, notably by installing French as a second official language. The NDP calls this asymmetrical federalism.

The appropriation of Thanksgiving for an American socialist imaginary requires a tempering Zinn-like acknowledgment that Plymouth Rock was preceded and followed by: slavery in the Virginia colony and beyond, genocide against the same Native Americans invited to dinner, and the Salem witch trials.

Canada’s gun-homicide rate is only one-seventh of the American rate. They have no equivalent of the Second Amendment, and although Canadians hunt, a majority of Canadians do not believe that citizens should have a right to own handguns. They are exposed to the same violent media, including video games, as US Americans, and so that cannot explain their tiny gun-homicide rate. The recent shooting outside Parliament in Ottawa did not lead to “homeland security,” but to a redoubling of support for an open society in which people are not afraid to go out in public.

Although Canada has a right, it is genteel by comparison to its American counterpart. Their civic discourse is not characterized by ranting. It was no accident that Canada took in draft dodgers during the Vietnam era even as Canadian foreign policy sometimes tracks US policy as in the joint airstrike against ISIS, which may have provoked the attack on Parliament Hill. Canada has similarities to the United States, but there are important differences, including the ways we do Thanksgiving. We can read differences between the two countries by exploring Thanksgiving, securing a socialist imaginary in the US version of it – again, that Hail-Mary pass.

This imaginary is necessary as Democratic politicians wrap themselves in the flag, profess a militant militarism, support the death penalty and bow their heads in prayer, positions recommended by opinion polling, which does not include a social-democratic agenda as one of its possible options. Thus, the political status quo reproduces itself.

Thanksgiving, the second Monday in October since 1957, began earlier in Canada. An English explorer named Martin Frobisher threw the first thanksgiving celebration during his effort to find the Northwest Passage. The Canadian holiday was and remains a harvest festival. The US version is usually traced to 1621, after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and broke bread with local Native Americans. (The word “thanksgiving” was used in the Virginia colony in 1619, but historical detail gives way to the conventional narrative.)

Although both holidays are autumnal and may involve turkey for carnivores, Canadians rank Thanksgiving at their fourth favorite national holiday, while US Americans rate it a strong second. Canada does not need Thanksgiving as a utopian resource because it has a social-democratic option on the ballot. Christmas leads the way in both countries.

My Thanksgiving memories, before I moved to Canada for college and graduate school, involved brown construction paper, out of which we fashioned turkeys, and a get-together with a family in nearby Corvallis (the site of Cascadia College in Malamud’s A New Life, an academic roman à clef). They were a Kennedy-esque family, enjoying tennis and mountaineering, and they had twin girls my age. Having kids of our own required me and my wife, professorial overthinkers, to consider the best way to do holidays with our kids. (I also overthink Halloween, speculating that people identify with the undead because zombies, a metaphor, protest their own alienation. It’s a theory, anyway!)

And so the question is why people are drawn to Thanksgiving, which is less commercial than Christmas and extends over four days unlike the single evening of Halloween and the single day of Easter. People like time off work and school, active leisure given over to turkey trots and touch football, and a sense of community that includes, but isn’t limited to, family. After all, many live in far-flung recombinant families, leading them to treat friends and neighbors as family during Thanksgiving.

These are utopian responses to everyday alienation – the lives we would lead if we were free from alienated labor. To be sure, shopping now begins on the late afternoon or early evening of Thanksgiving as brick-and-mortar stores compete with the internet for the consumer dollar. But one can even read shopping of this sort – holiday sprees, which include window shopping – as playful and public.

The appropriation of Thanksgiving for an American socialist imaginary requires a tempering Zinn-like acknowledgment that Plymouth Rock was preceded and followed by slavery in the Virginia colony and beyond, genocide against the same Native Americans invited to dinner, and the Salem witch trials. Nostalgia is not to be trusted. When I was 11, Thanksgiving followed President Kennedy’s assassination by less than a week. Garrison Keillor strikes a nice balance in his Homegrown Democrat:

In the new privatized low-tax, minimal-services society the Republicans are striving to lay on us, public transportation will offer no pleasure whatsoever. The bus will be for losers and dopes. The driver will sit in a bulletproof box, and there will be no conversation with him. The bus will be full of angry and sullen people who have lost hope that their kids can rise in the world and have a better life, which is the hope that makes it possible for me to turn to you and say something about the weather. Civility leads to civilities. In Republican America, you will not enjoy public life period. The public library, that great democratic temple, will become a waiting room for desperate and broken people, the alkies, the wacked-out, the unemployables, and the public schools will become holding tanks for children whose parents were too unresourceful to find good schools for them, and politics will be so ugly and rancid that decent people will avoid expressing an opinion for fear of being screeched at and hectored and spat on.

That isn’t the country I grew up in, dear hearts.

I grew up in a sweet country that was one country and so there were certain points where all roads led and everybody came together, nabob and yahoo, poet and redneck, Baptist and Catholic, and the public school was one of those places. In Anoka, Minnesota, some children wound up attending Dartmouth and Stanford and Carleton and Princeton but they spent their formative years in the public school system with the children of farmers and carpenters and cops and firemen. They all rode together on the big yellow schoolbus and cheered for the Tornadoes and ate macaroni and cheese in the lunchroom. This experience is valuable. It gives you a tribal feeling. Everybody else knows the same songs you do . . .

Perhaps all holiday time is utopian. It is easy to read Jimmy Stewart’s character, in Frank Capra’s Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, as a working-class hero, running a building and loan in order to provide the proletariat with affordable housing. The robber-baron banker, Potter, is Scrooge, suggesting, too, that AChristmas Carol can be read for socialist meaning. Dickens’ holiday classic was penned at almost the same time Marx composed his early writings, on alienation and humanism. Maybe we like Thanksgiving because it augurs Christmas – a socialist cornucopia in which nothing has a price. Holidays bear utopia as the negation of present suffering, a political resource at a time when mainstream Democrats cannot outright the right.

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