Before you get to socialism, you first have to ask yourself a more basic question: Which side am I on?
As I was writing this article at the end of August, Israel was raining bombs on Gaza, and Black people were staring down the police in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. In these conflicts and others, some will identity with the oppressors and others with the oppressed. (And then there are those who carefully criticize both sides to justify sitting on their gentle neutral butts.)
What accounts for these different responses? Information certainly plays a role, or rather the misinformation that most of us get from the corporate-owned media. Many people who have never been at a demonstration won’t realize that “protests turn violent” headlines really mean “police got violent because their authority was questioned.”
However we get our news, most of us choose sides based on a sense of fairness, which in turn is connected to our overall place in society. When fast-food workers go on strike to demand $15 an hour and a union, some instinctively support them because they know what it’s like to work hard for little. Others might be sympathetic to McDonald’s because they also own a business, or think they might one day.
A friend of mine recently showed me a nasty little article supporting the Gaza massacre on the grounds that Israel it is a peaceful nation surrounded by horrible, murderous people—it concluded with an appeal to Islamophobic fears about terrorism: “We are all living in Israel, but some of us haven’t realized it yet.”
When you think about it, my friend said, this racist hack managed to perfectly frame the opposite of the true situation: We are all Palestinians, but many of us don’t know it yet.
He was thinking about Ferguson, where the shocking images of a small-town police force using tanks and other military weapons to repress its own residents had led both protesters and journalists to make Gaza comparisons.
Of course, the general experience of most people in the United States isn’t comparable to that of Palestinians living under bombings, blockades and occupation. But with each passing year, we lose more of our freedom—not the red, white and blue Freedom! bullshit, but real things, like access to abortion and contraception, not being spied on by Google and the government, and going to college without facing half a lifetime of debt.
The dominant culture—promoted in schools, churches, media and Hollywood—teaches us to identify with Israel rather than Gaza, the police rather than Mike Brown, corporations rather than workers.
But these lessons are being rejected by a growing minority, concentrated among the young—polls show that a majority of people under 30 are critical of both Israel and the Ferguson police. This is a generation that has come of age in an era in which those in charge have stopped even pretending to have a plan to deal with crooked banks, endless wars and global warming. It’s no wonder they’re the most likely to picture themselves living in Gaza.
Young activists, and many older ones as well, are increasingly making connections between different issues. It used to be that protest organizers would frown on attempts to try to raise different issues at a conference or demonstration, because this would supposedly “detract from the message.” But at many marches these days, interconnectedness is the central message—from Gaza to Ferguson to fast-food workers to migrant kids trying to cross the border.
We are learning that casting an individual struggle in a larger context doesn’t diminish its importance, but magnifies it. We are rediscovering solidarity.
Once you have chosen to stand on the side of the oppressed, you quickly notice that those in positions of power are almost entirely on the other side.
Politicians shove each other out of the way racing to be first to defend Israel’s right to commit atrocities. We who support Palestinians have no representatives in government, no matter how large our numbers grow. Meanwhile, not a single major elected official has moved beyond expressing “concern” over police tactics in Ferguson and taken up the protesters’ main demand that Officer Darren Wilson be charged with the murder of Mike Brown.
There is constant chatter about how bitterly divided the Republicans and Democrats are, but when there is a confrontation between people and power, you usually find them on the same side.
Our side needs to organize its own political party—or parties. Just as people in Gaza and Ferguson have gone around the horrible coverage of Fox and CNN and used social media to broadcast real news to the world, we have to build networks and organizations independent of the Democrats (and obviously the Republicans) that can formulate our own policies and visions for the future.
But what should those be? There are some obvious immediate demands: arrest Darren Wilson, stop the bombing of Gaza, and so on. But these are reactive measures that address past injustices. How will we prevent the next cop from shooting an unarmed African American—or stop 10 others from being sent to prison for crimes stemming from poverty and desperation? How will we not only stop the destruction of Gaza, but rebuild it—not just with concrete and water treatment plants, but with freedom and self-determination?
Nowhere is the question of long-range policy more urgent than the ecology of planet Earth.
In recent years, there have been important demonstrations against fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline, which have at least slowed the expansion of these projects. But reducing the growth of fossil fuel extraction isn’t nearly enough. We need to stop mining oil and gas entirely and change to a global diet based on renewable energy if we hope to prevent the rise of global temperatures past what climate researchers ominously refer to as “the tipping point.”
But even as scientists give increasingly dire warnings about the scale of climate change, the U.S. has proudly become the world’s leading oil producer. It has been simultaneously shocking and depressingly predictable to watch Barack Obama morph from a candidate promising a green economy, based on solar and wind, to a pitchman for an energy policy he himself calls “all of the above.” That includes fracking, nuclear and deep sea drilling—and probably strip-mining the Grand Canyon if it would make a nice press release about “energy independence.”
One might suppose that preserving a climate safe for human habitation might be one area where even the One Percent would feel a sense of solidarity with the rest of humanity. But they don’t—or rather, they can’t, because their primary obligation is not to people (even their own descendants), but to profits.
This is the first rule of capitalism, and it’s not just about corporate greed or political corruption. Reducing carbon emissions on a large scale runs directly up against the interests not only of oil companies, but every industry that has deeply invested in an infrastructure based on carbon energy—and therefore, it can’t happen. The long-term survival of our species (and many others) is subordinated to the irrational needs of capital.
Once you start looking more deeply at different injustices, you’ll find capitalism at their heart. Israel’s displacement and oppression of Palestinians has depended for almost 70 years on the backing of the U.S. government, which has never cared much about protecting Jews from anti-Semitism, but cares deeply about having reliable allies near the center of world oil production. Police harassment and violence against African Americans is an old story in a country whose ruling class has always relied on the hyper-exploitation and scapegoating of its Black population.
Capitalism is not just an economic system, but a class system. That might sound like the same thing, but it’s not. Classes aren’t just defined by money, but by power—who creates society’s wealth and who controls it. Under capitalism, the controlling class is a relatively small group of people, driven by the law of profit, which requires them to always take back more than they put in.
Capitalism isn’t the first society based on inequality, but it is the most powerful, sweeping all the peoples, animals and plants of the world into a never-ending race to produce more for less, and crushing any resistance to that agenda. Therefore, capitalism isn’t simply another problem alongside war, exploitation and bigotry. It is the overarching problem that shapes all the others and that needs to be taken down alongside them. That is the first premise of socialism.
Socialism is a society based on solidarity—on the recognition that human beings are both infinitely unique, and also share the same basic interests of survival, love and camaraderie, among others.
From the time of Karl Marx, most conceptions of socialism have been based on the working class, because this is the social force with the greatest potential for uniting us. The dominant culture eagerly belittles the notion of solidarity—and, in particular, the working class, which it typically portrays as a handful of aging white men in the Midwest, who are relics of a bygone era. In fact, workers continue to make up the majority of people of all races and genders in the United States—and, in a relatively new development of the past few decades, the world. Supposedly non-class issues like transphobia and the persecution of Muslims impact workers more than anybody else.
But socialists look to the working class for another reason—not just because of its size, but because it has the power and incentive to create history’s first global classless society.
It is often proclaimed that workers and their unions have become irrelevant—right up until a major strike breaks out, and those same proclaimers go into a panic about all the disruption. In these situations, the strikers are inevitably called selfish for putting their own interests above those of the customers and the public. And yet most strikes involve workers sacrificing daily wages and sometimes risking their employment in order to preserve a standard of living for those who will have their jobs in the future.
This sense of solidarity—born in the workplace but which, in the right circumstances, can blossom across industries and even national borders—is the seed of socialism.
Not surprisingly, “the right circumstances” don’t come around that often—capitalism does its best to ensure that they don’t. Factories are moved from cities with experienced class fighters to poor towns desperate for employment—or, better yet, from the point of view of capitalists, across national borders. Unions are broken and demoralized. African Americans are transformed from being the leading edge of radical movements to being the primary targets of domestic “wars” on crime, drugs and self-worth.
Often, these attacks don’t lead to resistance, but to further retreats as solidarity among working people is replaced by a sense of hopelessness and scapegoating. People don’t identify with Gaza or Ferguson out of a shared sense of resistance, but of despair.
Those who disagree with socialism often point to the many examples of union defeats or workers holding horrible ideas, as if this seals their argument. But as the American socialist Hal Draper once wrote, “It is not a question of how the proletariat can be deceived, betrayed, seduced, bought or manipulated by the ruling powers of society like every other class. The basic point is that it is the proletariat that it is crucial to deceive, seduce, and so on.”
There is no current or historical model for socialism because the world has yet to see a lasting society run by its working class—even the Russian Revolution of 1917 was besieged from its first days, and the new workers’ state was still in its infancy when a bureaucratic class arose to take power, presiding over a dictatorial system that falsely ruled in the name of socialism.
A number of countries have called themselves socialist, and a few still do, but by socialism, they have merely meant greater state control of the economy—like in Russia after the counterrevolution led by Joseph Stalin—or more generous social programs than is typical under capitalism.
The clearest glimpses we’ve seen of the path toward a classless society have come from the workers’ committees that have sprung up in revolutions in France, Chile, Iran and elsewhere. The most well known were the soviets in the early years of the Russian Revolution, which were capable of coordinating the activities of millions of workers, peasants, students and soldiers—before the revolution was suffocated under the weight of poverty and foreign invasions.
It would be far easier to make a case for socialism if we were further along in the process of winning it. But it is more realistic to work for a system we don’t yet have than to keep trying to turn the one we do have into something it cannot be.
Those who argue that it’s possible to have a kinder gentler capitalism inevitably use a few decades in the mid-20th century in a handful of North American and Western European countries as their model, where capitalism tolerated systematic social reforms under the pressure of working class struggle.
This argument took a major hit this year with the publication of Thomas Piketty’s unlikely economics bestseller Capital in the 21st Century, which provided reams of evidence to demonstrate that the post-Second World War era of rising wages was a unique exception to the capitalist rule of ever-increasing inequality. Although Piketty himself would not argue this, his book helps make the case that there is more historical evidence that capitalism cannot be permanently reformed than there is that socialism cannot work.
Of course, most of us don’t decide what to do based on history, but based on what we see with our own eyes. And what we see in Ferguson, Gaza and everywhere is that the class in power will try to crush our resistance with overwhelming force.
They want us to be too afraid to resist—not all of us, necessarily, but the vast majority. That’s why police in riot gear dress up like the bad guys in movies rather than the heroes. That’s why the government doesn’t mind too much that we know they’re spying on us.
But fear doesn’t work forever. We know this from history, but we also know it from Ferguson and Gaza. People eventually resist, and when they do, they often discover that our side has more capability than we thought.
Just as importantly, the resisters often find that the other side doesn’t have all the answers. Its leaders hold bumbling press conferences that are easily revealed to be full of lies. Its barons of big business cheat and lie so regularly that their bankers lose track of which money is real, and which doesn’t exist, sending the global economy into a panic. Their side truly doesn’t know what to do about global warming. It produces people like Mitt Romney.
Their incompetence doesn’t automatically lead to our victory. In 2011, there was a wave of revolutions across the Middle East, which helped inspire protest movements around the globe, like Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. These various struggles have lost—not because we will always lose, but because we are just beginning to learn how to fight again. That learning is a process that involves getting in the streets, educating ourselves and one another, and joining and forming organizations to become more effective than we can be as individuals.
Socialism is an important ingredient to the development of our side because it provides us with a sense of deeper purpose through the lessons of our past and the possibilities of our future.
Speaking of the future, we don’t have much of one as long as their side is in charge. It’s going to take a lot more socialists to do something about it.