Notes Towards a Socialism for the Times

The article looks at how neoliberalism has come to dominate the world ideologically, despite being wildly unpopular among the general population. After 30 years of restructuring, the idea that neoliberal capitalism is the only viable way to organize production has become deeply ingrained among people in many parts of the world. Alan says “The compass of socialism shows the way to another possible world” – a world where democracy is a central aspect of life, not just a pretty word used in speeches and then forgotten. He writes about the necessity of a new socialism that is grounded in current struggles for reforms, and how through these struggles it can point toward “new forms of democratic participation that challenge the limits and, ultimately, the existence of existing institutions.”

The article also talks about how the new Left will have to be different from those that have come before it. One major change to the way it organizes and communicates will be technological. Mobile communication and social networking have already shown themselves to be important tools for grassroots movements. The “Arab Spring” is a perfect example of people using technology to help spread their struggles and ideas despite the best efforts of those in power to isolate and demoralize them. The recent economic crisis has left us with the best chance in recent history to create a movement for “a socialism for the times.” The seemingly endless general strikes and riots over austerity measures in Greece, the struggle over collective bargaining in Wisconsin, and the huge protests over unemployment in Spain are hopefully just the beginning. Alan’s focus on the participation of all people, and on constant debate and reflection to create a dynamic and egalitarian socialist movement give me great hope.  I strongly suggest you take the time to read through this article, which was originally published in issue 63 of the magazine New Socialist in 2008.

Jacob Doiron is a member of Toronto New Socialists.


Notes Towards a Socialism for the Times

By Alan Sears

These are strange days indeed for socialists and all those who fighting for a better world.

On the one hand, the neoliberal project of slashing social programmes and deregulating the economy while increasing the repressive power of the state seems to be ideologically exhausted and increasingly unpopular. On the other hand, the possibility of any alternative seems literally unthinkable. There is widespread cynicism about the dominant ideas, yet virtually no discussion of other perspectives. 

The major parties in electoral systems around the world have completely aligned themselves with neoliberalism, with only the smallest number of exceptions such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, where the parties in question are linked to insurgent social movements.

In the Canadian state, the NDP, Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Québecois completely agree that neo-liberalism is the only game in town; the differences between them come down to minor disputes about how to play it out.

The labour movement has reconciled itself with neoliberalism and lean production (which uses just-in-time methods to eliminate “waste,” and new models of teamwork to make workers partners in productivity), with the deal between the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the giant auto-parts firm Magna standing as an important milestone in a long-term process of adaptation and partnership with the employers and the state.  Social movements are, in general, at a low ebb, in most cases using only the most passive strategies to fight for the most realizable changes within the dominant framework.

There is a remarkable consensus across the political spectrum around a set of ideas that is increasingly unpopular. The results of 30 years of capitalist restructuring are in, and the devastating toll is clear. Working-class people are living with ever-greater insecurity and more are facing poverty with ever fewer resources. On a global scale, people face greater barriers to mobility while corporations and investments face fewer limits. The environmental threats to our health and that of the planet are ever-increasing in this era of unbridled capitalism. The attempts by Bush, Harper and others to  convince us that our increasing insecurity results from “terror” to be combated by imperialist war in Afghanistan and Iraq has been highly unsuccessful.

“The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age” was a headline in the New York Times on July 15, 2007. The article pointed out that the current concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny ultra-rich minority has not been seen since the late 1800s and early 1900s. Meanwhile, at the other end of the income scale we are living through a period of appalling poverty and dislocation, marked by a shocking increase in inequality locally and globally.

This sounds a lot like the world Marx described in the Communist Manifesto, which was written in the mid-1800s when class polarization was particularly visible. Many of the working-class gains that might have created the illusion that class divisions were eroding — such as the welfare state, higher working-class wages and secure union contracts (at least for some) — have been swept away. 

Yet socialism is not, at this point, rising from the ashes. This is a time when the relevance of socialism seems almost self-evident, and yet it is, in practical political terms, more marginal now than at any time during the 20th century. We need to understand more about this contradiction.

Why does socialism matter?

One response to this contradiction would be to say that socialism is over and will not be relevant to future freedom struggles. But there is a lot to lose if we casually write socialism off. Socialism points beyond capitalism, towards another way of organizing human life based on unleashing our creative capacities through genuine democratic control of the key productive resources of society. The compass of socialism shows the way to another possible world, even if it is way over the horizon and invisible from our present location.

This orientation beyond the current power structure means that socialism provides a unique perspective for mapping capitalist society. It allows us to see the everyday world we are familiar with in dramatically new terms, bringing to light aspects of life, work and politics that we usually take for granted because they seem fixed and unchangeable. 

At the moment, for example, the US economy seems to be in recession and far worse times are likely in the near future. From within the system, this seems to be the action of impersonal market forces shifting rather like a sharp change in the weather when a storm front approaches. It is futile to protest against a coming snow storm as it is not (at least in any simple and direct way) the result of human actions, and therefore we cannot really change it. Daily life under capitalism convinces us that market forces are much like the weather, something that happens to us that is not the result of human actions and not subject to change.

The economy, however, is very different than the weather in that it is made up of relations between people and interchanges between people and nature. Ultimately, it is human activity within a particular framework of social relations that lead to economic upturns and downturns, even if the patterns are very complex. The huge bubble of subprime mortgages in the United States, for example, was the result of financial institutions trying to make big profits out of the housing needs of lower income households in an environment where the financial system was bulging with cash from the mega-profits of the very rich and state regulations were very lax.  

Socialism provides us with a perspective that allows us to see the ups and downs of the economy as part of a system of human relations that can be swept away and replaced. If we take the limits of capitalism as the horizons of possibility for human experience, then we see these ups and downs as the product of market forces that are not subject to human decisions. Most ways of looking at the world, including many that are critical of social injustices, take capitalism for granted and therefore seek change within that dominant framework. 

Right now, when socialism is highly marginalized, many activists and theorists suggest that freedom struggles should concentrate on finding solutions at the local scale, leaving aside any big projects for transforming the system. This ultimately means limiting the horizons of change to what is possible within capitalist social relations, as this power structure will be there until it is deliberately overturned. 

Socialism provides tools for unlocking our dreams of real freedom by connecting our activism and our analysis of injustice to an orientation towards other possible worlds. It allows us to connect these dreams to a map of the power structure of capitalist society that reveals the ways it can be overturned. Specifically, its map reveals that the people who labour ever day in factories, offices, schools, mines and a variety of other settings have the potential to collectively and democratically seize control of there workplaces, which taken together make up the key productive resources of society.

This vision of socialism rests on the conception of overturning the capitalist system through the active and democratic mobilization of the mass of the working class, rather than liberation being the act of some small elite. This perspective highlights strategies for change that challenge the dominant power structure through building counter-power from below.

This counter-power is necessarily built within capitalist society, fighting for immediate improvements and reforms, yet is always oriented towards the creation of new forms of democratic participation that challenge the limits and, ultimately, the existence of existing institutions. The orientation towards building a counter-power makes a big difference in the way we conduct ourselves in everyday freedom struggles in capitalist society, which at key insurgent moments flow together to open the possibility of a broader social transformation. Rather than simply signing petitions, appealing through the courts or voting for someone to represent us, we build a counter-power when people become active in their own cause: occupying, striking or taking demands to the streets.

Underlying this conception of building a counter-power is a great confidence in everyday people, the mass of the working class and oppressed people, to act creatively in defining and fighting for their interests, ultimately taking power with their own hands. Too many emancipatory theories are ultimately dismissive of the mass of the population, seeing them as bought into the system or merely passive, to be liberated only through the activity of a heroic minority. 

This orientation towards building a counter-power that is ultimately capable of overturning capitalism means challenging the dominant ideas of democracy within capitalist societies. Capitalism is not inherently democratic, but on the contrary is based on monopolization of the key productive resources in society and the exploitation of the majority by the small minority in control. The whole system of government is distorted towards keeping this minority in control and meeting their insatiable need to profit from the labour of workers. 

Democracy was not a gift from above, but was won from below through hard struggles by workers, people of colour, women, lesbians and gays, aboriginal and colonized peoples. Socialism thrived as part of these struggles for full citizenship, both in the limited form of winning the vote and in the wider form of gaining access to certain legal and social rights, such as formal freedom from discrimination and access to certain health, education and social programmes. 

The limited form of democracy and citizenship that was won from below is important, but we must also be aware of how narrow it is. As long as a small minority continues to have dictatorship over the key productive resources in society, democracy and equality will be limited and formal. We have no real democratic control over what is produced, how it is produced, how work is distributed or how knowledge is disseminated.  Further, citizenship is necessarily exclusionary, granting limited rights to some while stripping others of any rights. 

Building a counter-power requires that we commit ourselves to a far richer, more active and more inclusive form of democracy. There is a very real democratic process that takes place when people mobilize and take the streets, picket or occupy. This kind of democracy is often dismissed as “mob rule” or “violence” by defenders of the system who would confine us to voting once every four years and occasional polite, symbolic, and legal protest. Socialists should value every little bit of freedom that struggles from below have managed to eke out of the capitalist system, yet point to much richer understandings of democracy grounded in collective activity.

The orientation towards building a democratic counter-power to challenge the fundamental basis of the capitalist system also means that socialism has a universalistic understanding of emancipation, potentially bringing real content to the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.” People seeking freedom have often been drawn to this conception that liberation struggles are deeply interconnected so that no one can be truly free when others are bound in shackles of unfreedom.

Actual socialist movements have often failed the test of this high standard of universalism and solidarity, leaving many feeling betrayed. Even if socialist movements have often failed to meet their own standards in this area, socialism can provide an important basis for a universalistic and transformative understanding of freedom. 

Marginalization of Socialism

Socialism may have a great deal to offer us in our struggles for freedom, but it has very little weight these days. Socialism is marginalized in part because it is seen as a colossal failure. Indeed, it is possible in the current climate to casually dismiss socialism by pointing to the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dramatic erosion of the welfare state and the end of “Third World” economic and political strategies to regulate interactions with global capitalism. Part of this casual dismissal is the idea that socialism not only failed to make a better world, but actually made things worse.

If socialism really has failed on a world scale, then any attempt to revive it might seem to be the project of relatively small numbers of leftover cultish dogmatists deliberate in their ignorance of this ugly legacy. Those of us who want to argue for a renewal of socialism need to start with patient discussion of what we mean by socialism and how we explain the legacy of 20th century socialisms.

Socialism has come to mean a lot of different things over the past 150 years. US socialist Hal Draper clarified debates about what we mean by socialism tremendously by distinguishing between ideas of socialism from below and from above.  Socialism from above is associated with increased state and party control over the society in the name of the people, while socialism from below is based on the collective and democratic seizure of power by the mass of the working class with their own hands.

Much of the “failure of socialism” is associated with socialism from above strategies that sought to use state power to moderate the impact of capitalism on the population and/or run the economy directly. This was true of the one-party forms of rule associated with the Soviet bloc and Maoist China as well as with the electoralist social democratic parties in the West. The neoliberal restructuring of capitalism since the 1970s has specifically squeezed out the space for certain forms of state regulation of the economy associated with the welfare state, the imposition of conditions on corporations and the nationalization of property.

It is a common assumption that socialism means state control, one-party rule and vicious restrictions on free expression. This ignores the long history of bitter struggles against authoritarian socialism from above waged from various socialism from below perspectives. The casual dismissal of socialism and the idea it has failed is being used as a wedge to separate us from our collective memories of struggle, particularly obliterating the libertarian forms of socialism associated with vibrant ideas of real democracy and freedom.

The marginalization of socialism today is not only the result of the failure of certain forms of socialism from above, but also the overall weakening of our counter-power, and the infrastructure of dissent that supports it, since the 1970s.  In recent issues of this magazine, I argued that 20th century socialism thrived as part of a rich and varied infrastructure of dissent that helped activists develop capacities for communication, analysis and solidarity. The struggles for basic democratic, labor and social rights developed key elements of community through a variety of shared political, cultural, educational and social spaces, ranging from sustained opposition movements within unions to left-wing cultural spaces.

Many of these spaces are now gone, due not only to a decline in the level of activism but also important changes in working-class life and work. Around us we find only the faintest echo of the forms of community that sustained earlier mobilizations and nurtured socialist consciousness. We must begin to understand and orient ourselves around the new forms of infrastructure of dissent that emerge with new rounds of struggle. Socialist organizing is not a substitute for rebuilding the infrastructure of dissent, but can and must be oriented around making a contribution to that broader process of rebuilding our collective dissent capacities.

Socialism and the Next New Left

There is every reason to believe that there will be new waves of struggle, given the unpopularity of neoliberalism and the toll that capitalist restructuring has taken on our lives. The mobilizations will see the emergence of the next New Left, as the old Left inherited from the past is oriented around a particular configuration of work, community and politics that no longer exists in the same way. New Lefts have emerged before as movements face challenges that the tools answered by previous left formations do not fully answer, for example in the insurgent wave of revolt after World War I or in the massive mobilizations during and after 1968.

One of the challenges facing the next New Left will be rebuilding the infrastructure of dissent that develops our collective capacities to express, analyze and act together.  Examples of modest rebuilding abound in the struggles of our times. CAW workers used the mobility of contemporary communications technology to build a whole new generation of flying pickets that were able to stop scabs from getting into Navistar in Chatham during the strike there in 2002. The meat packers strike in Brooks, Alberta in 2005 provided a taste of the new forms of anti-racist solidarity that need to be built as genuinely inclusive forms of fighting working-class organization are being built. The global justice movement of the period 1999-2001 reminded us that demonstrations need not be simply symbolic events, but organized forms of organization for collective activism that could actually make things happen.

Socialist ideas can make an important contribution to rebuilding these capacities, providing an important orientation beyond capitalism towards other possible worlds.  Socialism at its best offers a series of tools for fluid action and analysis rather than a single correct path. 

If we are to think socialism anew for these times, we cannot be bound by the versions of socialist organizing that emerged through the 20th century; nor can we casually dismiss the experience of 150 years of struggle for freedom. We need a new socialism that is genuinely transformed by its encounters with feminism, anti-racism, queer liberation and ecological movements, so that it is true to the idea of universal emancipation. The struggles of the 1960s and those since have created new standards for activism in the areas of gender, racialization, sexuality and environmental sustainability and a socialism that does not meet these standards will not meet the challenges of these times. 

This requires genuine encounter with these movements and the emancipatory perspectives that emerge from them. To begin building a socialism for these times, we need to learn from the movements around us and from the critical examination of past struggles. Socialists are often been in a bit of a hurry to teach, and do not spend enough time listening patiently, investigating open-endedly, and learning. The development of a socialism for these times requires collective work of investigation, debate and discussion, which can only happen as we reflect actively on the struggles of the day and those that are just emerging beneath the radar. 

Alan Sears is a member of Toronto New Socialists.