(This is my response to The Nation’s forum on "Reimagining Socialism
We have seen how the Obama campaign and his eventual victory rekindled engagement in the political realm for millions of people, some for the very first time and many of them youth. His message of "hope" and "change" resonated with a broad spectrum of the population. And what was once called an apathetic generation—my generation, the largest ever—came out in droves to the poll and the streets, knocking on doors and engaging with strangers about politics. What this political moment reveals is that we were not and are not apathetic. Rather, youth, and society as a whole, has been acting out on a rational assumption, "there is no alternative, so why expect one." We shape our expectations based on what we think is realistically attainable; otherwise, we set ourselves up to be let down every waking hour. If nothing else is concretely put forth to be attained, people are not going to desire to get rid of what they have now, however little, for more uncertainty.
This is where the Left has failed. We have been experts at telling people what is wrong with the system. Now that the system is showing its true colors on a mass scale, and our criticisms and analyses are vindicated, where does that leave us? The market as an institution is being scorned outright by everyday people. The profit driven economy has threatened life on earth as we know it. What do we have to say? "We told you so!"? That’s not going to work this time. No longer can we call out the American Dream as a myth for the majority of Americans. We need to create a new dream—one based on equitable cooperation and sustainability and is also tangible and can stand up to critical review. Luckily our political moment offers us a second chance (or our third, fourth, or fifth!).
More opportunities exist now not merely because of present economic and ecological crises; for most of us we are constantly in crisis already. Yes, this backdrop has created a sense of urgency but there is also a sense of hope and the feeling that we can have a better world; whether it was fueled by the Obama campaign or not, it is present, and thousands, if not millions, of people are ready to heed the call and are already taking action. However, this rejuvenation will not last if the new wave of enthusiasm does not join teams with a vision for the future and plan on how to get there. If we want people to start building a bridge to a new future, we need to have a clear picture of what’s going to be on the other side of the bridge, and we need to know what kind of bridge to build; otherwise, we can’t expect people to pick up the tools in the first place. In other words, what institutions will 21st Century Socialism, or whatever you want to call a desirable post-capitalist economy, actually have, and what mechanisms do we propose to build the power to realize them? There is still time for us to step up to the plate and call our shot and make it the economy the people built.
This require us to go beyond vague values and notions of equality and workers democracy, though these should guide our vision. Unlike some who have replied to the lead article by Ehrenreich and Fletcher, I do not think it is utopian to offer actual alternatives. In fact, it is utopian to believe that masses of people in our society will fight for something they do not yet know, or that old institutions. like markets, can be salvaged and deliver desirable outcomes. People have been struggling against systems of domination and exploitation for hundreds of years; they have experimented with different forms of movement organization and economic arrangement. Can we not learn from the past? Do we always have to start from scratch?
With that said, our future post-capitalist economy has no place for private ownership of productive property, markets, hierarchal division of labor, or income based on ownership, bargaining power or output. All are go against building an economy based on equitable cooperation and sustainability. Therefore, our vision should be to replace these undemocratic economic and environmentally destructive institutions with ones complementary to our aims. Markets need to be replaced with a form of federated (meaning decisions are made at the appropriate level—i.e. district, city, state, federal—with each level accountable to the one below it) and democratic planning between workers and consumer councils; productive property should be controlled by all of society; and hierarchal division of labor should be replaced by balanced jobs—where empowering tasks and rote work are shared by everyone. All of these factors are necessary for a classless, equitable, and green economy. These institutions together are usually called Participatory Economics.
This is not a blueprint, per se, but a set of guiding institutions. Just like capitalism is different in every country depending on a host of factors, so will a participatory economy.
We also need a vision for a new political system, cultural and community relations, kinship relations, and how we relate to the environment; all are just as important as the economy. Our vision for society should be holistic. Armed with our new vision, we are able to inspire and provide a real end goal for people, as well as inform our here and now work and strategy. Furthermore, our strategy needs to be rooted in material reality, not letting our vision relegate us to refusing to engage with or within institutions which we despise. Rather, our vision should be a tool to guide and judge the efficacy of our strategy on the road to building power.
Today, that means building the broadest based progressive alliance possible, with a focus on strengthening the power of the most oppressed sectors of society within that alliance—workers, people of color, women, LGBTQ, youth and all of the intersections. This "historic bloc," if you will, must neutralize the most reactionary elements of society and those in power, while building up the revolutionary wing of the mass democratic movement by winning over more and more people. We must push for reforms like a Green New Deal and stave off climate catastrophe, lifting people out of poverty and creating solid infrastructure that benefits the most oppressed. Workers rights need to be strengthened by passing the Employee Free Choice Act, and there needs to be health care for all through a single-payer system. At the same time, new institutions and ways of organizing our lives need to be built: workers councils, peoples’ assemblies, free schools, and more.
So, yes, this means we need organization. It must be like be like no other this country has seen. A revolutionary organization means millions of people. It must be democratic, flexible, and diverse, but disciplined and unified. It needs to engage in communities, unions, households, elections, and every other sphere of social life. Most of all, it needs to be mostly comprised of and take leadership from those people take the brunt of our society’s systems of dominance, of which capitalism is only one.
Readers may have noticed that I used the words "must" and "need" repeatedly. This is because there are no other words to describe the task at hand. Again, we are presented with an opportunity to really shape the future course of our society and the earth. As a young person his mid 20s, however, I realize that we need to get rid of old dogmas and practices and be more visionary and strategic than any social movement before us, if we are to win. I have faith that we can do it, and I know that millions of other young people do to. The question becomes: are we ready to win?
John Cronan Jr is a restaurant worker, writer, and organizer in New York City. He is a member of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), and has been involved with labor organizing, also. He can be reached at [email protected]