The greatest obstacle to democracy and popular activism for the common good in the current New Gilded Age United States (US) is the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by countless citizens and workers. It’s the pervasive sense drummed into millions that we are all on our own. It’s also the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable alternative to – and nothing really that can be done about – the dominant order. This “no alternative” sense is the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian’s term) of our time.
“Beyond My Ability to Imagine”
Which brings me to the saddest essay I’ve read in a long time. It was published on the progressive US Website TomDispatch two months ago under the ironic title “Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?” Its author, former United States (US) State Department whistle-blower Peter Van Buren, reflected on the epic economic inequality and related mass joblessness that have spread like a plague across the US in recent years. He bemoaned the fact that eight Americans (four Walmart heirs plus the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) “earned” more money between them last year than “3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year,” Van Buren observed, “while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary…Overall,” Van Buren added, “1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.”
Van Buren might have added that the 1% owns more than wealth than the bottom 90% of US Americans and six Walmart heirs have between them as much wealth as more than 40% of the US populace (millions have no or negative net worth).
Van Buren went through a list of reasons that mass unemployment is deeply embedded in the currently US socioeconomic terrain. There is, he rightly noted, a brutal disconnect between the small number of good (remunerative) jobs the US economy is generating and the vast number of US citizens searching for decent employment.
It’s not a pretty story. And, as Van Buren rightly noted, it helps explain why liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s tome Capital in the 21st Century – a book Van Buren does not seem to understand very well – became a “surprise bestseller” in the US last spring. Piketty’s book shows that economic inequality is rooted in the institutional sinews of capitalism and that this is no less true in the US than anywhere else.
But the real downer in Van Buren’s essay came at the end, in his concluding paragraph. After saying that we should raise the US minimum wage and “maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart,” Van Buren epitomized the “mental slavery” of our “neoliberal” (hyper-capitalist) times: the belief that there is no real alternative to the existing system of top-down class rule:
“What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart ‘associates’ do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future – and yours.” (“Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?” TomDispatch.com, June 3, 2014)
Van Buren did not merely say that he saw progressive change as unlikely. He said he found it beyond his ability to imagine. Perhaps he should have put down Piketty’s giant volume and picked up some other, more radical and forward-looking books.
I’ve got a reading list for Peter Van Buren.
“One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions,” Chomsky noted in in his 2006 book Failed States. “There is,” Chomsky added, “an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”
Consistent with Chomsky’s observation, there is no shortage of good progressive policy ideas to check and roll back the plutocratic reach of the corporate and financial elite. A short list of well-known proposals includes the “Tobin” financial transactions tax; the Employee Free Choice Act (which would re-legalize union organizing in this county); regular and serious hikes in the minimum wage; increased regulation, downsizing and even nationalization of the leading financial institutions; full employment as a matter of federal policy; a significantly reduced work week; the removal of private money from public elections and the full public financing of those elections; seriously progressive taxation; single payer health insurance; renegotiation of NAFTA and other “free trade” deals to include significant labor and environmental protections; national and international measures to control carbon emissions; green jobs public works programs; an expanded social safety net; a shift from mass incarceration, the “War on Drugs,” and military empire to investing in schools, antipoverty programs, and broader human welfare; and the restoration of civil liberties through the repeal of NDAA, the Patriot Act, and other repressive measures. No “demand” is more urgent and necessary than the call for large-scale public green jobs programs, connected to a wider program for the conversion of the US economy to environmental sustainability – one that (among other things) drops reliance on fossil fuels. I could go on.
America Beyond Capitalism
“At this point,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in their important book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2010) “creating the political will to make society more equal is more important than pinning our colours to a particular set of policies to reduce inequality…Political will,” Wilkinson and Pickett added, “is dependent on the development of avision of a better society which is both achievable and inspiring.”
There is no lack of first-rate thinking on how to construct a radically transformed and democratized America Beyond Capitalism – title of an important book by the University of Maryland economist Gar Alperovitz. He advocates giving workers and communities stakes and self-management through the expansion and support of significantly empowered employee stock ownership programs and other programs and policies (including highly progressive tax rates and a 25-hour work week) designed to replace the current top-down plutocracy with a bottom-up “pluralist commonwealth.”
Alperovitz is a founder of the University of Maryland’s Democracy Collaborative (DC), which focuses on community wealth-building through the creation of worker co-ops and worker-owned companies that build structures that reflect workers’ and communities’ stakes in the design and purpose of economic enterprises. The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, embody the DC model. They reference the more well-known Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain, a successful conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives that employs 85,500 workers in areas ranging from medical technology to the manufacture of home appliances and running a giant credit union. The United Steelworkers union has become “a strong advocate of worker ownership, and is actively working to develop new models based on the Mondragon Cooperative,” with which it has recently undertaken a joint initiative. Alperovitz thinks that Mondragon-like experiments could become seeds of a future post-capitalist economy.
Another “utopian” proposal is MIT engineering professor Seymour Melman’s call – developed in his 2001 book After Capitalism and other works—for a nonmarket system of workers’ self-management. Also important: left economist Rick Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, combining a Marxian analysis of the current economic crisis with a call for “worker self-directed enterprises”; David Schweikert’s After Capitalism, calling for worker self-management combined with national ownership of underlying capital; Michael Liebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative, taking its cue from Latin America’s leftward politics to advance vision of participatory and democratic socialism; Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (arguing that solving the current grave environmental crisis requires a shift away from private and corporate control of the planet’s resources); and Michael Albert’s prolific writing and speaking on behalf of participatory economics (“parecon”), inspired to some degree by the “council communism” once advocated by the libertarian Marxist Anton Pannekeok. In his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Albert calls for a highly but flexibly structured model of radically democratic economics that organizes work and society around workers’ and consumers councils – richly participatory institutions that involve workers and the entire community in decisions on how resources are allocated, what to produce and how, and how income and work tasks are distributed.
A recent Occupy-inspired volume published by a major US publishing house, HarperCollins, is titled Imagine: Living in a Socialist America (2014). It includes essays from leading intellectuals and activists and provides practical reflections on how numerous spheres of American life and policy – ecology, workplace, finance/investment, criminal justice, gender, sexuality, immigration, welfare, food, housing, health care/medicine, education, art, science, media, and spirituality – might be experienced and transformed organized under an American version of democratic socialism.
Imagine the forward-looking Imagine and not Piketty’s giant, dull, data-packed and backwards-looking historical reflection (which offers little in the way of contemporary solutions and comes up very short on the problems) as the surprise bestseller of 2014.
The Duty of Struggle
Moving off the rule of capital in the US is not just desirable. It also necessary – an imperative for survival in the current era of deepening environmental catastrophe. As Kovel notes in Imagine,volume, capitalism is based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product” and the “conver[sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary value….The Earth we live on,” Kovel observes “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude…a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends…”
There are no guarantees of success, of course. But we have a duty to struggle. “We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight,” Mario Savio said in late 1994, “to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.” Perhaps we have only a 20%, or worse, a 1% chance of success, of creating a just, sustainable, and democratic nation and world no longer lethally occupied by the “unelected dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero.
We lose nothing by believing. By not believing, we lose everything – quite literally everything given current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing the prospect of species destruction for the first time in human history” (Noam Chomsky). As Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros put things in 2001, “We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity…”
No boiling frogs here. It’s not about the crystal ball. We are obligated to imagine a just and democratic world beyond Van Buren’s “21st century feudalism” (capitalism, really) and then to fight for that world. The people are ready to fight for that world and win – as I will show in a subsequent commentary.
Paul Street is author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810) and author of the Section 1, “What’s Wrong With Capitalism?” in Imagine Living in a Socialist USA (http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780062305572)
 Van Buren’s characterization of Piketty’s thesis as “a rising tide lifts all Yachts” inverts the economist’s core historical connection between heightened inequality and slow growth. Van Buren also falsely credits Piketty with attributing part of contemporary inequality to employers’ “crushing of unions.” Piketty actually ignores union issues and labor/capital conflict (“class struggle” in Marxist terms) to a remarkable (and problematic) degree.