Transcript of a talk delivered at a book signing event for Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith (New York: HarperCollins, 2014). The event took place before a full house on Tuesday, April 22 (Earth Day) at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City, Iowa. For reasons of time, the sections in brackets below were not read.
Good evening on this beautiful Earth Day in the year 2014. Currently in the United States even as more than 16 million children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, six Waltons, six Wal-Mart heirs, possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 40 percent of Americans. The 400 richest Americans, the Forbes 400, have as much wealth between them as the bottom half . The Occupy-anointed 1 percent owns as much as the bottom 90 percent . It probably owns an equal share of the nation’s elected and other public officials.
According to the great American philosopher John Dewey in 1931, politics in the United States was little more than “the shadow cast on society by big business.” It would stay that way, Dewey predicted, as long as “business for private profit” controlled the nation’s means of finance, production, and communication.
“We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote ten years later. “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
Dewey and Brandeis’ words seem almost mild today in the New Gilded Age we are currently enduring the U.S. “Since the 1970s,” Noam Chomsky has observed, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”
On issue after issue, public opinion is irrelevant (or close to it) in the realm of policy. The majority favors universal health insurance on the single-payer model, a major reduction of economic inequality, the privileging of job creation over deficit-reduction, a major increase in the minimum wage, the removal of private money from public elections, major government action to protect the environment, and so on. But so what? Who cares? “The 1%” and its giant investment firms and corporations say no and what it says goes. “They own the place,” to quote US Senator Richard Durbin on why Washington made no serious attempt to put Wall Street under popular control after the nation’s leading financial institutions pushed the national and global economy over the edge.
[As the incisive yet-liberal commentator William Greider noted in a 2009 column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak, But Is He Listening?”: “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it.” And little for the rest of us, the wrong people, who never crashed the economy but who suffered most from economic collapse and who were left to ask ruefully “where’s my bailout?”
Welcome to the wonderful world of capitalism being capitalism and returning over the last four decades to its long-run historical norms: savage inequality and abject plutocracy.
One difference, today merits special mention on Earth Day and every day in an age of escalating environmental crisis. It is that Dewey’s shadow and Chomsky’s dark cloud now threatens not merely democracy and economic equality but life itself. With its deep sunk cost investment in deadly fossil fuels and its cold, bottom-line disregard for livable ecology, the contemporary profits system demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global proletariat, the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to appear to be creating jobs and development. As Joel Kovel notes in the second chapter of Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, capitalism is based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” the “conver[sion of] everything possible into monetary value.” The problem is that “the Earth we live on is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude.” Capitalism is wired in its very institutional DNA to “destroy the integrity” of the natural systems upon which we and other species “depend… for food, energy, and other resources.” As the environmental historian Richard Smith has written: “Socialism? Economic democracy? Call it what you like…Either we save capitalism or we save ourselves. We can’t save both.”
When I was graduate student in U.S. history, some American historians seemed obsessed with the question “Why No Socialism is the U.S.?” That question was technically mistaken and remains mistaken to this day. [The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs won nearly a million votes, 6% of the presidential ballots cast in 1912. During the early 20th century, that party held hundreds of elected offices primarily in state and local government across the country. Along with left anarchists, syndicalists, populists and laborites, socialists of various stripes have played key roles in speaking and sustaining important and influential grassroots social movements in American history from the industrial workers movement of the 1930s to the Civil Rights Movement to the 1950s and 1960s to the global justice movements of the 1990s and the remarkable Occupy rebellion of 2011. A number of highly influential Americans have been socialists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (the nation’s greatest moral leader of the last century), Helen Keller, Albert Einstein (the greatest scientist of the last century), the great environmentalist Barry Commoner, the great black intellectual leader and NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, the great black labor leader A Phillip Randolph, and the great novelists Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Kurt Vonnegut. Currently there’s a self-described socialist in the U.S. Senate named Bernie Sanders; you may be seeing him here in Iowa next year. An open Marxist named Kshame Sawant recently won election to the City Council in Seattle. And a Pew survey three years ago found that young Americans aged 18 to 29 had a more favorable response to the word socialism than to the word capitalism…imagine that!]
The more appropriate question is not why no socialism in the U.S. but why have we so little in the way of an independent socialist movement in an ever more plutocratic, autocratic, and eco-cidal society that is full of good and progressive people who are hungry for substantive democratic and egalitarian change – for radical change. Imagine Living in a Socialist USA is dedicated to the idea that at least one part of the explanation for that weakness is the excessive reluctance of leftists to paint a picture what a genuinely democratic form of socialism might look like in the U.S. You’ve heard the standard elite charge that people on the left carp and complain about what is wrong, but fail to offer solutions. But as Chomsky noted in 2006, “there is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”
Buy and read this volume. In one social and policy area after another you will find welcome and overdue post-Cold War antidotes to the depressing neoliberal message that there is no alternative to corporate and financial rule, no alternative to Dewey’s shadow, no alternative to Chomsky’s dark cloud, no alternative to the amoral and authoritarian profits system. Nonsense: there’s an alternative and here’s some of what it might look like.
[That’s one message in Imagine. There’s another, frankly dark message that needs to be taken to heart on Earth Day and every day – a message summarized in the title of Kovel’s chapter. “The Future Will be Ecosocialist,” that title reads, “Because Without Ecosocialism There Will Be No Future.” As Michael Smith writes in Imagine’s introduction, paraphrasing the great Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros, it’s “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky…We are running out of time.”]
With all the cheap right wing talk we’ve been hearing for years about how Barack Obama and other top corporate-friendly Democrats are “socialists,” it’s time we gave a hearing to some actual real-life socialists on their vision of a genuinely democratic, just, egalitarian and sustainable USA. They’ve come all the way from New York City, crossing not just the Hudson River but – imagine – the Mississippi River – to be with us tonight. Please join me in welcoming two of the driving forces behind Imagine Living in a Socialist USA: Debby Smith and Michael Steven Smith!
Paul Street ([email protected]) is author of “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” in Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, eds., Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014).
1. National Center for Children in Poverty, “Child Poverty” (2014), http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html
2. Tampa Bay Times, “Bernie Sanders Says Walmart Heirs Own More Wealth Than Bottom 40 Percent of Americans,” PolitiFact.com, July 31, 2012, www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jul/31/bernie-s/sanders-says-walmart-heirs-own-more-wealth-bottom-
3. Truth-O-Meter, “Michael Moore Says 400 Americans Have More Wealth Than Half of All Americans Combined,” Journal-Sentinel PolitiFact Wisconsin, March 2011, www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-
4. Nicholas Kristof, “America’s Primal Scream,” New York Times, October 15, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-americas-primal-scream.html?_r=0
5. John Dewey, “The Need for a New Party,” New Republic (March 18, 1931), http://www.newrepublic.com/article/magazine/104638/the-need-new-party
6. Quoted on the Web site of Brandeis University at http://www.brandeis.edu/legacyfund/bio.html and in Harvard Magazine (March 2011) at http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/03/quotable-harvard. The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941.
7. Noam Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” Alakhbar English, August 24, 2011, http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20110824.htm
8. Ryan Griffin, “Dick Durbin: Banks ‘Frankly Own the Place,’” Huffington Post, May 30, 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/20/dick-durbin-banks-frankly_n_193010.html
9. William Greider, “Obama Told Us to Speak but Is He Listening?,” Washington Post, March 22, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/19/AR2009031902511.html
10. Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21215-beyond-growth-or-beyond-capitalism
11. Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 262