It is clearly pointless to wait patiently until the political world settles down before turning to the composition of an essay I have been contemplating. Every day, indeed every hour, brings a revelation more provocative and worthy of commentary than its predecessor. So, I have turned off MSNBC and repaired to my computer keyboard, where I shall now spend a quiet hour hunting and pecking.
Let us suppose, arguendo, that we yearn for fundamental changes in America, for an end to its extreme inequality of wealth and income, to its imperial foreign policy, to its brutal treatment of women, African-Americans, gay and lesbian persons, and the poor. Suppose that we are not content simply to restore some of the elements of the social safety net that have been frayed or destroyed, welcome though that would be. Suppose, dare I say it, that we hold, in a secret place in our hearts, the dream of collective ownership of the means of production. How might such a transformation of America come about?
There are, as I see it, three possible avenues to such a future: violent extra-legal revolution, an electoral transformation, or the natural inner maturing, within the current economic order, of new social relationships of production that result in an immanent transformation of capitalism into socialism.
Successful society-transforming violent revolution is, in this country at this time, an old leftie’s wet dream. Seriously, revolution? When there are three hundred million guns in private hands, most of them owned and coddled by the opponents of significant change? I doubt it.
As for the inner natural maturing of new social relations of production, that is in fact happening, as Marx predicted, but I am skeptical that it will lead to the overthrow of capitalism, for reasons I have detailed in my paper The Future of Socialism, available at box.net via the link at the top of this blog page.
Which leaves an electoral transformation. Let us recall that we have a presidential, not a parliamentary, form of government. For well-known reasons, which my fingers are not nimble enough to spell out in detail unless someone really wants an explanation, this means that ideologically homogeneous minority parties rarely are able to achieve much legislatively, save in rather special circumstances, such as those that obtained in New York State, for example. Power comes from gaining leverage within one of the two major parties, which in turn means that a movement must elect Representatives or Senators [or, in rare cases, a President] who share and are responsive to the concerns and demands of the movement.
Now, it does not follow from this that only electoral politics has any chance of changing the country. Not at all. A movement outside the two parties – a Civil Rights Movement, a Women’s Liberation Movement, a Gay Liberation Movement, an Occupy Wall Street Movement, a Poor People’s Movement, can change the political landscape and apply irresistible pressure on ambitious candidates leading them to alter their positions and even their votes in Congress in an effort to win re-election. The key here is, as everyone understands, the astonishingly low turnouts even in Presidential elections. One-vote-one-person winner-take-all elections give no structural expression to intensity of preference, but intensity of preference shapes turnout, which in turn determines elections.
Nor is it at all necessary or even desirable for everyone to do the same thing. A centrist Democrat working to re-elect Joe Manchin or Heidi Heidkamp and an Occupy Wall Street activist putting her body on the line in front of the home office of a multi-national corporation are both, in their very different ways, contributing to the painfully slow process of turning the enormous, bulky ship of state in a new direction. No bill redistributing income can pass the Senate unless the Democrats have at least fifty-one votes in the upper chamber, and no bill redistributing income will ever be sent over from the House to the Senate for debate unless millions, or rather tens of millions, of Americans march in the streets demanding such legislation and vowing not to vote for candidates for the House who do not sponsor and vote for such legislation. Simply to say this is to recognize the height of the mountain we have to climb.
One final observation before my two forefingers give out. Contrary to the nonsense written by Op Ed columnists and repeated by Cable News commentators, people on the far left are not at all less prone to compromise than people positioned roughly where the political landscape changes from blue to red. If we imagine the political spectrum laid out in the familiar left/right fashion we inherited from the French Revolution, legislators on the far left are quite as prepared to compromise with legislators on the left or even the center left as legislators a tad to the left of the middle are to compromise with legislators somewhat to their right. But because these latter are compromising with legislators of the other party, they are held up as saints of political virtue, even though the actual range of their compromise may be narrow than that of their far left colleagues.