I would like to spend some times this morning trying to put into organized form some thoughts with which I have been struggling in recent months. If you believe, as I do, that the human world is massively fouled up, and that at the heart of our problems, but by no means their sole source, is the capitalist system of social relations of production; if you do not believe, as I do not, that there is very little real prospect of the fundamental economic organization of the world changing any time soon [I will not restrict us to my lifetime, which at my age may only carry us to the next World Cup]; and if, despite these beliefs, you also believe fervently, as I do, that it makes a great deal of difference in the lives of billions of people just how things actually go day to day in this massively fouled up world: Then you are confronted, as I am, with the necessity of finding a way to talk about the world that acknowledges all of these beliefs simultaneously.
Now, most political commentators believe that democratic capitalism is essentially just fine so long as bad actors or bad ideas do not screw it up, so it is easy for them to rest on that belief and focus on this corrupt politician or that anti-social corporation, to identify the root of our problems as a “breakdown of norms” or a “denial of the facts of climate change.” But if you do not believe that democratic capitalism, even at its best, is really defensible, then it is very hard to fight fiercely for policies that will both make the lives of countless people better and yet also will leave untouched the underlying sources of vastly greater social harms.
Let me give you several trivial examples. America is a country of 330 million people, more or less, roughly half of whom are poor by any reasonable calculation, living paycheck to paycheck when they can get a paycheck. The lives of tens of millions of poor Americans could be made somewhat better if they could cash their paychecks without paying usurious fees, or even have free bank accounts into which their paychecks are automatically deposited. This is simply not a problem at all for the other half and more of America, and fixing the problem would not alter the fundamentally exploitative nature of capitalism one whit. But it really would put more food on the tables of millions of households.
Here is a totally different example: Millions of Americans have been locked up, some for many, many years, as a consequence of a cruel and blatantly racist piece of federal legislation put forward and supported by every moderate Democrat’s wet dream, Joe Biden. Now that it is white folks who are hooked on drugs – opioids – the decent caring folk have decided that drug addiction is a medical problem, not a law enforcement problem. But drug addiction really is a medical problem, and so we all ought to throw our political support behind the legislators who wish to treat it that way, even though many of them cooperated in locking up millions of black and brown people for essentially the same actions.
Here is a third example of a totally different nature: In any society, including even a genuinely socialist society, should one ever come into existence, it is absolutely essential that there be publicly articulated, recognized, and internalized norms of honesty, respect for law, and impartiality that shape and constrain the behavior of everyone, but especially of public figures. Adherence to these norms is sustained by pride, by shame, by the praise of others, by modes and practices of upbringing and education, not merely or even primarily by ideological correctness. This is as true in our present society as it would be in a socialist society. It really is better that judges strive to rule fairly and impartially, for all that their view of the law is shaped by their politics and their class loyalties, than that they rule corruptly and with unmediated parti pris.
Now, when the public discourse focuses on the appalling behavior of the present president, it is quite natural for some of us to push back, insisting that his predecessors, who are ritually praised for their sterling character, unimpeachable patriotism, and adherence to The Constitution, were themselves also corrupt, albeit less blatantly so and less often in the service of their private financial interest. But Trump’s efforts to undermine the norms and guardrails of American constitutional democracy really are dangerous, even though a more traditional president would pursue policies as fundamentally unjust and exploitative as those of Trump.
I can testify from my personal experience that in order to sustain any sort of political activity beyond merely offering an opinion, one has to believe that it would make some difference if one’s candidate wins. Otherwise, why get up early on a cloudy Saturday and drive an hour to a meeting point from which one then goes out knocking on doors for three hours?
It is easy to relax, recount the unquestionable evils of every side, eschew any political efforts, and leave to their own devices those whose lives might be made better by one’s efforts, even though those efforts have no hope at all of addressing the deep underlying causes of the injustice and misery in the world. But I am not willing to do that.