Part 1. Crisis and Opportunity
MC: The current financial crisis is clearly a moment of peril for both individuals and the broader system of capitalism. But would it also make sense to see it as a moment of opportunity?
AK: Absolutely. I see opportunity springing from every crack in the structure of capitalism. For all those who wish to see a different world, this moment is dripping with opportunity because the old order is crumbling before our eyes.
“we need to speak in a language of our common values: democracy, freedom, justice, and sustainability…”
The crisis extends far beyond the broken financial system. Millions of people are losing their jobs, homes, and savings as the burden of the crisis gets shifted onto the poor and working class. Public faith in the system, both the government and the capitalist economy, has been shattered and is at an all-time low. And it’s not just the economic crisis. The bank bailouts, the endless wars in the Mid East, the BP spill and the meltdown of the climate, and about a dozen other crises have shaken us deeply. It’s become common sense that the system is broken and a major change is needed. Barack Obama was elected in the US precisely by promising this change. Now that he is failing to deliver, more and more people are questioning whether the system can provide any solutions, or whether it’s actually the source of the problem.
Shattered faith is the dominant sentiment today. You can see it in people’s faces—the disappointment, grief, worry, and anger. To me, this loss of faith presents an enormous opening for putting forth a new, non-capitalist way of life. People are ready to hear radical solutions now, like they haven’t been since the Great Depression.
If we go back to 1929, we’ll see some interesting parallels to our current moment. When that depression started, millions lost their livelihoods to pay for the bankers’ crisis. Faith in capitalism sunk to rock bottom. The public flocked to two major ideologies that offered a way out: socialism and fascism.
Socialism presented a solution to the crisis by saying, roughly: “Capitalism is flawed because it divides us into rich and poor, and the rich always take advantage of the poor. We need to organize the poor and workers into unions and political parties so we can take power for the benefit of all.”
Socialism attracted millions of followers, even in the United States. The labor movement was enormous and kept gaining ground through sit-down strikes and other forms of direct action. The Communist Party sent thousands of organizers into the new CIO, at the time a more radical union than the AFL. Socialist viewpoints even started getting through to the mass media and government. Huey Long was elected Senator from Louisiana by promising to “Share Our Wealth,” to radically redistribute the wealth of the country to abolish poverty and unemployment. (He was assassinated.) Socialism challenged President Roosevelt from the left, pushing him to create the social safety net of the New Deal.
On the other side, fascism also emerged as a serious force and attracted a mass following by putting forth something like the following: “The government has sold us out. We are a great nation, but we have been disgraced by liberal elites who are pillaging our economy for the benefit of foreign enemies, dangerous socialists, and undesirable elements (like Jews). We need to restore our national honor and fulfill our God-given mission.”
When people hear the word fascism, they usually think of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, where successful fascist movements seized state power and implemented totalitarian control of society. Yet fascism was an international phenomenon during the Depression, and the United States was not immune to its reach. General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in US history, testified before the Senate that wealthy industrialists had approached him as part of a “Business Plot” and tried to convince him to march an army of 500,000 veterans on Washington, DC to install a fascist dictatorship.
Today we are approaching a similar crossroads. When I hear the story of the Business Plot I think about the Tea Party, which has sprung from a base of white supremacist anger, facilitated by right-wing elements of the corporate structure like Fox News. This is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. The “teabaggers” have moved from questioning Obama’s citizenship, to now trying to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the ability of everyone, regardless of color, to enjoy public accommodations like restaurants.
I think it’s fair to name the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Christian Right, etc. parts of a potential neo-fascist movement in the United States. Their words and actions too often encourage attacks on people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT folks, and anyone they don’t see as legitimate members of US society. Ultimately, many in this movement are pushing for a different social system taking power in the United States: one that is more authoritarian, less compassionate, more exploitive of the environment, more militaristic, and based on a mythical return to national glory. This is not a throwback to Nazi Germany. It’s a new kind of fascism, a new American fascism. And it’s a serious threat.
On the other hand, this crisis is also an opportunity for all of us who see capitalism as a destructive force and believe the message of the recent U.S. Social Forum that “Another World is Possible. Another US is Necessary.” “Socialism” in the post-McCarthy/Cold War era of the United States is a dead word, because it carries a lot of baggage from the Soviet Union. Rightly so, the USSR was a terrible dictatorship that is hardly an example to follow. The question is, how do those of us who are progressive and anti-capitalist articulate our ideas to resonate with a mass audience in this moment?
I argue that we need to speak to the population in a language of our common values: democracy, freedom, justice, and sustainability.
Adopting this mainstream language is not an attempt to be deceptive. These words have captured people’s hearts for a real reason: they offer a window to the world we want to see. It is the government, corporations, and media who deceive us by evoking these words to justify their atrocities, as in “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” (Over a million dead, and the Iraqi people are no closer to any kind of “freedom” I would want.) Rather than surrendering these noble ideals to the right wing, where they become meaningless dogma, I see immense potential to take language back and use it with honesty, as if words actually mean something.
So what if progressives reclaim these common values and make them guideposts on the way to a better society? For example, how can we talk about freedom if there is no self-determination, either in Iraq or here in the US? Let’s be honest, what freedom do we really have? The freedom to choose Coke or Pepsi, or similarly, to vote Democrat or Republican?
What about the freedom to determine our own destinies outside the constraints of corporations and government? What freedom is more basic than freedom from poverty and suffering? How can anyone speak of freedom if they have no income and no opportunity to escape unemployment? Or if they have nowhere to live because their home was foreclosed? What if their community is torn apart because so many youth are filling the prisons on nonviolent drug offenses? Is a prisoner free? Is their mother, spouse, or loved ones free? What does freedom mean if you’re queer or trans, and you face emotional and physical violence every time you express who you are and live your own life? How can we claim to be a free society if immigrants live in fear of being locked up by ICE and deported? What freedom do you have if your neighbor has none?
I think real freedom requires self-determination, the ability of an individual or community to choose their own destinies. We can’t pretend we have freedom in this country until “we, the people” have a say in our neighborhoods, towns and cities, in our workplaces, our schools, and our government. This requires that the public actively participate in managing their own affairs, for example through neighborhood councils to have a say in the neighborhood, through labor unions to have a say at work, student unions to have a say at school, and other democratic organizations that give people the power to defend their rights. There is a dire need to hold our corrupt representatives in Washington accountable to popular will. But to be truly free, might we also need to structure government in a new way, so it can be run by the people themselves? Or even to abolish the government, if it can’t do what the people say?
So I believe when we get to the meaningful core of the word “freedom,” it poses a radical challenge to capitalist society. We can say similar things about “democracy,” “justice,” and “sustainability,” and I would add, “love.” I’ll talk more about this in response to your third question. These values reinforce each other, and if we honor them for their true depth of meaning, they can be effective tools for change.
The Power of Imagination
This might sound good, but do progressives have the power to achieve these kinds of changes? It may sound farfetched. The media and government, especially in the U.S., have done an excellent job convincing us that we can never win. People with our views are routinely excluded from official conversation on the news or in elections. When we try to protest and take our voices to the street, they corral us within “free speech zones” so we look crazy and feel powerless. If a progressive voice does get through to the public somehow, it’s dismissed as “unrealistic.” We’re pressured to just vote for the lesser of two evils and be silent. The result of this silencing is that we have no idea how many people share our values and aspirations, because we’re often too intimidated to proclaim our views proudly. Worse, to some degree we’ve internalized this silencing so that we hesitate even to imagine our progressive hopes and dreams, lest they accidentally slip past our lips into polite conversation.
“The myth of powerlessness is one of the biggest lies in the history of the world, and we need to dismantle it.”
The stifling of progressive views is part of a larger culture of silence that helps the system maintain control. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman call it Manufacturing Consent, the use of media and propaganda to create a passive, obedient population. The message we receive constantly from media is that we are spectators, not participants. Rather than take a stand on an issue and risk being wrong or foolish, why not leave it to the experts? Besides, we’re too busy being consumers, workers and students to worry about politics. Better to not make waves. We might as well amuse ourselves with television, celebrity gossip, and Facebook, and try not to get involved. From all the propaganda we consume over the course of our lives, we come to develop the core belief that we are powerless to affect change. This myth of powerlessness is one of the biggest lies in the history of the world, and we need to dismantle it.
What the U.S. Social Forum proves is that there is a large, broad-based movement for change here in the United States, the very core of the global capitalist machine. There are millions of average, everyday people all across the nation who are working and pushing in a progressive direction in large and small ways, whether on immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, housing, health care, education, prison justice, queer and trans justice, environmental justice, peace in the Middle East, etc. The system doesn’t want you to know about this, which is why they don’t show it on television. Our movements are alive and well. They are strong. They are inspiring. And in many places they are winning.
I’ll just share a local example from here in Philadelphia. In late 2008, Mayor Nutter announced he would close 11 libraries due to budget constraints. Seemingly out of nowhere—but actually out of strong communities throughout the city—a movement emerged to oppose and prevent this decision, facilitated by the multiracial, multigenerational Coalition to Save the Libraries. The coalition organized creative actions at library branches slated for closure and at City Hall. People from across the city came together to imagine what kind of library system would best serve the public. Pressure kept mounting until the Mayor had to abandon his closures. All the libraries remain open to this day, despite continuing budget cuts and layoffs. Kristin Campbell wrote a fuller description of how grassroots organizing saved the libraries.
We can look at this victory and downplay it as limited because it only restored a public service that shouldn’t have been attacked anyway. But like all grassroots organizing it points towards a better future, for the simple reason that people became empowered by working together. Capitalism is a system of disempowerment. It cannot tolerate our active participation in public affairs. As soon as we begin to break our silence and speak out against the injustices we are being subjected to, the system begins to quake and it searches for ways to pacify and silence us again. If we remain alert, active, and vocal, we can break the culture of complacency and bring more and more people into the awareness of their own power. So I think that’s the opportunity we have in this crisis.
I want to excite people’s imaginations of what a better world might look like. There is no better time to do it. If my theory is right, then capitalism, the system that has dominated the world for the past 500 years, is coming to an end. Recognizing this opens up a world of possibility for the future. Maybe that’s scary, because who knows what will happen? We might be driven into a neo-fascist nightmare. Things might keep getting worse, in which case maybe we should just find reasons to enjoy our current way of life while it lasts. I can see some of my friends saying that. But that leaves out two crucial truths that I want to highlight.
The first truth is that capitalism is a terribly abusive and destructive system, which we would be better off without. The second truth is that if we organize and push for a better world, we might win. So the time for complacency is over, and the time for taking bolder steps toward our dreams is here.
[continue to Part 2: Ecological Limits →]