For a few months last year, Occupy Wall Street thrust anti-capitalist ideas back into mainstream discussion. Corporate media and capitalist politicians of both parties were forced to respond in defense of their system. By December, a Pew Poll recorded the growing rejection of the system; among young people aged 18-29 opposition to capitalism rose to 47%, with only 46% in favor.
Yet a year later, the central question asked by millions of Occupy’s sympathizers – and exploited by Occupy’s opponents – remains unanswered: “What are we fighting for?”
Unless movements for change squarely address this question, inviting a healthy debate over what kind of society we aim to create, we won’t move beyond endless protests against the status quo. It is one thing to tap popular rage at big business, but quite another to transform this anger into a mass movement capable of replacing the dictatorship of the 1% with a genuine democracy of the 99%.
History repeatedly demonstrates that the majority of working people will only be drawn into struggle when they are convinced that their efforts can bear tangible fruit – when they are inspired by a clear vision of how society could be run differently.
It should be no surprise, then, that the same December 2011 Pew Poll which found falling support for capitalism also showed that 49% of young people view socialism positively, with just 43% opposed. The poll doesn’t yet indicate mass support for a rounded-out socialist program, but it does demonstrate widespread desire for a clear left alternative to capitalism.
To mark the upcoming one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and to advance the debate over what kind of society we should be fighting for, Socialist Alternative will be organizing public meetings across the country to argue the case for socialism. This article previews some central themes we aim to address.
What is Socialism?
The defenders of capitalism attempt to paint socialism as a utopian schema dreamed up by self-appointed intellectuals who would dogmatically impose their grey, lifeless system on the unwilling masses. For many who associate socialism with the Stalinist legacy or the sellout social democratic parties, there is an understandable desire to abandon the “old ideas” and start fresh.
Yet any serious look at the history of working peoples’ struggles reveals a fundamentally different story.
Workers and oppressed people worldwide have repeatedly fought back to improve their conditions and liberate themselves. Everywhere, a central feature of the class struggle is a battle of ideas. The ruling minority attempt to shroud their exploitation through lies and distractions. Meanwhile, the exploited majority attempt to clear the fog and discover the real mechanics of the system which oppresses them, and what an alternative system might look like.
Arising organically from the experience of the class struggle, the genuine ideas of Marxism – initially worked out over 160 years ago – are a living body of ideas continuously developed by successive generations of class fighters. The history of capitalism reveals how social movements repeatedly face similar challenges and similar debates, and how the most far-thinking fighters draw similar conclusions. Marxist theory and practice flows from careful study of these international and historical experiences and from rigorous debates within these living struggles.
So while this article will mainly highlight our vision for a socialist future, most of the intellectual work of the socialist movement today and historically focuses on how social movements can win victories in the here and now. The best test of any theory is whether it offers an effective guide to action.
In the same way that a doctor who misdiagnoses a patient will likely prescribe an ineffective or even harmful treatment, a movement leader who fails to understand the mechanics of capitalism will typically lead struggles to defeat.
Marxism is an attempt to scientifically trace out the actual dynamics of global capitalism and the class struggle. Only through a lucid understanding of social processes, cleared of the fog of capitalist propaganda, can workers and the oppressed map out a strategy and tactics to defeat big business and transform society.
Genuine socialist theory is therefore a sort of “best practices” guide to winning short-term struggles, a transitional method of linking today’s movements to a broader global strategy to end capitalism, and a vision of a future society based on the experience of workers’ self-organization in struggle.
The 2012 U.S. elections show more clearly than ever that democracy under capitalism boils down to “one dollar, one vote.” Wall Street and the big corporations finance both parties, so whether the Democrats or Republicans win, the 99% loses. Yet corporate domination of our political system is just an extension of capitalists’ control over our economy.
Consider the awesome power concentrated in the hands of the few owners of the big corporations. Five companies dominate the U.S. media industry. A handful of corporations, such as Google and Microsoft, control the information age industries.
The energy industry is monopolized by several fossil fuel profiteers who effectively prevent a shift to a renewable energy economy and better mass transit.
The overriding goal of these corporations is not to produce quality TV programs, wider information access, or a sustainable energy policy; their goal is to maximize profits. Achieving this requires a relentless drive to cut costs and increase market share at the expense of all other considerations.
Apologists for capitalism reduce the problem of corporate political domination of society to “corrupt” or “greedy” political leaders, or to the lack of sufficient regulations. This flips reality upside down. The capitalists’ dominant economic position affords them the power to determine the political leaders, the laws, and the ruling ideologies, not the other way around.
Socialists argue that only by placing the big banks and corporations into public ownership, under workers’ democratic control, can a genuine democracy of, by, and for the 99% be achieved.
This idea of working class self-organization was a feature of virtually every major mass uprising since the Paris Commune of 1871. The historic wave of revolt that swept the globe in 2011 was no exception. From the mass assemblies in Tahrir Square to the general assemblies of Occupy Wall Street, millions of workers and youth discovered that the forms of organization originally thrown up for their immediate struggle offered a glimpse of what a real bottom-up socialist democratic society might look like.
However, a genuine socialist transformation of society would require the occupation movements to expand into workplaces, universities, and all major institutions, replacing top-down capitalist control with elected workplace and community councils. Instead of elections every two or four years determining which capitalist party runs things, a socialist government would be composed of elected representatives from workplace, community, and student councils. Representatives would be immediately recallable and paid no more than those they represent.
In this way, the profit motive could be removed from society and the warped priorities of the market replaced with a global economic plan. All political and economic decisions could be made democratically, with social and environmental priorities determining investments, wages and laws.
Ending Poverty and Inequality
Since the onset of the global economic crisis, capitalist politicians everywhere demand working people tighten their belts while they rake in record profits. In the “recovery” of 2010, the top 1% pocketed 93% of all economic gains, according to a study of tax returns by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Pikkety. Meanwhile, the poorest 90% gained nothing.
“The past four years have been bad for workers and savers but good for the corporate sector,” explained The Economist (3/30/12). “Profit margins in America are higher than at any time in the past 65 years.”
Yet according to the Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans have fallen below the poverty line, up by 7 million since 2008. Official poverty rates for blacks and Latinos hover around 37% while 34% of single mothers are poor, underscoring the deep racism and sexism in U.S. society.
What is truly staggering is the growth in those categorized as “low income.” The 97.3 million hovering just above poverty, together with those in poverty, equal almost half the U.S. population.
We face a distribution crisis, not a scarcity crisis. There are more than enough resources to ensure a decent life for all, but a tiny elite hoard the wealth or waste it in nonproductive speculative investments. To take one example, a recent study by the Tax Justice Network found that up to $20 trillion is being looted from national treasuries through offshore tax havens! This is a sum of money larger than the U.S. and Japanese economies combined!
Socialists argue for taking the top 500 corporations and financial institutions into public ownership and using their wealth to fund a massive green jobs program. On this basis, all the unemployed could be offered jobs at living wages on projects addressing vital social needs.
Tens of thousands of new teachers could be hired and crumbling schools rebuilt. Free, quality health care could be extended to everyone, unhindered by the rapacious insurance companies. Huge investments in clean energy infrastructure, including the dramatic expansion of mass transit, could accompany the phase-out of fossil fuel reliance. Free, quality child care, elderly care, and programs serving the disabled could be established.
On this basis, poverty could be rapidly wiped out, alongside the crime and social problems caused by widespread economic desperation.
In the struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, few serious activists argue that any specific oppression can be understood - or fought - in isolation from capitalism as a whole. Despite this, most movement leaders fail to link anti-oppression struggles to a unifying socialist vision.
As Malcolm X argued, “you can’t have capitalism without racism,” because if the diverse American working class became conscious of their collective interests, and their potential power, the rule of the 1% could be rapidly broken up.
That’s why the rich and big business continue to fund far-right political forces like the Tea Party to further their divide-and-conquer agenda. That’s why the corporate media amplifies the voices of bigots and perpetuates racial and gender stereotypes.
There are also narrow economic incentives to maintain structural inequalities. Sexist ideas allow businesses to pay women just 73 cents to every dollar men make and to deny proper maternity and paternity benefits. Racism justifies maintaining 12 million undocumented immigrants as a terrorized, super-exploited underclass.
A socialist transformation of society wouldn’t automatically erase deeply ingrained prejudices, but it would remove the most significant root cause. With workplaces under public ownership and democratic control, there would be no capitalist class with an interest in dividing workers from one another.
A socialist system would invest in communities of color traditionally starved of quality schools, grocery stores, and social services. Homophobic laws and education curriculums could be removed. Women could be guaranteed equal pay for equal work, free quality child care, paid maternity leave, and other necessities. The mass media, run democratically under worker/community control, could be a powerful tool for undermining prejudice.
In June, on the 20th anniversary of the first major summit on global warming, world leaders once again met in Rio de Janeiro. And, once again, the conference ended in failure, with all meaningful solutions blocked by the profit-driven interests of the world’s biggest economies.
Then, as if on cue, July was the hottest month on record in the Northern Hemisphere.
The scientific community is virtually unanimous that unless we drastically reduce consumption of fossil fuels in the next few years, catastrophic climate change is inevitable. Already the impact is being felt. Extreme weather is on the rise.
Droughts are causing crop failures across the world, driving up food prices, pushing millions more into hunger.
Yet both Obama and the Republicans are encouraging more drilling for oil, more fracking and more coal usage. No wonder, since capitalist politicians from both parties rely on the support of the huge energy corporations for their political careers. On a global scale, the cooperation needed to address the crisis is blocked by capitalist competition between nations.
Numerous studies show it is technically possible for a combination of wind, solar, tidal, and hydro power to meet world energy needs. With a democratically planned socialist economy, and the profit motive removed from global investment decisions, this transition could be achieved.
With the energy corporations placed into public ownership under democratic workers’ control, their massive resources could be redirected toward coordinated global investments in clean energy infrastructure. Tens of millions of unemployed worldwide could be provided jobs in an urgent, coordinated drive to save the planet.