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Reimagining Socialism: A Conversation

Today I was asked to speak about ‘reimagining socialism’. I would like to do so by rephrasing the topic. It’s not a matter of reimagining socialism, but rather, of reimagining ourselves as socialists. This makes the task simpler and more difficult.

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Simpler because we do not need to construct a complete vision of a post-capitalist society or even how the capitalist system will be dismantled and replaced. We only need to focus on a socialist approach to explaining how capitalism creates the problems we face (exploitation, injustice, inequality, poverty, unemployment, violence, discrimination, pandemics, and the climate crisis), and why solutions cannot be found as long as the capitalist system prevails.

But it is also more difficult because we must reflect on our socialist commitment and our ability to communicate a socialist agenda through organizing, education, and agitation.

Understanding Capitalism

As socialists, how do we understand the problems created by the capitalist system? How do we locate the root cause(s) of a problem in capitalism as a system? We must ask this whether it’s brutal working conditions, poverty, jobs destruction, massive inequality, gender discrimination, violence against women, the lack of decent housing, or the failure to pay a living wage. Take any one of the thousands of problems that we’re trying to address in organizing workers for collective action and systemic change.

Both the causes and the solutions (in terms strategies for struggle and the demands and policies that are articulated in that struggle) must expose and challenge capitalism and the capitalist dynamic.

Blaming capitalism is easy. Explaining why a particular problem is integral to the capitalist system is more difficult. But if we do not locate the cause within capitalism, how do we arrive at a solution that is anti-, non-, post-capitalist?

The fact is that much of our response to the crises created by capitalism produces social democratic demands for state intervention and partial or temporary state control that just help to ‘fix’ capitalism. Nationalizing banks, nationalizing industry, promoting food sovereignty, government subsidies and public spending, public sector job creation, minimum wages, etc. are presented as radical solutions. In the context of crisis, these are radical. But ultimately, they serve to promote the realignment of the capitalist system – revitalizing, not replacing, capitalism. (Nationalization usually involves nationalizing private corporate debt and shifting the burden to workers. In the 2008 financial crisis, Newsweek magazine declared on its cover: “We are all socialists now”).

The incredible propensity of capitalism to absorb whatever you throw at it, to utilize it to restore itself, is something that we should not underestimate. Consider how the very real problem of gender discrimination and gender inequality has been reconstructed as advertising, branding, and reputation – as something that now generates private profit. The problem of gender discrimination and gender inequality is tackled without exposing the convergence of patriarchy and capitalist authority, or subordination and capitalist property relations. In other words, gender discrimination and gender inequality are manageable problems within capitalism (and actually a source of profit accumulation) if de-linked from patriarchy, class, class relations, and class struggle.

Class, Party, Unions

The problem with ‘class’ is that the predominant understanding of class today is liberal, not socialist. Class is understood as a hierarchy of wealth and inequality, of comparative incomes and living standards, and even occupations. This is a liberal notion of class that supports our moral outrage (unfair, unjust, outrageous inequality and extreme wealth). But it is not the socialist understanding of the class relations that are integral to capitalism and the class struggle essential to challenging it.

With a liberal understanding of class (occupation, income, wealth), any demand to rectify inequality and poverty is described as ‘class struggle’. This then gives the impression of a socialist agenda, while, in fact, accepting, if not revitalizing, the capitalist system. Using the terms ‘class’ and ‘capitalism’ does not make us socialists. We need a socialist understanding of class, capitalism, and the capitalist dynamic.

I’m not suggesting we abandon our moral outrage and be dispassionate – many socialist intellectuals appear dispassionate, often with a detached and smug, ‘I told you so’. We must retain our moral outrage and sense of urgency. But we must ensure that it’s not simply a moral judgment (good vs. evil). We must respond by tackling the fundamental capitalist logic that’s causing these problems.

More than anything, this dilemma is reflected in political parties that claim a socialist platform. These parties tend to use moral outrage to demonstrate that they are speaking and acting on behalf of the people… that they represent the oppressed, the exploited, and the mildly annoyed. This is a source of political legitimacy. This moral outrage at injustice tends to produce short-term responses in terms of new policies or legal reform. The problem is always blamed on the incumbent government and rarely blamed on the capitalist system itself.

Like the absence of any real class analysis (where class is understood as social relations and property, not wealth disparity and income), there is a lack of understanding of the capitalist state. The focus is on government, which is the institutional representation of only one aspect of state power. More often it is a narrow focus on the people who run the government – bad people we don’t like. Again, moral outrage.

I think, at its worst, this moral outrage is driven by a desire to seek popular approval through social media, rather than a desire to prevent the systemic causes of whatever outrage we’re responding to. The fact that – due to the digital divide – those who respond to social media are a tiny minority doesn’t seem to matter. Those who Like, Heart, re-post and re-Tweet are ‘the people’. Our populist response is trending! For populist political leaders the task of reimagining themselves as socialists is much easier. They only need to be as socialist as social media needs them to be.

To reimagine ourselves as socialists we must restore our socialist analysis. The COVID pandemic, rising unemployment, poverty wages, wage theft insecurity, and all of the vulnerability that we’ve been discussing should be understood in terms of the capitalist dynamic. No doubt private property and the drive for profit is already well understood. (Although we need to understand profit not in terms of how much money is made, but in terms of exploitation and the extraction of surplus value.)

We probably need to pay more attention to commodification, which is essential to the capitalist system. Commodification is a social process that transforms every aspect of human life into a commodity that can be bought and sold for profit. We must understand the intersection of property relations (as a source of power) and the compulsion of capitalism through market forces that transforms everything into a commodity. We then need to understand the exploitation through which surplus value is extracted and the redistribution of that value.

I’m sure it is well understood that the most fundamental aspect of capitalist social relations and the capitalist system is that labour power is a commodity. Workers sell their labour-power to capitalists (the owners of the means of production) and capitalists extract profit (surplus value), which constitutes exploitation.

Yet everything about labour organizing reinforces the politico-legal framework that regulates the commodification of labour-power and how workers sell their labour-power. Registration of trade unions and legal recognition and a collective agreement are necessary goals of a labour movement. But it is not a socialist movement because it does nothing to challenge the commodification of labour-power. It could be argued that the institutional fetishism of a legalistic approach to organizing diminishes workers’ capacity for class struggle.


There was a direct link from the Wall Street bailout to the Presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Photograph by Spencer Platt  //  The New Yorker

It’s worth considering that social movement unionism simply obscures this contradiction. Coming as it does from a social democratic tradition, the very purpose is to compromise.

To understand the distinction between a socialist understanding and a social democratic or libertarian understanding, consider that the founding declaration of the International Labour Organization (ILO) states that “labour is not a commodity.” What is the difference between labour-power as a commodity and labour as a commodity? Second, distinguish between the libertarian notion of worker rights in ILO conventions as individual human rights and our need for collective rights.

Commodification

Understanding commodification is vital. Sexual exploitation involves commodification. Gender discrimination involves commodification. Indeed, the current solutions to gender discrimination without disrupting patriarchy or property relations is also a form of commodification. The current crisis and pandemic (and the next pandemic) are rooted in commodification. If we can understand the ‘disease drivers’ that created this pandemic (through human-mediated action), we can see how commodification plays such a vital role. For example, the issue of vaccines and access is not just a government failure, but the failure of a system in which human health is commodified.

Commodification is not just about everything becoming a product (for sale). It’s inextricably bound up in competitiveness and the relentless drive to increase productivity. It’s the capitalist imperative or the compulsion of capitalism.

As I argued – somewhat hopelessly – in a recent debate over the need to restore public healthcare, a genuinely public service that serves society, such as free, universal healthcare for all, can fulfill neither its obligations nor guarantee the rights of people if it is subordinated to the imperative of capitalist productivity. The compulsion that drives productivity, efficiency, competitiveness – regardless of the absence of an overt aim of generating profit – turns a service to society, a public need, into a commodity. As a commodity, it is inherently unable to satisfy human needs because people – as individuals competing for access – must seek out that commodity in the market. More than anything, this prevents us from protecting public health in this – and the next – pandemic.

The other aspect of reimagining ourselves as socialists concerns the complex interaction of individual material interests and collective interests. It’s complex because when we’re organizing, we have to consider how much time and energy we put into trying to convince workers that whatever we’re proposing is in their individual personal, material interests. ‘If you join us and do this, you will benefit.’ ‘If you don’t do this, there will there will be terrible consequences!’ ‘If we don’t take action now, you could be next!’

Fear of bad things happening to them as individuals drives much of what we do when we attempt to convince people to join our organizations or to join our struggle. But what kind of struggle is it if it’s just a collection of individual, personal, and material interests? Progress on a day-to-day basis will be measured against our ability to deliver on that promise: ‘What do I get from this?’ ‘Why haven’t I gained anything yet?’ Even if phrased as we (‘What do we get from this?’ ‘Why haven’t we gained anything yet?’), it still means me.

Very rarely do we suggest that workers join struggles simply on the basis that it is for the greater good, in the public interest, or social interests. (Notice we refer to social problems but no longer speak of social interests.) There is not much traction in arguing that there will be a collective benefit. When we talk about climate change and the struggle for climate justice, it’s still very much a libertarian approach to a capitalist problem. It’s very clear to us that the capitalist system created this climate crisis. It’s equally clear that capitalism cannot deliver or allow a solution to this crisis. That capitalism will destroy the planet is pretty much a foregone conclusion. But our collective ability to prevent that from happening is diminishing. Day by day.

Yet how much education, awareness, campaigning, and organizing for climate justice involves an appeal to individual material interests? The impact on individuals is the most predominant part of the discussion. Even if we refer to ‘community’, we do so because that’s the collection of people around us, all the people we know or identify with, so it’s still about me. Look at the entire response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the way in which personal inconvenience (wearing masks, staying home, distancing) trumped our collective need to protect public health.

When we are organizing, the need to bring in the personal is seen as a very practical way to reach people and convince people in everything we do. It’s practical. But from the outset, it undermines our socialist commitment because we avoid the very difficult task of building a collective set of values that gives real meaning to solidarity. We sidestep the need to build a collective set of values to drive collective action, and a genuine commitment to something greater than ourselves. Whether you want to say it’s societal or the public good, or the greater good, it doesn’t matter at this stage. We can barely have a conversation about this thing that is beyond the individual. What we do is pretend we’re talking about social interests or societal interests, and the greater good, by talking about the collection of individual personal interests affected by this. There’s always that promise of what it means for me. All subsequent collective action around this is premised on that promise.

The final point I’d like to make in reimagining ourselves as socialists is the dilemma of the imagination itself. Our collective imagination is fundamentally inhibited by how we communicate, educate, and agitate.

It’s inhibited because we communicate within a system where human attention has been commodified. Our attention has been commodified and is bought and sold for profit.

The business of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other corporations that produce and control social media is the business of capturing and selling people’s attention. As critics of the attention economy have shown, the product is you.

The commodification of attention transforms our ability to communicate, perceive, learn, and ultimately, to think. One of the effects of the commodification of attention is distraction, and the level of distraction or inability to pay attention is massive. This perpetual distraction or continuous partial attention syndrome is the result of both new technologies and the commodification of attention.

Reimagining Socialism

So even if we develop our socialist analysis, what do we do with it? We have a socialist commitment based on genuine collective interests that rise above personal individual material interests, yet we can’t communicate, educate, and agitate effectively because we don’t have people’s attention. Their attention has already been captured or bought.

This is probably what leads me to be so pessimistic about our future. Whatever we try to communicate, people are listening for phrases and sound bytes to post or share. Already thinking of how it will look on Instagram, TickTock, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and what reaction it will get – likes, comments, re-posts – so we don’t really have their attention, just their time. And all the while, they are thinking about getting other people’s attention.

This constant inattention preempts any deeper thought or analysis or reflection or internalization because it’s all completely externalized at that point. It’s all for an imaginary audience. This is part of the commodification of attention – it’s now what people’s brains are re-wired to do. This perpetual distraction or continuous partial attention syndrome also has significant consequences for mental health and well-being. It runs up against how our brains are hardwired and we may have to consider how this damages, inhibits, or redefines our ability to understand or imagine anything.

How do we reimagine ourselves as socialists if we are constantly competing for the attention (not understanding) of others? How can the reimagining of socialism take place if we are so distracted? Is it possible that the depth of understanding needed to fight capitalism and replace it with socialism no longer exists because understanding no longer has depth? In fact, I wonder whether we’ve lost our ability to imagine.

Recapturing that attention and rebuilding our collective imagination is a massive task. We must regain people’s attention sufficiently to understand the causes of the crisis and problems we face and the collective action that’s needed for the collective good. If we believe we can still do that, then I think there’s hope. 

[Hidayat Greenfield is currently the elected Regional Secretary for the Asia-Pacific section of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF).]