Printer Friendly

The rising of the wretched.

The great debate about the nature of the world order began with the breaching of the Berlin wall on November 1989. It ended barely fifteen months later with the invasion and destruction of Iraq. If the promise of a kind of socialism died in the wreckage of Central Europe, the greater promise of a capitalist order with peace, prosperity and opportunity for all perished in the carnage of the Persian Gulf war. For if the short space between those two historic bookends demonstrates anything, it is that capitalism is logically prevented by its own fatal flaws from delivering the goods, and that socialism still stands a chance. History is alive and kicking.

As freedom of the press (in A. J. Liebling's mighty line) is reserved for those who own one, so the free market is beneficial only to those who control it. Untold are the riches that late capitalism bestows on those lucky or clever enough to live and work close to the heart and brain of the beast. Never has life been better for some white Americans with M.B.A.s, German businessmen who know the Arabic words for "poison gas" and Japanese entrepreneurs with a knack for siting overseas factories in right-to-work hollows. In other words (racing from the particular to the general), the system is now more than ever based on oppressive relations of class, caste and race; on war and the violent manipulation of assets and aggressive protection of resources; and on the suppression of organized opposition to th e world order in any of its component parts.

The most cursory glance at the world map and a few basic statistics will show how fatuous are the claims of triumphant capitalism, how fraudulent its guarantees of a good life for all who adhere to its dogma. As Robert Pollin and Alexander Cockburn amply illustrated in these pages two months ago [see "The World, the Free Market and the Left:' February 251 the moment of greatest success in the capitalist heartland is the time of most misery in all the surrounding countries. Africa is an economic disaster area, Latin America is almost as bad, South and Southwest Asia barely survive and the born-again economies of Central Europe can scarcely provide even the minimum goods (and better services) that their peoples had under the old regimes, however "deformed."

Small elites are surely prospering in Third World capitals, and a few Asian island-states, which have eagerly sought integration with Western finance and business, are booming under authoritarian rule. Democracy's got nothing to do with anything; civil rights and liberties, mass participation in politics and workplace or community organizing are considered counterproductive to development. The idea that the free market somehow produces liberated lives is contradicted by all the evidence.

Individual countries and world capitalist institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, throw money at the more slavish followers of the market line, but to no avail. There's nowhere near enough money to make a difference, and in any case the projects funded and coffers filled are intended to help the grantor more than the grantee. Capitalist development develops capitalism and keeps all others in thrall. And so everywhere there is increasing poverty, repression, conflict and alienation. This is not the rose garden the capitalist princes and professors promised.

The failures of capitalism in the Third World (an obsolete name, for which there is yet no more accurate and convenient term) are replicated within the nonwhite, non-Western, unskilled and, to a large extent, normale populations of the most prosperous national economies. By now it should be apparent to all that the capitalist order in America simply cannot lead the majority of its citizens (those who are casually categorized as minorities:' for greater ease of handling) into free-market hog heaven.

The reasons are not very arcane. First of all, those who have a lot of things and influence so strongly affect the system of allocation that they can block all attempts to redistribute wealth and power. Second, much of the disposable income that society gathers is used for social control-war, police, prisons, even welfare-rather than productive social investment. Of course, those reasons are intimately related. Maldistribution produces the reactions that the control methods are meant to treat. The more of the world's resources America must grab to maintain a cushy standard of living, the more it must spend on resource wars, ghetto sweeps, minimum welfare payoffs and maximum security prisons to protect its position.

Those who maintain that Western-style casino capitalism will fulfill the expectations it raises just can't face reality. Sure, if every Nation subscriber gave the magazine $5 it would make up its yearly deficit, but subscribers never act with such unanimity. Nor do corporate elites and the national executives with which they are interlocked. Many American companies won't even extend health care benefits to their employees, and more are seeking to cut back benefits to improve their profits. Many corporations (and local governments) spend as much time and energy devising ways to break unions as they do implementing policies to improve their workers' lot. Extrapolate such niggardliness to the global scene and you see how impossible it is to achieve peace and prosperity without repression and exploitation.

Socialism-at its best, a system designed to yield an equitable and decent standard of living, a peaceful environment and a just and humane society-can succeed precisely because capitalism has so egregiously failed. As for America, its wars of recent years, from Southeast Asia to Central America to the Middle East, are as much "aberrations" as the L.A.P.D.'s assaults on passing motorists. There is no way to argue that the American dream is not built on aggression and intervention, or that the system is not predicated on exploitation by race and class and gender (at least).

Even if the wretched of the earth who had previously tried to oppose the masters of the world wanted to surrender, there would be no place to sign up for the new world order. Indeed, they would likely be mowed down as soon as they emerged with their white flags, like the Iraqi conscripts in full flight from Kuwait. Capitalism can't accommodate them. The only option is to fight for an alternative order.

It's time for left intellectuals to stop their defensive analyses of the fall of whatever-it-was in Central Europe and get on with the tougher strategic thinking about how the logical contradictions of whatever-it-is here in the West can be used for change. The right was allowed to set the terms of the fifteen-months' debate about the failure of socialism. The left must capture the debate about socialism's future.

At the outset, a few strategic guidelines should be followed. The most important rule is that struggles for socialism must originate, and be led, by those who need it most. It follows that the fiercest fights will continue to be in the old Third World. The fact that the left "lost" many of those campaigns in the past decade does not mean that the long contest to control the future is finished. Those losses have occurred both because of internal deficiencies of leadership and imagination and because of external forces beyond anyone's command. American military and economic pressure is an enormous problem, but not an insurmountable one. The collapse of the Soviet-bloc support system for Third World revolutions was a bad blow, but not a final one. For the fact is that the conditions that gave rise to the revolts will continue and will still produce the response of opposition. It may or may not be in familiar forms, such as "wars of liberation" or guerrillas swooping down from mountain redoubts on the capital, but suitable new forms will be found. We may not be marching anymore, but the dialectic keeps on keeping on.

At the same time, the socialist project in America and other hyperdeveloped countries must also be based in and led by the constituencies and classes that derive the least benefit from the system, and have the least invested in it. It's ridiculous to think that the Democratic Party, or any of its components or fellow travelers, can imagine a socialist future, let alone fight for one. That is not to say that electoral politics may not occasionally be useful. But as Pollin and Cockburn insisted, "The left must not be afraid to be socialist:' It must not hide behind, and thus surrender to, liberal flummery that will ultimately preclude radical change rather than lead to it.

The natural left--as opposed to small groups of self-conscious leftists--comprises an overwhelming majority of the world's population. It can't be that this force has no power to change things for itself, and for the better. For too long, however, the "talking" leftists have been telling the natural left (what used to be called the "masses") what to do and how to do it. Worse, the leaders would tell the followers one thing (the "mass line") and tell one another something else. It was that which led to the deformations from Romania to China, some of which have been mercifully terminated.

So an ironclad rule should be, "No more lies." That not only means lies about the left's tactics, about secret systems of privilege and about the realities of failure. It is also an imperative to tell the truth about the system we oppose, about the way it co-opts and confuses us, about the benefits it brings to some of us, about our own investment in a capitalist future at the same time we chat about a socialist utopia.

There is no end to good ideas and good beginnings on the new road to socialism (Pollin and Cockburn talk about "socialization of the market"' including investment, labor and information). It is crucial, however, that the trip start in those places where socialism is not simply a better plan but an absolute necessity. It is there that the will can be found, as well as the way.
COPYRIGHT 1991 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Rethinking the Left
Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Date:May 6, 1991
Previous Article:The new face of techno-war.
Next Article:Democracy's race against fear.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters