There is an alternative

02 April 2009
Socialism's all the rage. "We Are All Socialists Now," Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we're already living in the USSA. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 23 issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.'s "Rising to the Occasion" as the opening essay in a forum on "Reimagining Socialism." will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher have written a stimulating essay, with which I mostly agree. But first, a dissenting word from where I write just down the road from the city. The idea that this crisis is terminal doesn't square with the reality I observe. It's true that capitalist elites are in a state of what must be uncomfortable uncertainty, but their behavior is increasingly that of an elite confidently and opportunistically regrouping and renewing itself. Aiding them, the government here in the UK is ruthlessly willing to sit out the consequences of the recession for ordinary people as if it was a natural disaster for which trauma therapy and charity is all that politicians can provide. There are several reasons to believe this strategy will not work, paving the way for a Tory government. What's certain, however, is that the credibility of the mantra "there is no alternative" is at its end. We now have an opening to generalize from the myriad experiments driven by socialist values, to develop a sense of direction that can persuade the majority to join. Some of these are national and continental, as in Latin America; but most are local. There must be a conscious effort to investigate these stories, reflect on them and promote them in the context of capitalism's disarray. I'm thinking here of two kinds of examples. First, there is the phenomenon in countries with a developed public sector where public-service trade unionists, together with citizens' organizations, have successfully resisted privatization. They have combined militant action with collaboration with a chastened public sector management, demonstrating how a democratization of public administration, releasing the skills of its staff, can drive improvements in public service far more effectively than privatization. In Norway and in northern cities in the UK, for example, such experiences have renewed socialist values in a living way and built confidence that socialism is practical. This also applies to whole sectors, most notably water, where in vast parts of the globe the private sector has had to retreat in the face of successful public sector alternatives. Second, there are the complex and uneven experiments of the social and solidarity economy: sometimes socially driven enterprises experiment with ways of working that aim to overcome alienated labor and to make the market a servant of social need; sometimes organizations of the informal economy cooperate to create new sources of economic bargaining power. Judging from the presence of both social enterprises and the organized informal economy at the World Social Forum and their desire to connect with the trade unions and with movements campaigning around global alternatives on finance and trade, this sector has grown not only quantitatively but also in terms of political engagement. The impact of movements around the conditions of life--food, water, the climate--have further strengthened this experimental search for alternatives. Here, then, are two spheres where people in their daily lives are bringing about change in modest, incremental ways. To develop Ehrenreich and Fletcher's arguments about linking solidarity and organization, this indicates that, as part of our efforts to resist attempts to push the burden of the crisis on to working people, we should make use of the popular disgust at capitalist institutions to shift the balance of material power--not just moral argument--toward socially and publicly driven institutions. A renewal of socialism is inseparable from this question: what are the social forces (and configuration of social forces) on which socialist politics can be based after the neoliberal maelstrom destroyed so many of our traditional--and emerging--sources of collective power? In the kinds of examples I mention above, we are seeing traditional actors, most notably a minority of trade unions, showing a capacity to play a new and intrinsically political role, taking responsibility with others for alternative policies and becoming allies with social movements and communities. Certainly these are signs of the creation of new social foundations for progressive politics but well beneath the mainstream radar. To build on them, we need to organize, with an emphasis on inquiry as part of the practical meaning of solidarity, and engage in conscious collective reflection about the lessons of experiments driven by socialist values--however micro they are and whether or not those involved would call themselves socialists. We should work as if we are part of a global laboratory seeking to produce a grounded theoretical breakthrough, a hybrid new political paradigm. >See other contributions to the forum