Socialism and hope

Revolutions (and all kinds of transformative change) rely on rising expectations. “Realism” and the kind of depressive thinking which lowers expectations and dashes cold water on any embers of imagination and resistance still smoldering in the mind are self-fulfilling. Most recently, the vicious cycle associated with the self-fulfilling nature of pessimism dampened the prospects for political and economic change during the period from roughly 1968 to 2015 (although you could make the case that it goes even further back, to the point after the high tide of New Deal reforms had been reached and the waters were beginning to recede), and it’s a vicious cycle that has the potential to rear its ugly head again during the Trump administration.

In 2008, there was a brief moment of hope that things could be different. Obama commandeered and flagrantly misused this desire and belief in something new, enlisting it in his neoliberal, corporatist drive to save Wall Street from the enraged hoi polloi. But Obama was right to champion hope, even if his politics continued to feed the hopelessness that Trump and his minions gleefully feed on.

The truth, as the redoubtable Erich Fromm recognized, is that hope is essential to life. Hope is what makes us fully human, human in our aspirations for a better world and dignity for all. Hope nourishes the soul and fires the imagination. Hope – tempered and self-consciously defiant – is the only remedy to the politics of hopelessness and despair. As such, any socialist must temper their justified and necessary cynicism towards the world’s corruption with hope and faith in their fellow human beings and the possibility – even if it appears improbable, more remote than the furthest star – of redeeming our world.

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Socialism, robots, and AI

For a long time, technologists have written paeans to the wonders of artificial intelligence and automation. And AI and the automation it would allow do indeed offer the possibility of emancipating us all from drudgery and dreary jobs. But under capitalists’ control, while people still think in capitalist ways, they represent an enormous danger. So there’s two sides to AI: immense promise and tremendous peril.

There’s a difference between labor and work. Labor is anything dreary and unpleasant that has to be done (or is perceived to be necessary – even if it’s not) under current conditions of economic organization and technological development. Labor is forced upon the laborer; no one leaps at the chance to do labor. Work, on the other hand, is self-chosen, non-alienated, enjoyable, creative activity – not what we normally mean by the word work. Although it may require intense concentration and dedication, there’s an element of play and freedom to work. Labor is firmly within the grey, joyless realm of necessity. Work is inherently meaningful, because it’s autonomously chosen and represents an unforced instance of self-expression. Labor is only meaningful because the laborer has to find some psychic way of justifying the meaninglessness and alienation she undergoes on a daily basis.

What one version of socialism would do is eliminate labor almost completely. Work would remain. The elimination of labor will require a large degree of automation, but there will still need to be people who do some work: they will monitor and tweak the machines and robots responsible for economic production/distribution and environmental management. Automation is central to this form of socialism.

Another form of socialism is disturbed by the way that capitalism has caused people to become so alienated from the basic processes that sustain life. Large-scale, centralized economic programs and systems of automation are much less desirable if you think automation is part of the problem, not part of the solution, but this form of socialism would also automate the most unpleasant and time-consuming forms of labor. This version of socialism, while trying to make labor less meaningless and unpleasant and eliminating some varieties of labor, would argue that work and certain, reasonably tolerable forms of labor should be pretty much universal, that everyone should equally participate in the labor that makes society possible. This version of socialism is the kind that favors decentralization, local production, local consumption, small-scale farming, and other initiatives to change the way people live and work.

Both versions of socialism (and they are broad simplifications) require some considerable degree of automation, particularly if that automation cuts carbon dioxide emissions. But the danger under capitalism is that automation becomes an excuse for capitalists to throw workers out of jobs and leave the unemployment problem to be solved by governments that won’t lift a finger to help the workers because those governments are controlled by capitalists and in thrall to the ideology of austerity. The way technology develops, which technologies are chosen for widespread use, who owns those technologies, who benefits from technological improvements, who bears the costs of technological development, and which values are programmed into AI/robots…all of these things depend ultimately on who controls the technology.

And under capitalism, this is the same old capitalists who control everything else. Silicon Valley tech firms may be superficially different from Wall Street banks, but they don’t care about ordinary people either. It’s entirely possible to imagine a future where automation has continued, causing massive unemployment and displacement, while none of the political and economic changes necessary to make automation into a blessing and not a curse have taken place. There’s a good reason why so many movies these days feature techno-dystopias. In short: beware of geeks bearing gifts.

 

A socialist take on the French election

Liberals around the world are unabashedly rejoicing at Macron’s election. Someone posted on my Facebook feed praising Macron and Trudeau and saying something to the effect of “If it takes running young handsome men to beat the far right, let’s do it!” As a democratic socialist, I’m just as relieved as the next gal that Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist and truly nasty piece of work, didn’t win the French presidency. But Macron is a deeply flawed politician who offers more of the same old neoliberalism (he worked at an investment bank, is a fan of austerity, and wants to cut pensions and increase work hours). He ran using the politics of spectacle, personality, and celebrity, privileging style over substance. His party isn’t a movement – it’s just a candidate-oriented vehicle that brought him to power. He doesn’t have a solid theory of political struggle and social change, and, in part as result of this glaring failure to understand how politics actually works, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be able to cobble together a coalition strong enough to effectively resolve the problems the French face. So what’s likely to happen is that, over the next five years, France’s problems will worsen, and the far right will be emboldened and empowered by the continued failure of neoliberalism. 2022 will be a bumpy ride. (Incidentally, had Hillary Clinton won, I would have said essentially the same thing about the United States.)

More than that, though, to be giddy over Macron’s election ignores the fact that the Western world is now locked in a vicious cycle: the approach to politics, in both form and substance, that brought us Macron’s victory is the exact same politics that brought us the Front National and Le Pen in the first place. Trudeau, Macron, and Obama, in running as supposedly post-partisan, non-ideological center-right candidates who used their youth and good looks to the fullest and blithely disregarded the suffering and inequality of the masses, represent precisely the politics that must be defeated by the Left if we’re to escape this vicious cycle and move in the direction of something more promising and less likely to plunge the entire world into the depths of entrenched neo-fascism. Macron’s victory is a bandage which has been hastily slapped over a festering wound which will putrefy in the years to come. We had better hope that Jean-Luc Melenchon and the French Left also draw strength from Macron’s failures and are ready to smash the neo-fascists in the 2022 election.

Socialist takes on universal basic income and profit-sharing

There’s been a lot of murmuring on both sides of the aisle about a universal basic income (UBI), a guaranteed annual payment of money to be given to every citizen. It’s an idea with a long pedigree, one that stretches back to Tom Paine’s call for a lump-sum annuity and forward to MLK. The idea behind UBI – to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and establish income as a fundamental social right – is a good one. But in practice, the idea of UBI is also open to cooptation and perversion by the Right, and this is part of the reason why it’s been supported by numerous conservatives over the course of its career as a proposal, and why some support it nowadays. UBI reinforces a system that uses money as a way of valuing the world, reinforces the idea of private ownership, and can be used as a pretext to destroy what remains of the welfare state. The level it’s set at is also a matter of grave concern. Alyssa Battistoni has an excellent article here if you’re interested in reading more about the complicated politics behind UBI.

The idea of profit sharing with workers falls under the same category of political reforms that democratic socialists should embrace only with extreme caution. The modern corporation is unjust and undemocratic, and profits are currently distributed extremely unequally within capitalist enterprises, so on the face of it, any move towards a more equitable distribution of profits within a firm should be grounds for celebration. But unless such profit-sharing also comes with power sharing with the workers – and ultimately, workers’ control over the corporation – profit-sharing simply reinforces the status quo and is perfectly compatible with capitalism, falling under the umbrella of what we might call “capitalism with a human face” or “shareholder capitalism.”

The same is true of liberals’ calls to make everyone into a small capitalist by giving them a certain amount of property or capital (the liberal philosopher John Rawls calls this property-holding democracy). Compared to a situation where many people are mired in extreme poverty and don’t have any personal possessions or money at all, property-holding democracy is obviously an improvement. Property-holding democracy is arguably incompatible with capitalism to some extent, because it would eliminate poverty and capitalism relies very heavily on the tried-and-true technique of using fear of unemployment and poverty as goads to get people to suck it up and accept terrible jobs and unfair contracts because the alternatives are so much worse. But by universalizing the logic behind capitalism, property-holding democracy makes it less likely that we will ever get rid of capitalism and all of the destructive ways of engaging with our fellow human beings and nature that capitalist understandings of rights, property, and ownership make inevitable, even in societies where there’s a “chicken in every pot.”