We’re now caught between despair and hope, resignation and purpose, facts and values, between the worst and the best of times, between our historical circumstance–what simply is–and our ethical principles–what ought to be. But what if these are also times when the either/or choice between “is” and “ought” stops making sense? When doing the right thing by our fellow citizens is also the necessary thing, what we must do if we’re to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in?
It doesn’t happen very often, which is why we call the consequence a revolutionary crisis or situation. We’re in one right now because just about everybody knows that capitalism has failed, and that socialism is a utopian (or dystopian) alternative–an “ideal society” that has never stood the practical test of real time.
But what if socialism is, practically speaking, the only way to salvage civilization from the ruins of capitalism? What then? At that moment, we can see how the ethical principle of socialism resides in and flows from the historical circumstance we now experience as the eclipse of capitalism–that is, how the slogan “From each according to her abilities, to each according to his need,” now makes perfect sense in social, economic, intellectual, moral, and, yes, political-programmatic terms.
We can’t address the C-19 pandemic unless we deliver proper health care to everyone who needs it regardless of their income or social standing, and we can’t begin to do that absent a massive federal commitment to testing, tracing, in a word planning. So, by default, out of sheer necessity, Medicare for All becomes the only plausible, practical alternative to the literal anarchy and tragic idiocy of the US market in health care, which now keeps most people away from hospitals for fear of infection, and meanwhile sentences people of color to contamination, whether at work or at home, then to wholly inadequate care.
We can’t address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression unless we spend trillions on income supplements (unemployment, food stamps, “welfare”), grants to small business, rent moratoriums, student loan forgiveness, and direct employment by state, local, and federal governments. In view of global warming or climate change–call it what you want–the decimation of small retail business, the decay of American infrastructure, the decline of labor force participation, and, not least, the recent increase in “deaths of despair,” a Green New Deal becomes the plausible, practical alternative to the lassitude of private corporate enterprise, whose partisans have been hoarding their obscene profits for 20 years.
We can’t create sustainable economic growth–or move toward a steady state that doesn’t demand constant creative destruction of jobs, incomes, and natural environments–unless we redistribute income away from profits, toward wages, by increasing taxes on the rich, empowering labor unions, setting minimum wages at livable levels, and increasing so-called entitlements to the point where no child, no one, goes hungry. These steps, too, have now become the plausible, practical alternatives to the gross inequities of our time. Really? Isn’t that socialism as the cure for what ails capitalism? Damn straight it is, but the pie no longer resides in the sky.
Start here. The post-industrial American economy is driven by consumer expenditures, and has been for a century–70% of GDP last time I looked. Any trend that depresses growth in per capita consumer spending–stagnant wages, union-busting, super profits, etc.–threatens growth and sooner or later causes economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and now, coupled with C-19, our current catastrophe.
Corporate profits serve no productive purpose because large companies can increase gross and per capita output without borrowing from banks or increasing their investment in plant, equipment, and/or labor out of their retained earnings. That’s why Apple can sit on a trillion dollars–in cash. Since they have no productive purpose, corporate profits, relentlessly inflated by tax cuts since 1983, flow into mergers, acquisitions, bank accounts, and speculative manias accommodated by the stock market. Once upon a time it was residential real estate, this time who knows? Student debt, emerging markets, pharmaceuticals?
Whatever, crisis after crisis follows. So, to stem the tide of market speculation and corporate hoarding, two sides of the same coin, we have to reduce profits and increase wages. We have to subsidize consumer spending, not reward CEOs with greater incentives to exploit their work forces and acquire more stock options.
There are many ways to do this, as I’ve suggested, but the redistribution of income shares, away from profits and toward wages, from capital to labor, is the sine qua non. Without this, nothing.
We can’t address the moral problems of our time unless we acknowledge that we have the material means, already in hand, to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper, and act on that premise. The moral deficit of our time derives from one fundamental assumption, itself a result of the Reformation, the Protestant Ethic, and its ugly offspring, the thing we call capitalism.
It goes like this. Getting something for nothing is immoral because resources are scarce–because nobody should be exempt from necessary labor as a random result of birth or bribe. It was a good idea, useful for overthrowing superfluous aristocracies in the 18th century, but it has since become a fetter on our thinking about the future.
For the fact is that resources aren’t scarce, even in view of climate change. Renewable energy gets cheaper every day. We produce more every week with less labor time than previous generations spent in a year. Getting something for nothing has become necessary to sustain the world as we know it, let alone the world as we want it. Wall Street traders know this in their bones, as they collect their bonuses for pushing bad paper. So do us Main Street types, who, according to the Departments of Commerce and Labor, collect 20% of our household income in the form of “transfer payments” from government at some level. At least we’re guilty about it, not having “earned” this income.
Getting something for nothing is not only possible, it’s necessary. What’s good for us, and for the economy, is the same thing–detaching income from work, reward from effort, is the only plausible, practical way to mend the economy and, at the same time, to save our souls. Sounds like socialism, I know.
The political-programmatic entailments are already in place, in the form of M4A and GND, but also in the ideological formations of our time, since Occupy and Bernie changed the terms of debate, steering us toward different horizons.
John Maynard Keynes got there first, and his lead is worth following. In the midst, the depths, of the Great Depression, he exhorted us to see in the harrowing historical circumstance of his time the promise of a new birth of freedom, a new possibility unbound by the “somewhat disgusting morbidity” of the profit motive and its cramped emotional reach.
You’ve all heard of “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (1930), where he demoted economists to the intellectual level of dentists and predicted that by now we’d have outgrown the strange moral universe mapped by the anal-compulsive personality, where selfishness is not just normal, it’s normative.
The more interesting and relevant essay, for my purposes, is “The Dilemma of Modern Socialism,” published in The New Republic on April 14, 1932. Here Keynes insisted that the “ideal society”–by which he meant socialism–was already inscribed, embedded, and enacted in the rubble of modern capitalism. Thus:
“It happens that the most pressing reforms which are economically sound do not, as perhaps they did in earlier days, point away from the ideal [of socialism]. On the contrary, they point toward it. [Ought=Is] I am convinced that those things which are urgently called for on practical grounds, such as the central control of investment and the distribution of income in such a way as to provide purchasing power for the enormous potential output of modern productive technique, will also tend to produce a better kind of society on ideal grounds.”
Capitalism has failed, socialism has too–or emerged.
Consent Jane Addams. Utopia. Moral deficit: if you refuse to do what you can do for your brother.