Monday, November 05, 2012

Reaction to Michael Harrington's Socialism: Past and Future, 25th Anniversary Edition


In Michael Harrington's last labor of love to the Democratic Socialist movement he helped found (he was the founder of the District of Columbia's chapter of Democratic Socialists of America), he defines the possiblities and challenges Socialism must meet for society to be free rather than dominated by authoritarian capitalists.  From the perspective of twenty-five years later and the rise of the Tea Party funded largely by authoritarian capitalists, especially the Koch brothers, I have to say he nails it.  The collapse he feared would happen in the 1990s did not occur, in either gradual or acute form, until the current Great Recession of 2007 to current days.  The rise of Bill Clinton and his rationalization of tax policy postponed, but did not cancel the inevitable collapse.  Indeed, it could be argued that Clinton's cooperation with ending Glass-Steigal and his acceptance of capital gains tax cuts set the stage for the tech boom, the over-estimation of revenue and concurrent tax cuts, monetarist accommodation and collapse we have experienced over the last decade, although I blame most of this on Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush.  Of course, all three have proved to be useful idiots for capitalism.  They also bear a burden of guilt for ending welfare to an extent that not even Michael Harrington could have foreseen and I am glad he did not live to see it.

He clearly explains for all who would hear what Socialism really is and how both Socialism and Marxism evolved and why the Authoritarian Collectivisms of the Soviet Union, Communist China and the third world are not Socialism or even state capitalism, but something else entirely. Indeed, if the right wing agitators could tell the difference, they might think socialism is not such a bad idea after all.  More about that later. He also describes the Social Democrats who were not yet ready to lead us out of capitalism, but did firmly instill a welfare state that the United States is only just catching up with in the health care area, however lame our version is.  Both Social Democracy and Keynesianism are examined in depth, not as real socialisms (as the Tea Party would allege), but as attempts to work within capitalism.  We had not yet worked out how Socialism can move from capitalism to something else, although I have some ideas about that too.  On the Keynesian side, I do disagree that Keynes has lost any of its relevance - its simply needs to factor in the existence of a large institutional debt and the resulting need to finance it.  If you offset the deficit with the interest costs, Keynesian style models are still quite predictive.

Harrington correctly diagnoses the problems of the third world in the larger international financial life of capitalism.  He provides an insightful rethinking of the relationship between the third and first worlds going from Bretton Woods to the late 80s and gives the anti-IMF anarchists something to think about.  Most of international trade had nothing to do with the third world.  The vast majority of the action was between first world nations, with the third world acting as minor players.  This is still mostly true, although China has taken a course that no one could have predicted.  One wonders what Harrington would say about the rise of Chinese international capitalism on the backs of its rural peasant migrant workers.

Harrington revisits the question of what socialism is and how we are to achieve it in his chapters about the future.  Again, I wonder what he would say about China's rise on the back of its peasantry, the Great Recession,  and the absorption of the best nurses in the third world into the American medical system and the health care cost growth crisis. As a member of an offshoot of the Green Party, one wonders what he would make of Green Party statism in the United States and how that might relate to the Social Democracy he describes (although we do not quite go to that level, although health care for all).  He gives a good presentation of the possibilities of Employee Stock Onwership Plans, which are no panacea under their current mode of operation.  He rightly points out that such firms, if they do not have a revolution in how they operate, are no more likely to be successful than other hierarchical capitalist firms (which tend to stifle both dissent and creativity).  I will have more to say about this as well.

The European Union was just starting to develop into something when he died.  I wonder what he would think about its evolution to date, a financial crisis featuring Greece and the PIIGS and the possibilities of an even more unified Europe.  I also wonder what he would make of people who work from their homes who have no benefits and must internalize most of this themselves (although the Affordable Care Act will certainly make this a more affordable path).  He writes about the emerging computerized workplace.  I wonder what he would make of people spending hours at work on eBay and Facebook, especially those who comment on the DC DSA Group (where if he were not taken from us, he would likely be a frequent poster).  It seems that not giving us a shorter day in the face of higher productivity during the day will lead most workers to find something to do to fill the long hours where there is truly nothing to do but babysit a computer.

He talks of market and plan, which brings to mind an idea I have long had that cooperatives should be involved in both the production AND the consumption sides for its members.  This, I think, is the future of socialism.  We can start with home and consumer finance and expand to using these finance options to pay for cooperatively constructed home habitats that also produce food in a more eco-friendly manner (including the possiblity of synthetic protein that more closely mimics a good steak).  Banking could then be on a common labor hour standard, with standard labor hour accounting made possible by compensating creativity, education and fecundity outside of base pay and forcing managers to bid for their jobs in open auction - from the shop floor to the CEO.  As Harrington maintains, to truly get to free markets, some form of socialization is necessary.  Socializing consumption as well as pay may just be how to do it - from ESOPs to other cooperatives. 

On page 252, Harrington discounts conspriacy theories where capitalists have duped the working class.  This is before the rise of Karl Rove and the Tea Party and their funding by such notable capitalists as the Koch brothers and Roger Ailes of FoxNews.  Duping the working class now seems to be a cottage industry. If we are to succeed at all, we must find a way to give these people new information, as information is power.  This is the challenge for modern Democratic Socialists and is as needed today as it was when Michael Harrington wrote this book.

Luckily, the Occupy Movement actually does contain Tea Party members and the occasional Ron Paul supporter.  There is grounds for hope to form a coalition of Libertarian Democratic Socialists.  I have some ideas on tax policy which may be useful in doing this, most particularly suggesting that most families need no longer file (actually, this is a Republican initiative), instead paying a consumption tax.  While the FairTax will not work, a modified version which retains some additional filing of income taxes by the wealthiest households, with employers being able to offset some of their tax payment through providing health care to employees, a larger child tax credit (at living wage "pro-life" levels), and education funding (including paid adult education) might attract some attention.  Privatization is not a dirty word if it is done by employee-owned cooperatives.  Indeed, a key part of the consumption tax would be to shift retirement savings from payroll taxes limited by income to a consumption tax not limited by income, where every worker gets the same amount credited to his or her account and part of that account includes owning shares in the company that employs them (rather than an index fund which leaves money managers free to loot their retirement).  If left and right can agree on that, we can take the world by storm - quite literally - as a network of transnational employee owned companies will end the need for militarism, both in the US and abroad.  

Calling for a six hour day is also an easy rallying cry to agree on in an age of joblessness that affects young socialists and young libertarians alike.

The real poetry of the book is on 265, in the paragraph starting with "Beyond strategy..."  I urge you to crack a copy and read it again and see if you aren't as moved at a second reading as I was today on my first.

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