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STEVE WILLIAMS: Name It & Claim It

STEVE WILLIAMS: Name It & Claim It
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That part is old; exploiters always take advantage of misery.  But what pushes this story into the realm of the painful is that time and time again the affected community is split.  On one side, people in the community righteously denounce the developer’s plans on the basis that luxury condominiums, vanilla lattés and dog parks will do nothing to address the needs of the community; and that working class people of color will inevitably be displaced to make way for richer, whiter urban pioneers.  On the other side, some folks in the community support the project— not because they don’t fear the neighborhood being gentrified, but because they don’t see any other way.  To deal with sky-rocketing joblessness, environmental contamination, police violence and the lack of infrastructure like quality schools, public transportation and grocery stores, some people decide reluctantly to make a deal with the devil.

The breaking point for me came after a heated hearing at City Hall.  A young African American man who had testified that he desperately wanted a job that would allow him to raise his family in the City that he grew up in came up to me and asked, “All of what you’re saying seems on point, so what’s your alternative?”

That question has haunted me for months now.  This brother was trying to figure out what was going to be in his and his community’s best interest.  If he joined in opposing this project, then what?  I was silenced because I didn’t know.  Besides the prospect of some important immediate benefits, I couldn’t name a tangible alternative that he could hang his hopes on in the long-term.

As someone who’s been in the first group many times— fighting against projects which have shredded the fabric of working class communities while offering paltry crumbs in the form of a handful of construction jobs and affordable housing units, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to develop a concrete alternative.

On the most practical level, if I’m going to ask someone to ignore the false promises of the devil and to commit to a struggle that in the long-run will be in his, his family’s and his community’s best interests, then there needs to be a blueprint of what winning would mean in the short-term and in the long-term that goes beyond rhetoric and slogans.  Although organizers across the country are developing some innovative short-term answers, we are weak in naming the elements of victory would look like because not having an alternative is undercutting our ability to attract those people who should be on our side.

Now is the time for a blueprint.  Despite the fact that the ruling class is still trying to breath life back into an imperialist system that continues to sputter through a historic crisis, the system has yet to be challenge.  Capitalism has struggled to find new arenas from which to extract necessary levels of profit for more than thirty years.  While they went without real profits, the captains of capital cobbled together a rickety casino economy that allowed them to postpone the inevitable realities of the crisis, but when the chickens came home to roost with the bursting of the housing bubble in late 2007, capitalism’s weaknesses were laid bare for all to see.  In the ensuing months, as millions of people lost their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods, and capitalism exposed its vulnerabilities, the Left has not been able to challenge a system based on exploitation, speculation and environmental devastation.

Much of the Left’s discourse about the crisis of capitalism has been rooted in a dangerous misconception that crisis will inevitably bring about capitalism’s demise.  This is simply not how a global economic system falls.  While it’s true that crisis is an inherent part of capitalism, crisis only makes capitalism vulnerable.  Ultimately, capitalism will only fall when it is challenged by the force of millions of people who are willing to fight for a viable alternative.

As organizers and activists, we have seen that capitalism is not now, has not been and will never be good for poor and working people, but too often organizers and community workers, we don’t think of ourselves as the Left.  We tend to bury ourselves in the demands of our organizing campaigns and spend little time understanding the dynamics of the capitalist political economy.  As much as the current crisis is a crisis of capitalism, we need to connect with the intellectuals and party activists who have analyzed capitalism because we need to name our alternative.

For this reason, I propose that we take up the challenge of developing a blueprint of 21st Century Socialism.  This would mean that intellectuals and party activists will take up this project, along with people who don’t currently think of themselves as the Left— organizers, workers and community members.  Developing a clear vision would enable us to grow in size and influence so that we can finally seize the crisis that is before us.

Sticks and Stones…

I understand that proposing to launch a collective process of developing a framework for 21st Century Socialism at the time of so many pressing needs may push many well-intended and progressive-minded people to think, “Even if we need an alternative to capitalism, isn’t it premature to think about that now? And why call it socialism?  I mean, socialism carries too much baggage.  After all, wasn’t socialism proven to be a failure?”

If anything, crafting a vision of 21st Century Socialism is past due, but as they say: Better late than never.  It is true that as the crisis and the assault of the Right pick up, the demands of the on-the-ground struggles will become even more urgent, but this is exactly the time that we must be guided by a long-term vision of victory.  Without it, we risk the danger of bolstering the system that has its foot on our collective necks rather than undermining it.

To be honest, there’s a part of me that doesn’t care what we call this vision for an alternative political economy.  As Howard Zinn once said about socialism, “There are people fearful of the word, all along the political spectrum. What is important, I think, is not the word, but a determination to hold up before a troubled public those ideas that are both bold and inviting.”  Although I’m open to using different words if that makes sense down the road, it is important for us to face our fears that Zinn refers to, and I choose to use the term ‘socialism.’  I make this choice not because of any romantic glorification to the word.  I believe that the Left should be talking loudly and proudly about socialism because doing so will move us forward in some important ways.

First, using the word ‘socialism’ pushes us to come to terms with the totality of socialism’s historical legacy— both the successes and the failures.  For the past twenty years, the Right’s political and economic leaders— from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to George Bush and Milton Friedman— have all pranced around the world stage crowing about socialism’s downfall.  While it’s true that many of the socialist experiments of the 20th century did make some important errors, the Right has overstated those failings and has completely ignored the successes.  Meanwhile, the Left has done a sorry job of sorting through what was and what was not an error.  The reality is that the socialist experiments that took place in the 20th century were each distinct.  Socialism in the Soviet Union was different than socialism in Vietnam which was different than socialism in Nicaragua.  Based on that diversity of experience, any attempt to generalize the errors and the oversights is bound to be topical at best.  But briefly, some common— although not necessarily universal— failings of previous socialist experiments included the failure to transition from defending itself against counter-revolutionary attacks after victory to guaranteeing the democratic rights for all; an excessively bureaucratic approach to economic planning; an overly nationalistic approach to economic development; and an over-reliance on the consumption of fossil fuels to grow the economic base.  Drawing out the varied failings of different socialist experiments in more detail is an important contribution to the development of the Left which needs to be done, just as is proclaiming the successes of those experiments because, contrary to the distortions of the Right, many of those experiments achieved phenomenal successes in the face of unimaginable odds— natural disasters, counter-revolutionary sabotage and foreign assault from imperialist powers.  We must be prepared to talk about triumphs like the PAIGC’s practice of democratic participation in Guinea Bissau and Cuba’s eradication of illiteracy.  As we talk about an alternative to capitalism, we must come to grips with a sober and balanced assessment of the successes as well as the failures of previous socialist experiments.

The second reason I use ‘socialism’ is because it allows organizers and activists in the United States to be in dialogue with other organizers and activists, allowing us to draw inspiration and to push our thinking about what’s possible.  Because of the long, sordid and violent history of red-baiting in the United States, there are legitimate questions as to whether or not socialism will ever be a term that the Left in the United States will ever be able to use popularly.  But before we take on the task of promoting an alternative vision, we have to define it because you can’t popularize something that you don’t know.  Given that our task right now is to define this alternative, it’s a disservice to shrink away from using ‘socialism’ because using it allows us to be in communication with some of the most grounded and innovative Left organizers and activists from around the globe and throughout history.  Socialism is the term used in Cuba, in Venezuela, in the Philippines, in South Africa.  It’s the term that Maurice Bishop, Celia Sanchez, Chris Hani and Emma Goldman all used.  And it’s the word that Evo Morales uses today.  If we want to be in dialogue with these comrades, then we need to be able to understand and use the terminology that they have used and continue to use.

Next, I use the term of ‘socialism’ for tactical reasons. Left organizers and thinkers too often employ an ostrich strategy when it comes to talking about political economy— if we don’t use the S-word, then maybe we’ll escape being branded socialists.  This is a losing strategy.  The Right will call anything socialist in an attempt to discredit it.  Just look at what the Tea Party’s attacks on Barack Obama and his attempt to reform the health care industry.  Without even a serious attempt to wrestle power away from the insurance corporations, Obama was branded a socialist— which to the Right and to much of the U.S. population simply meant something bad.  If we’re serious about challenging capitalism and building an alternative, we’re eventually going to be accused of being socialists whether we call that alternative ‘socialism’, ‘solidarity economy’ or ‘apple sauce’, so we’d better be prepared to talk coherently about previous experiments to bring democracy to the realm of the economy.  Sticking our heads in the sand will do nothing to defend our work, the people or the planet.  In fact, this type of cowardice will just give more credence to those that have tried so feverishly to discredit socialism.

Finally, I use the S-word because it is my experience that people are hungry to grapple with what’s next.  Doing political education trainings with members of grassroots organizations in San Francisco and across the country, people are never surprised about how scandalous capitalism is, and they always want to talk about what our alternative would be.

In the end, I use the term ‘21st Century Socialism’ because it references past experiments and innovations but is not trapped by them.  I believe that by placing our socialist movement in time this term gives us the space to acknowledge the contributions of past generations of women, men, transgendered people and young people who have taken up the task of establishing genuine democracy in society’s political, economic and cultural realms without confining ourselves to the errors and failings of past experiments.

Standing on Principle

Regardless of what we call our post-capitalist alternative, it is easy to see how having a clear blueprint can benefit the building of a strong and diversified movement.  All we have to do is to look at the building of the Right in this country.  While the Left was still on the move in the late 1960s and the 1970s, a section of the Right took its time to develop a coherent and alternative vision of how the economy and politics might function.  This vision which emerged from the University of Chicago School of Economics came to be called neoliberalism or the Washington Consensus.[1] At first, many of the ideas such as cutting taxes, privatizing national industries, slashing public services seemed crazy.  But by developing campaigns and producing literature and telling stories that reiterated these principles, the Right was able to bring together social conservatives with economic libertarians with imperialist hawks.  Eventually, this vision became the unchallenged logic of political debate for conservatives and liberals in Congress, statehouses and city councils all over the country.  Clearly, the objectives and the conditions facing the Left are different, but the lesson remains just as important— movements achieve coherence only when their scattered and autonomous parts are united around a common and clear vision.

I offer these ten principles which I would see as core to all of the strong efforts to cultivate a strong challenge and alternative to neoliberal capitalism, and I offer them not as a finished product, but as a conversation-starter.  Socialism of the 21st Century:

Acknowledges that Wealth is Created by the People and the Planet — Where does wealth comes from?  This isn’t a riddle; how we answer this question has very real implications.  Capitalist political economy argues that wealth is created by the ingenuity of bosses.  Workers and Mother Earth are merely bit players who get whatever crumbs the bosses decide to make available.  Although this ans

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