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The Key Challenge for the Left

WGBH Forum Network recently posted a YouTube video, “Yanis Varoufakis: Is Capitalism Devouring Democracy?” (https://youtu.be/gGeevtdp1WQ ), in which Greece’s former finance minister brilliantly explains the evolution of capitalism, beginning with Britain’s enclosure of the commons that kicked the peasants off the land and brought down feudalism, all the way to the triumph of globalized finance and the hollowing-out of democracy that the world is now experiencing.  Capitalism, Varofakis concludes, is collapsing, and the choice we face is stark:  we can go the way of Germany during the Great Depression and of Hungary now—the way of fascist authoritarianism—or we can go the way of the United States during the 1930s—the way of the New Deal, which stripped the bankers of their power.

This time, though, Varofakis says, we have to make sure the banks don’t regain that power; we have to continue developing from that New New Deal toward a genuinely democratic, international, and, yes, socialist organization of society.

Varoufakis’s analysis is a real tour-de-force, expressed in down-to-earth language; it’s inspiring to see such a vital intelligence at work.  Which is why it comes as such a devastating let-down when, near the end of his presentation, he responds to a questioner who wants to know how credit ought to be organized in a socialist economy.  The answer: in the socialist future, credit won’t be necessary.  Then, as if realizing the complete inadequacy of that reply, Varoufakis kicks the question down the road: “But look, this is going to be the topic of my next book… so I’ll see you in three years.”

Well, I sure hope so.  And I hope the answer is as brilliant as his analysis of capitalism’s past.  Because socialists continue to humiliate themselves and their doctrines by the kind of magical thinking—if we can dignify it as “thinking” at all—that says, “We can’t possibly foresee what reality under socialism will be like—so let’s not even try to figure it out.”

Varoufakis is in good company, of course.  Marx abdicates the responsibility to describe a practical socialist society in Capital; Lenin had a theory, but it morphed into Stalinism. Mao’s gropings toward a coherent theory with experiments like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were both childish and catastrophic.  British socialism achieved good things—the National Health Service above all; but, like every socialist regime so far, it failed to reconcile workers’ desire to preserve jobs with society’s need to respond to changing economic demands.

Capitalism is failing—disastrously—to meet the many challenges facing us now: climate change, environmental degradation, rampant inequality, corruption of our institutions—in short, the future of our economies and of the species itself.  But regardless of how bad things are, humanity can’t be expected to entrust its future to a Left that refuses even to engage the most fundamental questions about how its vision of the just society could be implemented.  If the banks collapsed tomorrow, power would still exist: who would have access to it?  How would they exert it? With what limits, enforced by whom?

To focus on the question that Varoufakis shrugged off: it’s utterly silly to say that credit wouldn’t exist under socialism.  I don’t care how “comradely” the worker-owners of one factory might feel toward each other—or toward the worker-owners of another factory—when those owners decide to retool the factory in order to improve their products, where do they get the means to do so?  Wouldn’t that require financing?  And if investor-owned banks don’t provide that financing, who does? What about someone with an idea for a new product or service–where does that person go for startup funding?  Who, in short, holds the purse-strings, and who determines whether the funds are being used appropriately?

These are the questions socialists are never prepared to answer—and it’s high time to start fashioning those answers, because time is running out.

Let’s face it:  Humanity isn’t going to transform its basic instincts simply because one day we wake up in a society that has relabeled itself “socialist.”  The Left needs to get into the weeds and start theorizing—and this isn’t a contradiction—in a practical way.  How would a socialist economy really work?  How would we want it to, not just from the standpoint of workers but as consumers?  Sure, theory never completely corresponds to reality: just look at the ways that capitalism routinely flummoxes its own theorists.  But it is absolutely crucial for socialists to put together a reasonably concrete and plausible vision of where we ought to be headed.

This is why it was doubly horrifying to hear Varoufakis say in the same video that he wouldn’t encourage young people to go into economics today.  Nothing is more important than for a new generation of Left economists to create a body of theory to explain how a differently modeled economy might work.

There are resources, both historical and theoretical, to draw on.  We know a lot about how essentially socialist enterprises—cooperatives, employee-owned businesses, and the like–succeed and fail in a predominantly capitalist environment.  And the story of socialists in power provides us with a mountain of evidence about approaches that have failed:  Alec Nove’s An Economic History of the USSR: 1917-1991 leaps immediately to mind, and the histories of hybrid enterprises under Tito’s in Yugoslavia and Kadar in Hungary shed additional light.  Capitalism itself has tried lots of strategies to organize production over time, including power-devolution schemes such as Total Quality Management.  Even fascist economic theory has something to contribute, as Ezra Pound’s economic essays demonstrate.

When the next financial collapse occurs, as it surely will, people who care about the future of the planet and the democracy need to have a game plan, a policy agenda—and that agenda has to be grounded in a solid understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going.   What policy, for example, should we advocate for dealing with the banks?  We can’t just turn them into co-ops run by their “workers,” obviously—but that’s about as far as socialist economists like Richard Wolff have taken us.

It’s time to go deeper.   Idiotic attempts to “play it by ear” have left the historical record littered with disasters created in the name of socialism. Maduro’s Venezuela is just the latest example.  If the capitalist system is imploding, what do we want to replace it?  What organization of the economy would meet people’s needs and restore the democracy?

The questions we need to be asking range from the ultra-macro level (how and why do socialized economic sectors, such as Britain’s nationalized industries—and whole economies, such as China’s under Mao—fail to meet the demands of consumers and of the national and international economies?) to the micro level (where does this person with an idea for a new product go for funding?).

Command economies inevitably crash and burn; that much is clear.  The failures of past socialisms will reappear in the future.  Theorists on the Left need to explain how enterprises and the economy can be organized to overcome those catastrophic tendencies, how markets can meld with democratically controlled, cooperative enterprises to meet the needs of both the immediate and the long-term future.

These theorists need to begin by acknowledging and learning from what hasn’t worked in the past–and how, and why.  We can’t move forward without building a theory about how to avoid the many pits we’ve fallen into in the past.  Evolving that theory is the greatest challenge for the Left.  If we can rise to that challenge and articulate our ideas clearly and persuasively, maybe there’s a chance to escape the desperate future that is already breathing down our necks.

Four Poems: Janette Schafer

Wonderfully dark visions. Glad to see that we share space in the Nasty Women & Bad Hombres anthology.

New Ink Review

Elegy for the Great Auk

Do not give yourselves the trouble
of killing them.  Pluck the best
feathers, turn it adrift half-naked,
skin torn off, to perish at its own leisure.

There is not wood on this island.
Their bodies, being oily,
soon produce a flame.

There was no help at the end. Even the
Museums gave them up, collected the Great Auk
to display skins separated from the carcass.

On Geirfuglasker, the final pair
huddled over a nest before being strangled,
their last egg smashed beneath a boot,
turning the dead birds into gold.

It walked like a man…I caught it
close to the edge—a precipice
many fathoms deep.  I took him by
the neck—he flapped his wings.

He made no cry—I strangled him.

(Poem incorporates paraphrased quotes by Aaron Thomas of HMS Boston from 1794 and Sigurour Isleifsson, who was the killer of the last great auk in 1830.)

Letter to Scarecrow

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Patricia Youngblood: Two West Virginia Poems

Vox Populi

five hundred mountains  

over 500 mountains in Appalachia have been leveled by

mountaintop removal mining, more than 1,000 miles

of streams poisoned and buried in mine waste

.

the girl at ten felt more than saw how the

mountains commandeered air and space, pressed

horizons onto car windows, thrust massed color

and form into streams or to the very edge

of thin roads between towns, crazy roads

where the young uncles died on motorcycles.

 

she fell and fell into mountain opulence, as if

there were no coal mines or company towns

harsh and diminished even to her child’s eyes;

understood beyond language how the mountains

defined everything around them, especially

the contradictions.

 

distant relatives remain, rooted and still in thrall;

the mountains she remembers are magisterial,

numerous as dreams but actual. she has no heart

or vocabulary for the death of mountains,

stumps so defiled that even…

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Sam Hamill: Of Cascadia (text and video)

Another strong voice silent now. How quickly it goes.

Vox Populi

.

Of Cascadia

I came here nearly forty years ago,
broke and half broken, having chosen
the mud, the dirt road, alder pollen and
a hundred avenues of gray across the sky
to be my teachers and my muses.
I chose a temple made of words and made a vow.

I scratched a life in hardpan. If I cried
for mercy or cried out in delight,
it was because I was a man choosing
carefully his way and his words, growing
as slowly as the trunks of cedars
in the sunlit garden.

Let the ferns and the moss remember
all that I have lost or loved, for I carry
no regrets, no ambition to live it
all again. I can’t make it better
than it’s been or will be again
as the seasons turn and an old man’s heart

turns nostalgic as he sips his wine alone.
I have lived…

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Sherry Hamby: Resisting technology, Appalachian style

Vox Populi

When people hear “Appalachia,” stereotypes and even slurs often immediately jump to mind, words like “backwards,” “ignorant,” “hillbilly” or “yokel.” But Appalachian attitudes about technology’s role in daily life are extremely sophisticated – and turn out to be both insightful and useful in a technology-centric society.

Many Americans tend to view Appalachian life as involving deprivation and deficit. This can be particularly pointed regarding technology: Rural residents are frequently neglected in research on technology use, and where they are included, the data usually focus on the lower rates of ownership and use of smartphones and laptop computers in rural areas. Articles can come across as scholars and reporters saying something like, “Poor rural Appalachians – they don’t even own the newest iPhone!”

It’s true that many rural areas aren’t served with the fastest broadband and the most robust cellular coverage in the U.S. But in the wake of the

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Doug Anderson: Household Gods

I wonder if the final phrase, “just as I am,” is a conscious quote from the old hymn. Very apt, if so.

Vox Populi

I am lying on my back inventing my pantheon,
not the major Gods and Godesses,
but the minor ones that do all the work,
while the greater ones sit around
with a smug gravitas listening
to all their worshipers. I want the ones
who get their hands dirty and are exhausted
at the end of the day like,
Our Lady of the Compassionate Fuck
or, The God of Dumb Luck.
I want to know them by dim lantern light,
see the whole of them darkly as they hold me
to them with their legs, and see their faces
so when I pass them on the street next day
I only sense them as when in a sacred grove
one knows their presence
by the atrial fibrillation they cause.
And the God of Being Happy as I Am,
without striving, without the will to perfection.
As for the God of Dumb…

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