It’s a bit disjointed and rambling, but it gets the point across…
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A socialist society–a democratic socialist society–would in fact require a different kind of behavior from its members. The point I’ve made so far is that if we reject, as we should, the totalitarian models of creating a “new socialist human being”, we have to come up with an alternative. And we have to reject the assumptions underlying the capitalist system, namely that something called “human nature” includes an unchangeable instinctual drive to seek the accumulation of more wealth.
In my previous post, I offered the argument that we are social beings, not unique and autonomous individuals. Further, that everything we do affects all of those around us in one way or another. A useful metaphor is what some scientists call the “butterfly effect”, which states that a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere (for more details…Google!). Of course, this is meant to refer to physical phenomena, but I would apply it to human relations. Think about your own experiences in life and consider whether that makes sense to you.
If that is correct, then we are therefore responsible and accountable for everything we do to all those who are affected by our actions. And–here’s where the socialism comes in–we need to behave accordingly if we are serious about creating a different kind of world. Because otherwise we are simply reinforcing the ethic of capitalist society, which is the right of every individual to exploit others for his or her own profit, without regard to how our actions may affect them beyond what we choose or are required by authority to acknowledge.
This requires an active consciousness about how we behave and how it affects others. It also requires constant self-questioning, and a willingness to accept constructive criticism from those around us to stimulate change. And finally, it requires us to constantly challenge the individualistic conventional wisdom that underlies the system we want to transform, and constantly question authority. No, this is not anarchism, because this must occur within a formal structure of leadership, democratically chosen. And that goes for everyone from top to bottom. This will of course create conflict, which has to be regarded as an essential occurrence in social living. Conflict cannot be ignored, suppressed, or glossed over, as is fashionable in middle class circles. It has to be dealt with openly, explicitly, and hopefully in a constructive and mutually respectful context with the goal of educating ourselves and others.
So…maybe it’s easier just to live with capitalism? Well, if you’re a capitalist, certainly. If not, one has to consider a socialist alternative and be realistic about what that might entail for our personal lives and ways of thinking. Your comments about all this are most welcome.
If neither capitalism nor socialism is in our genetic makeup, then perhaps one solution for socialists would be to use the instruments of political and economic power to create human beings more suited to that kind of society.
That’s what Stalin did. That’s what Pol Pot did in Cambodia. That’s what the Kim Dynasty has done in North Korea. And in a somewhat less methodical and consistent way, that’s what Mao did. It was quite simple: Just kill off or imprison all those defined as unsuitable by Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Whomever, or Mao. What would remain would be those cowed enough, malleable enough, or bribed enough to get with the program.
Small wonder socialism has such a bad name. So it falls on socialists such as myself to try to dig out from under that massive pile of corpses and try to discuss what kinds of personal attitudes and behavior are consistent with a socialist society. I also have to speculate whether these are possible to develop without the use of a Gulag. A tall order indeed, well beyond my capacity to deal with in a comprehensive way. But let me at least give it a try.
I will start with a negative: socialism is not about altruism. It does not require us to be selfless saints. No, it’s much harder than that.
In the late 1970s, I volunteered at what might be called a socialist summer camp in upstate New York that was affiliated with a community organization I was involved with in Brooklyn. Neither the organization nor its camp were formally “socialist”, but clearly that was the guiding ideology. It was there, especially during the orientation sessions for staff, about what working collectively really meant for the individual.
The questions raised in those sessions by the camp director, Morris L. Eisenstein, were tough ones about the relationship between values, personal goals, and responsibility. So you want to change the world? How does that connect with your own path in life? Are you actually living the values you profess to have, or are they just window dressing to make yourself feel good as you move up into higher social and economic positions? Are you actually willing to sacrifice your own well-being and comfort in the interests of those who need what you may have to offer, such as the kids at the camp? If so, how do your own life goals reflect this–or don’t they? And most importantly, to whom are you responsible? To yourself? Not enough! Do you really consider yourself an autonomous individual? Well, that concept is a myth. (You may recall an earlier entry in this blog on that subject.). Everything we do has its roots in the social environment we inhabit, and has an effect on everything and everyone else around us. We cannot pretend, as libertarians do, that our individual actions and behaviors are only our own concern and no one else’s. We are social beings living in a social environment. And that has some serious implications for the way we lead our personal lives. (To be continued)
Those four words are the typical start to a lecture about the way people behave. They’re usually designed to close off debate about political systems rather than start one.. So communism failed because “it’s human nature to want freedom” (unless of course you think it’s because of Ronald Reagan’s foreign and military policies). Socialism must fail because “it’s human nature to look out for oneself”. And so on.
But rather than stopping the discussion, they are actually ideal kickstarters for a genuinely interesting one, because behind every social or political theory is a set of assumptions about “human nature”. The reply therefore ought to be “Who says?” or “How do you know?”
A recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Clements entitled “Two Self-Delusions That Can Cost You” provides a case in point. Those two are (1) More money will make us happier; and (2) We can beat the stock market averages. Wrong, he says, and provides convincing evidence to the contrary. I agree with him. So why do we go on deluding ourselves and continuing on what he calls the “hedonic treadmill”? It’s human nature, says Clements: “Much of the blame may be with the instincts we inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Just as they survived because they relentlessly sought food and other necessities, so we, too, are hard-wired to want more and more.”
And, he might have added, that’s why capitalism rules the world and socialism is doomed to failure. To which a socialist will reply: Nonsense.
This is where I might be tempted to quote Uncle Whiskers at some length, but I promised to avoid that when I started this blog. So I’ll put his ideas in plain English: There is no such thing as a fixed “human nature”. We are what we are from being born into and trying to survive in specific social and economic systems. We follow the rules and values that organize the means by which we produce and distribute food, clothing, shelter, and other human necessities. As those means change over time–say, from “hunter-gatherer” to feudalism to capitalism–new ways of behaving become necessary and customary. More, those who are in positions of power and wealth in a particular society have power–although never totally unchallenged–over the way we think as well by controlling the sources of information and education. So their rules of the game become our rules of the game–or at least that’s what they try to achieve by any means necessary.
In a word (or sentence): No existing social or economic system can be explained or justified simply by talking about genetics. Capitalism is not an inevitable outgrowth of something in our DNA, which in any case no one has found. It grew out of changes in our means of production centuries ago, and the new relationships among people that they created, which rendered older systems such as feudalism or chattel slavery dysfunctional and obsolete. And its particular manifestations at different times in different societies came out of the results of political and economic conflicts among classes in those societies. Economically speaking, we are not “hard-wired” for anything except maybe the desire to eat regularly.
But if capitalism is not rooted in our genes, then neither is socialism. “Human nature” does not explain the successes or failures of either system, and doesn’t limit our options in making choices. And that statement requires further elaboration.
Chuck Searcy on socialism in Vietnam:
“[These issues] are topics of discussion among some Vietnamese, although it’s not considered very fashionable any more to admit true understanding of and real commitment to socialism.
The reality is that everyone grudgingly accepts a vastly unequal arena where money decides everything, so the wealthy have the power, along with some government officials who can affect the flow of that wealth through regulations, contracts, bribes, and favors.
People on the street (and in the rural areas) know they have no power, and they can no longer imagine a truly socialist system in Vietnam where health care, education, social services are fully accessible or more or less equally available even if the quality and standards vary from urban to rural areas.
In the past, through years of deprivation in Vietnam, everyone knew they were sharing the pain. No longer. The rich get richer, and the poor stay where they are, occasionally able to buy a better TV set or even a smart phone brand from China. Or to get an assembly job in a Nike or Honda factory.
Interesting that you would note that “democracy [is] a necessary element of socialism” — because despite some government officials’ worries about the danger of too much grassroots participation of the people, the fact is that Vietnam has a long-standing tradition of true democracy at the basic community level, in which everyone has a voice and joins in decision-making. Once the decision is made, they come together in real unity and they mobilize when necessary, for the common good. That’s the healthiest kind of democratic tradition and it is one of Vietnam’s great hidden strengths, but some government officials who are concerned more with power and wealth than good governance are too insecure to see that this “people” power has great potential for Vietnam’s future (and for the country’s national security, which is a matter of some concern now).
At Project RENEW, on a practical level, we have seen the effectiveness of grassroots democracy on many occasions. When we had only enough money to bring 50 poor and disabled families into a new income-generation program, for example, and the list of eligible families was close to 300, RENEW staff and district officials carefully interviewed and screened all applicants according to need. When the 50 families were selected, the whole community met to discuss the decision. Everyone voted and they approved the priorities as chosen. That continued through next stages. It was fair, and it was open. Very democratic. That seems to happen a lot in Vietnam.
That kind of democratic involvement is not only a necessary element of socialism, as you say, it is also part of Vietnam’s history and tradition although the term “democratic” may not have been used.”
Chuck Searcy is an old Army buddy and Vietnam veteran who has spent twenty years there working with Project RENEW–www.landmines.org.vn– to rid the country of unexploded ordnance left over from the war. Their work is of tremendous importance and value in reversing the effects of the destruction we spread across that country at that time.
Living and working in a nominally socialist country.has given him the opportunity to observe the system at work. We communicate fairly often. Recently he forwarded a comment on the maritime boundary disputes between China and Vietnam written from a socialist point of view by Duncan McFarland:
“I hoped that in the disputes over the oil rig and maritime boundaries, more socialist dialogue could help on the basis of the need for unity of the international working class….China needs to recognize that as the big power, with a long history of aggression against Vietnam, it must take the initiative to treat its neighbor with special consideration and respect. The Chinese should withdraw their oil rig, consult with Vietnam, and work out a better response to US aggression. This will be the best way for the two countries and the international movement in the long run.”
Socialists are supposed to be internationalists. But nationalism is a hard habit to break. This is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War 1. Notwithstanding their nominal allegiance to uniting the workers of the world, in 1914 socialists in European parliaments voted almost unanimously to finance and support their country’s military involvement and to arm their working class against that of their opponents. We all know how that turned out.
Stalin tried to do an end run around the issue by proclaiming that he was going to build “socialism in one country”. We also know how that turned out. In fact, that approach is turning out rather poorly today in all countries that call themselves “socialist”. A capitalist world is inherently at odds with socialist experiments in individual countries.
Socialists have to be internationalists. That does not mean one cannot love his or her country, honor, respect, and have pride in its positive traditions, culture, history, and contributions to the world community. Obviously, some nations have a better track record than others in that regard. I even don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with the word “patriot”, unless it’s used as an excuse for aggression. However, internationalism does require us to abandon the idea that somehow our homeland is superior to all the others, that we have a right to impose its values on them, or that we should feel free to invade and occupy them, i.e., imperialism. In that regard, of course, the United States and most other “great powers” have a terrible history. As socialists, it is important for us to oppose all of these things.
In the specific case of China vs. Vietnam, McFarland’s article raises the question of whether Vietnam and China are actually “socialist”, notwithstanding pretensions to that effect. The former invites capitalist investment and provides a source of cheap labor in the global market. The latter does the same and, worse, promotes and indeed rewards massive economic exploitation and inequality in its own country. And what about democracy as a necessary element of socialism? Is it then any wonder that nationalist historical traditions reassert themselves and that “socialist communication” becomes something of a fantasy?
I raised this with Chuck. His response will follow in my next entry.