Given the slow train wreck of global warming, nuclear leaks, impoverishment of the developing world and the disappearance of the middle class in our own country, we need a different economic system. To spark that hope, “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” envisions “a society of ecological sanity, material abundance, and social equality; a society where social relations are premised on human solidarity, not capitalist exploitation and human competition … where production for profit, driven by private greed and accumulation of capital, has given way to production for public use.”
This collection of essays, however, has a major failing: It doesn’t make its projected society believable. The format doesn’t help — collecting a diverse group of writers to suggest what might follow capitalism, with such essay titles as “Law in a Socialist USA,” “Personal, Emotional, and Sexual Life without Capitalism” and “Drugs in a Society Where People Care about Each Other,” yields an inconsistent vision. For example, one writer suggests that “law” as we know it would not exist; another details how laws about drug use would aim for harm reduction rather than punishment. And the careful reader will have to work his way to one of the final essays to get to a succinct definition of “socialism” (by Paul LeBlanc) as “rule by the people over the economic structures and resources that we need … an economy owned by all, democratically controlled by all, and planned and coordinated to meet the needs of and provide for the free development of all.”
Not surprisingly, there’s a wide variation in how specific the essays get. There are a few that are quite substantive and interesting; some authors argue convincingly that a socialist society could work better than capitalism. But that’s a low bar.
There’s a troubling failure to address the difficulties that nonmarket socialist economies have run into — such as tendencies toward bureaucratization; concentration of power in the ruling party; repression of groups that don’t share the revolutionary agenda; and, as Oscar Wilde put it, “too many meetings.” Even more troubling is the frequent sense that with socialism, most interpersonal and social conflicts will simply disappear or at least be reduced to the point where they can be solved by polite discussion.
There’s a crying need for something to replace capitalism, and socialism, as LeBlanc defines it, is the best candidate. It may be that under socialism people wouldn’t be incited into being competitive or to exploit each other as they are today; they might not be stressed or pushed into crime by fears of poverty or homelessness. However, controlling your workplace or your community doesn’t ensure that people won’t maneuver for power, bring their baggage into organizations or try to impose their agenda on a group.
If you’ve been in the radical movement at all, you’ve been there. At the minimum, we all carry a lot of trauma from the past that we’ll bring into the utopian future, but we also bring our mixed heritage as social animals, in which the urge to cooperate, show kindness and share is intertwined with the urge to dominate and gain status. This book needs to explain how the cooperative urges will be encouraged and the competitive ones will be managed without creating a repressive society.
Similarly lacking is the section on “Getting There.” A major impediment to convincing people that socialism is possible is explaining how we get out of our present political morass. From the general tenor of these essays, it just takes all of us in the 99 percent to finally understand that we all have more in common than the 1 percent, and then we’ll make the revolution. To be fair, there is an emphasis on it being a diverse, inclusive majority movement. However, it’s hard to imagine in a country as divided as ours, that people in Texas and Utah are going to be ready for socialism at the same time that people on the two coasts and the rust belt are. How will a socialist movement handle regional differences? It’s notable that most of the authors are from the Northeast, with a smattering from the industrial Midwest and California. It would have been reassuring to read viewpoints from more conservative sections of the country about how those regions might come to a socialist viewpoint.
A few essays stand out from the rest. Especially notable is the somewhat satirical fantasy by science-fiction writer Terry Bisson, which, ironically, portrays the post-revolutionary society in more realistic terms. It touches on some of the issues that would face a socialist USA, including providing space for dissidents to make their case, dealing with the problems caused by climate change and environmental disaster and reducing our standard of living to provide equity for the developing world.
A socialist USA is hard to imagine without understanding how we get there. Perhaps first we should imagine a book that deals with the hard issues of organizing an alternative to capitalism, including what sacrifices we might have to make on the way.