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Socialism and the Failures of Capitalism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

To define a workable socialism, it’s best first to lay out what’s wrong with capitalism. Nancy Fraser’s excellent essay in “Beyond Market Dystopia” does just this, and these wrongs are three: injustice, irrationality and unfreedom. Injustice inheres in the exploitation of labor and theft of its surplus value. Irrationality exists in capitalism’s built-in economic crises. Unfreedom derives from social inequality and class power and also from tyranny in the work-place.

Capitalism, Fraser argues, “is no mere economy…It is an institutionalized social order.” The economic conditions on which it depends reveal this. There are four: unwaged social reproductive labor (cooking, cleaning, child and elder care, etc.); wealth expropriated from subjugated peoples (mostly in the Global South); free gifts from non-human nature (arable land, breathable air, potable water, etc.); public goods supplied by states (legal orders guaranteeing property rights, contracts and free exchange, transport and communication etc.). So capitalism takes from these four conditions but scarcely acknowledges them at all, indeed irrationally, compulsively and dangerously undermines them.

“Reduced to a tap and a sink, non-human nature is open to brute extractivism,” by capitalism, as the terrifying evidence of climate change demonstrates all around us. Capital tends to “erode or destroy or deplete…its own presuppositions – which is to say, to eat its own tail.” It does so with all four of the conditions it relies on. “If socialism aims to remedy capitalism’s wrongs,” Fraser writes, “it faces a very big job,” because “socialists need to turn things right-side up: to install the nurturing of people, the safeguarding of nature and democratic self-rule as society’s highest priorities, which trump efficiency and growth.” Any moderately pessimistic onlooker would doubtless say “good luck.”

But we have reached a point where moderate pessimism is not acceptable. Capitalism has “so callously trashed” all the conditions it depends on that it endangers humanity’s future. If not now for socialism, when? Because in the end, socialism is the only governance that can “deinstitutionalize the growth imperative hard-wired into capitalist society.” Capitalist growth is a cancer, one that has metastasized over the face of the earth, even as it robs billions of people of any life beyond mere subsistence.

“Beyond Market Dystopia” presents 14 essays organized around this theme of what comes after the destructive cyclone that is capitalism. It contains essays on migrants, socialized housing, precarious work, communism in the suburbs and much more. Editors Leo Panitch and Greg Albo have used their theme to reach into society’s various realms and to illuminate the possibilities for a better, socialist future. A certain necessary optimism suffuses the whole. But beneath this, in many of these essays, simmers the very realistic anxiety that capitalism has gone too far.

Indeed, “Inside Climate News” recently reported that the oceans have absorbed warming caused by anthropogenic climate change equivalent to the explosion of over a billion Hiroshima-sized bombs. That’s just what capitalism has done to earth’s oceans. What it has done to the air, earth and nature’s creatures is equally horrifying. But, as Barbara Harriss-White’s essay quotes Chomsky: “We have two choices: to abandon hope and ensure that the worst will happen, or to make use of the opportunities that exist and contribute to a better world. It is not a very difficult choice.”

In the world of work, Michelle Chen reports that most labor will be freelance by 2027. “In rich and poor nations alike,” she writes, “technological innovation will disrupt the role of the state and the power of the labor movement.” The gig economy will only expand. Chen advocates countering it with a global crowd-workers’ guild or an app-based collective-bargaining agreement. These would be welcome developments, helping technology, she argues, to become a force against capital’s consolidation of power “over the emergent global infrastructure” and against capital’s “capture of more of our public sphere.”

Gig workers, Chen argues are in a “constant state of dislocation [that] breeds constant instability.” There have been some legal wins: in New York, uber drivers are now entitled to unemployment benefits and in some countries are recognized as employees. Drivers have led wildcat strikes, and they have rioted. Their fight against capital is a fight for life. They are on the front lines of the twenty-first century’s class war, in which the billionaire class arrogantly asserts its privilege: to control the lives and bodies of workers, to wring out every last cent, everywhere, just as it pillages the planet, everywhere.

The face of that predatory class is Donald Trump. He and his reactionary Republican backers chant that the U.S. will never be socialist, that that is not in our future. He is wrong. It may only come in bits and pieces, one policy at a time, but without that in our future, we likely won’t have one.

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Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Further Adventures of Feckless Frank. She can be reached at her website.

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