My late friend, the poet David Johnson, once remarked that the United States would be the last socialist society, and the first communist society. Reasoning, as I recall, that the “forces of production,” i. e. all the tremendous resources of industry and so on would develop in the direction of socialization, in a context where for the last century and a half, the ruling classes of the country had all been deployed against socialism and communism, but that history’s trajectory was going that way in spite of it all. What evidence is there for his prophecy?
It may be hard to discern at first, because in the face of general “prosperity,” huge zones of poverty persist everywhere, not only in the vast slums of the cities, but in generally conservative rural areas as well, notably throughout the rural South. There they persist in believing in and defending capitalism (aka “freedom”) despite the obvious fact they have been ravaged by it. The roots of this may be seen in the historic situation where despite the complete military defeat of the South in our Civil War, racism arose out of the ashes, in the form of the “Lost Cause” culture and ideology. Racism, of course, among the whites, rich and poor, resolved to oppress the blacks no matter what the result of the war. Blacks, in turn, fought persistently and valiantly against this system, from Reconstruction, through the Civil Rights movement, to the present, though we might also note that the worse excesses of the past (lynchings, floggings, the share-cropper system) have declined dramatically. Open KKK-type violence may have dwindled, but the hidden and not so hidden racism is still there.
The rise of the Tea Party movement in this decade, superintended and secretly funded by such as the Koch brothers, has also tended to dominate and control politics and economics. Along with right-wing Fundamentalist religion, it represents an attempt to turn back history, to return to the “consensus” world of the 1950s. The Tea Party’s fevered Reaction even appropriated the imagery and culture of the American Revolution, the 13-star flag, and the old Don’t Tread on Me flag as well. The Left, generally, resorted to incessant complaint, and did not really attempt to mount a challenge to all this.
But . . . but: I submit that the general cultural momentum, only half-conscious, especially among young people, is in the direction of some kind of Left. The culture wars have been won for the Left, around issues like women’s liberation, racial tolerance, the rights of gays, lesbians, etc. Those issues, like school prayer and abortion are still fomented by the Right, but with less and less success all the time. Similarly, around the issue of immigration, presently a “hot” issue, the direction is for acceptance of immigrants. As the historian Howard Zinn expressed it: “No person is illegal.” Whatever the maneuvering in Congress, the mass action of immigrants and their comrades who are citizens is turning the tide.
There is another aspect of all this which though right in front of our noses, has attracted little attention from pundits, observers, or even scholars—the latter often and even usually the last to figure out what is happening. And this aspect is the rise of the Internet, and associated phenomena, such as social media. Now lots of people have realized that some kind of major paradigm shift is underway in all that. Printed books, printed newspapers and the like are going the way of the dinosaurs. Back in the 1980s, when I first started trying to learn computers and word processors, and was having a difficult time, my son who was in turn trying to teach me all this, paused and observed: “You are just one of those old hard-copy guys.” I had a revelation, that yes he was right, and I would go the way of the crossbow makers and the tapestry weavers of the late Middle Ages.
But it is not just the media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.—that is developing. At the same time print is starting to fade away, there’s another closely related phenomenon, namely that people in Cyberspace, especially young people, absolutely refuse to spend money on printed books. In fact, except for investing in the basic equipment (computers, etc.) and access to the Internet (which used to be called DSL, or “high speed internet” connections, they will not pay for anything. Not magazines, not websites, not books, except for e-books occasionally.
Parallel to this is the general attitude of “sharing”—file sharing, video sharing, music sharing, which, I understand, is largely a euphemism for stealing or to use the old word “expropriating” everything they want, regardless of copyright, regardless of permissions, regardless of property rights. Naturally the capitalist owners—music companies, fllm corporations and the like—fight back: there are the usual court cases, prosecuting those running the sharing networks, but there are always new projects to rip off and share everything.
From a political standpoint, some recent rebellions, in Egypt, the Occupy movement, and others have all used social media to exchange information, promote demonstrations, and develop embryonic organizations. Many of these are, to be sure, short-lived, but so were early protests against the Industrial Revolution, such as the Luddite insurrections against the factory system in early 19th century England.
Facing these uprisings and rebellious movements, the capitalists have generally recovered their poise, have re-asserted their control of the police and the military, and re-established their authority. This is inevitable, given that they are always united around the principle of greed, whereas the peoples’ movements have been marked by splits, indecision, and chaotic behavior. This will continue until someday, those plebeian movements re-form their ranks, learn the lessons of history, and realize the need to seize the means of production themselves, not merely protest against them.
Will this happen? Who, of course, knows! Capitalism has existed for several centuries, and has survived many profound shocks, such as World War I, and the Great Depression. Despite wars planned and carried out by those Senator William Fulbright called “arrogant and deluded men,” it hasn’t collapsed, let alone disappeared.
Until the people unite and become as resolute for justice as the capitalists are resolute for injustice, nothing will fundamentally change. The tendency for fragmentation, or what a physicist might call inertia, remains an important factor.
But assuming we survive all these wars, racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, and environmental degradation, we might just be able to develop a truly human and humanist society. Indeed, until and unless these popular movements encompass solutions to all of these, until they prove competent and decisive, they will not prevail, because they have not shown they deserve to be the government.
To put it another way, Marx wrote somewhere that revolutions are not based on changes in style, but in changes in structure. The content of “social media” has to be substantive, intimately connected to emerging humanist realities, and not forfeit its promise to become yet another vehicle for tinseled entertainment, advertising and chit chat. We have choices here, and must recognize that we do have choices, and are not mere consumers of of bites and bits of information.
Back in the 18th century, Thomas Paine, who participated in two revolutions (in America and in France) proclaimed he was a Citizen of the World. This immensely fertile and dramatic concept of the great Enlightenment must be resurrected, must come to life in our minds again. World consciousness, world action, and world peace are our watchwords. They are not mere remote dreams, but concepts we can plant and spread everywhere in our daily lives, and for the lives of mankind and the earth.
Is this Utopian? The worst thing is to just settle back into apathy and cynicism. I’m with Oscar Wilde who proclaimed in his seminal essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (which everyone should study intensively): “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
Kansas City, Kansas
Photo credit: Rumena Slatkova