For Most of us ,the United States of America Is No Great Nation. Indeed, it never has been. For most of us, its greatness exists only in regards to its population, its economic oppression, its wealth inequality. The founding fathers built the US on the backs of slaves and hordes of lower class workers. They built it at the cost of millions of indigenous lives. Further, any scrutiny of the United States Constitution reveals that it was written to protect and secure the landowning wealthy, with just enough concessions made to the newly-minted middle class to garner their support. Economic imperialism, racism, sexism, neoliberalism, globalization, and the subjugation of marginalized people worldwide have since taken our fledgling country from an expansionist newcomer to a global empire. Even at the beginning, power was in the hands of the elite, with 50% of recorded wealth belonging to the top 10%. That this disparity could be any worse, seems ludicrous. Yet today we are the richest country in a rich world, and the general populace, fully 90% of all Americans, are dealt a paltry 16% of that great wealth. This leaves the top 10% with nearly three quarters of everything. If we break things down further, the bottom 40% (the vast majority of working class Americans) share0.2%, while the top 1% controls 35%! This may seem like a lot of numbers to throw around, and perhaps it is difficult to wrap our heads around it. But the meaning that underlies all of these figures, is that we who work our fingers to the bone, daily, are rewarded with virtually nothing; while those who contribute virtually nothing are making off with nearly all the wealth that we create for them. It is clear that we have entered the death throes of late-stage capitalism, and the end is near. We the people, many of us descended of slaves, all of us slaves to a broken system, have carried the crushing weight of the opulent few for centuries. No more. We live in a world in which socialism is possible--more than that, it is inevitable! It is ours to bring about. Perhaps we should revise our earlier statement: the United States ofAmerica may be great for a few. It is certainly not great for most. And perhaps it never has been. But without question, it could be. If we are to work toward a solution, however, we must first understand the problem.
If you are like us, you grew up hearing that capitalism was synonymous with two things: the free market and democracy. Further, we learned that hard work guarantees success; that those who work the hardest achieve the most; that those who do not succeed are lazy. There are a lot of myths to address, so let’s start with the last one first. Do you feel successful? Do you feel you are being fully rewarded for the hard work you put in? If not... would you consider yourself lazy? And if you are neither lazy, nor successful, is that a contradiction which indicates a serious problem? Of all families in the bottom 20% of Americans (families making less than $28,000 a year) in 1994, less than16% made it out of poverty by 2005. Less than 1% of those who escaped poverty made it into the top 5% of American earners. Do you truly believe that out of every 1,000,000 of our working poor families, only 16 of them worked hard enough to become wealthy? If we examine the reverse situation: that wealthy people are wealthy because they work the hardest, we see a similar issue. If you were born into the top 1% in 1996, you had only a 17% chance of dropping into the bottom 95%! Barely 20% of those born into the top fifth of earning families would fall as far as the middle class3. So what does all this mean? If you are born poor, you are very likely to die poor. If you are born rich, you are even more likely to die rich. Hard work has very little to do with it.
This leads us easily into our next myth: that capitalism is synonymous with democracy. Can capitalism and democracy coexist? Maybe. Do they always go hand in hand? Definitely not.First, we should all be aware that socialist and socialist-leaning politicians have been democratically elected worldwide. In nearly every instance, however, the United States has either directly or indirectly been involved in overthrowing those democratically elected leaders and replacing them with dictators. We overthrew Mossadegh in Iran and reinstated a monarchal, capitalist-friendly dictator. We overthrew Allende in Chile and installedPinochet, a brutal and ruthless capitalist dictator. We even gave aid and weapons to dictators who were decidedly not capitalist, because they served a purpose. We supported Saddam Hussein when he was useful to us and killed him when he was no longer doing as we commanded. We supported ManuelNoriega when he was useful to us and killed him when he was no longer doing as we commanded. These are regrettable foreign policy decisions, you might say. We backed these undemocratic puppets because it was politically expedient--because democratic choice in these countries directly opposed the profit goals of the ruling elite. Here in America, you say, we have democracy. Not according toPrinceton University. If the wealthy, as a group, do not support a policy, it has only an 18% chance of getting through congress. If the wealthy overwhelmingly support a policy, it has a 45% chance of becoming law. But what about the rest of us, then? Any given policy has the same chance of passing theHouse and Senate, whether voters at large support or oppose it: 0.3%.No matter who we elect, no matter what the common worker wants or doesn’t want, the wealthy dictate the law. Congress does this because they are bought and sold by the rich. Congress does this because they are the rich. The average net worth of a congressperson is over $1,000,0005. This is a nation run by the wealthy for the wealthy: an oligarchy. So, we don’t care about democracy in other countries and we have a shell of a farce of a democracy in our own country. And if capitalism always leads to great wealth for a few and great poverty for the masses, is it not inevitable that the wealthy will always be able to buy our elected officials? If our votes do not count in this system, aren’t capitalism and democracy incompatible?
You may have noticed that we haven’t addressed the final myth of capitalism: that it is a free market or mostly free market. We will.But certain questions need to be answered before we do. First and foremost, what is socialism? Is it government ownership of everything? Well.Theoretically, it could be. Is it high taxes and endless entitlement programs? Probably not. Is it an authoritarian state, a police state, a nanny state? No. Socialism, like capitalism is simply an economic system. It is not, in and of itself, a system of government. Furthermore, pockets of socialism can and do exist within capitalism. And no, we do not mean the US Postal Service.Socialism, very simply, is the extension of democracy to the workplace. In a socialist economy, those who do the work own the business. If you, and I, and ninety-eight of our friends started a company that manufactured shoes; and we all worked together in various roles at the factory; and we all voted on policies and procedures; and we all decided how to allocate our profits, that would be socialism. If supply and demand, quality of goods, and so on, dictate the price of our shoes, and we collectively own the company, that’s an example of market socialism. But wait... If socialism can exist in a market economy; if capitalism isn’t synonymous with the free market; what exactly is capitalism? If socialism is economic democracy, then capitalism is economic dictatorship. Or, at the very least, authoritarian rule of the economy.Capitalism is ownership, management, and control of commerce, industry, etc by capital. Those with enough wealth on hand, or access to enough credit are typically the only ones capable of starting a business. But even those capable of starting small businesses have an uphill battle against large corporations which have access to greater wealth and even more credit. The rest of us...the vast majority of us...have to work for pitiful wages under the command of these so-called job creators and have little chance to advance or improve our station.
Arguments in favor of capitalism suggest that because the capitalist takes the risk of starting businesses and is creating new wealth for himself and his employees, he deserves the greatest portion of the profits. No. Because wealth cannot create wealth. Any and all wealth comes from labor. If a capitalist becomes wealthy, it is as a result of his employees’ labor. Our labor.
Let me explain. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use a physical commodity, a raw material with a definite use-value: iron ore. If there is a large deposit of iron ore under a mountain, what is its value? $1,000,000? $500,000? No. $0. While it is in the earth, it has no value.It cannot be accessed. It cannot be sold. It is worthless. What is the only thing that gives it any value? When human labor is put into digging a mineshaft or strip-mining the area around it. And obviously, the amount of iron ore on the market and the need for iron ore play into the sale price of it. But there would be no market at all if miners did not dig it up. Did the CEO of the mining company access the ore? Did the Executive Vice President of Marketing extract it? Did the Director of Human Resources load it onto trains, or move it to the smelting plant? What about the Board of Directors? Did they do anything which contributed to the actual work necessary to turn a worthless mass into a valuable commodity? No. They did nothing productive in getting to that iron ore, but somehow each of these people is entitled to a larger chunk of the profit of its sale, than those who literally gave it worth. This process continues all the way down the line of production. When that ore is purified, its value increases. That increase is a result of the work put in by those at the smelting plant. When the purified iron is mixed with carbon and other elements to make steel, it is again the worker who creates the increased value.When the steel is worked into beams, loaded onto trucks, used in the construction of office buildings, and on, and on, and on, it is only the worker who is an integral part of the equation. To quote an old union poster:the boss needs you, you don’t need him.
What about machines? What about automation? If the boss buys a series of machines, and they each do the work of five employees, doesn’t that punch holes in this theory? Not at all. Firstly, the boss almost certainly acquired the money to buy those machines through the hard work of his or her employees. Moreover, who made the machines? Maybe other machines, but eventually, you are going to arrive at a point at which human hands and human labor were responsible for their origin. And we have now arrived at what is perhaps the strongest logical argument in favor of ending capitalism: that if we do not, automation is going to destroy the economy. This is something we have seen happening over and over through the past several decades, and it is slowly increasing. Aside from the obvious, direct function of increasing efficiency, automation has two side-effects: it eliminates the need for human labor, and it simplifies the jobs that humans do. It is in the best interest of capitalists to maximize profit for themselves. As a result, when a machine is brought in to do the work of his or her employees, the capitalist will seek too ffset the cost of the machine by cutting hours, by laying off workers, by cutting wages. Or, the capitalist may choose to do some combination of all three. As more things are done by machines and computers, we will see increasing levels of unemployment and underemployment. As more things are done by machines and computers, we will see fewer skilled jobs and more unskilled jobs. Wages will tumble. With more Americans out of work, more Americans forced into part-time jobs, more Americans being paid less and less, how long will the economy remain stable? With no disposable income, who buys consumer goods? With falling wages, who can afford to take their family to dinner? To go on vacation? We are already seeing this happen, right now. In call centers, automated systems are answering basic questions, taking payments, troubleshooting technical issues. In fast food restaurants, computers take your order. In grocery stores, self-checkout is becoming the norm. Human beings are increasingly being pushed out of the labor market. It is happening to more and more of us every day. And this is just the beginning. What happens when 25% of jobs are fully automated? How will we feed ourselves or our families? How will we afford rent, let alone a mortgage? Either we will end up with a swollen bureaucracy of social programs, paid for by taxes, or people will literally be starving to death in the streets, en masse.
There is another way. Let’s go back to the example of the shoe factory. If you and I and the rest of our co-workers/co-owners decided it was time to start automating certain aspects of production, we could choose to maintain our current work-hours and increase output, raising our profit margin. Or we could choose to cut our own hours, but keep our profit margin the same. Essentially, we get to decide whether we want more free time or more income, or even some balance of both! Eventually, in this socialist economy, as automation becomes the norm, instead of massive social programs, or mass starvation, we could eventually be free of work all together. Or rather, we could work at what we want, as opposed to what we must. Now. How do we get there?
Ultimately, there are three methods by which most socialists see a path to creating the economy for which we advocate: through the ballot box, by creating structures that combat capitalism within the capitalist economy, or via open revolt. Each of these paths has its own appeal, its own challenges, its own pitfalls. The descriptions that follow will be very generic and high-level because the reality is that the decisions on how to proceed in building socialism will need to be made by those who are participating in its construction. The purpose is not, at this point, to write a detailed and specific plan of action but rather to give you the concepts so that you can begin to organize and formulate your own plans.
Obviously, each method is revolutionary in its own right, but let’s talk about literal revolution first.Most of us would like to keep ourselves and our loved ones and humanity at large out of danger. If we can achieve our means peacefully, with minimal anguish, the vast majority of people would choose that option. However, a time may come where violence is inevitable. As we have seen with the popularity of groups like Golden Dawn in Greece, the resurgence of Neo-Nazi groups in Germany and the alt-right worldwide, fascism is far from dead. If economic conditions worsen, it’s not a stretch to believe that the appeal of racist nationalists may give them an opportunity to seize power. If economic conditions worsen, it’s not a stretch to believe that our militarized police my actively suppress the outcries of a floundering underclass. We can roll over and accept our fate or we can fight back. But many will die. Many will be imprisoned. Many will suffer. Although it may ultimately be unavoidable, if we can move forward without violent insurrection, in order to save the lives of friends, our family, our comrades, then we should.
The process which will probably be most foreign to you is that of creating an undercurrent of systems that antagonize the capitalist economy from within. This is because it requires thinking about the world in ways that we are generally not taught. Essentially everyone understands the basics of the democratic process. Essentially everyone knows about the American Revolution, the French Revolution, etc. But who among us is taught about functionally restructuring the economy? I’d venture, virtually none. So what does this process look like? Well, we’ve seen a tiny shift in the form of backyard gardens and the keeping of livestock like chickens and goats in suburban and urban areas. This is not an obvious option for everyone, but community gardens are more plausible. We can also share, sell, and trade our produce with each other. Is this a lasting or significant or viable way of breaking down capitalism or improving our own lives? Not really. But. It is a small first step in pulling a minimal amount of power away from the capitalist class. A more productive step would be the organization of labor unions, ideally decentralized and democratically driven unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World, as opposed to top-down unions like theAFL-CIO. Labor unions help to increase wages and benefits for union workers as well as those in non-union jobs, as capitalists are forced to compete with union pay. Those increased wages provide better opportunities to purchase businesses, collectively, or to start our own employee-owned companies. Once there are socialist options from which we can buy goods and services, it becomes easier to boycott capitalist organizations. As wages increase, we can more easily afford potentially more expensive union and collectively made goods.
Finally, we turn our attention to socialism via voting. There is the very clear and easily-understood method of electing socialist politicians: those who will fight for us at the state, local, federal levels. However, we would need a significant number of these representatives to make a difference. And perhaps one day that will become likely. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to propose and vote on legislation ourselves which alleviates the subjugation of lower classes and makes it easier for us to transition to socialism. State-level, single-payer health plans; elimination of slavery in our prison system; low-interest or no-interest loans to employees who wish to purchase their employer’s business or start their own socialist company would all contribute to shifting the entire economy away from the legacy of labor-exploitation under which we currently live.
In reality, there will likely be, and certainly should be a synthesis of all three methods or perhaps several more of which we haven’t even thought. If you read the paragraph on open revolt and felt a visceral anger toward a perceived pacifism on our part, without question, direct that anger toward a path of preparation for that revolution. Rarely has non-violent protest been successful without the threat of violence from another source. If the idea of personally committing violence against another human being, regardless of their status as an oppressor, makes you uncomfortable, absolutely develop your own means as well. If you read the section on creating structures that fight capitalism from beneath it, and one or several lightbulbs went off in your head, take those ideas and put them into practice. If you have dreamed of revolution through the political process, whether as a leader, or a voter, that is something nearly all of us can do. And by no means are you restricted to any one of these choices. Prepare for violence, grow a garden, start a union, vote your conscience.
Without question this is a difficult and lengthy battle to fight. We will face suppression both passive and active. We will likely face violence. Propaganda has always been powerful against movements of the working class and that is unlikely to change now. But now that you have read this and taken it to heart, it is time to move forward. You can only absorb knowledge. You cannot expunge it. It is time to put this knowledge to work for ourselves and the future of humanity. It is time to organize. It is time to move beyond the status quo. It is time to move. And in the words of the great Rosa Luxemburg, “Those who do not move do not notice their chains.” And once we notice them, it is vital to break them.