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If We Are in the Death Spiral of Capitalism, Can We Start Using the "S" Word?

The electroshock paddles of "stimulus" keep being applied, but the capitalist patient isn't waking up. Is it now safe to talk about socialism?

Note for NYC Residents: This Friday, The Nation Institute, Nation Books, and AlterNet are co-hosting a panel discussion, "Meltdown: The Economic Collapse and a People's Plan for Recovery," with an all-star cast that includes Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Jeff Madrick, Christopher Hayes. Some of them should be consulting for the Obama administration in place of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers et al. instead of offering us their thoughts for free at 8 pm this Friday at 2 West 64th Street in New York City at The New York Society for Ethical Culture. Doors open at 7:15, first come, first served.

If you haven't heard socialists doing much crowing over the fall of capitalism, it isn't just because there aren't enough of us to make an audible crowing sound. We, as much as anyone on Wall Street in, say, 2006, appreciate the resilience of American capitalism--its ability to regroup and find fresh avenues for growth, as it did after the depressions of 1877, 1893 and the 1930s. In fact, The Communist Manifesto can be read not only as an indictment of capitalism but as a breathless paean to its dynamism. And we all know the joke about the Marxist economist who successfully predicted eleven out of the last three recessions.


But this time the patient may not get up from the table, no matter how many times the electroshock paddles of "stimulus" are applied. We seem to have entered the death spiral where rising unemployment leads to reduced consumption and hence to greater unemployment. Any schadenfreude we might be tempted to feel as executives lose their corporate jets and the erstwhile Masters of the Universe wipe egg from their faces is quickly dashed by the ever more vivid suffering around us. Food pantries and shelters can no longer keep up with the demand; millions face old age without pensions and with their savings gutted; we personally are consumed with anxiety about the future that awaits our children and grandchildren.

Besides, it wasn't supposed to happen this way. There was supposed to be a revolution, remember? The socialist idea, prediction, faith or whatever was that capitalism would fall when people got tired of trying to live on the crumbs that fall from the chins of the rich and rose up in some fashion--preferably inclusively, democratically and nonviolently--and seized the wealth for themselves. Such a seizure would have looked nothing like "nationalization" as currently discussed, in which public wealth flows into the private sector with little or no change in the elites that control it or in the way the control is exercised. Our expectation as socialists was that the huge amount of organizing required for revolutionary change would create an infrastructure for governance, built out of--among other puzzle pieces--unions, community organizations, advocacy groups and new organizations of the unemployed and nouveau poor.

It was also supposed to be a simple matter for the masses to take over or "seize" the physical infrastructure of industrial capitalism--the "means of production"--and start putting it to work for the common good. But much of the means of production has fled overseas--to China, for example, that bastion of authoritarian capitalism. When we look around our increasingly shuttered landscape and survey the ruins of finance capitalism, we see bank upon bank, realty and mortgage companies, title companies, insurance companies, credit-rating agencies and call centers, but not enough enterprises making anything we could actually use, like food or pharmaceuticals. In recent years, capitalism has become increasingly and almost mystically abstract. Outside manufacturing and the service sector, fewer and fewer people could explain to their children what they did for a living. The brightest students went into finance, not physics. The biggest urban buildings housed cubicles and computer screens, not assembly lines, laboratories, studios or classrooms. Even our flagship industry, manufacturing autos, would require major retooling to make something we could use--not more cars, let alone more SUVs, but more windmills, buses and trains.

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