At the Globe and Mail, the always insightful Rick Salutin asks how the US election came to be about socialism. I have to laugh when I hear Americans using the “S” word – not since the Wobblies has an American had a clue what they mean by the word (over-generalisation for the purposes of drama). Salutin suggests it was never the nasty socialists who kept the idea of socialism alive but rather, capitalism itself:
Karl Marx wrote relatively little on socialism, just a few evocative hints in his callow (or not so callow) youth. But he exhausted himself analyzing capitalism. His argued that capitalism leads inevitably to crisis – a terse term for massive human wreckage – that leads inevitably to a search for better ways to organize economies, which will be, in some form, socialist. It’s all dialectical as hell (Marx said), and if there’s not a socialist in sight, capitalism will still continue to produce the spectre of socialism along with its nightmarish crises.
Since the spectre arises, yet there are now few regimes, leaders or theorists to give it voice, it’s as if it seeks to channel itself, inhabiting any presence it can – like a dybbuk, the spirit of one person migrated into the body of another. So it speaks from the throats of John McCain, Sarah Palin, a Florida TV anchor, The Washington Post or Alan Greenspan, confessing he was mistaken about capitalism all his life.
And what is socialism? Well, Mr. Obama said this week that he expects to be called socialist because he shared his toys in kindergarten. It was a clever deflection of the charge but it’s also a good start. Maybe the dybbuk speaks through him, too. Socialism is essentially social. It’s based on a belief that we’re responsible for and indebted to each other – including past generations. So sharing isn’t a choice, it’s our nature. Therefore, roughly speaking, everyone is equally entitled to basics such as jobs, homes, health and education – especially kids. State intervention in the service of that vision would count as socialism. There might be non-governmental forms, too. Eventually, the state might “wither away,” as Marx said, but that mutual responsibility never would.
An Obama victory would be a stunning event, like Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and election as South African president. I never expected to see either. On the other hand, I felt I had seen socialism and would see more of it – in Canada, for example. This has led to some disappointment, I admit, but it’s also nice to have got it wrong, and know that future surprises still await us.
Marx gets blamed for many things but rarely for not knowing enough about capitalism. There has likely never been anyone who understood it so well, particularly given that he was writing at a time when prediction had to be the greater part of the deal. Biggest predictive failure: the ability of capital to adapt, adopt, co-opt, shape-shift and survive.
Epitaph on my grave:
From each according to his [sic] ability, to each according to his [sic] need.
Far too “Christian” for most folk.