Not Capitalism- But What Else?

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator, July 6, 2017

What follows are excerpts from two books I’ve recently finished. The first I pulled from my own bookshelf long ago purchased at a used book sale, but never read. It was referenced in something I read earlier this year. The book was written in 1969 and I was reading it simultaneously while I was reading another book written the same year. I blogged about them both earlier here, but I was only part way through this one. While each excerpt can stand pretty much on its own, the result of the whole picture is more important to this feeble mind.

The unity of thought that connects these two disparate books is what I found remarkable as I read them simultaneously. The excerpts might not show that as clearly as reading either or both tomes would. Each is worth a read and maybe these excerpts will whet an appetite or two to try them. They have much to say about our own time and possible paths forward. The spirit of both of these writers is embedded in a commitment to democracy with a small ‘d’. There isn’t even a smattering of arrogance in their writing but of the possibilities for a better world if we would only reflect on what we truly value as a human family on a finite planet.

Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority

Excerpts from Michael Harrington’s Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority (1969)

The military-industrial complex bases itself on a permanent war economy and a huge military establishment. This enormous vested interest in annihilation, Eisenhower feared, could subvert the democratic process in matters of war and peace. (p. 77)

In his Farewell Address, President Eisenhower had been particularly alarmed by the possibility that the military-industrial complex would come to control education. He was concerned about ‘the prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment’ and the possibility that ‘public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific, technological elite.’ In part Eisenhower’s fears have been justified. As Clark Kerr testified – perhaps too candidly from the point of view of his own career – in The Uses of the University, Federal grants and big business needs are playing an increasing role in determining the shape and quality of higher education in America. But now with the social-industrial complex, the danger becomes more pervasive, for it extends to the kindergarten and the Job Corps camp as well as to the graduate seminar. There are those … who would make the knowledge industry the servant of the educators. But there seem to be many more who follow the jubilant philosophy expressed in the Wall Street Journal articles: that schools shall now be designed to fit machines rather than the other way around. (pp. 88-9)

Washington has a role to play at every part of this process [research and development]. Since it would be political suicide to admit that the state is thus accommodating itself to the goals of the corporations, the exact opposite is proclaimed. This is done by defining the society’s purpose so as to make it identical with that of the big firms. It is therefore a national article of faith that any increase in the Gross National Product is good even when it takes the form of carcinogenic cigarettes or noisome automobiles. This creed provides ample justification for Federal support of just about anything the private sector desires, but it does so in the name of the nation rather than of business. (p. 104)

The abolition of poverty and racism, the reconstruction of urban life, and all the rest simply do not make economic sense within the corporate calculus. And therefore these very fine and educated people will unwittingly perpetuate the very chaos which offends their sensibilities. (p. 110)

As I noted earlier, the [Automation] Commission replied to the president that, if all productivity gains from 1965 to 1985 were taken in the form of leisure, the nation could choose between a twenty-two-hour week, a twenty-seven-week year, or retirement at thirty-eight years of age. (p. 113)

[Here Harrington offers a possible approach]

The President shall be obliged to make to the nation a periodic Report on the Future. The report shall project the basic choices and different futures before the country and estimate both the economic and social costs of alternative programs. It shall specify which groups stand to make particular gains from the various courses of action. The report shall state a Social Consumption Criterion which will clearly measure the impact of every department of public expenditure on the social standard of living. In particular, it shall explain exactly how the major areas of spending are contributing toward the abolition of poverty and racial discrimination. 

     The report shall be presented to a Joint Congressional Committee on the Future, which shall hold public hearings on it. Staff funds will be provided to any significant group of legislators, whether they are on the committee or not, so that they can write a substitute report or propose major amendments to the President’s draft. The House and Senate will then debate, and vote on, the general economic and social orientation of the American government during the next period. (I am deliberately vague about the time span. Whether it should be gear to a four year Presidential political cycle or to a period determined by economic considerations hardly need to be settled now. The important point is that the report’s horizon be set in the middle distance where historic options begin to take shape. (pp. 114-5)

Examples abound in Washington of academic debates over statistics which are the façade of group conflict. The AFL-CIO definitions of unemployment usually yield higher percentages than the department of Labor, which in turn, takes a grimmer view of joblessness than does the National Association of Manufacturers. The scholars involved in this fight are not dishonest, but they do have special angles of vision. (As I wrote in The Other America, in 1959 Fortune magazine and I used the same income figures and they were happy about how many Americans were rich and I was outraged about the number who were poor.) (p. 116)

Above all the democratic Left must incarnate a vision of the future. America’s unplanned planning has been rigorously guided by commercial priorities. Unless there is a conscious movement in a new direction, this society will continue publicly to fund its catastrophes, though in the next period it will do so more in the name of social industrialism than in that of Adam Smith. (p. 130)

The United States could be building a full-fledged meritocracy in which intellectual ability and competitive drive determine a person’s social and economic position. If that is the case, then there is a grim future in store for the winners and the losers. Those who achieve will do so by turning their brains into a salable commodity.  Those who fall behind – and they will be disproportionately recruited from the black and white poor, though no fault of their own – will have greater feelings of resentment and inferiority than those at the bottom of past societies. Their Humiliating plight will be theoretically a consequence of their innate deficiencies and not of the structure of the economy. In fact, as Chapter 3 showed, their educational and cultural deficiencies will have been cruelly imposed on them by the white and well-off. But the hurt will be done so discreetly that even the victims will think it is their fault.

     The most immediate tactic for countering these tendencies is to raise the intelligence of the entire society. What is called intelligence is, in any case, to a considerable degree, a social product. At the most brutal level, starvation during a child’s early years will physically affect his brain and maim him for life, a savaging of the human spirit which was documented  in Mississippi as recently as 1967 and which certainly persists to this moment. Providing a decent diet for everyone in the society would among other things, put an end to this tragedy. More subtly, increasing levels of health and the standard of living and widening the range of experience have already made the IQs of middle-class schools higher than those of the slums. Thus, one consequence of programs for full employment and decent housing will be to make people, and particularly those who are now systematically denied the decencies of life, smarter. (p. 145)

India provides and even better example of the profitable uses of American generosity. This particular case grows out of the fact that there is money to be made in the starvation market. Forbes magazine – which advertises itself as a ‘capitalist tool’ – headlined the cover story on the March 1, 1966 issue ‘Feeding the World’s Hungry Millions: How it Will Mean Billions for U.S. Business.’ The American oil companies, Forbes said in its article, had got the message and were embarking on fertilizer production. Then there came this frank and revealing anecdote: ‘For a long time, India insisted that it handle all the distribution of fertilizer product in that country by U.S. companies and that it also set the price. Standard of Indiana understandably refused to accept these conditions. AID put food shipments to India on a month-to-month basis until the Indian government let Standard of India market its fertilizer at its own price.’ And so it was that, in the 1967 AID proposals, the request for $50 million for fertilizer for India was a ‘tied’ grant and the stated goal of encouraging private enterprise – which is to say American oil corporations – in this area. (pp. 170-1)

It is not just, as has been seen, that these grants are often an indirect and subtle subsidy to American businessmen. More than that, the hungry of the globe have been paying larger and larger tribute each year in order to be helped. The UN Economic Survey of the world during 1965 put the matter quite succinctly. In that year the self-help efforts of the Third World resulted in an increase in saving (that is to say, of the surplus they were able to deduct from their meager and sometimes starving, consumption) of 6 percent. But at the same time there was an outflow to the advanced countries in interest and profit that went up by 10 percent. As a result, the UN concluded, the developing countries were sending back more than half the funds they receive! (p. 172-3)

The oil industry, then, acts according to the classic Leninist scenario. It profiteers in the Third World, supports local reaction, opposes democratic and modernizing movements and sometimes is able to treat the United States as if it were a hired plant security guard. At almost every point the result has been to make American foreign policy more reactionary. If the country’s international actions were dedicated toward the creation of a world in which the gap between the rich and poor nations would be reduced, the oil industry would suffer. The resultant misery of various millionaires would be real, but it would not overturn the American economy. The catch is, of course, political. Oil is tremendously powerful in Washington, and therefore any hope of a truly democratic foreign policy would require the death of its domestic influence. (p. 195)

In his farewell message President Eisenhower had said of the ‘immense military establishment,’ which was ‘new in the American experience,’ that its ‘total influence – economic, political even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of Federal Government.’ If America were to embark on a genuinely democratic foreign policy and seek to create  a new world in which the gap between the rich and poor nations would be abolished, this vested interest in death would be threatened. For an emphasis on international construction, massive investments in men and money in the Third World, and disarmament would reverse the priorities which have prevailed in the postwar period. (p. 201)

A vast increase in war spending, on the other hand, is almost always accompanied by an end to social innovation. The emotion of patriotism unites the entire nation, and class differences are submerged in the common effort. In the case of a shooting conflict, the military obligingly dispenses with competitive principles and adopts uneconomic methods like cost-plus contracts (when it is necessary in a conservative cause, or in fighting a war, America is always ready to turn its back on the myths of the market economy, bust such idealism is almost never applied to truly idealistic projects). (p. 201)

For these, and many other reasons the American Congress will enthusiastically vote $50, $60, or even $70 billion for defense while it haggles over a less than $2 billion appropriation for fighting poverty. And it is dangerous to think that, as peace begins to break out, it would be simple enough to transfer funds from the work of destruction to that of construction, The socialization of death is, thus far at least, much more generally popular than the socialization of life. A shift of money from Defense to, say Health Education and Welfare would demand a basic turn toward the democratic Left within society. (p. 201-2)

To begin with, the basic infrastructural needs of the poor nations – roads, education, cheap mass housing, etc. – are simply not profitable investments. Indeed, no one is really interested in building decent homes for the poverty stricken within the United States, and smart money would shun such an undertaking overseas even more so. As T.C. Blair has written, ‘…the criterion of profitability when applied to Africa too often leads to high monetary receipts but low real social benefits. Investors channel money into profitable export produce and minerals and avoid investment in ‘unprofitable’ homebuilding, school construction and low cost food protein production. Profitable external economies are created with a consequent stagnation of the domestic economy. Investment in the production of goods with high utility for low-income African consumers continually lags behind other investment sectors.’ This analysis fit Latin America perfectly. (p. 225)

So there is no easy road out of underdevelopment, and one must talk pragmatically about some sort of international mixed economy. Yet there is a crucial point which can be rather simply put: the Third World cannot put its faith in Adam Smith or any of his heirs, for the market mechanism is a cause of, rather than a solution to, its poverty. Understanding this fact will require that the United States get over some of its favorite prejudices. (p. 228)

For however it is done in a technical sense, the substance of every one of these ideas is the same: that the richest lands in history voluntarily surrender some of the advantages which they built into the very structure of the world economy and that money must be transferred from rich to poor rather than, as now, the other way around. This does not mean that the wealthy nations are supposed to opt for poverty in order to fulfill a moral obligation to the less fortunate of the globe. It simply means that these affluent countries will enrich themselves at a somewhat slower rate and without pushing the majority of the world’s population more deeply into misery. This can be done. There are sober and intelligent proposals which have already demonstrated the possibility of creating a new world by changing the present injustice of aid and trade. So the crucial question is not technical but political. (p. 239-40)

But there was, and is, another form of anti-communism. It sought some alternative to communism and the status quo, for it recognized the right and necessity of revolution but struggled that it might be democratic, not totalitarian. The views of Galbraith and Robert Kennedy, discussed at length earlier, are obviously in this tradition. Indeed, this attitude regularly provided the official rhetoric for American involvement in the Cold War itself. ‘The seeds of totalitarian regimes’ Harry Truman said in 1947, ‘are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life ahead has died.’ (p.243)

The United States and the Soviet Union, having brought mankind to the brink of nuclear holocaust, could simply walk away from the Cold War, retreat into their separate self-interests and respect each other’s injustices. Or the United States could take the lead in a gigantic international effort for the reconstruction of the world. There are economic arguments for such a course and they should be stated. But ultimately if this is to be done it will happen because the deep-running force of American idealism bursts the channels in which the generals and executives have confined it and takes its own direction. That is the politics of hope. (p. 245)

When there was hope, people joined together for militant action which proclaimed their dignity. This was the way of the original revolutionists, of the Abolitionists, the populists, the trade-unionists, the civil-right activists and all the others who constitute the living tradition of the American Left. But when fear predominates, as today, this very same independence of spirit drives a man to defend his own equality by attacking his neighbor’s. (p.278)

There is no consensus possible with such men as long as they hold to their institutional values. The Left must therefore attack their power democratically and nonviolently and thereby widen the areas in which people organizing themselves politically are stronger than money. For when a free society avoids conflict, that is not an act of civic prudence but a surrender to the manipulative elites which work behind the façade of unanimity. (p.283)

Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist

From Terry Gibbs, Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist.

[Gibbs shows in this tome how the fundamental values of socialism and Buddhism are aligned using his deep experience in both traditions. ]

Resolving those contradictions, according to Marx, requires a solid understanding of how economic systems (or ‘modes of production’ in Marxist lingo) have functioned throughout history and how the related institutional structures give rise to particular social relations. Marx’s work in many ways laid the ground for the concept of structural violence, although the term wasn’t coined until the late 1960’s by peace activist and academic Johan Galtung. The approach Marx developed to understand the mechanics of particular economic systems demonstrates how economic structures throughout history have embodied particular forms of violence and suffering and how those structures have benefited some social groups or classes and disadvantaged others.

Gary Leech argues that ‘structural violence manifests itself in many ways, but its common theme is the deprivation of peoples’ basic needs as a result of existing social structures. Those basic needs include food, healthcare and other resources essential for achieving a healthy existence and fullest human development possible. Such inequality is rooted in the oppression of one group by another.’  Galtung notes that without a specific individual ‘perpetrator’, structural violence can be much more insidious than direct physical violence. ‘There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances. Resources are unevenly distributed. … Above all the power over the distribution of resources is unevenly distributed.’ (p. 62)

But it is not only the indigenous peoples’ way of knowing that have systematically marginalized in our education systems in capitalist societies. And it is not only Canada’s indigenous peoples who are being channeled into business and professional studies – these are issues for youth throughout the world. Responsible parents do not encourage their children to study philosophy, especially responsible parents from the global South. Obviously students have to figure out how to earn a living in our world, but the areas where this is possible under capitalism have become narrower and narrower and an individual’s value is largely determined by their capacity to generate income and profit in the market. Naturally then, many parents want their children to become business people, doctors or lawyers as opposed to philosophers, artists or musicians. As a society, we are making these kinds of choices about what is important, about values we want to cultivate, and about what kind of world we want to live in.

As a socialist lens makes clear, in many ways, and for many years now, our approach to higher education suggests we cannot afford to have an education system that does not feed practically into the capitalist economy. The belief that a university should be a place in our society in which we have space to nurture the well-rounded human being has almost become a quaint notion. In our current era of corporate globalization, being able to respond to respond to the demands of the ‘market’ is the key job of administrators, and marketing the university’s ‘brand’ is the most important role of the development office. Educators increasingly need to prove themselves as ‘sustainable’ within this context and students need to strategically choose the appropriate professions. This state of affairs does not mean that everyone has made this shift willingly or that nothing good happens at universities anymore. I am speaking here about a general trend. The education system is an important space in which societies should be able to engage in critical discussions about their priorities and directions. (p. 78-9)

All of this consumerism might not be so problematic if we were actually fulfilled by it and were not harming ourselves, others and the planet. As I noted previously, the problem is not that we consumer per se, but rather that those of us with sufficient wealth are engaged in rampant consumerism which, as Marxists remind us, requires a production system, that by necessity, cannot be bothered with questions related to the environment or the rights of living beings. It is not that powerholders in the capitalist system enjoy causing suffering to others and nature, it’s just the logic of capital accumulation requires those consequences of their profit-making remain secondary considerations. Therefore, a ‘right view’ requires a questioning of the logic of the growth model and a serious critique of consumerism. (p. 100-1)


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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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