Dreaming of our future

July 22, 2010
Part 3

At the Socialism 2010 conference in Oakland, Calif., SocialistWorker.org contributor Leela Yellesetty spoke on "What Would Socialism Be Like?" This three-part article is based on her talk. In the final part, she looks at the challenges that would face a socialist society--and the possibilities and resources for meeting them.

HERE, I want to change gears a bit. So far, I've dealt mainly with the historical experiences of the working-class movement and what they say about the future. But from here on out, I want to invite you all to do a little dreaming with me. I'll start by sharing a great passage from Lenin's What Is To Be Done, which the Russian revolutionary leader begins with the words: "We should dream!"

Lenin imagines the objections of other socialists: "[H]as a Marxist any right at all to dream, knowing that according to Marx, mankind always sets itself the tasks it can solve, and that tactics is a process of the growth of Party tasks, which grow together with the Party?"

He then responds by quoting the Russian radical Dimitri Pisarev about the "rift between dreams and reality":

There are rifts and rifts. My dream may run ahead of the natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed. In the first case, my dream will not cause any harm; it may even support and augment the energy of the working men...

There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyze labor-power. On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to lend shape, then I cannot at all imagine what stimulus there would be to induce man to undertake and complete extensive and strenuous work in the sphere of art, science and practical endeavor...

The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life, then all is well.

Students marching to defend public education on the March 4 2010 national day of action

SO LET'S say we do have a successful revolution in this country, and it begins to spread to others. What will happen?

In the first instance, there will need to be a government and people's army of some sort to defend the revolution from the remnants of the ruling class, who, as we've seen in past examples, will not give up their wealth and power without a fight.

Eventually, though, the point of a workers' state is to work its way out of a job--because the role of any state is as a tool for one class to rule over others. The capitalist class, as a minority, needs a powerful state to keep down a much larger working class, on which it depends for its wealth and power. The working class, on the other hand, doesn't need the capitalists at all. Ultimately, any type of workers' state will eventually become unnecessary and begin to wither away.

The workers' state can immediately begin implementing a series of measures that, step by step, abolish profits and the free market, replace them with conscious, democratic planning of the economy. Some of these changes I mentioned earlier--for example, taxing the rich and using the money to provide free health care, housing and education for all.

Socialism wouldn't be able to get rid of money right away, but the banks could be nationalized and put under workers' control--which, for the record, in case anyone is still confused about what we mean by socialism, is way different from giving billions of taxpayer dollars to Goldman Sachs.

Instead of bankers' bonuses going for things like a diamond-encrusted SUV with a whale-penis leather interior--that's for real, I saw it on TV--we could use the money to build, for instance, the best public transportation system the world has ever seen.

It might be fitting here to discuss the idea of private versus personal property. There are many scare stories about how "under socialism, the government will take away your toothbrush" or whatever. But when we socialists talk about collectivizing private property, we're not talking about personal property, like your house or your television. What we mean are the means of production: factories, hospitals, schools, etc.--i.e., the kinds of property most of us don't own, even though we may spend most of our lives working on that property and making the few people who own it very wealthy.

Now, there could be an exception for the personal property of the very richest people. Workers could decide, I think reasonably, that no one needs four yachts, for instance.

But for most of us, though, socialism will be about having more of everything, not less. Right away, the workday could be decreased dramatically--first off, just by leveling out all the people who are unemployed, with those working overtime or multiple jobs.

Also, we could get rid of whole industries that are completely useless in any real sense.

Prison construction--that would go. The vast majority of people behind bars are there for nonviolent crimes and should be released immediately. The motivation for most crimes today--poverty--will no longer exist. Some people will be in need of mental health treatment, but ultimately, I think there will be fewer of them, as society becomes less distorting of people's humanity. For instance, not one more soldier will come back with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the short run, we may need to lock up some CEOs if they put up too much of a fight, but either way, we certainly don't need any more jails than we already have.

Advertising is another big waste. How many people will be truly sorry to never see another commercial again? All those millions of dollars that go into convincing us that Coke is better than Pepsi, as if it were the most pressing issue facing humanity--think about how else those creative efforts could be spent.

Without the need to sell as much as possible to maximize profits, who gets produced and how it's made will also change. There will be no incentive to intentionally build products that wear out and break quickly, like my fucking Dell laptop, or come up with 30 different types of toothpaste that do essentially the same thing.

These are just a few examples. And they'll be all the more possible in a society where we have much more free time. Harvard economist Juliet Schor has concluded that it would be possible to have a four-hour workday with no decline in the standard of living in a society that made sure every person had a job and that gave free reign to technological innovation.

Meanwhile, years before issues of climate change and peak oil grabbed public attention, economist J.W. Smith forecast: "We're facing an ecological nightmare as we push to the brink the earth's ability to support us. We could eliminate much industrial pollution and conserve our precious, dwindling resources by eliminating the 50 percent of industry that is producing nothing useful for society." More recently, Smith examined the U.S. economy sector by sector and concluded, "We could all work 2.3 days per week with no drop in our living standard."

WHAT ALL this means is that in a socialist society, we would have time to focus on the things that really matter to us. We'd also have the time and energy to actively participate in making decisions about how society is run. The communications technology and corporate media that is now used primarily to sell things and perpetuate the ruling ideas of capitalism could be turned loose under public control to facilitate the most widespread and varied debate.

Then there's the perennial objection: If we lived in a socialist society, who would do the shit jobs. Socialists will know this objection well--people ask us the famous question: Would you pay a doctor the same as a janitor?

First of all, under socialism, nobody would be forced to work a shit job their whole lives, which is what happens under capitalism. A lot of the most unpleasant tasks could be automated if making money wasn't the highest priority dictating how technology is used. If we have the technical capability to send spaceships to Mars, surely we can invent a machine to take out the garbage.

Unlike under capitalism, where advances of technology often end up hurting workers--think of the automated checkout machines that have displaced grocery workers in many stores--under socialism, these advances could make everyone's lives easier. And whatever work couldn't be automated would be shared out, instead of being shoved onto the most desperate and vulnerable in society.

The second part of the answer to the objection to socialism goes to the question of motivation.

There's a pervasive idea in our society that the only thing that motivates people to work is money, and that without a huge monetary reward, nobody would opt to be, say, a doctor--everyone would want the "easier" job of janitor.

But that's ridiculous on so many levels. First of all, we should all be thankful that not all doctors are in it just for the money--I'd venture to guess that most have some interest in caring for people.

I also sometimes wonder at why janitors get so much less respect. After all, this is hard and often dangerous work. But beyond that, I once heard a presentation from a public health official who pointed out that public sanitation is one of the biggest public health innovations of all time. Arguably, garbage men save more lives every day than doctors--by stopping all sorts of people from ever getting sick in the first place. Yet like all work under capitalism, this particular job is valued based on the class and pay scale of the people who do it, not by the value it contributes to society.

I've been conducting an informal survey for years, asking people what they'd do if they weren't forced to work all the time to survive. In all my years of doing this, I've never had anyone say, "I'd just like zone out in front of the TV all day, every day, for the rest of my life."

Now don't get me wrong, it's something myself and millions of others feel like doing most nights. But that's because we just got done working all day again at the same stupid job, and we're exhausted and brain-dead.

In my opinion, nothing people do for their own personal enjoyment and fulfillment should be considered a waste of time. Certainly, we all deserve to take the time to just have fun and relax.

Even so, what strikes me from doing this informal survey is that a lot of what people would want to do for "fun" is actually very productive and creative for society as a whole.

Under capitalism, any time we have for leisure is considered, essentially, useless time. And yet, if it weren't for this so-called wasted time, we would miss many great works of art and beautiful athletic feats and breakthrough innovations that nobody saw coming. Under capitalism, though, leisure time is mostly the preserve of select few. Under socialism, everyone will have the time and ability to develop themselves to their fullest creative potential.

My mother is a preschool teacher, and therefore a big defender of playtime. In fact, there's actually a large amount of research on the importance of unstructured play for brain development in children. Playtime can promote important skills like problem-solving.

This got me thinking about a math class in elementary school that was only for supposedly "gifted" kids--in which all we did the whole time was play games! We were learning math and having fun at the same time, and I had to ask: Wouldn't everyone learn better that way?

IT'S ONE of the most astounding inventions of capitalism to take essentially human activities as learning and work, and make them so unbearable.

In his pamphlet on The Future Socialist Society, the British socialist John Molyneux described beautifully how the division between work and play, between manual and mental labor, will gradually break down. At that point:

Everyone will become both a producer and a planner of production. Everyone will have the time, the energy and the education to participate in the collective shaping of the environment--work which will require the fusion of artistic, scientific, technical and social knowledge, and that will be a collective, creative process.

In these conditions, work will become--in Marx's words--"not only a means of life, but life's prime want." It will cease to be a wearisome necessity and become a positive pleasure--a means of individual and collective human expression.

One caricature of socialism is that it is all about conformity. But it's capitalism that stifles human individuality and freedom of expression. Just look at the endless repetition of identical chain stores and fast-food restaurants all over the country. Look at how cruelly young people, in particular, are treated if they look or act even the slightest bit different. For LGBT youth, the consequences can be particularly dire.

Here, I'll end with a kind of bittersweet thought. The reality is that even if we win a socialist world in our lifetime--and I really, really hope we do--our lives will be a million times better than they are now, but even that will pale in comparison to what future generations will get to experience.

Imagine growing up in a world in which you've never known war or exploitation or oppression, a world in which the needs of people and the planet come first. Imagine a world where people have never heard of a prison before--and can't even get their head around the concept of it.

The possibilities in that kind of world would be endless--and beyond our wildest imagination. What we do know, though, is that's a world worth fighting for, and I hope our generation goes down in the history books as the ones who made it happen.

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