Snow days under socialism

April 21, 2015

The Northeast is emerging from a season of record snowfall and cold. Would such winters be different in a socialist society? Owen Hill has some answers from Maine.

AFTER ONE of the hardest winters in recent memory, spring has finally arrived in New England. Pummeled week after week between January and March with one storm after another, the region was transformed into a frozen tundra. Some cities, like Boston, shattered all-time records--Boston had 110 inches of seasonal snowfall, nearly three times the yearly average--but everywhere along the coast experienced total snowfalls far above average, the product of increasingly severe storms connected to global warming.

My home of Portland, Maine, was transformed into a eight-week nightmare of parking bans, dangerously low temperatures and the churning burden of just making it through each day.

It may seem a trivial challenge--lots of snow--but E.J. Graft got it right in a New York Times article titled "Boston's winter from hell":

[F]or those of us living here, it's not a pretty picture. We are being devastated by a slow-motion natural disaster of historic proportions. The disaster is eerily quiet. There are no floating bodies or vistas of destroyed homes. But there's no denying that this is a catastrophe.

A subway station in Cambridge
A subway station in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Notably, more than just the snow, it was the storms' intersection with neoliberalism that made the winter so unbearable. As Dana Mittenbacher pointed out at, Boston experienced a near total collapse of public transportation. This collapse was a direct result of decades of underfunding, budget cuts and free-marketization that left infrastructure weak and vulnerable.

In Portland, the trials have not been as great, but a cursory survey of the potholes, unplowed streets and dangerously icy sidewalks showed that precisely the same forces--natural as well as social--were at work in Maine as well as Massachusetts.

And gutting public infrastructure wasn't the only way that neoliberalism brought out the worst that the winter storms had to offer. It was also the speed-up at work, the shredding of social safety nets and the fracturing and atomization of communities. All of these factors combined to leave people tired, frustrated, isolated, scared and cold.

Snowstorm after snowstorm was dealt with in more or less the same fashion, while people grew more desperate and more exhausted with each passing week. Workplaces remained open while public transit ground to a halt. Children were given snow days--but not adults.

Desperate for adequate child care, losing money from missed shifts, walking on dangerous streets and shoving our way into crowed trains, people became quickly agitated, and stress permeated all interactions. With each new snowfall, it became that much more difficult to cope with, much less enjoy, the snow.

LIKE ALL natural forces, fierce winters interact with humanity in contradictory ways. There is, at one and the same time, the chilling cold and the warming fire. The deadly threat of being exposed to the elements sits opposite and adjacent to the sense of hearth, home and hygge that comes when close company gathers in the cold and dark.

The work that snow brings--the shoveling, the plowing, the trudging--is counterposed to the joy--the forts and fights, the sculptures and skis. These elements of the human experience exist side by side, in contradiction, but together forming a piece of the totality of our experience of the winter.

Yet while all these elements are present under capitalism, they are both atrophied or ignored. The pleasure atrophies in the face of an unceasing workload, while the suffering is shuffled aside, pushed out of sight and fictionalized away. This isn't accidental--it's woven into the fabric of capitalism.

Capitalism is not a system based on meeting human need or fulfilling human desires, but on mediating them though and subordinating them to the priorities of profit. Whether a product or service fulfills the deepest needs or satiates burning desires is irrelevant if it does not do so profitably. The only question that matters in our society is: "Can we make money off selling it?"

To be sure, this question is often answered in the affirmative. Jacket makers, ski resorts, snowshoe companies and hot chocolate brands all answer with a firm "yes," while simultaneously meeting very real human needs and desires--the consumption of warm chocolate beverages, of course, being the most important among them.

But at least as often, the answer is "no." Businesses stand only to lose money if they gave their employees paid days off because of the snow--and where exactly is the profit in housing and warming those who have no money to pay for them? So while the image of snow may be a powerful marketing strategy, propelling retailers across America into the black on the fourth Friday of each November, the reality of snow is quite the opposite.

It makes workforces less productive, threatening to cut crucial days out of the production schedule, while at the same time raising shipping costs and increasing the need for tax money to be raised and invested in public infrastructure. Somewhere, a CEO is weeping. Capitalists recognize gray skies and falling white for what they are under capitalism: just another barrier to free trade. A barrier that must be overcome.

For it is crucial to remember that capitalism is a system of international competition. So while capitalists in one region may be equally constrained by these challenges to their ability to make money, their national and global competitors are not. Instead, these competitors are allowed crucial opportunities to get a leg up on competitors in snow-stricken states.

Thus, the endless drive to keep going is a product of the system as a whole, not the fault of individual capitalists. In the face of the winter of 2014-15, it was not the capriciousness or cruelty of individuals that prevented the wheels of society from even slowing down--it was the logic of capitalism itself.

ALL THIS begs the question: What would winter look like a different world? What might change in a socialist society? In a world where ordinary people democratically control their workplaces and their world how, would we navigate the contradictions of winter differently, making room for the pleasures while coping with the challenges?

Of course, because such a society would be based on the democratic input of everyone involved, it is impossible to establish beforehand exactly how such a society would deal with any given winter. But it is at least worth hazarding some guesses, sketching out some ideas--if for no other reason than to reaffirm our hopes and aspirations that a different world is possible. And if there was ever a time to rekindle our fires, it is after the last three monstrous months.

First, it's worth saying that in a socialist society, the first priority would be meeting the basic needs of everyone. Houses without people would immediately be filled by people without houses--a logical and immediate way to solve the crisis of homelessness that currently exists side by side with the "crisis" of the overproduction of homes, the bubble which burst in 2007, leading directly to the Great Recession.

The right to have a home would replace the right to buy a home. And just like the right to housing, the right to heating would also be guaranteed by society--replacing the "right" to scrimp and save our way through the deadly cold.

A society based on human need would also radically transform our cities and their transportation networks. Clearing, salting and sanding roads is one of the largest expenses for every city during the winter, while cars--illogical, dangerous and wasteful in the best of times--slide their way through city streets, burning fuel and threatening pedestrian safety during every storm.

A society with democratically planned cities based on human need would doubtlessly transform these transit systems, most likely shifting to transit based on rail. Not only would this reduce danger and waste, it would also transform the space taken up by cars--the roads and parking lots--into spaces for humans. Sites of danger would become sites of play, perfect places to build a snow fort or to go skiing.

And skiing raises the important question of pedestrian mobility. Even with rails in place, how would people get to and from? In winters past, locomotion was dominated by skis and snowshoes. For instance, here in Portland, Maine, in the 19th and early 20th century, instead of clearing the streets, the city would pack them down, using logs, barrels and horses to make travel by way of sleigh and ski much easier. What might these techniques look like given all the advances in productive technology over the last 150 years? A pair of skis for every person? Public ski racks in neighborhood centers and train stations?

Additionally, the questions of work and time off would be radically transformed. What "counted" as work under socialism would be totally different than it is today. What if the time you spent shoveling or checking in on your neighbors after a snowstorm was counted as part of your workweek instead of being added on top of it? What if people didn't get one paid snow day during big storms--much better than what most workers have currently--but got three? One day to help clear the snow, one day to check on your neighbors and one day to play--to actually enjoy one of the earth's greatest gifts.

It is also easy to imagine how Northern cities could organize themselves around the principle of long, yearly vacations during the winter. Imagine if every person in Boston had paid time off not only for the holidays, but also got to choose between taking the whole month of January or February off.

Then imagine having the resources to use that time for a real vacation. Vacationers could take high-speed rail South--go all the way to equatorial states or the Southern Hemisphere, eat delicious food and lay on the beach reading. Or they could go North, to see the Northern Lights and relish in the long dark, the still beauty of winter in its most extreme.

WITHOUT QUESTION, these suggestions, sketches and hopes are riddled with holes, pitfalls and unforeseen challenges. They are simultaneously too large and too small, too unwieldy and yet totally inadequate.

But how could it be otherwise? They are my ideas, the product of one person's thoughts. When placed, as they ought to be, next to the creativity and productive energies of the truly democratic wellspring of collective human effort that we know as socialism--but what our grandchildren will know as the only sensible way to live--they will doubtless appear flimsy, pale and shallow.

The glow in the minutes before dawn can never replace the rise of the sun--it merely heralds its arrival. It is not for us to know the wonders and humilities that a society liberated from the prison of private interest will produce. It is for us to fight so that one day, they might be realized.

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