Tuesday, December 30, 2014

reading and writing for a better world

In lieu of a “Best Books Read in 2014” list, I’ve been thinking about the kind of book I’d like to read in 2015.

Sure, there are many worthy and interesting titles on deck, from us and others, and I look forward to many of them.  But what I really crave is a new literature of political possibility, a speculative library that re-imagines that old socialist slogan for the 21st century: another world is possible.  I know, dream on.  But let’s!

I’m a diehard commie kid throwback, but I’ve had the bracing experience of being a daily Wall Street Journal reader for the past few months.  My friend Daniel convinced me that I really need to keep up with the weekend books section, which is actually quite good.  I thought I was signing up for a digital version of this review using flyer points from a bankrupt airline.  Turns out I was enlisting in daily delivery of the print edition, a service that is apparently impossible to turn off until it runs its course.  My love of newspapers is second only to my love of lost causes, but really, the Wall Street Journal has been tough to swallow every morning.

Tough, but illuminating.  Though it's often nauseating to read what the ruling class has to say to itself in its house organ, it's a useful exercise for someone dreaming of replacing them.  The editorial pages are composed entirely of shrill, right wing advocacy, a mirror image of the old Daily Worker where the fat cats are oppressed instead of the workers.  This week, for example, the discerning leftist reader learns that the ruling class and its markets are not so very worried about the march of fundamentalism, but the possibility of a democratically elected Marxist  president in Greece is inducing apoplexy.

Imagine how different life might be with a mass circulation newspaper of the Left!  And by "the Left" I don’t mean simply liberalism with a backbone, of the Bernie Sanders variety.  In 2015 we desperately need a socialist/new communist movement that is not afraid of the words "organization" and "leadership", nor of the big core questions like “who should own and control the means of production?”  We need solutions that, in their scale, are worthy of the systemic problems they address.  We need writers who are willing and able to imagine a future where people, not corporations, are truly calling the shots. 

Capital has performed last rites on 20th century socialism, and received wisdom says only lunatics would try to resurrect it.  But the corpse still has things to say, and questions to ask.  What would it mean to live in a country where ownership of essential infrastructure- energy, transportation, and digital technology- was social rather than private?  Where profit was banished from the health care system?  Where industry and business was regulated in the public interest?  Where workers were guaranteed control of the workplace?  Where racism and economic inequality were addressed as a matter of national security?  Where government functioned at every level to make sure public good takes precedence over private gain when it comes to natural resources?  Socialism once asked these questions, and they still call for imaginative answers.

Yes, it sounds like a kind of science fiction, but this is the book I want to read.  If we can have dozens of depressing fantasy novels about the future, why not a socialist one?  Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, P.D. James’ The Children of Men are both great dystopian novels, but is there no room for a modern utopian political page-turner?    Activists can agitate but writers are uniquely equipped to show us that another world is possible.

When it comes to imagining socialism,  looking forward is inevitably looking backward (or Looking Backward!)  There was something called “actually existing socialism” that didn’t work out so well, and it’s been an effective ideological club to keep anyone interested in salvaging remnants invisible. 

Communism of the Soviet variety may have been a colossal failure, but it was the first stab at putting ideas of collective ownership in power.  It took capitalism many attempts to replace feudalism in the Middle Ages.  And even today, Capital forgives itself every spectacular failure, while the socialist idea is dismissed based on one big try.

The apologists of capitalism aren’t satisfied with burying the idea of socialism.  To complete the job, it’s important to render the lives and reputations of the millions of 20th century people who fought for socialism worthless and wasted- delusional at best, traitorous at worst.  So this would make another great book subject.  As part of my 2015 literary socialist redemption project, I’m looking forward to reading about the ordinary people who, as one red diaper baby wrote, “learned to pay a special kind of attention to the world.”

Perhaps it’s the poets we need for this job as well as the novelists.  Gary Snyder, in a 2000 May Day speech in Portland Oregon, summed up my 2015 feelings exactly:

Let’s drink a toast to all those farmers, workers, artists and intellectuals of the last hundred years who, without thought of fame and profit, worked tirelessly in their dream of a worldwide socialist revolution.  Who believed and hoped a new world was dawning, and that their work would contribute to a society in which one class does not exploit another,  where one ethnic group or one nation does not try to expand itself over another, and where men and women live as equals.  The people who nourished these hopes and dreams were sometimes foolishly blind to the opportunism of their own leadership, and many were led into ideological absurdities.  But the great majority of them selflessly worked for socialism with the best of hearts.  The failure of socialism is the tragedy of the 20th century, and we should honor the memory of those who struggled for the dream of what socialism might have been.  And begin a new way again.