EDITED AND HOSTED BY THE GREANVILLE POST
CROSSOVERS: From bourgeois consciousness to socialism
Here are three questions I would propose to the people who read this article:
- Other than being a Red Diaper Baby, what is the process by which people came to socialism and how did they handle the disapproval of their families and long-term friends?
- How does having a framework for capitalism make it easier to understand what’s going on?
- In spite of their grand visions, why are many American socialists so hard to be around?
I Live Two Lives
Coming outI recently found a letter I wrote to my liberal friends and family on September 23, 2001. In it I expressed my horror at the direction in which I saw our country headed. Looking back at it now, I feel a tenderness for that little blooming flower who was just dipping her toes into the water of socialism. In this letter I talked about how horrifying it was for me to watch the mainstream media inferring that most Americans supported Bush and his policy of “wanted, dead or alive” (yes, he really did say that.) However, I still believed that we should “find our enemies and punish them”, but in a civilized way. I encouraged my friends to listen to alternative media and to stop shopping at stores that do not practice social responsibility. I invited them to “have a dialogue” with me about it. Most of them didn’t, and I’ve lost a few along the way.
Many of my liberal friends would tell me that Bill Gates was doing wonderful things by donating much of his income to charities to make the world a better place. They never questioned why one person should be in charge of making the decisions about which charity gets what amount of money and not another. Nor do they question the very premise of why one single person can have that much money as others suffer in poverty.
One of the things I’ve done in order to accommodate the two worlds I straddle is to create two separate Facebook pages. One is my Suzy Creamcheese page, taken from the Franz Zappa song and proposed by my partner, Bruce Lerro, a lifelong socialist, after I kept referring to it as my “Fit for Friends and Family” page. The other is my political page. On Suzy Creamcheese I post about personal events in my life - moves, our new home, grandchildren, social interactions, jokes and observations. On my political page, I post what I really think about what’s going on in the world, as seen through the lens of a socialist.
I created my political page in 2011 as my political views had shifted even further to the left and I discovered that many of my friends and family were offended by some of my posts. I was pretty excited about sharing my involvement with Occupy, protests and other leftist groups. However, these posts received tepid response, at best. One of my friends even wrote “Barbara – you need to rest. It's hard work being a rebel!!!” Some responses were more confrontive, questioning my involvement and actions. To these I gave often lengthy responses, usually not appreciated. In 2016 I was accused by one friend of being responsible for Trump’s election because I refused to vote for Shillery. Even though I gave that friend the boot, I decided it would be more satisfying to keep those posts to my political page.
Right now, as I watch the posts on my Suzy Creamcheese page, I’m disgusted by the numbers of friends who are ecstatic over Biden’s pick for VP – Kamala Harris. It’s hard to imagine any politician, black or white, who has done more to harm blacks through her hard-core defense of keeping people in prison even when they have been unfairly convicted because of her “tough on crime” position.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that they violated the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Three years later, in early 2014, the state was ordered to allow non-violent, second time offenders who have served half of their sentence to be eligible for parole. Daily Beast, Feb. 11, 2019 That, however, did not stop Kamal Harris. They are needed, she argued, to maintain a large prisoner workforce – or to name it what it truly is – slave labor.
Added to this is the liberal instance on “Voting Blue No Matter Who”. I want to say to them – could the DNC have picked an even weaker candidate than Biden? But as he’s already said to his wealthy donors – “nothing would fundamentally change”.
I’m finding that I’m spending less and less time on my Suzy Creamcheese page and much more time on my political page. Big surprise.
From Flatland to Spaceland
Flatland is a book written by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884. The story revolves around people who are living in a two-dimensional world - Flatland. They know nothing of the third dimension. The protagonist in the book, a square, who Abbott names Square, in a dream visits a one-dimensional world that is populated by points and called Lineland. Since the points cannot see Square in two dimensions, they try to kill him when he attempts to help them to see that there is another dimension besides the one in which they’re living. Ultimately, Square has a vision of a three-dimensional world. In the beginning he is only able to perceive a circle. In time he is able to see this world for himself - Spaceland. He discovers that the leaders of Flatland, while being aware of Spaceland, are so fearful of letting the public know about this that anyone who tries to talk about it is considered a heretic and is either killed or sent to prison. Still, Square wants to spread the word. So, he returns to Flatland and tries to convince his fellow citizens that there’s a whole other dimension that exists called Spaceland. No one believes him, they think he's crazy and the leaders of the state, seeing him as a threat to their power, arrest and imprison him.
Becoming aware of another dimension from which I could make sense of how our government is run, and all aspects of society, brought me into Spaceland – and there’s been no going back. My introduction to socialism taught me another way to imagine how societies could be organized which would include enough food, shelter, education, healthcare and jobs for all. There could be a world in which the citizens formed councils, with rotating members, so all decisions about societies are made by its citizens, with a focus on taking care of all of them equally. My introduction to Spaceland came with the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, when we were living in Oakland, CA.
“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.” “Doubtless we cannot see that other higher Spaceland now, because we have no eye in our stomachs.” “It fills all Space, and what It fills, it is.” Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
Framework for Capitalism
I learned, through my studies, that there are actually two types of capitalism. The first is from the profits made on paper – the finance capital of the banks. The second is industrial [or manufacturing capital] the capital that comes from the production of real goods and services, including the infrastructure.
Understanding industrial vs financial capitalism
Most people think that making profits is a good thing, not understanding that much of the wealth that is generated by these profits comes from the bets – in the form of stock options – that capitalists place on whatever company is selling the goods and services. That fictitious wealth is not backed up by anything concrete, like gold. Therefore, when confidence in a particular company or industry is lost, their value will go down and the workers will be out of jobs. All the people who are not capitalists who invested in that company will also lose all the money they invested in it. Having a framework showed me that the stock market has little or nothing to do with the real capitalist economy which is getting worse and worse. We can see this today as the stock market periodically soars in spite the cold fact that more people are unemployed than since the Great Depression and businesses are closing at an alarming rate.
International capitalist politics is about extracted land, labor and natural resources
Even before I became a socialist, I never bought that the US went into other countries to bring them the fruits of civilization. But I didn’t understand how US foreign policy was connected to the workings of capitalism. When capitalists have a unionized working class and they must compete with other capitalists for land, both of these conditions limit the rate of profit for capitalists. Capitalists are also constrained by the natural resources in their home territory. All three of these limitations are overcome when capitalists become imperialists, seizing cheap land and non-unionized cheap labor abroad. In addition, capitalists transform subsistence agriculture into commercial agricultural products such as coffee, sugar and tobacco for sale in a world market. Capitalists exploit the natural resources in mines in Africa and oil in West Asia and the Middle East. Since all capitalist countries are in the same boat, subject to the same systemic dynamics and iron laws controlling what a capitalist economy can do and cannot do (without leaving the capitalist matrix), the wars which result from their conflicts are imperial struggles over the land, labor and resources of the “colonised nations”—this was seen most clearly in the initial period of imperialist/colonialist expansion. Without imperialism, developed capitalist societies cannot sustain themselves, they lose momentum. After finally grasping these essential aspects of the capitalist system—usually rendered less offensive by using bland or totally deceiving labels such as “The Market System”, the “free Enterprise System,” and the most devious of all, “the American Way of Life”, equating the national identity with capitalism—I saw for the first time that all the political posturing of diplomats and all the blather about “western democracy” had nothing to do with what was really going on.
Racism is a social product of capitalism, not a psychological problem
Within a capitalist society, racism is encouraged on the job as a way to divide and conquer the working class. It’s important for the capitalists to do that because the working class is the most likely to make a revolution, as has been proven throughout history, but this can only be done if they are united and properly led. Many people think racism is a result of stupid thinking or ignorance. Understanding capitalism within a framework helps us to understand that there is something in it for capitalists to divide the races. If the races fight each other or, similarly, if the working class in split into various hostile segments—rather than joining together to fight the owning class, these capitalists have a much better chance of keeping wages low, not to mention dampening the potential for a successful insurrection. We can see this division not only being kept alive today, but actually becoming much more acceptable in right-wing circles, given the openly racist views of our current president and the actions of the police against demonstrators, particularly Black demonstrators.
The heart of the difference in social classes is the extraction of the surplus labor by the capitalists from the working class
Before becoming a socialist, I believed that the economy was a kind of neutral playing field in which all classes competed for resources. In this competition, some classes did better than others. What I didn’t understand is that the basis of ruling class wealth was the exploitation of working-class surplus labor as is described in Marx’s section, The Working Day, in Marx’s Das Capital. I used to think that the source of capitalist profit came from their shrewdness in “buying cheap and selling dear”. I did not understand the ultimate, most predictable source of profit was the exploitation of labor in the workplace. Lastly, like most people in the United States, when it came to discussing social class I thought that income was the determining criteria. I didn’t understand that at a much deeper level, social class has to do with:
- Whether you own or don’t own the means of subsistence (tools, machinery, land, the harnessing of energy, etc.)
- Whether you are an order-giver or an order-taker
- Whether you do mental or physical work
- The proportion of creative vs mechanical work you do on the job
There is a great deal of unnecessary pain families undergo when, after siblings leave home, they often wind up in different social classes, and of course, they “drift apart”. Family ideological mystification forbids talking about real sibling differences in terms of class because, after all, “we’re family”. Here is an example within my own family:
When my daughter, who was raised by me in a solidly middle-class environment, was planning her wedding, she envisioned a modest ceremony followed by a small celebration. She was convinced by my upper-middle class daughter-in-law, who had never had to work for a living – that she needed instead to have a big, blow-out affair. My daughter felt shamed into trying to do that until my partner, Bruce, and I talked with her. We explained the differences in class positions between her and her sister-in-law and that, in fact, my daughter and her fiancée could not afford a huge wedding, nor could I afford to help her pay for one. Neither could they afford to take out a loan which would have to be paid back over time or worse, to pay for everything on credit. We managed to get through to her and she ended up having a wonderful wedding on the beach in Santa Cruz, officiated by a friend, with a small gathering of friends in a reasonably-priced restaurant afterwards.
Many family conflicts that occur after siblings move out can be understood as social class conflicts which people pretend do not exist because, after all, “we’re family”.
The ruling class controls both political parties
Before I became a socialist, I knew the Republicans were the party of wealth, the party of hardcore conservatives and reactionaries, and they wanted to turn back the clock in terms of cultural and religious politics. I thought the Democratic Party was inept, weak but well intentioned. I also believed that the individual personalities within the Democratic Party could make a difference. In other words, voting for Bernie Sanders would be very different than say, voting for Cory Booker. My thinking was that individuals mattered more than the party.
However, after reading the work of William Domhoff, in Who Rules America, and The Powers that Be, I realized that both political parties are controlled by the same ruling class, specifically its ‘brains”—organisations like the Council of Foreign Relations, the Business Round Table and the National Association of Manufacturers, plus a bewildering number of academics and specialists serving in various advisory capacities. The Republicans and Democrats often have differences over cultural and religious politics. But these are minor - or in Alex Cockburn’s words - “not a dime’s worth of difference”. On major issues like the commitment to capitalism - suppression of the working class and a US foreign policy of imperial wars, being pro-Israel, anti-China, anti-Russia, anti-Iran and anti-Venezuela, and believing and practicing US exceptionalism to justify such policies - the parties are identical.
In the long run, electing Bernie Sanders would make little or no difference instead of transparent opportunist Cory Booker (marketed in the recent primaries as a new Obama to recharge that brand) since each takes their marching orders from the Democratic Party - and the Democratic Party takes its marching orders from the ruling class – the 0.0001%. These people represent a concentration of interlocked wealth and socioeconomic and political power that only multibillionaires and capitalist clans can command.
Addressing the pressing need to halt climate change is not profitable for capitalists
I used to wonder why the US was not more active in controlling climate change until I understood that it’s not profitable for the ruling class that owns the companies that actively contribute to it. Scientists have been telling us for decades that our way of life is creating global warming, particularly from gas and oil emissions. In fact, “The U.S. military produces more greenhouse gas emissions than possibly 140 countries.” Newsweek 6/25/2019
While many of us watch and agonize over this, carefully composting our food scraps and using recyclables while trying to limit our driving, these actions are but a butterfly in the face of a tsunami.
Everything, everything, took on a new meaning for me and I was able to connect all of it up to the inherent problems of capitalism; gender relations, wars, police repression, the fraudulent casino represented by the stock market. The framework within which we live is capitalism, the basis of which is to make a profit, almost always at the expense of the workers and the planet.
Framework for Socialism
Once I learned that true socialism means that the community as a whole makes the decisions about what gets produced, how much gets produced, how much the workers are paid and what is done with the profits, it was hard for me to understand why working folks would not want that. However, because the mainstream media promotes socialism as the anti-Christ, most of them fear it, or think it’s not realistic. One question I’ve frequently been asked in discussions about socialism is to name a country that has succeeded as socialist.
I start by explaining that it’s critical to understand that a single socialist country cannot thrive on its own if most of the world is based on a capitalist system. Then I point to some of the countries that are practicing at least some form of socialism and how they compare favorably to capitalist countries in the form of free health care, jobs for all, education for all, low cost housing and increased literacy. Countries that aspire to this include Norway, The Netherlands, Denmark, Cuba and Venezuela. As far as the lack of political diversity in parties in these countries, it is understandable that opposition needs to be limited because capitalists will use any opportunity to overthrow a socialist government, and constant war, overt and covert by any means necessary—economic sabotage, color revolution, sanctions, informational warfare (demonising the target nation), invasions, diplomatic warfare, and outright military assault, direct or indirect, are all regarded as fair in the American foreign policy toolbox. Another key thing to remember is that Washington is not content with merely having a nation operating according to the laws of capitalist exploitation. It must also surrender its sovereignty to America, or else, again, face the ugly regime change consequences outlined above.
The United States, with only one party representing one class—the oligarchy—but strutting around as if it really had two ideologically distinct parties, is not exactly a bastion of political choice. Parties, to be taken seriously, are created to represent actual, deeply held interests and beliefs in the population. They normally have a foundational ideology. In the Marxist sense, parties exist in a capitalist society to represent first and above all class interests. Thus, Marxists visualize only two legitimate party formations: that which represents the capitalists and that which represents the working class—everyone who must get up in the morning to work or else face economic penalties ranging from erosion of accumulated wealth and gradual fall in the standard of living (i.e, as in the case of members of the petit bourgeoise such as dentists, doctors, lawyers, etc.), and the bulk of the working class, who only have their labour power to sell and survive on, the basis of all actual social surplus value (profits).
In the case of the latter, usually in the millions, the people who normally work under capitalist employers and bosses, their labour power is seen by the capitalist class as a “commodity” to be sold and bought according to the laws of capitalist exchange, which means as cheaply as possible, just like any other input of production. For the workers, therefore, entering into a negotiation with the capitalists is almost always an exercise in unfair terms of trade. The capitalist usually has all the power, and the labor seller is at his mercy. Resting on accumulated wealth, and a hefty bank account and credit, the capitalist does not have to worry about his next meal, or a roof over his head, nor or that matter about any specific and easily replaceable worker. He can afford to be hardnosed about the terms he offers. But for the workers seeking employment to remain unemployed is to face destitution and possibly starvation. Lacking financial reserves, in fact frequently in debt, their economic unraveling can be swift, especially during periods of economic downturn when great numbers of people are seeking fewer and fewer jobs. This pressure when trying to secure employment is of course severely aggravated when the workers in question—man or woman—are also parents. Such stresses are "normal" under capitalism. But why do some many people regard such things as "part of life", or "inevitable"? I may examine this painful aspect of life under capitalism in a future article, but for the moment let me just say that a variety of factors explain such fatalism. For one thing, capitalist culture—from media to the political messages and even religion—condition people to accept the social arrangements that control their lives as the "natural order of society." "We'll always have the poor with us," are messages of conformity with the status quo that human beings have been hearing for centuries, perhaps millennia. For another, most people under capitalism have been deliberately indoctrinated from birth with myths that favour capitalist social relations and demonize any alternative, especially socialism.
It's clear then that in order for us to win the population over to socialism there needs to be a plan. To simply frame it within such a broad and utopian sounding way without presenting a coherent and understandable way to bring this about will not convince anyone. In Bruce Lerro’s article Do You Socialists Have Any Plans? Why We Need Socialist Architects , he outlines the need for a coherent plan for socialism in order to convince people that socialism is a better alternative than capitalism.
9-11 – No Blood for Oil
As soon as the news came of the World Trade Towers being hit, something in me changed forever. Watching the news was surreal and terrifying. Talk of war began almost immediately, with “W” putting the blame on Afghanistan – with absolutely no proof. What was even more alarming was watching how people reacted to it – many of whom jumped on the bandwagon of war.
Shortly after the attack, my partner, Bruce talked me into going to my first demonstration. Together we made signs to bring with us – “No War on Afghanistan”, “War is not the Answer”, “No Blood for Oil”. Making the signs was so much fun. We got old cardboard cartons from the grocery stores along with some long light-weight sticks from lumber stores to hold them up. We brainstormed ideas for what to write. Bruce’s signs always had much more content than mine. I went for the fewer words, the better.
The gathering was held in Palo Alto, CA, just outside the Stanford University Campus. We had to park our car some distance from the crowd and I felt self-conscious carrying our signs but marched on anyway. A political science faculty member, Joel Benin, gave an impassioned speech. I don’t remember what he said, but I was captivated. It was so sane, so true. People around us began chanting and we joined with them – NO WAR – NO WAR. This wasn’t a big demonstration, only a couple of hundred people, but everyone was in agreement that we could see where this drive to war was going, and we wanted to try to stop it. Being surrounded by these people was a heady experience, lifting me even further into Spaceland as I saw others who were already there smiling and shaking hands with me. I didn’t grasp the full implications of where my country was headed or what would be my involvement in the fight to stop it. Ultimately, that was the beginning of my journey to socialism.
ANSWER and San Francisco march, January 18, 2003
On my birthday in 2003, as Bush started beating the drums to go to war against Iraq, shifting the blame from Afghanistan to Iraq with no evidence, a newly formed organization called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism - ANSWER - organized a march in San Francisco that was attended by over 200,000 people. Bruce and I worked to make new signs to carry with us –and headed off to BART to join them.
Try to imagine getting off the train from Oakland at the Embarcadero station, climbing the stairs to the streets and being immediately engulfed by thousands of people, all holding signs, all chanting. Suddenly, the crowd started to move. We couldn’t see where the crowd started or where it ended – it was enormous. Together we marched, smiling and giving the power sign to strangers, with this huge mass, up Market Street. We marched to Civic Center – a walk that would normally take about 20 minutes but on that day, it took hours. People were singing, chanting, marching. A wonderful brass band joined us and marched alongside us, with people dancing in front of them. All along the sidewalks stood police with batons lined up watching us. All I could think was “what do they think we’re going to do?” Now I understand they were protecting Macy’s, the financial district and all the other corporate properties. As I began to learn about power hierarchies, I understood that they were also probably frightened. There were a whole lot more of us than there were of them. I walked up to them and started taking pictures, which was pretty naïve of me at the time. Today we see protestors trying to film demonstrations being beaten with billy clubs, tear-gassed, dodging flash bombs and much worse by what has since turned into a militarized police force, dressed in full combat gear. “We, the People”, have become the enemy of the state.
I soon came to learn that the media that everyone in the US followed, including me, which presented itself as unbiased journalism, was anything but. Glen Greenwald has characterized them as “spreading patriotic state propaganda”. Because 90% of the broadcast and print media is owned and controlled by 6 of the wealthiest companies in the world, themselves largely owned by interlacing groups of multibillionaires, they do not want any kind of insurrection presented as a good thing. So, they’re very careful about how they frame their coverage. I learned how I had been indoctrinated into believing that Russia, China, Venezuela and Cuba, for example, were all bad—in fact threats to our “national security”—a cynical and deceitful construct actually meaning bothersome or threatening to the “security” of the global 0.001%, an ultra-privileged segment of humanity lodged deep within the “West” and currently led by the US ruling class. Since this group, the true engine behind US imperialism, is in effect paranoid about the slightest obstacle to their dominance, let alone actual threats, nothing positive was ever reported about such independent nations.
During the time of the post 9-11 attacks, I discovered alternative media. Every morning I would listen to Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on KPFA’s Democracy Now radio program. I would turn the radio on first thing in the morning to hear the latest developments of the anti-war movement, not wanting to hear them filtered by corporate media. Now —after years of exposure to programs like Democracy Now! —I have come to understand that even “alternative media” can be controlled by corporations and carry the capitalo—imperialist line. When this happens, such entities and individuals become “controlled opposition”. The term is useful but not easy to apply in 100% reliable terms.
Some of these entities and individuals maintain (apparently) a policy of publishing and saying perfectly legitimate critiques of the status quo, while at times (the case of Syria is in fact a notorious litmus test) siding openly with the US empire. Many “leftist” commentators viciously attacked Pres. Assad’s decision, supported by his allies (Russia, Hezbollah, Iran) to liberate Eastern Aleppo, for example, long a bastion of Western/Saudi supported head-chopping Jihadists, claiming Damascus and those “awful” Russians were committing human rights crimes and bombing innocents and children (an old propaganda argument used by the West when it suits its political agenda). The object of such campaign of demonisation on what is and always was a victim of US attacks, was to press Syria's legitimate leader, Pres. Assad, to simply give up, “stop the bombing at once”, and leave Aleppo in ISIS hands.
How convenient, and how transparently hypocritical for the painfully small minority who knows and understand (no thanks to Western media whores) the truth about the horrendous war in Syria, a war triggered an prosecuted to this day by the US and its NATO and Gulf allies, who, supported by Turkey, have shamelessly injected hundreds of thousands of foreign fanatics and mercenaries with the sole aim of toppling the Assad government.
The Western propagandists, always rich in tricks and enjoying virtually unlimited resources for their sophisticated hybrid wars, used, among others, the “testimony” of children and false heroes. Notable is the case of a 7-year old Syrian girl “trapped in Aleppo,” one Bana al-Abed, something of an instant celebrity, who with her mother managed to tweet daily reports about their life among the bombings. How such people living amid the rubble of a city at war still had a dependable internet connection in the midst of supposedly nonstop bombings and explosions, in a country in which electricity is often absent for hours, days or even months, I leave the reader to figure. I personally believe Bana and her mother were supplied with high-tech, expensive special equipment by their state managers (US, UK, France or Israeli intel), or were simply broadcasting their tweets from a safe place many miles from actual Eastern Aleppo. After all, we know that a lot of footage seen on Western screens depicting “Russian or Syrian atrocities”, was frequently manufactured with the aid of the notoriously fake White Helmets (a propaganda outfit comprised of Jihadists organized by British intelligence), or special "conflict" actors. Such news are no more credible than the latest Netflix movie.
In any case, the little girl, asking the world to intervene and “stop Assad from killing us”, proved extremely successful. Below a couple of items disseminated by NBC (a major US network). Needless to say, as relates to Syria, and the Middle East in general, to mention just a flashpoint of contention between "the West" and nations resisting Washington's push for hegemony, ALL Western media participated and continue to participate in such disinformation campaigns.
Incidentally, the war in Syria, detonated by Obama, is the conflict that has played (with Libya’s destruction at the hands of NATO and its proxies) the lead role in pushing millions of refugees from the Mideast and Africa into Europe, practically destabilizing the continent at a time of enormous capitalist stress, exacerbating nationalist right wing movements in almost all major countries.
So, yes, alternative media is still the media to go to for any person wishing to escape the mental clutches of capitalism and its vicious spawn, global imperialism. But it requires a level of sophisticated understanding of media and international politics few people possess.
We started attending demonstrations and talks, many sponsored by ANSWER. Through those talks I learned of the cruel, inhumane treatment of Palestinians by Israelis. A talk we went to was by Elias Rashmawi, a radical Palestinian activist and the national coordinator for the National Council of Arab Americans – NCA. This is an organization that fights discrimination against American Arabs and Muslims and to expose Israel’s ongoing, barbaric treatment of Palestinians. His talk was transformative for me. We met new people, made new friends and acquaintances, from anarchists to council communists to Leninist-Trotskyists.
Between 2003 and 2008 there were very few mass uprisings in the US. It was during this time that I began reading to learn more about capitalism and its alternatives – especially socialism. Some of the books that helped me to put a framework around what was happening included:
- Romance of the American Communism by Vivian Gornick
- Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left by Helen C. Camp
- The Powers that Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America by William Domhoff
- Capitalism Hits the Fan and Democracy at Work by Richard Wolff
- Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography by Cathy Porter
- Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert
- Class by Paul Fussell
- After Capitalism by David Schweickart
- Introduction to Political Economy by Sackrey, Schneider and Knoedler
I bought a special bulletin board, which is still on my desk today, to hold the photographs of the radical women in history I admire and whose biographies I’ve read - Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rosa Luxemburg.
Working at Oakland Private Industry Council (PIC)
During this period, I left my long career in management in the corporate world to get an MA in career development and start working in the non-profit sector. My first substantial job was as a career counselor at a public career center in downtown Oakland that is part of the Career One Stop system. This experience was a major adjustment for me as I found myself helping former prisoners, immigrants, disabled workers and many working-class folks. I listened to their stories of struggle and their frustrated attempts to find work. I helped them learn how to talk about their past prison records and gaps in unemployment and find job training services. This had an enormous impact on me and brought me out of my comfortable, middle-class life. With them, I was able to see first-hand the mess the capitalist system had made of so many lives.
Coerced furloughs at California State University
2008 brought a tsunami to capitalism in the form of the stock market crash, the international banking crisis and the fallout during what was called “The Great Recession”. Many people lost their jobs, their homes, everything they had. I had a fairly decent sized nest egg in the form of an IRA which lost 25% of its value during the crash. The country and the world were reeling. Workers were reeling. But in some places it took a long time for the recession to spread. For California State University it wasn’t until early 2009 that the shit hit the fan.
I was working at CSU East Bay (formerly CSU Hayward State) as a career and academic counselor when we were suddenly called into a meeting of all faculty and staff. We were given no notice of this meeting nor were we told what the meeting was about. It included everyone working at both the main and branch campuses.
As we walked from our offices or the parking lot into 3 separate auditoriums to accommodate us all, we noticed the large numbers of city police as well as campus security surrounding us. While they seemed friendly and answered in a vague way when I asked why they were there, it certainly had an air of foreboding and hostility. Once seated in the auditoriums with our workmates, we watched either live or on a large screen as the university president began speaking.
His opening remarks were fairly boiler-plate – thanking us for being there (as if we had a choice) and telling us how much he appreciated all the hard work we do. Quickly, he turned to the tanked economy and told us that funding had been cut by $500 million to the entire Cal State system.
Then – boom. He told us that there would be furloughs (code word for forced leave of absences), pay cuts, reduced hours and layoffs. Who knows what he said after that because we were all in shock. When I came back down to earth I heard him say that everyone should now go back to their departments and campuses to learn each individual’s fate. Now it made sense why they had the cops there – preparing for workers’ reactions. But no, we all remained good little cogs in the wheel and did what we were told, in shock and silence.
As people returned to their departments, many had to wait for hours to learn they had been laid off. The rest of us had to wait those same long hours not knowing if we would be laid off. When the unlucky employees were given that notice, they were watched carefully by security as they gathered their belongings and were escorted off campus. Our branch campus learned we would have a partial furlough for all of us which consisted of working 4 8-hour days, rather than five. For most of us it was a relief that we were still working, but for some it created financial strain.
As the days, weeks and months wore on we learned that the layoffs and furloughs didn’t translate to less work, but more. We were still expected to fulfill all our duties – just in 8 hours less time. We were also expected to pick up the duties of others who had been laid off. The departments stopped hiring adjuncts and simply gave more classes to full-time faculty and lecturers, at the same pay. While we proles were struggling, we learned that during the 2009-2010 academic year when the budget crisis should have been addressed, the administrative executives were getting enormous raises. It didn’t take long for the anger to begin to boil. But, as with anything else in the world of academia, action came slowly. The strongest union, the CFA, organized demonstrations and pickets, all of which I took part in.
2011 – Occupy Oakland
After the 2008 financial crash and the following recession, Occupy Wall Street burst on the scene in September 2011, sparking a fire that began to spread across the country and the world. We immediately joined with Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco. Those were some of the most thrilling – and frustrating - times of my life. One of the most encouraging things to see today is that Occupy still exists and is rumbling back to life in some cities.
November 2, 2011, Occupy Oakland coordinated to shut down West Coast ports to make a statement that we would not go back to “business as usual”. The shutdown was a way of protesting the treatment of longshoremen and truck drivers, who were forced to work as independent contractors and fired for wearing union t-shirts by port owners EGT and Goldman Sachs. We marched with 200,000 others from Oscar Grant Plaza to the ports. While the ILWU did not openly support the blockade, the rank and file and many former labor leaders did. Clarence Thomas, secretary/treasurer of the ILWU, was fully committed to this blockade, as he had been for many past blockades. I’ll never forget the power of the first speech I heard from him which began – “I’m Clarence Thomas – the REAL Clarence Thomas”. Jack Heyman, also with the ILWU, was another powerful and persuasive speaker.
Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism
In August 2012 as Bruce and I became more disappointed in the Occupy movement committees, many of which did not seem to embody the values of Occupy, we decided that it was time to form our own organization. At first that seemed like a lot of work to me, and I also wondered how we would get people to even notice us. We had many meetings, just the two of us, to hash out the answers to these questions. We still have those weekly meetings to this day. Our main purpose was to provide a forum for exposing capitalism and spread the word to the public.
In April 2014 our first step was to create a website, Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Through our Occupy contacts we found a wonderful tech guy who, with our input and at an insanely low cost, created the website that we still have today. The creation of this was so much fun. The fist area we wanted to cover included telling people who we are and what we’re about. It included our mission statement - which is to become one of many eddies for:
- Exposing the predatory, incompetent and irrational practices of capitalists to direct human social life.
- Engaging in collective political actions that throw a monkey-wrench into and slow down or disrupt the profit-making mechanisms of the system.
- Weaving and expanding the fabric of a growing body of workplaces under worker self-management.
How do we want to do it?
We aim to educate:
- Electronically by posting our commentary on news stories once or twice a day, writing perspectives of our own which we post frequently and sharing articles of interest written by others
- Engaging in face-to-face settings, either by forming groups ourselves or by joining other groups working towards our common goals.
Bruce did most of the writing while I learned – with very little instruction – how to navigate and manage the site. My strong editing skills were then put to good use.
We then got serious about spreading our message through Facebook and Twitter
During that same year we also started having regular meetings in our home with people we met through Occupy and other groups. We started with a book club, then moved on to a forum. We had a core group of about 6 people. One of the most important people in our group was a friend from South Korea. He was the one who convinced us that we could have a much broader audience by focusing on our electronic outreach.
By 2016 Bruce, who had previously dismissed Facebook as trite, was persuaded by me to create his own Facebook page. He exploded onto the scene, joining numerous groups and sharing our daily posts to these groups and posting his own observations of the decay of capitalism. We now have 3,300 followers on Facebook. We were able to attract a large number of followers by “promoting” our articles. However, when FB caught onto many of the words we were using – socialism, anarchism – revolution – they refused to stop taking our money to spread the word by publishing our articles. We call it censorship; Facebook calls it moderation.
As a result of reading books about socialism and, in particular, important women socialists, I began to write articles. My first article was written in 2016 around all the hysteria of voting for Hillary because she’s a woman. Anyone who looked at her record could see she was nowhere close to being a liberal (and being a liberal, with its very timid reformism, is not that helpful either, at this time of grave global crisis.)
As a certifiable member of the corporate establishment, she was a warmonger, laughing when Gaddafi was killed even though he and Libya had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Gaddafi was a threat to US imperialism because he wanted to empower Africa and create a new African economic system. She was quoted as saying, “We came, we saw, he died” after being told of his murder. She was a friend of Wall Street and in bed with the Council on Foreign Relations, which she admitted runs the US.
My very first article, Feminism is Bigger Than Gender: Why I’ll be Happy in Hell Without Hillary got quite a bit of attention. It was picked up by respected leftist online journals like CounterPunch, Dissident Voice and LA Progressive, and shared widely in social media. I got plenty of feedback, mostly good, but also some attacks. I was learning to see what life is like for an “out” socialist in a capitalist society. Being told by one FB friend that I was the reason that Hillary lost to Trump earned her the boot from my page.
That article was followed, among others, by:
- Sitting Pretty on a Sinking Ship Neoliberal Feminism
- Assembly Line Counseling at the University: Capitalism’s Byzantine Influence in Higher Education
- Capitalist Hospitals in the Empire: My Six-Day Nightmare at Kaiser
- No Pink Wooly Caps for Me: A Historical Alternative to Pink Pussy Cat Hats: Alexandra Kollontai as a model for socialist feminism
Democracy at Work
We went to a talk by Marxian economist, Richard Wolff in 2015. I was impressed by how he was able to explain capitalist economics in simple terms. We read his books Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to do About It, 2009 and; Democracy at Work, a Cure for Capitalism, 2012. We also helped form one his local branches of Democracy at Work.
In Capitalism Hits the Fan, Wolff explains how the deep economic structures in the relationship of wages to profits, of workers to boards of directors, and of debts to income account for the financial crisis.
In Democracy at Work he points out the lack of democracy in the economy and in politics. He proposes real democracy with workers directing their own workplaces as the basis for a genuine political democracy. As examples he describes worker-owned cooperatives in which the workers own the means of production and decide together what they will produce, how much they will produce, how much they will be paid and what they will do with their profits. These cooperatives exist all over the world, the largest is in the Catalan region of Spain called Mondragon. Many people think that all worker cooperatives are small – bakeries, grocery stores, artists’ coops. But Mondragon Corporation has 266 companies, employing 80,818 people. They even have their own university with an enrollment of 5,000 students.
Spaceland - Having a Framework:
My participation in both the 9-11 and Occupy protests pushed me further towards understanding how capitalism is at the root of most, if not all, of the problems we’re facing in the U.S. as well as all over the world.
Once I had a framework for understanding world events through the lens of socialism, there was no going back. All the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. That framework incorporates every aspect of human life. I couldn’t wait to meet socialists! What are these folks like who are making the revolution?
Socialists are No Bargain: Anti-social Socialists
Working with people who are socialists has been surprisingly difficult. My picture of socialists was very naïve. I imagined that they were skilled at welcoming and encouraging new people to their organizations, that they would be great at supporting each other.
We were very disappointed by the quality and organization of some of the meetings that formed from Occupy Oakland, finding many of them off-track and with members who didn’t have the basic social skills like asking a person “How are you? How are things going?” They lack skills like tracking things a person may have told you and following up with a question like “what’s happening with that project you were working on?” Or they wear either torn jeans and raggedy t-shirts or mis-matched, strange clothes, even when making public presentations, and hats and look like something out of a movie that could be called “Your Worst Nightmare Blind Date”. These are basic skills like showing up to meetings on time and remembering to tell others if a meeting is cancelled.
In 2018 we moved to Olympia, WA. We didn’t know anyone there, so we started trying to build community before we got there, joining a number of socialist groups we found through Facebook. Along my journey to Spaceland, I discovered how many socialists don’t know how to be….social. Many are extremely socially awkward. It’s the strangest thing and I have no answer for it, beyond thinking that their entire worlds are focused on the struggle. But over and over, from all the people we met through ANSWER, Occupy, Olympia Assembly, the IWW, United Public Workers for Action – UPWA - even in Northern California Bay Area Worker Cooperatives - NoBAWC - people seem to lack the basic social skills. One new comrade replied “nice try, FBI” when I asked him his last name.
I discovered that young anarchists can come tearing into your house, eat you out of house and home, and disappear for long periods of time. They come into your lives for a brief time, then disappear, often to resurface 18 months later. They’ll schedule a phone call with you and then forget and sleep through it. I also learned that there are many cranky old Leninists and Trotskyists who are only too happy to sell you their newspaper and then go into a rant about why whatever talk or demonstration you’re attending is a joke and why you should join their party. They’re also happy to quote long phrases from the 5th International without any encouragement. But most of them are not interested in joining with other left organizations to form a coherent party. They’re too busy squabbling with each other. Factionalism is and has long been the curse of the left.
I understand that many of them are so focused on helping to change the world that there’s just no room for social niceties. And it may also be a question of character. I want to try to convince them that, without those warm social interactions it’s going to be hard for them to draw people into socialism. I still love all of them, though, cranky or not.
Socialists are often a combination of Pointland and Spaceland. They’re damaged, and they’ve never learned the rules and regularities for social engagement like my family and friends have on Flatland.
Once you’ve entered Spaceland, there’s no going back to Flatland. So even though I still inhabit two worlds, I view everything through the lens of Spaceland – which can be very challenging. Maybe one day I’ll simply fuse my two Facebook accounts into one, sit back and watch the sparks fly. In fact, those sparks have already begun as I’ve started introducing some unwelcome views on what a joke the Democratic Party is and how far they’ve fallen from the liberalism of FDR. But I’m prepared – let the prairie fire begin!
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