A New Direction

A collection of 1970’s DSOC pins (photo by the author)

When I created the social democratic bibliography three years ago, I was in a different place politically and so was the country. I interpreted the 2018 midterm election victories of left Democrats (most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), along with the continued growth of DSA, as a confirmation that realignment and left entryism in the Democratic Party were still a viable means of progress towards achieving egalitarian successes through electoral politics. Fast forward to today and the left Democrats have not only been further ostracized by their own party (the Dem status quo’s united opposition to Bernie Sanders last year being only one example), but a Democratic-majority house and senate presided over by a Democratic president refuse to respond to the worst crisis in a century with implementation of even the most basic social democratic policy. The American Rescue plan is not social democracy. It’s short term social liberalism; the metaphorical Band-Aid on an open wound.

Stupidly, I used to view postwar Nordic-style social democracy as an end in itself. The original SocDem bibliography was reflective of this, with its inclusion of opinion pieces expressing a deep pessimism, if not outright disdain towards democratic socialism. That attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy which will always favor conditions in which capitalism can continually sap the progress of even the most ardently redistributionist social democratic movements. Social democracy’s successes and gains, both historical and current are substantial. Realpolitik-focused reforms and policy are ensuring the survival, let alone well being, of millions of people across the globe right now. Witness the responses to COVID-19 of New Zealand and every Nordic country except Sweden, whose disastrous economically focused “natural herd immunity” strategy left them with the highest death toll out of the four. Beyond successful virus responses, Finland is pursuing a “housing first” policy and Jacinda Ardern has framed her policy decisions in anti-capitalist terms.

Any celebration of these developments must be extremely tempered, though, by the acceptance that none of their potential can be fully realized unless they’re part of a reformist path towards socialism. Regulated capitalism is still capitalism, and capitalism’s ruthless profit motive will always sabotage the realization of a truly egalitarian and equitable society. The social democratic bibliography was conceived of explicitly as an educational tool, but the understanding of social democracy it initially sought to further was flawed. From this point forward, it will be known as the reformist bibliography, focused on social democracy’s place within and in relation to the larger democratic socialist movement.

There’s plenty of sanctimonious revolutionaries who continue to flog the accusation that welfare capitalist postwar social democracy and reformist democratic socialism are merely the same form of rebranded liberalism. These arguments are empty and self-serving. Reformist socialism is needed as much now as any other point in its existence. Social democracy can be the catalyst, but never the end product.

Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear

Graffiti in Athens, December 2008.

The expressions of relief at the immanent end of 2020 are disturbingly indicative of a widespread shortsightedness. The sentiment is typically motivated by an overwhelming catharsis triggered by the symbolic closing of a catastrophic and traumatic period, the Sisyphean expectation that COVID-19 vaccines will return the world to “normal” within the year or a mixture of both.

During the 2008 riots in Greece, “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear” was a phrase frequently rendered in graffiti (a photo of it later went viral.) This sarcastic proclamation could hardly be better suited to the present moment. 2021 presents tremendous uncertainty and threat. The pandemic, currently at its most severe thus far in terms of both caseloads and deaths, will potentially worsen in the New Year. Anthony Fauci, quite optimistically, predicted that “normality” in the U.S. could return by fall of 2021. This would be heavily reliant on the timely implementation of vaccinations and continued mitigation efforts. As it stands, vaccinations in the U.S. are woefully behind schedule and even the simplest social distancing measures continue to be politicized and met with resistance.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration promises little more than milquetoast centrism. Biden himself insinuated he would veto Medicare for All legislation and his platform is mostly comprised of weak incrementalist policies with a few ambitious outliers like his college tuition subsidy plan along with his stated intent to bring supply chains back to the U.S. The degree to which he will actually pursue any of these measures (and the degree to which he would actually succeed) is anyone’s guess.

The catastrophe of 2020 presents, of course, a vast opportunity for leftist political reform and progress. COVID-19 has shone a floodlight on the savage inequality present in modern society. The private sector was no hero in the fight against the virus. Frequently, it was responsible and served as the justification for extreme negligence, re: resistance to much needed business closures, premature reopenings and widespread price gouging (all with disastrous results). Containment of the virus cannot be a green light for a simple return to the oblivious consumerism and recklessness of the pre-COVID-19 era. When a deadly airborne virus is no longer an omnipresent threat, widespread political mobilization is imperative.

2021 can be a continuation of the horrors of 2020 or the beginning of a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Whether it is the former or the latter will be determined by decisions made by the citizenry, carried out through civil society institutions and political organizations. In 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are experiencing “morbid symptoms” in the most literal sense. We can, however, be midwives to the birth of the new if we choose to be.

UBI: A March down the Wrong Path (Part I)

Participants in the Basic Income March San Fransisco, October 2019.
Photo: Basic Income March

On the 19th of this month, an organization called The Income Movement will be sponsoring a series of worldwide marches and rallies in support of a universal basic income. Prior to COVID-19, the concept of a UBI had gained substantial visibility and popularity by the mid-2010’s after languishing in relative obscurity for decades. Notably, former 2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang made an unconditional $1k monthly stipend for all Americans the centerpiece of his platform. Post-COVID-19, UBI and temporary UBI-style programs have been touted as a means of ensuring financial stability amidst the pandemic and the economic chaos that has accompanied it. I’ve supported the latter (to an extent) but the promotion of UBI as a way of ameliorating poverty and its related social issues in general is riddled with problems. It is no coincidence that the last time basic income was this prominent in national discourse, it was being touted as a means of welfare reform (I.E. welfare elimination) by none other than Milton Friedman in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I’ll be writing in-depth about UBI in the post COVID-19 era at a later date. For now, I’m reposting an opinion piece I wrote last year about Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” which contains my basic critique of his favored implementation of the policy.

Paris Marx’s latest: The Necessity of Public Housing

In another piece written for Passage, Paris Marx describes how private homeownership forces home buyers to conform to and prioritize the logic of the market, viewing a home less as a stable dwelling and more “an investment that’s meant to generate wealth.” He also points out the role of condominiums in giving the wealthy who live in dense urban settings the option to buy rather than rent, reducing the profitability of the rental market. Marx is unambiguous in his advocacy of mass investment in public housing that is “not subject to market forces” as the solution to the housing issues plaguing Toronto (which apply as much to almost any other large North American city.)

“This government promotion of home ownership across much of the Western world changed the culture of our societies. As author Grace Blakeley describes in Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation, home ownership makes people more invested in the capitalist system as they build wealth through the ownership of an asset — even though the vast majority of the benefits continue to accrue to the wealthy.

Three articles from the latest issue of Passage

These three pieces from the current issue of left-wing Canadian publication Passage deal with problems that are both longstanding and dramatically contemporary: Aaron Giovannone on the leveraging of unemployment against workers, Kieran Delamont on the need to resist a return to pre-COVID-19 style consumerism, and Paris Marx on the necessity of a move away from atomized private spaces and towards publicly owned commons.

Here are some choice excerpts:

“High unemployment rates mean employers can take their pick of the glut of applicants, offering them lower wages. Poor unemployment benefits make workers more desperate to take a job, and to keep the one they have. And frightened and vulnerable workers provide weak resistance to management’s demands to intensify their workload.” – Aaron Giovannone

“After three months in our homes, the pressure to consume in a certain way feels less necessary. While general pandemic experiences have differed depending on the country and region, the effect COVID-19 has had on consumer culture has been one of few trends felt on a supranational scale. With this in mind, we should commit to a version of economic recovery that looks like how we’ve been living and buying during quarantine — slower and more considered and ethical. Instead of rushing ourselves back into the fluorescent, corporate dynamic we left behind, we should build something closer to home.” – Kieran Delamont

“This shift toward private car use and suburban, single-family homes also helped change people’s character. In 1973, journalist and philosopher André Gorz described how the car was inherently a luxury good whose benefits cannot be democratizing because there simply isn’t enough space in a city for everyone to have one. He compared it to a seaside villa — not everyone can own one, so the beach must be a communal space. Gorz argued that mass automobility was ‘an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life,’ making everyone believe ‘the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else.’ This is undeniably linked to the mass consumption that also arose in the postwar period, when all of a sudden there were a ton of consumer goods for people to fill their new suburban homes.” – Paris Marx

Note: a free account is needed to access this content.

Memorial Day 2020: An Insult to the Dead

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare workers wheel the bodies of deceased people from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In May of 1868, Union veterans of the civil war established Decoration Day in recognition of their fallen brethren by adorning their graves with flowers. Following the First World War, the holiday was expanded to include all soldiers in the U.S. military who had died in American wars and was eventually declared a national holiday in 1971, now dubbed Memorial Day. In retrospect, the official recognition of Memorial Day in 1971, a year in which 2,414 died in the Vietnam War, seems grossly opportunistic.

Memorial Day 2020 is now upon us. If anything, it seems as though this year’s holiday will have mainly served as a catalyst to further the spread of COVID-19. The Memorial Day weekend (coinciding with the reopening of many states) sent Americans flocking to beaches and even pools, frequently ignoring physical distancing and without any kind of PPE. In Austin, Texas (where reopened bars have been ordered to limit their occupancy to 25% capacity), revelers packed into a nightclub. A video shot in the establishment shows patrons side-by-side, hugging and without masks, negating the positive effects any limits on capacity that were supposedly being enforced could have had. On Friday, Alabama reopened bowling alleys, movie theaters and summer camps, even as COVID-19 infections increased to the point where the mayor of Montgomery announced that the critically ill would be sent to Birmingham as the city had run out ICU beds.

Memorial Day ostensibly honors the sacrifices of the U.S. armed forces. The legitimacy of that alone is questionable. What’s honorable about dying in immoral and imperialistic military actions like Vietnam or the 2003 Iraq war? That said, let us for the moment take Memorial Day at face value. If the point of the holiday is to honor those who sacrificed their lives to arguably protect both their country’s sovereignty and its civilian population, then Memorial Day 2020 is a metaphorical slap in the face to all it pays tribute to. Memorial Day’s secondary purpose as an excuse for the retail sector to lure in customers with sales, discounts and limited-time offers already undercuts the somber nature of the occasion. Purchasing a foreign-made LED TV for thirty percent off in no way translates into a tribute to a soldier who died fighting on the beaches of Normandy. But that is, of course, not the worst part of this year’s observance.

Memorial Day 2020 is, as previously stated, taking place while grossly negligent state and municipal governments bow to the pressures of the private sector and reopen commercial and public spaces. It is occurring as the U.S. COVID-19 death toll is about to reach the horrific and obscene figure of 100,000, a figure that could have been considerably lower had decisive actions been taken at the appropriate time or the multiple “stay-at-home” orders and closures of non-essential businesses across the country stayed in place for longer. Instead, the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. The dead include the scores of essential workers (especially healthcare workers) who contracted and succumbed to the virus due to a lack of adequate PPE. It includes those with families and dependents who had to continue working, unable to survive on a one-time $1,200 check and moderately increased unemployment insurance (and whose states never passed the sort of anti-eviction legislation that others did). It includes the residents of mismanaged long-term care facilities, like the more than seventy veterans living at a Holyoke, Massachusetts “soldier’s home.”

The dead who are being honored today gave their lives for a country that is cruelly and cavalierly allowing its citizens to die of a pathogen it could have greatly reduced the spread of. This is compounded by their day of recognition and tribute coinciding with the number of virus casualties reaching a near six-figure level that’s comparable to a nuclear weapon being detonated over an American city. Clearly, there are two groups whose sacrifice should be remembered today. There’s no nationally mandated holiday for COVID-19 casualties, however. When some of them were still alive, they were “honored” with jet fighter flyovers, a crude, militaristic and ultimately empty gesture that drew the ire of the very front line medical personnel it was meant to salute. Now, as scores of Americans return to work, go to pool parties, clubs and bars, movie theaters, and do so without any masks or effort to physically distance, the virus will spread, the reproduction numbers will increase across the country, and the death toll will rise even higher. This is what our veterans died to defend: a selfish, proudly ignorant nation where profit and the individual come before all else, and mass death is normalized.

My paternal grandfather, who died of natural causes in 2008, was a non-combat veteran of the Second World War. Stricken with polio as a child and burdened with cerebral palsy as a result, he nonetheless served domestically as a private second class in the U.S. military, transporting generals in his jeep, driving supply trucks and acting as an interpreter for Italian POWs. He didn’t die fighting for his country, but served it in a non-violent capacity and did so despite his disability. I believe he still deserves recognition on Memorial Day. I also believe that the current situation is a horrendous insult to his memory. My grandfather was, like so many others, a living testament to the necessity of vaccination. Born decades prior to the creation of the polio vaccine, he suffered the disease’s effects for the entirety of his long life. Now, as a pandemic is killing thousands of Americans each day, crowds of rabidly libertarian protesters are hysterically decrying public health measures as “tyranny” and stating that they’d refuse to be vaccinated even if a cure for COVID-19 is discovered. Meanwhile, the crude, ignorant excuse for a human that is our president fans the flames of the protesters anger, rallying them with his right-wing populist declarations of state “liberation.” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is effectively treating his state’s population as guinea pigs in an experiment to see how many will survive the premature repeal of the safety measures that had been in place to protect them from the virus.

This is an America that no veteran should be proud to have served, let alone died for. Thus, this Memorial Day is a hollow tip of the hat to our dead veterans. Secondarily, it is a non-recognition of the casualties of the war on COVID-19. On this day, I maintain many of the individuals that served and died in America’s wars never should have had to fight at all, especially those who died fighting in the service of imperialism and Thucydidean foreign policy. I recognize the deaths of those who’ve been lost to COVID-19, and wonder if it will take debilitating infection or the death of a loved one to get through to the many that increasingly process their deaths as yet another abstract statistic in the daily news cycle. The lack of concerted opposition to the U.S.’s criminal response to COVID-19 is bad enough, but the normalization of mass death will worsen the situation to a degree that will earn this period the unambiguous recognition as one of the darkest and most contemptible in American history.

The bodies of COVID-19 victims stored in a refrigerated truck outside a Manhattan hospital, March 29th, 2020.
(Source: Buzzfeed News)

The campaign is over but the movement continues

Sanders at a rally in Mesquite, Texas, February 2020. Photo: Sanders campaign staff

In the span of half a decade, Bernie Sanders has changed both American politics and the American political landscape. Despite years of public service, first as a mayor, then as a senator, he entered the spotlight unknown to most Americans. Building off of and employing the vocabulary of Occupy, he proceeded to shift the Overton window in regards to the public’s attitude toward egalitarian, social democratic policy. He considerably destigmatized the concept of socialism in a country where the residue of McCarthyism and red-baiting still informed public perceptions of anything left of center.

Sanders created a movement and reinvigorated the American left. He lit a spark in people’s hearts and minds that can’t be extinguished. Millions of people now understand the necessity of an equitable system of government that enshrines the basic needs of healthcare, education and housing as rights. The current COVID-19 crisis is only making this more evident. And now, even though the possibility of a President Sanders is over, he’ll return to the senate and continue to fight as he always has.

Sanders has established a legacy that will likely be one of the defining factors in a further paradigm shift to the left in this country. We’re all indebted to him.