Planning a socialist future amidst a deadly pandemic

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Q and A session imagines international shift in political priorities

As COVID-19 infections near three million worldwide, with more than 180,000 deaths across the globe, a side effect of the pandemic has been the exposure of the systemic failures of capitalism and the deadly consequences of the social inequalities that plague our current system. While physical distancing and quarantine measures have up to two billion people restricted to their homes, many socialists and activists have been looking for ways to use this time for education and activism. On April 13, Kate Doyle Griffiths, a teacher, writer, and activist from New York City and. David Camfield, a labour studies and sociology professor and activist from Winnipeg, hosted a where they talked about current state of the capitalist system, defining the working class, and what a socialist future might look like.

“You always have to ask when someone says socialism or communism, what do they mean by it?” Camfield said. “There are certainly lots of people who, when you say communist or communism, they think you’re talking about a society with a bureaucratic dictatorship of a single party. It’s a tyrannical party that bureaucratically controls the economy and denies people freedom of association and puts people who dissent into prisons and this kind of thing,” he said, pointing specifically to the Soviet regimes that emerged in the 1920s. “If by communism what we really mean is a classless and stateless society of freedom” then those societies are “the very opposite” of what Camfield means when he talks about communism. “That’s communism in name only.”

Griffiths agreed that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about communism, and that for many of certain generations, that misunderstanding can be as deeply rooted as what they learned in school. “I do think there are lots of people who equate communism and fascism,” they said. “And that’s because for a long time, that was the thing that was taught in US public schools, for example, that communism and fascism are the same thing. I do think that people of somewhat good faith do equate those two things.”

Because the question of class and class politics is so central to the socialist cause, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is, and long has been, a debate about what constitutes the working class.

“Often that term [working class] gets understood in a narrow way, as somehow being about only people who perform blue-collar work, for example,” Camfield said. “But I use that term for everybody who sells their ability to work in exchange for a wage, and has little or no management power, and the other people who might live in their households and not actually be working for wages, but are dependent on the people who work for wages. So that’s a clear majority of the people in our society, ranging from precariously employed minimum-wage workers all the way through to a small number of, you know, high-paid secure workers.”

Griffiths looks at class from two perspectives. “One is this simplistically binary definition of the working class as the majority of people who don’t own any of the means of production,” they said. “We don’t own any of the stuff that we need to make all the things we need to live. We don’t own the land, we don’t own the factories, etc. And then there’s the people that do own them. One of the key aspects of that framework is that under capitalism, it then becomes clear that you can’t have a majority of people enter the ruling class. The majority is always going to be the working class that doesn’t own all of the things that we need to survive.”

But they added there’s another “more sociological” view of class that bears consideration. “When I’m teaching this, I use a New York Times class calculator,” they said, that allows users to rank their own individual class status based on areas like education, personal wealth, job prestige, and income. “I take a volunteer student, I do myself, and I do my mom, who’s a highly paid doctor, and I do a secret person. And by that New York Times calculator, usually the secret person comes out as lower on their class status than my mom, who’s a highly paid doctor because she’s at the top of the education, of the [job] prestige. She has over a million dollars of wealth. So that puts her at that 99 per cent or something on the list, and then the secret person ends up below her [in class status] because they don’t have a college degree, don’t have a BA, and you know, their difference in wealth, if you just take the wealth curve and divide it up by five, isn’t very much, even though it’s revealed at the end of the lesson that I’m thinking of Bill Gates, or one of these other tech guys who doesn’t have a college degree but has several billion dollars in wealth, right? So that difference between having $1 million to several billion is very small on that curve, but it’s actually a huge difference.”

Camfield says it’s important not to get hung up on past definitions of what the working class is and what it is not.

“One of the biggest mistakes that socialists have made is to think about class in terms that they’ve inherited from the past. They haven’t really developed to keep on understanding the societies that they’re in. So, there’s been this long kind of hangover of a narrow understanding of what the working class is among socialists. The working class is broader and more diverse in many different ways than a lot of people who think about themselves as socialists would understand. There are so many internal divisions. The main divisions we confront are among workers. And so how to overcome those divisions is a crucial political question, and those are differences of income and wealth, the sectors people work in, in addition to all the forms of oppression that come through the whole society, including the working class. Things like patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, and so on.”

“So, when people talk about teachers, for example, as middle class, I think that doesn’t really grasp what the relationship of teachers to their employers actually is and where teachers fit in the overall way that society is organized to produce goods and services. Because class at the end of the day, it’s about where do groups of people fit in the overall way that society is organized to produce goods and services. And so it’s about groups of people and relationships between groups of people…It’s not about where individuals fit in a hierarchy. It’s about groups of people who share certain commonalities in how they survive, where they fit within the way that their society is organized.”

Griffiths said that when it comes to class, “We’re better off thinking of class collectively, rather than as a personal, individual attribute, or that just because you’re a member of one part of the class, you’re automatically going to have one set of ideas versus another. I think we know that that isn’t true.”

Recognizing this is key to understanding the ways in which many working-class people seem to act against their own interests when it comes to politics, but it also shows what opportunities there are for building momentum as a collective. “There’s a big difference between people’s class position and their political outlook,” Camfield said. “And we can, of course, see lots of working-class people with right wing reactionary political views. And we can find small business owners who are progressive, left wing, but the question is not about individuals. It’s about relationships in society and when large numbers of people begin to act collectively, where do they tend to go? And how do their ideas then tend to change? And a basic idea of socialism from below is that the working class, despite all its fragmentation and division, could actually come together and act collectively to transform society. And that the more people begin to do that, the more they’ll tend to drag behind them in their wake members of other classes who are looking to resolve the crises in their society. And if the working class doesn’t do that, if it’s not organizing collectively to fight for its own interests, and to figure out what its interests are, then most people are more likely to be dragged behind and led by other classes, and in ways that don’t actually serve their own interests.”

Camfield and Griffiths both argued that socialism must be truly international to be truly socialism. “I don’t believe you can have socialism in one country,” Camfield said. “You can’t actually carry off a full transformation of society, where you would have an end to social class division and genuine democracy throughout all society and human liberation within the borders of even the most advanced, developed country today. And so ultimately, socialism has to be a global transformation.”

Griffiths said that recognizing the ways that working class people from different nations experience the class struggle differently is critical, especially now, as the US shuts down immigration and undocumented workers struggle to survive without even the meagre benefits the state is doling out to other workers left under- and unemployed by the pandemic. “It’s really important not to gloss over the difference between how working-class people with one kind of passport are being treated versus working class people with another kind of passport. That’s a major contradiction among the working class that can’t be overlooked. And yeah, I think in the history of attempts at socialism, you see this as a major problem over and over again, pitting workers in different countries against each other. And whenever you’re doing that, it’s not socialism, in my view.”

Camfield said that although true socialism should be global, socialists must be wary of treating all nationalisms equally. “When I think about internationalism, for socialists, we’re looking around the world and we’re thinking ‘what are the common interests of exploited and oppressed people everywhere?’ and looking at those commonalities, regardless of what our passports are, or any other markers that are used to divide us. But that doesn’t mean that we have to treat all nationalisms as identical,” he said. “There is a difference between the nationalism of a country like Canada, or a country like the US, which are imperialist countries that are part of dominating the world, and the nationalism of oppressed peoples. And I think that socialists should never be nationalists, but the nationalism of an oppressed nation, a nation in the global south, or Indigenous nations within the settler colonial societies, like Canada and the US, those nationalisms of the oppressed can be still vehicles through which people struggle against oppression. Those struggles deserve support. Even when they’re organized or articulated in nationalist ways that we might not share. So, we can be internationalist and that doesn’t mean that we somehow treat all nationalisms as identical and fail to recognize that in the real world with inequalities of power, there are enormous differences and those differences matter politically.”

The movement from our current capitalist reality to a more equitable, just socialist future is not a single step, but a process that would involve a revolutionary transfer of power and then a transition towards socialism. “In order to begin that break [from capitalism], new institutions of democratic control have to be created in the workplace and outside the workplace through which the majority can actually make these decisions in place of having those decisions made by a small minority of state managers and politicians and businesses,”  Camfield said, adding that when it comes to that transition, “the crucial thing to look for is democratic economic planning. So, beginning to replace domination of society by the market with democratic planning where people are deciding how to use social resources, what to produce, how to distribute it, and over time, for more and more of the economy to be based on democratic economic planning and the sphere of the market to shrink and shrink.” And he said that when that happens, “the state begins to, to use Marx’s term, ‘wither away.’”

Griffiths said that imagining this kind of future can be challenging, even for people who are immersed in the day to day work of making it happen. “This is really hard to imagine for a lot of us, and that includes me,” they said. But they added that the pandemic, and all of the systemic failures it has revealed, are making it easier to envision in many ways. “We went from a situation where if I picked a random person in Brooklyn and said, you know, don’t you think it’d be better if nurses and warehouse workers and grocery workers were deciding about what we needed and how things got around and what was being produced, rather than Cuomo or Trump? I think, you know, six weeks ago, one person out of twenty might have agreed with me. And a couple of weeks later, I think, many more people will see the logic in that. I think that when we are in increasingly transformative moments and situations, then the next steps become a little bit more clear than they seem when we’re trying to sort of think through it abstractly.”

If the challenge seems daunting, there has still never been a better time for socialists to make the argument – and do the work – for an anti-capitalist future. “The flaws of capitalism, the logic of capitalism, and a lot of other things are exposed,” Griffiths said, and Camfield agreed.  “The case against capitalism has never been stronger or easier to make,” he said. “I think the problem is that people don’t have confidence that there’s an alternative. It’s not that capitalism has a really great reputation or a lot of persuasive power. The problem is people think it’s all there is.”

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