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Radical Vision and Elbow Grease

Michael Schwalbe

An unfortunate side effect of the election of Barack Obama has been to
fuel the American tendency to reduce politics to personality. The
obvious contrast between the young, charismatic, articulate, black
Barack Obama and his just-the-opposite opponent affirmed the idea that
these individual differences are of great political import.

The same reductionist tendency can be seen in a flood of post-election
commentary on Obama's "mindset" -- commentary intended, at least in
progressive circles, to offer insight into prospects for change and
whether Obama will deliver it. But dwelling on the president's
intentions and attributes sheds little light on our current political
situation.

Yes, it matters who controls the means of administration. There is
enough leeway in the system for a president to make marginal changes.
But the point of making these minor adjustments is to ensure that basic
political and economic arrangements remain intact. The job of president
is better understood as one of forestalling, not delivering, change.

By definition, then, focusing on a president's intentions or style or
qualities of mind is conservatizing. It keeps us from seeing how the
problems we face are not solvable through administrative tweaking but
are rooted in the basic social arrangements that administrative
tweaking aims to preserve.

Obama's symbolic value aside, consider what has not changed since November 2008.

Wealth is still grossly maldistributed. The richest 1% own about 34% of
the family wealth in this country, and over 40% of the financial
wealth. This is the wealth that undergirds the political power of the
rich. Political power is thus no less concentrated today than eight
months ago.

The laws that allow corporations to interfere in the democratic
process, to evade public accountability, to fire employees who try to
exercise their democratic rights at work, to externalize the costs of
environmental destruction, and to move factories out of the United
States are still in place. The legal framework that sustains capitalist
relations of production faces no threat.

What is usually called the military-industrial complex is as deeply
woven into the fabric of our economy as ever. Thousands of businesses
and millions of jobs depend on military spending, creating a nearly
irresistible incentive for Congress to increase this spending. None of
this has changed since last fall.

We are still saddled with a two-party winner-take-all electoral system.
Nothing has changed to give third-party candidates a better chance to
win state or national offices. The dynamics of campaign financing are
still such that only candidates who are acceptable to economic elites
will attract the funding, and hence the media attention, to compete
effectively.

The level of oppositional political organization is still today about
what it has been for a long time: abysmally low. Decades of battering
by capitalists and their minions in government have left unions weak.
There is no labor party. Nor is there a strong anti-war movement.

Consider, too, that oil remains the energy bedrock of our society.
Without it, we would collapse -- as would every other industrialized
nation. The developing economies of China, India, and other southeast
Asian countries need to import the same energy resources we do, and
these resources are finite. We are thus now locked in a global
competition for the earth's remaining fossil fuels and for control of
energy markets. This situation has not changed; in fact, the
competition has intensified, and will continue to do so.

These things that haven't changed since November 2008 are what members
of my academic tribe (sociologists) would call "structural conditions."
It is in these conditions, not in good or bad presidential intentions,
that our problems are rooted. Which means that to solve our problems
the conditions that generate them must be changed.

The antidote to reductionist, cult-of-personality thinking about
politics is to think more radically. This does not mean indulging in
utopian dreams. It means not losing sight of the need for structural
change, and thinking seriously about how to achieve it.

It's not that we lack radical visions in this country. There are plenty
of radical analysts and visionaries -- people who understand the need
for structural change and approach it in a serious way. The problem is
that radical analysis has been pushed to the margins of progressive
discourse.

This has happened in part because progressives, along with most
Americans, have been pulled to the right over the last thirty years.
Ideas once seen as centrist or liberal (e.g., a guaranteed national
income, full employment, taxing capital gains at the same rate as
wages) are today seen as "far left." The other problem, as noted
earlier, is that many progressives have been seduced by the idea that
our recent presidential swap is a step toward significant change.

Radical thinking is a necessary corrective. It can help us avoid being
uplifted by a rhetoric of change right into a cloudbank of empty
promises. The paradox is that our current situation can be seen
realistically only by assessing it more radically.

A radical perspective helps us see, for example, that capitalism
inherently generates the inequalities in wealth and power that in turn
create most of the problems progressives want to solve. If social and
economic justice are the goals, then it's important to understand the
extent to which these goals can and cannot be achieved within a
capitalist framework.

Radical vision helps us see why capitalism is not ecologically
sustainable. It's not because middle-class people in industrial nations
buy bottled water or fail to recycle. It's because the system compels
capitalists -- if they wish to survive as capitalists -- to focus on
short-term profits, to aggressively promote wasteful consumption, and
to exploit the planet, heedless of long-term consequences, as a
resource cache and a waste dump.

Radical vision also helps us see why U.S. imperialism is not a matter
of presidential discretion. The capitalist drive for profit -- that is,
profit based on production and sale of real goods, and not on
speculative bubbles -- impels a constant search for cheaper labor,
energy, and raw materials, and for new markets. Dominant capitalist
nations, if they wish to remain dominant, cannot allow national borders
to get in the way of satisfying these economic imperatives. Again, the
problem lies in how the system works, not in badly intentioned
individuals.

Thinking radically implies aiming for more than a slightly larger slice
of the economic pie, or using regulation to force capitalists to be
less rapacious. It implies aiming for a thoroughgoing democratic
transformation of society. The prize is economic democracy, not simply
a softening of capitalism's hard edges.

Radical thinking is often disparaged as ignoring the need to alleviate
suffering through short-term reforms. But this need not be the case.
There is no necessary contradiction between seeking reform today and
striving for structural change in the long run.

Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, for example, would be a useful
reform. Making it easier for workers to organize and represent their
interests collectively would put more money in workers' pockets and
give them more clout on the job. Such gains are worthwhile and needed,
here and now.

But if the longer-term goal is to overcome the problems that are
inevitable within a capitalist system -- lack of meaningful work for
everyone, unequal opportunity, destruction of the environment,
concentrated political power -- then we should pursue the kinds of
reforms that have system-changing potential.

One example is to require capitalists who want to sell or move a
factory to give employees the first option of buying it and operating
it cooperatively. Such purchases would need to be publicly financed. By
doing so -- instead of using our common wealth to bail out failed
capitalists -- we could dispel the illusion that bosses are necessary
and start building a democratic economy. What we can't do is to expect
a president to initiate this kind of change.

Folk wisdom says that we get more conservative as we get older. We
supposedly abandon our youthful naiveté about the ease of revolution
and also come to appreciate the value of social stability and
tradition. Indeed it's good to shed illusions and be able to discern
those traditions that are worth saving from those that are not.

At the same time, the wisdom of age should lead us to recognize when an
economic system is no longer viable and to find the foresight and
courage to start building anew. This is the heart of the progressive
project. To carry it on requires shedding illusions about presidents
and other political messiahs, and then joining a radical vision with a
ton of elbow grease.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is "Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World" (Oxford, 2020).

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