I first heard of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano years ago from a Chicago associate, a medical editor for whom I had once worked. He was a generation ahead of me in age, a former monk with a taste for flea markets, literature, and theater. He actually wasn’t much interested in politics, beyond a general concern for human rights.
As a child, love had proved an elusive acquisition in his life, found only occasionally in the culverts and shadows of a troubled family upbringing. However, instead of being hardened, he was sensitized to kind, humane values in both art and people. For this reason, I suspect the title of Galeano’s The Book of Embraces, which he brought to my attention, had caught his eye.
When I started reading the book, I remember being surprised that this somewhat apolitical individual had recommended a book by an avowed political leftist. But after finishing it, there was no surprise. As a writer, Galeano had a way of transcending the usual limits of political or historical narrative. In his incisive, often bitingly ironic stories and social criticism, there was also at work an expressively humane and poetic voice, one that touched some universal note of what it meant to be human. This was a writer with the capacity to educate, persuade, and inspire, to touch both the heart and the mind.
If Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels rescued socialism from the utopian clouds, Galeano liberated anti-capitalist writing from the impression that it’s all written by committee. He reminded us there’s no rule that “serious” socialist journalism of necessity must equate with dry, flattened political writing where everyone sounds like everyone else. A writer of Galeano’s caliber could instead cultivate the critical imagination, breaking the spell of that manufactured reality that asserts there is no alternative to an unjust status quo.
In such creative hands, another world was always possible.
A Culture in Decline
Today, the dream that another world—an alternative to the capitalist status quo—is possible could be considered the beginning of wisdom. In the United States, extremes of wealth and poverty have been normalized. The national surveillance state has been normalized. The heavy heel of militarized police and mass incarceration has been normalized. A corrosive violence is everywhere, wearing at the hearts of the many people who just want to live in peace and community.
The vile spectacle of mass shootings is one of the more dramatic expressions of the lights going out on society. According to the American Medical Association’s JAMA, there were 36,252 deaths from firearms in 2015. Incredibly, the majority (60 percent) of these deaths were actually suicides. This is the tip of the iceberg of despair existing in society, but it is also a public health crisis.
Globally, U.S. citizens, who constitute about five percent of the world’s population, now own nearly half of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns in the world. The rogue status of the United States as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence emerges in even sharper relief when the size and power of the U.S. military is added to the mix. In fiscal year 2015, at $598.5 billion U.S. military spending accounted for approximately 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending. No country in the world comes remotely close to matching U.S. military expenditures, which equal the size of the next seven largest military budgets in the world.
The scope of existing weaponry in this massive arsenal is also mind-boggling. It includes automatic rifles, mortars, anti-tank missiles, guided missiles, multiple launch rocket systems, grenade machine guns, machine guns that fire 6,000 rounds per minute, 16,000-pound howitzer cannons, hundreds of “battle-force” naval ships, nuclear attack submarines, fighter jets, strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and some 7,000 nuclear weapons.
Do you feel safe yet? If that isn’t enough, the relentless pursuit by the military-industrial complex of the technology of death never ends. There are new “directed energy weapons” using lasers, particle beams and microwaves on the horizon. There are even Army engineers who spend their time thinking of more mundane ways to keep tired soldiers shooting away. One recent innovation is a mechanical “third arm” overworked soldiers can use to reduce muscle fatigue when firing heavy weapons.
Everyone’s seen satellite images used to create global maps that illustrate modern electric grids. They have been used to show things like power blackouts or how underdeveloped North Korea’s infrastructure is. Imagine a similar map to illustrate global distribution of firearms and weaponry. The United States would dominate this map like some super nova of potential violence, an armed madhouse of weaponry and militarism. American militarism is the Death Star at the center of a violence-soaked global capitalist system that is steadily destroying the possibility of a humane and livable future for all human beings.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has ascended to the U.S. presidency. He is not just a temporary detour or aberration in an otherwise healthy democracy, an alien creature from the planet Vulgar for whom our only hope is the laser death ray of a special counsel investigation. In fact, the ascendancy of Trump to the White House is a stark indication of just how deep society’s malaise has become. There is a virus lurking in this so-called democratic system, one that under new blows and future crises could turn the body politic into a reeking, inflamed pustule of undisguised authoritarianism, barbarism far worse than anything presently existing. The end game threat is open fascism, dressed in an American uniform.
Another world is possible. But it may not necessarily be the one we want.
Movement for a New Society
The futurist thinker Buckminster Fuller once coined the word “livingry” to describe all the resources, technology, and products that enhance human existence. The goal of society said Fuller should be to employ all the artifacts of livingry, an antonym to “weaponry,” to make the world work “100 percent” for humanity. But the concept of livingry occupies only a quixotic status in modern-day culture, while weaponry capable of massive destruction of life is worshiped like some dissipated god of profit and power, a part of the everyday vernacular of a society in decline.
Here is a thought to ponder. No one is coming to save us—except ourselves. This is something striking West Virginia teachers (now rallying in Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere) have taught us anew in recent weeks. Fighting for better wages and affordable health care, they have relied on the one power that demands respect—the power to rally, mobilize, and strike. The fighting spirit of teachers is a sign of what is possible when working people organize and mobilize. As one striking West Virginia’s teacher’s sign stated, “Everything we do is for the bigger picture.”
All the diffuse energy that’s wasted strategizing how to replace this Republican with that Democrat, this right-wing ideologue with that pragmatic liberal, amounts to not much more than panicked running bow to stern and back on a sinking ship. What happens if the Democrats win a Congressional majority in the 2018 mid-term elections? Or Trump is gone from the presidency after 2020 (or sooner)? Then what? Won’t establishment liberals settle in once again to placid grumbling about living in a country with the highest child poverty rate among the world’s richest nations? Won’t Democrats and Republicans resume their pretend squabbles just like the “good old days” when a Bush, Clinton, or Obama occupied the White House, while doing nothing about the vast, increasing concentration of oligarchic wealth and power? Won’t both major parties loyally vote for massive military expenditures, year after year and war after war?
Fortunately, there are many indications of a growing ferment for political and social change that goes deeper, beyond the familiar limits of traditional two-party politics, to the roots of society’s ills. One sign is the growing interest in socialist ideas among young adults and youth. A 2016 Harvard poll found 33 percent of young adults 18-29 in support of socialist ideas, a notable shift from years past, while a majority of 51 percent also did not support capitalism. This corresponds with the emergence since the last election of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders as one of the nation’s most popular politicians.
There are other signs. Since Trump’s election groups such as Democratic Socialists of America are registering dramatic increases in membership. In Seattle, the success in recent years of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, is another indicator of the more open climate for socialist politics. Likewise, the International Socialist Organization now attracts some 2,000 people to its annual summer educational conference. Meanwhile, a number of left progressive publications and news-sites such as Common Dreams, Jacobin, Counterpunch, and Truthout are attracting significant readership.
Not to overstate any of this, but prospects for the politics of progressive social justice is not all doom and gloom. With teachers’ unions mobilizing, women’s rights activism and youth engagement against gun violence on the rise, ongoing actions for Black Lives Matter, and other expressions of political dissent against a wildly unpopular right-wing president, there is another, better America searching for a way forward.
Today, there is a great need for a mass socialist party in the United States. Not just a party interested in implementing reforms for a kinder, gentler capitalism, by jockeying for partisan influence within Congress, but an independent party that strives to be a grassroots beacon for popular social struggles, an alternative pole of attraction for mass organizing and social protest. We need an alternative not only to Republicans, but to a Democratic Party whose internal “deep state” is firmly welded to elite money and corporate power. Instead, we need political vision for another way forward, for an end to the capitalistic profit-madness that has left the planet wallowing in violence, inequality, and poverty.
Old Ideas, Born Anew
In The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano teaches us that the past and present meet and embrace in only one place—tomorrow. In some ways, the modern idea of socialism actually represents a return to the cooperative communalism of humanity’s early history.
“The ancient voice that speaks to us of community heralds another world as well,” wrote Galeano. “Community—the communal mode of production and life—is the oldest of American traditions, the most American of all. It belongs to the earliest days and the first people, but it also belongs to the times ahead and anticipates a new New World. For there is nothing less alien to these lands of ours than socialism. Capitalism, on the other hand, is foreign: like smallpox, like the flu, it came from abroad.”
As a writer, Galeano used words as a form of subversion, as weapons for education and revolutionary change. His was a voice of hope and resistance to social oppression, a writer who in a few poignant passages could articulate the historic experience of workers, peasants, indigenous people, and women suffering under the reign of capitalism and colonialism.
The world needs more inspired voices of this caliber. Yet as persuasive as any writer can be, it is the ideas learned in the fire of social struggle that become most firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of the people. A militant strike will teach a group of workers very quickly who their real friends and enemies are, far more than years of contemplative reading of socialist treatises on what’s wrong with capitalism. The more accelerated the struggle, the more a light is thrown on the machinery of established politics and institutions, and how they function to keep people disempowered.
It’s always an uphill battle to change the world. But change the world does when oppressed people mobilize for justice. Even in defeat, there are lessons to be learned, new battles to be fought. It sounds like jargon to say so, but only because it’s so true: Independent mass social movements, organized from the ground up, led by those who labor and endure under the present system, are the motor force of history. But motors don’t just run on their own. They need vehicles to move forward. They need drivers and direction and a power source. Above all, they need socialist leadership and organization and a clear sense of purpose and goals.
Interestingly, the writer Vijay Prashad notes in a recent Boston Review interview that a basic distinction between socialist and liberal writers is that the socialist perspective is rooted in the belief that change is possible. Not inevitable, but achievable. “Cynicism and pessimism are not the mood of the socialist,” says Prashad. “This means that when injustice is uncovered, the writer assumes that justice is possible.” The antidote to cynicism is to “retain faith in the capacity of human beings to overcome the present,” concludes Prashad.
In his remarks on socialist writers, Prashad reminds us of Galeano’s lyrical observation that human beings are not made of atoms, they are made of stories. In fact, the larger story of our time is the one still being written, that of the historic struggle of humanity to transcend all that holds society back, to vanquish every last remnant of a system of capitalist greed and profit that knows no other way than to exploit the many for the benefit of the few.
A society that accepts class inequality and permanent war as some sort of timeless fixture of social development—as human nature—has no future, at least not one any civilized people should want. Fortunately, new chapters in resistance are being written in this story every day, word upon word, battle upon battle, in the global struggles of the common people for social justice.
Liberation from all forms of political authoritarianism and economic exploitation, the establishment of democratic social power from the ground up, this is the revolutionary dream. This is a vision of socialism as the highest form of democracy. As Marx once so aptly described, the classless society of the future is one in which “the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all.”
It is a vision of human society no longer held hostage by the past.