The work of Hard Bones was not over with writing or editing or re-editing or formatting. Because a book requires readers to reach its fullest expression and because I do not have a publisher, it is up to me to make sure that this project doesn’t die in silence. If you don’t know me, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m an egomaniac or narcissist obsessed with getting attention in the middle of a pandemic. In the words of more than one shithead I dated in Philly – “What do you think, you’re better than us??” You’d be forgiven, but I might judge you for being so indoctrinated with neoliberal culture that you can’t find value in expression that serves a purpose outside of capitalism – or even in direct opposition to it. You might want to evict the capitalist cop in your brain 😬
I’m a great writer, but not having a “great career” renders that fact irrelevant. I have an extensive background of activism, organizing, study, writing, volunteering, donating, door-knocking, etc., but these facts are irrelevant because I have never been accepted or employed by the institutional Left (apart from Union organizing, but those jobs were always dead-end/contract) – which means I lack “legitimacy”. According to the meritocratic ideology we are all swimming in, truly smart/driven/talented people naturally rise to the top and are rewarded for their effort. Of course, I reject that notion by rejecting it first in my own mind-body – and then i reject it wholesale for all of you too.
You ever think about how each and every one of us is born with the potential for greatness? I don’t mean money or a career or clout, but the potential for each of us to reach our fullest expression of humanity that brings more love into the world. I think about how quickly life circumstances come in and smash that potential – the structures and inherited trauma of slavery and colonialism playing out, child abuse, economic precarity, untreated mental illness, etc. Meritocracy would have us believe that the ocean of human endeavor is led by the best and brightest, that that liberal-ish homogenous best and brightest will fix the economy or racism or the pandemic. But again, I reject that. Some of the most important thought and strategy comes from the shadows, the underground – the realm of the lumpenproletariat. We just don’t have the platform or opportunity- yet. My work is part of a collective effort to throw off the weight meritocratic ideology so that we can see the reality of our power.
As someone who thinks that humans are capable of an economic system far more stable, equitable, and sustainable than capitalism, I haven’t spent that much time thinking about what a socialist economy would look like in my every day life. When I say socialism, I mean a democratically-managed economy, where the industries and services we all need (like power, the mail, and healthcare) are owned by all of us. But what about businesses? Many internet critics that rail against the evils of socialism and communism conjure up these drab, grey pictures of people waiting in breadlines and a massive unaccountable bureaucracy. And I have to admit – the image is certainly not the kind of world that I want to live in. But are they correct that a democratically-managed economy must certainly turn into such a dystopia? I have been a critic of capitalism for more than twenty years, but I haven’t seen that many descriptions of a post-capitalist economy that really get me excited. Not that they don’t exist – Cooperation Jackson and the World Social Forum immediately come to mind – but they never really make it out of niche circles of activists and into the world of cable news. So I decided to lay about daydreaming what it might look like.
In another life, I ran a kitchen-based baked goods business. I made all kinds of delicious confections – chocolate-espresso brownies with hazelnut buttercream, custom birthday cakes, and chocolate peanut butter cookies to name a few. I really wanted to have a “real” business one day, a cute café where people would meet their friends or order a special cake; something where I’d have a few employees and all of us would share the profits after expenses/rent/loans/etc. I didn’t have much money to invest, but I had my skills and a good credit score – why shouldn’t I just be an entrepreneur?? A small business owner. The problem is risk and the very real threat of economic oblivion in the event that the failure. And for restaurants, the rate of failure is stunning: sixty percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year and 80 percent go out of business within five years. I had $80,000 in student debt and no trust fund or rich spouse to fall back on. Some of you reading this might assume that I have low self-esteem or that my product just wasn’t that good. I can assure you that neither of those are the case. I made a rational decision based on the information available to me and concluded that there were too many uncertain variables weighing against the small chance of success. I think we can all agree that desserts and baked goods are not socially necessary in the sense that one can lead a pretty ok life without having access to them. But they are a social good – a means of treating oneself to something delicious or celebrating a loved one. What about a bake shop under socialism?
Under the current system, I – as a potential business owner – write up a business plan, secure a loan, contract with a landlord for space, and invest my own money into equipment and making the space attractive to potential customers. I must either know in advance about marketing, or else pay someone to do it for them. If the business takes a long time to start making money, I will have to take on more debt to be able to stay open and pay employees, driving down the wages and forcing employees to “do more with less”. If another bakery selling pastries were to open up across the street, there is nothing I could do about it. Even if they offered similar items at 1/3 the price because that other owner had a rich parent or patron keeping them afloat, there is nothing I could do to compete besides lowering my prices or investing even more money into advertising. If my business fails during the second year of my 5-year lease, I still have to pay all of the rent for those five years. If after five years of steady growth and building relationships with customers my landlord decides to double my rent, there is nothing I can do. I have to pay or I have to leave the space (not to mention all the capital they invested into it). The business owner is forced to absorb all the risk without any guarantees. So what? Just file for bankruptcy and start over again in a few years. [Insert eyeroll].
Opening a bakery under a socialist system would look a lot different because the goals of the economy would be different. How many times have you decried the existence of a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks, around the corner from another Starbucks? This is how our space is organized under capitalism. Does there need to be three of the same shitty coffeehouses within a square mile? Probably not. But under the current system there isn’t much that people in the neighborhood can do. There are always “planning meetings” and other liberal urbanist practices that purport to give regular citizens more power, but they are by and large toothless entities that write reports and make suggestions. This is why there are entire neighborhoods where you can’t buy fresh produce. Under socialism, our space would be planned by accountable people who work for the taxpayers. Under capitalism, the free market decides and those with the most capital to invest will always win. Under socialism, the taxpayers would own commercial real estate, protecting the business from money-hungry landlords or, conversely, protecting building owners (not talking about hedge funds or investors here) from huge jumps in property taxes. If the citizens own the property and want to make sure the business is successful, perhaps the business wouldn’t have to start paying their cost-share (formerly rent; now a monthly fee used to start-up new businesses) until they start making money consistently and sustainably. A democratically organized economy by its very nature would want to help businesses survive and to keep neighborhoods stable because it supports human flourishing. These are just a couple of the infinite ways we could decide to organize our economy if we the people actually had power…we have the power.
The beauty of imagining the future is that we can imagine it however we want. We make the rules. If we say we want a socialist economy, that means we have the freedom to imagine all kinds of new economic relationships that favor democracy, justice, equity, and social cohesion. There’s no reason that a socialist economy would look like the USSR – we have access to far more knowledge, research, and stories from people on the ground than there was at the time of the Russian Revolution. Even as they advances in communications technology have created a lot more trash and toxic waste, the ubiquity of smartphones in the world today is a democratizing force that has been underestimated by the “communists want to steal your house” crowd. Just look at the pro-democracy protestors in Thailand – they have been able to organize and mobilize at a massive scale in just a few months, making use of social media to spread news about protests and memes that repeat the movement’s symbols and demands. They demand democracy and a new constitution, in spite of the fact that there has been a military coup there about once every seven years since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. We are capable of creating new kinds of economic relationships that favor human development over shareholder growth. The future is ours to write. If you could organize the economy for the benefit of us all, what would it look like?
The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent’s sense of time.
[Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man]
As I write this conclusion in the little bedroom of the Covid-safe friend pod, Trump and his followers are waging yet another war on reality, denying the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory. More than 100,000 cases of Covid-19 are reported every day in every part of the US. The 24 hour cable news cycle is reporting every absurd event, debating whether or theorizing how a Trump coup might unfold. The atmospheric dread is thick and orange, choking us with disbelief. The democratic experiment feels more like a failure than usual, especially as so many of us lacked faith in our institutions and that old promise of opportunity to begin with. Not many people believe that a Biden presidency is capable of bringing about the deep changes necessary to confront either the viral memetic infection of Trumpism or the contradictions of racial capitalism. Climate change looms heavy in our hearts too, even as we feel confident in Biden’s ability to bring actual science and scientists to the fore in our battle against Covid-19. Where do we go next? How do those of us that believe in truth, justice, and democracy orient ourselves in the proximate and distant unknowns? What are our weapons and tools of resistance? Who is our opponent?
Despite attempts by Thailand’s elites to cast ordinary Thais as docile, obedient, and uninterested in politics, evidence of resistance to exploitation and domination in the region pre-dates the formation of the Thai state. The popular uprising that spread across Thailand starting in July 2020 traces its lineage back to the Red Shirt political movement that emerged in 2006, resistance to the 1991 military coup, the coordinated student, labor, and peasant struggles of the 1970s, and the Siamese Revolution of 1932 before that. While Thailand was never formally colonized, it was still economically dominated by the British imperial system since being pried opened to British foreign trade with the signing of the Bowring Treaty of 1855. The organizers of the Siamese Revolution ended the absolute monarchy and put Thailand on a path towards economic nationalism and modernization; the political ideology of the organizers was not monolithic, however, and the party would eventually split into civilian and military factions. The military faction along with its royalist supporters would ultimately win the dispute, excising any mention of a welfare state or land reform from the new constitution and ushering in fifteen years of authoritarian rule that outlawed communism. Post-World War II prosperity brought with it a more liberal mood and Marxist ideas gained traction in urban Thai society. Progressive political parties, trade unions, literary movements, and the publication of original Thai socialist ideas – as well as translations of Marxist works in other languages – multiplied from 1946 to 1957. These once-banned ideas inspired a generation of student activists, many of whom would go on to organize protests right up until they were banned yet again by another military coup in 1958.
If the original inhabitants of the Americas were given the choice 500 years ago, do you think they would have chosen to keep on living their lives as they had been, or would they choose small pox, genocide, boarding schools, and being forced off the land? If the African humans that were enslaved in the Americas were given a voice back in the late 17th century , do you think they would have voted for freedom or to protect the rich white men that “owned” them? If the 21st century citizens of the USA had the opportunity to fund a robust public health infrastructure – including universal healthcare and a fully-funded, science-based, national-level plan for dealing with a pandemic – do you think the majority of people would choose public health or would they choose to cut the funding and cancel the research while cutting taxes on the rich?