By David Gespass
July 20, 2017
Justice Initiative International
Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein held a “conversation” at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. One of the things they agreed upon was that, while we could not predict what political and economic system we would have in 2050, we could be sure it would not be capitalism. Years later, I recall that and think it is an important caveat for Marxist theory.
I believe that Marx’s and Engels’s understanding of the nature of the capitalism that existed when they were writing was accurate and perspicacious. They observed and analyzed the then-existing economic relations and explained them. Lenin’s elaboration of Marxist theory as imperialism, once the world had been divided among the capitalist powers, demonstrated his ability to observe and analyze. And one could say the same for Kwame Nkrumah when he described neo-colonialism. Indeed, Nkrumah advanced the theory by injecting an African perspective into what had previously been Eurocentric. But however brilliantly these and others analyzed existing systems, no such analysis could possibly predict the future. The confident predictions that capitalism would be replaced inevitably by socialism and communism, while appealing, could not possibly be as certain. In short, it is easier to describe how things are than to say how they will be.
How could anyone in the 19th or early 20th century have predicted the decentralization of production, where anyone with a computer could know what is going on in factories anywhere in the world? How could they see the decline of the industrial proletariat as more and more could be produced with fewer and fewer workers? Even people like Robert Heinlein, who published “Stranger in a Strange Land” in 1961, predicted something like fax machines would be publicly available, not in every office, but on street corners like telephone booths. Speaking of which, who would have thought as little as fifty years ago that telephone booths would be extinct everywhere but in Dr. Who? And Heinlein did not foresee email, which has made fax machines relics.
All of this is to say we should spend less time defining the system that will replace capitalism, or what capitalism will evolve into, and more time considering the principles that should govern any such system. Consider the absurdities of capitalism today. Those people who can least afford it are charged the highest interest. People with low balances in their checking accounts are charged to maintain them, and charged absurd amounts for overdrafts, while people who maintain high minimum balances may even be paid a little bit of interest on them. “Subprime” mortgages enrich lenders and further impoverish the already poor.
This makes perfect sense for the financial system. Of course, if there is a higher risk that someone will not repay a debt, the lender wants the incentive of a greater return to justify the risk. It does not, however, make any sense for human relations. It insures increasing economic disparity and that means more hunger, homelessness and hopelessness for the impoverished. Beyond that, when they default on their loans, or miss a rent payment, they are bullied by the well-heeled and their lawyers, while people like Donald Trump can refuse to pay their bills with impunity because their creditors cannot afford to litigate to collect.
But perhaps the most scathing indictment of capitalism today is that every advance in productive capacity results in suffering. Automobiles manufactured today are far better, safer and last longer than those that were made in the 1950’s and 60’s and they are made with a fraction of the work force that populated auto plants back then. Consequently, workers are paid proportionately less and, because of automation, the great majority of jobs in auto plants no longer exist. The same is true for coal mines — Donald Trump’s empty promises notwithstanding. Even if coal were to regain its former economic position and mines were opened across Appalachia, not all that many miners would find jobs. Indeed, across the board, we are producing more and better products with fewer and fewer workers.
A system where all these technological improvements does not improve the lot of so many, but forces them into unemployment of low-paying and temporary jobs, is simply irrational. Rather than lay off half the work force, why not cut the work day in half and pay workers twice as much per hour? That would be rational. It would give workers more leisure because they are more productive. Instead, in the present system, they are forced to seek gig work, or minimum wage jobs while losing their cars, homes and self-respect.
There does exist a framework that can guide us to a better, more rational society, a framework that is clear, universally recognized and dynamic. In 1948, the United Nations member countries signed onto the International Declaration of Human Rights. Subsequently, almost every country in the world has ratified various human rights conventions, giving the force of law to what was previously a declaration (the United States has failed to ratify several of these conventions). Certainly, the ratification of these conventions did not create some human rights utopia and no country has fully achieved the commitments embodied in them. They remain aspirational, but they are a guide to where we should go as a world-wide human family.
Human rights are seriously misunderstood or limited, particularly in this country. The US media constantly talks of human rights violations in other countries, without ever explaining what they mean or which particular rights are being violated. The reporting tends to devolve into something about suppression of speech or arrest and prosecution without due process. Those are certainly two human rights but affording them in no way meets the needs of society today. Nor does it mean that a country is human-rights compliant, much less a “leader.” In the US, for example, we presumably have due process rights and even the right to have a lawyer appointed to defend us if we cannot afford to hire one. Yet innocent defendants who cannot make bail often have the choice of pleading guilty or remaining in jail for months, if not years, waiting for a trial in hopes of being exonerated. This does not even address who is arrested and charged and why. As Anatole France famously said, the law in its majestic equality makes it just as much a crime for the rich as the poor to beg in the streets, sleep under bridges and steal bread.
The fact is that the right to speak, the right to vote, the right to run for office is pretty hollow if you are homeless. There are economic rights – to repeat, universally acknowledged – that are essential to the genuine exercise of those political and civil rights. These include the rights to a decent job, housing, food, education, social security if one cannot work, and health care. As implied above, we have reached a stage of economic development where we should be able to meet everyone’s basic needs. It is only – and here Marxist theory still resonates – because there is private appropriation of what we produce collectively that we do not meet those needs.Thus, the bankers and the CEO’s and the big shareholders take far more than they need or deserve while so many are one pay check or one injury or one illness away from destitution. So what does the future hold? Dystopian novels, old and new, are all the rage now and that is one not inconceivable future in store for succeeding generations. But a world-wide commitment to the basic premise that everyone who is born a human being – that is, in fact, what human rights means – is entitled to the full panoply of rights that have been recognized and society, writ large, must do all it can to achieve that goal. It will not be easy. Rights are not Platonic abstractions existing in some nebulous ideal and idyllic world. They exist, yet must be fought for on earth. They will often come into conflict. They are economic, social, cultural, civil, political and environmental. As society evolves, additional human rights will be recognized. Struggles will also be waged over how these rights are defined and by whom. Which brings me to my last point. The fight to build a society based upon human rights cannot be waged in academia. The proliferation of human rights institutes on campuses around the country is all to the good, but cannot be the center of the battle. Nor can the center be the diplomats in the United Nations, though they have a role to play as well. Rather, the center of the battle must be those whose human rights are being denied. They must be made conscious and recognize the need to demand what is theirs. They must understand they can transform the consensus about what human rights should be into a society that actually affords them to all. What form that society takes, we cannot say. Undoubtedly, it will vary from one place to another. After all, there is a human right to one’s own culture. But it must be revolutionary. It must turn things upside down, where those with the least are given the advantages (low interest rates, for example) that are now enjoyed by those with the most. In short, we must replace the irrationality of our current economic system with one that, while ensuring continuing progress, is based on meeting the needs of those whose needs are not being met now. Making the poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised conscious will not be easy in a world where thoughts do not delve beyond Facebook memes and 140 characters. The issues we face and the transformations we need require grappling with complex issues through serious discussion and serious thought. It will be difficult and will certainly not be one steady climb to that shining city on the hill. But the game is more than worth the candle. Here, again, Marx’s words resonate. There is, indeed, a world to win.
David Gespass practices law in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a past president of the National Lawyers Guild and a member of the editorial board of the NLG Review, the Guild’s theoretical journal. Most recently, he co-authored two articles for its Winter 2016 edition, “Successes and Failures: Assessing the ICTY After Prosecutor v. Karadzic” and “Putting Scalia in Perspective.” He has been a member of the planning committee for the past several Southern Human Rights Organizers Conferences, held biennially, most recently in Jackson, MS last December, and is the current board chair of the Alabama chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.