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Twenty-First Century Socialism: What It Will Become and Why

The real left is not the caricature crafted by the U.S. right. Alongside parallel right-wing political formations abroad, that caricature tries hard to revive and recycle Cold War demonizations no matter how far-fetched. Nor is the real left what Democratic Party leaders and their foreign counterparts try hard to dismiss as tiny and politically irrelevant (except when electoral campaigns flirt with “progressive” proposals to get votes). The real left in the United States and beyond are the millions who at least vaguely understand that the whole system (including its mainstream right and left) is the core problem. As those millions steadily raise their awareness to an explicit consciousness, they recognize that basic system change is the needed solution.

On the one hand, the real left divides into particular social movements (focused on areas like ecological survival, feminism, anti-racism, labor militancy, and sexual rights). On the other hand, those social movements increasingly understand themselves to comprise components of a new unity they must organize. One key unifying force is anti-capitalism. Correspondingly, the different system they seek will likely be some new sort of socialism—with or without that name—particularly suited to 21st-century conditions.

The other big problem for the real left—besides unified organization—lies in its lack of a compelling “vision”: a clear, concrete, and attractive image of the social change it advocates. To succeed, a new socialism for the 21st century needs such a vision. Socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries had a very successful vision as evidenced by its remarkable global spread. However, that vision is no longer adequate. In 19th- and 20th-century socialism’s vision, militant unions and socialist political parties partnered to: 1) seize state power from the employer class; and 2) use that power to replace capitalism with socialism and eventually a minimally defined communism. Seizing state power could happen via reforms and electoral victories, direct actions and revolution, or combinations of them. Socialists spent immense energy, time, and passion debating and experimenting with those alternatives. Seizing state power from the employer class was to be followed by using that power to regulate and control private employers or to substitute the state itself (as representative of the collective working class) for private employers. Either way, the transition to socialism meant that the workers’ state intervened in economic decisions and activities to prioritize social welfare over private profit. Beyond replacing capitalism with socialism, possibly subsequent moves toward communism were mostly left vague. Communism seemed to be in and about the (perhaps distant) future while politics seemed to call for socialists to offer immediate programs.

So socialists everywhere over the last two centuries concentrated on seizing the state and thereby regulating markets, raising mass consumption standards, protecting workers in enterprises, and so on. Workers increasingly supported a socialist vision that foregrounded how socialist parties would use state power directly and immediately to help them. This vision fit well with socialist parties’ partners in labor union movements. The latter contested employers in enterprises, while socialist parties contested the employer class’s hold on state power. Thus socialist political parties and labor unions formed, grew, and allied nearly everywhere in the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Together they built effective, lasting organizations. After one of them prevailed in the 1917 Russian Revolution, most socialist organizations and parties split to form coexisting entities (ideologically similar yet often competing): one called socialist and the other “communist.”

After 1917, the socialist parties (and most independent socialists too) articulated programs for “progressive” social reforms. The reforms aimed to control capitalism’s market structures—its labor, tax, housing, health care, and transport systems—and its cultural superstructure (areas like politics, education, and religion). Communist parties usually supported socialist reforms, but they went further than the socialists to favor state takeovers of capitalist enterprises. Communists viewed state-owned-and-operated enterprises as necessary not only to achieve but also to secure the reforms socialists advocated.

The socialists’ and communists’ shared programmatic focus on the state complemented their critiques of capitalism in its predominantly private form across the 19th and 20th centuries. As socialism and communism grew across those centuries, they became the great theoretical and practical oppositional forces to capitalism. The more moderate among them defined socialism as a state elected to control and regulate private employers and thereby lessen private capitalism’s hard edges, inequalities, and injustices. Scandinavians and other Europeans experimented with such moderate versions of socialism. In Soviet socialism, the state’s economic intervention went further. Its communist party leadership replaced private employers with state officials fulfilling a state-generated economic plan. In yet another version of socialism—China’s hybrid one—a mix of Scandinavian and Soviet socialisms includes large segments of private capitalists and state-owned-and-operated enterprises. Both are subordinated to a powerful communist party and state.

The common quality of all three socialism was the focus on the state. What most of the socialists involved in the three forms (Scandinavian, Soviet, and Chinese) missed was a shared omission. On the basis of admitting and overcoming that omission, a new socialism for the 21st century emerges complete with a compelling vision.

The state focus of 19th- and 20th-century socialists, besides being a source of their greatest expansionary success, proved also to be a source of their greatest weaknesses and failures. Socialists’ and communists’ focus on the state combined with neglect of the internal structures of enterprises and households. But what if changing the macro-level relation of the state to the private economy from capitalist to socialist required also changing the micro-level of workplaces: both the workplace inside enterprises and the workplace inside households? What if socialism, to be achieved, needed interdependent changes at macro- and micro-levels of society? What if socialist changes in one level cannot survive without correspondingly socialist changes in the other?

Human relations inside factories, farms, offices, stores, and households were rarely transformed by what 19th- and 20th-century socialists achieved because they rarely were objects of their social criticisms and debates. Enterprises were internally divided after socialists took power much as they had been divided before. Employers continued to confront employees as buyers of labor power, directors of the labor process, and exclusive owners of the products. States continued to control dimensions of that confrontation—more in moderate socialism than in capitalism—but the basic confrontation persisted. In versions of socialism where state officials replaced private citizens as owners and operators of factories, farms, offices, and stores, the persisting employer-employee organization of human relations inside enterprises invited criticisms. Some socialists thus referred to such systems as types of state capitalism, not of socialism.

By theoretically not criticizing capitalism’s signature employer-versus-employee internal organization of enterprises, socialists, and communists took a big risk they likely did not understand. When the socialisms they constructed left the employer-versus-employee relationship of enterprises unchanged, that relationship reacted back to undermine those socialisms. Where moderate socialists used state power merely to control capitalists—leaving them their private profits—those capitalists could use the profits to battle socialists and socialism. As socialism’s history in Scandinavia and Western Europe exemplifies, capitalists have always done exactly that. They sought and continue now to seek increased private profits by reducing or removing whatever state controls constrain them. In that way, Scandinavian and European type socialisms undermined themselves.

Where socialist state officials function as employers, the oppositional impulses arising among employees (strengthened by earlier socialist movements) will focus on the state. Worse still, employees struggling against employers in societies self-described as socialist may well come to identify their problem and adversary as socialism. In that way, such variants of socialism too undermine themselves.

The socialist and communist traditions largely neglected the internal structures of households as well as enterprises. Thus socialist experiments in constructing new societies mostly omitted the transformation of those structures. Employer-employee relationships inside enterprises inherited from capitalism largely remained: so too did the inherited spousal and parent-children relationships inside households. We say “largely” because there always were exceptions such as communal households, collective consumption, and larger communes. Yet they remained marginal to the main developments and rarely proved durable. For example, early in Soviet Russia (1917-1930), Alexandra Kollontai initiated major programs of state responsibility and direct support for children and housework. However, European-style nuclear family households, constructed in and for capitalism during the transition from feudalism (see Jacques Donzelot’s The Policing of Families), remained the basic household organization under socialist societies as well.

In the capitalist system’s prevailing household structure, men functioned as household “heads” responsible for disciplining and providing for subordinate wives and children. Wives were to offset the burdens of men’s labor in capitalist enterprises, prepare them for that work, and “raise” children to reproduce identical households. Such households should not only support families but also support the state with taxes (thereby reducing the employer class’s taxes) as well as soldiers. Efforts by households to obtain and secure state supports (schools, day care, subsidies, even veterans benefits) were systematically opposed or limited by the employer class. Even when won by mass mobilizations assisted by socialists such supports were never secure.

To this day, the employer class that dominates in capitalism blocks raising the minimum wage, mandating paid maternal and paternal leave policies, and funding an adequate public education system or adequate health insurance system. That employer class keeps the traditional household in place or else financially constrains individuals fleeing traditional households to serve the employer class’s needs. The authoritarian structure of enterprises (complete with CEOs as dictators inside corporations) reinforces parallel structures in households. Socialists must recognize and act on the premise that the reverse holds as well.

The solution for socialism in the 21st century is to correct for the omission earlier socialisms made. Socialism now needs to add a critical analysis of capitalism’s micro-level organization inside workplaces and households to its macro-level analyses. The focus of 21st-century socialism should balance the overstressed macro-level by a concentration on the micro-level: not as an alternative focus but rather as an additional focus deserving special attention.

The solution for socialism and communism in the 21st century is a new, non-state-focused vision. Socialism becomes the movement to transform 1) the top-down hierarchical organization inside capitalist enterprises (employers versus employees) into a democratic organization of worker cooperatives, and 2) the top-down hierarchical organization inside households into democratized alternatives.

Inside enterprises, each worker will have one vote to decide the major issues facing enterprises. Such issues include what, how, and where to produce as well as how to use the resulting products or, if products are marketed, what to do with the revenues. The difference between employers and employees disappears; the workers become collectively their own boss. Profits cease being the enterprise’s top priority or “bottom line” because that maximization rule prioritizes employers’ gains over employees’ gains and capital’s interests over those of labor. In democratized enterprises, profits instead become one among many democratically determined enterprise goals. Each worker has an equal opportunity to fill in the outlines of such a version of socialism with the creative imaginings of what such a transformed enterprise may make possible.

Inside households, socialism must stand for the freedom to construct different kinds of human relations. Kinship becomes only one of many options. Among adults, democratic household decision-making becomes the rule. Broad rights and freedoms are given to children. Responsibility for raising children becomes shared among parents, democratized households, democratized residential and enterprise communities, and a democratized government. The specifics of such shared responsibility will be among the objects of democratic decision-making by all. Whatever may remain of centralized and decentralized state apparatuses will support the new socialism’s households generously as capitalism never did. The twin reproductions—of democratic households and democratic enterprises—will be equal social responsibilities: 21st-century socialism’s notion of work-life balance.

Such reorganizations of enterprises and households define socialism for the 21st century in a new way. Social change becomes a lived daily experience in each enterprise and household (more profound than mere changes from private to state-regulated, controlled, or owned enterprises). Such a redefined socialism can defeat the anti-socialist movements that have long contested state power versus individual power and that dogmatically endorsed the nuclear family against all alternative household structures. It revives elements of socialism’s complicated history of alliance with anarchism.

Democratic worker cooperatives become a key institutional foundation of whatever state apparatus survives. Worker co-ops, democratized households, and individuals will be the state’s three revenue sources and thus key sources of its power. They will democratically decide how to divide the provision of such revenue among themselves. Undemocratically organized institutions—such as capitalist enterprises or traditional households—will no longer undermine democratically organized politics. Instead democratic economic, political, and household organizations will collaborate, interact, and share responsibilities for social development and social reproduction.

Democratically transformed enterprises and households are socialist goals well worth fighting for. So too is a state controlled by and thus responsive to individuals within democratically organized households, residential communities, and worker-co-op enterprises. Together these goals comprise an effective, attractive new vision to define and motivate a socialism for the 21st century. One of its banners might proclaim, “No king or dictator in politics; no boss or CEO at work; no patriarch or head at home.”

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


Rebecca de Schweinitz: Can youth in politics save American democracy?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rick Larsen, from the Sutherland Institute, chats with Sen. Mitt Romney at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Aug. 21, 2023.

By Rebecca de Schweinitz | For The Salt Lake Tribune

  | Sep. 21, 2023, 12:00 p.m.

Mitt Romney’s suggestion, in his recent announcement that he would not seek reelection to the Senate, that American politics could benefit from the perspectives and participation of young people, is hardly a new idea.

Concerns about age and politics, about the ways that the older generation had become too tied to “vested interests,” overly “addicted to party habits,” “afflicted with the force of pressure groups” and “bound” to “familiar paths” rose to prominence when Romney’s father was seeking the United States presidency in the late 1960s.

Popular memory attributes the extension of voting rights to 18-20-year-olds, through the Civil Rights Extension Act of 1970 and the 26th Amendment in 1971, to the Vietnam War. The increasing unpopularity of the war made it untenable to force young men to fight and die abroad when most of them could not vote at home. Moreover, the usual story goes, channeling youthful political dissent into appropriate and manageable forms seemed a wise alternative to the disruptive protests of the era.

But the success of a decades-long effort to lower the nation’s voting age to 18 was the result of many factors, among them a growing sense that the younger generation possessed more civic virtue than the country’s elders. Young Americans won the right to vote in the Age of Aquarius at least partly because older adults, who were less open to change, and sometimes even described as chained to “institutionalized and bureaucratized patterns,” had created a national crisis of confidence in American democracy. It was no accident that a concerted coalition campaign to lower the voting age emerged in 1968 — a year described as a “watershed” wherein myths about American democracy “came crumbing down.”

More “at home in this time,” and equipped with a “clear view that has not become clouded through time and involvement,” youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s were celebrated as “adept structural defect specialists,” more capable of understanding the country’s emerging needs and more inclined to act for the common good than the older generations then in charge. Young people’s highly visible participation in the civil rights movement and their engagement with a variety of other important local, national and international issues suggested that modern youth provided a new model for civically minded citizenship.

Here in Utah in 1970, concerns over the inability of aging politicians and party regulars to move past political motivations, led youth at the University of Utah to launch what became a state-wide initiative, “Participation ‘70,” through which they worked for moderate policies, political reform and the contemporary issues they cared about most. Students flocked to neighborhood political meetings and to county and state party conventions. More than 300 students were elected to neighborhood political offices. Students also won 11% of the Republican convention delegate seats and 15% of those for the Democratic convention. Their participation in Utah political forums that year helped determine candidate selection for a range of electoral contests and resulted in passage of a number of resolutions, including support for environmental and education-related measures, which, according to documents from the period, represented young people’s top legislative priorities, no matter their political affiliation.

William Viavant, a University of Utah electrical engineering professor and voter registration chairman for Salt Lake County Democrats in 1970, made observations similar to those expressed by Romney. The “old-timers,” Viavant told a reporter for the National Observer in June 1970, tend to “think the primary purpose of politics is to get elected and keep the party in power.” In comparison, he described the state’s politically engaged students as admiringly “issue oriented” with “no interest” in such narrow, self-interested considerations. Young people were bringing much needed energy, idealism and perspectives to Utah politics.

Certainly not all young people (in the past or present) act outside self-interest or are unimpeded by “party habits,” but my study of youth in American history and my interactions with current students incline me to agree with Romney, as well as Viavant and others who put their faith in youth political participation decades ago. Greater youth engagement in electoral politics — as voters, candidates and everything in between — represents an opportunity for the revitalization of American politics and life.

Rebecca de Schweinitz is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. Her most recent book, co-authored with Jennifer Frost, is Achieving the 26th Amendment: A History with Primary Sources (Routledge, 2023).


Press Pause: How To Step Back And Take A Beat

Is it time for you to pause your career?

It’s so easy to get caught up in our own competition. We strive to work harder and longer every day, trying to get to the highest levels of our performance. Then just when we think we’re getting closer to excellence, things start to slip, and balls start to drop. Why? Because you’re hurtling towards a burn out. But there’s a way to avoid this dangerous cycle, and it involves finally giving yourself a break. 

Rachael O’Meara is an executive at Google and a transformational leadership coach. Her new book is Pause: Harnessing the Life-Giving Power of Giving Yourself a Break. I recently interviewed Rachael for the LEADx Podcast, where we talked about the ‘work till you drop’ mentality and how to avoid fizzling out. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.) 

Kevin Kruse: You talk about having to take a break before while working at Google, for fear of burn-out. How did that work?

Rachael O’Meara: In my particular case — and everyone is different — I had to get approvals and everything like that. With my manager, we negotiated to not go back to that role, because I don’t think it was a fit for me. And the idea was that ideally, I would return, but it still wasn’t 100% sure. I really wasn’t sure of anything at that moment. I was really in this cloudy fog. And I did end up coming back and I had a period of time, like a grace period, to find a new role. And I ended up finding a role in sales, which is what I do now, and that was because I actually took intention to learn about my strengths and really ask myself what was I good at? Because I really wasn’t sure at that point.

And so that led me into thinking about new career paths into things like relationship management and explaining technology and helping people learn products. Those are the things that I already liked to do, but I hadn’t really carved a career out in it.

Kruse: Take me a little deeper into that break. How did you spend the three months?

O’Meara: So this was back in 2011, and essentially what I did, I live in San Francisco, and I chose to actually not fill my plate with a lot of plans. I think one of the things we like to do is just, high-performing Type-As in general people who like to get stuff done, is to plan and be busy and do do do do do.

And I actually intentionally chose not to do that. And it wasn’t by design, necessarily, at the time. But looking back on it now, I see how much that benefited me because it allowed me some space to kind of emerge into what was going on and see what my reality was, because like I said, my perspective was a little skewed and negative at the time. Like, “What am I doing? I’m a failure, why am I even in technology? Maybe I’ve got this all wrong!”

And it was taking that hard look at my career path and being okay with the fact that this may not have been the right choice for me and I might have to just totally change, course-correct. And I was willing to face that and, over time, realize that really did take courage. And it takes courage for all of us to look at that and just check-in and tune-in, which is a lot of what I did, at least for the first month to six weeks.

And then, I just did a couple online classes. I also set up some rules for myself, like a structure. So only spending 30 minutes online at a time for checking email. And this was a really big thing! I mean, you laugh, but the truth is digital devices are addictive, right? We all know we can be scrolling on our phones indefinitely. So I actually think pausing, which I call any intentional shift in behavior, can be integrated into daily life. Things like a digital device pause, where you create certain blocks of time or rules for yourself, are really important and can be some way to pause.

So I created some structure, but very loose brush-strokes of structure, and then allowed what was going to happen to happen. And that was kind of this fear of the unknown coming up for me. And that was a little scary, but at the same time, hugely rewarding because I really did learn a lot about myself without being distracted by things like going on a big trip, or coming up with all kinds of things to do everyday, because clearly, I needed some time to allow myself to figure out what was next for me.

Kruse: You’re not saying that to pause is leaving work for three months, right? There are different ways we can pause.

O’Meara: Right, right. So you’ve got it. And the idea is that this can be incorporated into a lifestyle where you take daily pauses. And there are different types of pauses you can have. So for example, doesn’t have to be some kind of extended pause. That was my case, but anyone can do this. 

And the idea is that if you have even a single breath, which sounds really simple, but if you just sit in your chair and sit up a little straighter, maybe close your eyes or focus on your breath for one deep breath… Like exhaling here, that to me is a pause. It’s a short one, but it’s an intentional shift in behavior.

There are other ways to pause. There could be a forced pause. I talk about that where, unfortunately, there might be a layoff. And there could be a really big silver-lining for you, where this might be an opportunity to reassess where your path is going, or what you want to incorporate into your life.

So I have a whole bunch of daily pauses that I talk about where you can create what works for you. And again, it’s based on your individual world, whether it’s the time frame or the activity you want to do or the finances.

Kruse: I think it makes you more productive, as well, taking these mini-pauses.

O’Meara: Yes. And I actually refer to this as the pause paradox. Totally what you’re talking about where we value these things like productivity and profits. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m all for productivity, right? I want to achieve as well. But the idea is that if we want to be sustainable or have long term success, whether it’s at home or in your career as a leader, wherever in your life, pausing really helps to build that in, to create that sustainability where you can enhance things like needed downtime, and creativity. I mean, there’s research now, as probably a lot of us know, where even a wandering mind helps facilitate creative problem-solving. And distractions are actually good for us.

It’s a mind shift in that we’ve been taught to produce in the Industrial Age and just go go go, but the reality is, in our world and what we’re working towards now, that we’re 24/7, 1,440 minutes in a day. This pausing is a necessity, but if we don’t take advantage to choose to want it or create that for ourselves, the chances of burnout or exhaustion go higher. And I think more importantly, it’s about leading a really meaningful and satisfied life. 

And if you can pause to even appreciate that or check in and just say, “What am I wanting right now that isn’t here? Or am I really on a path that serves me or where I want to go?” And if we don’t choose to stop and pause for that, then we may miss that train altogether. 

Kruse: For people trying to find their passion in whatever time they have, should they think through it or feel through it?

O’Meara: Yeah, and it could even be a weekend or a day, right? Like it can just be any amount of time that works. And so, what I think we’re tapping into is emotional intelligence here, where we’re looking at how emotions influence our decisions. So by all means, feeling is critical. And I think a really good skill to create and build is to pause and ask how you’re feeling right now in this moment.  

Like right now, I’m feeling joy because I’m sharing my message with you, Kevin. But I’m also a little tired because it’s 6 a.m. here in San Francisco. So I’m like, maybe a little sad. So even just acknowledging that, and I’m not explaining myself or going into the why or anything, but that is a really big baseline for me to say, “Well, what can I do next that really helps me feel more satisfied or serves me to maybe express better?” 

And so that’s really the name of the game. If I’m in touch with my feelings and I’m just going to call it emotional intelligence, where you’re self-aware and you’re able to regulate what you’re doing and motivate others and have empathy and social skills to lead, all of those things are emotional intelligence defined by Daniel Goldman, and all of those really start with how you’re feeling in the moment. And mindfulness is really critical for that, meaning I can pause and just tune-in. And that’s all this really is.

Kruse: I always ask our listeners to get a little bit better every single day. So I want you to challenge us. Give us one thing we can do today.

O’Meara: That’s so cool, Kevin, I love this idea. So I would ask yourself, “What if?” The next time you find yourself in what I’ll say is a ‘fixed mindset,’ and maybe you’re like, “Nah, I don’t have time. I don’t have time to pause. Maybe it’s pausing. I don’t have this or that.”

This is a way to ask yourself, “What if? Well what if I had time?” And really reframe how that looks to you. And the idea is that you could step into new places, maybe have a new experience that would open you to even more new things.  

And that’s exactly what happened to me with pausing in that it really profoundly changed my world. And I’m thinking, “What if I could pause? And what would happen from there?”

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