March 2017Theory

Legislative process: a model of capitalist distraction

Coming to Annapolis to lobby on any given Monday Lobby Night, I'm handed a checklist of priority bills that the organization(s) running the evening's persuasion hope to see enacted (or squashed).

Each of the priority bills promoted by progressive organizations -- economic justice, environment, criminal justice etc. -- is solid and valuable. Each is as good in its own way as the proposals on the bullet list that propelled Bernie Sanders' social-democratic primary campaign to near-victory. But their value is diminished if we don't see -- and explain -- the connections among various agendas and the large and less-visible capitalist agenda -- already in place -- that they are, or should be, comprehensively directed against.

After 35-some years in DSA or its predecessor, DSOC, I don't think of myself as a conspiracy theorist when I say that environmental, labor and workplace, housing, business, educational, health care, criminal justice and electoral reforms are intimately connected -- and that the widely distributed, tentacular influence of today's financialized, corporate capitalism is the problem they all address.

Though the intimate connection is quite distinctly masked, we can feel it every day -- we're pretty well enmeshed in a system in which our "freedom" to consume is both linked to and deformed by our master-servant relationship to the workplace and behind that to the private-sector system that controls most jobs. In the land of the free, the workplace is the most unfree of places. Having a job, or lacking one, affects our self-image, family life and ability to participate in a sound (and sustainable) economy. Our anxieties, family dysfunction, willingness to turn to lawlessness and our incapacity (through educational depletion, skills decay and imposed distraction) to cope with life at breakneck cyber-capitalism speed -- all pivot on this major factor. Desperate competition for the declining number of jobs left on the post-automation landscape brings heedless public ruin of the environment; democratic electoral processes are distorted by the legalized monetization of winning office; residual anxieties of race and class become the dividing line between those who can afford to obey the law and those who cannot. Public provision of public goods is eroded by declining tolerance for the taxes that make human society work, and the effect of educational disparities, especially, is deep and generational.

None of these wide-scale dysfunctions in our society is going to be remedied by one single, numbered, HB or SB in the Maryland General Assembly. Many such bills cause modest incremental improvements short-term, but without a vision coordinating them we can take no satisfaction in individual victories because public welfare, the public good, nevertheless is eroded steadily along all these major fronts.

And the rhythm of legislation, which more and more chops up the sensible political ecosystem into individual bills with individual sponsors and distinct constituencies, ensnares us as progressives and particularly as socialists. When we adapt to that rhythm we lose our own, and our intersectional strategy and comprehensive vision wind up on the killing floor, as well.

It's probably no accident that the systems of representative democracy, especially as electoral politics have become monetized, can sap our progressive energy by degrading the overarching vision that we require in order to keep us going and keep us socialists. It's no accident that the breakneck pace of stimulus and outrage that brought Trump to the office he has no business holding nevertheless keeps the Left off balance, even as we have grown beyond the measure anyone could have foreseen. In the national legislature as in the states and localities, the single-issue bill (or one-off executive ruling) diffuses our attention again and again.

Oddly, we tend to think of these instances as focusing our attention on the actual issues of governance and social practice so we won't get distracted by the endless other shiny objects scatter-plotted on our screens in the Society of the Spectacle. But in fact all these specificities, important as they may seem or be, are diffusers of our unique socialist perspective. Without overdoing the personification, capitalism seems designed for that sort of diversion, just as it seems adept at devising new forms of anxiety to replace the ones we thought we had banished.

All this is to say that in a perversely exciting time of accelerated crisis and compounded outrages, we could be in danger of losing that critical, comprehensive socialist perspective in pursuit of the immediate objective -- a kind of short-term thinking that is not uncommon and can bring important victories but one that we simply have to be aware of and keep in its proper compartment.

Yes, we need to keep on going to Annapolis or the Wilson Building and conducting the ritual of citizen lobbying. Yes, we need to keep on fighting for Statehood, a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave across our jurisdictions. But let's be the ones who propose bigger and more comprehensive programs, programs that encompass many kinds of law and practice and make explicit the web of capitalism that holds together and sustains the ills that our proposals are designed to remedy.

Bigger bills, packages of bills are needed, encompassing major issues that are linked to one another -- like post-automation jobs planning, sustainable business-type activities (including public industrial policy), improved education and pro-worker regulation. Like sustainable development, post-automobile transportation, communities diverse in race and class, and affordable housing. Like public financing of elections, equal media access for candidates and regulation/abolition of "slates" and other evasive forms of collusive election finance. Like fair taxation that levels disparities of wealth, discourages overpriced and excessive housing, supports great schools and generally provides the revenue needed for a good society. Like health care as a right, underpinning for workers and families all those other goods and making us capable of enjoying them.

These are the kinds of packages we should be envisioning, formulating and forwarding in the public sphere -- as well as refining them among ourselves.

Maryland, DC or Virginia won't set the whole nation on a new course just by taking these steps themselves. But many of our local businesses are caught in the same snare as we workers and consumers are unable to think of any remedy but "more," unable to break free from their reflexive plea to legislators that business regulation will cause them to close their doors. A more prosperous, inclusive and positive society for all will result from big moves like those described above -- and sooner than we think.

Bernie Sanders in his groundbreaking primary campaign did a great service to the US electorate -- still afflicted by Cold-War political vocabulary -- by decontaminating the S-word "socialism" for a new generation. A socialist perspective, we know, breaks the fetters of capitalist practices placed on not only workers and consumers but management and ownership. A measurable public benefit results from managing "stuff" (from household goods to industrial means of production) democratically, with public good in mind.

Paddling hard in the rapids of the Trump era, we should be resolute not to let the gains that Sanders accomplished slip away through inattention to our own socialist critique and perspective, nor through lack of effort in educating those around us about that perspective. Through solid, concrete examples of the deep and intimate role of capitalist practices and constraints in our lives we can make plain the connections beneath the surface. Even when the individual numbered bills flock to distract us.

Our message is that the capacity to provide a good society on a healthy planet with less work and more leisure -- surely the goal of technology -- is today in our hands if we use our popular power to seize it. That's a comprehensive message, and we have to be careful not to let it be obscured by the disaggregated problems that financial-capitalist hegemony throws in our path, even if piecemeal solutions are sometimes apparently on offer -- with bill numbers.

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