Yes, Your Country Is a “Horror Show,” But the Problem Is Not “Two Americas”…It’s America
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Editors’ Note: David Simon, the writer and creator of the TV series The Wire and Treme, gave a major talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in December 2013. It was excerpted in The Guardian under the title “There Are Now Two Americas. My Country is a Horror Show.” His comments have been provoking considerable discussion and debate on the internet. Raymond Lotta has written this response.
Dear David Simon,
I am writing this open letter in response to your recent talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on the deepening social and economic polarization of U.S. society.
The picture you paint of the separate “life futures” of the African-American poor in Baltimore, and how this is emblematic of a growing divide in America, is a stark and grim reminder of the continuing reality of racism and the systematic oppression of African-Americans in U.S. society.
Your indictment of a “war on the poor” that has seen massive cuts in social services and the mass imprisonment of Black and Latino youth by “the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind” is righteous.
Capitalism has evolved historically into the global system of capitalism-imperialism. ... It has wreaked havoc with the ecosystems of the planet—and is now bringing the planet to the precipice of environmental disaster.
Gordon, who escaped from Louisiana slavery, 1863. Photo: AP
Results of Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, 2011. Photo: AP
After a U.S. airstrike on southern Iraq, 2003. Photo: AP
Gordon, who escaped from Louisiana slavery, 1863. Photo: AP
Results of Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, 2011. Photo: AP
After a U.S. airstrike on southern Iraq, 2003. Photo: AP
You express outrage at a political system that is unable and unwilling to provide something as elementary as decent health care—and wonder how it could possibly deal with a problem as monumental and “complicated” as global warming.
All of this and more are part of what you describe as the “horror show” of “my country,” and impel you to pose big questions about capitalism and socialism.
Yes, America is a “horror show.” But it has been from its very founding in slavery and genocide…and it has brought incalculable suffering to the people of the world. Indeed, America cannot be conceived as a self-enclosed entity. It is not only a society with a profoundly unequal and oppressive social structure—its domestic economy is the “home base” of a global network of exploitation.
Yes, it is essential and timely to ask whether capitalism is the only way and what can be learned from Marx. But the answers and argumentation that you offer are wrong and lead you right back into the suffocating embrace of the very system that produces the outrages that you deplore.
And so this open letter to you.
I. Marx on the Problem of Capitalism and the Solution
You describe Marx as “better diagnostician than clinician.” You seem to regard Marx’s “diagnosis” as a critique of the inequitable distribution of wealth, of capital seeking to “diminish” the role and place of labor, and of capitalism’s placing the “metric” of profit above all else. These are certainly phenomenal expressions of capitalism. But they do not get at the heart of capitalism, or at the heart of Marx’s analysis—which involves both a scientific diagnosis and solution.
In works like Capital, Marx showed that capitalism is not some eternal system. It has a history; it arose at a certain time in the development of human society. And he showed that capitalism operates according to certain economic laws, the most important of which is the competitive urging to produce profit and more profit—as a matter of individual capitalist survival. And that profit is produced on the basis of the exploitation of wage labor.
An important talk by Bob Avakian succinctly and scientifically breaks down how capitalism operates. Let me briefly quote from it:
If…money [were] in the hands of a socialist government, we’d say: what are the social needs and how do we apply this accumulated wealth to meet those social needs in the context of everything else that we have to take into account? We wouldn’t have to undergo the preliminary transformation into capital. But a capitalist, or a capitalist system, fundamentally cannot do that. Particular capitalists have to say: how can we invest this in labor power, as well as in raw materials, in means of transportation, and so on, in a way which will be most profitable for us? The defining feature of capitalism is profit in command and profit accumulated privately. (From “‘Preliminary Transformation into Capital’…And Putting an End to Capitalism,” by Bob Avakian)
Profit is not simply, as you present it, a “metric” or priority. It is the spur, measure, and goal of capitalist development. Capitalism is driven by the competitive imperative to expand or die. It is a law-like compulsion, like the force of gravity, of the system.
Individual capitals, and we are talking about huge agglomerations, like transnational corporations and banks, are compelled to increase profit and market share in order to survive as functional capitals. The only means to do this are to introduce labor-saving technology, to shift production to where labor and social costs are lower, to more intensely exploit labor, to create more “effective” systems of control and management, and so forth.
Capitalism has evolved historically into the global system of capitalism-imperialism. It has transformed the world according to its brutal logic. It has turned human beings and nature into disposable commodities. It has colonized (and neo-colonized) vast stretches of the Third World. It creates and re-creates vast oceans of poverty and chasms of inequality. It is marked by great power imperial rivalry for global dominance. It has wreaked havoc with the ecosystems of the planet—and is now bringing the planet to the precipice of environmental disaster. This is a world in which 18,000 children die each and every day of preventable disease and malnutrition.
Capitalism-imperialism has produced global economic crises. It has led to two horrendous world wars, and to imperial wars and occupations in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Tens of millions have died as a consequence of this particular set of social arrangements, just in the past century—and more than 5 million have died in the ongoing Congo civil wars that have been taken advantage of, if not directly fueled, by rival imperial powers.
Marx’s solution, and the solution of Marxism or communism (which has been further developed and deepened through the 20th and into the 21st centuries), is scientifically grounded:
Unless and until this system is done away with through communist revolution—a revolution that makes the means of producing the necessities of life the common property of society, and does this in a way that is part of overcoming the very division of society into classes and all the institutions, practices and ideas that reinforce that division—then this capitalist system, operating according to its logic, will continue to exact its horrendous toll on humanity and nature.
II. Is This the World You Really Want to Live In?
You are prepared to go a certain distance in decrying the “horror show.” But you are quick to pronounce that you remain “committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century.” Why? Because capitalism is, in your view, an incredible and irreplaceable economic “engine.” As though a social-economic system were a piece of machinery. And who is this “we”?
Please, tell me how Apple, that paragon of 21st century “market capitalism,” is an “engine” of wealth creation absent the super-exploitation of workers producing the iPod components in the bowels of China’s export-processing zones? We’re talking about young women and migrants from the rural areas laboring 12-14 hours a day, risking life and limb, living in military-style dormitories, and driven to such despair that mass suicide jumps became a necessary form of protest.
Please tell me how oil companies “generate wealth” absent the plundering and heating up of the planet?
Please tell me how “intellectual property rights,” so central to the functioning of modern capitalism and the cause of needed medicines and treatments being priced out of reach of much of the world’s poor…please tell me how this is part of some “great toolbox” that, in your words, “allows society to advance”?
Do you really want to live in that kind of world in the “coming century”?
III. The Real Deal About the “New Deal” and the “American Century”
I don’t believe you do. But the solutions you offer will work against the very impulses that drive you to condemn what capitalism has done. You call for a capitalism that better “distributes its benefits” and you hark back to the 1930s and the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). This, you say, was a time when a “communal logic” and “social compact” between capital and labor was forged, with “no one left behind.”
But let’s look at what the New Deal was essentially about. The economic and social measures of the New Deal were launched by the dominant section of the U.S. ruling class to prevent the collapse of capitalism. The U.S. and world economy in the 1930s were in the grips of the worst crisis in the history of capitalism. The New Deal was designed to rescue and rationalize the banking system, to stimulate industrial production and job creation, and to establish new regulations and forms of government intervention in order to stabilize capitalism and restore profitability.
The New Deal was also decisively aimed at preventing mass social upheaval, including the possibility of revolution. The Roosevelt years were about repressing and co-opting resistance, and restoring people’s dwindling faith in the system. That’s why unions were recognized and institutionalized, that’s why social programs were enacted, and that’s why FDR spouted the rhetoric of easing the plight of the dispossessed.
There are two “dirty little secrets” of the New Deal.
First, the New Deal was not, as the official narrative proclaims, about social justice. Segregation and white privilege were built into the foundations of the welfare state that was established during the New Deal years and after. Social spending and social programs were racially differentiated—with white workers receiving more of the unemployment benefits and Black workers put into welfare lines. Federal housing programs inaugurated practices like “redlining” (where prospective white and Black homeowners were steered into different neighborhoods). Ira Katznelson’s groundbreaking study of these policies has the apt title: When Affirmative Action Was White.
Second, the government social programs of the New Deal did not get the U.S. out of the Great Depression. No, it was World War 2 and its particular outcome.
You speak admiringly of the “American century” and America’s industrial prowess and ability to raise living standards after World War 2. The truth of the “American century” is that, as a result of World War 2, the U.S. became, far and away, the dominant world imperialist power. The U.S.’s wartime rivals, German and Japanese imperialism, were defeated. The U.S.’s victorious wartime allies, British and French imperialism, were greatly weakened and their colonial empires shaken.
The U.S. emerged from World War 2 with its productive base intact. Contrast this with the socialist Soviet Union, where one-third of the national wealth was obliterated and where 26 million (roughly 1 in 8 of the population) perished in the war. You may have seen Oliver Stone’s series that documents how the U.S. in fact took advantage of its power to isolate the Soviet Union, with the conscious goal of starving it out and forcing it to its knees.
In these circumstances, the U.S. forged the most extensive and integrated global empire in world history. The U.S. imperialists imposed the dollar as the global currency. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, created as World War 2 was ending, enabled the U.S. to control the economic lifeblood and shape the development of economies of the Third World. The U.S. was able to secure cheap raw materials and obtain high profits from low-cost manufacturing and agribusiness in the Third World.
The whole structure of the U.S. economy, the growth of its middle-class, the vast streams of super-exploitable immigrants (from Mexico and Latin America and then from Asia) laboring in the shadows, and its fabled prosperity—all this has rested on America’s privileged position in the global economy. And this privileged position, in turn, has been backed up and enforced by the most massive military machine of death and destruction in human history.
As for the “consumer society” celebrated in the West, three things. One, it is not something to aspire to—and even you speak of America producing “shit that people wanted but didn’t really need”; two, it is environmentally insane (it would take the resources of almost 5 Earths if the rest of the world had the same ecological footprint of America’s consumer society); and three, America’s great “consumer engine” is based on the misery of the enslaved and oppressed of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (the “convenience” of child laborers cultivating high-quality cocoa in the Ivory Coast; or of women workers dying in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh for the sake of new seasonal fashion lines).
America is a class-divided, deeply polarized, and segmented society. But it is not “two societies,” or “two Americas.” It is, as I stated earlier, a society with a profoundly unequal and oppressive social structure, and the domestic economy is the “home base” of a global network of exploitation.
The life paths and “life futures” of Black people that you touch on have been shaped by the needs, transformations, and international position of U.S. capitalism: first, as slaves; then as sharecroppers; then, with the Great Migration from the rural South to the North in the 20th century, and accelerating after World 2, occupying a caste-like position in the lower rungs of the proletariat.
Today, for those millions still locked in the inner cities and condemned to the lower rungs of American society, they are increasingly becoming—from the standpoint of capital—a surplus, expendable, and “dangerous” section of the population. The so-called “war on drugs,” with its world-historic levels of incarceration and police-state tactics in the ghettoes, and which you have decried and exposed…this is the response of U.S. capitalism to that fact.
IV. The Argument Is NOT Over…Socialism IS the Viable and Visionary Alternative
You say that you “lived through the 20th century…[and] don’t believe that a state-run economy can be as viable as market capitalism” and that “the argument [about the economic viability of socialism] is over.” Here I must set the record straight.
Socialism is not any kind of “state-run” economy; nor is it a fairer distribution of income and social benefits that can be grafted on to a system based on exploitation.
No, socialism is something radically different and radically liberatory. It is, fundamentally, three things:
Socialism is a new political-state power in which the formerly oppressed and exploited, in alliance with the great majority of society, rule over old and new exploiters and have the capacity to change society and change themselves.
It is a new economic system in which public-state ownership replaces private ownership of the major means of production and in which production for social need replaces production for profit. This is an economy that is consciously planned to serve the all-around betterment of humanity, the advance of the world revolution, and the protection of the ecosystems of the planet.
Finally, socialism is a whole historical period of transition and transformation in which the masses of people, led by a vanguard party, are carrying out great struggles and transformations to overcome the inequalities and ideological influences of capitalism and to move towards communism: a world community of humanity.
Now the Soviet revolution of 1917-56 and the Chinese revolution of 1949-76 were the first attempts to build real socialist societies. These were the most liberating episodes in human history: unprecedented in what they set out to achieve and unprecedented in what they actually accomplished. But this experience that involved more than a quarter of humanity during the 20th century fighting for a whole different future—has been viciously distorted and vilified.
In a recent, wide-ranging interview, “You Don’t Know What You Think You ‘Know’ About the Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future,” I survey this experience and take on the lies and slanders directed against it. I encourage you to read it.
I talk about the role and importance of leadership in these revolutions. I discuss how these first socialist revolutions set out to overcome the oppression of minority nationalities and to liberate women, and how they tackled mass poverty and issues of health. I explore how these revolutions empowered the former “have-nots,” “nobodies,” and “expendables” of those societies. I talk about the creation of revolutionary culture. Of how these societies sought to overcome the great gaps between those who have been trained to work in the realm of ideas and administration and the great majority of those who are mainly working with their backs and hands.
It is alleged that socialist economies are simply incapable of creating mass wealth. Nonsense. The Soviet Union when it was socialist and China during the period of Mao’s leadership went from societies of terrible deprivation for the masses into ones where the material needs of the people were being met, on a steadily expanding scale—and this in the face of vengeful embargos. When the Maoist revolution came to power in 1949, it carried through the most massive reduction in poverty and attack on inequality in history, lifting hundreds of millions out of destitution; and it established the most egalitarian health care system in the world, based on the principle of serving the people, with essential primary care reaching practically the entire population.
Again, something new and truly liberating was being created, and in circumstances of unrelenting imperialist encirclement and pressure. Not surprisingly, these revolutions had problems and shortcomings and went through twists and turns. And, ultimately, they met defeat by the stronger forces of world capitalism.
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has summed up this experience, and drawn from experience more broadly. He has brought forward a new synthesis of communism. It is a deeper, more scientific, and more emancipatory understanding of the methods, goals, strategy and plan for making revolution and for creating a new society that people could flourish in.
I would invite you to get into the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, which is based on this new synthesis. It sets forth how a new socialist society would be constituted and function. You will be able to see how a real socialist economy would be meeting the basic needs of people in a way that did not plunder either the nations of the Third World or the environment. You will be able to see how a planned socialist economy would enable cities to become sustainable, with vibrant “social space,” where work that is meaningful and creative will be connected with people’s sense of community. You will be able to see how such a society would be addressing and tackling the environmental crisis—and only with a socialist system and economy run along the lines described in this document is there even a hope for dealing with the environmental catastrophe generated by capitalism.
Let me conclude with this. Every day that this system, this “horror show,” continues, there is the needless waste of human beings and the crushing of lives and spirits. There is the threat of more wars and the real and growing prospect of environmental collapse. This situation has to be urgently ended. The most dangerous delusional idea” of all is that we can gradually half-step our way out of this.
I welcome your response.