Sunday, November 2, 2008

Transitions, Part I

A few weeks ago I attended the, hold on now, okay, the “8th Annual Global Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity and the General Assembly of Global Alternatives Forum” in Caracas, Venezuela. Set in the heart of the art and culture district in Caracas, this weeklong event brought together some very esteemed speakers from across the globe to discuss this year’s topic: “Transitions towards Socialism”. I listened and took notes intently and eagerly, putting on and taking off my headset with the ebb and flow of clarity and ability offered by the translator. It was the first night and the panelists from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina were aptly tackling the big one: socialism in South America. I left the theatre and began walking in the dark, head up, alert, towards the metro for the long ride home, my body pulsating with passion and inspiration, yet unsurprisingly, as if just having read some Derrick Jensen, feeling no better trained than before to pick up symbolic arms against corporatism and dismantle the veils of deceit hung before us. For a moment it hovered in my mind uneasily like jargon from an adolescent anarchist’s journal: endless theory and analysis, however brilliant and awe-inspiring, but no concrete action plan.

Then I divided, freed myself and accosted my meddlesome mind, “Silly mind, the front lines have changed and you’re still living in the past. This is the Battle of Ideas. This is the beginning of a New Evolution, so take the weapons you’ve just been given and go forth and fight for…” Then someone in the small crowd in front of me makes a dash to the yellow line and everyone follows since the vehicles will seldom stop or slow down for just one or two. A man on the other side sells me a shot of espresso for a quarter from his ramshackle coffee cart. I sip and relish in my experience. A New Evolution? Hopefully something less sterile and not manifested through dominance, predation and war, but through cooperation and compassion.

The Cuban speaker put it bluntly, “there can be no capitalism with a human face.” This is to say that apologists for capitalism – those who believe it is the only viable way to stimulate production and distribute resources and that honest leaders and a functioning democracy are all that is needed to keep its exploitative potentialities at bay – are ignoring its inherently predatory nature and the human propensities of greed and competition that are vital to its functioning. We all know this by now: greed, competition and insatiable desire are the operative organs of this system, they are what keep it alive and spinning out of control. So why do we think that we can somehow retool it to make the corporatist vultures that are working very hard to control every aspect of our lives, that profit from war, poverty, disease and catastrophe, to all of a sudden begin treating equally the life of the average person and the financial success of one of their own. Sorry, but it won’t happen and the system of profiteering from manufactured and natural disasters and the global power structures that orchestrate and support it must unequivocally be brought to its knees.

Now to pursue a viable alternative. For many, the very word socialism conjures up archaic Cold War apprehensions or fears of regression to a colorless, mundane and mechanical state-run existence. The reason is obvious: the abysmal failure of most socialist regimes to achieve any semblance of a worker utopia. The US points a stern finger at Cuba’s suppression of civil liberties and ‘relative’ economic malaise as proof of socialism’s destiny to fail, while conveniently overlooking their own insidious economic warfare and the incredible longevity of Cuba’s anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist social order. We cannot look at the past as models to be copied. The experiences in Russia, Cuba and elsewhere are useful as lessons only. The social conditions and collective consciousness of each country are too dynamic and ever changing to believe that an externally crafted social experiment will not be rejected by the internal body politic of a totally unique recipient nation. So we need to be forward thinking in the name of equality, participatory democracy, sane environmental policies and universal spiritual development.

Another pitfall in the pursuit of socialist ideals is the tendency to get trapped in a vast array of dogmas, theories and abstractions, as a weekly meeting with most young Marxist groups will demonstrate. The idea of socialism cannot be restricted to merely reconfiguring the ‘modes of production’ and ‘wealth distribution’, nor to a prophetic belief in the inevitability of a classic proletariat revolution, all of which limit the scope of the creative process. The last major pitfall discussed at the conference was the dangers of transition politics. The overwhelming majority of transition scenarios since WWII have shared a common script: a newly independent colony, a former Soviet satellite state or democratically elected left of centre government has been dismantled, coaxed or threatened into adopting a neoliberal reform package. The US government has created the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a task force made up of murderous CANF representatives and Bush era neo-cons with the goal of conjuring up a favorable political transition in Cuba. Their website describes their “commitment to the Cuban people” and their “unwavering support for human rights, democracy, and the open market system [which] will define and accelerate U.S. efforts to hasten a transition to democracy.” I can’t help think about a parallel transition that is playing out in Iraq and how well that is going.

Any experience with transition politics has only proven it to be a narrow ideology. Nothing moves from one static state to another and as such there cannot be a rigidly held endpoint in sight to which leaders attempt to force the currents of change. Social progression is an organic and self-reproducing process whose core visions and goals should be reflected back onto the day’s struggle and used to retool the multitude of strategies.

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