Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Socialism and love

In the first union local I was involved in, we used to talk about "surrounding people with love." Not everyone, mind you — we weren't total hippies, just graduate employees. It was just a term we used for how to approach people who basically "got it" on a values level (that we deserved fair treatment and reasonable pay and benefits from the boss) but were confused by some combination of misunderstanding of unions or over-investment in their own (potential) professional status or wack ideas from the dominant culture.

My friend Steve Williams recently wrote a piece over at Organizing Upgrade proposing that we (the Left) "take up the challenge of developing a blueprint of 21st Century Socialism." I've been thinking about this a lot recently — before, during and after the US Social Forum in Detroit, while staring out the window on the car trip or lying awake at night during one of my many bouts of insomnia. Like many people, I feel a sense of urgency about the climate crisis, and — like too few people — I am convinced that the crisis cannot be solved within the capitalist system.

* * *

My in-laws, with whom I spent the bulk of the last week, are all good people, but they have a wide range of political, religious and cultural beliefs. Or, rather, I should say, almost all of them have political, religious and cultural beliefs that are vastly different than mine, and somewhat different from each others'.

If I'm serious about being a socialist, then part of the vision needs to be a vision of how people like my in-laws — including at least one or two who enthusiastically voted for W — are eventually brought to being committed to the project of building a new world based on human needs rather than profit. Not overnight, of course — given the current social, political and economic arrangements in the U.S., a transition to socialism would, in fact, mean that many white middle-class folks would lose a variety of "privileges" (large houses, SUVs, the psychological benefits of white privilege, etc.), so it would not seem to be in their short-term interests.

Still, to build a socialism for the 21st century, we will eventually need the positive commitment from the vast majority of people, including even a big chunk of the white middle class in the U.S. (capitalism, by contrast, can accomplish its main goal — accumulating profit — without anyone being committed to it at all; only problem is it destroys people's lives and ultimately — soon, in fact — will make the planet uninhabitable for humans).

I'm not saying that socialist strategy should be based on reaching the white middle class — we obviously have our work cut out for us in the immediate period just organizing the working class, overcoming white supremacy and patriachy, building internationalist consciousness, etc. We need to be strategic, but at some core place, we also need to have a long-term vision that surrounds everyone with love.

* * *

Growing up as an athiest in the Bible Belt, I've always been extremely touchy about religion — to the point where any real discussion of spirituality is a bit of an emotional trigger for me. If I'd been simply raised in a different faith — Judaism, Islam, Catholicism (not considered fully Christian in some parts of the Bible Belt), etc. — it probably would have been easier. I think most ordinary folks had it sufficiently beaten in to them in the last half of the 20th century that it's not OK to argue with or denigrate or try to convert people of other faiths, but athiests seem to receive less of that respect. Not that I was beaten up or anything, and not that it was particular horrible or had any lasting impact on my life chances — it was just the one axis on which I experienced the "you don't fit societal norms" that people of color, women, queer folks, etc. deal with every day.

But obviously, this is wrapped up in questions of power. And, in fact, I am noticably more touchy about religious talk from white, middle-class folks (and from Protestants) than from people who have less structural power in society.

Which has actually got me thinking — uncharacteristically — about whether separation of church and state might be one of those things that is less of an absolute value than a tactical neccessity for dealing with an unjust society (like affirmative action, for example). When religion is no longer used to prop up and maintain inequities, does it become something (like musical taste for example*) where we can all be comfortable with each other, even in "public" settings?

Concretely, the question I've been thinking about is this: My sister-in-law is a teacher who has given up a huge amount of pay (relative to what she used to make in the public schools) to teach in a Christian school. She seems to have a great philosophy about teaching (explicitly treating children like people), and my gut feeling is that she is probably a much better teacher than some of the folks at my kids' school. Would I be comfortable — again, in a just society — with her teaching in the way she wants to teach, being explicit about her Christian values, in some kind of public school like the one my kids go to (where there might well be more Muslims than Christians, and where Protestants are distinctly in the minority)?

Can we imagine a socialism where that is possible?

*as long as you don't make anyone listen to Phil Collins. That is just not acceptable under any social system.

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