By Steve Halpern
Fifteen years ago, I self-published my novel: Looking Back From 2101. In my novel I transported a Jewish factory worker, Harry Goldberg, into the future world of the year 2101. The future world that I imagined had no poverty, and no racial or sexual discrimination. All enterprises did their best to operate in harmony with the environment. From the perspective of this future world, my characters had discussions where they talked about how and why the world had been transformed.
My novel has a similar format as Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward that was published in 1888. Bellamy lived at a time when humanity first discovered the many possibilities of electrical power. So, even before these inventions, Bellamy wrote about how there would be televisions, radios, telephones, computers, as well as aircraft.
However, the basic change Bellamy imagined was not of a technical nature. He felt that humanity would no longer be motivated to provide for their individual families alone. He felt that humanity would change so the core value would be human solidarity. In other words, an injury to one, would be viewed as an injury to all.
Edward Bellamy’s first cousin was Francis Bellamy and they both had similar political outlooks. Francis Bellamy wrote a piece of literature that millions of school children recite every day, known as the Pledge of Allegiance.
However, the first words of Francis Bellamy’s Pledge were, “I pledge allegiance to my flag.” Francis Bellamy felt that his flag would represent the future world his cousin Edward imagined in the novel Looking Backward. Francis Bellamy protested when the words to his Pledge were changed to “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”
A few years after Bellamy wrote his novel, H.G. Wells also wrote a novel about the future titled, The Time Machine. Unlike Looking Backward, Wells’ portrayed his future world to be a horror story.
Since that time there have been numerous books and films that portray the future to be a horror story. Two of those films are Avatar and Hunger Games. Kevin Costner had leading roles in two films with horrific futures. These were Waterworld and The Postman.
So, at this point we can ask the question: Since literally everyone would like to imagine that a better world is possible, why do the majority of fictional portrayals about the future imagine a horrific future world? We can begin to see the answer to this question in the words of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. I believe the following words are relevant:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
This quotation illustrates what I would consider two distinct trends in human history. One trend is that humanity has adopted to what I would call horrific political economic systems for long periods of time. These systems were slavery, feudalism, as well as the early years of the capitalist system. But then there is the other trend outlined in the above quotation. This is when the people find the political systems they live under to be intolerable and masses of people organize to bring about fundamental change.
Looking at the world as it is today we can wonder why people haven’t organized for this fundamental change a long time ago. Today, about half of the world’s population lives on about two dollars per day or less. Because of these conditions the United Nations estimates that about 30,000 children die every day of preventable diseases. Hundreds of millions of people in the world do not have enough food to eat, and are without direct access to electricity and running water.
Why do these conditions persist when the resources have been available for quite a long time to eliminate poverty? Before we can answer this question, I believe we need to look at how the capitalist system has functioned throughout its history.
The History of Capitalism
In the first years of capitalism, chattel slavery was the law. This kind of slavery was an institution of the Greek and Roman Empires. In the capitalist system workers are not owned outright, but are directly tied to the wages system. So northern capitalists became convinced that they needed to organize to militarily defeat the slave owners who controlled the U.S. government for sixty years. Therefore, the Civil War was actually the second revolution in the United States.
The U.S. government also went to war against Native Americans for over 100 years. The first nations of this part of the world organized communal societies where everyone shared in the work as well as the wealth of their world. These norms were intolerable to capitalists who’s core value was the accumulation of private property.
When this country industrialized, working people found themselves toiling for twelve to sixteen hours per day. They commonly lived in one-room cold-water flats. Health care and education were unknown to the masses of workers.
Black workers experienced institutionalized discrimination and didn’t have citizenship rights where Jim Crow segregation was the law. Women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920. In the Jim Crow states most Black people weren’t allowed to vote until the mid-1960s.
The labor movement carried out a series of strikes from the year 1877 to the years 1934. Then, in the middle of the depression workers mobilized and forced employers to recognize the union. After the Second World War workers continued their battles in an all out strike wave. Then, the Civil Rights Movement erupted and the government was forced to do away with Jim Crow segregation.
Many liberals argue that since the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements were able to force the government to change it’s policies, all we need to do is to organize to force the government and employers to make changes again. Clearly working people need to organize ourselves. However, history has shown that the capitalist system can not be made to serve the interests of working people.
After the labor and civil rights victories, the government worked with capitalists to move their factories to nations where the prevailing wages are two dollars per day or less. Many people who were aware of this shift thought that this was an example of corporate greed. While greed clearly was a factor, this was not the primary reason.
In the capitalist system there is an absolute law that costs must be reduced while sales of commodities must increase. By moving factories to nations throughout the world, capitalists created new markets and cut costs at the same time. These events happened during the past forty years when the overall standard of living in the United States deteriorated.
So, understanding this history, we can say that increasing poverty is not something that can be eliminated in the capitalist system. No, dire poverty has always been an absolute necessity for capitalism. Without the hundreds of millions of workers who toil for ten dollars or less per day, the capitalist system would collapse.
Where is the money?
Every year advertising agencies spend hundreds of billions of dollars in an attempt to convince working people that we need to have the commodities they promote. Rarely, if ever, do we see a discussion of the goods and services working people actually want and need. When we think of these goods and services, I believe they are desirable for our entire lives. Today, we can only have these things when we have the money required.
I believe there are about eight things working people want and need. These include: food, clothing, housing, transportation, communication, health care, education, and exposure to cultural activities. Cultural activities would include: music, art, sports, dance, literature, theater, recreation, and the film. If we had a government that supported the interests of workers and farmers, the top priority would be to ensure that everyone would have a lifetime right to all these things. How would this be possible?
The capitalist system gives us visual aids to answer this question. In most of the largest cities of the world, there are massive buildings known as skyscrapers. These buildings typically cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. In order to work in these buildings, most people need to wear expensive clothing that conforms to a dress code. So, what are the enterprises housed in these astronomically expensive buildings?
Well, there are banks, investment companies, insurance companies, advertising agencies, corporate law firms, and corporate headquarters. When we read the last few paragraphs, there appears to be something strange going on. The enterprises housed in the skyscrapers do not contribute directly to the goods and services people want and need.
Clearly bankers never build homes or cars. Insurance companies never do the actual work of providing health care. Advertising agencies never actually produce the goods and services they promote. Corporate officers, rarely if ever, do the actual work that they benefit from. Corporate lawyers usually defend the interests of corporations against the interests of workers. Yet, the price of literally every commodity we purchase includes the cost of the enterprises housed in these skyscrapers.
At this point one might think that something very strange is going on. Massive amounts of money are used for enterprises that do not directly contribute to the goods and services people want and need. However, this state of affairs only illustrates a part of the problem.
Anyone with a computer can Google the question: How much money is invested in derivatives? The astounding answer is $1.2 quadrillion. That is one-thousand-two-hundred-trillion dollars.
If we combine the gross national product of every nation in the world, that amount of money would be about $60 trillion. This means that the amount of money invested in derivatives is about twenty times more than the gross national product of the world. Derivatives are nothing more than extremely complex bets on how the stock market will perform.
Today Bernie Madoff resides in a federal penitentiary. He was sent to prison for violating the laws that regulate the sales of bonds. Derivatives are not regulated by the government. The people who invented derivatives received Nobel Prizes. Therefore the massive investments in derivatives underscores that this was not a mistake of people who didn’t know any better. No, this investment is literally essential for the day-to-day functioning of capitalism.
So, when we look at the unvarnished reality of the capitalist system, we can also begin to imagine how the world might be transformed.
What can a socialist world look like?
When we look at the above facts, we come to an inescapable conclusion. If the funds used to benefit the affluent were used to benefit all of humanity, there can be a profound improvement in the standard of living.
James Cannon was a founding leader of the Socialist Workers Party. In 1946 he gave a speech that outlined what he thought a Socialist America would look like. He argued that in the future working people would give a certain amount of time to needed labor during their entire lifetimes. How much time would people need to work? This was Cannon’s opinion:
“I incline strongly to the idea that the great majority will elect to get their required labor time over with in their early youth, working a full day for a year or two.
“Thereafter, they would be free for the rest of their lives to devote themselves, with freedom in their labor, to any scientific pursuit, to any creative work or play or study which might interest them. The necessary productive labor they have contributed in a few years of their youth will pay for their entire lifetime maintenance, on the same principal that the workers today pay for their own paltry ‘social security’ in advance.”
We might think about the fact that these words were written in 1946 before the widespread use of computers and automation. Yet, when we look at the massive waste of capitalism that I’ve outlined, these words merely outline what a rational use of workers’ labor might look like.
When we look at the world from this point of view, we can ask another question: Why are there wars in the world?
As I’ve said, every day about 30,000 children die of preventable diseases. Hundreds of millions of people live on $2 per day and lack direct access to water and electricity. In order to maintain this state of affairs, capitalists and their governments have supported some of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. When the people choose to fight against these dictatorships, as they did in Vietnam, the United States government used it’s military power to intervene.
During the war against Vietnam, I can’t remember even one media outlet that argued that the money used to murder the Vietnamese people might be better used to unconditionally improve the standard living of that nation. A workers government in this country would make the elimination of poverty throughout the world its main priority. In this kind of environment, the idea of war would be inconceivable.
Today students and workers are alienated from school and work. When we come to grips with our reality, we can say that this is only logical. In the extreme, working people have become addicted to drugs so they might escape from the profound alienation they feel. Many, if not most workers, look forward to having a drink at the end of a grueling workweek.
Think about how this would change if all of society was dedicated to improving our standard of living. Certainly we would continue to have some stress, but this stress would come from doing the things we genuinely want to do.
If you have read this column, you might be thinking that these might be nice ideas, but they are completely unrealistic. Only a tiny minority of people are thinking about making the kind of transformation that I’ve outlined. For those who are thinking along those lines, the following information might be useful.
When we look at the enormous amount of money invested in derivatives, we can say that the money we receive in our pay packets is borrowed money. Without the continuing performance of these derivatives, banks as well as investment companies will close their doors.
In 1929 there was an international depression that lasted for nine years. The Second World War and the loss of 67 million lives was the only way the world escaped from that depression. The coming depression, I believe, will be even worse than the last one. We will not survive another world war when there are literally thousands of nuclear weapons capable of eliminating human life on this planet.
My opinion is that working people have the capacity to transform ourselves into creating a movement capable of rebuilding the world on new foundations. This is why I wrote my novel Looking Back From 2101.