On the Need for Energy Democracy

by Anonymous

The capitalist exploitation of nature and labor are two sides of the same coin. The labor process is always something in which humans and nature participate1. It is in the very fibers of nature that labor becomes congealed as value that can be captured by capital, the commodity becoming a vessel through which labor-power is quite literally extracted from human bodies. Yet, just as humans come to see themselves as distinct from the natural world, we also come to see capitalism as distinct from the extractive economies through which it feeds on the planet. This is especially true of capitalist energy systems2.

Take for instance the small town of South Fork in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s population hovers around 1000 people. The land here has long provided the resources upon which the prosperity of cities along the eastern seaboard like Philadelphia, Boston and New York were built. From the 1850s, its principle product was lumber: pine for ships’ masts, hemlock bark to make the tannins used in the leather industry, and oak for barrels to carry sugar and molasses from the West Indies. More recently, it has had the fortune to miss out on the shale boom engulfing the northeastern and southwestern corners of the state thanks to a bit of geological coincidence: the section of the Marcellus formation upon which it is situated is “overmature” having been exposed to too much heat and pressure over the preceding 400 million years to hold retrievable amounts of oil or gas.

However, the swamplands that covered the area in succeeding periods deposited plenty of biological matter that would eventually become the bituminous coal seams that, along with access to iron from the Lake Superior region, attracted vast amounts of capital and workers to the region in the last decades of the 19th century. For over a century, coal has been dug from beneath the Cambrian hills to be baked into coke for US Steel’s steel mills in Pittsburgh, burned in coal-fired power plants for electricity or, when ships were still powered by coal, shipped straight to the coal bunkers of New York City and Boston.

south fork pa
South Fork, PA as pictured on a map of coal deposits produced by the Works Progress Administration. Even in its most liberal modes, the capitalist state has often rendered the region as an internal resource colony. See https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/wpamaps/search/

At the peak of the Western Pennsylvania coal industry in the 1910s, the half square mile strip of land at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River that makes up South Fork was home to over 4000 people making it as dense as Somerville or Chelsea. My father’s family were among them arriving sometime in the 1880s and 1890s from France. Four generations would live and work along the Little Conemaugh laboring either in the mines or for the railroad. All would die relatively young—coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (“black lung”) and a variety of cancers 3—their damaged bodies and the mountains of coal refuse that blend into the surrounding hilltops composing a tiny fraction of the negative externalities of the extractive economies that underlies capitalist modernity.

South Fork and the surrounding valley continue to bear the scars of extractive capitalism. Coal mining remains important to the local economy, even if the numbers it employs in the entire district are only a few hundred. Remediation, too, has gone hand in hand with continued extraction. In 2012, the PA DEP permitted Rosebud Mining Co. to build a water treatment plant to treat the acidic water that had been pouring out of an abandoned mine shaft since the 1960s in exchange for permission to access the coal seams underneath the site. A pilot remediation project started in 2015 across the river in Ehrenfeld saw $13 million dollars awarded to the same company to haul the 3.2 million tons of coal refuse that towers above the town to their nearby facility in Portage for processing4As of March 2018, the company planned to add 175 acres to the facility to accommodate more coal refuse. Scattered along the ridge above the facility, sit 40 wind turbines that make up Alleghany Ridge Wind Farm. They are owned by GE Power, a subsidiary of General Electric. One of their other subsidiaries, Baker Hughes, is reliably in the top 3 largest offshore drilling and oilfield services provider marketing its fracking technologies across the globe5In fact, Baker Hughes has been a major player providing the drilling equipment and expertise at the heart of the state’s shale gas boom. In short, the waters of the Little Conemaugh are no longer fluorescent orange and wind turbines dot the skyline but the cycle of boom and bust that typifies capitalist expansion continues unabated.

little conemaugh river
The Little Conemaugh River, before and after the completion of aforementioned treatment plant. Courtesy of Rosebud Mining Company

The challenge facing us today is a difficult one. How do we dismantle the infrastructures that tie us to the combustion of fossil-fuels while at the same time making sure the infrastructures we build in their place not only do not replicate a social system premised on exploitation and extraction but also repair the harm both to communities and ecosystems of centuries of past exploitation and extraction?

Part of the difficulty is that energy is especially amenable to commodification because of its already abstract nature. You never see energy: you only witness its effects.  When I turn on a light switch, if I’m not behind on my payment to Eversource, the light turns on. Where did this energy come from? Who had a hand in bringing it from its source to my apartment? Hell, at least with enough effort, you could literally follow an article of clothing from sweatshop to rack at H&M. A quantum of electricity? Except on an aggregate level, it is nigh impossible to make any claim about where it came from. In short, the additional layer of abstraction in which energy is entangled make its extraction all that more effectively divorced from our experience of it.

ISO NE graphic
Snapshot from ISO NE geographic system diagram representing the electricity grid around Boston. See https://www.iso-ne.com/about/key-stats/maps-and-diagrams/

The fact of climate change has pierced that veil to some degree. It is becoming more common thanks to the work of environmental activists to have a choice, limited as it is, about how some of the energy an individual consumer or municipality consumes is extracted from the natural environment. However, the binary nature of this choice—fossil-fuels vs. renewables, bad vs. good—does little to clarify the social and ecological effects of these choices. This is especially true when one takes into consideration that the industrial-scale renewables often touted as a solution to climate change require massive amounts of fossil fuel and mineral resources for their construction and operation6. When someone talks about wind turbines, most people’s first thought isn’t Bayan’obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia, even though it accounts for a significant portion of the rare earth minerals needed for industrial-scale wind farms. Neither is corporate land-grabs, especially of indigenous land, and the ecological disruption caused by levelling land for projects7. Nor, for that matter, does the term renewable energy suggest to most people trash incinerators like the one operated by Wheelabrator in Saugus8 or the Pinetree Power Fitchburg wood-burning generator. Biomass and municipal waste comprise two-thirds of Massachusetts renewable portfolio  and, in the case of biomass especially, are a major loophole in current carbon accounting schemes.

One answer to the challenge is energy democracy. Energy democracy is a broad concept that has emerged around a broad set of grassroots experiments and collaborations. At its center is the goal of achieving a shift to 100% renewable energy sources through means that resist the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, reclaim public control over energy, and restructure energy infrastructures to better support social justice and democratic processes9. At a time when many segments of the environmental movement, especially those comprised by large nonprofits, have long settled for the sake of their continued relevance on a politics of majoritarian demands that everyone—including, a significant number of CEOs and politicians—can agree, energy democracy presents at the very least a framework for moving beyond demands on existing capitalist institutions, including the state, to building a world we can all inhabit.

Part of the novelty of energy democracy is its recognition that the sociotechnical systems that comprise the fossil-fuel economy stifle democracy by concentrating power, both figuratively and literally, in the hands of the wealthy few. Therefore, any transition must decentralize control of the energy system and put it under community control so that it can be restructured along more sustainable and equitable lines. In a more specifically socialist framing, as Providence DSA’s #NationalizeGrid campaign puts it, decarbonize, democratize and decommodify. Yet, perhaps, the most powerful argument for energy democracy is its ability to place power directly in the hands of communities, especially frontline and fenceline communities who have suffered the most from the extractive economies over which the modern world has been built. The power to choose how energy is produced and consumed is central to how power is exercised in any society, capitalist included.

Of course, wrestling the control of the current energy system away from capitalist institutions and placing it into the hands of communities, is only one step. (We want to dismantle that energy system, after all.) Supporting communities in building new energy systems that will be completely within their control is the other. If you want to help us build those, come join Boston DSA’s Ecosocialism Working Group. Reach out to ecosocialism@bostondsa.org or come to one of our monthly meetings, every first Thursday 7-9pm (rotating locations).  

Degrowth: Building People Power to Oppose Capitalism and the Climate Crisis

by Karry M

There is a widespread problem in capitalist nations within the Global North, of conflating GDP with “standard of living”, and equating possessions and access to technology with personal well-being. Economic growth, in practice, means growth for the few privileged individuals and growing inequality for the rest. It is an obvious moral obligation to mitigate the destruction wrought by growth-induced climate change for vulnerable communities and future generations. We must rethink the modern meaning of the words “needs” and “well-being” in order to imagine a revolutionary post-growth future.

Examples of unnecessary waste caused by the growth obsession are all too common in our daily lives: consider phones that must be replaced every couple of years, single-use coffee cups, endless empty luxury apts, Amazon one-day delivery, and rush hour traffic. Cities, in particular, are centers of growth. With the rise of globalization, the carbon footprint of our collective consumption has grown exponentially, as consumer goods and the raw materials used to create them are shipped around the world. This necessitates a cultural shift as well as an economic and political shift. It challenges our deeply-entrenched Western ideals of individualism, property, and economic prosperity, which we name “success”. It is predicated on resisting the neoliberal “TINA” (there is no alternative) paradigm.

Decoupling, the eco-modernist idea that economic innovation can overcome the rapidly growing carbon footprint of economic growth, has no basis in truth. It is becoming more and more obvious that resources are finite, and that a few individuals and corporations consume FAR more than they need at the expense of the many. As the environmental justice movement has taught us, indigenous and traditionally marginalized communities are known to suffer the worst effects of this unchecked growth. Truly sustainable development under capitalism is a myth, availability of resources simply can’t keep up with cycle of unending growth and competition demanded by capitalism. Consumption will inevitably overtake any energy resources provided by “clean” green energy technologies, which are not even completely clean and green because they require huge swaths of land to create enough energy to meet current demands, and rely on manufacture, maintenance, transportation, that in turn require mining and fossil fuel consumption. In order to scale up production of wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy to levels necessary for continued growth, space required for the necessary infrastructure will eventually force displacement of people and may require destruction of forests, which act as carbon sinks. Forests, which mitigate climate change through natural processes that require little to no human intervention, should be preserved and expanded if at all possible. Another possible factor in the energy savings calculation is Jevon’s paradox, which postulates that increases in energy efficiency will drive down cost, and thus increase use in a proportional manner, resulting in no net change in energy expenditure. As of yet, there are no climate change mitigation technologies that can save us from the damage that growth has already created. Solar geoengineering, for example, may seem appealing to some as a potential inexpensive solution, but its merits are unproven, and experts warn that implementation may cause an increase of droughts, flooding, and dangerous natural disasters in areas that are already hardest hit by climate change.

Degrowth, which stands in contrast to ecomodernist solutions to climate change, is an international academic and activist movement. It is also a rapidly growing branch of discourse emerging in popular ecological academic circles around 2001 (though it was first defined by French intellectual André Gorz in 1972) which aims to create a society that consumes less, so that there is more to share with those who already have less, while simultaneously decreasing total consumption. This may be accomplished at a large scale, through government and corporate controls, as well as on small community and individual scales. The Latin American concept of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay, an idea that incorporates indigenous traditions of living cooperatively, with respect for the surrounding land, has informed the degrowth movement. There have been a number of degrowth conferences in Europe since 2008, and the movement is starting to spread to the U.S. Degrowth emphasizes “well-being” as defined by more equal human-to-human and human-to environment relationships. The degrowth movement can be seen as an ally to the environmental justice movement. Dismissed by some as utopian, because it requires such a dramatic shift of so many established systems in our society, degrowth requires rethinking “needs” as they currently are defined, and realizing which of these are not needs, but desires incubated by the capitalist culture of growth; “Degrowth is a deliberately subversive slogan1.

Degrowth puts forth the radical idea that we should have more free time, time best spent appreciating and caring for one another, and our natural surroundings, rather than constantly working, driving, or consuming energy as a means of entertainment. Many of us on the left already realize that true happiness may be more easily achieved by decreasing work time, and instead of using all of it to pursue individual pleasures, using a portion to act for the mutual benefit of ourselves and others around us. These are the very foundations of the ideas of solidarity and comradeship. Think about things we do and enjoy that require little to no consumption—playing outdoors with children and animals, backyard gardening, hiking trips, reading groups, playing board games, listening to live music, and creating art. In an ideally degrown economy, we would have more time to participate in these activities because we would need to work fewer hours to meet the consumer needs of others. Degrowth is a voluntary, democratic, equitable set of ideas and practices that will build mutually supportive local communities in order to turn economic growth on its head.

Simply delineating the vision of a degrowth economy is often enough to get other left-leaning ecologically-minded individuals on board, hoping, plotting, and scheming with us. There is no universal consensus on how to achieve these goals, but degrowthers are a democratic bunch, and welcome the sharing of new ideas. In fact, sharing is the main point of degrowth. Advocates of degrowth believe in pooling our resources and sharing them as a community, instead of focusing on individual accumulation and ownership of property. This type of sharing, rather than competing for necessities, could be imagined to have a positive impact on mental health, as the oppressive pressure to endlessly perform and produce would be lifted. A deeper appreciation for our natural resources could develop while getting our hands dirty, through gardening, hiking, building, and expanding the do-it-yourself movement. Learning the skills to create the things we need causes us to respect their value and use them wisely.

There have been various theories about how best to get the degrowth movement off the ground. To begin, there have been proposed changes in the workplace, including universal basic income and/or maximum income, and a jobs guarantee with reduction in each individual’s work hours to help ensure jobs for more people. Some have suggested that job growth be more focused on public services such as education, public transit, libraries, and healthcare. The military and prison industrial complexes, which use almost unimaginable amounts of money and resources that many of us would deem unnecessary, could be slowly phased out. Global corporations, and the advertising industry, may also be scaled down and eventually abolished. We may replace private banks with public banking, and use funds raised by these banks to meet public needs. This could be paired with a widespread debt jubilee to eliminate the interest-as-growth dynamic.

An important step toward strengthening local communities is the reestablishment of the commons, a traditional structure of collective stewardship of resources outside the purview of the state or the capitalist economy. In a commons, resources are managed in a manner that ensures that everyone gets what they need, and no one person takes more than their fair share. The process of establishing a commons is essentially the opposite of privatization or commodification. For example, common goods such as water, seeds, and land could be shared by a community. The commons could then eventually replace industrial farms, creating agricultural spaces that use resource management techniques mimicking self-sustaining natural systems, such as those used by indigenous peoples. Public ownership of resources may make it possible to create local self-reliant communities that render growth even more unnecessary. Building local communities, which function through social connections to ensure the well-being of all members, is much more important than building local economies.

Empowerment of degrowth communities may also include the expansion of public housing, and community child-care associations. Local economic structures may include more worker-owned co-ops that utilize profit-sharing with their worker-owners. Time banks, in which community members trade their skills with others who are in need of those skills without using capital, are another potential facet of a degrown economy.

Less popular, but probably necessary, are individual actions include decreasing the use of cars, which would become easier as most jobs become localized. Another individual degrowth choice would be switching to a less carbon-intensive, more plant-based diet. Degrowthers would likely also encourage use of second-hand clothing and shoe repair. People would not be asked to give up consumer goods altogether, but we would place emphasis on creating goods made to last, and caring for them. These individual actions alone, however, are simply unable to create a significant economic shift of the type we need to combat climate change and loss of biodiversity; they must be paired with community- and large-scale actions.

As we can see, the degrowth transition could combine a number of bottom-up and top-down strategies. Recruitment of advocates and willing participants would be much easier to achieve if anti-capitalist and ecosocialist ideas become widely popular and gain traction. But even among leftists, we must concede that this is not the fully-automated luxury space communism we were promised. A major goal of degrowth is establishing a general sense of well-being and empowerment created by the ability of communities to function autonomously outside of traditional capitalist economic structures. Degrowth must become a large scale movement against the dominant capitalist agenda in order to achieve success. We have the power to seize this momentum, to rethink our collective lifestyles and values now, and avoid being forced to change by ecological collapse.

Successful models of degrowth require complex thinking far outside the proverbial box, which can be very challenging for those who have been taught that such ideas are utopian and unrealistic. If we are utopian, we are also pessimists when addressing the ideas of green growth and technological climate change mitigation, and realists when it comes to the scale of changes needed to achieve our aims. The planning stages of a degrowth transition require input from experts in environmental science, and political science, as well as economists, and anthropologists. Degrowth advocates realize that is is more essential than ever for the intersection of these fields of study to be understood and accepted by experts and lay people, and for everyone to comprehend what is at stake in order to make the truly democratic large-scale changes that are necessary for the transition. Optimally implemented, degrowth will result in true equality, sustainability and prosperity.

For more on Degrowth, check out this zine

What Socialists Can Learn from Community Lawyers

By Edward P

Thursday, Nov 8th, 2018, in a classroom at Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall, the Harvard chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)1 hosted a “Law for the People” event on the Housing crisis gripping the Boston area. The panel speakers, all NLG members, were Jeff Feuer and Lee Goldstein of Goldstein & Feuer, and Nadine Cohen of Greater Boston Legal Services. Jeff and Lee are also both involved with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) and have provided legal workshops to CLVU members as well as legal services to tenants and activists.

The panel discussion seemed mostly pitched to law students. They discussed how one can make a career in providing community legal services and how legal education pushes people away from that path towards big law and government. The panelists all offered students at the event to do clinical work2 with them. However, there were a few points that were applicable in a broader context.

The Housing Crisis Disproportionately Affects Women

Jeff began his talk by breaking down the statistics of the housing crisis in Boston. Renters are the poorest and most racially diverse segment of Boston’s population. Over 40,000 renter households have incomes less than $32,000 a year — about half the area’s median income — and most of those household receive no state subsidies for their housing. Over half of such renting households are Black, Latinx, or Asian.This economic precarity puts poor renters at constant risk of displacement. And this burden falls doubly hard on women tenants according to Nadine.

Nadine pointed out that sex discrimination in housing has often been overlooked in US law. It took years, after laws prohibiting racial  discrimination, for Federal Housing discrimination laws to include sex as a protected class. Women are also more likely to be evicted than men –  women are evicted at 18% higher rates because they are less to likely to strike deals with the landlord, or because a landlord finds having children at a property undesirable, or because women as a class are paid less than men for the same work.

Sex discrimination also includes problems beyond refusals to rent. According to Nadine, one in ten poor women reported having a landlord or maintenance worker demand sex as a quid pro quo for rent relief or required maintenance on their rented units. Other women face sexual assault or harassment from landlords or other housing providers.

Being the victim of domestic violence can also lead to a woman’s eviction. While states like Massachusetts prohibit evictions because a tenant called police or other reported domestic violence, landlords often use police responses as a pretext to evict tenants regardless of the law.

Around the US, the housing crisis profoundly affects poor women as a group. Any work done around it needs to recognize that this crisis is largely a crisis affecting women.

Working in Contradictory Spaces

Lee opened his pitch for a career  in community law practice by discussing what he saw as the characteristics of community lawyering – being part of the community, aware of the context, having an agreement with the community, viewing works holistically, listening to clients, acting as a connection between the community and client, and encouraging non-lawyers to act as legal advocates. Lee noted that some of those are not so different from what one would be doing at a big law firm — simply substitute community for corporation. The difference, Lee said, was in three things:1) not being neutral, 2) developing a distinct legal persona, and 3) understanding you’re working in contradictions.

This point on contradictions was the most important. Lee talked about the law not being neutral. It’s part of the systems of social reproduction that perpetuate inequality and that have led to the current housing crisis. In order for it to be useful as a tool a social reproduction, the law sometimes has to deliver fair outcomes to people it would otherwise aid in disenfranchising. As an example, during his talk, Jeff pointed out that the US Supreme Court, in Lindsey v Normet, ruled that USians enjoy no right to housing.

So a lawyer, who is working towards broad social change, has to understand that working within a system of social reproduction existing in contradiction with attempting to dismantle that system. All of us, who are working towards broad social change, exist in that same kind of contradiction. Capitalism is an inescapable totalitarian system, and everyone’s lives are bound up in its system of reproduction.

However, people who are privileged by these system — not just lawyers, but tech workers, academics, media personalities, politicians — must reckon with the fundamental contradiction between how their skills interact with the system and the goal of changing the system when they attempt to use their skills for movement. Without this reckoning, we will inevitably end up reinforcing capitalist social reproduction rather than overturning it.

We Must Be Led By the Movement

The resolution to these contradictions, according to Jeff, was to allow yourself to be led by the movement and by putting your skills at the service of the community. The place for lawyers in the housing struggle is to give support where and when they are invited by a community.

Jeff and Lee’s relationship with CLVU largely follows this model. Lee discussed how it was important to use the law to help tenants stay in their homes by using any technicality to get evictions thrown out or to force a landlord to deal with maintenance issue. However, as Jeff talked about, winning the fight because a landlord or police officer didn’t fill out a form correctly might not be the point. You can have the most airtight, brilliant legal argument to help someone, a tenant or a person arrested in a direct action, but it may not address the goals of the movement.

Instead the appearance in court can be an opportunity to advance the movement’s points to get its belief and arguments out to the public. In that case your ego as lawyer — your desire to prove your legal mind or protect your winning record — must take a backseat to the needs of the movement. You have to put yourself fully in service to the people you’re working for.

Likewise, when you’re in a space where community are discussing how to respond to issues facing them, you, as a lawyer, may know some sound legal strategy that can help fix the issues, and you should share your expertise. However, it’s not your place to insist that your expertise gives you insight into the only solution to the problem. People working together for their community’s interests are capable of immense creatively. We shouldn’t narrow our possibilities based on our understand of capitalist systems.

This fits with our understanding of our tasks as socialists. As Huey P. Netwon put it in his 1968 interview with The Movement, our goal is “…a people’s revolution with the end goal being the people in power.” Socialism is the people in power — not lawyers, coders, politicians, or union bureaucrats. Those us of us that have the privilege of working within and understanding the various systems that support and reinforce capitalist rule cannot win socialism through use of those skills alone. We have to use those skills to serve the people, not to advance our own position in the movement.

On Gun Violence

by Cam W. 

According to the online Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks all gun-related activity in the United States, there has been 37,000 shootings and deaths in America thus far in 2018 alone. While this number in itself is absurdly high, gun violence is only a culturally relevant discussion topic after mass shootings. Think of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, and, most recently, Parkland. The public discourse is always the same, with conservatives defending gun rights from any legislative action, while liberals demand gun control. Something needs to be done to address mass violence, but conservatives (embodied by the Republican Party) do not care and only make vague and meaningless gestures to addressing mental health issues. Thus, our attention will be placed on liberals, embodied by the Democratic Party, and their ideas.

In the buildup to the 2018 primaries, and even since the election of Donald Trump, liberals and centrists alike have been flooding social media with calls to vote. One of the main problems voting will fix, they emphasize, will be gun control. But, presupposing voting will solve or even address gun violence, who will we vote for? We assume they mean to vote for the Democrats, but will the Democrats disarm the police state in America, where the police essentially have military-grade weapons, so that people of color don’t have to fear for their lives everyday? How would gun control, which simply bans weapons only for citizens, affect the lives of those like Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and so many others who have felt the cruel and fatal effects of police brutality? Furthermore, would the Democrats, who sanction and support imperialist wars, suddenly turn back and denounce these same policies, which violate the autonomy of the global south and leave them constantly subjected to death, starvation, and Western domination? The Democratic Party’s history, past and present, tells us that they will address none of this. Inserting new individuals into the system, when the system itself is the issue, will not fix anything.

Thus, when people command us to vote to end gun violence, it is clear to us that they only mean ending gun violence for a specific class of people, in specific areas of the country. As socialists, we recognize that as long as capitalism exists, the culture of violence in this country will not be addressed. Capitalism necessitates imperialism, which includes wars and sanctions. It also necessitates that the repressive apparatus (the police, courts, etc.) reinforce the relations of production (bourgeoisie and workers). This is why the bankers that destroyed the economy in 2008 were never prosecuted and were actually bailed out by Obama. This is why those that have been murdered by the police have yet to find justice, and police officers are rarely ever held accountable. This is also why women who have been raped or sexually assaulted rarely find justice. In other words, overhauling the justice system, is unbearable to the ruling classes because it entails a radical change in society which would hold those in power accountable and fundamentally change the social order in America.

Of the 37,000 gun incidents thus far in 2018, only 241 of those have been mass shootings (the Gun Violence Archive qualifies a mass shooting as a gun incident where at least five people are injured). That leaves almost 36,800 gun incidents in this year alone that were not mass shootings. We must shed light on the real victims of gun violence. Every year, about 45,000 Americans commit suicide, and in half of those cases, the victims use a gun to end their life. Thus, about 22,500 people commit suicide every year in the U.S with the help of a gun. Every month, about 50 women are murdered with a gun by their partner, and in total almost one million American women alive have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Furthermore, in 2018 alone the police have shot and killed 798 people in the state’s campaign to terrorize the masses and people of color and leave them in a state of fear. Thus, the major gun incidents in everyday life are suicides, domestic violence, and police brutality.

While we believe the change that we need cannot happen under capitalism, this does not mean we will sit idle and do nothing. Now that we’ve shed light on the major victims of gun violence, we can begin to look for real solutions that go beyond banning the tool that enables this violence.

To address gun violence, we must address toxic masculinity and many other conditions that lead to domestic abuse. Toxic masculinity creates the patterns of abuse that women must endure, but part of the reason women can’t escape these abusive environments is that they would have nowhere to go. Due to the capitalist system in America where rent is very expensive, fleeing toxic situations would often mean becoming homeless or living in a precarious state. Thus it is understandable why many women have to endure abusive relationships. There is also the fact that there is little accountability or punishment for abusers. As we have seen in the case of Judge Kavanaugh, the justice system protects abusers and doesn’t believe women even when they do come forward.

To address gun violence, we must address mental illness, alienation, and the consequences of an individualistic society where many people have no support. This means enacting universal healthcare to ensure that any person can receive adequate treatment for mental illnesses. This means rejecting capitalism’s toxic individualism that enforces the idea that if you don’t succeed in the system, whether it be socially or financially, that it is your fault and not of a system that only rewards a small class of people. Furthermore, this means building relationships in our communities, where we support each other and a build a collective strength to make these changes. It also means eliminating the economic conditions that lead so many to have to struggle to survive, and where suicide can appear to be the only way out of a dreary existence. The victims of suicide encompass our entire society, with middle aged white men being the most common, and indigenous peoples being the second highest (a whole other issue that can be discussed elsewhere). There are so factors that can lead to suicide or suicidal thoughts, but fundamentally humans are social beings that thrive off the support of each other, but capitalism eats away at these relationships.

To address gun violence, we must address police violence, where police killed 1,147 people in 2017, and 25% of the victims (about 300) were black despite comprising only 13% of the population. We must not only hold the police accountable (they are rarely ever prosecuted for their crimes), but we must also work to demilitarize and abolish the police itself. The police has grown into a domestic military force, which is evident any time a protest (think Ferguson) breaks out and riot squads are called in. In order for there to be meaningful gun control, the police and military (who we haven’t even talked about here) must be considered in the process.

Real gun control would address the class positions and culture that create gun violence in the first place. Real gun control would address the nature of U.S. imperialism, police brutality, and the justice system. Socialists must address gun violence in a meaningful way by confronting all of these issues. Interestingly enough the only time gun control was ever bipartisanly supported was when the left, led by the Black Panther Party, advocated bearing arms. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her article on the Socialist Rifle Association, the left bearing arms has historically scared the Republicans and forced them into gun control measures. It’s clear that the state is only ever scared of guns when the groups who actually threaten power structures, socialists and communists, decide to use them.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Fenway Socialists blog. 

Psychology for Socialists, Part 3: Know your enemy.

by Jonathan K

“Psychology for Socialists” is a multi-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in Psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics. In fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. One way Psychology is imperfect is that, like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even for the ones I have confidence in, the ideas behind them could be overturned at some point in the future.

In another sense Psychology is imperfect because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will be discussing are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I focused on ourselves and our organization, and how we could do our work better. Now I’m going to turn to less pleasant topics: Knowing the threats to our organization. The topics I’m going to cover are going to do double-duty. As it turns out, some of the psychological phenomena that are likely to tear our organization apart are closely related to the propaganda engines of the fascist right. The tools that fascists use to stoke fear, sow division, and demand obedience are taking advantage of aspects of the human mind that, without any malicious intent or really any control at all, can shatter friendships, schism organizations, and lead to types of toxic behavior we see in leftist organizations.

First, I’ll discuss intergroup conflict, which is definitely the greatest threat to DSA of any topic I’ve discussed in this series. Then I’ll discuss the strange phenomenon of “loss aversion”, and the dangers of authority and conformism. Each of these appears most obviously in fascist messaging and practice, but also has some relevance within DSA, mostly as lessons of what to avoid.

I. Intergroup conflict

Both historically and in the present, fascism depends deeply on defining an “other”, making it a feared enemy, and demanding obedience in order to destroy it. This should not be news to any of you. It also shouldn’t be surprising to many of you that much of DSA’s internal strife comes from the exact same features of the human mind.

Humanity is, for whatever reason, extremely good at breaking the world down into “us” and “them.” It seems to be a nearly universal tendency.

When this happens, the consequences are very predictable. You will treat “us”, in technical terms your “in-group”, very well. You will be more generous, more trusting, and generally think of in-group members more as individual people with thoughts, feelings, and diverse opinions. For someone in another group, an “out-group”, you will do pretty much the exact opposite: Giving less, being less sympathetic towards out-group members, and thinking of out-group members as being “all the same,”1 both in the form of stereotypes and ascribing the opinions or actions of one member of the group to the group as a whole.

The most extreme and visible form of these group effects is bigotry. However, notice that there are many different forms of bigotry that use completely different ways of defining in-groups and out-groups, some of which seem to be built on largely cultural constructs (for example: race, religion, national origin) rather than any kind of objective or intrinsic trait. This hints at the bigger problem: Humans can make in-groups and out-groups out of anything, no matter how trivial, and once those groups have formed any trivial disagreement can become a major conflict.

One of the classic demonstrations of this is Muzafer Sherif’s “Robbers Cave” experiment. This was an experiment conducted in 1950 with 20 white middle-class assumed-male 12-year-olds in the US. It took place at a summer camp named Robbers Cave. The children didn’t know each other, and before they arrived, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups, neither group knowing that the other even existed. The groups were allowed to pick their own names (they chose the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers”). For the first week, they did cooperative team-building exercises, and again, neither group knew that the other group existed. Then, in the second week, they were told that the other group existed, and the two groups were put into light competition with each other. Immediately, they started throwing insults (including some extremely racist language), fighting, raiding each others’ cabins, and basically putting on the best imitation of war that 20 twelve-year-old boys at a summer camp could produce. (The third week was spent breaking these groups down and trying to undo this hostility.)

The basic conclusion is that you can get all the behaviors of bigotry and hostility with any arbitrary grouping. Nobody has done a study exactly like this since Sherif (for a number of reasons), and because of the extremely narrow sample it’s more of a good example than a revolutionary insight into human nature, but psychologists have found similar effects pretty much everywhere in the world (though some studies report less out-group hostility in certain cultures). Even without the self-defined identity and cooperative team-building (which really strongly build up group identity), you can get versions of the same in-group/out-group effects just by giving people different color t-shirts. This is described as a “minimal group”, a grouping defined by exactly one completely arbitrary trait. Minimal groups still give you pretty strong in-group and out-group effects. If you want a quick summary of the entire literature, this comic pretty much nails it.

Fascist propaganda constantly exploits this feature of human nature. They actually use a kind of triple-whammy to make these effects terrifyingly strong. First, they clearly define an in-group and an out-group, from emphasizing white cis-male flag-waving “American” identity, to defining out-groups by whatever terms happen to be convenient for their purposes at the time (“blacks”, “illegals”, “the libs”). Second, they push the idea that the in-group is in competition with the out-group(s) (“stealing our jobs”, “threatening our way of life”). Third, they use the language of disgust. I could write a whole separate article on the dangers of disgust, but the short version is that disgust is an incredibly visceral and foundational human emotion that has moral weight. If something is disgusting people will treat it as immoral. However, with a few exceptions, what is disgusting varies between cultures2, and you can deliberately make something (or someone) disgusting without too much difficulty. Furthermore, if you want to bring about widespread hostility and even outright genocide, the fastest way to get people on board is to make the out-group disgusting. The Nazis famously described the Jews as being “smelly” or “dirty” in children’s books. Currently, in the US, you see the same language constantly leveled against marginalized racial, sexual, and economic groups from the right-wing media.

In organizations like DSA, these intergroup conflicts take a different form. First of all, people typically call it sectarianism. Second of all, everything else is exactly the same.

We define a lot of little in-groups in DSA, caucuses, working groups, etc. Most of the time it’s not an issue, but the moment there is even the tiniest amount of competition or disagreement that can be framed in terms of groups, things get ugly very quickly. This problem ties back to things that I discussed in my last article, most notably attribution and saving face. People are more likely to make dispositional attributions about out-groups (“that’s just how they are”).

Again, that only makes the problem worse: it’s much harder to assume good intentions in someone who is from an out-group, and easier to assume good intentions in someone who is in your in-group. In some cases this works in our favor. It’s how DSA as a whole holds together, at least in theory. But, when group identities within DSA come into play, and those identities become stronger than the broader group identity of being in DSA, we have trouble working together. You also save face on behalf of other members of your group, which can turn an individual disagreement or simply a mistake into a group-wide conflict.

Avoiding this kind of sectarian conflict isn’t easy. There’s a lot more that I could say about the intergroup conflicts that have arisen in Boston DSA alone over the last couple of years, but that’s a whole separate article unto itself. Even so, there are a few things we can do that will stop intergroup conflict from damaging our work.

One thing you may have noticed is that group identity is flexible and multi-faceted. Everyone belongs to many different groups at once. When it comes to group conflict, the issue is typically which of those group identities is highlighted at any given time. The effects of even a temporary group identity can be quite dramatic. Creating a minimal group with t-shirts can temporarily override racist biases, at least towards people wearing the same color of t-shirt. Marx and his successors understood this to a degree, highlighting the identity of the working class over and above any other group identity. In terms of how to counteract this aspect of right-wing propaganda, the approach is clear: make people conscious of their class identity, and who that class is really in competition with.

For conflicts within DSA, we have a convenient pre-made unifying group in DSA itself. Highlighting our shared membership and shared goals over other labels will support more respectful discussion and productive interactions. To be clear, I don’t think we need to disband the caucuses, and I do think they serve a positive purpose for their own members. That said, we must be extremely vigilant that we avoid framing any discussion as pitting one group against another.

Our best defense against this is to think of each other as comrades first and above all. It sounds cheesy, but it’s simply the truth. If you think about people in terms of their caucus or their working group or some other subdivision in DSA, you will be more likely to think of them as an individual, and not treat them as an “other.” Conversely, when you go to present ideas that are your own ideas, make clear that you are presenting them as an individual rather than as a member of any group to which you belong. If a disclaimer is not provided, we should make a habit of asking whether something is an individual position or a group or caucus position. There is nothing to be gained from ambiguity, and people will assume hostility given the chance.

II. Loss aversion

Exactly one psychologist has ever won a Nobel Memorial Prize, and his name is Daniel Kahneman. He won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for a simple insight that mainstream economists found revolutionary: People are irrational, and they are irrational in predictable and quantifiable ways.

One of the phenomena that Kahneman discovered is called “loss aversion”, and it is brutally simple: say someone offers you a mug for sale, and asks you to estimate what you’d pay for it. Let’s say $3.50. Then, later, someone gives you a mug, you own it, it is yours. Now someone asks how much they would have to pay you for you to give them that mug. Most people will say about $7.

That’s loss aversion in its simplest form: You value something roughly twice as much if you think of it as yours. That’s without changing anything about what the thing is, what it can do, how it looks, whatever. As soon as you think of it as belonging to you, you value it more. It is a deeply irrational bias.

Loss aversion shows up in all kinds of interesting forms. People will take bigger risks to acquire something than they will to risk losing it. There’s an intuitive way to think about this: You might be willing to buy a lottery ticket with a one in millions chance of giving you a billion dollars, but if you had a billion dollars, you’d never take a risk on something that had a one in millions chance of letting you keep it. That’s an extreme example, but the basic idea works anywhere. The entire idea of “opportunity cost,” the price of not doing something, is an attempt to employ the power of loss aversion to things that we would typically think of as gains, because loss aversion motivates people so strongly.

A lot of right-wing messaging uses loss aversion to drive up various forms of bigotry. As I mentioned in the last section, one of the classic anti-immigrant arguments of the right is “they’ll take our jobs”. Note that this message always uses the verb “take.” That’s because it implies that you will lose something. If you look at any right-wing propaganda, you’ll find something phrased in terms of “loss,” and that’s explicitly to make people treat the group “taking” something as the enemy, and valuing whatever it is they might “lose.”

Loss aversion also plays a big role in right-wing economic messaging too. The right has successfully framed taxation as “taking” something that would otherwise belong to you. They frame social programs as “taking your tax dollars” and giving them to someone else, and try to give you a sense of ownership over money that was never yours to begin with. It works, too. People are less willing to pay taxes when it feels like a loss.

Even within DSA loss aversion will sometimes rear its head. Any time any action is framed as taking something away, there is resistance to it. It’s a tried and true way to spin up opposition to anything, and we should be careful to ask when something is truly a loss, and when it’s just being framed that way. Listen carefully next time a contentious issue comes up for debate, and you will likely hear someone suggest it’s losing something or taking something away from the organization, resources, character, whatever. That’s not because they’re being disingenuous, by the way. More likely than not it’s an honest assessment of how they view the issue, and why they feel strongly about it. It’s just that whether something is a loss or not can often be a matter of perspective or opinion rather than an objective fact.

The upside of loss aversion is that it means that some gains for economic justice are almost impossible to reverse once implemented. The Affordable Care Act might have been unpopular when it first showed up, but the first whisper that you might “lose” your health insurance and public opinion almost completely flipped. In any country that has universal healthcare, trying to undo it is politically implausible without extreme antidemocratic efforts. The few places that have some form of universal basic income? Same deal. It’s a fight to create a Universal Basic Income system anywhere that doesn’t have it, but anywhere that has UBI will fight tooth and nail against anyone who tries to take it away.

In terms of counteracting right-wing messaging, there are a few ways to approach the problem. As far as I know, you can’t beat loss aversion outright, there’s no way to “turn it off” that anyone has published. Psychologists have some ideas about when it doesn’t show up, but no generally applicable way to use that information.

One strategy is to use loss aversion in our own messaging, whenever we can. Yes, it’s a propaganda technique, but it’s one that preys on how people subjectively value things rather than changing an objective truth. If you can honestly frame something in terms of a loss, that’s no less accurate than framing it as a gain, and it will resonate more with people. Another area to look for chances to use it is in policy proposals. That article I linked earlier found that a tax structure that deducts money before people ever see it and is guaranteed to give a refund is much more welcome, and creates much more compliance, than one in which people have to pay more out of their pockets when they’re doing their annual taxes. Keep that in mind if we ever find ourselves in a position to make policy.

For internal discussions, the primary resource that we have to lose is decision-making power or the work we have invested into various projects. These each take different forms. Decision-making power is the most obvious: if we are faced with a proposal that would reduce our ability to influence the decisions our chapter or working group or organization makes, our first impulse will be to push back on it. At first glance it might sound like I’m talking about things that are simply anti-democratic, in which case the loss aversion is good, but it’s more complicated than that.

Think of it from the perspective of the members of any DSA chapter prior to summer 2016. The members at that time were used to accounting for huge percentages of any vote. If your general meeting needs only ten attendees to make quorum, each person accounts for a full 10% of the decision-making power of the entire chapter. Then, the chapters grew to have hundreds of members, and any general meeting that made quorum now needed to have triple-digit attendance, and each person in attendance accounts for less than 1% of the decision-making power. That’s a form of loss. In some chapters (thankfully not so much in Boston) we saw leadership committees that were increasingly reluctant to cede power to their membership, partly because of that loss of power.

More generally, we need to recognize in ourselves when our reaction to something is governed by our own loss aversion, and ask whether that reaction is appropriate or not. To create a socialist world, we’re all going to end up giving up something. We have to be willing to look at ourselves and ask what we’re really willing to lose, and when the time comes to lose it, we must be ready for how strongly we will want to resist it.

III. Authority and conformism

Following World War II, psychology as a field turned a lot of attention to figuring out how the civilians of Nazi Germany could become servants of fascism and commit some of history’s greatest atrocities, and most of all whether humans in general could be driven to the same extremes. By the 1960s, the answer was clearly that it wasn’t a unique occurrence. The Nazis had exploited some very straightforward features of the human psyche that could be found anywhere. Any country in the world can fall under the sway of a fascist regime. Some of the tools required I’ve already covered, but when it comes to fascism there are two other necessary pieces: The psychological power of authority and conformity.

Psychology is such a new and rapidly developing field (compared to other sciences at least) that it’s relatively rare to find work from the mid-20th century that holds up today. However, two studies in particular have held up, and are guaranteed to show up in every introductory course: Milgram’s work on authority, and Asch’s work on conformity.

The Milgram Experiments are so (in)famous that the wikipedia entry for them is actually a reasonable source. The setup was simple: The participants — middle-class white people from New Haven — came into the lab and were told they would be doing a task with another subject. The other subject was actually what’s called a “confederate,” an actor employed by the experimenter. The subject would be reading math problems to the confederate, who would be in a different room and could only be heard via intercom, and the subject would deliver progressively stronger electric shocks every time the confederate made a mistake. The subject got to experience a low-level version of this shock themselves, and it was quite painful.

During the experiment, the confederate would make several pre-arranged mistakes, and make increasing noises of agony with the increasing power of the shock (they were acting; the confederate was never actually shocked, but the participant didn’t know that until after the experiment ended). Eventually the confederate would mention having a heart condition, then plead for mercy, and eventually just go silent. If the subject asked to stop, an experimenter in their room, wearing a white lab coat and holding a clipboard, would first say “Please continue.” The second time the subject asked to stop, they would say “The experiment requires that you continue.” The third time they asked, “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” The fourth, “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If, at that point, the subject insisted on stopping, the experiment would stop.

Only 14 of 40 subjects insisted. The rest continued to the end.3

The point of Milgram’s experiments was that authority, manifested as a white lab coat and direct commands, is an incredibly powerful thing. Almost two-thirds of that group  were willing to apparently kill someone, just because they were told to do so by a man in a white lab coat holding nothing more threatening than a clipboard.

The power of authority is a necessary tool of fascism and authoritarianism. There are no limits on what someone with absolute power can get others to do even without explicit threats. Note that it isn’t just authority to some great leader, either. The Milgram result works on a very small scale, with a very specific and narrow kind of authority. Police take advantage of this all the time. Their threat comes in part from force, in part from the law, and mostly from the simple fact that their uniform represents both. A police officer can order someone to do almost anything, and merely because it’s coming from someone with a particular uniform, they’ll often do it.

DSA’s structure is resistant to developing this kind of authoritarian power within itself because of the primary authority of the membership to collectively overrule its leadership at any time. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not at risk. The Danny Fetonte incident was a close call with authoritarian power, specifically in the context of the Austin chapter in which he effectively single-handedly took over a general meeting, but also, to a degree, the NPC. The management of the DSA weekly blog recently got shuffled around because of a similar episode involving a member of the NPC. It takes some effort to contradict someone yelling orders in any context, and not everyone is willing to do it.

It is something we must always be vigilant against. Never obey a command simply because it is a command.

In fighting the power of authority in the broader world, it’s important to know what does and does not work. Follow-up studies found that seeing someone else defy authority actually doesn’t make people more likely to defy it themselves, even if there are no consequences for doing so. However, people who feel more agency in themselves, and people who feel more empathy towards others, are both more likely to resist orders to hurt someone else. It’s not easy to make people feel more agency or more empathy, but DSA actually excels at it. We emphasize doing things to make the world a better place, and we emphasize comradeship and compassion. That’s actually one of the big reasons I joined DSA: It really has the tools to stand up to the effects of authoritarianism.

The other half of fascist power is conformity, and again there is an experiment that has stood the test of time and is so famous that wikipedia is a reasonable source. Solomon Asch, in 1950, put a bunch of white middle-class men in a room. Only one of them was a subject. The rest were confederates. The group was asked to do a task in which they matched line lengths: they were given a sample line, and asked to say which of three other lines matched it. On one of the trials, every confederate in the group favored an obviously wrong answer. About a third of the time, the subject would go along with the group.

There’s an important upside in Asch’s work: Two-thirds of the time, people were willing to defy the group. Simple, objective facts are not that easy to distort. However, 75% of his participants did conform at least once. That’s more of a problem. These are obviously extreme and Orwellian examples, but the power of conformity is far stronger for things that are not objective facts.

Authoritarian regimes rely heavily on conformity to induce obedience without even needing to use the power of authority, and again this is not a surprise to anyone. Combating it is usually a matter of being the voice of dissent. If there is no unified opinion within whatever you see as your group, then it’s easier to defy a majority view. If everyone who dissents is removed from your group, conformity becomes harder to resist. The modern GOP is a nearly perfect case study of this: Inasmuch as there were ever “moderate” republicans in our lifetime, they were chased out in favor of a homogeneous whole that marches in lockstep with the directives of a sole leader.

For DSA, what this means is that debate is good, differences of opinion (discussed respectfully) are good, and we should make sure we continue to be a multi-tendency organization. That’s not to say that consensus is bad, by any stretch, but there is a difference between having some clear points of unity and enforcing a conformity of opinion from our members (which certain other socialist organizations do explicitly). The ability to support internal debate keeps us from falling into the trap Asch found: We will not change objective facts to conform for its own sake, and we should make sure that never happens.

IV. Conclusions and reflections

That brings us to the end of Psychology for Socialists, for now. In these three articles, I’ve tried to give a simple introduction to some ideas that I think are truly essential to our work. The goal of this, more than anything, was to make all of us more aware of the nature of our own minds, the biases that we are prone to, and the mistakes we can make as a result. There’s so much more I could have talked about, and maybe I will at some point in the future. The human mind is a complex piece of work and psychology as a science is still in its infancy. However, the nature of democracy is that in order to succeed it must understand how people think, both as individuals and in general. Without that, democratic socialism will suffer the same fate as Esperanto: A nice idea, but implemented in a human-incompatible way.

For Workers and Patients, not Greed and Profits: Vote Yes on Question 1

by Socialist Nurse

For 4 months now, we’ve been waiting for management to fill an open nursing position in our department. The word from the nursing manager is that there are “very few applicants” none of whom appear to be a “good fit.” Insert your bromides about the nursing shortage here, if you’d like, but be prepared to put your foot in your mouth: It is no big secret that the biggest chunk of any hospital’s budget is labor and, therefore, payrolls which are the first to see cuts when CFOs go looking for ways to trim costs. (For some reason, building a new half billion dollar campus is not a cost, but an investment. Pity they don’t value their workers in the same way as buildings or profit margins.) Just over two years ago, our hospital management decided that the best way to cut costs would be to get rid of the most experienced and, therefore, most well compensated workers via a buyout offer. The offer was extended to 9% of the total workforce. Two nurses on our unit decided to take the package: both were nearing retirement and, in part, were made to fear for their benefits if they did not accept. I had been hired to replace one of them: a nurse with almost a decade of experience replacing a nurse with nearly four decades under her belt. It took several months for the department to fill the other position. That person has since left the position as has another recently hired nurse. Both referenced the heavy workload and stressful conditions caused by chronic short-staffing as reasons for leaving. That’s four nurses–all well-qualified–any of whom could have filled the current position.

There is no lack of studies pointing to how more adequate staffing leads to both better patient outcomes and worker satisfaction (for example, see this study looking at effects of the nursing ratios implemented in California; for more, see here). What does short-staffing look like? Well, for me, it is mostly stress-filled days punctuated by an unending chorus of ringing phones with anxious patients on the line and a full waiting room of patients waiting to be seen. However, the stress and burnout that result from short-staffing also  negatively affects the quality of care my colleagues and I can provide our patients. If you speak to any nurse, they could recount numerous situations where either their safety or that of their patients have been put in jeopardy because of short-staffing. The mandate put in place by Question 1 would allow nurses to provide the safe, timely and compassionate care that we want and have been trained to provide our patients. As it is now, we are often forced to choose between our well-being and that of our patients–skipping lunch, working past our shifts or rushing through safety protocols to make sure that we can meet their needs. This, as you can imagine, negatively affects our ability to continue providing the kind of care we want resulting in a vicious circle of overwork and diminishing outcomes across the board.

In short, what hospital executives mean when they say there is a nursing shortage and that it is too costly for them to hire more nurses is that they value profits over both workers and patients. Full stop. They’ve even put a number on it: $19 million–that’s how much hospital executives have been willing to spend to defeat Question 1 through misleading and deceptive ads designed with the singular purpose of stoking doubts and uncertainties among voters about “rigid government mandates” or “closure of small community hospitals.” Neither of these are based in facts. For example, at present, nurses have no say in the type of care they provide nor do they get assignments based on their knowledge and experience. Rather than a rigid government mandate, Question 1 would require healthcare facilities to develop, in partnership with their nurses, tools for measuring acuity to help determine appropriate staffing per unit based on the needs and condition of patients. I think many people would be surprised to find out that such things didn’t already exist. At present, nurses have little to no say in what appropriate staffing levels should be or how much time and care our patients need. These decisions are decided by executives and administrators; in other words, by something even more rigid than any government regulation (hint: it’s profits).

Safe patient limits are both a public health and a labor issue. If Question 1 passes, it would result in dramatically improved patient outcomes and working conditions for nurses in Massachusetts. It won’t solve all the problems facing healthcare today but it will improve healthcare access and health equity in a largely problematic system driven by profit margins and corporate greed.

#DonateYourVote2018 and AACC Endorsements

This year, members of Boston DSA have participated in the #DonateYourVote campaign through Emancipation Initiative‘s Ballots Over Bars campaign. The #DonateYourVote campaign partners an incarcerated person who has had their voting rights stripped away by the state, and a freeworld volunteer who will vote as their partner would. This year, 165 people volunteered to donate their vote, and 143 incarcerated participants were paired. The African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk has also produced a list of endorsements. If you were not paired but would still like to participate, consider voting in solidarity along the AACC endorsements where you are able. The AACC 2018 Endorsements are as follows:

State Elections: Tuesday, November 6th
Voter Registration Deadline: Wednesday October 17th
For more information: www.wheredoivotema.com

Statewide
1. Lt. Governor
Quentin Palfrey (D) – “We imprison too many people, for too long, for doing too little, and race has way too much to do with who ends up in the criminal justice system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

2. Attorney General
Maura Healey (D) – “We cannot incarcerate our way to a healthier, more productive state.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

3. Treasurer
Jamie Guerin (G-R) – “We must eliminate mandatory sentencing and reduce the use of incarceration as punishment.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

4. Auditor
James Stamas (G-R) “I fully support ending life without parole & full voting rights for all incarcerated people.” (Twitter)

5. U. S. Senator
Elizabeth Warren (D) – “We need criminal justice reform…we need reform of the whole system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

Regional
County District Attorney
Rachael Rollins (D) for Suffolk County – ”Black people are dying in the streets. That is why I’m running. It’s not a joke.” (Bay State Banner 2018)

Please have family and friends visit the Emancipation Initiative Facebook page and click the LIKE button under AACC’s Endorsements to show they’re voting in solidarity with us this election. Our goal is to reach 10,000 LIKES.

For any questions or comments about AACC’s 2018 endorsements please call: 617-869-2773, or email: emancipationinitiative@gmail.com
THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING THE AACC!

Environmental Justice is as Much Social as It is Scientific

By Jibran M.

For those that know me well, I spent a lot of time outside this summer. Although I grew up in Maine, it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve made an earnest effort at connecting to nature. However, at best I’ve only managed to scrounge up time for a few weekend sprints up 4,000 foot peaks, before being called back to work at the job that enables me to sustain my way of life, among other things.

However, a certain dissonance rings within me when I attempt to connect with nature. This discomfort stems simply from the fact of how I, and the majority of other folks in our society, tend to treat nature. For most, there is this vaguely romantic idea of “The Great Outdoors” as something of an escape, an event that needs to be “experienced” and documented as an “adventure” on Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s as if our occasional sojourns lead us to some level of abstraction where we can extract ourselves from the mundanities of modern society to arrive at some profound conclusions about ourselves; a god’s-eye view or Archimedean Point, if you will. However, this is the planet we live on – surely place and experience aren’t commodities from which some value can be extracted? Why is it that we are so fascinated with nature?

The young Karl Marx investigated man’s relationship with nature in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For Marx, the increased objectification of labor under capitalism leads to a “loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” In other words: the product of a worker’s labor only serves further alienate them from their peers. Unlike in his later writings, young Marx includes thoughts on an estrangement from nature as well. Marx explains,

“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.”

While man cannot create without nature, he is separated from the immediacy of it by simply acting upon it,

“Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life […] Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body.”

We are only able to perceive the natural world through a filtered and processed lens through the labor we undertake. Our organic connection to nature is stripped from us.

Our fascination with the great outdoors is born from the fact that the natural world that surrounds us is as alien to us as the deepest reaches of the ocean or the furthest stars in space. This state of individual alienation is exacerbated by the fact that this condition is shared by all our peers, “every self-estrangement of man, from himself and from nature, appears in the relation in which he places himself and nature to men other than and differentiated from himself.”

With its intersecting alienations, capitalism not only demands competition between our peers, but it demands a contradiction between nature and society or culture.

Could this contradiction, this conflict between man and society contribute to a sense of dread concerning the state of the environment? Perhaps climate justice must not only proselytize the science behind impending peril, but must also lead a project to reconceive the relationship between man and nature to bring an end to this mutual alienation. Unfortunately, Marx pretty much ends his analysis there. Good thing we have Engels! For all the benefits the sciences have to offer, he argued, its microscopic dividing-up of nature has only served to reinforce our anxiety towards it.

As Engels writes in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole (emphasis mine); of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.”

For decades, the popular discourse on the environment, thanks to neoliberalism, has been the domain of mechanistic thought, as opposed to the rigors of dialectical thought, which would serve to expose to the natural contradictions between society and the natural world. Examining ecological phenomena from a purely deterministic standpoint, or in purely physical terms, renders the outside world as a great “other” — in one sense, “primitive.” However, it is undeniable that the current state of the world, and its climate, is anthropogenic, chiefly originating from humanity’s exploitation of the Earth. Since humanity emerged we have always been, at least in the context of the development of western civilization, estranged from the planet itself.  As Engels brilliantly writes in his Dialectics of Nature:

“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place […] step by step with the development of the hand went that of the brain; first of all consciousness of the conditions for separate practically useful actions, and later, among the more favoured peoples and arising from the preceding, insight into the natural laws governing them.”

Essentially, the more great scientific discoveries are made, the more we are alienated from nature’s original context as our understanding becomes more microscopic. The more microscopic nature becomes, the more we are callously alienated from it.

The conditions for mankind to flourish require that we have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with nature. In order to survive and thrive, humanity must expropriate its bountiful resources. However, the way capitalism has presented itself, and how quickly it has spread like a virus throughout the world obviates the need for the proletariat to engage in the opposing relationship between the natural world and society through dialectical materialism, to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions. Marx and Engels highlighted the dangerous path humanity has progressed without this kind of dialectic,

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Without a proper dialectic, nature is simply a problem to be conquered. When nature is simply something to be conquered, and when our understanding of it is microscopic and mechanistic, we seek to break it down even more with even bigger displays of expropriation. With the bourgeois firmly in control, a society has been built that subsists on toxic gas spewing automobiles; that is nourished on the sale of even more dangerous weapons. Even so, we can still sense how alienated we are and preserve “artifacts” of nature in zoos, museums, and natural parks. Theodor Adorno laments this in his Minima Moralia,

The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization, the more implacably it is dominated. […] . The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.”

We participate in this grand illusion of uncritical domination through our dates to botanical gardens, our Instagram-worthy hikes, and our family camping trips. So, if we can’t forge a proper connection and respect for what’s natural through the integration of our current culture, does this mean the proper solution is to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 months? Should we fully capitulate to nature? What I hope we’ve come upon through this analysis is to realize that there were various discrete historical events related to the development and spread of capitalism (from the so-called “enlightenment” and the industrial revolution, to the imperialism of Baconian science) which has brought us to this inflection point in the development of humanity and nature. The very fact that climate change is such a political issue necessarily exposes it to dialectical examination.

However, instead of pushing for milquetoast legislation such as “carbon tax credits” or an encouragement to simply regress to a “primitive” state, we must, as socialists, pursue a radical transformation not only of our social relations with each other, but with nature as well.

What we need is a global revolution which totally eliminates the very concept of “capital.” It is only then we have even a possibility of forging a more collaborative existence with the world around us. When we unite as the proletariat to forge the world according to our “own taste,” then we can have a better shot at saving the planet from climate disaster and finally “connect” with nature.

No More Pinkwashing – Capitalism and Cancer

By Nafis H

The month of October has been designated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To celebrate such an occasion, hundreds of men and women will walk or run to raise money for more research, talk about their or their relatives’ harrowing brushes with this disease, share courageous stories of breast cancer survivors on social media, and maybe even resolve to live a healthier lifestyle like signing up for SoulCycle, or getting on a detox program followed by a juice cleanse.

The narrative that has been constructed around breast cancer is one of individualism, one where the disease “is a consequence of personal rather than societal failings”. The scientific evidence presented to uphold this narrative is one of reductionism and determinism – we are told that cancers are caused by aberrations in our DNA and these aberrations are mostly due to our “bad luck.” The treatments for this disease, arising from chemical agents used during World War I, increasingly rely upon targeted destructive measures upon one’s body, and are described using military vernacular such as “magic bullets” and “battlespace vision”. The prices of cancer treatments keep increasing at a faster rate in the US compared to any other country, without significantly increasing patient quality of life or overall survival.The scientists and physicians are complicit in this endeavor – the academic field is rife with fraud, irreproducible data, researchers raking in money and not disclosing financial ties with biotech startups, and physicians making recommendations to the FDA oncology advisory council without needing to disclose their relationship to companies that do not yet have a drug on the market.

The bourgeois government has encouraged public-private partnerships since the 1980s with the introduction of the Bayh-Dole Act, the FDA’s Critical Path Initiative in 2004, and more recently the Cancer Moonshot Initiative in 2016. Over the years, more and more money has been allocated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), especially following the publication of the human genome sequence, which is believed to hold the secrets to curing all diseases, not just breast cancer.

However, this privatization has worsened the situation. As evidence shows, privatization has provided perverse incentives for researchers, and ultimately, created the current chaos that reigns in cancer research today. The current state of research shows an ailing system with spawning of predatory journals, transparency issues in established medical journals, sham conferences, plethora of reproducibility issues in basic research, corruption among scientists and abuse of public funds for personal gains. This reflects the “quantity over quality” approach where scientific trainees (graduate students & postdoctoral scholars) are often exploited in a tight budget climate.

Not that more money had resulted in better research — when NIH’s budget doubled between 1997–2003, the growth was mainly observed in ancillary markets such as reagent companies, expansion of universities, and number of NIH contractors. Although there exists a host of scientific literature on the environmental causes of breast and other cancers, only 15% of NCI’s budget in 2008-09 was dedicated to studying such causes rather than focusing on individual genes. In the meantime, independent scientists are fighting uphill battles to get chemicals, such as Bisphenol A that have shown to cause breast cancer in laboratory rodents, off the market. The regulatory agencies and government policies favor the evidence presented by the manufacturing companies and ignore the myriads of evidence that independent scientists have provided. This has also allowed profiteering entities to continue exploiting vulnerable populations, while building social capital by sponsoring biomedical research.

The neoliberalization of cancer has also pushed for creating niche markets that are aided by non-profits. The mantra “early detection saves lives” has successfully brainwashed the public into believing that it actually prevents cancer deaths effectively — in one study, 68% women thought that mammography lowers their risk of getting breast cancer, 62% were convinced that screening decreased the rate of breast cancer by half, and 75% thought 10 years of screening would prevent 10 breast cancer deaths per 1000 women. Unfortunately, this mantra has allowed non-profits such as Susan Komen Foundation to balloon, with less and less of the raised money going to supporting actual research and more into maintaining the foundation itself.

The burdens of breast cancer, and the neoliberal approaches to fight it, falls disproportionately on people of color in the US – African-Americans have the highest mortality from breast and other cancers, and native Hawaiians have the highest mortality from breast cancer in the US across all ethnicities. These disparities were originally attributed to a lack of diagnosis and the cancer being at a more advanced stage at the time of diagnosis in these non-white populations.

However, adjustment for stage of cancer at diagnosis did not solve the discrepancies observed. Even as mammography screening for breast cancer became equivalent nationally among Black and white women of all ages, these disparities persisted. This has been supported by epidemiology studies that suggest that disparities in outcome by race/ethnicity have not improved over time. In fact, between 1975–2000, disparity in death rates from all cancers combined between Black and white, men and women, increased.

While much of the blame was put on the differences in biology between races/ethnicities (e.g. — Black women have a higher risk of developing a more aggressive form of breast cancer), it appeared that the racial gap in outcomes was prominent among breast cancers with good prognosis (hormone-receptor positive, multiple treatments available). This essentially led to the conclusion that “biological factors cannot explain all of the racial disparity in morbidity and mortality.

While socioeconomic status (SES) has been put forward to explain such disparities, again it cannot be understood without a framework of historical racism in this country. In fact, as the prominent public health scholar David R. Williams states, “race is an antecedent to and determinant of SES.” The fact that non-white populations experience greater poverty just shows the success of discriminatory policies in the US. The 2010 U.S. Census found that Black populations are living in poorer quality housing, have higher exposures to toxins and pollutants in residential and occupational settings, and have less access to healthy food and quality healthcare — conditions that are cancer risk factors, or as more eloquently put by Dr. Samuel Brodar, NCI Director (1991), “poverty is a carcinogen.” Consider that Black women are 4–5x more likely to experience treatment delays and less likely to receive cancer-directed therapy for breast cancer, even when they have similar tumors to those in white women. Black and Hispanic women suffer more often from inadequate pain management; between 90–91, data from outpatient centers that treated predominantly minority patients show that these patients were 3x more likely to have inadequate pain management compared to patients seen elsewhere. When compared with the findings that patients across ethnicities, when treated equally regardless of SES, have equal outcomes, the rampant racism present in healthcare becomes very clear.

Cancer is a deadly disease – there is no doubt about it. Just as capitalism alienates the individual from the environment, reductionism alienates the disease from the body it manifests, essentially “other”-izing it and pitting the patient against their own body. This alienation promotes individualism through the language of “survivorship,” where the victim has beaten their own body into submission using “potent chemical weapons.” The “War on Cancer” is waged not in laboratories, but on the bodies of patients undergoing surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. There is nothing to “win” here – one cannot fight their own physical manifestation of their existence and expect to achieve victory. But the popular narrative of “winning over cancer”, shaped by an imperialist, capitalist government, the pharmaceutical companies and neoliberal non-profits, distorts one’s perception of cancer treatment and their own body.

None of this is to say that we should give up on trying to prevent and/or treat cancer. In order to do so, however, we need to radically revise how we understand cancer and how we can best prevent it. Consider that the biggest curb in cancer mortality in the US was achieved by public health measures such as tobacco control – why isn’t there more money in prevention of other cancers through public health measures? Why aren’t we stemming the endless flow of chemicals and pesticides into our environment that have shown to cause breast and other cancers? Why are we so focused on studying the intrinsic factors that supposedly cause cancer when research shows 85% of cancer incidence risk can be explained by extrinsic factors?

Ultimately, all of this points to the fact that the “War on Cancer” cannot be won unless the racist and capitalist system is dismantled. Sociologist Catherin Bliss notes that “the relationship between scientific knowledge and state power has been dialectical” and public policies govern the course of scientific research. We cannot expect a capitalist government to instate policies that will hold corporations accountable for poisoning our environment, or to regulate drug prices to make treatment available for all and to end racism in healthcare. We cannot allow the pinkwashing of corporations, which burden vulnerable populations with both physical and financial toxicity. Awareness about breast cancer should be a priority; however, awareness will not achieve anything unless it is framed in the context of how capitalism propagates this terrifying disease.

Having Children Won’t Fix You: A Socialist Feminist Response to Connor Kilpatrick

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Emma Goldman tells a mostly cis male crowd about birth control in 1916. Hey, if it was worth saying once, it’s worth saying again. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Amy Brown

Connor Kilpatrick’s recent essay for Jacobin, “It’s Okay to Have Children,” argues for having children by speaking on behalf of women As a cis woman, I’ll start this off with a personal anecdote, since accounts of or data from personal experience are notably absent from the essay. Then I’ll move onto a more general critique.

It’s September 2018, which means that it’s almost 20 years since I conceived my son, who is my only child. I did not “decide” to conceive my son: in fact, his conception was the accidental result of a one-night stand under the influence. Nor would I characterize my carrying the pregnancy to term as a “decision” so much as an inchoate impulse. I was raised Catholic, felt terribly lonely at the time, and believed on some level that a child would “fix” me.

At the time of my pregnancy, I made good money and had solid health insurance. By the terms of Kilpatrick’s argument, in which financial support is the main guarantee of happy moms and kids, this should have been true. Instead, I found myself completely undone by the prospect of spending most of my waking hours with a tiny, dependent human being. I discovered quickly that I had very little on the inside to give this child. Fearful of the rage that would result from being trapped in what looked to me like a domestic graveyard for 18+ years, and even more fearful that I would take that out on my son, I placed him in an open adoption. (Middle-class white ladies get to elect open adoptions; not everyone is as fortunate.)

The only thing I regret about the adoption is not being able to watch my son grow up, although I saw him twice a year for most of his childhood and adolescence. I am certain he was and is better off where he was. I know that I am certainly better off for having had freedom from family responsibility, which, even though I was born with a uterus, is decidedly Not My Thing. I was born and raised to be a thinker and writer. I’m not social at all; had I been born with a penis, I would likely been able to have had a partner and family too.

All of this runs contrary to the central threads of Kilpatrick’s essay. While that essay gives an occasional nod to legal abortion access and freedom from nuclear family structures in socialist countries, it makes the following poorly founded assumptions:

  • The vast majority of people who can get pregnant (referred to below as AFAB folks or cishet women) want at their core to bear (or raise) children at some point in their lives.
  • There is a prevalent social stigma against people who want to bear and raise children.
  • Child-bearing comes about via an individual and conscious decision as opposed to being primarily the product of biological determinism and social and economic forces.
  • Refraining from having children is in accord with the current capitalist hegemony, as evinced by present or future threats to state budgeting for health insurance and education.

Gender Essentialism and Social Pressure to Have Children

Using phrases like “the desires of women” (apparently, all women), Kilpatrick really seems to think that most or all AFAB folks want to bear and raise children.

To the contrary, many AFAB folks do not want to bear or raise children at all, regardless of economic circumstances. Cishet men, who bear less of the childcare burden, are, unsurprisingly, more likely to want children than their partners. Some of the reluctance of cishet women regarding children has to do with the anticipated perennial lack of reciprocity in cishet households around chores: guess who still does most of the (unpaid) work. I’ll say more about unwaged household work later.

The CDC study that Kilpatrick mentions (but does not cite) regarding the gap between the desired number and actual number of children borne by Americans, by necessity, does not focus primarily on the number of American AFAB folks whose desired number of children is zero. As many AFAB folks who don’t want kids can attest, talking or going public about your desire not to have any children is grounds for a wide range of signs of social disapproval, ranging from hurt-puppy looks to downright familial rejection¹:

  • If you are under 40 and want a tubal ligation (i.e. permanent sterilization), you can generally expect a fight or complete refusal from your gynecologist.
  • If you are bold enough to join a public support group for people who don’t want children, such as the NoKidding! group, you can expect public shaming and character assassination. This blogger had such a piece published and repeatedly republished in the Atlanta State Constitution.
  • Many cishet women who don’t want children partner with men who, while initially supportive at the outset of their relationship, back off and often dump them when they don’t change their tune as time goes on and the march down the aisle becomes more plausible.

It remains an act of social defiance, and quite a bit of work, for cishet women to refrain consciously from having children. Any “stigma” to the contrary seems to be confined to recent thinkpieces in the Guardian and New York Times and certain works of literary fiction, all of which are read mostly by wealthy white liberals. In other words, the stigma against childbirth that Kilpatrick mentions, if it in fact exists, would affect mostly white women.

Moreover, any preference to remain child-free today is quickly being mooted (again) by capitalist forces: the increased unavailability of safe, legal abortions and the cost of prescriptions and procedures for birth control threaten to make those who can get pregnant dependent on their children’s biological fathers (or on their extended families) on a widespread basis, just as their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were.

Pregnancy and Childrearing as a “Decision”

Kilpatrick really need not worry about most cishet women not bearing children at all or being forced into a “decision” not to get pregnant. If you have a uterus and ovaries, have sex (ever) with someone with a penis and active sperm, and do not have a biological impediment to fertility, odds are that sooner or later you will get pregnant, and eventually one of those pregnancies will come to term.

But what about birth control? Again, if you’re AFAB, have sex with people with penises, haven’t had your tubes tied, and don’t have another impediment to fertility, you probably will miss a birth control dosage eventually. There are more reliable, less error-prone BC methods, such as IUDs and longer-lasting hormonal birth control, but their side effects may make you have to discontinue them.² Birth control, by itself, does not make pregnancy and childbirth into a real “choice” for everyone.

Kilpatrick uses the word “decision” in connection with pregnancy and childbirth quite a bit. In the face of biological determinism, social pressure, and economic necessity, thinking about pregnancy and childbirth in terms of free will is a destructive fallacy. The teen moms Kilpatrick mentions whose “decisions” to bear and raise children are lauded by (white) academics and the chattering classes? Did anyone talk to those teen moms about the circumstances of their pregnancies and births? Perhaps they thought about having abortions but because of parental consent laws, were prevented from doing so. Another interesting question: how much unpaid support they’re getting from people outside their families of origin. (The burden of childcare for children of teen moms often falls on the grandparents, many of whom have full-time jobs and have already been through the childcare mill at least once.)

Stigmas and demonization, while destructive to their targets, simply do not prevent childbirth. A recent study by the United Nations projected that this planet will be home to 11 billion people by the year 2100, 82 years from now. Even more daunting: that amounts to an increase of nearly 9 billion people since the year 1950. Given that exploitative societies and systems combine to make life difficult at best for the vast majority of those billions living today, one wonders how any call for or encouragement of more human births can possibly be justified.

The Fate of People Who Bear Children in a Capitalist Society: 150 Years of Socialist Feminist Thought

Socialist feminists, from Marx and Engels onward³, have spent quite a bit of time thinking and writing about the many people who can and do get pregnant. It’s valuable when thinking about these issues to read what they’ve written. You can find an excellent survey of socialist feminist writing in Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

By the time the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe, the historical exclusion of cis women from the sphere of waged work was so pervasive, and so destructive to their freedom and autonomy, that Karl Marx himself remarked⁴:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and the relations between the sexes…

Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the labourer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the labourer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery.

By the mid-twentieth century, Western capitalist society, with respect to labor of all kinds, consisted largely of two work realms: the waged workplace, whose inhabitants were primarily cis men (with the exception of gendered waged work such as teaching and nursing), and the household, where the (unpaid) cooking and cleaning work to help the husband maintain his job and get the children to school fell to the wife.⁵

It was this world upon which the socialist feminists of the 1960’s and 1970’s based their refinements of Marxist thought with respect to the role in a capitalist society of unwaged reproductive labor. To summarize: historically, as capitalism has taken hold, AFAB folks have been forced out of the waged labor market in favor of bearing and raising children and providing unpaid domestic support for their cis male partners.⁶ This made them economically dependent on those partners no matter how well (or poorly) those partners provided for their families. Unpaid reproductive labor enables capitalist enterprises to ensure the relative health and stability of their (cis male) labor forces without having to spend more money on them.

Over the last 40 years, socialist feminists, by and large, have proposed two main solutions to the problem of unpaid reproductive labor⁷:

  • Compensate unpaid household and childcare work with a wage. These ideas, the fruit of the 1970’s Wages for Housework movement, have given way to the far less radical notion of integrating AFAB people into the waged workforce on a grand scale.
  • Remove barriers to AFAB folks working for a wage. The last few decades have in fact seen a large uptick in cis women in the workplace, which has afforded them some independence and, in many cases, ability to choose work that suits them better than household or childcare work would do.

Availability of waged work to AFAB folks has done some of what Marx thought it might do: it’s given them some independence to choose work that might suit them and, in many cases, has allowed them to choose (or to leave) their partners without massive economic consequences.

It should be noted, of course, that much of the available work for cis women is still highly gendered and subject to other biases:

  • Should they prefer traditionally male work (such as programming or construction), they often face harassment and intimidation on the job with little or no help from their employers (or, often, their largely-male unions).
  • Ancestry and class background will often limit the jobs that are available.

Also, making waged work available to AFAB folks does not solve the problem of unequal responsibility for reproductive labor: in fact, they generally wind up doing more hours of work of all kinds per week than their cis male counterparts.⁸ In some ways, they are super-workers in a way that nineteenth-century capitalists could only have dreamed of: performing waged work often at a deep discount of a cis man’s wage, then sustaining their partners and children (laborers-to-be) with domestic work. If the household’s waged income is high enough, some of the domestic work is typically outsourced, many times to folks of color at a low wage. While this frees wealthy white cis women from some work responsibility, it simply shifts the burden to their sisters of color.

How, then, do we go about achieving gender parity AND a society in which people can do waged work (or not) AND bear and raise children (or not) as they desire? Kilpatrick alludes favorably to some circumstances that resonate with arguments made by autonomous Marxists like Kathi Weeks. It is these that I’ll turn to next.

Happiness and the “Refusal of Work”

Kilpatrick mentions a study that found that some of the happiest people in the world are Dutch women, many of whom, thanks to a robust welfare state, do not work full-time. While this finding could easily be construed as a reason to steer or coerce AFAB folks from waged work back into the kitchen and bedroom, it also happens to be a telling commentary on waged work.

The fact is that “the workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society”⁹. Having to enter into a contract to sell your wages is bad enough, but the exercise of authority and hierarchy that follows on a daily basis is, if you’re paying attention at all, much more destructive to your well-being over time.

According to Kathi Weeks, orthodox Marxist and socialist feminist thought, especially of the Anglo-American variety, uncritically promotes an ethic that work, and lots of it, is good for the person and for the soul.¹⁰ For example, orthodox Marxism holds that organization at the industrial workplace will bring about a socialist revolution. This requires a workplace and a substantial time commitment at that place. Many socialist feminists see no problem with a substantial part-time commitment to waged work and a second shift of unpaid work, although they would like to see cis male partners take more of a share in that. That’s still…a lot of work, especially when commuting is figured in. All told, primacy is given to being very busy quite a bit in some recognizable way.

Autonomous Marxist thought¹¹ has given rise to the notion of “refusal of work” and a “post-work” world. Following this line of thought, Weeks (reiterating and restating the demands of the Wages For Housework movement) argues that universal basic income (UBI) would allow people a choice simply to do less. They could engage in “work” as is defined today that interests them or that needs to be done to support themselves and their families, and the dichotomy between “valued” labor for a wage and “unvalued” labor at home would disappear.

It’s important to note that “refusal of work” does not signify turning away from all life-sustaining labor, but rather refuses to valorize work as the superlative moral good of the world of Weber’s Protestant ethic. Food needs to be obtained, prepared, and stored; baby bums need wiping and changing’ leftist screeds must be written. What the “refusal of work” theorists say is that those activities are no inherently “better” than producing YouTube makeup how-to videos or birdwatching, and that yes, fewer hours per day of busyness than the Western tradition prescribes is probably better for most people overall.

The notion of our current neoliberal governments espousing anything like UBI is in fact controversial. To benefit most people, the authors of a UBI scheme would truly have to have the interests of most people at heart. The best chance of that would be with a socialist government. That being said, Weeks’ critique of unthinking replication of a “work makes you whole” ethic is on point, especially in the United States.

Conclusion

Kilpatrick does not mention UBI as a possible solution to overall economic and social inequality or the unhappiness caused by overemphasis on work. It’s unclear whose unhappiness he would like to reduce. Simply guaranteeing more money available for certain people to have and raise children will not help everyone: for example, it did not help me.

Gender-based beliefs about or prescriptions for behavior, or creations of anti-natalist bogeymen whose “scariness” just happens to coincide with some of capitalism’s more insidious forces against less privileged people, will not help us achieve a more equitable or happier society.

It’s also clear that the higher rate of population growth we’ve seen over the last few decades has not led to more people being happier or more free. In addition to a fair distribution of wealth, social attitudes and practices that create reproductive justice are a possibility. As enunciated by the international, multi-ethnic SisterSong movement, a society that honors the principles of reproductive justice would offer:

  • Freedom to have children, or not to have children, as you desire. This freedom includes the practices of birth control and abortion but is not limited to those practices.
  • Freedom to RAISE any children you bear in a healthy, happy environment. This includes support from the community (not just the biological family) in raising those children.
  • Sexual freedom for all, pointedly for non-men and for queer people. Sexual freedom encompasses the desire to be celibate: compulsory or expected sex does not have a place here.
  • Access to reproductive health services for all. Reproductive health services for trans folks who don’t intend to have children are very much part of this.

Donna Haraway’s intriguing book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene adds an important point to the necessary element of reproductive justice: recognition that humans share the planet with nonhuman creatures and that any reproductive freedom for humans cannot be practiced with full justice unless successful co-existence with nonhuman creatures is continually taken into account. The human species cannot survive without its non-human counterparts.

We have some excellent ideas available to us to guide the way toward reproductive justice that aren’t just about having more kids. Let’s talk about those instead.

Amy E. Brown, socialist feminist, toils in Cambridge, MA and spins a few miles north of the city. She sells her labor by writing software documentation, and she does this and that to help build a socialist movement where she lives and works. When she’s not busy with all of that, she’s out on her bike, reading, or listening to podcasts like Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual, which is where she learned about Donna Haraway. Many thanks to John Reilly for his thoughtful review and comments.

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¹ I’m a member of several “child-free” channels on social media and can attest to the positive horror expressed to AFAB people who intend to prevent conception permanently. This is a social force that Kilpatrick either doesn’t know about or fails to mention.

² Interestingly, new birth control methods intended for use by AMAB folks tend to fail in trials because of side effects that, while the subject of legitimate concern, are no worse than those frequently endured by AFAB folks who use birth control. Because AFAB folks generally pay a higher price for pregnancy than do AMAB folks, however, they put up with it and continue to take birth control that harms their health.

³ It’s often a pleasure for a modern feminist to read Marx or Engels: some of their attitudes are typically Victorian, but in general they were friends to women in word and deed. Their critiques of the nuclear family, which is too often a crucible of misogyny, are particularly refreshing.

⁴ Karl Marx, Capital.

⁵ Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 28. Available at https://libcom.org/files/the-problem-with-work_-feminism-marxism-kathi-weeks.pdf.

⁶ Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004), passim.

⁷ Weeks, p. 12.

⁸ Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Viking Penguin, 1989), reissued 1997 and 2012, passim.

⁹ Michael Denning, Culture in an Age of Three Worlds (Verso, 2004), p. 224, cited in Weeks, p. 23.

¹⁰ Weeks, passim.

¹¹ “Anarchist Perspectives on Work and its Other,” Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).