East of Eden

CounterPunch: 2014

 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

 

Dreamers dream about the future, but if it’s going to be more than just visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, they must take account of the past.

 

For millennia, human beings lived cooperatively, hunting and gathering with a desperation borne of their daily existence. There were no stores of grain for a rainy day, let alone supermarkets. In fact, there was no surplus of any kind, so there was no free time to dream of a better way of life, one without the dangers of wild animals, starvation, deadly disease, or rival bands of humans. Every moment, except for a bit of sex, was devoted to the pursuit of food and shelter.

 

It was only with the emergence of agriculture that at least a handful of people could turn their attention to the greater questions of the meaning of life in the present and possibilities for the future. One result of that change was that by the time of Jesus, the Mediterranean world was awash with cooperative experiments. In The Historical Jesus, Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan writes that “Throughout the region, there were independent, egalitarian communities of peasants, tribesmen, or pastoralists in the marginalized hills.”

 

Yet transportation was so primitive that peasants could only eat food grown near their homes. If the local crops died from pests or drought, the peasants died too. Attempts by the peasants to work cooperatively only equalized their poverty. There simply wasn’t enough to go around.

 

The advent of industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries promised to solve the problem of scarcity. The growth of industrial productivity was accompanied by a host of idealist, utopian, and revolutionary philosophers. Many of these thinkers based their theories for achieving a world of peace and prosperity on the power of heavy industry, the liberation seemingly inherent in iron and steel, locomotive and steam engine. If only ownership could be captured by the workers, enough could be produced for all.

 

This vision fired the imagination of toilers the world over, from the Paris Commune to Russia to China to the Bolivarian circles of Venezuela. It did not work. It could not work. The productivity of blast furnaces and assembly lines wasn’t great enough to sweep away all privilege on the wings of abundance. An economy based on industry couldn’t eliminate resilient old elites or prevent the rise of new ones. There still wasn’t enough to go around, so someone always figured out how to manage scarcity to their own advantage.

 

While there was a titanic worldwide clash between capitalism and socialism over who industry would serve, there was no doubt over what the basis of the economic infrastructure would be. This was so much so that in the 1920s Henry Ford’s memoir, My Life, was translated into several editions in the USSR and some Russian peasants even named their children after Ford. 

 

It seemed for a while that the dreams of the nineteenth century had a shot at coming true in the twentieth, but that possibility had faded badly by the approach of the twenty-first. Agata Pyzik, a young Polish writer who’s lived in Britain since 2010, makes that clear in her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West ($26.95, Zero Books).  Pyzik takes a hard look at Poland’s socialist past, mocks its current anti-communism and, above all, skewers Poland’s capitalist present and those who champion it.

 

Holding on to their new system of capitalism for dear life, Polish leaders invoke a ghostly picture of Poland’s communist history in an attempt to silence any discussion of the ways the country’s transition has resulted in chaos and poverty. “In Poland, as in much of the former Eastern bloc,” Pyzik writes, “you can’t publish the Communist Manifesto without risking a fine or a ban.” Showing a good grasp of the essence of capitalism, Polish leaders have renamed Warsaw’s Paris Commune Square after American segregationist Woodrow Wilson.

 

Is anyone buying what Polish leaders are selling? In the 2014 European elections, given a choice between two conservative parties whose main program is that they are opposed to each other, 76% of the Polish electorate didn’t vote.

 

Behind the stage-managed elections presented by Poland’s version of the two party system lies the very real threat of violence. According to Pyzik, a leader of one of Poland’s tenants’ movements was murdered by “the Mob.” Lech Walesa, former leader of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has recently confirmed which side he is on. “At recent protests of the raising of the pension threshold by Donald Tusk’s neoliberal government, Walesa said that in the prime minister’s place he’d have used truncheons on those ungrateful spongers.”

 

Not surprisingly, nearly two million Poles have moved abroad and, as is the case everywhere, these immigrants are blamed for the problems of their new host country. Pyzik recounts the absurd lengths that immigrant-bashers in England, a primary destination for emigrant Poles, resort to:  “A picture of a depopulated main street in the former cotton-manufacturing city of Lodz appeared recently in The Sun, titled as ‘The Polish city that moved to Britain’ as an effect of migration. Yet the paper’s photographer had to try really hard and photograph it around seven in the morning, because usually Piotrkowska Street is one of the liveliest streets in the country, full of original cafes, clubs, restaurants, and singular shops. But if The Sun went to any similar-sized British city, there it would discover the real misery, depopulated streets, ugly retail shops and Bargain Booze. In terms of devastated cities, the UK has a visible primacy.” 

 

Despite the experience of so many of its own citizens going abroad to survive, Poland is no more friendly to those who cross its borders than are the countries of the West. “As the leader of the East, Poland started to be an obvious destination for migrants or refugees of the many post-Soviet countries that were less successful in the post-’89 restoration….Chechens, Ukrainians, and Vietnamese are exploited and discriminated against in Poland….This is the world of post-Fordism, a stream of cheap labor flowing from one country to another, all equally fucked despite differences.” 

 

On the other hand, corporate immigrants are given a royal welcome. Eastern bloc cities give tax breaks to Western business while carrying out evictions in poor neighborhoods to make way for elites both domestic and foreign. Privatization includes factories built on public land with public money by public labor. In Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor, Elizabeth Dunn tells the story of what happened at the Polish factory auctioned off to the cute baby food people at Gerber. “When Gerber realized that their stock holdings made them active agents with the power to decide and strategize, it quickly offered to buy back the shares that it had just helped employees purchase (for several times the original sale price). For Gerber, the money given to employees was a way to clear the moral balance sheet and to shed the social context of labor. To make labor and produce into hard accounting numbers, rather than the artifacts of enduring social relationships, Gerber had to strip away the entangling threads of obligation between workers and the firm.” 

         

In Hungary, which has been a member of the European Union since 2004, the EU took no action when the Hungarian government introduced censorship and marginalized the opposition’s legal rights. It didn’t react when government ministers compared Jews and gypsies to animals, bringing back the rhetoric of the Nazis. It did intervene, though, when Hungary took small steps to limit free trade.

 

Free trade in Eastern Europe also applies to women’s bodies. The transition to capitalism brought a flourishing sex trade into being in the Eastern bloc and now thousands of emigrant women slave away in the UK sex industry. Many more women work cleaning British houses or waitressing, always with an eye out for the immigration police. This semi-slavery thrives despite the fact that a high percentage of these women have college degrees.  Pyzik notes that the word slave derives from Slav, adding: “We were the slaves of Europe and the first real periphery of the capitalist West, and the center cannot live without the periphery.” Socialism threatened but ultimately did not change this relationship.

 

The historic strivings of the peoples of the Eastern bloc for a better life are not just simply suppressed. Those dreams are also being turned into harmless icons, icons which are for sale. This takes the form of “Ostalgia, a dubious sympathy for communist culture and the symbols of the past without any political investment, uprooting them and rendering them meaningless. In recent years we have seen how popular art exhibitions bringing back the legacy of the communist years, with Cold War Modern in 2008 at the V&A in London, Star City at Nottingham Contemporary and Ostalgia in New Museum New York, could often obliterate the politics and social situations the featured countries live in now.”

 

There are now companies which focus on taking tourists to any place where things are falling apart. An outfit called Political Tours specializes in post-communist regimes. Chernobyl is a popular destination.  “It seems that even if everything is ruined,” Pyzik writes, “there’s still a way of making money by picking over the corpse.”  This led one Polish couple to go back in time as if 1989 had never happened. For a year they wore, ate, read, and consumed only goods produced in the People’s Republic, after which they got a book deal to write about the experience.

 

At the same time, there is a widespread and very sincere desire in the former Eastern bloc to return to the material guarantees of socialism. This is also seen in the former Soviet Union and in China, where many now demand a return to the security of the Iron Rice Bowl.

 

Musicians, a key part of Pyzik’s story of modern day Poland, were a significant factor in mobilizing the protests which helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. Peter Wicke, then director of Popular Music Research at Humboldt University in what is now eastern Germany, said in 1991: “The Western media continues to describe these dramatic events in Eastern Europe as the triumph of the Western system and the defeat of socialism. But the intent of the musicians and their young audience in this country was to effect changes within socialism. The changes we fought for were quite different than the changes we got.”

 

CBS newsman Bob Simon was on the scene and he asked:  “Few tears will be shed over the demise of the East German army but what about the whole East German system, which covered everyone in a security blanket from day care to health care, from housing to education?”

 

In Poland, Solidarity was “the main agent of the collapse of communism,” Pyzik writes. “But Solidarity members themselves didn’t care about private ownership, which was never part of their program, they wanted to reform socialism.”

 

And that’s still the case. “It is hard to talk about any ‘specter haunting Europe’ yet, but something has happened recently. As austerity measures are taking their toll, we are surrounded by the rhetoric of scarcity. There’s no more money, politicians convince us—the resources have run out. But to demand more, to demand the return of the welfare state, would be more than just childishness on the part of the impoverished—it’d be calling for….communism!” 

 

Strangely enough, a similar shift of opinion may be taking place in the United States, albeit from a very different historical perspective.

 

In a recent Gallup poll, 37 per cent of all Americans found “socialism” superior to “capitalism,” while in a Pew poll 43% of Americans under 30 described "socialism" as positive. It’s hard to know exactly what these people meant when none of the poll interviews were televised and when Americans have had no experience with socialism.  Our education about the meaning of capitalism is direct (foreclosure, lack of medical care) and not conceptual. But it seems likely that many of them are saying we should go back to the time of a meaningful safety net. In other words, go back to the glory days of heavy industry. This is the same thing that so many people in the Eastern bloc, Russia, and China are saying. In all cases it’s understandable, yes; a satisfying “fuck you” to capitalists foreign and domestic, yes; but it’s absolutely impossible. Not to mention that the dependence on destructive fossil fuels which heavy industry has bequeathed to us may soon make the question of society itself moot.

 

Perhaps the isms have become so bent and distorted, so painted over, that at least as words they have lost their meaning. In any event, the poll numbers above (and if similar polls were conducted in the former socialist countries they would almost certainly produce even stronger results) do not reflect anything which could be described as a vision for the future. In the world today the imagination is hemmed in by the heavy hand of NGO-driven charity-mongering, and some version of the lesser of two evils is still perceived as a viable political strategy.

 

Today’s scarcity is artificial, enforced from above. Modern technology could easily provide more than enough for everyone. Yet we stand at the base of a great wall, hungry, our vision blocked by mass media and miseducation, unable to see the mountain of grain on the other side. Encouraged by Tea Partiers and their mirrors on the left, we too often limit ourselves to memories of those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the ass on the assembly line was a human one.  We need to move forward but we have lost the ability to dream. But we can still find it in the words of artists who point us toward the future, not the past.

 

Following in the footsteps of Chrissie Hynde’s prediction that money will soon disappear, Carlos Santana opined at a Latin Grammys press conference: “I envision a world where water, electricity, food, and education would be for free for everyone on this planet.”

 

In turn, Santana’s words were a remix of John Lennon’s lyrics for “Imagine”:

 

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

 

How can these simply-stated visions be realized?

 

Marshall Brain, founder of HowStuffWorks.com, writes: “To achieve true economic freedom, we must break a fundamental doctrine in today’s economy: the link between work and income. Robots will be doing all the work, so this link becomes meaningless. We need a new paradigm. In the current paradigm, millions work to make the rich richer. For example, 3.5 million fast food workers get minimum wage so executives can make billions of dollars…Instead of letting the mega-rich swim in an ocean of money…we should tap that ocean to provide a swimming pool of money for each person. Give everyone $25,000 per year.”

 

Can this work? It’s easy to come up with objections. Without jobs, people will have nothing to do. Where will that money come from if no one’s working? How can you live on $25,000 a year? But that’s not the point. The point is to be willing to think completely outside the box, the box of any and all industrial systems, with their inherent inequality and planet-destroying essence.

 

"If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"

 

-- Oscar Hammerstein

 

Lee Ballinger: rockrap@aol.com