By Don Fitz
During the late 60s, when the US war on Viet Nam was going strong and people were questioning capitalism, I drove from Eugene to Berkeley where my sister was living. I ran into folks who invited me to a discussion about starting a commune. There, everyone talked about dropping out of consumer society and buying land to get away from it all. Asking about how you could confront the horrors around us by separating yourself from society, I got a string of denunciations accusing me of buying into what I claimed to oppose.
After telling my sister about the experience, she invited a friend over for dinner the next night from a group called the Progressive Labor Party. “Great,” I replied. “I’ve heard of them but really don’t know anything except they are supposed to be serious.”
Yes, PLP was very serious. We started off agreeing that the drop-out approach could not stop US imperialism. But when I suggested that many have a good point in wanting to live the society that they longed for, the PLP blood in my new acquaintance seemed to boil. Almost shaking a finger, she lectured me that the working class leadership must not become self-absorbed but rather take the message of revolution to the factory floor.
The contradictions of those two evenings became a re-occurring nightmare as I wandered in and out of the counter culture and a plethora of socialist groups for the next few decades. Some got the idea that we need to live in very different ways, but could not bring themselves to engage in struggle. Others clearly understood struggle, but would not accept that creation of a new society requires a different way of existing in this society.
As time went by these perspectives begin to reappear as two sides of the same coin. More and more, the US left understood life-style changes as necessary to prefigure a new world. Increasingly, writers are connecting these once seemingly opposite world views.
One of those writers is Howard Waitzkin, whose book, Rinky-Dink Revolution (2020, Daraja Press with MR Essays), presents a new way of retelling the tale that changes in personal lives can rebuff capitalism while building relationships for a post-capitalist world. Neverthless, I worry that the use of “rinky-dink” may belittle the author’s serious effort to integrate anti-capitalist world views.
During recent decades the US left has adopted multiple ways to oppose capitalist norms of domination by erecting taboos against attitudes prevalent among our political ancestors, including prohibitions against language which is racist, sexist or homophobic. Waitzkin goes beyond listing what we should not do and leaps forward with concrete examples of what we can do to “creatively undermine” capitalism by establishing housing coops, developing alternative food and agricultural systems and finding methods of transportation that minimize the use of cars. Some of his most intriguing proposals are that those few leftists who have enough money for investment can use it for financing co-op housing and buying land for local agriculture. He explains how virtually anyone can resist paying war taxes with minimal risk.
Waitzkin is among the expanding list of authors who openly reject the imperative of capitalism for infinite economic growth. Without using those words, he strongly hints that the world can provide better lives for all of humanity while reducing the total mass of capitalist production, which is overwhelmingly wasteful.
Since his goal is to write a short book instead of an encyclopedia there are inevitably topics he does not cover. Waitzkin could be described as a medical sociologist who has written excellent articles about Cuban health care. It is therefore surprising that he does not mention efforts like the Birthing Project USA and South Bronx Unite as medicine which exemplifies “the solidarity economy outside of capitalism.”
While the book’s subtitle includes the potentially powerful concept of “withholding consent,” it is important to grasp its limitations. “Withholding consent” could contribute to and become a critical part of a revolutionary struggle but it does not constitute a revolution and, by itself, will not bring down capitalism.
“Withholding consent” did not work so well for native Americans who practiced various forms of communalism without giving consent for their own extermination. Similarly, it did not work for countless indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the world who have seen the lands they have lived on for millennia occupied by self-proclaimed “owners,” with forests razed, waters contaminated, and air made unbreathable. It especially did not work well for Africans whose bodies were seized, bound, and thrown aboard ships in chains so they could be transported across the ocean and sold for unpaid labor.
Problematic in a different way is that the book disapproves of elitist vanguard parties without similarly skewering Social Democratic actions that prompted Leninists to adopt top-down methods during World War I. This accompanies an approach to elections which is sometimes confusing and self-contradictory.
For example, the text says that goal of humane government “through elections has rarely been realized, if ever.” Yet, the author justifiably praises the community-building accomplishments of Jackson Rising in Mississippi which were due to electoral victories. Similarly, the author says that the transition we envision “isn’t happening through elections of bourgeois democracy, which have never led to social transformation.” Yet, on the very same page (37) the author praises the extensive communalism in Venezuela, a social gain made possible by the election of Hugo Chávez.
Waitzkin lays the groundwork for critical themes which future authors should explore. Though the book addresses the need to challenge capitalism in our everyday lives it does does not cover how to link up disparate skirmishes into an overall framework. The task of revolutionary transition means developing a network where people with different interests cohere themselves into a novel social organism. What history requires us to overcome is both the dogmatic intolerance of vanguards and the tendency of reformism to help capitalism work better without confronting it as a system.
Rinky-Dink Revolution is a great contribution to probing how we can live our lives in ways that prepare for the society we hope to bring into being. It is more than worth reading – it is something to think deeply about.
Don Fitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His book on Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution has been available since June 2020.