TL; DR: Occupy Wall Street + NDAA = I join the Socialist Party.
I’d had an affinity for socialist ideas for years, but since that already put me on the left wing of the Democrats, I didn’t see any point in figuring out whether I truly was a socialist by definition. What was the point? The Democrats and Republicans were locked in a fierce, eternal battle, with the Democrats often losing, much to the detriment of our country. All I could hope to do was fight for the Democrats in the attempt to heave America ever so slightly to the left.
You could argue that my change of heart on the matter is all thanks to Occupy Wall Street. The website for Occupy Los Angeles (my local occupation) had a reading list that included Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I’d been meaning to read, and so I finally did. If you’ve read it, you know that Zinn is quite critical of the two parties, holding that they are both controlled by major corporate interests, like two brands run by the same company, without truly representing the will of the people. He even equates “bipartisan” efforts to the single state of totalitarian governments.
At the same time, the National Defense Authorization Act was going through congress, and all three of my representatives—all Democrats I’d voted for—voted for it in spite of the provision that allowed the indefinite detainment of American citizens, and Obama, whom I’d also voted for, had called off his threat to veto it. Now, I’m not even particularly obsessed with habeas corpus and due process the way I am with labor issues and poverty. But maybe it was the very fact that I’ve taken those rights for granted all my life that the idea of stripping them away (no matter how “legal” according to the Constitution) was unthinkable.
I reasoned that I could not, in good conscience, vote for anyone who voted for the NDAA, no matter what amendments they promised to work towards to ameliorate the offending provisions, and even if it meant risking that a Republican would take their place. Throwing not only my vote but my time, energy and money behind them (as I did during the Obama campaign) no longer made any sense.
‘But if I don’t vote Democrat, I’ll just be wasting my vote and the Republicans will win!’ my conscience cried. This is, indeed, a serious concern, which is why I’ve long thought that we desperately need instant run-off voting (IRV). The fact that it hasn’t been implemented it in even one federal election in spite of how incredibly simple, fair and rational it is is, to me, a frightening testament to the stranglehold the two major parties (i.e. the plutocrats) have on the system. Of course they haven’t implemented IRV; that would mean allowing the competition to become a legitimate threat to their control.
But doesn’t that then mean that I should continue to support the Democrats until we have IRV? No. Firstly, there’s the usual folk wisdom in support of voting for third parties: the odds that you’ll be the one deciding vote in a major election is basically nil; it’s not a wasted vote since it shows how many people don’t support the two major parties, etc. But more convincingly, imo, Howard Zinn asserts—and he has tons of historical examples to back it up—that real change comes not from the ballot box but from direct action by citizens. If this is true, then you may as well vote according to your conscience and devote most of your energy towards non-electoral activism.
I decided that I would no longer allow myself to be bullied into voting a particular way because otherwise the “bad guys” would win. Just as the Republicans held funding for social programs hostage in exchange for extending tax cuts for the wealthy, so does the Democratic Party hold a quantum of justice and equality hostage in exchange for voting them into office.
At the same time, I’d been reading up on the mechanisms involved in social organizing, and one article mentioned that the first important step in a movement is defining what your goals are (anarchists may note that this is exactly what a leader does first, and thus what every individual has the responsibility to do instead of just following the crowd as I had done for so many years). And so I realized that it was time to figure out what I thought the best possible society would be and to decide once and for all whether I really was a socialist.
Although I knew for sure that a strong welfare state would be great (as amply proven by Sweden, Norway, et al), all the examples we have thus far of countries that have attempted socialist or Communist systems have, unfortunately, turned into totalitarian governments. At the time, I had not yet encountered anarcho-socialism, but I did check out Looking Backward, a socialist utopian novel, which, instead of merely showing how super-duper amazing a socialist world would be, gets into the nitty-gritty of how it could actually work. I reread the Communist Manifesto, which I hadn’t revisited since the ninth grade, when I hadn’t yet worked a day of my life. It resonated with me much more strongly this time around.
Throughout my reading, it was as if I was going down a checklist on what I agreed with, and my mind just kept going check, check, check. Lest you might say, well, of course you agreed with these glowing, sugar-coated portraits of socialism, I’ve read glowing, sugar-coated portraits of libertarianism, too, and they did not quite meet with the same warm welcome. Atlas Shrugged made me fit to be tied; I found it practically a handbook on how to be a sociopath.
Some things you read lock into your mind, make you recognize what you suspected all along, which you know to be true. And there are other things that just make your bullshit detector go off immediately. Everything I read on socialism made me feel the former rather than the latter.
Moreover, I found the Socialist Party’s history in America, most active in the 1910s, worthy of being proud of, especially in the writings of Upton Sinclair and the formation of the unions, and I wanted to be a part of it. It had been a glorious surge of populism that was cruelly dismantled by the corporatocracy, including the distractions of World Wars I and II and the deliberate inculcation in the public an irrational fear of socialists, or, in other words, the fear of their own power and rights.
In admitting to myself that I was indeed a socialist, and that I would go public with it, I felt what I can only describe as what I imagine it feels like to come out of the closet: a sense of relief and honesty as well as fear of not being accepted. However, the response so far has been surprisingly positive: one of my friends was horrified only because I wouldn’t be voting for Obama, but immediately rationalized, “Well, he’ll win California anyway.” My sister was actually glad I was no longer in the Democratic Party, which I was surprised by, and she mentioned that she’s an independent, which I didn’t even know. A friend of mine “liked” the announcement of my new party affiliation on Facebook. I know that sounds ridiculously petty; I wouldn’t mention it except for the fact that she’s a corporate attorney whom I had no idea would be supportive of it.
But these are close friends and family, and due to the strong stigma against socialism and the threat it bears against the powers that be, part of me is afraid that there might be tangible repercussions from my membership. Who knows, if the wrong person at work (where many people, especially those in high places, of course, are conservative) finds out, I could find myself out of a job. However, if that’s indeed the case—if there’s that little de facto freedom of speech in this country—then that’s all the more reason to be a member of the party.