Issue 1 - Summer 1994

The Promise and Peril of the Third Wave: Socialism and Democracy for the 21st Century (page 1 of 7)
By Carl Davidson, Ivan Handler and Jerry Harris
The Chicago Third Wave Study Group / May 1, 1993

The collapse of Soviet socialism is being celebrated by the defenders of imperialism throughout the capitalist world as the definitive victory in a struggle that has been waged for some 150 years.

It doesn't matter in these circles that the Soviet system was a deformed, or distorted, or corrupted, or phony version of any socialism that Marx or Lenin would have recognized as their own. Nor does it matter that there are still a few pockets of resistance holding out, whether on a small scale in Cuba or on a large scale in China.

What does matter to them is that the only socialism that claimed to be an existing alternative for advanced industrial society is no longer a competing force.

The left now generally acknowledges the crisis. Some stalwarts were in deep denial until the very end. But despite this major defeat, the left, for the most part, still hopes to keep the red flag flying. For better or worse, most of the left groups and trends still want to defend their own brand of socialism, or at least defend a given set of socialist goals or ideals, if not socialism itself.

As for the collapse or stagnation of existing varieties of socialism that held state power, the left generally tries to explain these failures as stemming from a internal lack of democracy or a surplus of bureaucracy, or as a byproduct of external imperialist aggression or military competition, or some combination of all these factors.

We want to argue for a different approach. In our view, the crisis is deeper than a fundamental flaw in the theory or practice of socialism. We believe the causes of the failure of socialism lay in its historical roots in an industrial society, which is itself in crisis. We see the current chaotic situation around the world as the advent of an all-sided and deep structural crisis that is sweeping not only through the socialist countries, but the capitalist countries as well. Rather than witnessing simply the end of socialism, we believe we are witnessing the start of a new radical upheaval in industrial society generally, in both the capitalist West and the socialist East.

This perspective is not original with us. Much of the analysis that follows is taken from the work of Alvin and Heidi Toffler, co-authors of three widely read books: Future Shock, The Third Wave and Powershift. We believe the socialist movement has a great deal to learn from both the questions they pose and the answers they supply.

In its limited analysis of the crisis so far, we believe the left has downplayed what the existing capitalist and socialist economies of the West have in common in real life. In industrialized society, labor and machinery are organized along similar lines in both capitalist and socialist countries--the primary means of generating wealth is the mass production of the factory-based assembly line.

While each economy has its own particularities, the main patterns of socialized mass production are reflected and reproduced in all arenas of human endeavor. Moreover, these systems of mass production are linked together in country after country, as a dynamic and expanding market develops national industrial societies into a global system. For industrial mass production, the main dominant patterns of social organization are the forms of presumed rationality: concentration, centralization, standardization, specialization, maximization and synchronization.

But despite its claim of rationality, industrial society is not a sustainable form of civilization, especially as it expands on a world scale. Its energy sources, whether capitalist or socialist, are primarily nonrenewable hydrocarbons--oil, natural gas or coal--or toxic radioactive materials.

Not only are these energy sources irrationally, unevenly and unfairly distributed; their full and complete use is also irrational. The steady, ongoing overuse of carbon-based systems would transform all of the solid and liquid forms of the element now underground and pump them into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. The end result is the "greenhouse effect"--a complex web of environmental disasters wreaking ecological havoc and rendering the biosphere unfit for human habitation.

This feature of industrial society is not a problem of the distant future. It is the "dirty little secret" of today's world standing behind the rising conflict between North and South. The truth is that we cannot have economic equality among nations based on today's levels and standards. If every country in the world were organized on just the same level and just the same types of production and consumption that are "enjoyed" in either the U.S., or Europe, or Japan, or even the former Soviet Union, the resulting polluted biosphere would render the globe uninhabitable for humans.

But industrial mass production is expansionist. It strives for universality, transforming industrial society into a mass society. It features mass urban centers, mass markets, mass media, mass culture, mass education, mass consumption, and mass political parties. While advanced capitalism roots itself in the mass market and mass consumption, Marxism too has reduced complex and diverse populations to oversimplified conceptions of "the masses."

Today's technological revolution has pushed industrial mass production to new heights in the capitalist world. New and upgraded factories continue to produce an ever-wider variety of commodities of improved quality at lower prices with less labor. Telecommunications has integrated capital markets into a 24-hour, on-line global system of exchange. The full consequences of these developments are only beginning to take shape, although change takes place at an increasingly rapid pace.

The main reason for today's ongoing revolution in the productive forces was the invention of the microchip. This revolution began in the 1950s with the merging of transistors, themselves the first major practical application of quantum mechanics, with the mass replication of miniaturized integrated circuits. The result was a device that vastly expanded the ability of the machinery of mass production to process information rapidly. In fact, the speed of the microprocessor has enabled information to be used within a time frame and on a scale of complexity hitherto unimaginable. Information itself has become an increasingly valuable commodity of a new type.

The microchip's impact is changing everything about our world and the way we live. Civilization is undergoing a quantum leap on the order of the agricultural revolution launched 6000 years ago and the industrial revolution launched 200 years ago. We have now entered a third period of human history. We prefer to call it the information era; others refer to the same phenomena "post-industrial" or "postmodern" civilization to differentiate the present from the agricultural or industrial past. More >>


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