Danny Katch’s Socialism With a Sense of Humor

Michael Hirsch Feb 2, 2016

Socialism . . . Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation
By Danny Katch
Haymarket Books, 2015 

There are plenty of good gags about the depredations of the rich. Jack London called the masters of finance and industry “cavemen in evening dress.” Dorothy Parker quipped, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” 

Danny Katch’s latest book is alternately magisterial and droll and goes well beyond slagging the robber barons of today. A humorist with a keen eye for the absurdities of life under capitalism, Katch is less interested in pounding on individual bad actors and more in taking the measure of a social system that requires leadership from amoral thugs to function properly. 

Like Karl Marx for a 21st-century reader with a pinch of George Carlin or a dollop of Lenny Bruce, Katch walks us through why a corporate honcho who is a nice guy and a progressive at heart is toast when his company’s bottom line fails to meet quarterly profit targets and the expectations of institutional investors. The mammon of market rationality is God. The common good becomes a sucker’s game. The rewards: “A world in which every man, woman and child is born with the equal right to buy as many smartphones and factory-ripped pairs of jeans as they want.”

Capitalism didn’t invent inequality. Worse systems preceded it. It does thrive on it, though. What Marx saw as different about capitalism, and what Katch sketches so cleverly and so accessibly for a new generation of readers, is its contradictory nature: capable of revolutionizing social relations and ending scarcity through mutual aid in the mass production of things and services but incapable of tamping down increasing poverty for the many. Katch writes, “Even the U.S. government, powerful and destructive as it is, is a servant of the black ooze of capital, which has no master plan, other than making more of itself.”

So how do we put in charge people who can think past a spreadsheet’s bottom line? This is where the book is both uplifting and just the beginning of wisdom. Katch makes the inspiring assertion that “the essence of socialism” isn’t just a changing of the palace guard but a society remade so that “workers can use their collective organization that they learned under capitalism not just to create cooperative workplaces but a cooperative society geared to meet humanity’s needs instead of a competitive one geared to maximize profit.”

Katch emphasizes the use of popular assemblies in which everyone takes responsibility for running society. While this horizontal organizing approach has had success in a number of places, including roughly 200 worker-run factories in Argentina and the ad-hoc soup kitchens and health clinics that have popped up in austerity-ravaged Greece, it’s hard to envision how such an approach could be successfully scaled up to meet all the needs of a modern society. As for the endless meetings that Katch envisions people participating in, good luck with that. 

Katch sees social movements against capital as both inevitable and necessary, though success is not ordained. Yet if there’s a sour note here, it’s his scant attention to the rise of a far right in the
United States and worldwide as counterpoint, offering its own populist-sounding variant on the crisis of capitalism, proffering ethnic and religious fundamentalism or, in its most extreme form, leeching into terrorism. Reactionary movements are a handy tool for any establishment to exploit and can be as evocative as any left revival. They are players, too.

There’s also an annoyingly glib dismissal of actually existing politics, including the Bernie Sanders effort, as when he cracks, “The Democrats are that loud guy in the bar pretending to be held back by his friends to keep him from going after someone he has absolutely no intention of fighting.” True as that may be, movements that have no political analogue are doomed, and leftwing organizations that leave it at “Democrats bad; you’ve been warned!” are in their own way narcissistic if not defeatist. 

Perhaps Katch’s next book will give the political project we need as thorough and creative a treatment as he does this time for the many good reasons to bring it into existence.

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