the left

Will There Be Bananas Under Socialism?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

These are tough times for consumers and producers of political infotainment. The high clerics of the Supreme Court are done issuing edicts for the summer. The GOP primary appears to be over before it started with Ron DeSantis looking about as competitive as the New York Mets. On the other side of the aisle, actuarial tables pose a greater threat to Joe Biden’s renomination than the refuse of the Kennedy family. Thus, civic-minded Twitter addicts had little better to argue about this week than whether Americans would need to eat fewer bananas in a global socialist utopia.

Malcolm Harris, a popular historian and communist and occasional contributor to Intelligencer, kicked off this discourse by tweeting the following sentiments (among others):

Pro-growth lefties accuse their opponents of being out of touch with working-class preferences and focused on consumption instead of production but what do they imagine planning support looks like for, say, “fresh bananas at every American 7/11” among the world’s banana workers?

That means fewer bananas for American workers, but if we’re focused on production not consumption then the expropriation and suppression of Chiquita Corp. is obviously a huge win for the global working class (as well as the environment).

There need not be any moralism here (“When you eat a banana, you are bad”) there just … won’t be bananas. Because it doesn’t make any other-than-capitalist sense to create a world-spanning daily banana infrastructure for people in Columbus, Ohio.

Americans saying, “No daily banana, no world democracy” is not socialist politics, no matter what class those Americans belong to

Americans can no longer expect the world to produce and harvest 10 billion pounds of bananas per year for us alone. That is ~30 pounds of bananas per person or approximately 120 bananas per person annually. 10 bananas a month for every American man woman and child

For readers unfamiliar with the finer points of Twitter’s intra-socialist debates, Harris’s remarks will require some contextualization.

Some leftists believe that economic justice will require an end to economic growth as we’ve known it. More concretely, they think that workers in the United States (and other wealthy countries) will need to consume material resources at a much lower rate in order to accommodate both (1) higher rates of consumption in the Global South and (2) the imperatives of ecological sustainability. In theory, the American people will still end up better off in this utopia, since they will gain a great deal of leisure time and economic security in a socialist system, even as they forfeit, say, the freedom to get around in a personal automobile, purchase vast quantities of consumer goods, or eat tropical fruits on a daily basis (privileges that, in these socialists’ estimation, do not contribute all that much to the average American’s well-being).

Other socialists reject this perspective. They argue that the “de-growth” left’s austere vision is antithetical to both Marxist theory and political practicality. In their account, socialism is a fundamentally modernist ideology: Marx celebrated capitalism’s extraordinary productive capacity but argued that socialism could generate even greater abundance for ordinary workers. The aim of leftist politics isn’t to deny the western working class its decadent treats so much as to universalize and expand material abundance. Capitalism can only produce goods and services that generate profits. But the universe of socially useful wares is much larger than the universe of financially remunerative ones.

As for ecological limits, pro-growth leftists think that these are greatly exaggerated. Such socialists typically allow that we should encourage mass transit over automobiles and urbanization over carbon-intensive sprawl. But human ingenuity has been falsifying supposed limits to prosperity since the days of Malthus. And under socialism, in which every person will have the resources to meet their full intellectual potential irrespective of the class they were born into, rates of innovation will be even higher.

To the more polemical supporters of this worldview, de-growth leftism looks like a distinctly middle-class politics of moralistic consumption: Only materially comfortable people question whether the capacity to purchase more stuff contributes to human welfare. In this view, de-growthers are out of touch with the interests and aspirations of the American working class. Instead of focusing on throttling consumption, socialists should concentrate on decarbonizing and nationalizing production.

Although he does not identify as a “degrowther,” Harris rejects the “pro-growth” left’s suggestion that the American consumer’s preferences are sacrosanct. He contends that a socialism that centers the interests and aspirations of all workers — not just American ones — would necessarily challenge the contemporary consumption habits of the U.S. working class. After all, absent the coercion of the capitalist system, workers in Ecuador and Columbia would not be willing to cultivate bananas for export at anything like the current scale; in fact, they would not be willing to engage in any form of monocrop agriculture. Therefore, under socialism, Americans will need to learn to live without bananas. And this is just one vivid example of the myriad ways that workers in the Global North will need to adjust their consumption to accommodate the demands of economic justice.

It is difficult to have a coherent debate over this claim, since we’re essentially discussing an underspecified sci-fi scenario. It isn’t so hard to imagine socialists taking power in Ecuador and nationalizing its banana industry. But there is no reason to believe that Ecuador would stop exporting bananas in that hypothetical. Workers in the Global South’s export industries generally agitate for a higher share of the income generated by such sectors, not for their abolition. And banana exports are integral to the Ecuadoran economy, accounting for more than 4 percent of its GDP, employing 250,000 people, and generating the foreign currency that it needs to pay its debts.

But Harris is asking us to imagine something far more radical than a socialist Ecuador. He is seemingly making assertions about how commodity fruit production would work in a global socialist state, wherein the world economy is democratically planned and, presumably, a global transfer system has radically reduced global inequalities of income, intellectual property, and technology. This is a world that bears so little resemblance to planet Earth in 2023 that it is difficult to have confidence about how any aspect of its economy would function, let alone precisely how many pounds of bananas it would produce for U.S. consumption.

There are many unspecified parameters in Harris’s hypothetical. Presumably, this is a world in which markets cannot coerce people to engage in menial labor, since everyone’s most basic needs will be socially guaranteed. But will the state be able to incentivize people to engage in socially desirable labor by providing such individuals with higher incomes or coveted goods? Or will the state be able to coerce people into work through authoritarian means? Or is this an anarcho-communist utopia in which we will wager the global food supply on the innate altruism of properly liberated human beings?

It is also unclear how (or if) this hypothetical global socialist government has solved the myriad coordination problems facing any attempt to completely remake the global system of agricultural production without triggering famines. Harris’s assumptions about how human psychology (and thus, economic behavior) would differ in such a utopia are also unstated.

The fact that the actual premise being disputed in the “socialist banana debate” is both fantastical and opaque made it possible for the various combatants to interpret it in whichever way would best illustrate the idiocy or moral depravity of their adversaries. So, pro-growth liberals mocked Harris for believing that Ecuadoran socialists would choose poverty over engagement with global capitalism, while de-growthers marveled at the fact that so-called socialists would be unwilling to give up a daily banana for the sake of permanently abolishing all global poverty and exploitation.

The pointlessness of this whole debate notwithstanding, it seems far from clear that a global socialist state would necessarily end monocrop agriculture. Harris’s view is that such agriculture relies on “hazardous pesticides,” so liberated workers would not be willing to engage in it. And this is not altogether implausible: Routine exposure to pesticides has been linked to higher rates of cancer (among other pathologies) in agricultural workers, and some radical farm workers’ movements in the Global South have called for their prohibition. Still, abolishing pesticides and monocrop agriculture would drastically increase the labor intensity of food production. Which is to say, it would force humanity to either get by with much less food or devote more of individuals’ finite lives to the menial and arduous work of its cultivation. The idea that an autonomous global workforce would prioritize the abolition of pesticides over the minimization of toil and hunger is not obviously true. Especially since there are, in theory, ways of mitigating the harms of pesticides, such as distributing the burden of agricultural work among wider pool of individuals, so that no one is being exposed on a daily basis.

More broadly, Harris seems to assume that a politically sovereign global working class would put a much greater premium on ecological issues, and a much lower one on income growth, than the contemporary U.S. electorate does. Given the fact that, in actually existing democracies, affluent voters are more likely to prioritize environmental causes than lower-income voters are, it is not obvious why this would be the case.

All this said, I think Harris’s provocation does gesture at a genuine challenge facing the U.S. left. Socialists generally believe that all human beings are entitled to (at least a roughly) equal share of the fruits of production. And yet America’s working class already enjoys a wildly disproportionate share of global income and resources. An American who earns $35,000 a year has a higher annual income than roughly 95 percent of all people on the planet. And people in the U.S. spend their incomes in exceptionally carbon-intensive ways, owing in part to our fondness for cars and suburban sprawl. Therefore, there is some tension between privileging the interests of the global working class and catering to the existing aspirations of American workers.

Put aside the fanciful question of how banana production would work in a global socialist state. Consider the more mainstream, progressive goal of securing collective-bargaining rights, a high minimum wage, and robust social-welfare benefits for all of the world’s workers. In the first instance, such a regime would likely increase the prices of myriad labor-intensive imports — such as bananas — for U.S. households. Given the political response to the past two years of inflation, it seems clear that many U.S. workers would consider a large spike in the cost of imported goods to be contrary to their interests. A progressive movement that proudly advertised greater concern for foreign working conditions than for domestic prices, by campaigning on the message “We promise to reduce global income inequality by increasing wages for farm workers and miners in the Global South and constraining the purchasing power of the U.S. middle class” would be politically irrelevant.

So there is a genuine tension between the disparate imperatives of global egalitarianism and national politics in a rich country. The U.S. left can’t escape that tension. Nor does it typically try to. In recent years, American socialists have invested far more time, energy, and political capital into agitating for student-loan forgiveness for Americans than they have into fighting for sovereign-debt forgiveness for poor nations. This is a difficult prioritization to justify in purely egalitarian terms. American student-loan borrowers, as a group, have higher incomes than non-borrowers, who themselves have a higher median income than the vast majority of humanity. Winning blanket student-loan forgiveness would effectively increase the capacity of households in the top 5 percent of the global income distribution to consume material resources. By contrast, were the U.S. to throw its weight behind substantial sovereign-debt forgiveness for developing countries, a far more vulnerable population would benefit. At present, governments in the developing world owe $6.5 trillion in external debt, much of which they will not be able to pay. The burdens of default and debt restructuring are poised to fall on countless poor households in the form of more austere social benefits and lower income growth.

But none of this necessarily means that the U.S. left was wrong to concentrate on student-loan forgiveness. In the real world, political movements generally prioritize the interests of their constituents. America’s system of higher-education financing is an obscenity. Debt-burned college graduates are one of the primary social bases for left-wing politics in the U.S. So, of course, the U.S. left is going to be more attuned to their concerns than to those of workers in Zambia.

By the same token, if the American left wishes to drastically expand its political base, it will need to remain primarily responsive to the material interests of the U.S. working class writ large, even though this is contrary to the dictates of pure egalitarianism.

If the tension between global justice and American politics can’t be wished away, it can be finessed — at least if one believes that there is plenty of ecological scope for future economic growth. Raising wages and labor standards for banana workers would probably, in the first instance, increase prices for U.S. consumers. But a world in which the global workforce earns much higher wages will be one in which (1) U.S. workers are more globally competitive, (2) there is much higher demand for U.S. goods and services, and (3) there is much more incentive for capitalists to invest in labor-saving technology (the less capitalists can rely on cheap labor to gain a competitive edge, the more they’ll need to rely on innovation). This is a recipe for much higher rates of global GDP and productivity growth, which should ultimately redound to the benefit of U.S. workers. It’s possible to imagine that, properly managed, such a booming global economy could eventually generate automated banana plantations (or lab-grown bananas?) that satisfy U.S. consumers’ breakfast-fruit appetites at rock-bottom prices.

How, precisely, U.S. progressives can chart a course from today’s world to fully automated banana Keynesianism is unclear. But that path’s starting point is surely to win the political loyalty of a majority of U.S. voters by (among other things) demonstrating a commitment and capacity to advance their interests. Absent such majoritarian support, the U.S. left will not have the power to raise global labor standards. And if you tell the American people that they can’t eat bananas, they won’t want to be a part of your revolution.

Will There Be Bananas Under Socialism?