The Pure Products of Political Theory Are Crazy
A Review of
Folding the Red Into the Black: Developing a Viable Untopia for Human Survival in the 21st Century, by Walter Mosley
O/R Books, 2016. $14.95
Walter Mosley is the much-loved author of 14 Easy Rawlins mysteries, including Devil in a Blue Dress and, most recently, Charcoal Joe. His novels, generally set in and around Los Angeles, use the realities of race and racism as understood components of everyday life. They’re very effective works of political art disguised as crime fiction.
So it’s not really a surprise to find that Mosley’s new book is a political treatise. Folding the Red Into the Black is a slim manifesto on the dangers of purity. Roughly speaking, the “untopia” Mosley advocates acknowledges that humans are never going to be perfected creatures, and should thus never embrace a political system that rests on any kind of utopian or “pure” principle:
“And so I propose the untopia…that has as its goal the dismantling of expectations of perfection when it comes to the working of the quasi-philosophical systems of government.
The untopia announces that we are unruly beings that need time to play and room to move.”
Mosley was a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before leaving the program to eventually become the famous detective writer. He uses his “pop” writing skills to create a very readable tract. Political theory has rarely sounded this good: “I am simply interested in how, in purifying our desires, we create poisonous concoctions.”
He limits his concerns in this book to the two dominant strains of American poison: capitalism and socialism. But first Mosley expresses his admiration for the bees, ants, and termites of the world. They live in perfected social communities. “Ants don’t need democracy,” Mosley writes, “their little hearts sing with the nationalism of their colony.” They exist solely for the well-being of the community, and Mosley warns that “when human organization approximates the level of a beehive in social structure it will be indistinguishable from pure fascism,” because it will take absolute authoritarian power to control the wildly divergent whims and desires of individuals.
Mosley also warns us of those who argue for the pristine forms of capitalism or socialism, as if either structure were somehow able to exist in a world free of the chaotic interventions of humans. Mosley argues for a “shotgun wedding” between capitalism and socialism, and even acknowledges that if he were sure that a revolution would guarantee a better future then he would participate in the violence a revolution demands. If a revolution were to guarantee “health care and healthy lifestyles, freedom from rape and murder and a chance at becoming equal members of an obscenely wealthy uber-class that floats on the labor of its citizenry like shit on top of drinking water,” then Mosley would harden his heart “to the faraway screams of the victims of true progress.”
But Mosley is no true believer; he knows that “revolutions and socialist ideals cannot transform us into superior beings.” Still, Mosley seems to believe that a tolerable world is possible, “a world with enough food and warmth and pleasant distractions; a world where love and belief are okay, even primary.”
This tolerable world comes about with some simple solutions, according to Mosley, and much of his vision rests on the idea of public housing that is capped at 10 percent of a person’s income. If they make nothing, it’s free. If they make $1.5 million, it’s $150,000 a year. No one is required to use this public housing but it is available to whoever wants it. He balances this with a flat tax at 21 percent of a person’s income with no room for deductions or clever accounting. Furthermore, eight basic foods would always be subsidized to the point where even the poorest among us would have food security.
There are other specifics offered (and let’s give Mosley some credit for actually offering specifics), but these are the least convincing aspects of his argument and are better thought of as guides to thinking about a possible future than as rules to live by.
Mosley is tough on both the free-market idealist and the socialist true-believer, and sums up the need for both by saying, “It is human nature to want and want more. It is human necessity to share.” And that common sense wisdom is what makes his “untopian” manifesto a pleasure to read, if at times a little trite. His observations on the imperfect nature of humans are undeniably true and his lacerations of the fundamentalist free market capitalist and the overreaching social engineering of the socialist are welcome, but it all remains too anecdotal and home-spun.
But really who’s to argue with a man who saves this bit of yawn-inducing obviousness: “There is no system of government that rises above the rights of individuals,” with this gem of true-hearted observation: “There is no economic system that can replicate the genetic makeup of love.” Walter Mosley for President!