Taking Up The Task
Responding to the Nation Ehrenreich/Fletcher Symposium
In the March 21st Nation and the Nation online on March 4, there is a welcome foray into addressing vision and strategy, a symposium built around Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher's provocative essay, "Reimagining Socialism."
Ehrenreich and Fletcher report that capitalism, always despicable, is now in a "death spiral," wisely adding that today's horrible dislocations warrant seeking a better system, not voyeuristic celebration.
They also claim with some exaggeration, I think, that there is not much U.S. economy left to redefine, merely paper thin banking, insurance, and the like, but then accurately add we would need much new Green, humane, creation to meet needs and develop potentials.
But the main contribution is that they then ask: "do we have a [shared] plan?" and they forthrightly and accurately answer that we don't, and that we need a "deliberative process for figuring out what to do."
Immanual Wallerstein replied in the Symposium that indeed there is a "death spiral" of capitalism and what will follow will be worse unless we have a "clear and coherent" shared vision and related strategy. Wallerstein argued compellingly that we must create militant opposition now, to push Obama and other elites in desirable directions, but also "organize at a thousand levels and in a thousand ways to push things in the right direction." But what is the right direction?
Tariq Ali questioned, in the Symposium, the "death spiral" expectation, but mainly added that "until the emergence of a viable sociopolitical and economic alternative, perceived by a majority as such, there will be no final crisis of capitalism." I agree, but then mustn't we prioritize developing and advocating such an alternative? Ali also concisely argued, "Without action from below, there will be no change from above." But then don't we need to soon create organization that has program and structure sensitive to future vision? In my own view, all this has been the priority case for a long time, so of course we should re-offer or newly offer ideas about vision and strategy. Here are ten related claims (actually first offered at a Z sponsored Symposium in 2006), that may help get the ball moving a bit faster and further than otherwise.
Claim 1: Need Vision
First, as Ehrenreich and Fletcher highlight, we need shared institutional vision to inspire hope, incorporate the seeds of the future in the present, and guide gains that will take us where we desire.
Opponents of the importance of vision emphasize that a proposed vision can congeal inflexibly to exclude new insights, can fuel sectarianism, can overextend into details that aren't knowable, consequential, or a matter for prior determination, and can become frivolous and divert attention from more important concerns. Worst, a proposed vision can be monopolized as a bludgeon to aggrandize power.
These worries are warranted, however the answer is not to reject having vision, but to collectively deliberate on and arrive at vision flexibly. We should focus on essentials and not overextend. We should share and continually refine results widely, openly, without elite jargon or posturing.
Claim 2: Classlessness
Classlessness ought to be part of our economic goal. We know we must end the rule of the capitalist class over labor. But for classlessness, we must also end the rule of the coordinator class over labor.
To have classes means to have groups that by their economic position have different access to income and influence, including benefiting at one another's expense. Attaining classlessness, in contrast, means establishing an economy in which everyone is equally able to participate, utilize capacities, and earn income.
We cannot eliminate the distinction between those who own means of production and those who do not own means of production, unless no one owns means of production, or, conversely, and what amounts to the same thing, unless everyone owns means of production equally. That much is an obvious tenet of advocating a new classless economy beyond capitalism. All socialists, past and present, accept this view.
But class division can also arise due to a division of labor that affords some producers, who I call the coordinator class, far greater influence and income than other producers, who I call the working class.
A modern capitalist economy has owners or capitalists. It also has people who have no economically structurally built-in power other than owning their own ability to work, or workers.
An additional insight we need to share is that capitalism also has a third coordinator class, who, though they sell their ability to work like workers, unlike workers have great power and standing built into their position in the economic division of labor.
These coordinator class lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, accountants, elite professors, and so on, by their position in the economy accrue information, skills, confidence, energy, and decision making access. They largely control their own tasks. They largely define, design, determine, and even control the tasks of workers below. They utilize their empowering conditions to enhance their position both at the expense of workers below and capitalists above. Yes, they are subordinate to capital and can be pushed down from above. But they are also above workers, and push them down still lower.
Capitalism is by this account mainly a three class system. Seeking classlessness therefore means not just eliminating capitalist rule, but also not constructing coordinator class rule in its place. "Out with the old boss in with the new boss" does not end having bosses. To eliminate private ownership but retain the distinction between the coordinator class and the working class would ensure that the coordinator class rules the working class. This type change can end capitalism, but it will not attain classlessness.
In other words, our desire for classlessness must take us beyond what have been called market socialism and centrally planned socialism - which systems have in fact been market coordinatorism and centrally planned coordinatorism due to the fact that they elevate the coordinator class to ruling status above workers.
Our movements and projects must not only be anti-capitalist, that is, they must be pro-classlessness. They must prioritize both eliminating the monopoly of capitalists on productive property and also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work.
Claim 3: Our Values Forefront
Beyond classlessness, we also ought to seek positive economic values including equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and economic efficiency.
To be against something bad - such as class division and class rule - is very desirable, of course. But rejecting bad features does not easily generate clear standards for positive goals and claim 3 is about positive values.
Economics affects how much we each get from what we all produce. We want equitable outcomes and what's equitable is that each person who is able to work receives back from society in proportion to what they expend at a cost to themselves in production. We should be remunerated, that is, for the duration, intensity, and, when it varies from person to person, the onerousness of our socially valued work.
This is a matter of preference, of course, not proof. It is a value, an aim, a norm, not some kind of natural law, but it is certainly consistent with history's most morally enlightened thought. Moreover, remunerating effort and sacrifice also provides appropriate incentives to elicit what each individual has the ability to in fact withhold or provide, which is his or her socially valuable time, intensity, and willingness to endure hardship.
Economics also affects relations among people. Anyone who isn't pathological would presumably prefer to have people concerned with and caring about one another in a cooperative social partnership - rather than seeking to fleece one another in an anti social competitive shoot out. Thus, a second value we can seek to implement is solidarity.
Economics affects our range of available options. We are limited beings who have neither time nor means to each do everything. We are also social beings who can enjoy vicariously what others do that we cannot. And finally we are thinking and pragmatic beings who can benefit from avoiding over dependence on narrow options that leave us stranded if some of those limited options are flawed. Diversity of options, our third value, enriches possibilities and protects against errors.
Economics affects how much say we each have over what is produced, in what quantities, by what methods, with what apportionment of people to tasks, and with what product allotted to people. Economic decisions determine outcomes that in turn affect us and even the act of decision making itself also affects our mood, our sense of involvement and efficacy, and our sense of personal worth.
There is no moral or operational reason any one able person should have excessive say compared to how much they are affected, nor insufficient say compared to how much they are affected. One decision-making norm can apply to all socially involved people, yet also respect the variation of conditions from case to case.
That is, we should each have a say in decisions in proportion as those decisions affect us. No single methodology such as majority vote, two thirds vote, consensus, or single method of information dissemination and deliberation will optimally fit all cases. What will suit all cases, however, is the overarching self management norm by which we choose among possible means of decision making in each instance.
Economics also affects relations to our natural surroundings. An economy should not compel us to destroy our natural habitat nor should an economy compel us to so protect the natural habitat that we are left no means with which to fulfill ourselves. An economy should reveal the full and true social and ecological costs and benefits of contending choices, and convey to workers and consumers control over what choices to finally implement. In that way we can cooperatively care for both our environment and ourselves, in proportions that we freely choose.
Economics finally of course also affects the social output we have available for people to enjoy. If an economy abides the above values but wastes our energy and resources by failing to meet needs and develop potentials, by producing harmful byproducts that offset the benefits of intended products, or by splurging what is valuable in inefficient actions that waste assets needlessly, it will diminish our prospects. Even as an economy operates in accord with equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, and ecological balance, it should also efficiently utilize available natural, social, and personal assets without undo waste or misdirection of purpose.
Claim 3 is that economic institutions should by their operations and outcomes advance equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and productive efficiency, not violate much less obliterate them.
Claim 4: Economy is only part of Society
A new and better world will include new and better economics, yes, but also new and better relations of kin and family, religion, race, and culture, law, adjudication, and collective action, ecological arrangement, and international organization, as well as more specific parts of life in these and other dimensions as well, such as science, art, education, health, and so on.
We therefore need vision to learn, inspire, rebut cynicism, and guide practice not only for economics, but for kin relations and socializing, cultural and community relations, legislative and juridical relations, ecology, and international relations.
More, just as our economic vision and strategies provide a context that feminist vision and strategy, cultural vision and strategy, political vision and strategy, ecological vision and strategy, and global relations vision and strategy must abide and augment, so too, in reverse, feminist, cultural, political, ecological, and global relations vision and strategy provide a context that pareconish economic vision and strategy must abide and augment.
In every case, new arrangements in one realm if life will have to fit compatibly with new arrangements in other realms of life. Movements for a new world will have to combine vision and strategy across entwined centrally important aspects of social life and should not prioritize one key area above others as that would be morally bankrupt and strategically suicidal.
Claim 5: Rejecting Dead Options
Seeking classlessness, positive values, and accommodating economy to gains in other spheres of social life and vice versa, compels us to reject private ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor, top down decision-making, markets, and central planning.
Without belaboring the obvious, each of these institutional possibilities intrinsically violates one or more (and usually all) of the norms set forth above.
For example, private ownership produces capitalist class rule over coordinators and workers. It obliterates equity by remunerating property and power. It obliterates self management by vesting primary power in the hands of owners.
Corporate divisions of labor produce coordinator class rule over workers. They negate self-management by disempowering some and aggrandizing power to others, as does top-down decision making.
Markets obscure true social costs and benefits of all items that involve positive or negative effects that extend beyond immediate buyers and sellers. They lead to incredible misallocation of assets, particularly ecological, not to mention orienting output to maximizing surpluses rather than human well being. Markets also impose anti-social behavior, nice guys finish last, and produce class division between coordinators and workers because firms must compete by cutting costs and because to cut costs firms will create and employ an elite that is freed from the implications of their cost cutting choices and callous to the immediate human implications of their choices, and this is precisely the coordinator class.
Central planning intrinsically violates self-management and imposes coordinator class rule to ensure obedience. Central planning typically also aggrandizes the ruling coordinator class at the expense of workers below, including centralizing control in ways that yield ecological imbalance.
Beyond economics, capitalist relations also aggravate hierarchies of power, status, and wealth generated by other spheres of social life, for example aggravating and exploiting sexual, gender, racial, and political hierarchies born of extra-economic relations. Capitalism likewise produces ecological imbalance and even violates ecological sustainability. It produces as well a competitive rat race that, writ large, internationally unleashes colonialism, imperialism, neo colonialism, empire, unimaginably extreme destitution, and war.
It follows that if we are serious about classlessness, economic equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and socially oriented efficiency, as well as about broader aspirations for race, gender, political power, ecology, and peace, we must reject typically available economic institutions and must seek alternatives.
Claim 6: New Economic Institutions
Seeking classlessness, the proposed positive economic values, and the broader social aims, and rejecting capitalist and coordinator institutions, leaves us needing to advocate new economic institutions, which for me leads to advocating the defining structures of participatory economics, or parecon. These are: self-managing workers' and consumers' councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
For workers and consumers to influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them requires self-managing councils where they can express and tally their preferences.
Equity requires that ethically workers are remunerated for the personal cost to them of their participation in time, intensity of effort, and harshness of conditions, and that economically they are remunerated only for socially useful work to ensure incentives consistent with eliciting fulfilling output.
Self-managed decisions require confident preparation, relevant capacity, and appropriate participation and therefore lead to advocating apportioning to every worker a balanced mix of empowering and disempowering tasks so that no sector of actors monopolizes empowering work while others are left disempowered and unable to even arrive at much less manifest a will of their own. Balanced job complexes eliminate the monopoly on empowering labor that differentiates coordinators from workers by giving each worker a job of average empowerment implications so that all workers are enabled by their work related conditions to participate comparably in self-management.
Finally, to make all the above viable, allocation should be accomplished in accord with the freely expressed will of self-managing workers and consumers and should be undertaken via cooperative and informed negotiation in which all people's wills are proportionately actualized and in which operations, mindsets, and structures further the logic of self-managing councils, balanced job complexes, and equitable remuneration rather than violating each. All this implies, I believe, what advocates of parecon call participatory planning.
Insofar as worker and consumer self-managing councils, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning treat all actors economically identically, they also counter any possible social hierarchies among actors generated outside the economy. Insofar as these institutions properly value ecological effects and convey decision making power to those affected, and insofar as writ large, internationally, they progressively eliminate inequality of wealth and power between nations, they also accommodate and even augment aims for natural and international arenas of social life.
Claim 7: Program Must Reflect Aims
Requirements for our own projects, organizations, and movements ought to include patiently incorporating the seeds of the future in the present, including self-managed decision-making, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and cooperative negotiated planning, as well as central features of other dimensions of the new world we seek.
Creating institutions in the present that incorporate seeds of the future makes sense as an experiment to learn, as a model to inspire, as a way to do the best possible job now for current fulfillment, and to begin developing tomorrow's infrastructure today.
Of course, we need to keep in mind that even in our own operations we cannot have perfect future structures immediately, both because of surrounding pressures and because of our own emotional and behavioral baggage. But the fact that we need a sense of proportion about what future seeds we can experimentally harvest now is not the same as calling for entirely rejecting contemporary harvesting.
Just as movements should foreshadow a future that is feminist, poly-cultural, and also politically free and just, to avoid being internally compromised in their values, incapable of inspiring diverse constituencies or even prone to alienate them, incapable of overcoming cynicism, and weak in their comprehension even of current flaws and potentials, so should movements for the same reasons foreshadow a future that is classless, including incorporating self-managing council organization, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and self-management.
Put strategically, constructing movements that embody coordinator class assumptions, mannerisms, and aspirations would violate our aims and cripple our prospects just as horrifically as constructing movements that embody sexist, racist, or authoritarian assumptions, mannerisms, and aspirations would cripple our prospects.
Claim 8: Seeking Reforms Without Succumbing to Reformism
Seeking participatory economic institutions requires that we not only create in the present new institutions, but that we also fight for changes in existing capitalist institutions. Demands made against existing institutions ought to enhance people's lives, advance the likelihood of further successful struggle, and advance the consciousness and organizational capacity to pursue those further aims.
As valuable as experiments in creating visionary economic (or gender, race, or politically inspired) organization in the present are, to only prioritize creating forward oriented experiments would consign those who work in existing institutions to observer status as well as callously ignoring pressing needs of the moment. The path to a better future includes creating experiments in its image in the present, but it also includes a long march through existing institutions, battling for changes that improve people's lives today even as they auger and prepare for more changes tomorrow.
Changes in existing institutions which do not replace those institutions down to their defining core, are undeniably reforms, but the effort to win such reforms need not accept that only reform is possible. On the contrary, efforts to win reforms can enable a process to win a whole new economy.
We can utilize demands, language, organization, and methods, all in accord not only with winning sought short term gains but also with increasing the inclination and capacity of people to seek still more victories in the future. Rather than presuming system maintenance, battles around income, workplace conditions, decision-making, allocation, jobs, work day length, and other facets of economic life should enlarge and empower future-oriented desires. We should win reforms now not only to enjoy the benefits, but also to pave the path to win more gains later. This is a non-reformist approach to winning reforms.
Claim 9: Change Is Not Automatic
At some point in the future vast movements will have features such as those noted above, and will become vehicles toward winning new societies. This will not happen, however, automatically.
Change will not arise from an unfolding inevitable tendency that sweeps us, uncomprehending, into a better future. Change will come, instead, via self-conscious actions by huge numbers of people bringing to bear their creativity and energy in a largely unified and coherent manner that will have internal debate but that will also overarching shared aims and steadfast purpose.
It we travel into the future in our minds, and we imagine looking into the past, we will see a historically relatively brief period, at some point, during which people in one nation or another, or in many at once, form projects, organizations, and movements that thereafter persist to become centrally important vehicles for fighting for, constructing, and even finally merging into a new world.
We can reasonably ask what attributes such a lasting project, organization, or movement would incorporate. We can also reasonably act on our shared answers, once we feel we have them more or less in hand, to try to create such vehicles of change. Might we get our efforts wrong? Yes, we might. But if we don't try, then we have no chance of succeeding. And if we do fail, we can take lessons from our mistakes, and try again.
It follows that at some point building vehicles not just of opposition but for self-conscious creation of a new world must become our agenda. We should undertake this with exaggerated images of instant success, or with inflated ideas of ease, or utilizing impatient approaches that limit participation or bias outcomes, but we should also refuse to succumb to cynical delay.
Claim 10: What's Next?
When a capable and caring group agrees on claims like those offered above, however refined and adapted by their deliberations, it will become incumbent on them to collectively seek wider agreement from a still larger group and to solidify their inspiring intellectual unity into a more practical organizational and programmatic unity. That is the injunction of justice and revolution. And if not now, when?