The Nation Socialism Discussion
By Michael Albert at Mar 14, 2009
Some days back we posted on ZCom the provocative and in my opinion exemplary - due to the left's absence of concern with vision - Reimagining Socialism piece run in the Nation by Bill Fletcher and Barbara Ehrenreich. It was the author's clear intention, and also the stated hope of the Nation, that the piece would engender a "lively discussion" of the issues, both online and I think also in the pages of the magazine. In the words of the Nation: "The following essay will, we hope, kick off a spirited dialogue, with four replies in this issue and more to come here at TheNation.com." A very nice bonus, from my perspective, was that the original article specifically mentioned Parecon as one among three intriguing models they mentioned.
I wrote Bill and asked if I should reply despite my history of never getting anything published, or noticed, or reviewed, or even mentioned (until this piece) in the Nation. He replied, that yes, by all means reply thinking the odds were good they would run a response given that parecon is literally mentioned in the original essay. and he wanted my reactions. Around the same time, I got a note from Chomsky pointing me to the Nation article, in case I hadn't seen it, saying that what Bill and Barbara did provided a good opening to interact, at last, in the venue. My own expectation was not that optimistic - I have to admit - but there was no problem with trying, in case I was wrong, so I asked Bill for an email address for the purpose, and to speed things up he very kindly sent me addresses for publisher Katrina vanden Hueval and for the editor directly in charge, Betsy Reed.
Lots of folks have asked me, since then, why I am not in the exchang. Well, the relevant immediate facts are that I sent two replies. One was quite long, and the other was more suited to their discussion format - which is to say much shorter. I asked if either was okay, if I needed to adapt them, etc. Both have been posted on ZCom:
Taking Up The Task is the longer reply: http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/20826
The shorter reply is attached as a comment on ZCom to the original Fletcher/Ehrenreich essay, and I include it in this blog, at the end.
Betsy Reed kindly replied to my email quite promptly letting me know that they would make my name, in the original article, a link to the long piece, which they did. However, they wouldn't run the actual comment in the exchange as something the Nation was posting, publishing, etc. She said the problem was that they were over strapped editorially, both their print and their web folks. She also said she personally liked the long piece more, a very nice piece of news, and of course I do too - which is why I wish in exchanges publishers provided ample room. I wrote back and said, great, if you like the long piece, why not have me do an article, or an interview, or anything else for the Nation, about economic vision in general, or about parecon, parsoc, or whatever - I would be happy to do something, just let me know. I also reiterated that I would still like to see my response included in the growing exchange, not least because parecon was mentioned by Barbara and Bill as worth attending to, but much more so because unlike replies that commented on the state of the economy and the need for activism, my reply was actually trying to push the sought discussion forward. There was no further response from the Nation, however, other than posting more content, by other folks, most recently oddly including a piece taking a rather gratuitous swipe at parecon.
Finally, for those interested, here is the shorter comment I offered for possible inclusion in the reimagining socialism exchange. I leave it to readers to decide if the entries that have been posted on the Nation were superior - though, for an online discussion by serious people about serious content, one wonders why the norm isn't the more the better...
Response to Reimagining Socialism
Ehrenreich and Fletcher ask: "do we have a [shared] plan?" and forthrightly answer that we don't, and we need a "deliberative process for figuring out what to do."
I agree. We need shared vision to inspire hope, incorporate the seeds of the future in the present, and illuminate a path to where we want to wind up. Here is a summary of a much longer essay "Taking Up The Task," available on the ZNet website.
Classlessness ought to inform our economic goal.
To have a classless economy requires that everyone by their economic position be equally able to participate, utilize capacities, and accrue income. Private ownership of productive assets must be gone, but so too must a division of labor that affords some producers far greater influence and income than other producers.
By their position in the economy, lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, etc., accrue information, skills, confidence, energy, and access to means of influencing daily outcomes sufficient to largely control their own tasks and to define, design, determine, and control the tasks of workers below. These coordinator class members operate subordinate to capital, but above workers.
"Out with the old boss in with the new boss" does not end having bosses. To retain the distinction between the coordinator class and the working class would ensure coordinator class rule. This type change can end capitalism, but this type change will not attain classlessness. Thus, our movements and projects must eliminate the monopoly of capitalists on productive property, but also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work. Indeed, this is what reimagining socialism is primarily about.
Beyond classlessness, we also ought to seek equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and economic efficiency.
Each person who is able to work, both for moral and economic reasons, should be remunerated for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued effort.
Economic relations should produce a cooperative social partnership of mutual aid rather than people fleecing one another in an anti-social shoot out.
Economics should convey to each person self-managing say over decisions in proportion as those decisions affect us.
An economy should not compel us to destroy our natural habitat but should instead reveal the full and true social and ecological costs and benefits of contending choices, and convey to us control over the options.
Clearly, private ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor, top down decision-making, markets, and central planning violate all these aspirations.
For workers and consumers to influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by those decisions requires self-managing councils through which workers and consumers express and tally their preferences.
Equitable distribution requires workers be remunerated for their duration of effort, intensity of effort, and harshness of conditions, and that remunerated effort be socially useful so that workers have incentives consistent with eliciting fulfilling output.
Self-managed decisions require confident preparation, relevant capacity, and appropriate participation. There can't be some actors monopolize empowering work while others are left disempowered and unable to manifest a will of their own. Balancing of jobs for empowerment eliminates the division between coordinators and workers by ensuring that all economic actors are enabled by their conditions to participate fully in self-management.
Allocation should be undertaken by cooperative and informed negotiation in which all people's freely expressed 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. To my thinking, this implies what has been called participatory planning.
If we were to agree on features like those noted above for economic vision, then requirements for current activist projects, organizations, and movements should patiently incorporate the seeds of the future in the present, including self-managed decision-making, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and cooperative negotiated planning.
Strategically, just as movements should foreshadow a future that is feminist, poly-cultural, and politically participatory to avoid being compromised in their values, incapable of inspiring diverse constituencies, incapable of overcoming cynicism, and weak in their comprehension of current relations, 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 participatory planning.
Seeking transformed economic institutions requires that we begin to create such institutions in the present but also that we fight for changes in capitalist institutions. Indeed, the path to a better future involves primarily 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.
In battles around income, workplace conditions, decision-making, allocation, jobs, work-day length, and other facets of economic life, our rhetoric should advance comprehension of ultimate values. Our organizations should embody the norms we seek for the future. Our spirit should be full of optimism, but also clear about obstacles.