Solidarity instead of hierarchy as “common sense”

When the serious work of building a better world starts, we will have no choice but to use some of the bricks of the current world as we begin that construction. A social or economic system does not completely eradicate all traces of the immediately preceding system overnight. Nonetheless, the repressive elements of the prior system must be eliminated as quickly as possible, with new structures and thinking capable of defining the better world.

If socialism is to be that better world, what structures might be necessary? Socialism can be defined as a system in which production is geared toward human need rather than private profit for a few; where everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed; that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs; political decision-making is the hands of the communities affected; and quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights. There is no class, vanguard or other group that stands above society, arrogating decision-making, wealth and/or privileges to itself.

A blueprint for such a future is not possible; a better world will be created in its making. But neither can we leap to a different world empty-handed or without a compass. Tangible counter-examples and concrete ideas are necessary if working people — the vast majority of humanity — are to break free from their acceptance of capitalism as “common sense” or the “only alternative.” When ideas become rooted in masses of people, they become a natural force, argues Michael Lebowitz in his latest book, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now.* He uses the example of the “socialist triangle” to explicate a structure for a better, democratic system.

Socialist Imperative coverThe three sides of the socialist triangle (a concept put in this form by Hugo Chávez) are production for social needs and purposes, social production organized by workers and social ownership of the means of production. None or any two of the three sides stand on their own; each is dependent on the other two.

Production for social needs is defined as production accomplished for our common needs. This is envisioned as production in which we would go beyond self-interest and therefore create a “solidarity economy.” Social production organized by workers is essential for developing the capacities of working people. Decisions in the workplace are made by the workforce as a whole, developing the capacities of all. Social ownership of the means of production does not mean the state owns all enterprises; it “implies a profound democracy” in which people, in their capacities as workers and as members of society, determine the results of their labor.

A society in which all can freely develop

Professor Lebowitz proposes a “Charter for Human Development,” offered as “self-evident requirements”:

“1. Everyone has the right to share in the social heritage of human beings — an equal right to the use and benefits of the productions of the social brain and the social hand — in order to be able to develop his or her full potential.
2. Everyone has the right to be able to develop his or her full potential and capacities through democracy, participation, and protagonism in the workplace and society — a process in which these subjects of activity have the precondition of the health and education that permit them to make full use of this opportunity.
3. Everyone has the right to live in a society in which human beings and nature can be nurtured — a society in which we can develop our full potential in communities based upon cooperation and solidarity.” [page 174]

The goal of these three points, Professor Lebowitz writes, is to redefine the concept of fairness:

“It is unfair that some people monopolize the social heritage of human beings; it is unfair that some people are able to develop their capacities through their activities while others are crippled and deformed; and it is unfair that we are forced into structures in which we view others as competitors and enemies.” [page 174]

We are talking about a different world than the one we live in now. Quite different. A world in which these are guiding principals is a world that has a new concept of “common sense.”  Any ideology, if its hold on a sufficiently large percentage of people is strong, becomes a material force. Industrialists and financiers, who constitute the dominant class in the present world and thus decisively shape contemporary belief systems, can and do wield an enormous and deadly apparatus of violence to maintain their dominance, true, but that is insufficient in itself. Capitalism’s staying power rests on the widely held belief that there is no alternative to it.

Capitalism “tends to produce the workers it needs,” Professor Lebowitz argues, drawing on Karl Marx’s insights. People’s need to sell their labor power — that is, their need to obtain employment in order to survive — and the creation of perpetual unemployment creates a dependency on capital that has continued for so long that the capitalist mode of production comes to be seen as “self-evident natural laws.” Struggles are therefore contained within the confines of capitalism. Bargaining over wages and working conditions can become contentious, but this is never more than bargaining over the terms of exploitation; the relations within this system are never touched. Thus an alternative common sense must be constructed.

Going beyond limitations of past models

Neither the Soviet model, overly centralized and lacking in democracy, nor the Yugoslav model of cooperative enterprises constitute that alternative common sense. The Socialist Imperative argues that the Soviet system discouraged innovation because workers and managers saw it as disruptive. Moreover, initiative was monopolized by central planners and party elites, reproducing problems of alienation even if workers’ expectations of guaranteed employment and rising consumption were sufficiently strong to constrain leaderships.

In the case of Yugoslavia, unemployment was produced because workers (who were self-managers) sought to maximize their enterprises’ income per worker. Workers acted in solidarity, but only within their own enterprise; eventually loans were used to finance higher pay in weaker enterprises. The logic of capital gained ground, Professor Lebowitz argues, until Yugoslavia accepted an International Monetary Fund loan and passed a 1988 law that substituted stockholders for workers’ councils, hastening the end of the Yugoslav experiment.

Solidarity across society and a decoupling of consumption with work capacity are offered as the keys to a socialist society. Income distribution based on an individual’s capacity to work is a distribution based on unequal personal endowment or inheritance and thus a “right to inequality.” In other words, different people are born with different capacities, and social solidarity mandates that those accidents of birth not be made into permanent sources of inequality. Permanent inequalities are products of capitalist relations.

We are stunted individuals under capitalism; paid a small fraction of the value of what we produce and, given the dictatorial nature of relations in the capitalist enterprise, told we are incapable of making decisions and thus unable to develop ourselves. We are also kept divided along gender, racial, religious and national lines and fighting among ourselves, helping keep capitalists in power. Going beyond reformism and instead struggling together to overturn capitalist relations creates the capacity to do so:

“The working class makes itself a revolutionary subject through its struggles — it transforms itself.” [page 143]

Who is this working class? It everybody who has no choice but to “sell their labor power” — those who can not survive other than by hiring themselves to a capitalist. Those who have a job, those out of work and those who survive in the informal sector. Crucially,

“They may not correspond to the stereotype of the working class as a male factory worker, but that stereotype was always wrong.” [page 145]

Building a solidarity state from a local base

A social state can only be constructed from the bottom up, The Socialist Imperative argues. Drawing on the example of the communes of Venezuela, the book envisions neighborhood councils as the basis of local decision-making, with successively larger representations through councils established on city, regional, state/provincial and national levels. Mechanisms would be needed to transmit information up and down these levels for national-level decisions to be made as democratically as possible and for communities to have proper input. Needs and capacities would be assessed to democratically plan to meet those needs and make adjustments based on available capacities.

Socialist triangleEnterprise transparency and worker education would be established in the workplace to begin the process of social production. Worker decision-making would be increased step by step through negotiations between workers and management on the basis of social contracts filed with a ministry of work. These would be steps toward social ownership of the means of production necessary for the full development of human beings and society. The local self-interest that would exist at the start of this process would be a relic of the old (capitalist) system that would need to be overcome to establish a system fully rooted in social solidarity.

The movement must go beyond simply taking state power, Professor Lebowitz writes, but must create spaces for the grassroots to transform into active agents. Old structures must be subordinated:

“Working within a hierarchy, functioning without the ability to make decisions in the workplace and society, and focusing upon self-interest rather than upon solidarity are activities that produce people on a daily basis; this is the reproduction of the conservatism of everyday life — indeed, the reproduction of elements of capitalism.” [pages 189-190]

No blueprints are offered in the book; properly so as pre-conceived conceptions are useless. It would have been useful to have had more concrete examples in a book that is sometimes a little too abstract, but it does provide a thorough grounding in why the salvation of humanity and Earth itself rests on a transition to a rational, democratic system, one based on human need and not the profits of a privileged few. The form of that system will be different from 20th century systems that called themselves “socialist” and necessarily vastly different from any form of capitalism. We have a world to win, a goal for which Michael Lebowitz has given us an inspirational guide.

* Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now [Monthly Review Press, New York 2015]


15 comments on “Solidarity instead of hierarchy as “common sense”

  1. I’ve already started building a better world by working with neighbors and other community members to set up self-governing groups which are opting out of the corporate way of life. At the moment we’re mainly focused on alternative financing (savings pools) and a purely local food production system but we plan to tackle energy next.

    • All of that sounds like very worthy ideas. The world needs more examples of self-activity. But I would note that we can ignore the state all we want, but the state will not ignore us. Unfortunately, we’ll have to confront the issue of state power some day.

      In the meantime, local initiatives that seek to provide stable alternatives to corporate capitalism can only be applauded as examples of a better world in the making. Best of luck!

  2. Steady State says:

    As stated in your second paragraph, “quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights”. What also needs to be entrenched in any human rights declaration is protection and respect for the environment as clearly stated in The Earth Charter. Sustainability of the human race is totally dependent on the protection of planet Earth.

    All attempts at socialism have failed and will fail as long as there are vestiges of the current capitalist system. The kibbutz and moshav experiments in Israel have failed because subsequent generations are lured by the external capitalist system. Capitalism is encroaching on Cuban thought while China has practically abandoned Maoist ideology.

    A moneyless society is still possible if we refocus the role of money as a means of balancing individual production and consumption. The devil rears its ugly head once one has an expectation of “return on investment”. Capitalism ultimately leads to grotesque return on investment and grotesque social inequality driven by human greed.

    • All very true, Steady State. A healthy environment should be on the list. Placing environmental concerns at the forefront is part of the task of today’s socialist struggles.

      Getting rid the bricks of the past (vestiges of capitalism) once a better system has gotten on its feet will be a challenge, one that will need to be met as soon as reasonably possible. This is no easy task, as history from the Paris Commune to the present amply tells us. Capitalism took well more than one century to establish itself, so perhaps, in retrospect, we shouldn’t be surprised that the transition to a successor system will also take a long time.

      That capitalism has a totalizing propaganda apparatus that feudalism didn’t adds to the challenge. But we don’t have much time, as the world is in trouble in ways it never has been in the past, making a post-capitalist world all the more necessary. This will be the last century of capitalism due to its unsustainability; what follows is up to us. It’ll almost certainly be worse if we don’t make it better.

  3. Neoagrarian says:

    I’m curious to know if you are familiar with the work of Frank Rotering (a fellow Canadian!), and his “Economics of Needs and Limits or ENL?

    • I am not familiar at all with him, Neoagrarian. A quick perusal of his “The Ruling Class and the Ecological Crisis” sounds the right notes in noting that the root of our environmental crisis is the capitalist system itself, and that we must supersede capitalism. But it is contradictory to call on the capitalist class to act because it is the dominant group. It is dominant, but that is asking the class to commit collective suicide, a most unlikely outcome.

      I of course am in no position to make any judgment on Frank Rotering’s writings without far more examination that I currently have time for. But I always appreciate a good tip and will look more into his writings in the future. I’ll recommend another the writings of another Canadian, Ian Angus, editor of Climate & Capitalism and whose work also appears in Monthly Review, another excellent source of writings on the true dimension of the crisis humanity faces.

  4. Neoagrarian says:

    Thank you for the prompt response. I am still muddling through Frank’s ideas myself. I appreciate that he has had a long and personally arduous involvement (30 or 40 years) in giving serious thought to the roots of the present “sustainability crisis”, and though I have certain misgivings about his logic (“appeal” to the ruling class, because that’s all we have left), his ideas do seem to have a certain degree of merit. But that seems a little to me like “appealing” to the foxes in order to mitigate predation of my chickens! Yes – I have a simple mind!
    Nevertheless, his seemingly unfair, scathing, take-no-prisoners indictement of the likes of Naomi Klein or David Suzuki (well known in Canada at least) or Bill McKibben has some merit on two counts: mainstream environmentalism has been largely feckless in its outcomes over the last half-century precisely because it has either consciously or unconsciously failed to acknowledge the systemic architecture within which it has tried to fight its piecemeal battles. Hence the present dominance of a neutered, consumer-dynamic dominated “tote-bag environmentalism”.

    Take the notion of “raising awareness” for example. Most people would probably agree that raising awareness is an unqualified good thing. But what good has it done overall? I often remark myself, rather cynically I must admit, that if “raising awareness” was capable of having any significant effect against the totalizing effects of capitalism, don’t you think we would be living in a better world than that of Rachel Carson? Modern environmentalism (a convenient political designation), had it’s roots in the 60’s and a supposed “rising consciousness”, but the intervening period and its mighty headwind was a far more powerful force. Frank is right I think in saying that to the extent that the environmental movement has and continues to cowtow to the status quo (capitalism as unassailable dominant paradigm) it has actually played its part in the extending and pretending that reality requires us to overcome.

    I’m familiar with Ian Angus and enjoy his insightful articles, as I do yours.
    Thanks again for the effort!

  5. Karl Stout says:

    Would more socialism mean less militarism? I have my doubts. Militarism is the greater evil and both socialism and capitalism wed themselves to it.

    • Socialism would mean less militarism. It should lead to no militarism. But what do we mean by “militarism”? This is a word that means little on its own. The use of force, whether financial, military or some other form, is a requirement of any system that is based on inequality. A dominant group that arrogates highly disproportionate shares of wealth or products to itself can only do this through force that is perpetrated through a state.

      Capitalism, and all systems prior to it, do/did this for these reasons. Socialism, as a system where human needs are fulfilled and there is no elite, has no need for military force. Militarism would be anathema to a society where all peoples lived in peace with one another and had access to democratic organs that could adjudicate disputes.

      As no society has yet achieved socialism, it is rather premature to claim that socialism “weds” itself to militarism. Those countries that claimed to be socialist did possess sometimes large armed forces, but let us not forget that those countries were under pressure on multiple fronts at all times from hostile capitalist countries seeking to destroy them. Let us also not forget that the constant need to defend themselves from hostile encirclement did much to distort those countries’ systems.

  6. As I was reading this crucial discussion, I kept thinking about the destruction of First Nations – the reverse of the creative process described in your post. If you’re interested, I posted a series of excerpts from a paper I wrote about the process and consequences for Ojibwe people. One segment deals specifically with the destruction of inclusive consensual governance: The blueprint for inclusive governance and share are still part of contemporary Ojibwe culture, although assimilation and integration have affected tribal communities profoundly. I’m currently exploring how to raise awareness about the elements that still exist from the vantage point of Indian child welfare.

    • A very interesting analysis, and a necessary on as the destruction of colonized cultures and the forced assimilation of colonized peoples remains an under-studied subject. As you write:

      “While most tribal governments ‘are fiercely nationalistic defenders of the perceived interests of their peoples and remain highly suspicious and critical of the federal government’ (Cornell, 1988, p. 207), their dependence on federal recognition and resources forces conformity to dominant institutional structures, practices, and values. Cornell (1988, p. 211) points out that as dominant institutions and values are operationalized on a daily basis, it may become more difficult for tribes to maintain ‘distinctive communities of culture.’ ”

      Cultures around the world are facing these problems as a single corporate mono-culture is increasingly dominant, with a center able and willing to impose its values and customs through a web of institutions, not least the cultural apparatus of Hollywood and television. Humanity continues to lose its culture heritages, and the direct impact of those losses on colonized peoples are generally not recognized, as North American attitudes toward Native peoples attests.

      • Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis of colonial oppression, Systemic Disorder. The question I’m exploring at the moment is how to reverse this process by raising awareness about the history and dynamics of hegemony for one tribe. Can we reverse this process one community at a time, regardless of ancestry? It’s something that came to mind when I read Dr. B.’s comments on your most recent post.

  7. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    not run from top down but networked

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