Creating a participatory system of economic democracy in Rojava

Out of repression has emerged one of the world’s most interesting experiments in democracy. And by democracy, what is meant is not the formal capitalist variety of elections every few years in which consumption of consumer products is substituted for participation in societal decisions.

Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces intent on destroying them, in a part of the world that Western pundits claim can only be ruled by dictators, the Kurds of Syria are intent on creating a society more democratic than any found in North America or Europe. This is not simply a matter of creating institutions of direct and communal, as opposed to representative, democracy but, most importantly, democratizing the economy. In the words of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, “In self-government, an alternative economic system is necessary, one that augments the resources of society rather than exploiting them, and in that way satisfies the society’s multitude of needs.”

The many sides of that equation are explored in detail in Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan,* a study of Rojava’s experiment in radical democracy by three activists who spent months in Rojava studying the society being constructed, and who themselves have been involved in Rojava in various capacities. One of the authors, Anja Flach, spent two years in the Kurdish women’s guerrilla army. Her co-authors are Ercan Ayboga, an environmental engineer, and Michael Knapp, a historian. Although the three authors make clear their sympathies for the Rojava revolution, their book is not hagiographic, but rather a serious analysis of a developing process.

The Kurdish people are split among four countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — and have long suffered persecution in each of them. Their persecution in Turkey is well known; successive Turkish governments have attempted to disrupt organizing, obliterate Kurdish culture and ban the Kurdish language through waves of lethal military crackdowns. Mr. Öcalan escaped Turkey after a military coup that led to hundreds of thousands of Kurds thrown into jail; he and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) he leads were granted asylum in Syria. In the late 1990s, under Turkish pressure, Syria expelled the PKK, and a year later, Mr. Öcalan was abducted from a Greek consulate (a kidnapping believed to be a CIA operation) and has been imprisoned in Turkey since.

But that the Syrian régime found the PKK a useful lever against Turkey for a time did nothing to ameliorate ruthless repression against the Kurds of northern Syria. The Ba’ath Party of the Assad family implemented a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Bashar al-Assad, in contrast to the misplaced hopes that he might institute a thaw upon succeeding his father in 2000, instituted a harsh neoliberalism. Mass privatization, suppression of unions, the shredding of the social safety net and a channeling of investment capital into tourism and away from production had a particularly devastating impact on Rojava.

After the uprisings in Syria against the Ba’ath régime began in 2011, the struggle quickly became militarized. The Kurds avoided being overrun by the Syrian army or the various Islamist forces because of their own organization. Grassroots organizing had been done steadily since the 1990s, and when local government collapsed following the 2011 uprisings, that organizing, a nascent council system and the formation of militias enabled the carving out of an autonomous territory. People surrounded government buildings, demanding the surrender of all arms while guaranteeing the safe passage of all Syrian government officials. This tactic worked, quickly sweeping through all three “cantons” of Rojava. (A canton is a portion of a province, perhaps bigger than a U.S. county or French department but smaller than a U.S. state or a French region.)

The aim here was to create a democratic territory through peaceful means. This takeover was accomplished nearly without bloodshed, although Rojava’s militias have had to repeatedly repulse attacks from Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other hostile forces, as well as fend off the sometimes active hostility of the Turkish government, which has allowed Islamic State terrorists to freely cross the border and re-arm themselves. Sadly, Rojava has also been subjected to periodic blockades and political harassment from the two corrupt parties that control Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Rojava to the east.

The system of democratic autonomy

The basic units of Rojava’s organization are councils and commissions. These constitute the building blocks of Rojava’s system of “democratic confederalism.” The authors of Revolution in Rojava explain this concept in this way:

“Democratic Confederalism aims at achieving the autonomy of society, that is, a society that administers itself through small, self-governing decentralized units. It entails a permanent social revolution, reflected in every aspect of social structure. All institutions are self-organized and self-administered.” [page 44]

Concurrent with that concept is “democratic autonomy,” which is defined as “the autonomy of the commune” in an “anti-centrist, bottom-up approach.” The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. (“West Kurdistan” is the portion of Kurdistan that lies within Syria.)

Integrated within the four-level council system are eight commissions — women, defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — that work with councils at all four levels; in turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also a ninth commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s commission, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

Taking with upmost seriousness the full liberation of women (also expressed in the all-women’s militias that fight on the front lines the same as men’s units), the women’s commissions are tasked, inter alia, with adjudicating cases of patriarchal violence and forced marriage. An umbrella women’s movement organizes women across Rojava, taking on activities including educational work, publishing a newspaper, pushing for legislation, and investigating and documenting domestic violence. This work has roots in the 1990s, when PKK women organized door to door. When organizing by men was heavily suppressed after 2004, women organized clandestinely, giving them experience.

Making women’s participation central is of course a glaring contrast with the Islamist groups and the so-called moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army. Every organization in Rojava must include at least 40 percent women. Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Rojava’s largest party, said the revolution is conscious of not repeating the mistakes of the past, in which women’s liberation was often put on the back-burner. She said:

“We’re a still long way from achieving our goals. … But we’ve learned from the failed revolutions in the past. They always said, ‘Let’s carry the revolution to success, and then we’ll give women our rights.’ But after the revolution, of course, it didn’t happen. We’re not repeating that old story in our revolution.” [page 70]

Creating a new justice system

As with many governmental functions, the judicial system has had to be rebuilt from scratch. Peace committees seek consensus through dialogue at the commune and neighborhood levels. The goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment. Most cases are settled in peace committees, but felonies and those cases not adjudicated in the peace committees are assigned to district-level people’s courts. There are separate women’s peace committees that handle cases of male violence against women in which all-women panels hand down decisions.

Parallel to these systems of democratic self-activity is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration. This is essentially a dual government, created primarily for foreign governments. Because Rojava’s councils have been ignored elsewhere, the DAA was created so that world’s governments would have a government they could recognize. Each of three Rojava cantons has a DAA, which includes an elected parliament and ministries that are distributed among the various political parties so that each has at least one minister. These, however, rely on the earlier-established council system and work with the councils. The division of labor between the councils and the DAA has yet to be worked out, nor how to reconcile a dual-government structure.

Civil society associations also play large roles in Rojava. These groups perform educational work, organize grassroots activity and place representatives on the councils. Many of these associations are occupation groups. In contrast to what the Kurdish movement sees as the state existing as a means of extracting profits for favored social groups or classes and inculcating a fixation on authority, civil society is substituted for a state. The authors write:

“The Kurdish movement, in its anti-statism, thus draws on [Antonio] Gramsci’s concept of civil society in proposing to strengthen civil society for the purpose of overthrowing the state. In contrast to the abortive Bolshevist strategy of seizing state power, Öcalan posits, like Gramsci on the ideological, political struggle for civil society, a ‘war of position’ beyond military confrontation. Through empowerment, a civil society tries to free itself from the hands of the state and its religious, economic and administrative structures and so to build a counter-hegemony and to activate individual parts of the society to represent civil society in councils and communes.” [pages 122-123]

Economic development on a democratic basis

This democratic concept extends to the economy. Food and fuel prices are controlled, working conditions are negotiated among several interest groups, workers’ rights are defended and the pursuit of profit maximization is blocked to avoid the destructive tendencies of capitalism. The principals of the “communal economy” are described in this way by the Union of Civil Society Associations:

“The state system exploited the society’s labor power and trampled the rights of workers. Under Democratic Autonomy, civil society associations solve problems according to principles of moral politics and an ecological society. The unity of society is the foundation. These associations hold society together. They ensure the unity that is needed to satisfy everyday social needs. Of course, they do this as part of democratic, communal life. They are how society organizes itself.” [page 124]

Rojava, the authors write, was a “quasi-colony” under the Ba’ath régime. There was an enforced agricultural monoculture with no local production allowed. Oil, gas and agricultural products were shipped out, and canned food and finished products from elsewhere shipped in. Not even trees were allowed to be planted. So although there is much productive farmland, Rojava could not come close to self-sufficiency in food as all farmers were forced to raise wheat or cotton. Farming is now being re-oriented toward local needs so that a much higher percentage of food can be produced locally; this is partly a necessity as the area is often blockaded by neighbors.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan

The councils, already in existence, organized the economy to prevent a collapse after Rojava’s liberation. Price controls, measures against hoarding food and medicine, agricultural diversification, planting fruit trees, and building grain mills and industry were implemented and are ongoing projects. Rojava’s economic underdevelopment is seen locally as a disadvantage and an opportunity. It is the latter because, the authors write, it “allows the traditional social collectivism of the Kurdish people to be channeled positively to build a new, alternative economy.” [page 197]

Much of this new economy rests on cooperative enterprises. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social needs. Much of this cooperative production is in agriculture or small shops but there are plans to create more industry to meet local needs. Thirty percent of all coop proceeds must be given to local self-government administrations. And this is seen as a route to eliminating unemployment. The authors write:

“The cooperative system is solving the problem of unemployment. ‘Through the communes and cooperatives and the needs-based economy,’ explains [Afrin University chair] Dr. [Ahmad] Yousef, ‘each person can participate in production in his own way, and there will be no unemployment. Where communes are established, it will become clear that unemployment is a result of the capitalist system itself.’ ” [page 206]

Such a system can’t work without an educated population:

“To ensure that society is able to make decisions about the use of water, soil, and energy, information about the society’s needs are taken out of the hands of the experts and socialized. Education is critical for this purpose. ‘We school the people in how cooperatives can form a social economy,’ says [Union of Kurdish Communities leader Cemil] Bayık. ‘We are establishing economics academies to advance this.’ ” [page 207]

Surrounded by a hostile world

All this is at odds not only with the existing institutions and state organizations surrounding them, but with the capitalist powers as well. How can Rojava’s experiment possibly survive in a such a hostile world? The authors of Revolution in Rojava strongly urge the building of Left support sufficiently strong to influence North American and European governments. The people of Rojava, the authors stress, are in need of material support from the West at the same time they are acutely aware of the dangers of a U.S. embrace.

The idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is called “naïve” by the authors, drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

The danger of U.S. material support, of course, can’t be underestimated, given that a communal economy oriented toward people’s needs rather than private profit is anathema to U.S. corporate and government power, which have teamed up to throttle many a revolution attempting to transcend capitalism or simply assert independent development. Moreover, the U.S. wrongly classifies the PKK, which seeks to implement the same system as their fellow Kurds in Syria, as “terrorists” and has long supported Ankara’s scorched-earth repression of Kurds.

In the short term, material support from the West is needed if Rojava is to successfully defend itself from Islamic militants and the Turkish government. Syrian (and Turkish) Kurds, who see their model as one that can be expanded across Syria and the entire Middle East, have their eyes open to the narrowness of the path that must be thread through these contradictions. Nor are their eyes closed to their unsolved problems of pollution, water, waste management, and the stop-gap use of diesel generators that is causing serious environmental problems.

The book ends on an optimistic note, readapting Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase to declare the future is “communalism or barbarism.” Although brief discussions of Thomas Jefferson, Luxemburg and Gramsci (who was no opponent of the Bolsheviks) are poorly argued and their views misstated, this is at most a minor irritant in a work ably presenting the first comprehensive study of Rojava’s inspiring experiment in mass-participation democracy. Revolution in Rojava is an excellent introduction to a revolution that is not yet well known but should be.

* Ercan Ayboga. Anja Flach and Michael Knapp (translated by Janet Biehl), Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan [Pluto Books, London 2016]

Advertisements

Analyzing the failures of Syriza

So many put their puts hopes into Syriza; so many were bitterly disappointed. Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left proved wholly unable to resist the enormous pressures put on it and it is Greek working people who are paying the price, not excepting those who voted for Syriza.

How should we analyze the depressing spectacle of what had been a genuinely Left party, indeed a coalition of leftist forces from a variety of socialist perspectives, self-destructing so rapidly? The simplistic response would be to wash our hands and condemn Syriza as “opportunists,” but we’ll learn exactly nothing with such an attitude. If we are serious about analyzing Syriza’s spectacular failure — including those who expected this outcome in advance — digging through the rubble is unavoidable.

There were many currents coursing through Syriza, in addition to other Left tendencies outside. Nor were there shortages of people who feared what the fate of Syriza might become, including leaders inside it, before it took power, reminds Helena Sheehan in her new book The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left.* Written in exhilaration and sorrow, Professor Sheehan, a veteran of solidarity work with the Greek Left, rides those tides as she recounts the anticipation and optimism before, and the depression and shock afterward, inside Greece and among Syriza’s allies across Europe.

The prologue to this failure is well known, but Professor Sheehan takes us through it in a “you are there” style reflecting what was happening then and her own optimism. That we know how this story will end does not detract from this writing style; rather it heightens the emotions as we re-live what at the time appeared to be the imminent first serious blow against global austerity and the ever tightening grip of finance capital. This was not a pollyannaish optimism, for no one serious had doubts about the immense task facing Syriza should it be elected. Certainly Greece could not be a small socialist island in an immense sea of capitalism — Greece’s problems then and now can have only European and international solutions.

Still, someone has to go first. The international Left saw hope in Syriza, and Syriza economists worked on solutions. There was much political seriousness as Syriza was seen as the last hope; that fascism might well be next given the growing menace of Golden Dawn focused minds.

Professor Sheehan sets this stage, opening her book in 2012, a year in which a second memorandum is signed, forcing more harsh austerity on Greeks, and in which Syriza rose from a minor parliamentary presence to finishing a close second to Greece’s main party of the Right, New Democracy. Providing the analyses, hopes and fears of a variety of Greek activists gathered on repeated visits, she recounts Syriza’s strong efforts to engage social-movement groups (in contrast to the Greek Communist Party’s sectarianism) and for Syriza to be inter-generational in its leadership.

Tip-toeing to the election by backtracking?

Nonetheless, there was Left criticism that Syriza was “watering down its wine” or wanting only to manage capitalism instead of creating socialism. Syriza officials vigorously denied this, saying they would reverse austerity cuts, restore wages and pensions, and re-distribute wealth and power. This would not yet be socialism, but “was intended to open a new path to socialism for the twenty-first century.” One danger sign, however, was that the party was split on whether to remain within the eurozone, even if the euro and the European Union as a whole were seen as a site of struggle. Some within Syriza, such as Costas Lapavitsas, argued that Syriza should be prepared for a break with the European Union. Despite these warnings, no systematic preparatory work on any “Plan B” was formulated.

Austerity might have been coming down harder on Greeks than elsewhere in Europe, but this was no aberration specific to one small country EU officials saw as easy to bully. This was not a local battle, Professor Sheehan writes:

“These cuts to pay, pensions, and public services, this privatization of public property, this redistribution of wealth from below to above: these were not temporary contingent measures. These were integral to a systemic restructuring of capitalism. … Where there were once experiments in socialism in the east, there were now oligarchies. Next on the agenda: advances achieved by the labor movement in the west were to be stripped.” [page 58]

Yet no success in a single European country will be sustainable unless it is followed by similar successes in other countries.

“Yiannis Tolios, an economist, also elected to the [Syriza] central committee, articulated the problem starkly, but with a different stress: ‘If having socialism in a single country is considered hard, having socialism in all countries at the same time is nearly impossible.’ Greece needed to forge ahead, whether the rest were ready or not, but it was perilous path.” [page 59]

Syriza would reconstitute itself as a unified party, with its previous constituent groups, including its largest, Synaspismos, dissolving themselves (although some remained outside). One-quarter of the central committee were members of Left Platform, an organized faction advocating reversing austerity by any means necessary, with the central committee majority heterogeneous but pro-Alexis Tsipras. Internal critics complained that too much power was being concentrated in the hands of the party leader and his inner circle, nor was concern that Syriza was moving too far toward the right confined to the Left Platform.

Most active members of Syriza believed capitalism was the problem and socialism the solution, the author writes, but had “stopped dreaming of storming winter palaces.” She writes:

“They were not holding out for an all-encompassing insurrection, which would destroy capitalism one day and inaugurate socialism the next day. They were planning for a protracted process, which would include winning multiparty elections, entering into difficult negotiations, agreeing to unattractive alliances, undoing damage done, building the new inside the shell of the old.” [page 85]

Winning an election, but not necessarily power

Anticipation grew as Syriza prepared to take office, but the party’s 2014 Thessaloniki Program was seen by many as a significant retreat. Was Syriza watering down its wine even before the next election? Whatever the strength of the wine, Syriza won the election of January 2015. The “troika” of EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund that had been dictating austerity to the previous Greek governments wasted no time in tightening the screws on the new government in what was seen as an outright attempt to humiliate Syriza. Negotiations dragged on, and amidst much international solidarity, Prime Minister Tsipras called a referendum that summer to supposedly buttress his negotiating position.

Greeks responded by heavily voting “no” to further austerity. The Syriza government then did a remarkable about-face. Eight days later, Prime Minister Tsipras signed an agreement even more unfavorable that what had been demanded by the troika. More than half of Syriza’s central committee signed an opposition letter and most Syriza members were furious. This was ignored.

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

Some Syriza officials offered public justifications for this turn of events, arguing that the party was in a marathon and not a finished race, and that the party retained scope for maneuver and to continue to be a Left party through links with solidarity networks. Others, however, argued that the new agreement was a disastrous capitulation. One alternative path to austerity was to exit the eurozone. The counter-argument was that the analysis supporting a eurozone withdrawal was correct but nonetheless such a road should not be taken due to the balance of forces tilted heavily against the Greek economy.

There were arguments both for remaining in and for leaving the eurozone, but anti-austerity advocates on both sides recommended strong steps such as renouncing the debt, nationalizing the banks and imposing capital controls. These were not considered — Syriza never had a “Plan B.”

Staying in the eurozone was favored by a majority of Greeks, a factor undoubtedly an influence on the party. But by taking office without an alternative plan to negotiating with the troika, in particular EU officials completely cold to any Greek argument, Syriza had boxed in itself. Excuses by Syriza officials for why, rather than reversing austerity, they had agreed to its intensification were just that, excuses. Professor Sheehan challenges those excuses sharply:

“It was one thing to allude to a gun to the head and to admit to defeat, but another to turn around and to claim a great moral victory and to aim the attack on anyone who said otherwise. There was much violation of elementary logic, evasion of empirical evidence, and denial of ethical culpability. … The point about conceptualizing contradiction is not to affirm it and to wallow in it, but to struggle to resolve it, to transcend it, to create a new synthesis from it. As if intensified economic expropriation and political capitulation were not bad enough already, they added intellectual obfuscation and moral degradation to the dreadful reality unfolding. … You cannot build a left when you trash the very basis of our beliefs. It came from a mix of blatant opportunism, genuine confusion, psychological distress, and postmodernist sophistry.” [pages 133-134]

Syriza, despite all the bustle of the previous three years, had taken office unprepared. And, bizarrely, holding a belief that the troika could be reasoned with.

A suicide mission followed by a purge

Next was a “suicide mission for the Left” — Syriza introduced into parliament a 977-page bill to be voted on immediately with no time to be read. The Left Platform voted no as a unified faction and a separate Syriza parliamentary faction, the 53+ Group, complained about the stifling of party democracy, yet Syriza overall voted yes and the new agreement was approved with support from most other parties. “I do not believe that you can do bad to do good,” is the author’s succinct appraisal.

In the wake of shameful capitulation, rather than call a party congress, Prime Minister Tsipras decided to call a snap election, which he would use to purge Syriza of its left wing. He distinguished this campaign by attacking the Left and international supporters. The Left Platform members of parliament resigned to form a new party, Popular Unity, but with little time and no resources it failed to reach the 3 percent vote threshold. Syriza won again.

Defections from Syriza and attempts to build a new Left party have continued since as not only is no debt relief in sight despite one humiliating concession after another but Syriza lurches right in foreign policy and the prime minister falls to his knees in front of the church. It had taken Syriza only six months to travel the path that the former socialist party, Pasok, had traveled in 20 years but without the genuine reforms that Pasok had implemented early in its time in government. Implementing and expanding expropriation in order to end it is not dialectical; it is nonsense, Professor Sheehan points out.

So why had Syriza taken such a road? No one answer could suffice, but the author, in a wide-ranging survey, explores several opinions offered by various Greek activists. In short form these include:

  • That Syriza’s actions constitute a retreat, not a betrayal, as transformation is a painful marathon with many retreats.
  • Syriza had no coherent program but its left was too focused on a transformation of the state.
  • Syriza failed to contest the narrative of “there is no alternative” and should have renounced the debt, nationalized the banks and elaborated an anti-capitalist narrative.
  • Syriza’s failure is rooted in its class compromises and constant reassurances to the Right since 2012.
  • Popular Unity has a future despite “messing up” its first election.
  • It is impossible to control the economy inside the eurozone.
  • The power of money destroyed Syriza.

Helena Sheehan has written a most useful study of Syriza and in particular the range of platforms and outlooks, and the evolution of these, as the party prepared to take power and then found itself unable to manage, let alone solve, internal and external contradictions. That this is a “you are there” document from a personalized standpoint does not at all mean that The Syriza Wave is anything other than a serious political analysis. The work could have been strengthened in two ways: one, a deeper discussion of the economic issues, including the ramifications of staying in (or exiting) the eurozone, and, two, a discussion of how virtually every euro of the troika loans are going to creditors and banks rather than to the Greek people, a topic barely mentioned in passing only once. These are topics that would have added to the narrative.

Nonetheless, a reader wishing political analysis and to understand what activists and leaders in Syriza were thinking and doing, including ministers before and after taking up their posts, would do well to read this book. Professor Sheehan, despite the appropriately bitter denouncements of the party’s performance in office in contrast to her earlier support, ends on an optimistic note. We are, after all, supposed to learn from defeat so we can do it better in the future, yes?

* Helena Sheehan, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left [Monthly Review Press, New York 2016]

Conceptualizing cooperatives as a challenge to capitalist thinking

As capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and a world beyond capitalism becomes a possibility contemplated by increasing numbers of people, finding a path forward becomes an ever more urgent task.

That path is likely to contain a multitude of possibilities and experiments, not all of which will prove viable. Psychological barriers will surely be a major inhibition to overcome; possibly the biggest roadblock given the still ubiquitous idea of “there is no alternative” that has survived despite growing despair at the mounting inequality and precarious futures offered by capitalism. In short, a viable alternative to the capitalist structure of enterprises and society is urgently necessary.

cooperatives-confront-capitalismCooperatives represent a “counter-narrative” to the idea, inculcated in us from our youngest ages, that a small group of bosses are naturally entitled to exert leadership and thus are the only people with the capabilities of running an enterprise, argues Peter Ranis in his latest book, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy.* Putting to use his considerable knowledge of Argentine and Cuban cooperatives, and combining that with a challenging argument about the possibilities of worker cooperatives in the center of world capitalism, the United States, Professor Ranis argues that the cooperative form can indeed posit a challenge to capitalist hegemony.

In his opening chapter, in answering his own question “Why worker cooperatives?,” in the context of working people building a Gramscian “counter-hegemony,” he writes:

“This requires a working class movement that moves beyond wages, hours and working conditions and into the realm of owning and maintaining production that leads to controlling local economies that demonstrate working-class capacity for impacting on societal economies and, by extension, politics and the concomitant public policy. Cooperatives would, indeed, be the key ingredient to a proletarian hegemonic outcome. … What worker cooperatives provide is a counter-narrative to the one that assumes that only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production.” [pages 15-16]

It is indisputably true that counterposing living examples of working people’s successful self-management is a prerequisite to breaking down current capitalist cultural hegemony. But, in contrast to more traditional ideas that state ownership should be the alternative, Professor Ranis argues that it is the cooperative form, because workers there assume all management functions, that can build an alternative. His argument, however, is not pollyannaish by any means — cooperatives face serious challenges at the hands of capitalist governments not to mention the direct hostility of capitalists themselves.

No easy path for Argentine cooperatives

For all the success of Argentina’s cooperatives in providing a better standard of living and vastly superior working conditions to their members, the road has been a hard one — and those cooperatives still constitute a minuscule portion of the Argentine economy. Moreover, not all those in Argentina who formed cooperatives necessarily wished to do so — converting the recovered factories into state-owned enterprises with worker control was often the original goal and in some cases that is still the hoped-for outcome. (Although at the moment, given the harsh neoliberal policies of the new government of Mauricio Macri, that is off the table for now.)

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not hold back from discussing the difficulties. These cooperatives formed when the former capitalist owners decided to close down production and/or had not paid the workers for long periods, sometimes months. Forced to take matters into their own hands, workers occupied their workplaces and physically defended themselves, with the help of the surrounding communities. Argentine law was not on their side — bankruptcy codes heavily favor creditors, assets are quickly sold and judges have too much arbitrary power. Nor is there a national law facilitating this process; a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws, with varying terms, prevail. New coops face difficulty obtaining loans and credit, and are often forced to pay for supplies in cash.

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The route to survival for coops has been involvement with local communities, making donations, becoming involved in others’ struggles and fostering the idea that cooperatives can’t survive on their own but must be part of a struggle for socialism. Leaders are rotated, positions of day-to-day management have set terms and all major strategic decisions are made collectively in meetings of all members. Coop salaries are higher than salaries in capitalist enterprises and working conditions are far safer. This sense of solidarity is a principal — Professor Ranis quotes a leader at the FaSinPat ceramics plant (the former Zánon factory) in this way:

“When we have to support another struggle, we stop production because it is a social investment, a sowing that we reap in the future.” [page 66]

Thus struggle does not stop at the factory gates. Professor Ranis elaborates:

“The Zánon workers see their factory as being at the service of the community and not the market, and that attitude has been translated into countless acts of solidarity, for which they have been compensated by the community in five attempts by the provincial police to take over the factory. … They argue that an effective state must take responsibility for creating jobs while allowing workers to control production and extend its surplus to the whole community.” [page 68]

An easier path in Cuba?

Cooperatives have become a steadily growing experiment in Cuba. There, cooperatives have a firmer footing because they are being formed with government support. This, however, is mostly a top-down process, with most coops being formed at government insistence by converting state-owned enterprises. Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not shy away from critiques of this process, noting the top-down decision-making, that although there is considerable input from below it remain consultative, and that bureaucratic barriers impede the formation of coops created from scratch.

The self-employed sector remains larger than the cooperative sector, and most Cuban workers continue to work in the state sector as the coops are concentrated in services. Professor Ranis also points out that inequality is returning to Cuba. Only some have relatives elsewhere who can send home remittances, and the re-sale of goods bought in the U.S. is highly profitable, and thus another source of inequality. The author argues that a movement from below is necessary to re-establish egalitarianism, especially as ration books are likely to be phased out for all but the poorest.

Nonetheless, he argues Cuban coops are a positive step forward and have a much better chance at success than do coops in Argentina or the United States. They are one of the best ways to democratize and de-centralize Cuban society, and also provides a path for fallow agricultural land to be put back into productive use. Neither private capital nor the state sector can meet workers’ needs; a worker-centered approach can defend against capitalist and state socialist forms, he writes.

Professor Ranis, in the middle of the book, makes a case for a great increase in the use of the cooperative form in the United States, where coops remain rare. Although most readers will likely find at least some of his prescriptions controversial, he does make them effectively. Arguing that capital that relocates should pay penalties for a “broken contract” with the local community, he calls for the use of eminent domain to block such moves. In what could be seen as a partial misstep, he argues that the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London provides a legal precedent that can be used for worker and community benefit.

The argument for using eminent domain to take over enterprises that would otherwise be moved by their capitalist owners certainly is intriguing, and merits the exploration that Cooperatives Confront Capitalism provides. But an expansion of the Kelo decision runs the risk of becoming pyrrhic. The Supreme Court found constitutionally legal a plan by the city of New London, Connecticut, to tear down a neighborhood to build a speculative complex intended to attract shoppers and tourists; a move that backfired when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer did not in fact expand there but instead moved from the area.

The author paints the Kelo decision in a more positive light than merited by asserting that the city government had a well thought out plan that would have benefited the displaced community when in fact it was to benefit corporate interests. He also, without being specific, mentions a Brooklyn eminent-domain case as an example of positive development. I do not know what example the author had in mind, but the most prominent example of this activity in Brooklyn is the destruction of a neighborhood to build an unneeded basketball arena (there were already four in the metropolitan area) and luxury housing too expensive for the people of the surrounding area to afford. That is not the sort of “development” any community needs.

The creative use of eminent domain in the U.S.

Thus eminent domain risks being a tool for corporate plunder rather than the hoped-for tool to save jobs. Professor Ranis argues that the Kelo decision provides a legal cover for the taking of property for “the public good,” but doesn’t mention that the judge who wrote the decision, John Paul Stevens, was clearly uncomfortable and took the unusual step of advising state governments in how to circumvent the ruling. On the other hand, that such a decision went against the personal preferences of the ruling judges does admittedly boost the author’s argument that Kelo provides a possible route to expropriating runaway capitalists. In this reading, Kelo provides the legal basis for a government to take over an enterprise that would otherwise be moved and turn it into a cooperative, and should even become the “default option” to combat a closure.

Notwithstanding issues we might have with specific examples, the author does advance his case well:

“We need to use eminent domain for development purposes much as we use the legislative rights to tax and spend, zone for economic purposes, and regulate for consumer and environmental protections. … When workers occupy factories and enterprises they are not really taking something. They are trying to keep something that is already theirs, through their work, through their production of important goods and services, through allowing capital to be invested, and supplying the community with their taxes, their consumption expenditures and their everyday involvement in the civic life of their community.” [page 109]

Regardless of the route to their formation, government support and early subsidies are necessary for the coop sector to flourish. Such support is not currently the case; as an example, New York City provided $3 million in subsidies for 44 cooperatives while the New York state government gave $70 million to one capitalist aluminum factory to keep it from relocating. Without government help and access to low-interest credit, the odds of success are not high, given the capitalist headwinds that are inevitable, although the author notes that, for one example, Canadian coops survive at a higher rate than traditional enterprises.

But those that do make it provide a sterling example, superseding the “simplistic idea” that private property belongs only to the owner — “workers cannot be separated from the capital they produce.” [page 116] The book concludes with a call for “human development”:

“Cooperatives are basic to human development because their success depends on the emancipation of the whole worker rather than what the erstwhile capitalist wanted of them and determined for them.” [page 155]

However we might quibble with this or that specific passage, Professor Ranis has provided a well-reasoned argument for cooperatives as a form that shatters the tired, self-serving shibboleths of capitalism, when advanced in tandem with militant social movements at community and national levels. Demonstrating to ourselves that we can run the enterprises we work in is indispensable, and his book is thus a strong step forward.

* Peter Ranis, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy [Zed Books, London 2016]

We can dream, or we can organize

The swift rise, and swift crumbling, of the Occupy movement brings to the surface the question of organization. Demonstrating our anger, and doing so with thousands of others in the streets, gives us energy and brings issues to wider audiences.

Yes spontaneity, as necessary as it is, is far from sufficient in itself. For all the weeks and sometimes months that Occupy encampments lasted, little in the way of lasting organization was created and thus a correspondingly little ability to bring about any of the changes hoped for. Nor is social media a substitute for mass action.

Organization, specifically a party, is the missing element, Jodi Dean argues in her latest book, Crowds and Party.* Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form. The party is a permanent body that can channel the crowd’s promise of justice into organized political struggle, she argues.

Crowds and Party coverWith a sustained, organized movement, real change is not possible. How then to sustain the enthusiasm of a spontaneous “crowd,” such as Occupy? Through a more structured form capable of organizing activists toward concrete goals worked out through mutual discussion, distilling practice and experience, and providing the necessary scale. The ideology of individual autonomy is a product of capitalist ideology; a Left that promotes individualism is a Left that is reinforcing capitalist ideology.

Professor Dean argues that to do so is to accept markets and the capitalist state as a given; focusing on individuals is a substitute for focusing on necessary revolutionary transformation. She writes:

“The realism in which the Left has been immersed in the neoliberal decades has meant that even when we are fully conscious of the deep inequality of the system in which we find ourselves, we confirm and conform to the dominant ideology: turn inward, enclave, emphasize the singular and momentary. … [W]e found ourselves participating in individuated, localized, or communicatively mediated activities without momentum, duration, or a capacity for political memory. Or we presume that we have to focus on ourselves and thereby redirect political struggle back into ourselves. In a brutal, competitive, and atomized society, psychic well-being is so difficult that success on this front can seem like a significant accomplishment. Trying to do it themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.” [pages 71-72]

The ‘beautiful moment’ is a start, not a culmination

What Professor Dean calls the “politics of the beautiful moment” represents a beginning, not an end. By this “beautiful moment,” she refers to a spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, and the tendency among some to see such spontaneity as an end in itself. The “crowd,” as she terms this spontaneity, provides an opportunity for an emergence but the party is the form for meeting the challenge of maintaining the fidelity of an event. Those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.” [page 125]

The imposition of the popular will over the National Guard at the dawn of the Paris Commune is an example of a “crowd event,” Professor Dean argues, but this event did not create the Commune — the Commune was pre-figured by earlier attempts. The overlap of the Commune form and the “crowd event” created the space for emancipatory egalitarian politics. Similarly today, the crowd is not an alternative political arrangement, it is an opening for a process.

Without targeting the capitalist class, there can be no end to exploitation. Movements inevitably run up against state power — how can a movement sustain itself in the face of repression? An unorganized movement can’t, and indeed Occupy withered once the Obama administration, the federal security apparatus and local police forces combined to suppress it.

Or, to put it another way, you can ignore the state all you want, but the state will not ignore you.

Centralization and hierarchy have been problems in Left parties of the past, but this is nothing unique to the Left; all political organizing runs this risk. Political organization unavoidably creates a gap between the few and the many, and organizing means creating differentiation, but, Professor Dean argues, this gap need not be permanent nor with set divisions. This gap is also a social space where the crowd’s association creates space for an alternative perspective to arise. The effects that arise when large numbers of people organize can’t be avoided and to believe otherwise is to indulge in “the fantasy of the beautiful moment.”

Opponents of parties and formal organization are incorrect in charging that workers were excluded from Left parties and that the leaders of those parties believed that an intellectual vanguard held all knowledge. This is a misreading, Professor Dean writes:

“Lenin’s point is that political consciousness comes from outside the economic struggle, not [outside] the class struggle. The economic struggle takes place between particular interests within the field of capital. The terms of the struggle are set by capitalism. The political struggle—for communists—is over the field itself. When ‘we’ is used as the designator for the subject of a politics it asserts more than a collective will. It announces a will to collectivity, a will to fight together on terms that challenge rather than accept the given. Class consciousness is not spontaneous. As [Slavoj] Žižek emphasizes, what is spontaneous is misperception—the perception that one is alone or that one’s circumstances are unique. The political ‘we’ of the party ruptures this immediate consciousness to assert a collective one in its place.” [pages 198-199]

No going forward if we erase the past

Anti-party critics seek to have nobody hold political knowledge, the author charges, and that is a serious failing: Erasure of the past is renouncing revolutionary power. The collective space of struggle creates the conditions for new perspectives to arise, and the party establishes this space.

Professor Dean, in the last two chapters, provides several inspiring examples of communist activists finding power in their collectivity. The young Jewish woman who finds the courage to stand up to her tyrannical father because she feels the power of her party comrades behind her; the impoverished Black laborer who enters the Communist Party illiterate because of his poor schooling yet becomes a strong organizer and eventually writes a book; the organizers who do far more than they ever thought possible and continue to push themselves forward. When a new recruit had to have basic concepts explained to him, he wasn’t ridiculed or made to feel inferior; instead, the more experienced took the time to patiently explain in detail.

There is no transformation without organization, the author argues:

“To reduce the Party to its excesses fails to recognize its indispensable capacity to generate practical optimism and collective strength. Such a reduction likewise reduces the world, contracting possibility into what can be done instead of forcing the impossibility of what must be done. … The party continues the moment of belonging, intensifying and expanding it in solidarity purpose.” [pages 247-248]

Here, however, the author could have strengthened her argument with a discussion of those excesses. Communist parties did have weaknesses (as all parties do). She touches on some of this, briefly, in the introduction, pointing out that the authoritarianism of Left parties in the East, the surrender to capitalist assumptions of Left parties in the West, and the failure of Left parties to incorporate identity politics as reasons for so many turning their backs on the party form.

Why was this? One reason was the imbalance between theory and practice; practice with too little theory behind it leads to practice that spins its wheels in place. For all the good that the British and U.S. communist parties achieved in the lives of people it reached, particularly in the 1930s, that activity did not lead to an ability to grow beyond small followings. The extreme policy zigzags of alternately denouncing all other organizations with tailing those groups previously denounced, and embarrassing episodes such as Lysenkoism, demonstrated not only fatal over-centralization but an organization in which theory had disastrously fossilized into incontestable dogma.

Parallel to this is the concept of the single party: Why can’t there be multiple organizations working toward a goal of full human emancipation? No organization, much less an individual leader, has all the answers. Regardless of how we see this question, however, there is no escaping that organization and learning from the past are critical to sustaining any movement that purports to bring a better world into being. The answer is to learn from past mistakes, not to throw out the past. “To advance, we need to organize,” Crowds and Party correctly concludes. “We need a party for the people in the crowd.”

The title Crowds and Party is carefully chosen. Professor Dean has linked these two, and given us a powerful defense of organization, of demonstrating that only as part of collectives, rather than as individuals, can we hope to overcome the mounting horrors that capitalism unleashes on the world.

* Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party [Verso, London 2016]

A global working class in formation

With the rise of a working class rooted in the global South comes worker militancy in the same geographies. This is militancy that has yet to attract much notice in the advanced capitalist countries of the North.

One reason lies in the withering of labor movements across the North, and a belief in some circles, flowing from that withering, that the working class is shrinking and perhaps ceasing to be an instrument of social change. In part such viewpoints are due to a failure to see office workers in “white-collar” professions to be part of the working class. (Surplus value is extracted from them just the same.) In another part it is myopia — believing labor acquiescence in the North to be universally representative while failing to appreciate the rise of militancy on the part of super-exploited workers in the developing world.

Workers in the South, however, are developing new forms of resistance, and are now an integral part of a global working class, under-appreciated developments brought to vivid life in Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class* by Immanuel Ness. The industrial working class has not disappeared, but rather has been reconstituted in the South and in larger in numbers than ever before, in contrast to scholars on the right and left who “declared the working class dead.” In his book, Professor Ness argues:

“While the right wing declared the working class dead and a false construct, leftist scholars were also challenging the legitimacy of the working class as a force for social equality and transformation. Yet, more than 40 years after the onslaught of the economic, political, and intellectual offensive against organized labor throughout the world, the working class has a heartbeat and is stronger than ever before despite the dramatic decline in organized labor. … While it may be the case that the labor movements in Europe and North America are a spent force, it is their very defeats that have marginalized their existing supine and bureaucratic order and regenerated a fierce workers’ movement in the early 21st century.” [page 3]

Southern Insurgency coverThe percentage of formal-sector workers holding industrial employment in the South has grown from about 50 percent of the global total in 1980 to 80 percent. This increase is of course central to corporate strategy in the neoliberal era — as organized labor achieved successes, capital responded by moving production. This process has repeated, as Northern multi-national capital continually seeks out lower-wage Southern labor to exploit. That Northern capital has intensified its exploitation is demonstrated by the fact that profits being taken out of the South are rising faster than the inflow there of investment capital.

Southern traditional unions lost whatever militancy they may have once had through their co-optation into state and capitalist institutions. But in contrast to working people in much of the North, workers of the South have begun to build new types of organizations. Professor Ness writes:

“In more and more industries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, this new proletariat is forming bonds of solidarity through independent organizations demanding improved conditions for all workers, pushing existing unions to represent members and non-members, and forming alliances within communities to improve the quality of life for all impoverished workers. The workplace and community demands that are now made by the new industrial proletariat reveal the motivations of workers rooted in solidarity, and a fundamental opposition to neoliberal capital, inequality, and poverty.” [page 58]

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable, and suffer particularly unsafe and exploitative working conditions and pay. Liberal theories of migration ignore the structural reasons for migration, Professor Ness notes — neoliberalism creates unemployment and inequality, forcing involuntary movements; forced displacement in turns leads to slums, poverty and exploitation. Capital needs these migrations, and immigration, to increase competition for jobs and thus make work more precarious. Guest workers tend to earn barely enough to ensure their own survival and don’t contribute to their home economies, in contrast to World Bank and International Monetary Fund propaganda.

Precarious labor in India

The core of Southern Insurgency are case studies of three of the largest Southern economies: India, China and South Africa. The intensity of exploitation in each of these countries is high and resistance ongoing despite the use of force on the part of both capital and government. The first of these case studies, India, represents “a leading example of neoliberal imperialism,” Professor Ness argues:

“The actions of the Indian state have been decisive for multinational capital and its local agents by facilitating foreign investment in new manufacturing industries, safeguarding foreign investments, and commonly using legal rulings against workers and unions and unions fighting for democratic representation at the workplace. Moreover, state police are readily available to intervene on behalf of multinational investors seeking to thwart labor organizations. In India, the state police and the criminal justice system are not impartial intermediaries but partisans in support of corporations against the working class as it seeks equity and humane conditions in the workplace.” [pages 105-106]

Only about one-quarter of Indian workers enjoy regular employment and are eligible to be in a state-recognized union; three-quarters of workers are “contract workers” who have no security, are prohibited from unionizing and are paid 25 to 50 percent of the low wages of regular workers, barely enough to eat and pay rent. Although Indian law has permitted unions since independence, labor law has been flouted since the early 1990s by the state, capital and sometimes even unions. With traditional Indian unions, who are aligned with weakening political parties, failing to defend workers, a new independent formation, the National Trade Union Initiative, is attempting to organize non-union and informal workers, although the government refuses to recognize it.

Splitting the working class is at the core of multi-national capital’s strategy in India, actively encouraged by the state. One example is a fierce fightback at a Suzuki auto plant in 1991. Workers there used hunger strikes and two-hour “tool-downs” to press their demands, which included an end to the contract system. Management responded with a lockout, enforced by a police blockade, and a demand that workers sign a draconian “good conduct” letter to be allowed to return. Ultimately, Suzuki restarted production with scabs, enthusiastically backed by the state.

When Suzuki opened a second plant, the same scenario repeated, but this time the company hired goons who instigated violence, leaving more than 100 injured but only worker leaders jailed. Organized resistance continues in India despite continued repression, Professor Ness writes, and organized fight-backs, which consistently include demands for equal pay and conditions, are building needed class consciousness.

Organizing beyond unions in China

Although Chinese workers face the strongest state among the three case-study countries, they are also making the biggest strides. The very weakness of the Chinese union federation, Southern Insurgency argues, may give workers there more space to act collectively outside the constraints imposed by union bureaucracies and labor law. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been the sole national federation since 1949, and because good benefits and security were the norm during the Mao Zedong era, member unions have little experience in negotiating. Local branches don’t function as active organizations but respond only to rank-and-file disruptions of production. Unions are subservient to capital and negotiate without member input, but this makes them little different from Western unions, Professor Ness argues:

“Most existing union models throughout the world do not want competition from independent unions, so why should the [All-China Federation]? Labor unions in liberal democracies that fail to represent members’ interests are thus a poor model for the Chinese working class.” [page 126]

Labor law is largely not enforced in China; in part this is due to enforcement being devolved to the city level. Struggles tend to be ignited by failures to pay wages and thus tend to be spontaneous single-factory actions. Ironically, because workers are circumscribed by an inability to revolt regionally, nationally or across industries, the number of local revolts is higher than it would be otherwise. Younger workers are becoming more assertive in demanding better pay and retirement benefits, and privatizations and layoffs at state-owned enterprises are also behind a rising number of strikes.

Workers in the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta region, sometimes led by floor supervisors, have forced companies to pay back owed wages and retirement benefits. Police repression has been deployed outside plants but the state has also pressured companies to pay what they owe their workers. Throughout, workers have relied on self-organization as they have received no help from their unions.

Wildcat strikes are the standard model of Chinese workplace bargaining, Professor Ness writes, a “class struggle” unionism outside official channels. A future Chinese labor movement may be emerging from these battles.

State and capital vs. South African labor

Parallel to the contract-labor system of India and the hukou migrant-labor system of China, South Africa extensively uses contract and migrant labor at the behest of multi-national capital. Neoliberalism has an added bitter component there because harsh labor policies are enforced by the African National Congress (ANC), which granted political rights to the country’s oppressed Black majority but left economic relations untouched.

The largest South African labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), formed as an ANC affiliate during the 1980s but became a “distinctly junior partner” to the ANC and the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party and began to lose credibility in the 2010s as it failed to oppose the harsh neoliberalism dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Working conditions are particularly poor for miners — mining is controlled by multi-national capital and is by far the country’s biggest industry.

COSATU and its National Union of Mineworkers affiliate have supported an increase in the use of informal labor because they can hold a dominant position by representing only regular workers and thus without the support of the majority of the workforce. When a wave of strikes nonetheless began in 2009, the unions declared the strikes “illegal” and backed management. In at least one case, the union called for a harsher punishment than management did!

Workers organized themselves, and asked a new union unaffiliated with COSATU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, to negotiate on their behalf, which in turn won much greater pay raises. The National Union of Mineworkers reached a new low in 2012, however, after striking workers left that union and joined the Association during a strike. When management obtained a court order against the strikers, the National Mineworkers sided with management and sent goons to join with company goons to impose a violent denouement; 34 were killed and scores injured in what became known as the Marikana Massacre.

A fresh wave of strikes commenced in 2014, with Association negotiators obtaining significant wage increases. In parallel, a metal workers union has called for more militancy and for nationalizations; in response, COSATU expelled it. Worker militancy continues to rise and with the fracturing of the union movement, a realignment seems to be coming. Professor Ness writes:

“While the future configuration of the unions remains to be determined, it is clear that rank-and-file workers are helping to build oppositional unions that are shaping a struggle against economic imperialism, insisting on ending the system of exploitation and inequality that remains a fixture in the post-apartheid era.” [page 178]

Strength in worker radicalism

Southern Insurgency concludes by asking if existing labor unions can contain the development of independent working-class organizations. The actions of Indian, Chinese and South African industrial workers are reshaping traditional unions, and workers can’t rely on bureaucratic unions leaders to defend themselves, the book argues:

“It is the development of worker radicalism that will shape the form and survival of decaying traditional unions. … [T]he results of these rank-and-file struggles are mixed, but the evidence … demonstrates that these movements are gaining traction, and achieving real wage gains and improvement in conditions.” [page 189]

This latest book by Immanuel Ness is a needed corrective to the false idea that resignation to neoliberalism is universal, and the examples of militancy that he presents are not simply a necessary corrective but demonstrate that improvements are only possible with organized, self-directed actions. In a world more globalized then ever, workers of the world truly do need to unite — a global working class can only liberate itself through a global struggle.

Immanuel Ness, Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class [Pluto Press, London 2016]

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]

Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]