The Continuation of History: Future Societies in Fiction

As a long-time reader of Ursula K. Le Guin, I was saddened to hear of her passing. The following essay, originally written in 2001 for the literary magazine BigCityLit, examines Ms. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed in conjunction with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The ideas expressed and implied in these works continue to be highly relevant for activists wishing to find a path toward a better world.

History has proven it hasn’t ended. The concept should have been too laughable to even been contemplated; the very fact that ever shriller cacophonies of propaganda are hurled at us ought to prove the point, if it needed to be proved at all.

No matter how many times Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” is pompously declared; no matter how many times Francis Fukuyama is invoked to declare the end of history — a quote sure to be one of the 21st century’s reliable laugh lines — much of the world persists in refusing its assigned role. Unless we’re paying close attention, most of this is yet under the radar, save for the occasional spectacle when the World Bank or International Monetary Fund or a hemispheric “free trade” conference convenes, and we are shown a backdrop of protesters while a befuddled television talking head scratches his head and says “I don’t get it.” If the talking head is planning on a nice career as a media personality, he’d better not get it.

There is a subset of the “no alternative” grouping. Well, yes, maybe capitalism isn’t all wonderful, but look at how socialism failed. Actually, “socialism” did not fail; one distorted version did. The story of how that distortion, solidifying the incredible twists and turns taken by one country weighed down by the horrors of its absolutist history and further bent out of recognition by a single-minded dictator, is fascinating for those with much patience. That country, if we care to be precise, was never close to achieving socialism. Nonetheless, that country, which also faced relentless pressures from the West, including an invasion by 14 countries as soon as they could stop fighting World War I, had its uses. Western anti-Marxists didn’t want people to think there could be an alternative to capitalism. They still don’t.

We’ve begun the 21st century. Stalinism is dead. It will remain dead. Still, the desire for a better life remains. But what? It’s too easy to say “we don’t know.” We don’t. But whatever is next, it’ll have to be built on top of present-day society. It’ll have to be built, at least in some part, on a critique of capitalist society. We already possess that critique, and so it is bound to be at least a starting point. It is therefore not surprising that when we cross from the real world into the world of fiction, those starting points come with us.

There are as many socialisms, or potential future societies if socialism is too scary a word, as our imagination will allow us. It would be natural for those fiction writers of the future, science fiction specialists, to explore many of these potential futures. Oddly, despite the countless dystopian novels out there, this is actually highly rare. Science fiction is actually a genre that, when we take an overall sampling, is parched for ideas. I say this as a regular reader of science fiction. So much of the genre consists of fetishized military engagements and thinly veiled technology manuals masquerading as stories. Even the dystopias usually consist of the author taking a single idea and seeing how far she can run with it.

The rare exceptions, then, tower above the field. Rarer still are those who attempt to create a truly different society based on recognizable characters. Two of these authors are Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Both winningly attempt to work out new worlds, but in very different ways. Ms. Le Guin is an anarchist who sketches out societies either in the far future or someplace far from Earth. Mr. Robinson, who writes from a Marxist perspective, sets his stories on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system and in the near future. Whether or not it is agreed that the societies sketched out are plausible, these stories are the works of authors realistically wrestling with the full range of human emotion and human interaction with huge, impersonal forces, forces that nonetheless are human created. Both do this with a variety of vivid characters and subtle interplay that make much of their body of work flow well outside of the usual confines of science fiction.

Contrary to orthodox Soviet myopia that shrilly proclaimed the creation of a “workers’ paradise,” real life comes fully equipped with contradictions. If it is not a full-blown contradiction it is certainly an irony that an anarchist, Ms. Le Guin, understands this basic Marxist assumption while Soviet political leaders were unable. Ms. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, wears this right on the cover; the novel’s subtitle calls it an “ambiguous utopia.”

An “ambiguous utopia”

The ambiguous utopia is the world of Anarres, the marginally habitable moon of the Earth-like planet Urras. Although Urras is not Earth and is not inhabited by humans (although they are very much like humans), its political, social and economic systems are very recognizable to the humans of present-day Earth. This “coincidence,” however, is quite forgivable. Urras is dominated by two countries, one an United States-style capitalist state consumed by greed and the other a secretive Soviet Union-style state. Urras is a world with technology and environmental awareness far beyond Earth’s 20th century, political development at the level of Earth’s 20th century and a social system of the 18th or early 19th century rooted in profound sexism; it is an utterly male-dominated society.

Urras’ hounded anarchists of the past were allowed to leave Urras and settle on the moon Anarres, used as a mining colony. Life on Anarres is life on the margins. A dry world that is desert except for small areas of moderate rainfall, the anarchists continually are on the verge of disaster. Only by being a completely collective society, by cooperating with each other, can they survive. With resources so limited, a competitive capitalist society would fail quickly — U.S.-style inequities would not simply create poverty, they would create mass starvation and rapidly deplete the limited natural resources. Such a place would shortly descend into hopeless chaos and implode.

Anarres is far from perfect, being an “ambiguous utopia.” It is an anarchist society without government, yet it must ensure resources are used where they are needed, that men and women with the right skills are sent where they are needed and that the basic necessities of life are available for everyone. There are no jails or coercion, yet peer pressure must be sufficient to deter the potentially uncooperative. Freedom of decision and personal life choices are paramount, yet people must be sent to new locations when emergencies occur.

One of the largest contradictions is in how people are to serve this society, in normal times and during crises. This problem is embodied in the main character, Shevek, a brilliant physicist. Can Shevek best serve Anarres by continuing his research? He is so far beyond other scientists that no one on Anarres can fully understand his work. Only a handful of physicists on Urras can, and they are interested in exploiting him for their own (national) interests. Although it is assumed that Shevek’s esoteric work will have applications some day, it has no practical use now. Or, particularly during the crisis of a severe drought that leads to deprivation around Anarres, is it in the dry world’s interest that Shevek drop his research and perform practical work that will help Anarres marshal its meager resources for survival? Can he go back and forth depending on conditions?

It is the very fact that Anarres is a collective society that enables individuals to flourish in a difficult physical environment. Yet can those individuals do what they want, or must that individuality be set aside for the greater good? There is no easy answer, or even single answer, to this question. Neither Shevek nor his society can formulate a solution. Yet the struggle over this question on Anarres is vastly different than the contradictions inherent on Urras, where the two dominant countries still regularly fight proxy wars in other countries against each other and where the “free” United States-style nation proves to be much less free than it appears. The tenuous relationship between Anarres and Urras has its own set of contradictions.

The society of Anarres, based on cooperation without even the concept of money, is so different from the modern neoliberal state built on pitiless competition with power rooted in economics as to be seemingly an impossible transition. And, indeed, Anarres is not the transformation of any society, even if it was conceived on Urras. The Anarres anarchist society is constructed in a place that was empty, except for a couple of mining settlements where nobody lived permanently. It is created out of nothing, not out of a pre-existing society. On Urras, from where the original Anarres settlers escaped, the traditional nation-state forms still exist, intact, two centuries after new Anarres settlement is closed.

Can a radically new society, based on values far different from existing society, be created in the same country? Are pre-existing societal pressures too powerful to be overcome? Can a radically new society only be created on a blank slate? Is a radically new society needed to be created somewhere else before it can supplant the existing order? And if so, does the lag period have to be decades, even centuries? Now we’ve leaped from contradictions on a personal scale to contradictions on a national or even global scale. The Dispossessed does not purport to attempt an answer to these questions and for the most part does not even ask these questions. But it does stimulate thinking about these questions, and this alone raises it into very select company.

How to organize in the absence of a state?

If we dig down into Anarres society, it is, theoretically, a world of “pure” anarchism, although some Marxists would argue that such a society would be the end result of communist development. Anarres is a world of true common ownership — there is no state, not even a government, to own productive property in the name of the people. The only global organization is a bureau that links people with jobs that need to be filled.

The bureau has no coercive powers; any man or woman is free to accept or decline a posting. But in times of crisis, such as the long drought Anarres goes through, peer pressure is very strong to accept a post, even if it is in a remote location and it requires the acceptee to be away from his/her partner for a long period of time. Housing, cafeterias and other needs are always available, wherever a posting takes a person. This also makes Anarres a mobile society, as there is no private property to be left behind, freeing men and women to move around the moon as they like. It is also a society totally without hierarchy, class distinctions or gender roles. Puritanism is also erased; a full sexual freedom exists with the elimination of sexism and gender roles.

These liberating social conditions are inseparable from the economic freedom of Anarres. It is, again, a place with true common ownership, different from an anarcho-syndicalist economy, in which the members of small collectives would together own their workshop or production facility. It is also distinct from the concept of the state owning property in the name of society as developed in Soviet Union. But even this concept is, in theory, a stage of development in which the end result is a withering away of the state which, again in theory, might result in an economic design not much different than the concepts of the anarchist society of Anarres.

Anarres is able to maintain its society through isolation. There is no contact between it and Urras, except for freight ships that mostly transport minerals to Urras, but also carry other goods, even books, in both directions. Anarres is completely closed to Urras, with nobody from the freight ships allowed to leave the small port. It is unthinkable for any Anarres citizen to go to Urras. Governments on Urras ruthlessly suppress any groups that wish to implement Anarres ideas, but the countries of Urras make no attempt to interfere with Anarres itself; Anarres continues to ship minerals to Urras and, from the Urras point of view, remains a mining colony.

The people of Anarres, who deeply believe in their project, are allowed to continue to develop their society with no interference thanks to the hundreds of thousands of miles that separate it from the warring nation-states of Urras. But what if there was no such separation; what if the capitalists of Urras saw a threat in Anarres? Would Anarres have the freedom to develop its egalitarian society? Can a radically new and different society exist next to or nearby societies that continue to use traditional, hierarchal forms? These questions do get raised in The Dispossessed, and of course asking these questions brings us back to Earth.

In our solar system, Earth’s moon is not capable of sustaining life; alternative societies will need to take root here on Earth. But is it possible for a radical society — an egalitarian society that provides an adequate standard of living, materially and in all the other ways — that, by its very existence, provides a superior alternative to capitalist society, to have the time to create itself? Is it even possible for such a society to take root with more powerful neighbors ready to suppress it?

Revolution when there is the (physical) space for it

Ursula Le Guin, the creator of an “ambiguous anarchist utopia,” is not optimistic on these questions. Neither is Kim Stanley Robinson, the creator of a Marxist-inspired revolution on Mars that succeeds against great odds. Unlike the anarchists of Anarres, who have a world essentially handed to them — authorities on Urras apparently decided this would be a way of getting rid of their troublemakers — the Martians of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) have to overthrow oppressive colonial rule to create their better society.

But just as Anarres benefited from its distance from Urras, Mars’ distance from Earth is what gives the revolutionaries the space to create their new society. And the Martians, too, must compromise. Anarres must continue to supply Urras with minerals or face the possibility of an invasion; the revolutionary Martian government must continue to accept a continuous stream of colonists from Earth and maneuver its way around the colossal economic power of Earth’s biggest corporations and the puppet political institutions the corporations control.

In the years of the 21st and 22nd centuries, capitalism continues to develop; that is, economic power is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. About 20 corporations have a stranglehold on the world’s economy and dominate Earth. The economies of all countries except the 11 comprising the G-11 grouping (expanded from the present-day G-7) are dwarfed by those 20 corporations; indeed, most countries of the world are directly controlled by one of the top corporations. The United Nations is the gendarme of this corporate domination. The UN organizes the colonization of Mars on behalf of its corporate masters; the intention is to exploit the resources of the Red Planet and to, over time, export some of Earth’s overpopulation.

Some colonists are willing to go along with this program; many others want to create a better world than what they left behind on Earth. This increasingly bitter divide is complicated by an environmental divide between “Reds” (those who wish to leave Mars as it is) and “Greens” (those who wish to terraform Mars into an Earth-like environment). The divide between willing colonists and independent-minded social builders does not coincide with the environmental divide; although there is wide support to break free of Earth’s grip and build a better society, there are more “Greens” than “Reds” on the environmental question. At any rate, during the colonial era, the decision is out of the Martians’ hands as the UN and the corporations behind it seek to create an Earth-like Mars. Terraforming begins with the first colonists and there is far too much economic muscle applied from Earth for the process to be slowed, much less stopped.

A further fracture in the developing Martian society, which ultimately adds to political tensions, is the huge social gap between the younger men and women who are born on Mars and the waves of colonists who continue to flood the planet. The intention of the independence-minded colonists is to create a better society, not only in terms of dispensing with the rapacious economic determinism of Earth, but in other realms as well. These colonists want to create a non-hierarchal society free not only of class distinctions but of ills such as sexism, racism, nationalism and cultural arrogance.

To the men and women who are born on Mars, this is not only natural, but easy to express because to them the hideous stratifications and exploitation of Earth are revolting and unimaginable. Counter-pressures come on economic and colonial questions from the colonists who see Mars as a natural colony of Earth and from the large number of colonists who come from more repressive cultures and seek to replicate the backwardness they left behind.

Creating the future when so much of the past is present

On this fictional Mars created by Mr. Robinson, we have something of a hybrid between a society trying to create itself next to existing, hostile societies and a society free to create itself out of nothing in isolation from hostile counter-pressures. Mars is of course barren of life before the arrival of the first trickle of colonists — the Martian population starts in the hundreds and rises to the tens of millions — so it has the potential to create itself out of nothing. But in reality, it is a colony controlled by Earth, regularly sent new colonists who don’t share the lofty ideals of the independence-minded or “native” Martians, and who act as forces to create a replication of Earth. Here we have a different contradiction, that between the huge distance between the planets that should provide the space for a new society to create itself and the very powerful forces that bind the new, and still developing, society to the old.

For a long time, those powerful forces overpower the native energy that seeks to create a new Martian society; a society that would be different and more advanced than what can currently exist on Mars. The Martians don’t have the option to isolate themselves — even if they could reach a consensus on that issue — because they aren’t strong enough to stop the UN from following whatever policies the UN wishes to follow. Gradually, repression is strengthened until the movement for independence is forced underground. During this time, underground resistors can create small hidden pockets where new societies can be created, but they are politically impotent.

Mars, still red (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres, where there was freedom to create something entirely new in a political vacuum, the Mars of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy has real pressures acting on it, external and internal. Far from political, social or environment unity, this Mars has wide ranges of opinion on all questions, and vastly different, even irreconcilable, cultural experiences. It has to find a way to juggle and allow expression to all these forces, assuming it can even find a way out of its colonial status.

None of the other issues can be tackled until the first issue of independence can be solved. Even then, Mars will not have full freedom of action. A well-timed revolution, launched just as Earth enters into a sudden global environmental crisis, enables the Martians to overthrow the direct rule of the UN and Earth’s corporations, but does not remove the power that still exists on Earth. There are those on Mars opposed to the revolution; they are politically neutered now but won’t necessarily remain so. There are socially backward elements who can only cling to what they left behind on Earth. Among the majority pro-revolution opinion, there are a variety of conflicting interests and differing political ideas. The environmental split between “Reds” and “Greens” still exists; the Reds are losing that battle and know it, but still seek to at least slow down or somehow halt progress on terraforming.

At the start of a revolutionary period, all things are possible. How will the possibilities be sorted? How can all reasonable opinions be represented? How and who can decide what a reasonable opinion is? During this period of tremendous change, which will eventually come to a close, how radical a break from the old society can there be? How fast and how far can the revolution go in building a new society? Can an accommodation be made with many conflicting areas of opinion while retaining the revolutionary impulse to create a new society? Can competing interests co-exist long enough to build lasting institutions, or must one group begin to dominate other groups? Can the unique circumstance of tens of millions of miles of space between the planets allow a radical break from the past that would not be possible on Earth?

Other than the last question, these questions apply to all revolutionary situations. The uniqueness of revolting on a separate planet does give the Martian revolutionaries the space to create lasting institutions locking in a radically new society; but even here, Earth’s need to deal with its environmental catastrophe keeps it occupied. Otherwise, any attempt at revolution likely would have been doomed. Indeed, a first attempt is mercilessly crushed by the UN.

Freedom from economic coercion at the base

The political institutions the new Martian government creates are not necessarily a vast departure from previous government styles; but it is different enough to allow radical changes in other spheres of life, especially social and economic. The government is nominally a multi-party parliamentary system on a global scale; but government exists only at the city and global levels. There are no countries or subdivisions. Economic freedom and equality is enshrined in the new Martian constitution; all workplaces are collectively owned by the people who work there. The new society is stripped of inequality and all hierarchy; with full equality among all citizens, a full and exuberant sexual freedom for all genders blossoms with the elimination of sexism. Anything less is incomprehensible to those born on Mars free of the horrors of Earth.

Perhaps all this happens rather too easily, but the buildup to the revolution and the pre-revolutionary work of creating a new world lasts several decades and involves three generations, so it by no means is a sudden change. Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres — rather conveniently allowed to happen on an empty moon — Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes the realistic approach that old hierarchies can only be removed with considerable effort. Along the way, the characters struggle with the weight of history, and argue history’s lessons.

There is no doubt that further lessons need to be learned from history, and it is clear that both Ms. Le Guin and Mr. Robinson have not only studied, but learned, history. Their fictional worlds, and the very real and interesting characters who inhabit them, are all the richer for this. But can these worlds — the stateless anarchism of Anarres and the Marxist egalitarianism governed through parliamentary consensus of Mars — be brought into existence on Earth? Would we want to, or would a better world be different that these ideals? Can a truly egalitarian society, allowing a full scope of economic as well as other freedoms, come into being, or would hostile capital-dominated countries inevitably overwhelm it, as the 20th century’s socialist experiments were overwhelmed?

What the planets created in these fictions have in common is that the inhabitants have full freedom — starting with economic freedom, without which most other freedoms are illusions. (Unless your idea of democracy is choosing what cola you can drink.) Whatever the future has in store for humanity, it will certainly be different from the future societies sketched in this review. But the future will have to include a full range of freedoms similar to that enjoyed by the books’ characters. That won’t happen under capitalism — by definition, it can’t — and it won’t happen under a monolithic party that doesn’t understand its own doctrine. It won’t come under an ephemeral “third way” that is just capitalism with a thin veneer of sweetener layered on the top.

Humanity will have to find a way forward, somehow, or face catastrophe. I won’t pretend to have the answer. But it is nice to have stimulating fiction that works not only as a fine read, but allows us to think about the possibilities along the way.

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The revolt that shook the world

History does not travel in a straight line. I won’t argue against that sentence being a cliché. Yet it is still true. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be still debating the meaning of the October Revolution on its centenary, and more than a quarter-century after its demise.

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party had played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

The time had come for the working class to take power. Should they really do it? How could backward Russia with a vast rural population still largely illiterate possibly leap all the way to a socialist revolution? The answer was in the West — the Bolsheviks were convinced that socialist revolutions would soon sweep Europe, after which advanced industrial countries would lend ample helping hands. The October Revolution was staked on European revolution, particularly in Germany.

The beginning of the October Revolution in Nizhny Novgorod on the Annunciation Square

We can’t replay the past and counterfactuals are generally sterile exercises. History is what it is. It would be easy, and overly simplistic, to see European revolution as romantic dreaming, as many historians would like us to believe. Germany came close to a successful revolution, and likely would have done so with better leadership and without the treachery of the Social Democrats who suppressed their own rank and file in alliance with the profoundly undemocratic Germany army. That alone would have profoundly changed the 20th century. And provided impetus to the uprisings sparking off across the continent.

Consider the words of British prime minister David Lloyd George in 1919 as he discussed his fears with Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt among the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”

What country goes first?

Russia was the weak link in European capitalism and the stresses of World War I added to the conditions for a revolution. Not an inevitability. Leon Trotsky’s analogy of a steam engine comes to life here: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The October Revolution wouldn’t have happened without a lot of steam; without masses of people in motion working toward a goal. The revolution faced enormous problems, assuming it could withstand the counter-assault of a capitalist world determined to destroy it. The revolution was a beacon for millions around the world as strikes and uprisings, inspired by the example of Russians, touched off across Europe and North America. Dock and rail workers in Britain, France, Italy and the United States showed solidarity through refusing to load ships intended to be sent to support the counterrevolutionary White Armies that massacred without pity. Armies, assisted by 14 invading countries, that sought to drown the revolution in blood.

The revolution survived. But the revolutionaries inherited a country in ruins, subjected to embargoes that allowed famines and epidemics to rage. The cities emptied of the new government’s working class base, the country surrounded by hostile capitalist governments. There was one thing the Bolshevik leaders had agreed on: Revolutionary Russia could not survive without revolutions in at least some countries of Europe, both to lend helping hands and to create a socialist bloc sufficiently large enough to survive. The October Revolution would go under if European revolution failed.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

Yet here they were. What to do? With no road map, shattered industry, depopulated cities and infrastructure systematically destroyed by all armies hostile to the revolution — having endured seven years of world war and civil war — the Bolsheviks had no alternative to falling back on Russia’s own resources. Those resources included workers and peasants. For it was from them that the capital needed to rebuild the country and then begin to build an infrastructure that could put Russia on a path toward actual socialism, as opposed to an aspirational goal well into the future, would come.

The debates on this, centering on tempo and how much living standards could be short-changed to develop industry, raged through the 1920s. Russia’s isolation, the dispersal of the working class, the inability of a new working class assembled from the peasantry to assert its interests and the centralization necessary to survive a hostile world — all compounded by ever tightening grasps on political power by ever narrowing groups that flowed from the country’s isolation — would culminate in the dictatorship of Stalin.

Privatization ends chance of democratic control

Stalin would one day be gone and the terror he used to maintain power gone with him. But the political superstructure remained — the single party controlling economic, political and cultural life, and the overcentralized economic system that steadily became a more significant fetter on development. The Soviet system was overdue for large-scale reforms, including giving the workers in whose name the party ruled much more say in how the factories (and the country itself) were run. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and the country’s enterprises were put in private hands at minuscule fractions of the value of those enterprises, the chance to build a real democracy vanished.

A real democracy? Yes. For without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. The capitalist world we currently inhabit testifies to that. What if the people of the Soviet Union had rallied to their own cause? What if the enterprises of that vast country had become democratized — some combination of cooperatives and state property with democratic control? That could have happened because the economy was already in state hands. That could have happened because a large majority of the Soviet people wanted just that. Not capitalism.

They were unable to intervene during perestroika. Nor did they realize what was in store for them once the Soviet Union was disbanded, and Boris Yeltsin could impose shock therapy that threw tens of millions into poverty and would eventually cause a 45 percent reduction in gross domestic product — much deeper than the U.S. contraction during the Great Depression.

A revolution that began with three words — peace, bread, land — and a struggle to fulfill that program ended with imposed “shock therapy” — a term denoting the forced privatization and destruction of social safety nets coined by neoliberal godfather Milton Friedman as he provided guidance to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Millions brought that revolution to life; three people (the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) put an end to it in a private meeting. With the financial weapons of the capitalist powers looming in the background, ready to pounce.

The Soviet model won’t be recreated. That does not mean we have nothing to learn from it. One important lesson from revolutions that promised socialism (such as the October Revolution) and revolutions that promised a better life through a mixed economy (such as the Sandinista Revolution) is that a democratic economy and thus a stable political democracy has to rest on popular control of the economy — or, to use the old-fashioned term, the means of production.

Leaving most of the economy in the hands of capitalists gives them the power to destroy the economy, as Nicaragua found out in the 1980s and Venezuela is finding out today. Putting all of the enterprises in the hands of a centralized state and its bureaucracy reproduces alienation on the part of those whose work makes it run. It also puts into motion distortions and inefficiencies because no small group of people, no matter how dedicated, can master all the knowledge necessary to make the vast array of decisions that make it work smoothly.

The world of 2017 is different from the world of 1917; for one, the looming environmental and global-warming crisis of today gives us additional impetus to transcend the capitalist system. We need to produce and consume less, not more, unlike those of a century ago. We need the participation of everyone, not bureaucracy. Planning from below with flexibility, not rigid planning imposed from above. But we need also learn from the many advancements of the 20th century’s revolutions — the ideals of full employment, culture available for everyone, affordable housing and health care as human rights, dignified retirements, and that human beings exploiting and stunting the development of other human beings for personal gain is an affront.

The march forward of human history is not a gift from gods above nor presents handed us from benevolent rulers, governments, institutions or markets — it is the product of collective human struggle on the ground. If revolutions fall short, or fail, that simply means the time has come again to try again and do it better next time.

This article originally ran in the Indypendent newspaper of New York.

Working collectively beats working for a boss

Cooperative enterprises are more stable than conventional capitalist enterprises, are more productive and create jobs that are more sustainable. And although the temptation to see coops as a magical solution to the ills of capitalism should be resisted, that they are better for workers than top-down enterprises shouldn’t be any surprise.

The better performance of cooperative enterprises, and the better results for workers, than that of traditionally run capitalist enterprises was recently summarized by the organization Co-operatives UK in its report, “What do we really know about worker co-operatives?” Written by Virginie Pérotin, the report analyzed international data on worker-owned and -run businesses in Europe, the U.S. and Latin America and compared the results with conventional businesses.

Moreover, the report said, conventional enterprises have something to learn from cooperatives: “in several industries, conventional companies would produce more with their current levels of employment and capital if they behaved like employee-owned firms.” Setting aside the unlikelihood of capitalists suddenly deciding to cede control and/or share profits, the preceding quote only makes sense. Why wouldn’t we be more productive if we were working for ourselves and had a say in the running of the business rather than toiling within the traditional concept of having to accept orders from above by people who have no interest other than squeezing as much out of you as possible?

Les Mees Cereal Food Cooperative PAD in France (photo by JPS68)

Les Mees Cereal Food Cooperative PAD in France (photo by JPS68)

The Co-operatives UK report defined a worker co-operative as an enterprise in which all or most of the capital is owned by employees (members) whether individually and/or collectively; all categories of employees can become members; most employees are members; in accordance with international co-operative principles, members each have one vote, regardless of the amount of capital they have invested in the business; and members vote on strategic issues in annual general meetings and elect the chief executive officer. Law firms were excluded because only some lawyers can be partners nor can any support staff.

The main findings of the report are:

  • Worker co-operatives are larger than conventional businesses and not necessarily less capital-intensive.
  • Worker co-operatives survive at least as long as other businesses and have more stable employment.
  • Worker cooperatives are more productive than conventional businesses, with staff working “better and smarter” and production organized more efficiently.
  • Worker co-operatives retain a larger share of their profits than other business models.
  • Executive and non-executive pay differentials are much narrower in worker co-operatives than in other firms.

More productive and more stable

There are benefits not only for the workers of the cooperative, but also for the local community:

“Labour-managed firms are probably more productive and may preserve jobs better in recessions than conventional firms, creating more sustainable jobs. Promoting worker co-operatives could therefore improve local communities’ employment, and therefore health and social expenditure and tax revenue. …

Employee control is thought to increase productivity, and in a labour-managed firm adjusting pay to preserve jobs makes sense for the employee-owners. Worker-members make the decision to adjust pay and they get the future profits (whereas it is more difficult for a conventional firm to elicit employees’ agreement for pay cuts in exchange for job preservation, since the firm’s owners have an incentive not to increase pay when business recovers).”

And certainly no cooperative is going to vote to ship itself thousands of miles away to a low-wage haven!

Interestingly, perhaps because the example of the factory takeovers in Argentina come readily to mind, cooperatives are more commonly formed from scratch, rather than as rescues of failing enterprises. In France, for example, 84 percent of worker cooperatives started from scratch with only seven percent a rescue of a failing conventional firm during the years 1997 to 2001, whereas in the same period, 64 percent of all firms started from scratch and 20 percent as a rescue of a failing conventional firm.

A significant reason for that is undoubtedly government support. The French and Italian governments provide support for cooperatives and this accounts for the relatively higher number of coops in those two countries. The Co-operatives UK report estimates Italy has at least 25,000 coops, France has 2,600 and Spain has 17,000, compared to only 500 to 600 in Britain.

Government support for coops in France and Italy

During the last years of the 2000s, about 200 new enterprises joined France’s national federation of cooperatives (Société coopérative et participative, or SCOP) annually, and the numbers continue to grow. According to Co-operative News, three-quarters of French coops remain in business after three years, while only two-thirds of French businesses overall last that long. The French government directly provides assistance:

“[W]orker co-operatives receive tax benefits from the French government. SCOPs do not have to pay the professional tax, which is 1.5% to 2.5% of revenues and income on worker shares is exempt from income taxes. There are also financial mechanisms for workers to use redundancy payments as part of wider financing package to buy-out and provide cash-flow for the business once they take it over.”

The federation also provides financing for capital needs through its own financial institution. Financing is also available for cooperatives in Italy.

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 formation and sustainability of cooperatives in Italy are facilitated by the country’s Marcora Law. One aspect of this law is that laid-off workers can elect to have their unemployment paid in a lump sum to be used toward the formation of a cooperative, in conjunction with a minimum number of similarly situated workers. Cooperative members have technical assistance and financing available to them through a mutual fund run by cooperatives, to which all coops in turn contribute 3 percent of their net income. There are also banks that specialize in servicing cooperatives on advantageous terms.

The stability of coops in turn provides stability to the communities in which they operate, notes Co-operative News in a report on Italy’s Marcora Law:

“But beyond the economic and employment policies, the social dimension should not be underestimated: co-operation, by nature, is inextricably linked to geographical territory and, therefore, the re-launch of a business is almost always the re-launch of an important contribution to the economic regeneration of the area in which the enterprise operates; the assets of the business continues to be indivisible and inter-generational, which helps link the co-operative with its social reality.”

Continued survival in Uruguay

In Uruguay, mutual aid cooperatives have a long history — housing cooperatives began to be formed in 1966, with a rapid increase in them after the passage of the National Housing Act in 1968. These were suppressed during the years of military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

Worker-run cooperative enterprises constitute a tiny percentage of the economy in Uruguay. There was, however, a significant expansion in their numbers following a deep economic downturn there in 2002 and they have since gained some government support from the Frente Amplio government. These are often successful. A study finds that cooperatives have survival rates one-third above other enterprises. The study’s author, Gabriel Burdín, writes:

“[S]urvey evidence … in Uruguay indicates that [worker-managed firms] employ less supervisors compared with [conventional firms], rely more on mutual monitoring among co-workers and are more likely to introduce organizational innovations such as team work, quality groups, job rotation and consultation mechanisms.”

In Argentina, workers’ cooperatives were formed as acts of survival.

An organizer at the Zanón factory that is often seen as an exemplary model, Raúl Godoy, speaking at a Left Forum panel organized by Left Voice, told the audience of the long years of organizing necessary to have made the takeover possible. Even after the fall of Argentina’s military dictatorship, blacklists were maintained by employers during the era of formal democracy, and the Zanón factory had a “very harsh regime” for workers. Mr. Godoy reported that organizing had to be done “in almost conspiratorial fashion” outside the factory.

The Zanón activists built relationships with workers fighting in other places; sought to defend the rights of workers; built relationships with “picateros” (organized unemployed people who frequently use direct-action tactics), Mapuches, women and other workers; and did “important militant work that involved building confidence.” Thus when the factory was to be closed and the workers had to occupy it, and physically defend themselves from expulsion, they were able to be cohesive and to count on the assistance of the surrounding community.

The limits of the possible in Argentina

Although forming a cooperative was not necessarily their desired outcome, it represented what was possible at the time. Mr. Godoy told the Left Voice panel:

“There is no individual escape from the capitalist situation. We did not have the power to go beyond the cooperative form. It was the way we could maintain what we had accomplished.”

Argentine authorities have never been supportive of the recovered factories, and the new neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri has quickly slowed itself openly hostile to them. Thus Argentina’s cooperatives face a challenging future. “There is no solution within the capitalist system,” Mr. Godoy said.

Co-op symbolNonetheless, Argentine cooperatives have provided a demonstration of worker-run enterprises forging strong links with their communities, with mutual benefit to the enterprise and the community that supports the enterprise. The employees doing so first had to overcome their own doubts about themselves, but were able to draw on the experience of those who went first and created national organizations to represent the cooperatives and enable coordination among them.

It is no so simple matter for working people to acquire the confidence to run businesses themselves; pervasive capitalist ideology insists the businesses can only be run by a small elite, who are therefore entitled to collect hundreds or even thousands of times more in compensation than their employees. Yet how could any business function without the know-how and cooperation of its workforce?

That the working conditions within cooperatives are superior to traditional top-down enterprises is simply common sense. But cooperatives are small islands in a vast sea of capitalism, and can’t escape the pull of capitalist markets, no matter how humane an internal culture might be. Cooperatives in themselves don’t necessarily herald a coming socialist dawn; they are quite compatible with capitalism.

Cooperating with cooperatives

Even if cooperatives were to become the dominant enterprise model, that by itself would not eliminate competition. To create a truly new, better system, in an economy based on cooperatives, the cooperatives would have to cooperate with each other in a system with democratic accountability. (This does not preclude that certain key industries, such as banking, would be in state hands under democratic control.)

An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain, and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion.

For now, however, cooperatives must compete with capitalist enterprises with all the rigors of capitalist markets. Not even the world’s most successful cooperative, Mondragon, is exempt from this. That cooperatives tend to cut wages rather or dip into reserves rather than lay off workers, with an eye toward future better times in which pay cuts can be made up, may be more humane, but it also reflects that a cooperative enterprise that must compete is eventually forced to treat its own wages as a commodity.

If an economy is based on cooperatives, but those cooperatives compete against each other, the cooperative members will become their own capitalists and be forced to cut their wages to survive competition.

The intention here isn’t to pour cold water on the idea of cooperatives — they have tremendous value in demonstrating that working people don’t need bosses and that it is not necessary to work long hours for little pay so that a few people at the top can amass fortunes. The profits divided between industrialists and financiers derive from the difference in the value of what you produce from what you are paid.

Shouldn’t the people who do the work earn the benefits? Shouldn’t communities have stability instead of being subjected to the whims of far-off corporate bosses? In a better world, they would be.

The forgotten workers’ control movement of Prague Spring

At the time of the [August 1968] Soviet invasion [of Czechoslovakia], two months after the first workers’ councils were formed, there were perhaps fewer than two dozen of them, although these were concentrated in the largest enterprises and therefore represented a large number of employees. But the movement took off, and by January 1969 there were councils in about 120 enterprises, representing more than 800,000 employees, or about one-sixth of the country’s workers. This occurred despite a new mood of discouragement from the government from October 1968.

From the beginning, this was a grassroots movement from below that forced party, government, and enterprise managements to react. The councils designed their own statutes and implemented them from the start. The draft statutes for the Wilhelm Pieck Factory in Prague (one of the first, created in June 1968) provide a good example. “The workers of the W. Pieck factory (CKD Prague) wish to fulfill one of the fundamental rights of socialist democracy, namely the right of the workers to manage their own factory,” the introduction to the statutes stated. “They also desire a closer bond between the interests of the whole society and the interests of each individual. To this end, they have decided to establish workers’ self-management.”

Prague (photo by Beentree)

Prague (photo by Beentree)

All employees working for at least three months, except the director, were eligible to participate, and the employees as a whole, called the “workers’ assembly,” was the highest body and would make all fundamental decisions. In turn, the assembly would elect the workers’ council to carry out the decisions of the whole, manage the plant and hire the director. Council members would serve in staggered terms, be elected in secret balloting and be recallable. The director was to be chosen after an examination of each candidate conducted by a body composed of a majority of employees and a minority from outside organizations.

A director is the top manager, equivalent to the chief executive officer of a capitalist corporation. The workers’ council would be the equivalent of a board of directors in a capitalist corporation that has shares traded on a stock market. This supervisory role, however, would be radically different: The workers’ council would be made up of workers acting in the interest of their fellow workers and, in theory, with the greater good of society in mind as well.

By contrast, in a capitalist corporation listed on a stock market, the board of directors is made up of top executives of the company, the chief executive officer’s cronies, executives from other corporations in which there is an alignment of interests, and perhaps a celebrity or two, and the board of directors has a duty only to the holders of the corporation’s stock. Although this duty to stockholders is strong enough in some countries to be written into legal statutes, the ownership of the stock is spread among so many that the board will often act in the interest of that top management, which translates to the least possible unencumbered transfer of wealth upward. But in cases where the board of directors does uphold its legal duty and governs in the interest of the holders of the stock, this duty simply means maximizing the price of the stock by any means necessary, not excepting mass layoffs, wage reductions and the taking away of employee benefits. Either way, the capitalist company is governed against the interests of its workforce (whose collective efforts are the source of the profits), and by law must be.

National meeting sought to codify statutes

The Wilhelm Pieck Factory statutes were similar to statutes produced in other enterprises that were creating workers’ councils. It was only logical for a national federation of councils to be formed to coordinate their work and for economic activity to have a relation to the larger societal interest. Ahead of a government deadline to produce national legislation codifying the councils, a general meeting of workers’ councils took place on 9 and 10 January 1969 in Plzeň, one of the most important industrial cities in Czechoslovakia (perhaps best known internationally for its famous beers). A 104-page report left behind a good record of the meeting (it was also tape-recorded); representatives from across the Czech Lands and Slovakia convened to provide the views of the councils to assist in the preparation of the national law.

Trade union leaders were among the participants in the meeting, and backed the complementary roles of the unions and the councils. (Trade unions, as noted earlier, convened two-thirds of the councils.) One of the first speakers, an engineer who was the chair of his trade union local in Plzeň, said a division of tasks was a natural development: “For us, the establishment of workers’ councils implies that we will be able to achieve a status of relative independence for the enterprise, that the decision-making power will be separated from executive powers, that the trade unions will have a free hand to carry out their own specific policies, that progress is made towards a solution of the problem of the producers’ relationship to their production, i.e., we are beginning to solve the problem of alienation.”

Some 190 enterprises were represented at this meeting, including 101 workers’ councils and 61 preparatory committees for the creation of councils; the remainder were trade union or other types of committees. The meeting concluded with the unanimous passage of a six-point resolution, including “the right to self-management as an inalienable right of the socialist producer.”

The resolution declared,

“We are convinced that workers’ councils can help to humanize both the work and relationships within the enterprise, and give to each producer a proper feeling that he is not just an employee, a mere working element in the production process, but also the organizer and joint creator of this process. This is why we wish to re-emphasize here and now that the councils must always preserve their democratic character and their vital links with their electors, thus preventing a special caste of ‘professional self-management executives’ from forming.”

That democratic character, and the popularity of the concept, is demonstrated in the mass participation—a survey of 95 councils found that 83 percent of employees had participated in council elections. A considerable study was undertaken of these 95 councils, representing manufacturing and other sectors, and an interesting trend emerged from the data in the high level of experience embodied in elected council members. About three-quarters of those elected to councils had been in their workplaces for more than ten years, and mostly more than 15 years. More than 70 percent of council members were technicians or engineers, about one-quarter were manual workers and only 5 percent were from administrative staffs. These results represent a strong degree of voting for the perceived best candidates rather than employees simply voting for their friends or for candidates like themselves—because the council movement was particularly strong in manufacturing sectors, most of those voting for council members were manual workers.

These results demonstrated a high level of political maturity on the part of Czechoslovak workers. Another clue to this seriousness is that 29 percent of those elected to councils had a university education, possibly a higher average level of education than was then possessed by directors. Many directors in the past had been put into their positions through political connections, and a desire to revolt against sometimes amateurish management played a part in the council movement. Interesting, too, is that about half the council members were also Communist Party members. Czechoslovak workers continued to believe in socialism while rejecting the imposed Soviet-style system.

Government sought to water down workers’ control

The government did write a legislative bill, copies of which circulated in January 1969, but the bill was never introduced as Soviet pressure on the Czechoslovak party leadership intensified and hard-liners began to assert themselves. The bill would have changed the name of workers’ councils to enterprise councils and watered down some of the statutes that had been codified by the councils themselves. These pullbacks included a proposed state veto on the selection of enterprise directors, that one-fifth of enterprise councils be made up of unelected outside specialists, and that the councils of what the bill refers to as “state enterprises” (banks, railroads and other entities that would remain directly controlled by the government) could have only a minority of members elected by employees and allow a government veto of council decisions.

This proposed backtracking was met with opposition. The trade union daily newspaper, Práce, in a February commentary, and a federal trade union congress, in March, both called the government bill “the minimum acceptable.” In a Práce commentary, an engineer and council activist, Rudolf Slánský Jr. (son of the executed party leader), put the council movement in the context of the question of enterprise ownership.

“The management of our nation’s economy is one of the crucial problems,” Slánský wrote.

“The basic economic principle on which the bureaucratic-centralist management mechanism rests is the direct exercise of the ownership functions of nationalized industry. The state, or more precisely various central organs of the state, assume this task. It is almost unnecessary to remind the reader of one of the principal lessons of Marxism, namely he who has property has power…The only possible method of transforming the bureaucratic-administrative model of our socialist society into a democratic model is to abolish the monopoly of the state administration over the exercise of ownership functions, and to decentralize it towards those whose interest lies in the functioning of the socialist enterprise, i.e. the collectives of enterprise workers.”

Addressing bureaucrats who objected to a lessening of central control, Slánský wrote,

“[T]hese people like to confuse certain concepts. They say, for example, that this law would mean transforming social property as a whole into group property, even though it is clearly not a question of property, but rather one of knowing who is exercising property rights in the name of the whole society, whether it is the state apparatus or the socialist producers directly, i.e. the enterprise collectives.”

Nonetheless, there is tension between the tasks of oversight and of day-to-day management. A different commentator, a law professor, declared,

“We must not…set up democracy and technical competence as opposites, but search for a harmonious balance between these two components…It would perhaps be better not to talk of a transfer of functions but rather a transfer of tasks. It will then be necessary for the appropriate transfer to be dictated by needs, rather than by reasons of dogma or prestige.”

These discussions had no opportunity to develop. In April 1969, Alexander Dubček was forced out as party first secretary, replaced by Gustáv Husák, who wasted little time before inaugurating repression. The legislative bill was shelved in May, and government and party officials began a campaign against councils. The government formally banned workers’ councils in July 1970, but by then they were already disappearing.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, published by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Robert Vitak, “Workers Control: The Czechoslovak Experience,” Socialist Register, 1971; Oldřich Kyn, “The Rise and Fall of the Economic Reform in Czechoslovakia,” American Economic Review, May 1970; and several articles anthologized in Vladimir Fišera, Workers’ Councils in Czechoslovakia: Documents and Essays 1968-69 [St. Martin’s Press, 1978]

What might a cooperative economy look like?

In any country in which a model of worker cooperation or self-management (in which enterprises are run collectively and with an eye on benefiting the community) is the predominant model, there would need to be regulations to augment good will. Constitutional guarantees would be necessary as well. Some industries are simply much larger than others. In a complex, industrialized society, some enterprises are going to be much larger than others. Minimizing the problems that would derive from size imbalances would be a constant concern.

Furthermore, if enterprises are run on a cooperative basis, then it is only logical that relations among enterprises should also be run on a cooperative basis. An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised—such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain, and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion.

Central planning in a hierarchal command structure with little or no local input proved to not be a long-term viable alternative system. What of tight regulation? That is not a solution, either. Regulators, similar to central planners, can never possess sufficient knowledge to adequately perform their job and local enterprises can use their special knowledge to give themselves an advantage rather than share that knowledge with regulators.

Responsibility, then, would have to be tied to overall society. Negotiations among suppliers and buyers to determine prices, to determine distribution and a host of other issues would be necessary. Such negotiations are already common in certain industries; for example in the chemical industry, where companies negotiate commodity prices on a monthly or quarterly basis. Those are competitive negotiations in which the dominant position oscillates between buyer and supplier, resulting in dramatic price changes.

In a cooperative economy, negotiations would be done in a far more cooperative manner, with a wider group participating in the discussions. In this model, prices of raw materials, component parts, semi-finished goods, finished goods, consumer products and producer products such as machinery would be negotiated up and down the supply chain, leading to a rationalization of prices—markups to create artificially high profits or pricing below cost to undercut competitors would be unsustainable in a system where prices are negotiated and pricing information is widely available.

These would have to be fair negotiations—prices throughout the supply chain would have to be set with an eye on rational economics. Industry facilitators to assist negotiations and/or a government arbitration board to make decisions when parties are unable to agree to terms might be necessary. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods. It may be desirable to include these community interests in pricing negotiations directly. As more people take on more responsibility, more will gain the experience of fair negotiations, enabling more to peer over the shoulders of those involved in these decisions. In turn, more experience means more people within the community who can shoulder responsibility.

Regulating social standards

Although regulation, as noted above, is not in itself a solution, that is not a suggestion that regulation should be done away with. One method of using regulation to ensure socially positive economic activity might be a system of certification. Enterprises would be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions, but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.

The allusion to “workers’ rights” in the preceding paragraph might seem a bit odd. These are enterprises under workers’ control already, so what rights are contemplated? That is a more specific question than can reasonably be answered in all situations ahead of time, but in large enterprises workers might still need protections codified in the laws covering the governance of enterprises. In the Czechoslovakia of Prague Spring, as we saw in Chapter 3, this issue was directly confronted. There, the enterprises were under state ownership, and no change was contemplated to that status—enterprises were to be managed directly by their employees on behalf of the country and its people. Activists had begun to set up (until the Soviet occupation stopped it) a system of workers’ councils as the instruments through which enterprises would be directed by all the employees.

Although these have a similar name, they should not be confused with the councils and soviets set up in 1917 and 1918 across Europe; these councils were enterprise-management bodies, not alternative government bodies. The Czechoslovak workers’ councils were designed to give the entire workforce of an enterprise a say in management and would also send representatives to national conventions that would coordinate production at the national level. These councils were to exist simultaneously with trade unions, which would represent the same workers as employees. The activists, mostly trade unionists and grassroots Communist Party members who worked in these factories, believed that separate organizations were necessary to represent workers properly in both their roles because there are potential conflicts between being a member of an organization and an individual worker.

Socialist triangleIn a country where capitalism has been transcended, and a new system of social control and democracy is being established, employees in those large enterprises that are to be formally owned by the state will have the same dual role of managing the enterprise collectively at the same time they remain workers. It is not impossible that biases or favoritism could slowly arise in such enterprises; a union would provide another source of protection that could defend a worker as an individual when necessary. Trade union membership, then, would remain a social value to be respected.

Workers in enterprises that are collectively owned, since they would be owners and not simply managers, might find less ambiguity between their two roles, as long as strategic decisions are made collectively. Still, it may be that there remains a place for trade unions even in these types of enterprises, or it could be that unionization is simply a social value and all members of the enterprise join or form a union for reasons of social solidarity or to provide another check against any centralizing tendencies emerging within the enterprise or within government.

Open information for social accountability

A system of democratic control and social accountability would require open information. Records and accounts of all enterprises and major production units of enterprises would have to be made available to all other parties to negotiations in order for the fairest deals to be reached and to prevent attempts to unfairly benefit at the expense of suppliers or customers. Social-justice organizations—such as those upholding civil rights, consumer rights or the environment—should also have a role, perhaps in enterprise negotiations when appropriate, but more likely in helping to set social goals, in monitoring compliance with standards and possibly being the bodies that issue certifications to enterprises that achieve the standards.

Some amount of planning and coordination would be necessary as part of the process of determining raw materials needs and ensuring that those needs are met. Any planning committee would have to be democratically controlled and have wide social representation to oversee production and to assist in the determination of investment needs.

Co-op symbolInvestment would need to go to where it is needed, a determination made with as many inputs as possible, but because of its importance banking is one area that would have to be in state hands and not in collectives. Financial speculation must be definitively ended, with banking reduced to a public utility. Enterprises seeking loans to finance expansions or other projects will have to prove their case, but should have access to investment funds if a body of decision-makers, which like all other bodies would be as inclusive as possible, agrees that the project is socially useful or necessary.

Government infrastructure projects should be subject to the same parameters as enterprises, with the added proviso that the people in the affected area have the right to make their voices heard in meaningful ways on local political bodies and on any other appropriate public boards. No private developer wielding power through vast accumulations of money will be able to destroy forests or neighborhoods to build a project designed for the developer to reap profits while the community is degraded. Development would be controlled through democratic processes at local levels, and regional or national infrastructure projects should require input from local bodies representing all affected areas.

Capitalist ideology holds that the single-person management that goes with private ownership produces the most efficient system, and soon after the October Revolution communist leadership agreed that single-person management is best. But in contrast to these “givens,” is it not true that a content workforce able to have control over its working life will produce better than a workforce that is alienated by a lack of control? Studies consistently conclude that measures of workers’ control increase satisfaction in work, productivity and solidarity. But workers’ control threatens the domination of elites.

An unprecedented level of democracy would be possible in a cooperative economy because the power of capital would be broken. Social constraints ensuring responsibility to the larger community would be required to prevent the accumulation of capital that translates into power, although such tendencies would be countered by a system that rewards cooperation rather than greed. The society that has been sketched out in these very broad strokes is a society with no classes. Working people—the overwhelming majority of society—have taken control. The (ex-)capitalists are just as free to go to work as everybody else. When the power of capital is abolished, capitalists are converted into ordinary people. Surely some, those with expertise and an ability to work well with others, would be among those cooperative members elected into administrative positions; regardless, they would have to become regular cooperative workers, contributing to the production of a quality product or service and having their say equal to all others who do the work.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, published by Zero Books. Citations omitted. Sources cited in this excerpt are: Pat Devine, “Self-Governing Socialism,” anthologized in William K. Tabb (ed.), The Future of Socialism: Perspectives from the Left [Monthly Review Press, 1990]; Diane Elson, “Socializing Markets, Not Market Socialism,” The Socialist Register, 2000; and Herbert Gintis, “The Nature of Labor Exchange and the Theory of Capitalist Production,” anthologized in Randy Albelda, Christopher Gunn and William Waller (eds.), Alternatives to Economic Orthodoxy, [M.E. Sharpe, 1987]

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]

What if Bernie Sanders were really talking about socialism?

Socialism has re-entered the realm of popular political discussion in the United States, for the first time in decades. There are several reasons for this, the most important being that a quarter-century has passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the force of the bogey it represented has little resonance for a younger generation; several years of ongoing economic turmoil has led to more people being willing to question capitalism; and the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign because of the Vermont senator’s willingness to challenge the status quo.

Senator Sanders routinely speaks in front of large, enthusiastic crowds and although it remains unlikely that he will win the Democratic Party nomination, his strong showing and common-sense demeanor has forced the corporate media to expand the ordinarily heavily constricted boundaries of political and economic discourse. He calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and the corporate media by and large seems content to use his label, often even dropping the “democratic” and simply referring to him, without the usual rancor, as a “socialist.”

So is it really true that socialism has become acceptable and mainstream? Or, to be more direct: Is Bernie Sanders really a socialist?

Bernie Sanders rally in Louisiana (photo by Bart Everson)

Bernie Sanders rally in Louisiana (photo by Bart Everson)

The answer to the first question remains to be answered, but the answer to the second is “no.” Senator Sanders offers reforms to the capitalist system. Significant reforms, ideas and platforms far beyond any other major-party candidate for president. These would certainly be welcome if they could be enacted. But they are still reforms, not real change. Reforms, unfortunately, can and are taken away — as the past three decades have vividly demonstrated. Just as Keynesianism is not going to save us, there is no going back to the past nor is it still possible to believe capitalism can be a progressive force.

In the first Democratic Party presidential primary debate, Senator Sanders offered Denmark and Sweden as examples of the democratic socialism he has in mind. The front-runner, Hillary Clinton, immediately parried with a claim that the United States dare not “turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.” That more of those in the broad middle or with less are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads and keep from drowning in debt, that wages have been stagnant since the 1970s while the one percent grab all the gains, that prospects for students and recent graduates are more dismal than for their parents or grandparents, it would seem that Secretary Clinton’s middle class doesn’t have it so good.

Europe versus the United States

It tales no more than a cursory glance at Denmark, Sweden or many other countries to see the unreality of her claim. For one thing, health care is a right in most of the countries of the world, but in the United States health care is a privilege reserved for those with money or a full-time job (if it has reasonable benefits). In Denmark, all people who reach age 65 are entitled to a retirement pension, all residents have sickness benefits if they are unable to work, health care is a right, stays in public hospitals are free and paid parental leave is available up to 46 weeks. Danish workers are entitled to five weeks of vacation each year by law and many workers have a negotiated sixth week of vacation.

European countries require 20 to 30 day of vacation, and Australia and New Zealand require 20 days. The United States is the only advanced capitalist country that mandates none.

The idea that working people in the U.S. have it good is laughable. Secretary Clinton is no different than her Republican challengers in her ideological belief in “American exceptionalism,” the nationalist term used by United Statesians to claim theirs is the greatest country and a mandatory ideology for those seeking political office. However much better life may be there, however, it isn’t true that Denmark or Sweden are socialist countries. Those countries, and others applying versions of the Scandinavian welfare model, are capitalist countries that have laws and regulations to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism. So austerity is not an impossibility there; the relentless downward pressure applied to working people under capitalism is in force across Europe.

It is no accident that the European Union bureaucracy is unaccountable to any democratic vote; the E.U. is designed by central bankers to benefit European big business and financiers. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the European Union, including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and policies that are designed to break down solidarity among wage earners and different regions by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

The European Union, in its current capitalist form, is a logical step for business leaders who desire greater commercial power on a global basis: It creates a “free trade” zone complete with suppression of social accountability while giving muscle to a currency that has the potential of challenging the U.S. dollar as the world’s pre-eminent currency. Europeans’ ability to keep the reforms they have won are dependent on their organizing and going into the streets, the same as in the U.S. or any other country.

A basic sketch of socialism

What would socialism look like? There is no specific set of formulae, but some basics are:

  • Everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs, and that pricing and other decisions are not made outside the community or without input from suppliers, distributors and buyers.
  • Nobody is entitled to take disproportionately large shares off the top because they are in a power position.
  • Every person who reaches retirement age is entitled to a pension that can be lived on in dignity. Disabled people who are unable to work are treated with dignity and supported with state assistance; disabled people who are able to work can do so.
  • Quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights.
  • Artistic expression and all other human endeavors are encouraged, and — because nobody will have to work excessive hours except those who freely volunteer for the extra pay — everybody will have sufficient time and rest to pursue their interests and hobbies.

In such a world, there would not be extreme wealth and the power that wealth concentrates; political opinion-making would not be dominated by a numerically tiny but powerful class perpetrating its rule. Without extreme wealth, there would be no widespread poverty; large groups of people would not have their living standard driven as low as possible to support the accumulation of a few.

In any country in which a model of worker cooperation or self-management (in which enterprises are run collectively and with an eye on benefitting the community) is the predominant model, there would need to be regulations to augment good will. Constitutional guarantees would be necessary as well. Some industries are simply much larger than others. In a complex, industrialized society, some enterprises are going to be much larger than others. Minimizing the problems that would derive from size imbalances would be a constant concern.

Furthermore, if enterprises are run on a cooperative basis, then it is only logical that relations among enterprises should also be run on a cooperative basis. An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion. Prices would be negotiated, with all enterprises’ financial information publicly available so no unfair profiteering could take place.

Investment would need to go to where it is needed, a determination made with as many inputs as possible, but because of its importance banking is one area that would have to be in state hands and not in collectives. Financial speculation must be definitively ended, with banking reduced to a public utility. Enterprises seeking loans to finance expansions or other projects will have to prove their case, but should have access to investment funds if a body of decision-makers, which like all other bodies would be as inclusive as possible, agrees that the project is socially useful or necessary. Energy, another critical industry, would also be nationalized and under democratic control.

Government infrastructure projects should be subject to the same parameters as enterprises, with the added proviso that the people in the affected area have the right to make their voices heard in meaningful ways on local political bodies and on any other appropriate public boards. No private developer wielding power through vast accumulations of money will be able to destroy forests or neighborhoods to build a project designed for the developer to reap profits while the community is degraded. Development would be controlled through democratic processes at local levels, and regional or national infrastructure projects should require input from local bodies representing all affected areas.

None of the foregoing is being talked about by Bernie Sanders, and certainly not any other candidate for the U.S. presidency. But such gains are unattainable under capitalism, no matter how many reforms are (temporarily) extracted from industrialists, financiers and the politicians who whistle their tune.