Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178

We can dream, or we can organize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No going forward if we erase the past

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

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

There is no transformation without organization, the author argues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

It's Not Over coverThat 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, officially published February 26 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]

Colonialism and nationalism in the building of liberation movements

The Sandinistas, in their difficulties with the Indigenous peoples of the Atlantic, had not reflected on the irony of being on the opposite side of the nationalist equation than they were when, as the representatives of Nicaragua, they encountered the United States. It had not initially occurred to the Spanish-speaking majority of Nicaragua that they, too, walked in the shoes of a colonialist. Larger nations have long dominated smaller nations, but a nation can be both a larger and a smaller nation at the same time, in relation to various other nations.

Nicaragua, a small country of 3 million, was long the plaything of far larger neighbors. But Nicaragua is an artificial construct: the dominant people of Spanish descent are dominant because their ancestors decimated the people who had already lived there. The concept of a Nicaraguan nationality is itself a legacy of colonialism, but also the peculiarities of local geography. Why are there seven countries on the narrow strip of land between Mexico and Colombia? Five of those countries, all speaking the same language, were part of a single Central American Federation. Yet that federation broke apart, unlike Mexico, because communication and travel were so difficult due to the mountainous terrain.

Over time, patriotisms developed, separate in each country created by the breakup. Domination by more powerful countries, and repeated direct interventions in the twentieth century by the latest, and most powerful yet, of those more powerful countries helped forge strong national identities. But those identities did not include the people who were already there, and had seen their numbers decimated through war, disease and plunder—in plain language, through a hemispheric genocide. It is easy to understand a colonial relationship when you are on the wrong end; it is far more difficult to understand this when you are on the power side of the equation.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Nicaragua’s nationalism was forged in its colonial relationship to the European powers and then to the United States. Augusto Sandino was able to articulate these feelings, and Sandino’s writings and example were strong enough to form a key pillar of a movement decades later. But as the majority Nicaraguans found their voices, found the confidence to create a revolution and to attempt to develop their culture free of colonial domination, the minorities in their midst, the descendants of those Indigenous nations decimated centuries earlier, felt themselves oppressed by those very same people who were so motivated by their own oppression at the hands of the giant neighbor to the north.

The movement of the majority, the Sandinistas, were not oblivious to their country’s history nor to the minorities of the Atlantic east, and were acutely aware of the poverty, underdevelopment and cultural trampling endured by the Indigenous minorities. But the Sandinistas had thought and acted in a mechanical manner, and so, initially, inflamed rather than soothed.

“The Left here did not incorporate anthropological concepts because it was married completely to the strict classical scheme: bourgeoisie versus proletariat without analyzing the cultural differences and the ‘civilizing’ conflicts that took place,” is the assessment of journalist and feminist activist Sofía Montenegro, who was one of the leading figures of the official Sandinista newspaper, Barricada. “What has happened here is not a mixing of the races but a clash of two civilizations, the Occidental and the Indigenous, in which one imposed itself on the other but was never able to completely conquer it.”

Marxist difficulties with nationalism

Marxism’s practitioners have often had a difficult time coming to terms with nationalism. The downgrading of the nation-state was articulated clearly in the movement’s most important early document, The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. The two wrote: “The workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got…National differences between peoples are daily vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”

Corporate globalization is not a new phenomenon, although of course the process has vastly accelerated since those words were written in the nineteenth century. Despite the increasing cross-cultural fertilizations in which better communications and increased commerce played no small role, the strength of nationalism only increased through the nineteenth century as disunited nations such as Germany and Italy struggled to unify their many pieces and other nations struggled to end their domination by stronger powers.

Those ongoing developments led to a current within Marxist theory that saw a difference between the nationalism of a colonial power and that of a captured nation seeking to throw off the hegemony bonding it. Self-determination for all nations had to be backed and therefore support should be given to independence movements. Independence was the right of all peoples in the name of self-determination. But it was also believed that national struggles were a “distraction” for the vast majority of a nation in that as long as they were oppressed by another nation they would not be able to fight for their emancipation as a class—they would not be able to free themselves of their domination by their native capitalists and aristocracy.

Humans can have multiple motivations, of course. World War I provided an excellent example: Nationalism was whipped up successfully in order to get millions to willingly fight a war that was fought to determine the capitalist division of the world’s resources. There was no other way to get those millions to fight. The war had to be brought to an end when those millions started to think more in terms of class, and of their common interests with the soldiers in the opposite trench, rather than in solely national terms. Very different feelings were unleashed, thanks to bitter practical experience.

Nationalism seen as a distraction from class

But the nonetheless still living body of nationalism continued to engender strong debates among the various strains of Marxism. A forceful argument against advocacy of self-determination of nations was put forth by Rosa Luxemburg, one of the outstanding contributors to twentieth-century political theory. Regardless of how valid a reader finds Luxemburg’s argument, she had the moral authority to make it. She was triply oppressed—as a woman in a male-dominated world, as a Jew in a Central Europe riddled with anti-Semitism and as a Pole (until the last days of her life, Poland was occupied and divided among three empires: Tsarist Russia, Prussian-dominated Germany and monarchal Austria-Hungary). Luxemburg adamantly refused to endorse independence for her native Poland, or any other nation.

It's Not Over cover“[T]he duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nations’…[but] arises solely from the general opposition to the class régime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism…The duty to resist all forms of national oppression [under an apolitical ‘right of nations’] does not include any explanation of what conditions and political forms” should be recommended, Luxemburg wrote in 1909. Generic calls for self-determination don’t provide any analysis of underlying social conditions and therefore cannot provide a guide to action.

A further basic weakness of generic calls for self-determination, Luxemburg argued, is that they do not take into consideration the highly differentiated status of nations. “The development of world powers, a characteristic feature of our times growing in importance along with the progress of capitalism, from the very outset condemns all small nations to political impotence,” she wrote. “Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Further, within each nation, there exist a multitude of interests that cannot be reconciled. “In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous sociopolitical entity does not exist,” Luxemburg wrote.

“Rather, there exist within each nation classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights.’ … There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner. If we find in the history of modern societies ‘national’ movements, and struggles for ‘national interests, ’ these are usually class movements of the ruling strata of the bourgeoisie, which can in any given case represent the interest of the other strata of the population only insofar as under the form of ‘national interests’ it defends progressive forms of historical development.”

Luxemburg here argued that movements for national independence or self-determination are effectively controlled by the nation’s capitalists who, by virtue of their economic dominance, will control the movement to establish their own narrow rule and thereby subjugate the working people of the nation. Therefore, only the widespread adoption of socialist economic relations can truly free the working people of any nation.

Seventy years after those words were written, the capitalists of Nicaragua indeed sought to control the liberation movement of their country. Nicaragua wasn’t fighting for independence in the formal sense, but it was a country with very little self-determination. In the modern system of capitalism, the interests of local capitalists in subordinate countries align with the capitalists of the dominant nation. The interests of the Nicaraguan plantation owners and industrialists were simply to rid themselves of their local dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and establish their own rule. Rule by these local capitalists would be dependent on capitalists from the dominant power, through the medium of multinational corporations, and therefore compatible.

When direct rule of a colonized nation is no longer possible because of resistance, formal “independence” is granted, but a compliant dictator can be put in charge. When the rule of the dictator is no longer viable, a more “modern” form of domination is put in place, the rule of a local oligarchy. The local industrialists and plantation owners are ready to step in and assume domination of society; eager to fulfill what they see as their natural role, they seek to topple the dictator. Nicaragua’s capitalists could not do that on their own (they are numerically minuscule) and so joined the rapidly building mass liberation movement in an attempt to wrest the movement’s leadership from the Sandinistas. The capitalists were unable to do so because the working people of Nicaragua took an expanded, rather than narrow, view of self-determination, and this understanding led them to swell the ranks of Sandinista organizations.

But should nationalism be ‘skipped’ as a stage?

But although Nicaraguans were aware of their class interests, and that their liberation necessitated changes in their societal institutions and social relations, nationalism played a significant role. Sandinista National Liberation Front co-founder Carlos Fonseca had helped create the FSLN’s philosophy by skillfully blending the nationalism of Sandino with Marxism. The importance of nationalism was a consequence of the force of colonialism upon Nicaragua. Therefore, for the colonized, nationalism can potentially play a partly progressive role if it is combined with other political ideas. Another outstanding political theorist, Frantz Fanon, writing in the middle of the twentieth century at the peak of the Global South’s national liberation movements, argued that nationalism is an important stage that can’t be skipped.

National and racial differences are used to create and continue colonial situations, Fanon argued, and therefore, for the colonized, this divide adds to the complexities of a class analysis.

“In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue. It is not just the concept of the pre-capitalist society, so effectively studied by Marx, which needs to be re-examined here. The serf is essentially different from the knight, but a reference to divine right is needed to justify this difference in status. In the colonies the foreigner imposed himself using his cannons and machines. Despite the success of his pacification, in spite of his appropriation, the colonist always remains a foreigner.”

The urban and rural working people of Nicaragua could not free themselves without “kicking out” the foreigner (the US commercial interests that dominated their country) and instead institute balanced trading relationships with interests outside their borders. No colonized country can attempt such a liberation without developing a sense of itself as a nation, and that sense of nationhood can’t be separated from the differences between the newly awakened nation and the nation that dominates it. During Nicaragua’s domination, just as throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, these differences were pointed to by the colonizing power as justification for the colonial nature of the relationship.

It is the recovery of nationalism, Fanon wrote, that provides the basis for an independence struggle. “A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models…The nation is not only a precondition for culture…it is a necessity. Later on it is the nation that will provide culture with the conditions and framework for expression.” It is impossible to skip this stage of development. “Humanity, some say, has got past the stage of nationalist claims,” Fanon wrote.

“The time has come to build larger political unions, and consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes. We believe on the contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national stage. If culture is the expression of the national consciousness, I shall have no hesitation in saying, in the case in point, that national consciousness is the highest form of culture. ”

Sandinistas used national understanding as a scaffold

Fanon wrote as a Caribbean activist deeply involved in Algeria’s 1950s struggle against brutal occupation by France, and so it may seem that his expressions of nationalism and equating those expressions with a definition of culture are too strong, but if a people are oppressed on a national basis, then it is only natural that a culture takes on that oppression in that form. It is not necessary to agree with Fanon’s elevation of nationalism to such heights to find merit in his formulation. The course of the past century demonstrated the validity of Fanon’s theories: Nationalism has been, and continues to be, an extremely powerful political force.

Fanon’s integration of nationalism (grounded in profound sympathy for the distortions imposed by colonialism) with Marxism provides a more realistic analysis than Luxemburg’s dismissal of national liberation movements. Not because Luxemburg’s analysis of the lack of autonomy for the world’s smaller nations is incorrect (in fact, it was fully accurate then as it still is today) but because it, to use Fanon’s phrase, “skips” an important stage of development. A national consciousness bound together Nicaraguans in the struggle against Somoza, but rather than make that struggle a purely nationalist movement, the Sandinistas built upon nationalism, using it as a scaffolding upon which they erected a much larger understanding of what would be needed for Nicaraguans to liberate themselves. A struggle against an internal dictator, underdevelopment, lack of education and external domination is necessarily, in part, a cultural struggle.

Such a struggle by a national majority, however, inevitably contains differences from the concurrent struggle experienced by national minorities, and these differences, too, are cultural. The Sandinistas, to their credit, did come to understand, in a concrete manner rather than in their previous abstract theoretical manner, that they had to provide sufficient space for their own minority nations to develop their culture, and that those minority cultures had been stultified to a degree more severe than their own cultural underdevelopment.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, officially published February 26 by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Katherine Hoyt, The Many Faces of Sandinista Democracy [Ohio University Press, 1997]; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [Washington Square Press, 1964]; “The National Question and Autonomy (Excerpts),” Rosa Luxemburg, anthologized in Paul Le Blanc (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings [Humanity Press, 1999]; and Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth [Grove Press, 2004]

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.

It's Not Over coverCentral 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, officially published on February 26 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]

A global working class in formation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precarious labor in India

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing beyond unions in China

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

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

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

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

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

State and capital vs. South African labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strength in worker radicalism

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

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

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

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

Solidarity instead of hierarchy as “common sense”

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

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

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

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

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

A society in which all can freely develop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going beyond limitations of past models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a solidarity state from a local base

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

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

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

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

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

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