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]

Belief in capitalism as a material force

Violence and coercion have driven the establishment and expansion of capitalism from its start, and continue to be an indispensable glue holding together what has become a world economic system. Yet no level of brutality can itself keep a system, or any ruling structure, in place for a long period of time, much less for centuries, unless there is some level of cooperation.

That cooperation must rest, at least partially, on belief. Why did so many people in the past believe that God picked one family to rule in perpetuity? Lack of education played no small part here but, whatever the reason, that peasants did believe helped keep monarchs on thrones. Today, with education so much more available, such a belief would be laughed at. Ideology accordingly must be much more sophisticated. There are no dynasties at the head of modern capitalist countries, nor even single political parties or groupings.

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department's 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

But here we must distinguish between governing and ruling. Presidents, prime ministers and governors may govern for set periods of time, giving way to new officials, but these men and women do only that: govern. They manage the government on behalf of the dominant social forces within their borders, and those dominant social forces are in turn, depending where on the international capitalist pecking order the governed space lies, connected to and/or subordinate to more powerful social forces based elsewhere.

It is capitalists — industrialists and financiers — who actually rule. The more power capitalists can command, the more effectively they can bend government policy and legislation to their preferred outcomes. More aspects of human life are steadily put at the mercy of “market forces.” Those are not neutral, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily above the clouds, as the corporate media incessantly promotes. Rather, market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus capitalist fundamentalism is telling us that a handful of exceedingly powerful industrialists and financiers should decide social and economic matters; that wealth automatically confers on them the right to dominate society.

Is this so different from feudal beliefs in monarchs? Without significant numbers of people believing that the rule of capitalists is just and as natural as the tides of the ocean, capitalism would not endure. When people ceased to believe in monarchs, that system of rule crumbled. Feudalism was of human construction. Everything of human construction comes to an end.

Capitalism, another human construction, is no different. But as a global downturn stretches into its eighth year with no end in sight, as the period of stagnation, and associated cuts to wages and mounting inequality, is now measured in decades, belief in capitalism is becoming more difficult to sustain. Even that old bogey word, “socialism,” is losing its talismanic ability to stifle thinking about alternatives; among young adults in particular socialism is gaining attraction.

Counterposing new ideas for old beliefs

But let us not indulge in wishful thinking. Capitalism is as strong as ever today. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” looms large in the popular psyche. For countless millions, capitalism is indistinguishable from society; being without it would be like a fish trying to live outside water. That a furious and never-ending propaganda barrage is necessary to maintain this is not in dispute. That it is still commonly believed is what matters here. Capitalism is what people know and belief that anything else would be worse widespread. Until that belief is broken down — through persuasion and, most likely in bigger portion, an economic breakdown serious enough to compel people to confront their deteriorating living conditions — capitalism will be nearly impossible to dislodge.

Thus belief is a material force, if a sufficient number of people hold that belief. I recently had my attention drawn to an interesting article published on the Waging Nonviolence web site (tip of the hat to regular commenter Alcuin) that discussed a couple of seemingly unrelated events in Uganda. The article’s title, “Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?,” asks a provocative question. The incidents in question here center on a group of grandmothers who stripped naked while blocking a road to prevent two government ministers and their convoys from seizing communal lands on behalf of an “investor.”

One of the two ministers died in a plane crash soon afterward. Was this an accident? Was it caused by the minister’s rumored falling out of favor with Uganda’s strong-willed president? Or, as the Waging Nonviolence article discusses, was it because of those grandmothers’ form of protest? The article’s author, Phil Wilmot, wrote, “the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive.” He recounts his discussion of the death of the first minister, General Aronda Nyakairima, with a group of local activists:

“In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized [the grandmothers] and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?’ I asked. A few hands rose.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?’

‘Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,’ interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.”

Beliefs in omens or curses are found in virtually every culture. The point isn’t where these believers are from or what culture they live in, but that these beliefs can have a material effect. The sight of the protesting grandmothers was enough to induce enough fear that high representatives of a government who could have easily used lethal force against them instead fled, and that the protestors’ action had further consequences in many minds. (The other minister subsequently lost his seat in the next election.) These are beliefs that likely arose organically in the distant past, and have survived into a time when science rather than magic or religious belief explains natural phenomenons or social interactions.

The hegemony of ideas that serve elites

How more powerful are beliefs that are intentionally inculcated by elites to maintain themselves in a position of power? Tsars and kings proclaimed they were representatives of God, and fear of divine wrath surely played a significant role in monarchal longevity, no matter how much violence was inflicted on those who stepped out of line. Belief works in the same way today, even if for a different ruling structure.

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is useful to understand this concept. A definition found on the Marxist Archives web site provides this summation:

“Hegemony is a class alliance by means of which one, leading [hegemonic] class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole. … The term was … popularised by Antonio Gramsci who demonstrated that every nation state requires that some class is able to establish a hegemony capable of unifying the nation and resolving its historical problems. Gramsci posed the problem of the working class in Italy in terms of the need for the Italian workers, especially in the industrialised North, to understand the problems of the Southern peasantry and make the demands and aspirations of the Southern peasants their own, while refusing any corporatist bloc with the Northern industrial bourgeoisie.”

Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, himself wrote:

“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizer of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. … If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class; or at least they must possess the capacity to choose the deputies (specialized employees) to whom to entrust this activity of organizing the general system of relationships external to the business itself.”

A result of this “social hegemony” is:

“The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”

Capitalist ‘freedom’ can only be a formal freedom

Because in advanced capitalist countries there is formal democracy rather than an open dictatorship, it is easy to lose sight of where power derives and therefore the limits of formal democracy. In a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967, the great historian Isaac Deutscher said:

“[I]n bourgeois society [freedom] can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. The working classes and their intellectual mouthpieces manage to get hold of, at best, marginal facilities for social and political self-expression. Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power.” [page 106]

Even allowing for the rise of the Internet, and the better ability for dissenting news and viewpoints to be circulated (Deutscher wrote those words a half-century ago), it is indisputable the corporate media remains dominant and allows only a narrow range of perspectives to be given a hearing. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002 (photo by William M. Connolley)

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002
(photo by William M. Connolley)

In a society where the state owns and controls the media, it is easy to disregard what is disseminated as all emanating from a single source, even when there is scope for differing opinions. In capitalist countries, the profusion of private ownership (even though increasingly concentrated into a few corporations) gives the appearance of competing multiple perspectives. Extremist, mad-dog outlets like Murdoch newspapers or Fox News do no more than provide reinforcement for maleducated holders of extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories.

Public opinion is shaped by repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media.

An array of institutions to convey one basic message

There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers. The admonishment that everything — including schools and especially government — should be “run like a business” is pervasive. This propaganda does not fall out of the sky; its seeming pervasiveness flows from the ability of capitalists to disseminate their viewpoints through a variety of institutions, those they directly set up and control, and those starved of funds that in an era of deepening austerity increasingly must accept corporate money to make up for the loss of state support.

Something as fundamental as who generates the wealth of society, and how wealth is generated, is obscured as part of this process of opinion formation. It can’t be otherwise, for this is the building block on which capitalist ideology rests. Incessant spin claims that profit is the result of the acumen of the capitalist and the capitalist’s magical ability to create profit out of thin air, when in actuality corporate profit comes from the difference between what an employee produces and what the employee is paid.

If the enterprise were a cooperative run by the workers, the product would be sold for the same price and thus the same profit would be achieved, but distributed equitably. Many people must be poor for one person to be rich, because the private profit of a few is taken from the underpayment of work to the many.

The modern working person has faced a lifetime of the most sophisticated propaganda, and the task of undoing it in ourselves and for others should not be under-estimated. Millions of people, nonetheless, have done it and more are doing it. The continuing stagnation, erosion of social protections, promise of more austerity and the looming environmental catastrophe of global warming are bound to open more eyes. Many more eyes will need to be opened, with a concomitant willingness to struggle and organize, if a better world is to be created. A “counter-hegemony” is necessary: We provide our own leaders or they won’t be provided at all.

Or, to put it another way, we have to believe that a better world is not only possible but can be created. Once a sufficient portion of society comes to believes in this, then belief in, or resignation to, capitalist exploitation goes the way of trembling at the feet of monarchs. A belief in ourselves, that cooperation rather than dog-eat-dog competition is the route to a stable economy with enough for all, becomes a new material force.

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]

Are we ready for the twilight of neoliberalism?

Not since the Great Depression have so many people in the global North called into question capitalism, yet among most of the advanced capitalist countries there is little organized pushback. Worse, parties of the Right appear to be gaining ground as voters who in the past backed the traditional parties of the center-left increasingly stay home, disgusted at their “me, too” approach to economics.

A decaying order increasingly reliant on repression that delivers immiseration to ever more people ought to be under more pressure. It can’t be said there are no serious challenges — social movements such as Spain’s Indignados and political coalitions contending for power such as Greece’s Syriza, for example — and the dramatic instant popularity of the Occupy movement demonstrated widespread discontent.

Still, the limitations of Occupy led to its demise and nothing yet has arisen in its place. Is there a weakness in our movements that is preventing them from organizing that discontent and channeling it into productive forces capable of challenging prevailing social orders?

We Make Our Own History coverAny answer to the puzzle of why Left movements have gained so little traction comprises multiple parts. Certainly the enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions can’t be discounted. Nonetheless, that does not relieve ourselves of the necessity to think about how we attempt to organize.

Activist knowledge has been “frozen” in specific forms, and today’s movements must be willing to break with past patterns and to build different styles of organization, argue Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen in their study of social movements, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism.* In writing this book, the authors, both of whom have long histories in activist work, set out to “reclaim” activist knowledge for today’s movements and problems.

The authors quite reasonably argue that the failure of neoliberalism is “evident” and that we are now living in the “twilight” of the neoliberal era. That neoliberalism is reaching its end does not necessarily mean that capitalism is reaching its end; merely capitalism’s latest phase. “There is no alternative” retains a powerful punch even as conditions continue to deteriorate around the world. Moreover, activists are at a disadvantage when operating within rules designed to maintain the status quo.

Theory does not derive from an armchair

Theory, Professors Cox and Nilsen write, derives from the activist work of making sense of, and changing, social experience. Theory helps grasp ideas in opposition to dominant discourses, helping us go beyond our immediate situation or experience. A “unity of theory and action, and not simply practice,” is a necessity. But theory is not a concept imposed from high above nor the province of a handful of philosophers. They write:

“The producers of theory are — potentially — everyone who reflects on their experiences so as to develop new and improved ways of handling problematic aspects of that experience. Theory, in this perspective, is knowledge that is consciously developed out of experience, and has been worked through using experience as a touchstone, that has become explicit and articulate, and which as been brought to a level where it can be generalised.” [page 8]

The everyday experience of creating new forms of organization during struggles itself provide bases for a better world.

“At their best and within wider movements for social change, the council, the assembly, the occupied factory, the social centre, the self-organised neighbourhood, or the liberated zone can simultaneously prefigure a different way of living together, represent an effective means of organising here and now, and embody a critique of key social relationships and institutions.” [page 11]

Building from abstract concepts in its early pages, We Make Our Own History steadily builds concrete scaffolding. A key concept of this scaffolding, introduced to emphasize the understanding that the current organization of the world is a product of human construction that can be disassembled and replaced through human agency, is that of “movements from above.” We are used to seeing grassroots activity as movements — movements from “below.” We Make Our Own History defines “movements from above” as the collective agency of dominant groups to reproduce or extend their power and hegemonic positions.

Movements from above draw upon a multitude of positions to cement their hegemony, among them their directing role in enterprises, superior access to state power, ability to extract “consent” from significant sections of the subaltern and ability to apply repression to those who refuse to consent. Movements from above are “forever moving.” the authors write, and are able to use a variety of tactics in their responses to movements from below: military force, police force, the law, and school and workplace sanctions. When necessary, concessions will be made, but only to some groups and in forms that reinforce clientalism and patriarchal relations while blocking self-activity and organization.

Seeing the efforts of elites as “movements from above” enables an understanding of our ability to change conditions, through the combined efforts of movements from below.

The building blocks of a movement

Movements from below must become strong enough to counter the hegemony of capitalist elites with a “counter-hegemony.” Professors Cox and Nilsen propose three “levels” of movements from below in distinguishing their ability to force structural change. Local, defensive struggles (the basic building block) can coalesce into much more effective offensives when they connect with other movements from below on the basis of common grounds to forge extra-regional or international coalitions that critique dominant ideas and projects.

Such coalitions, however, tend to remain field-specific and don’t necessarily relate to the social totality that shapes the issue being struggled against. If activists begin to examine larger structural issues, the authors write, they may go beyond field-specific campaigns to become a “social movement project” that targets the social totality. Thus,

“[S]uch a social movement project stands out from other forms of collective agency from below by virtue of its capacity to identify its own actors socially; name its central opponent; and recognizing that the social totality is the product and object of such struggles. In other words, there is a return ‘up’ the sequence from opposing everyday routines to opposing the structures that generate them, and finally to directly confronting the movements from above which have constructed the whole.” [page 83]

From this comes the question of: What is the nature of what we are fighting? To assist in answering that question, the authors divide the history of capitalism into three eras:

  • “Disembedded” market-centered liberal capitalism that lasted into the early 20th century. This era was marked by the violent incorporation of the colonized world into the world-system of capitalism, and concessions made to emergent middle classes split them from the subaltern, linking them to the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.
  • “Re-embedded” state-centered organized capitalism from the end of World War II to the 1970s. This period arose out of the breakdown of the previous era and in response to mass uprisings carrying the potential to sweep away capitalism. Some measure of development was allowed for the global South through import-substitution industrialism; workers of the global North received increasing wages and concessions in exchange for de-politicizing their demands.
  • “Disembedded” neoliberal capitalism since the 1980s, a project to “disembed” capital from institutional regulations. The turn to neoliberalism is grounded in changed conditions, in particular the profit squeeze that set in during the 1970s, and is organized globally through alliances with capitalists in all regions of the world and links among trans-national capital. Capitalists’ attempt to restore previous profit levels centers on breaking the power of labor and a strategy of “accumulation through dispossession” — the conversion of common property into private capital.

The victory of neoliberalism is “pyrrhic,” the authors write, because the accumulation strategies that restored power for capitalists are the root of the present crisis. Thus, we are in the twilight of neoliberalism. That elites can offer nothing new is a sign of their brittleness, but the simultaneous weakness of movements from below has led to an unusually long period of stalemate.

Learning from one another, not blindly following

How then will this logjam be broken? As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. It also stresses the full incorporation of struggles against racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression.

Winning, the authors write, means defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard. Success, then, is the collective achievement of people going beyond what they previously believed possible.

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.” [pages 186-7]

Building the “counter-hegemony” that can check and then supplant the hegemony of capitalists is far from an easy task. Those who benefit from the current world order spare no exertion in attempting to convince us that no other world is possible. Realizing that such assertions are nothing more than self-serving ideology helps to give ourselves the necessary consciousness to liberate ourselves:

“[I]f we do not see not see neoliberalism as a complex, contested, fragile and ultimately impermanent achievement of elite agency we are taking the intentions of its makers as given fact — and in essence conceding permanent defeat.” [page 142]

Professors Cox and Nilsen set themselves the audacious goal of reclaiming activist knowledge through filling a void in studies of social movements. They have succeed: We Make Our Own History is recommended reading for activists serious about bringing into being a better world.

* Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. [Pluto Press, London, 2014]

Audacity, not hoping for reforms, the route to a humane world

Working people in the core capitalist countries have received benefits from imperialism (even if only crumbs) that workers in the rest of the world don’t receive. That dichotomy is a barrier that has hindered the building of global alliances necessary to reverse neoliberalism.

Or, going beyond, to create an international social movement strong enough steer the world from its present course of economic and ecological suicide to a sustainable system oriented toward human need. A further division among the world’s working peoples between the diminishing numbers with reasonably secure, regular employment and the vast numbers of those without available regular work — the “reserve army of labor” or, to use the increasingly popular term, the “precariat” — and divisions within these broad categories also, on the surface, seems to imply that the world’s workers don’t have any unifying interests.

On the contrary, an international movement that brings together the peoples of the global North and the global South, with a common goal of nationalizing the monopolies that currently have a stranglehold on the world’s economy and a commitment to “de-financialization” (a “world without Wall Street”) is not only possible but indispensable, argues Samir Amin in his latest book, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.* These would not be ends unto themselves, but rather the first necessary steps on a long road toward a sustainable and equitable future.

The Implosion of Contemporary CapitalismCritical to developing strategies to transcend an “imploding” capitalist system is developing an understanding of the world’s current organization. In the current stage of “generalized monopoly capitalism,” as Dr. Amin defines today’s world, monopolies tightly control all systems of production and thereby extract extraordinarily large profits. These surpluses are so large they can’t be invested rationally and therefore can only be deployed in speculation, fueling financialization. The process of financialization in turn enables banks to amass vast power and create debt that they profit from.

Increases in productivity outstripping growth in wages further fuels this process. But these monopolies are not located just anywhere — they are located in the capitalist core of the United States, Europe and Japan. Thus the power amassed by these monopolies is inflated by the extraction of capital from peripheries to these centers. Dr. Amin writes:

“In its globalized setup capitalism is inseparable from imperialist exploitation of its dominated peripheries by its dominant centers. Under monopoly capitalism this exploitation takes the form of monopoly rents (in ordinary language, the superprofits of multinational corporations) that are by and large imperialist rents. … [T]he material benefits drawn from this rent, accruing not only to the profit of capital ruling on a world scale but equally to the centers’ opulent societies, are more than considerable.” [pages 20-21]

(The term “monopoly” here is not meant in the “pure” sense of one single corporation dominating an industry, but rather refers to a handful of corporations that, as a group, act in a monopolistic manner. “Rent” is a macroeconomic term meaning the extraction of profits above the ordinary level derived from an advantage.)

The ability of monopoly capital to exploit the global South is aided by the collaboration of local elites, a class of “corruptionists,” to use Dr. Amin’s pungent phrase, who are “highly compensated intermediaries” allowed to take a slice of the extracted superprofits. The whole is partially masked by the fragmentation of production, which nonetheless remains tightly controlled by monopoly capitalists.

This creates the illusion of a divergence in the interests of working people, both within and among countries, but differences in skill levels and ability to earn higher wages has always existed. All working people have in common that they are exploited; the challenge then becomes to effect the unity of workers (including those in informal sectors), peasants and the middle classes in a united front crossing borders.

Smaller enterprises and farmers subordinate to dominant firms

The latest stage of capitalism, starting with the late 20th century, is the era of “generalized monopolies” in which monopolies command the heights of the economy and directly control entire production systems, reducing small, medium and all peripheral enterprises to subordinate roles. Those subordinate enterprises, as well as farmers, have become subcontractors whose operations are subject to rigid control by the monopolies. From this, Dr. Amin concludes:

“There is no other possible answer to the challenge: the monopolies must be nationalized. This is a first, unavoidable step toward a possible socialization of their management by workers and citizens. Only this will make it possible to make progress along the long road to socialism. At the same time it will be the only way to develop a new macro economy that restores genuine space for the operations of small and medium enterprises. If that is not done, the logic of domination by abstract capital can produce nothing but the decline of democracy and civilization, and a ‘generalized apartheid’ at the world level.” [page 113]

The “imperial rent” that accrues to the capitalist core’s monopolies mainly flows to the capitalists, but the workers of the North also benefit from it, and this creates a barrier to North-South alliance building. Workers of the South can’t help but be acutely aware of global imbalances that impoverish them, in contrast to many workers of the North tacitly embracing the relative crumbs they receive at the expense of their Southern brothers and sisters through uncritical acceptance of nationalist ideologies extolling the supposed superiority of imperial countries; this acceptance is reflected, for example, in the U.S. labor federation AFL-CIO’s decades-long uncritical embrace of Washington’s imperialist foreign policy.

Creating a better world — a world in which economic decisions are reached through democratic processes in which all affected parties have a voice and in which the economy is run for the benefit and development of all humanity rather than the private profit of capitalists — is therefore inextricably linked with providing solutions and better living conditions to the majority of the world who live in the peripheral countries.

Change must be in three “dimensions,” Dr. Amin writes — peoples, nations and states. The liberation of a nation and achievements by a state are complements to the advancements of the people; the idea that people can transform the world without taking power is “simply naïve,” the author writes. But it is the people who must be at the forefront:

“[T]he notion of national liberation ‘at all costs,’ in other words being independent of the social content of the hegemonic coalition, leads to the cultural illusion of attachment to the past (political Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are examples) [that] is in fact powerless. The notion of power, conceived as being capable of ‘achievements’ for the people, but carried out without them, leads to the drift to authoritarianism and crystallization of a new bourgeoisie. The deviation of Sovietism, evolving from ‘capitalism without capitalists’ (state capitalism) to ‘capitalism with capitalists,’ is the most tragic example of this.” [pages 116-117]

The impossibility of reforming away concentrated power

Additional illusions are that the South can “catch up” with the core capitalist countries or that the maldevelopment of capitalism can be wished away through reforms. The imperialist system blocks the development of new industrial contenders; moreover, the rise of European capitalism required the “safety valve” of emigration to the New World as peasants were forced off the land. There are no new worlds that can absorb the many millions of peasants displaced and to be displaced as capitalism washes over all parts of the globe.

And, although this was not discussed in The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, anarchist and Proudhonist ideas that employees can gradually take control of their workplaces while ignoring the state are also illusions. You may wish to ignore the state, but that does not mean the state will ignore you, nor will capitalists, with the powerful coercive apparatus of the state at their disposal, idly sit by and allow their property and prerogatives to be gradually taken away. Similarly, reformist ideas such as more regulation or a return to the post-World War II model are illusions — reforms can and are taken back and there is no going back to the past because the conditions of today are not the conditions of yesterday.

What Dr. Amin does advocate is “audacity, more audacity.” The proposed audacity centers on three programs: socializing the ownership of monopolies, “de-financialization,” and “de-linking” at the international level. Reversing the current social order is impossible without expropriating the power of monopolies.

Economic activity should be organized by public institutions representing groups up and down production supply chains, consumers, local authorities and citizens self-organized democratically. Management of monopolies should include workers in the enterprise as well as representatives of consumers, citizens, (democratically controlled) banks, research institutions and upstream industries. Large-scale production would continue to exist because it is unrealistic to believe that artisans and small local collectives could replace the production of large enterprises, the author writes, but production must be done on the basis of being answerable to society’s collective choices.

“De-financialization” is conceptualized as not simply the abolishment of “shareholder value” as the supreme force animating production but going beyond nationalization/socialization to establish direct participation in management by relevant social partners. Ecological impact, minimization of risk and client participation would be the foundation of banking. The focus on community control and international “de-linking,” however, does not mean a retreat into isolationism; rather it would be a reconstruction of global relations through negotiation rather than the current system of submission to the imperial powers.

These programs can’t be implemented on a global or regional basis, Dr. Amin argues, but only within countries committed to socialization and democratization of the economy. Thus the South must de-link from international institutions controlled by the imperial powers and Europeans must dismantle their undemocratic institutions responsive only to “market” reactions. There are no alternatives, the author writes:

“Capitalism is now an obsolete system, its continuation leading only to barbarism. No other capitalism is possible. … Either the radical left will succeed through the audacity of its initiatives to make revolutionary advances, or the counterrevolution will win. There is no effective compromise between these two responses to the challenge.” [page 146]

There is no guarantee as to what will succeed capitalism. We can sit back and let history unfold, continuing to cede the initiative to elites who have imposed austerity on the world and can only offer ever more harsh and repressive policies while consuming the Earth’s resources until nothing is left. Or we can collectively work together to create a humane, democratic future by overturning capitalism. If we don’t accomplish the latter, we will surely find ourselves in the hell of the former.

* Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2013]

More capitalism for Chinese ‘Communist’ Party

A deeper integration into the world capitalist system appears to be the goal of the Chinese Communist Party, a decision obscured but not occulted by the ritual “all hail the party” slogans littering the “communiqué” the party issued following this month’s much anticipated planning meeting.

Nonetheless, the gradually mounting contradictions of China’s heavy reliance on exports and investment, and the larger implications for global living standards, remain in place. China’s role in global capitalism, despite its impressive growth figures, has been an assembly platform for foreign multi-national corporations. This system has brought wealth to a minuscule layer of Chinese capitalists while enormously profiting Western and Japanese companies, and their East Asian contractors.

Two-thirds of China’s exports are shipped from factories wholly or partially owned by non-Chinese companies. In high-technology industries, the ratio is higher: Wholly owned non-Chinese corporations account for 68 percent of high-tech exports and, if firms partially owned by foreign companies are included, the total is 83 percent.

And in contrast to misleading trade statistics, most of the money captured by this Chinese production is taken by Western and East Asian multi-national corporations, not by China. The world’s multi-national corporations profit immensely from China’s low wages and like the current Chinese system just as it is.

Socialist rhetoric, but capitalist content

The communiqué referenced above is the official statement released by the Chinese Communist Party following the “Third Plenum” of the 18th Party Congress. The plenum, a meeting of the entire party Central Committee that concluded on November 12 in Beijing, was intended to re-orient the Chinese economy in a new direction. The corporate media predictably issued downcast reports in the wake of China not immediately adopting International Monetary Fund diktats.

Factory on Yangtze River

Factory on Yangtze River

The communiqué is full of long-winded sloganeering and short on details. Nonetheless, in between the repeated ritualistic panegyrics to the party’s guidance and the “magnificent progress” it has bequeathed China, there are clear indications that the party intends to continue down its capitalist path. That no significant backtracking is contemplated is signaled by this oxymoronic formulation:

“The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance.”

The “Three Represents” reference is an official line announced in 2001 the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. Promulgated by former President Jiang Zemin, it is a declaration that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously. One can of course enunciate such a program if one wishes, but such a theory has nothing in common with Marxism. “Three Represents” follows naturally from the policies of President Jiang’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, who firmly pushed China on to its capitalist path.

Also noteworthy is the one Communist leader omitted from the list — Hu Jintao, the president between Jiang Zemin and current President Xi Jinping. President Xi is seen as a protégé of former President Jiang, who is believed to have helped pack the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest political body, with his followers. The references to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought are ritualistic references, necessary to establish the party’s right to continuity in power and thus its authority to continue to rule.

That only “Three Represents” had the adjective “important” in front of it can be interpreted as to the importance of that line. Moreover, President Jiang was elevated to power following the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which smashed dissent and enabled paramount leader Deng to dismantle social protections. During the 1990s, when President Jiang was in power, state- and collective-owned enterprises were privatized, millions were laid off, peasant rights were revoked and dislocation induced a steady stream of migrant workers into the urban sweatshops. No basic change to this pattern should be expected.

Exalting the party but the market, too

Some of the key ideas put forth by the communiqué are these:

• “The Plenum pointed out that we must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources.”

• “The Plenum pointed out that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must base ourselves on the largest reality that our country will remain in the preliminary stage of Socialism for a long time, persist in this major strategic judgment that development still is crucial in resolving all of our country’s problems.”

• “We must relax investment access, accelerate the construction of free trade zones and expand inland and coastal openness.”

• “[W]e must strengthen and improve that Party’s leadership, fully give rein to the Party’s core leadership function in assuming all responsibility for the entire picture and coordinating all sides.”

The corporate media was unified in grumbling over the last of these, and although the party will certainly maintain a tight grip on political power, the direction of the party over the past three decades is what has granted Western and East Asian multi-national corporations opportunities for massive profiteering on the backs of Chinese workers. In contrast, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, focused on the word “decisive,” declaring the use of that word to describe the role of markets a development from the party’s previous use of “basic.” Xinhua wrote:

“The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda. [The party] communique … stressed profound economic reform, with the market to play the decisive role in allocation of resources. The previous socialist market economy — official policy since 1992 — attributed only a ‘basic’ role to the market. … [A] unified market for both urban and rural construction land and an improved financial system are definitely in the pipeline.”

More market capitalism then. But as there are no perpetual-motion machines, how long can China continue to its current path?

Export-based economy can’t be easily changed

China’s economy continues to be overly dependent on investment and unable to easily shift toward more household consumption, and thus dependent on exporting. Its ability to be the world’s workshop rests on its ultra-low wages, which are in turn based on systematic exploitation of its rural population.

Three Gorges Dam (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

Three Gorges Dam (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

For China to re-orient itself to producing for internal consumption would mean having to allow dramatic growth in workers’ income. But doing so would mean ending foreign capital’s reason to move production to China. China could try to switch to high-end manufacturing — to some degree, it is trying to extend its mix of production to do that — but it doesn’t have the capabilities of non-Chinese companies that are already making such products and it would have to compete by muscling out foreign competitors. (Much of China’s machinery is imported from Germany.)

As their own populations become more restless, foreign governments could find it politically difficult to continue to allow themselves to be swamped by cheap Chinese imports. Moreover, the internal demand for such high-end products is limited within China, so it would be right back to having to rely on exports. Considerable Chinese demand for high-technology products comes from government infrastructure projects and there comes a time when such a high level of investment ceases to be prudent and becomes wasteful spending, as has happened to Japan.

The Chinese Communist Party can continue to apply repression to keep wages and working conditions low, but such policies directly contradict its supposed reliance on Mao Zedong Thought, which produced the now-shredded social safety net known as the “Iron Rice Bowl” — an achievement not lost to collective memory. If the continual drip of scattered local rebellions organizes enough to force competitive wages, Western capitalists would still want to sell their products in China, but would produce at least some of them elsewhere.

Chinese industry could step in and build new capacity, or acquire the capacity that Western capitalists abandon, but the upward pressure on wages would undercut China’s ability to export cheaply, and without much increased internal demand China would have a glut of capacity that would face shuttering.

Chinese workers endure long period of low wages

Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — constituted about 36 percent of China’s gross domestic product in 2012, only two percentage points above China’s bottom three years earlier and far below the 51 percent in 1985. In comparison, household consumption is 58 to 72 percent of the economy of the world’s largest advanced capitalist countries. Fixed capital investment continues to account for large and growing portions of China’s GDP — 46 percent in 2012, a figure more than double countries like Japan and the United States.

What those numbers signify is that China, despite the repeated proclamations of its leaders, has made no progress in re-orienting its economy.

The share of labor income in China’s gross domestic product shrank to 37 percent in 2005 (the latest for which I can find statistics) after having been consistently above 50 percent in the 1980s. A bigger proportion of China’s surplus is being taken by capitalists, but not necessarily Chinese capitalists.

For example, a paper written by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that almost all of the value created by iPhone production in China goes to manufacturing corporations outside of China, where only the final assembly is conducted. The paper, “How the iPhone Widens the United States Trade Deficit with the People’s Republic of China,” argues that conventional trade statistics are highly misleading because the value of the entire product is assigned to the country where the final assembly is conducted, rather than allocated by the value of the various inputs. The paper reports:

“The US also has an absolute advantage in the smart phone category. … [T]heory would suggest the US should export iPhones to the [People’s Republic of China], but in fact the PRC exports iPhones to the US. All ready-to-use iPhones have been shipped to the US from the PRC. Foreign direct investment, production fragmentation, and production networks have jointly reversed the trade pattern predicted by conventional trade theories. Chinese workers simply put all these parts and components together and contribute only US$6.50 to each iPhone, about 3.6% of the total manufacturing cost.

If the PRC’s iPhone exports were calculated based on the value-added, i.e., the assembling cost, the export value as well as the trade deficit would be much lower, at only US$73 million, just 3.6% of the US$2.0 billion calculated by using the prevailing method. … Bilateral trade imbalances between a country used as a final assembler and its destination markets are greatly inflated by trade in intermediate products. … The Sino-US bilateral trade imbalance has been greatly inflated.”

The paper argues that the other $162 of the total manufacturing cost of iPhones (all of the cost other than the $6.50 contributed by underpaid Chinese labor) came from U.S., German, South Korean and Japanese manufacturers who supplied the parts and shipped them to the final assembly plant, which itself is owned by a Taiwanese corporation that is a subcontractor to Apple. The iPhone is designed and sold by Apple, which enjoys a large profit from it. Thus, the money from trade deficits fills Apple’s, and not necessarily Chinese, coffers.

Rural exploitation drives sweatshop exploitation

The dramatic increase in Chinese manufacturing is driven by multi-national corporations from the U.S., East Asia and Western Europe. State-owned enterprises account for 25 percent of China’s industrial output, down from 75 percent in the mid-1980s.

Exploitable workers are needed in those factories, and China’s supply of labor comes from rural wages being consistently 40 percent or less that of urban wages and that local and regional officials continually take and sell off farming land to developers, partly for their own enrichment but also to generate revenue to fund local government. According to a Reuters report, about four million farmers lose their land annually — and those farmers receive an average of $17,850 an acre from local governments, which resell it for an average of $740,000 an acre.

The vast disruptions, vicious exploitation and cavernous inequality of early capitalism is being repeated in China, at an accelerated pace. Earlier industrializing countries did so during a time when capitalism covered only a portion of the globe and thus had considerable room for growth. Wages could eventually rise because of the scope for expansion via exporting, capital controls and the difficulty of moving production to other countries. Mass organizing, including the creation of then-militant unions, leveraged those factors into rising living standards.

Capitalism no longer has places into which to grow, having blanketed the Earth, and the capitalist class has succeeded in eliminating barriers to their moving production at will, accelerating a race to the bottom. The rise of China, or any other country, can only come by taking market share away from somebody else, and the growing mass of low-wage workers drags down wages globally. The alliance of party-connected Chinese capitalists with Western capitalists is profitable for them, but at the expense of working people in those countries and around the world.

Self-directed workers as a “cure for capitalism”

The economy of the future will not be a tabula rasa. Today’s bricks will form part of tomorrow’s edifice and, assuming that humanity’s zig-zagging and often circular course toward greater freedom continues, pieces of a better world exist scattered around us.

Cooperative enterprises are surely part of that (hoped for) better tomorrow. If tomorrow’s better world is one of economic democracy, environmental sensitivity, rationality in production and distribution, equality and meaningful community involvement, than cooperatives will form some of the backbone. Some of these bricks are already here: Successful cooperatives exist today, although they are as yet small islands of democracy in the vast sea of authoritarian capitalist enterprises.

No one model could ever be universal. Differentiated internal operations and cultures are bound to develop. But certain bedrock principals can, and should, be in place for cooperative enterprises operating in an economy that increasingly includes them. The economist Richard Wolff, in his latest book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,* argues that the ability of the workers of an enterprise to be involved in all its strategic decisions is the most important principal to bring about economic democracy, without which political democracy is a formal, empty shell. He introduces the term “workers’ self-directed enterprises” to encompass such enterprises.

During the last structural crisis of capitalism, the Great Depression of the 1930s, massive movements from the Left, including unions, socialist parties and communist parties, forced widespread reforms to be instituted. Eventually, however, Keynesianism and social democratic programs developed new sets of instability and capitalists were able to at first slowly and then more vigorously roll back one reform after another. Professor Wolff argues that even if a suite of reforms could be enacted, the fix would be temporary — capitalists would intervene to take back the reforms, plunging us back into crisis.

But the problem is not simply that the wealthy, through their concentration of accumulated capital, can so readily bend political systems to their ends. The problem is the instability of capitalism itself — capitalists are induced to do everything they can to increase profits due to the relentless nature of competition. That can be achieved through taking a larger share of a market or through cutting costs — the latter can include the introduction of machinery or moving facilities to somewhere else where the workers can be paid far less. These decisions are made by a small number of people at the top of the company, ultimately by the board of directors, a body that almost always includes top executives.

A similar process of alienation happened in countries that used the system of the former Soviet Union, in which the government owned all enterprises. Professor Wolff uses the term “state capitalism” to describe that model because, in place of a private board of directors, state officials made all the decisions, again excluding workers. Those officials controlled all the production of the workers, appropriating the surplus by paying the workers a small fraction of the value of what they produced, the same as in a traditional private capitalist enterprise. A many-sided argument among Bolsheviks and others on how to organize production raged after the October Revolution, but, within a year of assuming power, the Bolsheviks nationalized large enterprises under the impact of the multiple deep crises of World War I and the threat of the advancing German army.

Such a system became synonymous with “socialism.” Along with many others, Professor Wolff argues that “socialism” has to be a much different system, one in which the workers themselves make the decisions of their enterprises, in conjunction with the community of which they are a part. A central part of the ongoing furious campaign against “socialism” is the supposed efficiency of capitalism in comparison to anything else. The inherent instability of capitalism (euphemistically called “business cycles” in orthodox economics) is itself inefficient, nor is it possible to measure all the wins and losses across a society.

“In short, the notion of measuring the efficiency of economic events or processes or of an economic system is a mirage. It is not possible to identify or measure all of the effects of any social factor, nor is it possible to separate and weigh all the influences that combine to produce each effect. The very concept of efficiency would have been banished from discourse, let alone science, long ago had it not proven so ideologically useful. Efficiency discourses resemble capitalist notions of efficiency, which in turn resemble the medieval doctrines and debates concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: they too will one day strike people looking back as bizarre and absurd.” [pages 29-30]

Moreover, Professor Wolff continues:

“The efficiency argument for capitalism rings hollow in the face of high and enduring unemployment affecting jobless millions and their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Watching the growing absurdity of foreclosures creating both homeless people and empty homes throws into serious question the standard defense of capitalist efficiency. … Socialists and communists during the Cold War often simply inverted the standard argument by insisting that is was [their version of] socialism or communism that was efficient (or more efficient than capitalism) and thus represented progress. They, too, often ignored the impossibilities of identifying and measuring all costs and benefits and of separating and evaluating each of the myriad influences that produced them.” [pages 30-31]

Having set the stage, Democracy at Work provides a concise summary of the lead-up to the present crisis, from the Great Depression through the explosion of debt incurred as a result of stagnant or declining wages, and summarizes in clear, accessible language the basic problems of advanced capitalist and Soviet-style systems. The book then gets to its heart, sketching out the concept of “workers’ self-directed enterprises.” WSDEs are a distinct form of cooperative enterprise — this is an enterprise in which the workers themselves are the directors, making all decisions on what to produce, where to produce, how to distribute, determining wages and other compensation, and hiring management.

The surpluses produced would never be appropriated and distributed by anybody else. In a capitalist corporation, the board of directors are legally required to maximize the profits of the corporation going to the shareholders, regardless of the cost to the workers or the local community, and only the shareholders vote on who the directors are. The profits of the company, the bloated pay of the top executives and the huge piles of cash diverted into speculation are the product of the surpluses produced by the workers — and the competitive pressures of capitalism ensure that this process continually deepens.

WSDEs would operate in a far more humane manner. The workers themselves will make the decisions on technological innovation, which is only proper since they, and the surrounding community of which they are a part, will have to live with such decisions. (This is unlike a capitalist enterprise, in which those who bear the cost have no say in the decision.) The self-directed workers can consider a far wider set of issues and concerns about adopting new technology, or any other strategic decision, thereby fully weighing the effects on themselves, their families and their communities.

Professor Wolff proposes that a specialized agency be created that would monitor technological innovations, what enterprises need more workers, which enterprises have registered a desire to commence new production, and other social needs, to be funded with enterprise profits.

“Rather like a matchmaking service, this agency’s task would be to match employees willing to change jobs with job availability and to arrange for appropriate training and inducements to facilitate the reallocation of personnel. No loss of income would attend the transition period for workers who left one job for another. To run this agency would cost a small portion of all the surpluses distributed by WSDEs to sustain its staff and activities. This agency’s reports and services would form one basis for the decision by all workers about whether to make the technical change in question.” [page 132]

Jobs can be rotated (easing boredom), pay differentials minimized (drastically reducing inequality), environmental concerns would be taken seriously (otherwise you’d be polluting your own home) and communities would be stabilized (who would move their jobs to another country for a cut in pay?). And by being involved in your workplace’s decisions — and rewarded for your efforts in making the enterprise a success — alienation is drastically reduced. Without the need to work a crushing number of hours to compensate for low pay, you would have the time to be more of a participant in your community.

Professor Wolff’s concept of WSDEs rests on the workers being their own directors; that is, making all the strategic business decisions themselves. He stresses this aspect, and sees ownership of the enterprise as less important, arguing that different ownership models can co-exist with WSDEs. Local, regional and national governments could own them but allow them to be run by the workers; the workers themselves could own the enterprise individually or collectively; or ownership could take the form of shares traded on a market. The author also prefers not to pre-judge whether a system based on WSDEs would take place under market conditions or in which planning predominates; he believes that they can be compatible with either.

“How WSDEs will come to exist with private versus socialized productive property and to coexist with markets versus planning will not be determined by spurious claims about their comparative efficiencies. It will be determined through the construction of particular, specific postcapitalist economic systems as they emerge in transitions from both private and state capitalist systems.” [page 144]

Fair enough. But here I believe caution is warranted. Leaving a full market system in place would inevitably re-introduce some of the problems of capitalism, albeit in different and milder forms. As I have previously discussed, if collective enterprises, no matter how democratically they are run internally, compete with each other in unfettered markets, market forces would require the collectives to ruthlessly reduce costs (including their own wages) and aggressively expand the market for their products. Failure to do so would mean not surviving in competition with the enterprises who do adapt themselves to market conditions. Because all materials and finished products would remain commodities subject to price volatility in this scenario, the cooperative workers’ own labor would also become a commodity — in essence, they would “become their own capitalists.”

Some amount of planning — democratic, bottom-up planning based on aggregate demand as a guide and not top-down planning imposed as an order — would seem to have a significant role in an economy dominated by cooperatives; moreover, the cooperatives would have to have some cooperation with each other, particularly in negotiating prices up and down the supply chain. Ultimately, these are questions that won’t begin to be solved until there is more practice, although a “matchmaking” agency of the type proposed above implies some amount of planning.

Much more immediate is the question of how WSDEs would co-exist with capitalist enterprises. WSDEs would handle competitive problems and grapple with issues of size and other issues differently than a capitalist enterprise. For instance, Professor Wolff argues, if WSDEs organized mutual support and pooled political strength, or prove to be more productive, they could prevail against capitalist enterprises. Not extracting large amounts of money for bloated executive pay could free extra funds for developing innovations, or differentiating their products as made under democratic conditions could be a marketing advantage.

Early on, WSDEs would need state assistance. Professor Wolff advocates adapting the model of Italy’s “Marcora Law,” which enabled workers to take over troubled enterprises. The author suggests offering the unemployed a choice: Either the traditional weekly benefits, or taking it as a lump sum, pooling their resources with others taking the lump sum, and forming a WSDE. These new enterprises would likely need to rely on technical assistance, subsidized credit, tax breaks and other assistance; such aid can be looked upon as an extension of existing programs to assist small businesses or for women- or minority-owned businesses.

Social solidarity with and by existing cooperatives, unions and activist groups would be another form of support. A strong cooperative movement would provide an alternative to traditional authoritarian capitalist employment, eroding capitalists’ ability to impose harsher working conditions.

Democracy at Work does formulate one difference from traditional concepts of cooperative enterprises that will likely be seen as controversial: A differentiation between “surplus-producing” workers and “enabling” workers. The first group are those who directly produce the outputs that are sold. The second group include accountants, managers, secretaries, clerks and many other job functions that provide the conditions that enable the “surplus-producing” workers to do their work. Professor Wolff is careful to stress that both categories are equally crucial to the success of an enterprise.

Nonetheless, he advocates that only the “surplus producers” be allowed to make the decisions regarding the appropriation and distribution of the surplus. All other decisions would be voted on collectively by all workers. The rationale is that such an arrangement “secures the absence of any exploitation within the WSDE” [page 166]. But leaving such major decisions to only a portion of the workforce risks engendering a division within the workforce, the opposite of the goal, and arguably applies too narrowly the laudable goal of ending exploitation.

Moreover, this formulation presupposes that management will form a group distinct from line workers. But there should not be such a distinction: Managers should be elected by the workers a whole, to specific terms and be recallable. There is no reason why management and supervisory positions should not be rotated — workers can become managers, and then go back to being workers. More people would become familiar with more roles, be able to assume greater responsibility and be better equipped to participate in strategic decision-making.

Nor is there any reason why people can’t change roles from a direct production job to a support job, which, to be fair, is tacitly acknowledged in the author’s stress on the ability of workers to change job functions within WSDEs. Having two categories of jobs with a crucial decision-making function reserved for one category would seem to defeat the purpose of cooperation — equality. If everybody is necessary to the enterprise, then everybody should be eligible to vote on everything.

Decision-making, however, will not be confined to the walls of the enterprise. Residents and workers should participate in each other’s decisions to the extent that they are affected, Professor Wolff writes. Community representatives should participate in WSDE decision-making, and vice versa, as WSDE members are part of the community.

“In societies where WSDEs are the prevailing organization of production, capitalists will no longer occupy a crucial political position. Capitalists’ use of the surpluses they appropriate will no longer dominate politics. We will no longer have capitalists making political use of the resources typically at their disposal — the surpluses they appropriate. Instead, the community of workers who direct WSDEs will be the prevailing political partner of residence-based governing bodies. …They might finally realize democracy, which under capitalism was never allowed to go beyond very limited electoral functions.” [pages 167-168]

A much higher level of democracy does not mean that a society with an economy based on WSDEs would be a utopia. Professor Wolff is forthright in noting that there will be new problems and contradictions. But with vastly less inequality distorting all areas of society, problems would be more easily tackled. And just as the transcending of earlier systems eliminated many but not all social ills, transcending capitalism will put many problems behind us.

“The slave and feudal systems that proceeded capitalism fostered forms of crime rooted in their mixes of economic risks and rewards. But those systems never displayed the recurring boom-and-bust cycles common to all forms of capitalism. These cycles are the products of capitalism — not of this or that group (the state, criminals, others) functioning within that system and in response to its upswings and downswings. … Overcoming the systemic roots and nature of capitalist crises requires a change in the economic system.” [pages 51-52]

Professor Wolff’s Democracy at Work offers us a well-written practical guide to alternatives to capitalism, one that we can begin to build today with the tools at our disposal. Whatever disagreements a reader may have with this or that detail, Democracy at Work is recommended to anyone seeking a concise study of why we need to bring a better world into being and how we might get there.

* Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism [Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012]