ParEcon Questions & Answers

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Socialism’s Classes?

  reject socialism…as an institutional model…saying it retains class division. Can you elaborate a bit on that…?

I think what goes under that label socialism is not really an economy elevating all actors into comparable circumstances, but is instead an economy that elevates a particular group – what I call the coordinator class – into ruling status. This is the set of people who monopolize empowering conditions and work in daily life throughout the economy. It is generally about 20% of the population in a developed economy.

The institutions that breed class rule of this sort include the corporate division of labor, remuneration for output or for bargaining power, and markets or central planning. All save some very vague models of socialism which lack institutional comittments advocate those institutions – and are therefore flawed for that reason.

That is a bit succinct, can you broaden it? If you want to take socialism off the agenda of the left, so to speak, you need rather good reasons.

To answer the question more fully, I have to provide answers for three possible meanings of “socialism” and also for a semantic issue, the use of the word “socialism,” in any form.

  • For some socialists, “socialism” means a particular type of economy including state or collective property plus market or central planning allocation and (derivative) typical corporate divisions of labor in workplaces. Call this Socialism 1.
  • For other socialists, “socialism” is again about economics, but the word doesn’t refer to specific institutions. It connotes that workers and consumers have appropriate empowerment and receive fair and equitable incomes not based on any structural or personal advantage, but doesn’t make reference to how this happens. Call this Socialism 2.
  • Finally, some socialists use the word “socialism” to refer to a whole desired society, not just to an economy. They mean one or the other of the two types of economy noted above, but they include as well new political, kin, cultural, and other relations in the rest of society, though rarely if ever seriously described. Call this Socialism 3.

To be complete, we must ask about each “socialism” in turn, “is it still on the Agenda?”

“Socialism 1”

Socialism 1 is or at least should be off the agenda. But this shouldn’t be on the usually asserted grounds that Socialism 1 doesn’t work at all. In fact, Socialism 1, which existed (or exists) in the old Soviet Union, throughout Eastern Europe, in China, and in Cuba, actually worked/works rather well by typical economic standards, though with its own array of costs and benefits. The distribution of income and wealth are both typically more just in Socialism 1 than in comparable capitalist economies and there is greater attention to the social conditions of those who are worst off. The proper comparison to draw comparative conclusions is not the Soviet Union circa 1985 as against the U.S. circa 1985, or Cuba 2000 as against the U.S. 2000 — but the old Soviet Union and a capitalist country at the same time of roughly comparable size and resources which was in a roughly comparable state of development in 1917 — and which can therefore be contrasted for the relative impact of taking a capitalist versus taking a Socialist 1 road during the seventy years in question. Brazil would be a good choice. Or an informative comparison can be drawn by contrasting Cuba to Guatemala or any other Latin American country of roughly comparable size, resources, and conditions forty years ago, and compensating for the embargo by taking into account what such isolation would have done to capitalist Guatemala, say, or what its absence would have meant for Socialist 1 Cuba. By such fair comparisons of societies with comparable situations and starting points, it becomes clear that relative to the capitalist model, the Socialist 1 model is far from decrepit. Instead, Socialism 1 can get at least elements of the economic tasks of a society done, and can do some of these better, in many respects, than capitalist alternatives, whether we are comparing growth rates, economic diversification, or the plight of those at the bottom of the economies.

The actual reason Socialism 1 ought to be off the human agenda is the same now as twenty, thirty, fifty, and seventy-five years ago. It is not because Cold War militaristic competition and internal political dictatorship, corruption, and ossification crumbled the Soviet Economy, or because Soviet elites felt they could do better in a capitalistically transformed system regardless of the detrimental effects for other citizens. No, the real reason we should remove Socialism 1 from humanity’s agenda is that it is not and never has been compatible with the greatest fulfillment and development of an economy’s producers and consumers. What’s wrong with Socialism 1 is not that it must inexorably collapse into chaos, which is actually false, but, instead, that even at its best Socialism 1 is an authoritarian system with economic class rule of the few over the many and with a propensity for a parallel authoritarianism in its polity. In short, even at its best, Socialism 1 cannot optimally advance desirable values and aims that we aspire to.

Socialism 1, an economic system, is built on state ownership of the means of production, plus markets or central planning for allocation, plus corresponding hierarchies and divisions of labor within production units. This combination of institutions elevates the interests of a subset of economic actors (the economy’s planners, managers, and highly educated and empowered sectors in general) above those of all other economic actors (who are busy doing rote and otherwise disempowering labor). Instead of the privileged ruling class being those who own the means of production, as under capitalism, in Socialism 1 it becomes those who monopolize conditions of work that give them collective control over how all work is conducted, what its outputs are, and who receives its bounty. Socialism 1 is an economic model, therefore, that by its institutions and their inexorable implications necessarily elevates what I call the “coordinator class” into ruling status, leaving the working class subordinate, but to a new boss–not the same as the old boss, but certainly much like the old boss.

Getting rid of private ownership of the means of production as Socialism 1 does eliminates one of the most egregious sources of unwarranted differentials in wealth and power–as in Bill Gates having more wealth than the whole country of Norway and, with a few of his buddies, having more systemic power over economic outcomes than whole swaths of humanity combined, numbering in the billions. But on top of the desirable step of eliminating private ownership and profit seeking, Socialism 1 retains markets or expands central planning in their place and this is negative, as is retaining old fashioned workplace job hierarchies that elevate a few to control economic decisions. These choices for allocation and workplace organization obliterate all hope for optimal solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management. They benefit and elevate a few above the many in income, status, and power and create an authoritarianism that tends to permeate all spheres of social life. So on these grounds my answer is that yes, Socialism 1 ought to be off the agenda.

What about Socialism 2?

Socialism 2, remember, doesn’t posit specific institutions for a proposed economy, but is instead a label indicating that producers and consumers together self-manage economic outcomes and enjoy equitable remuneration not governed, for example, by property, power, or any other social or personal advantage such as racism, sexism, or different innate productive talents.

If one thinks Socialism 2 is potentially attainable, then to say it should be morally off the agenda would be to say that humanity should stop progressing and resign itself to an economic system that falls short of these virtues. In the U.S. case, it would make sense only if we prefer an economy in which a very tiny few – let’s say 1% — own the majority of the means of production and accrue gargantuan profits as a result; in which roughly another 4% own most of the rest of the productive assets, also becoming immensely rich and powerful thereby; and in which another 15% or 20% own some residue productive assets and also, more centrally to their life prospects and situations, monopolize the economic positions in society that largely determine daily economic outcomes and circumstances for themselves and for others and as a result enjoy associated status, power, circumstances and, of course, grossly disproportionate income. It would mean that we are satisfied with most people obeying orders throughout their whole economic lives, subordinate in their workplaces and even in much of their consumption, much like citizens are politically subordinate to dictators in brutally oppressive polities.

It is hard for me to imagine a person in full possession of their mental faculties and not morally deprived or depraved, who would argue that less solidarity is preferable to more, that less equity is preferable to more, that less justice and democracy is preferable to more, that less control over our lives is preferable to more, and so on. But this is what it would mean to argue that Socialism 2 should be off the agenda, despite being potentially attainable. So in this sense of course we should not willingly remove Socialism 2 from the agenda.

There is, however, another logic that many people use to argue that Socialism 2 should go into history’s garbage bin. That is, they say that Socialism 2 is simply impossible, and that trying to attain it is a deluded pipe-dream detracting from useful pursuits. One could feel sure that Socialism 2 would be wonderful, we should note, thus being a morally sound and sensible person, but also feel that regrettably there is no combination of institutions that could bring it about. Any effort to improve economic solidarity, equity, justice, self-management, diversity, etc., would (a) fall short of our intentions, and (b) cause so much loss of output and/or other desired outcomes (such as privacy, say) that the relatively modest gains it did attain in equity or self-management or whatever else we seek would be far outweighed by huge losses in output, privacy, etc. This is the logic of TINA — Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion that “there is no alternative” — which is really, in fact, better termed TINBA, for “there is no better alternative.”

The first reply to TINA or TINBA is why would anyone in their right mind utter such a phrase gleefully? Imagine at some point in history someone yelling TINA or TINBA about slavery, or about child labor, or about overwhelming illiteracy, or about average life spans in the 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s, or about dictatorship, and so on. Any sane and morally sound person yelling TINA or TINBA about such things would presumably do so only tearfully, and at that only if he or she had had his or her hopes dashed by a very powerful set of arguments and associated evidence. Why else would one erect a “do not enter sign” in front of domains that of course everyone moral would like to enter? It would be pathological, or, of course, grotesquely self-serving on the part of a few who benefit from slavery, child labor, overwhelming illiteracy, short life spans, dictatorship, or, in the modern instance, stupendous inequalities of economic wealth and power to decry that nothing more is possible and be gleeful about it.

The second reply to those proclaiming TINA or TINBA is that there is, in fact, not only nothing compelling supporting their stance, but in fact no argument whatsoever on behalf of TINA or TINBA other than the loud pronouncements of sectors of the populace who greedily benefit from such beliefs. There is no operational evidence or analytic argument, that is, that economic institutions which empower workers and consumers to impact decisions proportionately as they are affected by them, or that reward actors in accord only with their efforts and sacrifice rather than property, power, or output, or that disperse economic responsibilities in a manner which balances empowerment and quality of life, are either impossible or fraught with problems so damning that they outweigh their virtues — or with problems at all, for that matter. Quite the contrary. Those of us who have made preliminary studies of such institutions have found them to be quite promising, while the advocates of TINA or TINBA have (predictably) virtually ignored these analyses.

At a minimum, therefore, until and unless someone makes an overwhelming, unassailable case that equity, justice, self-management, diversity, and other desirable values unmet by current economic institutions are either (a) incapable of being delivered by different economic institutions, or (b) in being delivered would consign us to other horrible ills offsetting the benefits, of course Socialism 2 should be very much on the agenda. More, I would urge that a particular proposed economic model currently exists — called Participatory Economics — which can accomplish Socialism 2’s desirable ends, and more, without any of the feared negative consequences, and therefore ought to become a plausible starting point for realizing our aspirations.

Just a brief word on this real alternative, since one of the most obvious and compelling ways to argue that some aim should be on our agenda–in this case Socialism 2–is to indicate what it might look like, why it might work well, and what its diverse properties might be. Participatory Economics — a particular implementation of Socialist 2 sentiments–accomplishes production, consumption, and allocation efficiently while also furthering preferred social and economic values including solidarity, equity of circumstances and income, diversity, and self-management (which is just decision making input in proportion as one is affected by the decisions in question). Participatory Economics is built on a few centrally defining institutions: democratic self-managing workers and consumers councils and federations of councils (instead of autocratic corporate hierarchies), remuneration according to effort and sacrifice (instead of remuneration according to property, power, or even output), balanced job complexes that equally empower all workers in their economic activities (instead of invidious divisions of labor and monopolies of information, knowledge, and access to decision-making levers for an elite), and participatory planning (instead of markets or central planning).


What about socialism writ larger than economics
— and the Semantics of the label “Socialism” In short, what about folks who use the word socialism to refer to a whole better society? Should this type socialism be on the agenda as Socialism 3?

Well, this will depend which economic model forms the core of the proposed better society. If we start with Socialism 1 for the economy plus other compatible comparably authoritarian changes in other realms (such as political dictatorship, continuing patriarchy only more or less attenuated, and cultural homogenization) then Socialism 3 would be as undesirable as Socialism 1. On the other hand, if we have the attributes of Socialism 2 for the economy and add compatible attributes in other facets of life as well, then Socialism 3 would be a good idea, perhaps better called participatory society. This much follows immediately from all the above arguments.

The real issue regarding Socialism 3, in my view, is (a) should we use this term socialism to refer to something beyond economics, and (b) should we use it, in fact, at all?

I think the answer to (a) should be no. First, the word socialism means nothing specific outside the economic realm so that using it outside economics even at best conveys nothing compelling, and arguably nothing much at all. There is no practical “socialist” vision spelled out, I think, in any serious detail, for addressing sexism, heterosexism, racism, national oppression, or political institutions that fail to empower people. And the actual historical experience in countries that have called themselves socialist (which were all in fact Socialist 1 or in my terminology Coordinatorist in their economics) have been nothing worth serious emulation, to be generous about it. Who would want to celebrate as a goal slightly attenuated or aggravated patriarchy, slightly reduced or horribly obliterated democracy up to and including adopting grotesque Stalinism, and barely touching or horribly homogenizing the problems afflicting cultural communities whether religious, ethnic, or racial? There is, not surprisingly given the inadequacies of Socialism 1 / Coordinatorism, nothing much to aspire to as ultimate goals in this mix.

We do need a feminist vision, of course, and those who aspire to Socialism 2 should aspire to a positive feminist vision, as well. And the same goes for needing a political vision that achieves true democracy and a cultural vision that yields a non-racist society. And yes, this does mean that Socialism 2 (in my view, Participatory Economics) needs to be compatible with preferred, still to be fully enunciated, kinship, political, and cultural visions — just as the reverse also needs to hold. But it is a mistake, I think, to have a conceptual label that is primarily about one sphere of social life stand in for our liberatory aspirations in all spheres of social life. Thus, my answer to (a) is no, we should not use the term socialism (nor the label Participatory Economics) to refer to realms beyond the economy, other than that those other realms will need to be compatible with the economy and vice versa.

But what about (b) — should we use the term socialism at all?

We have said that Socialism 2 ought to still be on the agenda, and I have suggested that I think the economic model Participatory Economics qualifies as an implementation of Socialism 2. So why isn’t it called Socialist 2 Economics, or perhaps Participatory Socialism?

The answer is because I don’t think the word “socialism” has much communicative value. For most people due to the history of the past century, socialism means Socialism 1. For me and you, I hope, it means Socialism 2 where Socialism 1 is instead an economic system that we reject, one that I call Coordinatorism after the ruling class it elevates to economic dominance. Sometimes it is necessary to wage a war of words, because in losing a word something of great value is removed from public discussion. The thing is, this word, “socialism,” was lost a long time ago, when both the Eastern and Western blocs decided to append it to the Soviet economic model. The West did this to delegimate the word socialism by making it connote Socialism 1. The East did it to try to append to the Socialism 1 model some legitimacy by making it seem to encompass all hope for Socialism 2. In both cases the word socialism was robbed of its Socialist 2 connotations.

I doubt that the word socialism can be extricated from this mess. And to cap the case, it no longer seems that very much is at stake. Do we really need this word in order to be able to stand up for real self-management, real equity and real justice? So I have Socialism 2 on my agenda in the form of Participatory Economics. I have Socialism 1 off my agenda, as I have always had it off my agenda, but under the name Coordinatorism. And I have no more idea what Socialism 3 means than anyone else, and so don’t have that, per se, on an agenda either, though I do very much hope to be able to give my allegiance to worthy political, kinship, and cultural visions in the near future, if people would only hammer those into workable, supportable, shape.

Has all this seemed a bit abstract, dry, and academic? If so, perhaps it is the question I was asked to address. To become more alive and engaged I would suggest that we ought to stop talking about vague or even misleading “socialism,” and start talking about well-described economic, political, kinship, and cultural aims in understandable terms that don’ t carry extensive baggage. If we do that, then I think the abstract, dry, and academic tone may give way to living breathing language that can fire imaginations, hope, and struggle.

For the economy I want workers and consumers to have control over their own economic lives. I want everyone to have fair conditions that fully utilize their talents and potentials. I want incomes that accord with the efforts people expend in their labors. I want what is produced, by whom, under what conditions, and with who consuming the result–all determined in accord with enhancing human well-being and development and all decided by the people involved and affected. I want an end to hierarchies of power and wealth and to class division with most actors subordinated to an elite few. To accomplish all these ends I favor the institutions of participatory economics — worker and consumer councils, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. If someone should demonstrate that those institutions somehow fail to accomplish necessary economic functions or have social or personal by-products that outweigh their benefits — I would simply return to the drawing board. Exploitation, alienation, poverty, disempowerment, fragmenting and debilitating labor, production for the profit of a few — much less harsh homelessness, starvation, and degradation — are not like gravity. They arise from institutional relations established by human beings. New institutions, also established by human beings, can generate other vastly superior outcomes. Defining and working to attain those new institutions ought to be our economic agenda.




Below is another treatment of these issues…an essay on the topics…

A Third Soul

By Michael Albert

ffHal Draper’s “The Two Souls of Socialism” is a very interesting essay, even decades after its origin. It is flawed, however, in that it doesn’t fulfill its promise.

Draper notes that socialism is an odd label that encompasses three tendencies. First, socialism refers to advocates of dictatorial political regimes plus central planning (or markets) for allocation, plus corporate workplace organization – as was present in the Soviet Union, China, etc. Second, socialism also refers to social democratic allegiances to ameliorating core capitalist structures via government intervention. And third, socialism refers as well to advocates of eliminating classes so that all workers (and consumers) have appropriate participation and decision making influence regarding their economic lives, rather than many people being subordinate to a few.

Draper draws his central divide over the word’s meaning as either advocating a process of change that derives from above or a process of change that derives from below. I think Drapers typology is well motivated and in many respects quite insightful. But I also think it is insufficient. It says that the key issue is one’s strategy, but not the analysis that precedes one’s strategy or the goal that is sought via one’s strategy. But if we don’t think also about underlying concepts and overarching goals, how do we judge a strategy to even know whether it is “from above” or “from below,” beyond the utterly obvious indicators?

Draper is saying that he wants a true socialism and that any effort to attain it has to have structural commitments that melt into a new system that is participatory and self-managing. If the effort to attain change, instead intrinsically subverts stated desires and melts into a new condition including a dominating ruling economic class and an authoritarian state, then our having espoused libertarian goals or having utilized insightful concepts will matter little. The proof will be in the pudding, and if the means are “from above” the pudding will be authoritarian, Draper warns.

And my assessment is that this is quite true, as far as it goes. In fact, more than just being true, it is a truism. Of course it is the case that if our methods lead to authoritarianism – in economics or politics, or in other domains – then our efforts will lead to results that are authoritarian. When you put it like that, it isn’t so complex, it is utterly obvious. And so, stated thusly, it becomes clear that the really substantive task is to realize what methods do, in fact, generate authoritarian outcomes and what methods, in contrast, would generate liberatory ones?

To indicate the importance of this deeper pursuit, what if we think our methods are in tune with our libertarian aspirations and “from below,” and we pursue them, but we wind up with authoritarian results anyhow? We thought our actions were in accord with our liberatory aims. Nonetheless, it turns out that in the end they weren’t. Our judgment wasn’t as good as we thought.

Or what if we do in fact have quite libertarian means, as best we can see and let’s say we can see as well as Draper or even better, but nonetheless, as we make progress in our struggles against corporations, the market, the state, etc., the only options we can conceive for organizing the economy and polity take us away from our intended path and toward new hierarchies? We had good means that didn’t subvert our aspirations, but we settled for bad ends anyhow.

The first point is that it isn’t enough to say we have to fight from below rather than fighting from above – or, more accurately, we have to fight with methods and organization that lead to truly liberated outcomes rather than with methods and organizations that lead to new forms of political and class domination. No, for this worthy instruction to have real value, we have to say what the instruction means.

And it isn’t even enough that we have a good idea what the instruction means, and that we believe in it, and that we implement it, if it turns out that as we make progress in our struggles we have no idea what forms to construct consistent with our desires, and so we disconsolately fall back into old ways that are contrary to our desires.

Draper says “the heart of socialism from below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized `from below’ in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors … on the stage of history.”

Okay, it sounds good, to be sure, but certainly in the earliest stages of activity some few people will be very aroused and aware, whereas huge numbers of others will be less so, and even more will not be politically conscious and active at all. The few must act, must take initiative, and yet must not wind up dominating those who later become involved. How is that to happen? To just say that change must be sought from below and not from above is a far cry from describing actual structures consistent with the instruction.

What’s more, as the initial organizing of small numbers of people inspires many others to become aroused,  and then more and more people thereafter, and as these growing numbers of active dissenters begin manifesting their preferences to win changes that better their lives, and as they eventually gain sufficient weight to take over workplaces and communities, even establishing local organs of direct power, all done ”from below,” will this inevitably equate to a new world, with truly participatory control? It may, of course. It is necessary, of course. But what if markets are preserved and slowly but surely erode the euphoria of struggle against owners, then also causing reinstatement of hierarchies other than those based on property? Or what if the old form of workplace organization and divisions of labor are maintained, no other option being conceived, and that has a similar effect? In other words, does it follow that if a movement succeeds in structuring itself without undo hierarchies of power and income difference, then a new society built by that movement will have similar properties? That the movement be “from below” is a necessary condition for a good new economy, yes, but it isn’t sufficient.

Draper is very concerned with the stated aspirations of various actors and movements and looks at the history of them in very interesting and revealing ways. There is no time to explore every nugget of reference he uncovers. When the quotes deny the rhetoric, it is particularly revealing. But when the quotes ratify rhetoric, while I don’t want to say that it is irrelevant, I would say that it is far less relevant than many people think. It doesn’t matter any more or less, I guess, that Marx says he wants the self-directed emancipation of workers than that Bill Clinton says he wants a maximum of liberty, justice, and equity. What does matter, instead of their laudatory and inspiring self-descriptions, is whether the frameworks of thought they offer and the choices of actions they settle on match or deny – whether by error or by overt intention – their professed aims. Most actors, by and large, say that they want nice things. If we quote Marx saying he wants nice ends to prove that after all Marxism is about attaining nice ends, why not also quote Lenin, Trotsky, or even Stalin describing the nice things they desire, to prove that Leninism, Trotskyism, or even Stalinism are about attaining nice ends?

Draper doesn’t do the latter because he feels there is a schism between what these actors say they want, which is trumpeted in nice quotes that we could surely find, and what their concepts imply and what these individuals and their movements actually did in real history. The important evidence, Draper knows, is not the self descriptions, but the concepts and the aims proposed for others to relate to, as well as the structures advocated for people to work in. So if Draper wanted to look at Marx, or infinitely more importantly, at Marxism – or at Anarchism, or at Leninism, or what have you — he should have looked at such matters as their basic concepts and institutional allegiances, etc. and not at a few catchy phrases, however inspiring, I think.

Marx handed on to Lenin and the rest an intellectual framework of concepts for thinking about capitalism. It was certainly very powerful in a great many respects. No one who is sensible denies that. But did the set of concepts handed on under the label Marxism have problems that bear on discerning what is “movement from above” as compared to what is “movement from below” – once we give our commitment to the latter?

Put differently, are the roots of being “from above,” only in the agendas of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, and therefore imposed on Marxism by infidel “Marxists” against Marxism’s inner logic, as Draper suggests, or are there attributes at the heart of Marxism’s concepts which not only don’t rebut and eliminate inclinations to organize from above, but propel them?

Likewise, are there flaws in the vision and analysis that has been   called socialism that lead, coupled to a lack of counter views, to adoption of structures at odds with libertarian aspirations even by movements that do work from below? The Polish Solidarity movement, for example, was very much bottom up oriented, very committed to workers self management, yet wound up with elite rule by a few, and the recent Argentine movements, again very much struggles from below, lack clear aims for the economy and may for that reason fall back on failed models in lieu of options, as a result.

So, for the rest of this essay, I’d like to do two things which I think are in tune with Draper’s intent, though they also extend beyond what he had to say.

The first is to make a case that Marxist class analysis is flawed and that this is at the root of why all economies that have used the label socialist for themselves have not, in fact, eliminated classes. I suspect inadequacies regarding the political sphere also have at least some roots and encounter few if any obstacles in Marxist concepts, but I want to highlight the economic aspect, given my own greater confidence about that.

And second, I want to also offer a succinct picture of what Draper might like to call “real socialism,” but what I want to call participatory economics. I offer it as a goal worth striving for and one that can protect our movements from re-imposing class stratified economic relations, in addition to their needing to be “from below,” as Draper urges.

First, what are the conceptual issues?

Marxism’s virtues include that it attunes us to important economics, explains ownership relations and profit-seeking, reveals many horrible effects of markets, and highlights class dynamics. But what about its problems that may contribute to so many Marxists finding themselves categorized by Draper as being in the “from above” camp?
There are some problems that are serious, but not so relevant to Draper’s dichotomy. Marxist dialectics are an overly obscure methodological reminder to think holistically and historically that often, however, drain creativity and range of perception. When “real existing people” utilize historical materialism’s concepts they generally systematically under-value and mis-understand social relations of gender, political, cultural, and ecological origin and import. Marxism as used by real practitioners, that is, tends to exaggerate the centrality of economics, and gives insufficient attention to gender, race, polity, and the environment. To overcome this weakness would require a twofold alteration of how most Marxists construct and utilize their world view. They would need to admit:

  1. That Marxism mainly conceptualizes economics, and
  2. That conceptualizations of the other mentioned realms offer equally central insights and moreover that influences from other domains can centrally contour economic relations, just as vice versa.

That is, Marxists would need to jettison their base/superstructure conceptualization and instead highlight that gender, race, and political dynamics  can impact economics just as powerfully as vice versa. Marxism would need to recognize both directions of causality, not exclusively or even primarily only causality from economics to the rest of society, and would have to refine many of its concepts accordingly. This type critique has in the past propelled feminists to create socialist feminism (to try to merge insights from gender-focused and class-focused analysis) and has led also to variants of anarcho-marxism, Marxist nationalism, and so on regarding other conceptual combinations…right up to frameworks that centrally address economics, polity, culture, and kinship all on a par.

But the above is not the problem of Marxism that I wish to feature in this discussion, nor the one that I think is central to Marxists being, most often, on the “from above” side of Draper’s typology. Indeed, suppose most Marxists have already or will soon achieve the above enrichment and diversification of their concepts, as some certainly have. Would I be satisfied with such a renovated Marxism?

I’d be happy about it, yes, but no, I wouldn’t be satisfied with it because I think Marxism has a second problem, more damning and intractable. That is, Marxism gets the economy wrong.

On the one hand, in orthodox variants, and in almost all its texts, the Labor Theory of Value misunderstands the determination of wages, prices, and profits in capitalist economies and turns activists’ thoughts away from seeing how the dynamics of the workplace and market are largely functions of bargaining power and social control, categories that the labor theory of value largely ignores. Likewise, orthodox Marxist crisis theory, in all its variants, distorts understanding of capitalist economies and anti-capitalist prospects by often seeing intrinsic collapse where no such prospect exists and by often orienting activists away from the importance of their own organizing as a far more promising basis for change. But these ills too, one can imagine Marxists transcending, as indeed many have. So let’s assume these all away, as well.

Far more important than these failures, what I want to focus on is that in virtually every variant of Marxism, Marxist class theory literally denies the existence of what I call the coordinator (professional-managerial or technocratic) class and undercounts its antagonisms with the working class as well as with capital. This particular failing has long obstructed class analysis of the old Soviet, Eastern European, and Third World non-capitalist economies, and of capitalism itself. It is the failing, I think, that leads Marxist thinking and practice, good intentions aside, to so often be “from above” – in the precise sense of being from the stance of the coordinator class.

Marxism rightly reveals that class differences can arise from differences in ownership relations. Capitalists own means of production. Workers own only their labor power which they sell for a wage. The capitalist pursues profit by trying to extract as much work as possible at the least expenditure possible. The worker tries to expand wages, improve conditions, and work as short and little as possible. Class struggle.

So, what’s the problem? This Marxist picture certainly rings plenty true, as far as it goes. The problem is, why should only property relations generate class difference? Why can’t other social relations of work and economic life divide actors into critically important opposed groups with different circumstances, motives, and means?
The answer is that they can. Some waged employees monopolize empowering conditions and tasks and have considerable say over their own work situations and those of other workers below. Other waged employees endure only disempowering conditions and tasks and have virtually no say over their own or anyone else’s conditions. The former try to maintain their monopoly of empowering circumstances and greater income while ruling over the latter. Class struggle.

Within capitalism, in this view we have not only capitalists and workers, but, in between, there is a coordinator class of empowered actors who defend their advantages against workers below and who struggle to enlarge their bargaining power against owners above. But even more, this coordinator class can actually become the ruling class of a new economy that has capitalists removed but also has workers still subordinate. That is, Marxism obscures the existence of a class which not only contends with capitalists and workers within capitalism, but which can become ruler of a new economy, aptly called, I think, coordinatorism.

Finally, the really damning point is that this new economy that I call coordinatorism, is familiar. It has public or state ownership of productive assets and corporate divisions of labor. It remunerates power and/or output. It utilizes central planning and/or markets for allocation. It is typically called by its advocates market socialism or centrally planned socialism. It is celebrated as the goal of struggle in every Marxist text that offers a serious economic vision. It has been adopted by every Marxist party that has ever redefined a society’s economic relations. It is prevalent, that is, yet it is barely conceptualized at all.

Regarding visions of desirable societies, it turns out, therefore, that Marxism is particularly counter-productive in a few ways. First there is Marxism’s general taboo against “utopian” speculation. Second, Marxism tends to presume that if economic relations are desirable other social relations will fall into place. Third, “From each according to ability to each according to need” is utopian and curtails needed information transfer and has in any event never been more than rhetoric for empowered Marxists and their alternative “from each according to work and to each according to contribution to the social product” is not a morally worthy maxim because it would reward productivity, including genetic endowment and differential tools and conditions. And fourth, and most damning, and most relevant here, in practice Marxism advocates hierarchical relations of production plus command planning or markets as means of allocation.

In other words, the heart of the problem that makes me reject Marxism and feel that it ought to have declining relevance among serious leftists seeking a new economy is that due to its underlying concepts and however innocently for a great many Marxist activists, Marxism’s economic goals amount to advocating a coordinator mode of production that elevates administrators, intellectual workers, planners, etc., to ruling status. This is why so many Marxists are advocates, in Draper’s terms, of a strategy that operate “from above.” Marxism seeks to elevate a class that is while under capitalism above workers, though below owners, to ruling status in a new economy. Marxism uses the label socialism, which is meant to imply people controlling their own economic lives, to0 label this goal, of course. But Marxism does not in fact structurally implement these ideals when it gains power to affect societal outcomes, nor does it offer a vision that does so even as an ideal. The situation is analogous, Marx himself would surely point out, to how bourgeois movements use the label democratic to rally support from diverse sectors for their political forms, but do not structurally implement truly democratic ideals.

Finally, what follows is that Leninism is a natural outgrowth of Marxism when employed by people in capitalist societies, and Marxism Leninism, far from being the “theory and strategy for the working class,” is, instead, due to its focus, concepts, values, organizational and tactical commitments, and institutional goals, the theory and strategy of the coordinator class. It employs coordinator class organizational and decision making logic and structure, and seeks coordinator class economic dominance. The from above Draper points to isn’t some aberration, it is a manifestation of coordinator class interests.

It is generally not very effective to rail against an intellectual framework of long standing by adopting a purely critical stance. Something positive must be offered. This is where Draper fell short, it seems to me. And for that reason, I should say that in place of the economic inadequacies of Marxism for greater relevance to our aspirations I think we should utilize a richer conceptual framework emphasizing the broader social relations of production, all the material, human, and social inputs and outputs of economic activity, the social and psychological as well as material dimensions of class division, and particularly the impact of corporate divisions of labor and market and centrally planned allocation on class hierarchy in capitalism and also in coordinatorism.
Having done all that, in addition to of course retaining the lasting insights of Marxism and for that matter all prior frameworks, I think we will reject existent and past market and centrally planned models of a better economy and gravitate instead toward new structures – from the bottom. For myself, I call the new economic goal I favor participatory economics including council self management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice (and remuneration for need for those who can’t work), balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. This is the vision part of what I would like to append to Draper’s insights.

If this model (worked out in full in many works and discussed in detail at is worthy and desirable, and if it should replace what has been called socialism (but has actually been coordinatorism) as the goal of movements seeking economic justice and equity, then I think rejecting Marxism and Leninism as ideologies to guide us should be done not simply due to finding fault with various aspects of each, but due to having a preferred alternative to utilize in their place.

Council self management is what the Bolsheviks destroyed, more or less, in the Soviet Union. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice counters rewarding power or output, the typical approach of “socialist” models. Balanced job complexes replace corporate workplace organization to eliminate the workplace basis for coordinator rule, present in all actual Marxist economies and all their substantive accounts of aims. Participatory planning replaces markets and or central planning, also present in virtually all Marxist program and practice, and does so to remove the allocational basis for coordinator rule. Together these features propel solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management rather than stifling and trampling each. In some sense it might be nice to claim that Marxists have been confused all this time, advocating a mistaken set of institutions that doesn’t, in fact, spring from the logic of their conceptual framework, as Draper wants to argue, but it would be a bit disingenuous, I think. Coordinatorism does have roots in various Marxist and particularly Leninist concepts and commitments, which is why these latter need to be transcended and jettisoned.

Following Draper in finding some guidance in Marx’s work, I note that Marx taught us to look at ideologies or conceptual frameworks, and to ask of them, who do they serve? What are they suited for? What do they include, and what do they exclude, and will their inclusions and exclusions make them suitable or unsuitable for us? Marx was no one’s fool and these are very insightful instructions. Applied to Marxism, however, they reveal that the framework leaves out important economic relations virtually all to the benefit of the coordinator class in its agenda to overcome capitalism and install itself into ruling status. We shouldn’t only tinker with and otherwise refine Marxism, just as we shouldn’t only tinker with and otherwise refine bourgeois economics. These are frameworks bent to serve interests that we oppose. They have insights we can borrow, especially Marxism, of course. But as to the overall conceptual package — following Marx’s advice, we have to transcend that.
Now what about an that economic vision, that might propel and sustain, and emerge from and inform a truly “from below” movement such as Draper envisages and desires? Can we spell that out, at least a bit more?

Capitalist economics revolves around private ownership of the means of production, market allocation, and corporate divisions of labor. Remuneration is for property, power, and to a limited extent contribution to output causing huge differences in wealth and income. Class divisions arise due to property and due to differential access to empowered versus obedient work. Huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of circumstances exist. Buyers and sellers one-up each other and the broader public reaps what self-interested competition sows. Anti-social trajectories of investment and personality development result. Decision-making ignores or exploits ecological decay. Reduced ecological diversity results.

To transcend capitalism, suppose we advocate various common left core values – ones that I think Draper would himself certainly advocate: equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance. What institutions can propel these values in domestic economics, as well as admirably accomplish economic functions?

To start, we might choose to advocate public/social property relations in place of privatized capitalist property relations. In the new system, all citizens own each workplace in equal part. This ownership conveys no special right or income. Bill Gates doesn’t own a massive proportion of the means by which software is produced. We all own it—or symmetrically, if you prefer, no one owns it. At any rate, ownership becomes moot regarding distribution of income, wealth, or power. In this way the ills of private ownership such as personal accrual of profits yielding huge wealth, disappear.
Next, workers and consumers could be organized into democratic councils with the norm for decisions being that methods of dispersing information to decision-makers and at arriving at preferences and tallying them into decisions should convey to each actor about each decision, to the extent possible, influence over the decision in proportion to the degree they will be affected by it.

Councils would be the seat of decision-making power and would exist at many levels, including subunits such as work groups and teams and individuals, and supra units such as workplaces and whole industries. People in councils would be the economy’s decision-makers. Votes could be majority rule, three quarters, two-thirds, consensus, etc. They would be taken at different levels, with fewer or more participants, depending on the particular implications of the decisions in question. Sometimes a team or individual would make a decision pretty much on its own. Sometimes a whole workplace or even industry would be the decision body. Different voting and tallying methods would be employed as needed for different decisions. There is no a priori single correct choice. There is, however, a right norm to try to efficiently and sensibly implement: decision-making input should be in proportion as one is affected by decisions.

Next, we alter the organization of work changing who does what tasks in what combinations. Each actor does a job, of course. Each job is composed of a variety of tasks, of course. What changes from current corporate divisions of labor to a preferred future division of labor is that the variety of tasks each actor does is balanced for its empowerment and quality of life implications.
Every person participating in creating new products is a worker. The combination of tasks and responsibilities you have at work accords you the same empowerment and quality of life as the combination I have accords me, and likewise for each other worker and their balanced job complex.

We do not have some people overwhelmingly monopolizing empowering, fulfilling, and engaging tasks and circumstances. We do not have other people overwhelmingly saddled with only rote, obedient, and dangerous things to do. For reasons of equity and especially to create the conditions of democratic participation and self-management, when we each participate in our workplace and industry (and consumer) decision-making, we each have been comparably prepared by our work with confidence, skills, and knowledge to do so.

The typical situation now is that some people who produce have great confidence, social skills, decision-making skills, and relevant knowledge imbued by their daily work, and other people are only tired, de-skilled, and lacking relevant decision making knowledge due to their daily work. Balanced job complexes do away with this division of circumstances. They complete the task of removing the root basis for class divisions that is begun by eliminating private ownership of capital. They eliminate not only the role of owner/capitalist and its disproportionate power and wealth, but also the role of intellectual/decision making producer who exists over and above all others. They apportion conceptual and empowering and also rote and unempowering responsibilities more equitably and in tune with true democracy and classlessness.

Next comes remuneration. We work. This entitles us to a share of the product of work. But this new vision says that we ought to receive for our labors an amount in tune with how hard we have worked, how long we have worked, and with what sacrifices we have worked. We shouldn’t get more by virtue of being more productive due to having better tools, more skills, or greater inborn talent, much less by virtue of having more power or owning more property.

We should be entitled to more consumption only by virtue of expending more of our effort or otherwise enduring more sacrifice. This is morally appropriate and also provides proper incentives due to rewarding only what we can affect, not what we can’t. With balanced job complexes, for eight hours of normally paced work Sally and Sam receive the same income. This is so if they have the same job, or any job at all. No matter what their particular job may be, no matter what workplaces they are in and how different their mix of tasks is, and no matter how talented they are, if they work at a balanced job complex, their total work load will be similar in its quality of life implications and empowerment effects so the only difference specifically relevant to reward for their labors is going to be length and intensity of work done, and with these equal the share of output earned will be equal. If length of time working or intensity of working differ somewhat, so will share of output earned. Who mediates decisions about the definition of job complexes and about what rates and intensities people are working? Workers do, of course, in their councils and with appropriate decision-making say using information culled by methods consistent with employing balanced job complexes and just remuneration.

There is one very large step remaining, even to offering only a broad outline of economic vision. How are the actions of workers and consumers connected? How do decisions made in workplaces, and by collective consumer councils, as well as by individual consumers, all come into accord? What causes the total produced by workplaces to match the total consumed collectively by neighborhoods and other groups and privately by individuals? For that matter, what determines the relative social valuation of different products and choices? What decides how many workers will be in which industry producing how much? What determines whether some product should be made or not, and how much? What determines what investments in new productive means and methods should be undertaken and which others delayed or rejected? These are all matters of allocation.

Existing options for dealing with allocation are central planning (as was used in the old Soviet Union) and markets (as is used in all capitalist economies with minor or greater variations). In central planning a bureaucracy culls information, formulates instructions, sends these instructions to workers and consumers, gets some feedback, refines the instructions a bit, sends them again, and gets back obedience. In a market each actor in isolation from concern for other actor’s well being competitively pursues its own agenda by buying and selling labor (or the ability to do it) and buying and selling products and resources at prices determined by competitive bidding. Each person seeks to gain more than other parties in their exchanges.

The problem is, each of these two modes of connecting actors and units imposes on the rest of the economy pressures that subvert the values and structures we favor. Markets, even without private capitalization of property, distort valuations to favor private over public benefits and to channel personalities in anti-social directions thereby diminishing and even destroying solidarity. They reward primarily output and power and not only effort and sacrifice. They divide economic actors into a class that is saddled with rote and obedient labor and another that enjoys empowering circumstances and determines economic outcomes, also accruing most income. They isolate buyers and sellers as decision-makers who have no choice but to competitively ignore the wider implications of their choices, including effects on the ecology.

Central planning, in contrast, is authoritarian. It denies self-management and produces the same class division and hierarchy as markets built first around the distinction between planners and those who implement their plans, and then extending outward to incorporate empowered and dis-empowered workers more generally. Both these allocation systems subvert rather than propel the values we hold dear. What is the alternative to markets and central planning?

Suppose in place of top-down imposition of centrally planned choices and in place of competitive market exchange by atomized buyers and sellers, we opt for cooperative, informed choosing by organizationally and socially entwined actors each having a say in proportion as choices impact them and each able to access needed accurate information and valuations and each having appropriate training and confidence to develop and communicate their preferences. That would be consistent with council centered participatory self-management, with remuneration for effort and sacrifice, with balanced job complexes, with proper valuations of collective and ecological impacts, and with classlessness. To these ends, activists might favor participatory planning, a system in which worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and consumer preferences in light of accurate knowledge of local and global implications and true valuations of the full social benefits and costs their choices will impose and garner.

The system utilizes a back and forth cooperative communication of mutually informed preferences via a variety of simple communicative and organizing principles and vehicles including indicative prices, facilitation boards, rounds of accommodation to new information, and so on—all permitting actors to express their desires and to mediate and refine them in light of feedback about other’s desires, arriving at compatible choices consistent with remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory self managing influence.
Is the above a full picture of an economic alternative to capitalism? Of course not, it is too brief. But it is hopefully provocative and inspiring.

  • Democratic workplace and consumer councils for equitable participation
  • Diverse decision-making procedures seeking proportionate say for those affected by decisions
  • Balanced job complexes creating just distribution of empowering and dis-empowering circumstances
  • Remuneration for effort and sacrifice in accord with admirable moral and efficient incentive logic
  • Participatory planning in tune with economics serving human well being and development

Together these constitute the core institutional scaffolding of participatory economics, a systemic alternative to capitalism and also to what has been called centrally planned or market socialism. Are there fuller formulations of this particular economic vision? Most certainly there are.
And so what does all this say about Draper’s dichotomy? I think Draper is right about contrasting approaches “from below” and “from above,” but I think to do it more instructively and more revealingly, requires clarifying that the issue is one of both strategy and of vision, and that it rests on concepts, as well. More, the positive prescription is not just that we ought to prefer “from below” but that we should understand that preferring “from below” means that we want to develop movements that can “melt into” a new society that is classless, and that has worker and consumer council self management, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning – as well as comparably liberated and liberating structures for other domains of social life.

 Next Entry: Parecon and Class


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