7 December 2009 **** Republished on ZNet, 10 January 2010 **** Front Page
By Tapani Lausti
Chris Spannos (ed.), Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century. AK Press 2008.
In his sadly neglected book The Transformation of Capitalist Society (Rowan & Littlefield 1997), the late Zellig Harris looked "ahead to a time when the decline of capitalist production in various countries, economic sectors, and companies, leaves workers without job prospects and sectors of production inadequently covered for the needs of the population". Harris examined "the possibility that under these conditions worker-controlled enterprises, where employees are included in sharing control, may be able to arise and to fill an economic niche, and thus to survive within a capitalist environment". (p. 2) (Finnish readers see Vastarinta nousee ruohonjuuritasolta)
With the great international financial crisis the situation which Harris foresaw has truly arrived in many countries. It is now an urgent task to try to chart ways how such enterprises could — in Harris's words — "become a significant part of a country's economy" and "give rise to new social economic understandings and different political attitudes".
The book edited by Chris Spannos adds significantly to the sorely needed thinking about future progress. The idea of participatory economy — parecon — underlies all the contributions. Many ideas echo Harris's observations. In his article "From Here to Parecon: Thoughts on Strategy for Economic Revolution", Brian Dominick writes: "Markets cannot be instantly replaced by participatory planning, but the coordination of workers' and consumers' councils, coupled with the creation of democratic allocation systems, can occur precisely to the extent that markets are disqualified and rendered obsolete." (p. 393)
It is still difficult for the majority of people to believe that there can be alternatives to capitalism, especially because the sorry history of the Soviet Union is widely seen as a failed example of a planned economy. Several writers in this book mention how they grew up with this mistaken impression. They have later understood that planning is not possible without truly democratic structures and channels of information. Thus it is important to explain that what radical left-wing people want has nothing to do with the deeply undemocratic structures of the ex-Soviet bloc countries.
Michael Albert, who is one of the leading parecon thinkers and one of the contributors to this book, emphasises time and time again that we have to have some idea of what an alternative society could look like, otherwise larger masses of people cannot get interested in left-wing ideas (see my review of Albert's book Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism ). In this book Albert expresses the question of pushing present conditions towards a different society in this way: "Pushing existing institutions in desirable directions as well as creating new and more desirable institutions can make life better for people working in and consuming products from those institutions now, and can make life better later for everyone if we can make the efforts part of a process leading to a whole new economy." (p. 97)
There are examples in history of how workers can operate factories and institutions without bosses. Earlier examples can be found in the Spanish revolution of 1936. Dave Markland writes: "Virtually all contemporary observers were struck by the ability of the anarchists to harness and propel the tremendous outpouring of solidarity and sacrifice exhibited by the workers." (p. 197) (See also How Stalin destroyed revolution in Spain).
Latest examples come from Argentina where workers who have taken over their factories have redefined the basis of production, as Marie Trigona explains: "without workers, bosses are unable to run a business; without bosses, workers can do it better." (p.155) Even under capitalist conditions, the effect of the new reality on workers is dramatic: "As soon as workers began to produce without an owner or boss, relationships inside the Zanon factory were re-invented, breaking with hierarchical organization, alienation, and exploitation." (p. 157)
In the Balkans, the reaction to parecon ideas has been positive among workers and grassroots activists. Andrej Grubacic makes an interesting observation: "It seems that people to whom I have been talking about these issues in my country — workers, peasants, movement activists — are far more receptive to this idea than my colleagues who teach and even than 'anti-capitalist' intellectuals in general. But I guess this is no surprise." (p. 141)
Indeed, "the conviction that workers and consumers are capable of managing themselves and their own division of labor efficiently and equitably" is the lynchpin of libertarian socialist thinking, in the words of another parecon veteran, Robin Hahnel (p. 224) He also thinks that "we must never tire of emphasizing that corporations and their unprecedented power are the major problem in the world today". (p. 253)
As a practical move, Ezequiel Adamovsky suggests the forming of an Assembly of the Social Movement (ASM). It would collect under its wings all kinds of progressive organisations. Eventually the ASM would become a visible operator in the political world, even perhaps putting forward its own candidates for legislative elections. New ideas and attitudes would penetrate public debates. People who have become disillusioned with traditional party politics would note with interest that persons coming from the ASM do not aspire to become a caste of professional politicians. A tipping point might occur when alternative thinking starts gaining the interest of a larger public. (pp. 360-361)
As Noam Chomsky says in the interview by Chris Spannos: "Short-term goals are sometimes dismissed as 'reformist,' a serious error I think." (p.108)
The idea of worker-controlled enterprises might today seem to many people outlandish, but as Chomsky has pointed out in one of his recent books, even before there was something called "Marxism", people thought it self-evident that workers should own the mills they worked in: "... the value system that was advocated by private power had to be beaten into the heads of ordinary people, who had to be taught to abandon normal human sentiments and to replace them with the new spirit of the time, as they called it." (Chomsky on Democracy & Education, edited by C.P. Otero, RoutledgeFarmer 2003, p. 29)
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