Anarchism, Marxism and Participatory Society
[written in response to the Z Video presentation by Andrej Grubacic the DFW-PPS watched on November 15, 2009 at 1919 Hemphill in Fort Worth, Texas]
There has been a split between Anarchism and Marxism ever since the midlate-1800s, and for the most part it has centered on Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, and Karl Marx, the German philosopher. These differences hold meaning for the Participatory Society projects. While you can sort of say they are vindications of Bakunin, you can also say they are lessons learned of Marxism.
In his final work, Statism and Anarchy, Bakunin provided a scathing critique of Marxism:
No state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals. […] But according to Mr. Marx, the people not only should not abolish the State, but, on the contrary, they must strengthen and enlarge it, and turn it over to the full disposition of their benefactors, guardians, and teachers – the leaders of the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends – who will then liberate them in their own way. They will concentrate all administrative power in their own strong hands, because the ignorant people are in need of a strong guardianship; and they will create a central state bank, which will also control all the commerce, industry, agriculture, and even science. The mass of the people will be divided into two armies, the agricultural and the industrial, under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute the new privileged political-scientific class.
Decades before the Communist putsch in Russia – which within days resulted in the suppressing of “workers control” – Bakunin predicted with eerie accuracy what would happen if a Marxist government were to ever come to power. The “red bureaucracy.” The “State Bank.” The indifference towards the peasants. The taking of power and the refusal to let it go. The despotism.
In the Z Video by Andrej Grubacic (Power and Revolution), Andrej makes the point that we must “balkanize,” meaning unthink past habits. Habits Marxism has provided (and to be fair, others too). To have a Participatory Society we must have institutions and processes that nurture the ability for all to participate – in the home, at school, in the workplace, the government and in our communities. As long as power and authority structures that breed coercive and hierarchical oppressions are in place, whether in capitalist ideologies or Marxist or Anarchist ones, we will not get very far.
Marxism has a father with a Ph.D.
Anarchism is a bastard. It is a broad range of ideas and philosophies. While there are classical thinkers of many stripes, none are and none can claim to be its father. At its core anarchism is a philosophy that can be summarized as such: People should have the freedom to control their lives. There are two words in that, which needs clarity: freedom and control.
Freedom is, as the American sociologist C. Wright Mills said, not the ability to do as we please since doing so can negate other people’s freedoms. Nor is freedom the ability to choose from pre-chosen options since it deprives people of meaningful participation in managing their own affairs. Freedom is the ability to come up with our own options and to choose accordingly in accordance with others – the “in accordance with others” is due to the simple fact that our choices usually affect others and since our freedom should not negate the freedom of others we should cooperate in decision-making to the degree we are affected.
Control requires that we have the skills and information needed to be free. To say we are “free” is a formality but to not have access to the skills and information means our freedom lacks function. This requires an equitable division of labor in all aspects of life – i.e., at home, school, work, government, community and cultural institutions, etc., – so that all can have a meaningful way to participate in decision-making.
Marxism is a compilation of theories allegedly designed to spur revolution, but some of the theories have been shown and proven to be, in many ways, counter-revolutionary. They regiment, skew insight, perpetuate oppressions, and are accepted by many of its practitioners as sacrosanct – even among many anarchists. Counter-productive theories and philosophies accepted dogmatically should not be our allies.
The ones I want to briefly highlight are Dialectical Materialism, Historical Materialism, Labor Theory of Value and Marx’s remuneration norm, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” These four serve as a basis of traditional Marxism. Understanding and “balkanizing” them will be of value to this project, at least in my opinion.
Dialectical Materialism claims that history is one of class struggle and that it is following a teleological path from feudalism to capitalism to communism to socialism. However, evolution has no purpose or aim. It is not as if evolution intended to create humans and that they would follow a shining path to socialism. There is no intention to it. It is the ongoing culmination of diverse factors. Historically, Dialectical Materialism has been proven false by the Communist revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, and Korea – in fact, every single historical example. None of these were capitalist societies before they became Communist, as Marx claimed they would be.
And as we will see with the rest of Marx’s ideas, economics is, so we are expected to believe, the primary explanation for human and social development. When I challenge this with Marxists they say, “We must first eat.” But don’t we also breathe and procreate and socialize? What is worse is that I know many anarchists who are guilty of the same thing and forgo issues like culture and gender – i.e., it has always pained me to see the term “anarcho-feminism” since I think it is redundant. Why do we add a hyphenated monism if in fact we don’t see it as inclusive to begin with?
As for Historical Materialism, this theory says that, again, economics and class explains history. Economics is the base of society and all else is superstructure. For a thought experiment we can ponder whether we would accept this if we were a poor indigenous woman of “color” living in a society much like ours where sexist, racist, classist and politically authoritarian laws provide us with glass ceilings. It is true that economics shapes the rest of society. We find its influence in politics, the family, school, the military, power and authority, but so too do we find all of these influencing economics. No society is the same; there is no teleological path that explains development, just as not all ecosystems follow the same evolutionary path. There are natural laws, combined with circumstances that govern their evolutions. There is so much diversity in how life and human societies can be shaped that to provide a “one size fits all” theory is just pure nonsense. It needs to be “balkanized.”
Marx’s Labor Theory of Value sees value as being determined by the cost of labor. This is incomplete. What of health and the environment, for example? If two workers expend the same amount of labor but the first in a clean, eco-friendly environment and the other in a hazardous and ecologically harmful environment, wouldn’t we consider that and raise the value on the latter in order to account for the additional costs? The cost of our activities is not just the cost of labor.
And this brings me to the remuneration norm of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This standard says we should extract the maximum but reward the minimum. This is coercive, oppressive and not at all incentive compatible. And certainly not anything one would expect to find in a liberated society. Who would want to toil to the bone and only receive back what is “needed”? A fairer standard would be to be paid for how dangerous, hard and long we work. The only ethical way inequity should arise is if someone worked harder and longer at a more dangerous or tedious job. Rewarding ownership or output or other things beyond our control is unethical.
At a recent conference on Rethinking Marxism, one of the folks at Z, Chris Spannos, gave a presentation on exploitation and remuneration in which he said that,
the only factor we personally have any control over, and therefore the only one it makes sense to reward in order to motivate people to produce as much as they can is effort. Not only is rewarding effort, by which I mean the personal sacrifice made in the onerousness, duration, or intensity of participating in socially valuable labor, the only fair system of remuneration it is also the most effective incentive to improve performance.
If I work in a factory making popular tennis shoes and you work in a factory making simple house slippers, and if I have access to more modern tools and technology, and you employ an older hands-on technology, and if I were born with genetic talents that made me capable of spitting out more output than you, but we both worked equally hard and long and the tediousness of our jobs were pretty much equal then what ethical ground do I have to stand on to expect more compensation than you?
A possible improvement on how to see society is not to establish a theory that says all societies have this-and-that at their base and follow this-and-that trajectory, but to take an empirical approach to various societies and view how all of societies features have helped shape who and what they are. What features have helped advance progress, and what has hindered it? This theory exists and is called Complementary Holism, or sometimes Radical Theory.
Before we can move on to visions and strategies of building a new Participatory Society we must first understand how to see the world, and what we see. From there we will be in a good position to use our imagination to explore where we want to go and what paths will get us there.
How will we perceive and create a post-sexist, post-racist, post-capitalist and post-politically authoritarian society? How will we envision sexual and gender divisions; how will we envision racial, ethnic and cultural differences being viewed and treated; how will we envision economic extraction, production, allocation, consumption and disposal; how will we envision government? How will we do these things that give all affected persons the skills and information they need to have meaningful control over their lives? We cannot expect answers to present themselves spontaneously or from above. It will take effort on our part to realize them theoretically and in practice – not to mention we will need to hone the art of listening and critical thinking.