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Parecon and Marxism – 1


I am working on a book about Parecon and the rest of a good society — and have placed drafts of some chapters in this blog system. Near the end of the book I am thinking about including two chapters, one on parecon and marxism, the other on parecon and anarchism. The first of these two proposed chapters is, in draft form, very long…due to my trying to present the points in diverse and multiple ways to avoid misunderstanding. I am torn between thinking it is good more or less as is, or should be hugely shortened, or should be dumped. Reactions are welcome. Since it is so long, in this system it will appear as a bunch of posts, each numbered.

Parecon and Marxism

I was tempted to let the last chapter on dissent stand as the close of this book. When I wrote it, I thought I was done, save for editing, refining,
etc. But when people looked at the work in progress, they said I had to also deal with how parecon compares to other approaches, particularly Marxism and anarchism. I have written about both these orientations often in other venues, the former including whole books and the latter pretty extensively as well, but, it has to go here too, I was told.

Okay, having described participatory economics as a system of institutions to replace capitalist economics and having discussed its implications for other parts of society, I agree that we can now usefully ask how does parecon arise from and compare to systems and even broad inclinations typical of other critical economic and social perspectives.

So in this chapter I will address the relationship between participatory economics and the theory and strategy that have been organizationally pursued by marxist frameworks – be they social democratic, Leninist/Trotskyist, or libertarian Marxist. Next chapter I will do the same for anarchism.

Because many of these issues and the underlying logic are contentious and involve diverse often misunderstood viewpoints, I try to make points in more than one way.

This chapter and the next are not only passionate about vision and change, they also implicitly address diverse people with particular views and commitments, both individually and collectively, based on my experiences and feelings and theirs too, I hope.

For all these reasons the discussion is long. I hope you will bear with it.

Marxism’s Features

Marxism is a wide and deep toolbox of concepts that label and highlight aspects of history and provide claims about their interrelations. Key to Marxism are the ideas that production and consumption are central to human existence, that accomplishing these economic functions entails institutions or modes of production, and that these modes of production in turn impose requirements that delimit virtually all outcomes and possibilities.

As Engels summarized: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history. He discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, religion, science, art, etc. And that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art, and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have evolved, and in the light of which those things must be explained, instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case.”

Of course for Marxists the impact of economy on society isn’t the only factor impacting the latter nor does influence only run one way, for that matter. Instead, again according to Engels, “political, juridical, philosophical religious, literary, artistic, etc. development is based on economic development. But all of these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else has a passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.”

History, meaning continually transformed features and, at times, changed defining structures, unfolds in light of the pressures and conflicts occurring largely in society’s technology and social relations of production.

“At a certain stage of their development the material forces of production in a society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or what is but a legal expression for the same thing, with the property relations within which they have been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.”

Critical to the Marxist framework is the idea that in accomplishing economic functions people are cast by the economy into what are called classes due to having different ownership relations to the means of production.

Some people own these means of production. They are called capitalists and gain income as profit. Other people own only their ability to do work which they sell for a wage to the capitalists. They are called workers, or wage slaves.

The conflict or class struggle between these two central classes in capitalism contours all society’s aspects including politics, culture, and gender, so that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In capitalism itself, the capitalists seek to maximize their profit both for their own direct benefit and, even more so, because to maintain their position rather than lose their wealth entails that they compete for market share and for revenues to invest. The worker, in contrast, tries to earn as high a wage as possible both to stay above destitution, and, when possible, to eke out a better existence.

The capitalist pays as little wage and provides the cheapest conditions for as much labor as he can extract. The worker seeks as good conditions for doing as little labor for as much wage as he or she can extract. Their conflict over wage rates, unemployment levels, work conditions, and broader cultural and political policies, composes the class struggle that in turn fuels the unfolding logic of capitalism.

Capitalism thus reprises the class struggles of all past history in a specific new manner. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, the guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” With the arrival of capitalism the class struggle becomes that of workers and owners.

On top of these basic and universally shared Marxist conceptual commitments there arise many more insights and interpretations which often yield markedly different Marxist based strategies of diverse sorts.

Marxist Economism

So how do we decide our attitude toward Marxism? Do its concepts highlight what’s most important and leave out only what’s peripheral? Do they reveal the roots of oppression? Do they conceive liberating relationships? Do they effectively inform activist interventions? Is Parecon entirely and comfortably Marxist, or is parecon in good part a reaction to failings in Marxism?

Marxism’s virtues include that it attunes us to economics being important (with which parecon concurs), it rejects capitalist ownership relations and profit-seeking (as does Marxism), it reveals many horrible effects of markets (which insights parecon extends), and it highlights the importance of class dynamics (which parecon also highlights). But what are Marxism’s problems?

First, when “real existing people” utilize Marxism’s concepts they tend to systematically under-value and mis-understand social relations of gender, political, cultural, and ecological origin and import. Marxism as used under trying circumstances tends to exaggerate the centrality of economics and to give insufficient attention to gender, race, polity, and the environment.

Most Marxists feel that race, gender, and actually everything about society is important and can be very important — but that non economic features attain their specifically social change importance precisely in their relations to economics.

The lenses Marxists use to understand society are not confined to but are certainly rooted in attention to class relations. Marxists examine how economic relations affect classes and thus potential for change. Marxists examine how other phenomena, race, gender, etc. impact the class struggle by propelling or impeding working class gains, which, in turn, they believe, will auger gains of all kinds.

A pareconist perspective agrees that economics is a profoundly important aspect of society and that the (class) divisions and struggles economics produces among people are hugely instrumental in affecting the quality of our lives. But a pareconist, or at least this pareconist, sees that the same claim can be made for cultural relations, for sexual and gender relations, and for political relations.

Rather than understanding the latter three and the divisions and struggles they engender largely or even primarily as they impact class, we need to understand each and economics as well all insofar as they impact one another.

Put differently, Marxism says that the mode of production of a society emanates a kind of force field that affects all of society, often very dramatically. I agree. To me, in fact, this seems utterly obvious. But then I also agree with the feminist who says that the organization and relations of socialization and nurturance – which are currently patriarchal — emanate a force field that affects all of society, often very dramatically. And I agree as well with the multi-culturalist who says the same thing about cultural and community relations, and with the anarchist who says the same thing about political and power relations.

All these viewpoints are right about identifying a locus of influence but each is wrong when it denies the comparable importance of the other loci of influence. The conclusion is that there are four areas of origin of profound influence in society rather than only one, as Marxism typically concludes.

I should clarify that while it is important, I don’t think the above is a devastating critique of Marxism. Many Marxists accept this criticism already. All Marxists could relatively easily adopt the more complex formulation, keeping the core of Marxism’s insights about modes of production and class and so on, but incorporating that influences from race, gender, sexuality, and authority relations can mold the economy just as the reverse can occur, and that groups defined by those other core features can be central actors in historical struggle and change just as classes can. If neglecting other spheres of social life were Marxism’s only problem it wouldn’t cause me to reject Marxism, but to try to incorporate new insights.

Historically, giving attention to matters of race, gender, authority, and ecology primarily via examining their impact on and implications for class struggle often engenders dismissing their importance in their own right and compromising attention to their own dynamics, or to emphasizing them but mainly or even only in their economic implications.

The mistake of “monism” of this sort — even a very flexible and enlightened monism — is to tend, under pressure, to elevate one realm to predominance and lose track of the priority of other realms and compromise them as well. The point is if we prioritize economics and class as the primary focus of attention and raise it above all others in importance in our concepts we will likely not only misperceive a more complex reality, we will likely also relegate other actually equally important focuses to a wrongly subordinate position.

The solution isn’t to reduce attention to economics, however, but to elevate attention to other spheres and to their mutually defining influences without presupposing any to be prior or dominant. To overcome its economistic weakness would therefore require a twofold alteration of how many Marxists construct and utilize their world view. They would need to admit:

1. That Marxism mainly conceptualizes economics and not all of society and history, and

2. That feminist, multiculturalist, and anarchist conceptualizations offer equally central insights and in particular that influences from other domains can centrally contour economic relations just as the reverse can occur.

That is, for real world Marxist practice to be desirably multi focused, Marxists would need to jettison their economic base pushing and pulling a social and culture superstructure conceptualization and instead highlight that gender, race, and political dynamics can impact what goes on in workplaces, allocation, and consumption just as importantly as economics can impact what goes on in religions and racial communities, families, and governments.

Marxism would need to recognize all directions of causality instead of exclusively or even just primarily emphasizing only causality from economics to the rest of society, and would in turn 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 analyses) and has led as well to variants of anarcho-marxism, Marxist nationalism, and other approaches regarding other conceptual combinations, right up to frameworks that centrally address economics, polity, culture, and kinship all on a par.

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