Parecon & Marxism – 2

[This is a continuation of the long draft chapter regarding parecon and marxism...]

Marxism and Class

But the above is not the problem of Marxism that I wish to feature here, partly because it is straightforward to correct and a great many Marxists have worked hard on doing so, and partly because it isn’t as directly germane to concerns about parecon as matters that we will now take up.

Indeed, suppose most Marxists soon achieve the above enrichment and diversification of their concepts. Would I be satisfied with such a rennovated Marxism and urge that participatory economics is a Marxist vision?

I would certainly be happy about the change, yes, but no, I wouldn’t yet climb aboard because the pareconist perspective indicates that Marxism has a second more damning and less tractable problem. Marxism, ironically, gets the economy wrong.

On the one hand, in its orthodox variants and in almost all its texts, the Marxist concepts for explaining how things exchange misunderstand the determination of wages, prices, and profits in capitalist economies and tend to turn many activists’ thoughts away from seeing how the dynamics of workplaces and markets are largely functions of bargaining power and social control, categories that the labor theory of value largely ignores, toward accounts of labor hours and subsistence, as if these are objective, numeric, factors.

Likewise, and more so, orthodox Marxist crisis theory 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 and toward presumed historic contradictions within capitalism itself.

But these two ills like the economism described earlier one can imagine Marxists transcending, as indeed many have. So just as we assumed away overemphasis on economics, let’s assume these two problems away as well.

The remaining problem is that in virtually every variant of Marxism, Marxist class theory denies the existence of what I call the coordinator (professional-managerial or technocratic) class and underemphasizes or more often literally denies 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. Worse, it interferes with attaining worthy goals.

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. This is class struggle.

So what’s the problem? This Marxist picture certainly rings plenty true as far as it goes, but 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 other factors can produce classes. In capitalism, for example, some waged employees monopolize empowering conditions and tasks and have considerable say over their own work situations and those of other workers below. Also in capitalism, other waged employees endure only disempowering conditions and tasks and have virtually no say over their own or anyone else’s conditions. The former employees try to maintain their monopoly on empowering circumstances and greater income so as to continue ruling over the latter employees. This too is class struggle.

Within capitalism, we thus have not only capitalists and workers. In between these two classes there a group of empowered actors defend their advantages against workers below and struggle to enlarge their bargaining power against owners above. But why should we introduce a third class label for this group instead of just saying it is a strata of one of the other two classes, a Marxist might reasonably ask.

We should do so because the position of those who monopolize empowering work and the levers of daily economic decision making power isn’t just confused or contradictory. They aren’t workers with a slight difference from most other workers, nor are they capitalists with a slight difference from most other capitalists, nor are they some kind of amalgam of the two.

This group between labor and capital, in other words, isn’t just the bottom strata of capitalists merging into the top strata of workers, in a contradictory position. Instead it has its own well defined position, its own clear definition, and as a result, its own views and interests.

Calling it the petty bourgeoisie as some Marxists opt to do is still narrowing our thought in accord with the old ownership viewpoint, It is paying attention to the wrong attribute of these people — that they in many cases own a little but not a lot of capital — and in that way overlooks that something other than ownership can be the source of class division and even class rule.

The coordinator class between labor and capital is defined by having a relative monopoly on empowering work. It controls its own situation to a great extent. It controls or defines the situation of workers below to a great extent. It works to enlarge and defend its comforts and power against capital above as well as against workers below, even as it sometimes also just does the bidding of those above, of course.

Who composes this class in the U.S.? Well heeled doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers, and professionals of diverse kinds. People who see capitalists, by and large, as an annoying obstacle to the fullest elaboration of their personal genius. And people who see workers, by and large, as more or less dumb folks to be taken care of, and, of course, kept below. I think it is roughly 20% of our population, perhaps a bit more or less, and with rough edges, of course.

The Marxist might ask, “What could possibly be the basis for political and social unity between a supervisor on the assembly line, the assistant comptroller for the same company, a creative director at the advertising agency hired by that company, and a legal associate at the company’s law firm?”

The answer is that they all get their status, power, income, and identity from monopolizing empowering skills and knowledge as well as from their access to daily levers of control and influence.

It is that they all tell themselves that they have their advantages not because they take their greater wealth and status and withhold it from others, but because they are smarter than others.

It is that they see capitalists as a painful impediment to the fullest manifestation of their capacities — though also, of course, that they frequently have to serve capital (like workers often do, as well).

It is that they see workers as inferior, subordinate, maybe worth saving and even lifting out of destitution, but not worthy of having serious influence over economic life.

And it is that if they eliminate private ownership they can run the economy without capitalists above them and with workers still below them.

The Marxist might ask, “Under what circumstances would they all unite against both workers below and capitalists above? Surely you can’t mean they would do that.”

Correct, to publicly adopt such a stance would be suicidal, of course. Rather, what this class or its foremost elements would do if they wanted to usher in a new economy is wage a class war against capital including identifying capitalism’s many horrors as the reason for their struggle because such an identification would facilitate appealing to all those who suffer capitalism’s indignities and impoverishment for aid.

In the course of the ensuing struggles, however, the coordinator class, if seeking its own domination, would monopolize control over institutions, retain their own elite culture and values as exemplary, and impose their rule from above on movements and new institutions, all naturally, as a kind of reflex of their self image and image of others. In this way they would wind up dominating the new society, just as has occurred in historical practice.

The Marxist might reply, “In the real world, you mean to tell me that you can actually imagine `coordinators’ uniting to overthrow capital and establish their own independent mode of production?”

Yes, I mean to indicate just that. Not in the trivial way that might be conjuring to mind, such as coordinators dressing up in fancy clothes and holding aloft their graduate degrees while standing behind banners saying capitalists suck and workers do too. But in a social process that throws off the capitalists as the enemy to be overcome while employing the working class as allies — really, as troops – and then selling them out one victory over capital is attained. Indeed, this, to my mind, is what Bolshevism did.

The key point of all this to parecon’s logic and its relation to Marxist perspectives is that this coordinator class can actually become the ruling class of a new economy with capitalists removed and with workers still subordinate.

The key problem of Marxism for pareconists, then, is that Marxism’s concepts obscure the existence of this class which not only contends with capitalists and workers within capitalism, but which can become rulers of a new economy, most usefully called, I think, coordinatorism.

Finally, the really damning point for Marxism is that this new coordinator class ruled economy 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 serious Marxist economic text. It has been adopted by every Marxist party that has ever transformed a society’s economic relations. This coordinatorism is prevalent, that is, yet it is barely conceptualized at all. When discussed by Marxists, indeed, its features are obscured.

Marxist Visions and Strategy

Regarding visions of desirable societies, it turns out, therefore, that Marxism is counter-productive in a few ways.

First, and most easily overcome, there is Marxism’s general taboo against “utopian” speculation. (Interestingly what this taboo tends to do in practice is to cause folks concerned about overreaching and about authoritarianism to foreswear vision, leaving coordinator inclined folks to take up the task alone.)

Second, also manageably overcome, Marxism tends to presume that if economic relations are desirable other social relations will fall into place.

Third, a bit more troubling, Marxism confuses what constitutes an equitable distribution of income. The instruction that we ought to strive for “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 whose more realistic alternative is that we should seek “from each according to ability” and remunerate “to each according to contribution” which 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 intractable, in practice and in its substantive prescriptions (though predictably not always in its rhetorical entreaties), Marxism approves hierarchical corporate relations of production and command planning or markets as means of allocation, thus fostering coordinator class rule.

In other words, the heart of the problem that makes a parecon advocate reject Marxism and feel that Marxism ought to have declining relevance among serious leftists seeking a better economy is that due to Marxism’s underlying concepts Marxism’s economic goals amount to advocating a coordinator mode of production that elevates administrators, intellectual workers, planners, etc., to ruling status.

Marxism uses the label socialism for this goal, of course, but in my view this is only to appeal to workers and other people of good will. Marxism does not in fact structurally implement “socialist ideals” when it is in position to affect societal outcomes, nor does it offer a vision that does so, even in theory.

The situation is analogous, Marx himself would surely point out, to how bourgeois movements use the labels democratic, free, equitable, and just to rally support from diverse sectors even though they do not structurally implement truly democratic, free, equitable, or just structures when they have power.

Finally, Leninism, a strategic orientation to how to win change, is a natural and by far the most frequent 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, goals, organizational and tactical commitments, the theory and strategy of the coordinator class.

Marxism Leninism employs coordinator class organizational and decision making logic and structure, and seeks coordinator class dominated economic aims.

So what if a Marxist or Marxist Leninist disavows economism and enriches their framework with concepts focused centrally on other domains of life (and not only by way of their economic impact), and rejects as well failed economic aspects of the framework and in particular its two class conceptualization, adopting, instead, the three class view and also parecon as a vision? Do I then say okay, I embrace your type of Marxism too?

Yes, I in fact would happily do just that but for one problem. At that point, what is gained by calling the revamped framework one holds Marxism or Marxism Leninism? These labels imply to virtually everyone who hears them used very different views than the hypothetical person holds. Why not find a new label that can convey the new allegiances perspective without muddying their clarity?

I suspect the answer is that folks who call themselves Marxist and Marxist Leninist do so overwhelmingly to see themselves as part of a heritage – not the heritage of the actual systems that have been put in place and have brutishly curtailed options and even snuffed out lives and aspirations, and not the heritage of top down authority and internecine sectarianism, but the heritage of courageous resistance and struggle from below and the heritage of the grass roots aspirations of movements, and the heritage of solidarity and mutual support. Well, I too wish to see myself in that heritage and to be worthy of its continuation, but I am also concerned with the meaning of my words not for me, and not for people who agree with me, but for the huge numbers of people who justifiably understand the words differently. And so, no, even when some Marxist or Marxist Leninist party makes all the changes noted above, something that could easily happen before too long, I would not join up, much as I would feel affinity for their choice and happily respect them and ally with them.

The Pareconish Alternative

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. So I should say that in place of the economic inadequacies of Marxism, for greater relevance to our aspirations pareconish thinking urges that 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 of all prior frameworks, I think people will tend to reject existent and past market and centrally planned models of a better economy and gravitate instead toward new structures. For myself, I call the new economic goal I favor participatory economics including, as we have seen throughout this book, council self management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice (and for need for those who can’t work), balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.

The reason this combination of institutions isn’t called socialism is precisely because the defining institutions associated with the word socialism are instead corporate divisions of labor, authoritative management, remuneration for output and power, and markets or central planning, all of which parecon rejects.

If parecon is worthy and desirable, and if it should replace what has been called socialism (but is better named 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 coordinatorist models.

Balanced job complexes replace corporate workplace organization to eliminate the workplace basis for coordinator rule that is present in all actual Marxist economies and substantive accounts of Marxist economic goals.

Participatory planning replaces markets and or central planning which are also present in virtually all Marxist program and practice, thereby removing the allocative basis for coordinator rule.

Together these new features propel solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management rather than stifling and trampling each.

Coordinatorism has roots in various Marxist and particularly Leninist concepts and commitments, even counter to the aspirations of members of Marxist and Leninist movements, which is why these movements need to be transcended.

Apply Marxist Insights to Marxism Itself

Marx taught us, quite brilliantly, 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, Marx’s own instructions reveal that the framework leaves out important economic relations regarding the division of labor and the relations of allocation institutions to it to the benefit of the coordinator class’s agenda to overcome capitalism and install itself into ruling status.

Because of this we shouldn’t only tinker with and otherwise minimally reform Marxism, just as we shouldn’t only tinker with and otherwise minimally reform bourgeois economics. These are both frameworks bent to serve interests that we oppose. They have insights we can borrow, of course, especially Marxism due to its being anti capitalist, but as to Marxism’s overall conceptual package, following Marx’s own advice, we have to transcend that.

But the Marxist says wait, Marxist and Leninist movements espouse values much like the ones parecon celebrates. They urge the need for classlessness, for equity, for justice, for solidarity, and so on.

Yes they do, and when bourgeois elements railed against thrones they didn’t do it in the name of their own future great wealth and power either, but in the name of freedom and justice for everyone. Their ideology was sharp in railing at the enemy, but very vague as to differences between themselves and “their troops.” This is always true when an elite contends for power, in any realm.

More, I have no doubt many advocates of bourgeois ideology believe their own rhetoric, for example that many even at the top of U.S. society today believe their’s. And I think understanding this phenomenon is one of the abiding accomplishments of Marxism, including seeing that the rhetoric, no matter how heartfelt, doesn’t redefine the reality. Their class position, the defining relations of their lives, and the attitudes, values, and modes of operation their positions in society gives elites, leads them, even despite their rhetoric, not to implement justice for all, but to implement enrichment for the few. This is true for capitalists and it is the same (in different ways) for a coordinator class dominated movement that seeks a new and better society.

It may be that the people even in leadership in such a movement in considerable degree or even overwhelmingly are quite sincere in having worthy aspirations. They rally workers below – who certainly are sincere about the positive aspirations — by railing against existing injustices perpetrated by an elite that is to be replaced. At such moments the leading elites no doubt feel pain for the suffering of others and feel solidarity in struggle. The “masses” in turn certainly want dignity and justice and expect it, but all these fine desires aside, the Leninist process leads instead to a new class taking the place of the old one above workers because that’s what’s immanent in the ideology and its institutional aims.

The Marxist replies that when such movements yield new oppressive relations they have failed to fulfill their purposes and do not represent the true agenda of the underlying conceptions. In reply, I think that calling every victory by a party full of people who call themselves Marxists and who can recite Marxism’s concepts and theories inside out, and who say they are applying them and who certainly seem to be doing so, and who are admired while in the opposition, not Marxist just a bit later, is apologetics.

The Marxist might say but “what stands out most about these so-called `socialist’ societies is how much they resemble capitalism so why not just call them capitalist or perhaps state capitalist? The new term, coordinatorism, just confuses the issue.”

My reply is that this is like seeing the folks between labor and capital as part worker part owner rather than as a class unto themselves. In the same way, now the Marxist is saying the old Soviet economy can only be either capitalism or socialism, those are the only possible options. And since it isn’t socialism, it must be capitalism.

This is a set of failed concepts at work. Concepts always organize our thoughts and provide categories we use. Sometimes concepts usefully push us past what’s obvious to important revelations we would otherwise overlook. Other times, however, as in this case of Marxism’s concepts, concepts hide the obvious in mistaken formulations. We miss what we ought to be attending to.

As Einstein put the general insight: “Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as ` conceptual necessities,’ etc. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors. It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyze familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which justification of their usefulness depends.”

To say that the old Soviet economy was capitalist despite that there was no private ownership of the means of production, is, to me, far less useful than realizing that it must be, instead, if not capitalism, and if not an economy in which workers self manage — then something else for which we will need another name highlighting its different defining features.

The absence of owners and the elevation of central planners, local managers, and other empowered workers throughout society to ruling status is what characterized these economies as different.

If we call the Soviet Union state capitalist, as many Marxists urge, one conclusion is that we don’t have to worry about the possibility that maintaining a division of labor that has some people ruling over others — say in a Leninist Party — is part and parcel of ushering in a new economy that isn’t in the interests of workers. We can just seek such a result because there is no such thing as an economy not in the interests of workers other than capitalism, and since we are certainly anti-capitalist we must therefore be on a good path. In truth, of course, the whole point here is that one can be anti-capitalist in ways that don’t elevate workers but instead elevate coordinators. That is what parecon strives to avoid.

Leave a comment