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Reply to Review of Thought Dreams


I was asked in the forums my reactions to a review, and thought I would include the content here…

About the review by Sebastian Lamb in the New Socialist that you asked me to comment on…I honestly think the debates that appear on ZNet about Parecon and Marxism are far more germane, in and in depth, than what I can offer here. But…

Lamb’s brief summary of Thought Dreams seems fair enough, though of course necessarily reflecting his own reading of the book.

Actually, I don’t say as Lamb suggests I did, that “each sphere is defined by a function that Albert claims is found in every society because of the nature of the human species itself.” Rather I say “functions,” plural. Nor do I say “Economy is defined by the production of goods and services. Polity is defined by political coordination,” as Lamb summarizes. Rather, I say economics accomplishes production, consumption, and alloocation – and that polity accomplishes legislation, implementation, and adjudication – but, these and other such summary problems are minor issues perhaps indicative only of it being a short review.

Moving to Lamb’s criticisms, Lamb writes…”One [problem] is the idea that all societies across history are composed of four institutional spheres that interact with each other. This is less helpful than thinking in terms of a range of social relations between groups of people—such as class, gender and race—that always exist in and through each other.”

Unless I am misreading Lamb, and myself, this seems like a distinction without a difference. I say that institutions are collections of role structures, which I see as codifications of recurring social relations. I don’t see what Lamb is rejecting, therefore, unless Lamb means to say – which I very much doubt is the case – that socal relations have their basis in biology, say, rather than in institutions. My guess is that Lamb and I would probably agree that the need people have to combine into institutions is critical to the maintanence of social relations, even as we would also agree that the history of social relations in turn affects the institutions we form and sometimes overcome. If so, it seems to me we should want a way of organizing our thoughts – a set of concepts – that will help us highlight not only important constituencies and their relations, but institutions too.

I can’t imagine Lamb would say we should emphasize class relations, for example, but not also talk centrally about ownership relations and/or markets. But I think the same insight applies not only to economics and class relations, but also to kinship and gender relations, community and race relations, and polity and authority relations. It seems unlikely to me that Lamb would disagree about this, at least regarding the economy. Lamb would not say, for example, I care about class but not about ownership, or for that matter, markets or corporations. And Lamb would not deny that ownership relations are at least one institutional structure at the root of class, as well as that class relations in turn affect ownership, of course.

So I just spread this way of thinking about institutions as well as social relations that we both agree is valid for economics across more dimensions of social life. Whether this is a good choice will have to do with whether activists using the broader conceptual toolbox will be more likely to pay close and effective attention to what is socially and historically important to winning change than if they use a more narrow conceptual toolbox.

Lamb’s next concern is that “Institutions certainly exist, but they arise from (and, in turn, help shape) social relations.”

Again, I am not sure how this indicates a disagreement. I say that key insitutions arise from seeking continuity in accomplishing diverse functions – economic, political, cultural, and kinship. I say that all institutions, not even just key ones, are persistent social relations codified in role structures. It seems to me this explicitly says social relations are what define institutions – so I am not sure what Lamb’s concern is. Institutions come from people interacting together to accomplish diverse social functions and then, in turn, institutions affect how people interact together and are, of course, affected back, as well. This is true for workplaces and means of allocation, but also for the family, church, courts, and so on.

Lamb goes on, “for example, the corporation is a legally-recognized institution through which capitalists organize the production of commodities, competition with each other and the exploitation of workers. But the social relation between capital and labour can exist without the institution of the corporation. It’s this exploitative social relation that needs to be abolished.”

Of course Lamb is right that you can have owners and workers but not have the corporation, having instead a different workplace structure that also includes, however, private ownership of the means of production. But I never deny that. And of course we need to eliminate class hierarchy per se, and not just a particular form of class hierarchy replacing it with some other form. But that is a central priority for me. However, I have to ask Lamb, can you have owners exploiting workers without having owners and workers? I think not. But can you have another form of class hierarchy, without owners, even after having eliminated private ownership? I think, yes, you can.

I don’t mean to be flip. I think there may be a real issue here, not just semantics. If Lamb wants to call every possible class hierarchy in any industrialized economy a capital/labor distinction then he will want to avoid saying that that distinction depends on certain ownership relations at the institutional level, which, of course, may not always be present. Lamb will instead want to say something like it depends only on some group aggrandizing itself at the cost of another, say, with the former being dominant over the latter. For me, however, this is truncating class division and class rule with capital labor division and capitalist rule and is counterproductive because it obscures/denies that there are other important kinds of class division and class rule. The very concepts point us away from seeing what is truely there. For Lamb, however, and I am guessing about this, this way of defining terms might be desirable because he wants to call the relations that I see as quite different from capitalist, still capitalist. In any event, for me, capital/worker means owner of means of production and seller of the ability to do work for a wage – like it did for Marx, for that matter. But it does not exhaust the possibilities of class hierarchy.

Yes, Lamb’s claim that we can have exploitation, or oppression, in various forms and with diverse institutions is correct. But in any particular society oppressive relations reflect and depend on, as well as affect, institutional relations. Likewise, Lamb is right, I believe, that the human center is not only caused by but also causes the institutional boundary – and I say as much repeatedly.

Lamb next says, “Albert’s idea of a ‘community’ sphere that exists throughout human history is particularly weak. This is his way of trying to deal with racism, nationalism and religion. But racism, nationalism and religion are not different versions of the same thing. Albert’s argument that these phenomena are all related to a supposed human need for “identity” that exists across all societies is also dubious. Moreover, treating racism, nationalism and religion in this way doesn’t help us to understand any of them or to fight racial, national or religious oppression.”

Perhaps Lamb is right, or perhaps not. It is his view, but likely because space is short, Lamb doesn’t give us reasons for it. I guess experience will have to verify what way of thinking about race/religion/nationality/culture is effective for movements. Lamb says that racism, religious bigotry, and nationalism aren’t the same, which is right, they aren’t – but this doesn’t indicate that they aren’t all broadly different instances of community relations and cultural identifications that are usefully addressed as part of a cultural/community sphere of society any more than my saying that ownership and division of labor related differences among people aren’t the same thing doesn’t say they aren’t both usefully addressed as instances of hierarchy rooted in an economic/class sphere of life. What seems to me to be the serious impediment to effectively dealing with cultural relations and hierarchies is to think they are solely or even just overwhelmingly creations of economic or other spheres with no cultural life of their own. This is what, for example, leads to marxist states trying to impose what is called socialist culture but is really just the culture of the dominant community on everyone, and what leads to indigenous communities being so hostile, in turn, toward Marxism, as but one example.

Lamb says “Another problem in the theory lies in the idea that separate economic and political spheres exist in all human societies.”

Actually, what I argue is a little more subtle. Writ large the economy, the state, the polity, and the culture are each actually the whole of society. If you take everything economic, you have pretty much everything. If you take everything that has a gender aspect, or a political aspect, or cultural, again, you have pretty much everything. On the other hand, each sphere has a set of central and defining institutions. Not only the whole spheres, but also their defining institutions may overlap highly, or may not, in different societies. So in my view to address Lamb’s comment, there are necessary economic and political functions carried out in all societies at all times, in turn leading to institutions of polity and economy including some institutions that essentially define the key dimensions of each sphere and affect life options greatly often via associated social (class and political) hierarchies. The institutions of polity and economy, including the defining ones, will have greater or lesser connection (which could extend all the way to nearly complete overlap) in different times and places.

Lamb says “In fact, this separation only happened as capitalism developed in Western Europe.” This is a matter of history – and would be no problem one way or the other for the theory Lamb is criticizing since I make no apriori assumptions about such matters, but, quite the contrary, urge that about this issue of overlap or priority we have to look at particular societies to see what pertains. In fact, the way Lamb means the word separation his claim is largely true, I think. But this should not cause us to think that there weren’t institutions or aspects of institutions best understood as economic and other institutions or aspects of institutions best understood as political – tightly entwined – in Feudalism, say.

Lamb says, “In class-divided societies before capitalism, rulers were simultaneously the governors and the exploiters of those who toiled.” Actually, this is largely true in the U.S. too. How many governors aren’t extreme beneficiaries of the toil of others? But that isn’t the whole of it,now or earlier. The institutions of polity and economy, while peopled at the top by overwhelmingly the same folks, are still generally different in important regards, or cna be, and we need concepts open to seeing that. The degree of overlap or difference is a matter of historical contingency. The universal point is that in earlier societies, as in current ones, there are institutions of polity, culture, kinship, and economy that are critical to social life possibilities. This attunes us to notice when there are major differences in how political functions are carried out, due not just to different economic structures, but due to different political structures, as well as other insights.

Lamb says, “when it comes to explaining how societies undergo profound changes in the way they are structured, Albert’s theory doesn’t give priority to any aspect of society.”

It doesn’t give a priori priority, that is correct. It says, instead, that you have to look and see what the situation is. You don’t know without looking that one aspect or another dominates, or that no aspect dominates. It isn’t always true that the economy (or kinship, etc.) always has priority, nor is it true that we can know in advance of looking that each sphere never has priority.

Lamb says, “I would argue that he is wrong to reject Karl Marx’s insight that humans can’t live without access to the material means of life, and therefore the social relations of production and class that organize our access to the means of life ultimately have more impact on how societies evolve than, say, religion or military might.”

I not only don’t reject the insight that humans are such that we inexorably seek economic outputs so that economy is universally critically important – I extend it a bit. It isn’t just that we seek the outputs that makes economics important, it is that to have the outputs we have to join together in recuring patterns of social interaction – institutions – and it is that these institutions in turn have great effects on our social life options, not least by imposing class relations on us. I also notice, however, that we humans are such that we inexorably need and seek kinship, cultural, and political outputs too, and have to join together to accomplish them, and that in this we create institutions of these sorts, and that these too, therefore, can and do have great effect on our social options, not least by imposing other social relations on us. And then I note we can’t know before the fact, Marx notwithstanding, that only economics or mostly economics or predominantly economics, compared to the rest, will be worth highlighting in our thought and practice. Thus, we need a broader conceptual toolbox, which is what the book Lamb is reviewing seeks to help provide.

Lamb says, “Perhaps this is why Albert doesn’t convey the extraordinary impact that capitalism has had on all dimensions of human society. Capitalism has transformed the ways in which people live in intimate relationships, raise children, relate to each other and other species, and understand themselves, other people, society and nature (Albert would probably agree).”

Yes, I would agree, of course. But racial dynamics, kin dynamics, and political dynamics have also had profound affects, including on economies. As but one example, capitalist economic relations would not produce a gender hierarchy or a race hierarchy were one not present or there to be exploited. More, roles in capitalist workplaces would not be defined to incorporate cultural features and kin features were there not very powerful pressure from without to do so. These kinds of matters are taken up in the book but of course not in great detail, space and my liimitations making that quite impossible.

Lamb adds, “Finally, Albert has a double standard when it comes to other theories. Feminism, radical nationalism and anarchism are seen as perspectives of oppressed groups on a particular sphere of society, while Marxism is not.”

This is not a double standard, rather an observation of what I take to be the situation. First, I don’t say Marxism isn’t a group’s perspective, I just say the group it reflects isn’t the working class but is, instead, what I call the coordinator class. Second, having a double standard would not mean finding differences, but would mean looking differently. I look the same way at each of these four perspectives – trying to see how the concepts of the perspective emphasize or leave out aspects and whether this serves particular agendas or not. I see something different for them, yes, and readers can decide whether that is accurate or not.

Lamb continues, “This is odd, since I think Albert would recognize that certain kinds of feminism, nationalism and anarchism have been the perspectives of middle-class elites, and not very liberating for most of the people whose oppression they are supposed to challenge.”

Notice, I didn’t say the fact that Marxist’s were often white, or male, or politically empowered and therefore it didn’t represent working class interests just like I didn’t say feminism, nationalism, or anarchism’s advocates are sometimes white,or male, or politically empower, or capitalists so that these don’t represent their core constituency. If I had, Lamb would be right. And indeed, he is correct that just as Marxists have often been bad on non economic matters in part due to occupying higher rather than lower positions in those other realms,and I think in part because their concepts have by what they contain and leave out produced the result, so too for feminism, nationalism, and anarchism. The claims I offered however, were quite even handed about this, in Lamb’s sense, indicating that all four frameworks suffered this way, but that all four could overcome this problem. What distinguished Marxism for me was not this, but that within its own focused priority area – the domain of class – Marxism represents the perspective and interests not of who it claims to, workers, but of, instead, coordinators.

Lamb says, “In my view, some forms of ‘Marxism’ have been the perspectives of ruling classes or would-be rulers: for example, the state ideologies of the USSR, China and Cuba. Others have been a mix of working-class perspectives and ideas that really are capitalist in origin. Then there are forms of Marxism, whose perspective is working-class, some of which have tried to integrate the perspectives of women, people of colour, queers and other oppressed groups. It’s this kind of anti-racist feminist Marxism that many of us at New Socialist seek to develop.”

And the book Lamb is addressing, I believe, proposes just that as one part of the project of Marxists doing better than in the past. It corresponds to the effort to overcome seeing society only or even primarily through economics defined lenses but not others – and is analogous to similar progress for other ideologies also broadening out their conceptual toolboxes. But the point is there is a second task for Marxists, I think, which is doing better vis a vis the economy itself. And I think this is where I and Lamb really part ways.

Lamb says, “So Albert’s claim that Marxism is at its core a non-working-class theory is unconvincing.”

Why is it unconvincing? Perhaps because Lamb didn’t see the reasons given?

If Lamb were to argue that bourgeois economics, or marketing theory, say, were at its core a non-working-class theory I think he would do so by two paths. He would look at the concepts and point out how they leave out much that matters to workers and include what serves others – mainly owners. And he would show that the economic system and practices advocated weren’t one that elevated workers but instead subordinated them to other classes, again, mainly owners.

I follow the same approach, not only looking at bourgeois theories, but also looking at Marxism. Marxism in practice and even in theory offers a vision – called socialism. This vision describes itself with nice values I certainly like, saying that it means to be classless, and so on. Of course, even Bush describes his aims by trumpeting nice values that I like. We reject, however, Bush’s claims because the institutions Bush advocates deny the values he trumpets and show instead his true agenda – which is to say, who he really serves. One part of my case about Marxism is similar. It’s institutional allegiences include public or state ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor and workplace decision making relations, remuneration for output and/or power, and markets or central planning for allocation. These institutions deny the values – classlessness, etc. – Marxism trumpets because they produce class division and class rule. I think the institutional substance, both in intellectual presentations and in the historical practice of all Marxist parties that have actually attained power, shows the true agenda, which is to elevate the coordinator class and not the working class, even despite most Marxists contrary and very positive desires. The second half of my case is looks at Marxism’s actual concepts and show how they leave out and incorporate content in ways reflecting coordinator aspirations and not working class aspirations, but that is too much to even summarize here.

Lamb says, “What’s more, the idea of a distinct coordinator class is, I would argue, a flawed way of dealing with real issues: the division of labour in capitalist societies gives some workers much more knowledge and intellectual skills than others, and includes hired managers.”

Why does Lamb insert the phrase “in capitalist societies”? What about market socialist economies? What about centrally planned socialist economies? The social relations that produce what I call the working class / coordinator class division exist in those systems and, indeed, elevate the coordinator class to ruling status. Isn’t that worth highlighting – supposing we want to avoid it, that is?

Why does Lamb think that if 20% of the workforce is given by its position in the economy confidence, skills, knowledge, and access to levers of decision making power, while 80% is left with overwhelmingly obedient and subordinate labor and virtually no access to levers of decision making power, it makes sense to call the whole group by one name, working class, rather than to note that there really is a very serious difference here – a class difference – which in turn can lead to there being different anti-capitalist agendas, one seeking classlessness and the other seeking coordinatorism?

Lamb thinks calling the 20% coordinators and the 78% (or thereabouts) workers, and 2% or so capitalists confuses things. For Lamb, adding a third class concept to our intellectual toolbox muddles the picture. It should just be workers and capitalists, and it should just be capitalism, and what comes after it, which will be a workers’ economy (that being the only other option). I think instead that adding a third class concept to highlight the 20% as different from the 78% is not only consistent with what we mean by class but is also an essential step to insure that whole movements are attuned to the reality that there is not one post capitalist alternative, but two. There is classlessness, which we ought to struggle for. And there is coordinatorism, which we ought to reject. And, regretably, coordinatorism has been what Marxism has attained every time it has overcome capitalism, not by mistake, but because Marxism’s and particularly Marxism Leninism’s concept and practices are coordinator class oriented, not working class oriented.

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