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Reviewing Solidarity’s Vision: The Self-Managed Society Pt. 1


Here, through a series of blogs, I want to re-produce Solidarity’s pamphlet Workers’ Councils and the Economics of Self-Managed Society by Cornelius Castoriadis (Number 22 of the French journal Socialism or Barbarism, 1957), providing comment on key passages along the way. The reason is simply that it is a great pamphlet relevant for today, written in a Left Libertarian spirit and tradition which should be carried forward, more widely read, and even expanded on. It is also in the tradition from which the vision of Participatory Economics, and more broadly Participatory Society, follow from. In Solidarity’s preface to the pamphlet the group writes, "To the best of our knowledge there have been no serious attempts by modern libertarian revolutionaries to grapple with the economic and political problems of a totally self-managed society." This preface, written in 1972, remains almost as true today as it did then, with few exceptions now (notably Albert and Hahnel). Those familiar with the Parecon and Participatory Society vision will know the neglect of vision mentioned by Solidarity above, is still a problem, but is not the same problem faced today when advocating and debating our participatory proposals. The pamphlet illustrates insight into each of these issues as well as the nuts and bolts of their own preferred vision. The pamphlet is a classic in my personal opinion, and I think there is much to learn from it for advocating the realization of Participatory Society, a vision in direct lineage of theirs.


From Solidarity’s preface:

“Way ahead of its time in 1957, the text seems dated, in some respects, in 1972—not so much in what it says, which retains great freshness and originality, but in  what it does not and could not say. Why, in view of all this, is Solidarity publishing this document at this particular time? [1972] The answer is twofold. Firstly, because the text remains, in our opinion, the most cogent, lucid and comprehensive vision of the economic structure of a modern self-managed society ever to have been published. Secondly, because we feel that a discussion on this theme is now fairly urgent.

The preface asks timeless questions of a Self-Managed Society:

“What might the structure, social relations and decision-making institutions of such a society look like, in an advanced industrial country, in the second half of the twentieth century? Is the technological basis of modern life so complex that all talk of workers’ management of production can be dismissed as pure ‘utopia’ (as both the beneficiaries—and most of the victims—of the present social order would have us believe)?”

In the 21st Century, both today’s victims and beneficiaries of “the present social order” could not deny an emancipatory society on technological arguments alone. Technological advancements enabling the self-conscious allocation of society’s human and material resources have no doubt surpassed expectations of both Classical and New Left Revolutionaries, including Solidarity/Castoriadis—examples illustrating the most obvious capacities being internet search engine and database technologies, the global mobility of capital at the stroke of a key, and technologies used for billions of calculations used to predict weather patterns. Challenges made against the revolutionary transformation of the present social order can no longer be made on technological grounds, but merely appeals that any such aspirations are going against social and material inequities that are either “hard-wired” into history or the product of divine inheritance. Any argument for a Self-Managed or Participatory Society today need not waste time on the issue of technological feasibility of the new society.

“Or, on the contrary, isn’t this allegation itself the real mystification? Doesn’t historical experience, and in particular the working class experience of recent decades, prove the very opposite? Don’t the very advances of science enhance the feasibility of a rational form of social organization, where real power would lie in the hands of the producers themselves?”

These questions are much more to the point and, especially considering modern-day technological capacity and innovation, render elite rationalization against the “feasibility of a rational form of social organization,” facilitated by technology, “where real power would lie in the hands of the producers” (and consumers) as absurd. The answers are very clearly “yes” and “yes.” However, upward shifts in wealth, power, and privilege have concentrated in fewer hands since last century. In 2005 the top 10 percent wealthiest American’s reached a level of income share not seen since before the Great Depression. (US Income Gap Is Widening Significantly, Data Shows, NYT, March 29, 2007). That is the largest redistributions of wealth in 100 years. While we may be more technologically advanced than when this pamphlet was authored 51 years ago, in many ways, here in the U.S., there are greater disparities of wealth. The common thread between now and then are the structural causes of these disparities based on ownership and control of productive assets, hierarchical divisions of labor, and lack of participatory economic allocation systems. Solidarity writes:


“This pamphlet seeks to deal with some of these questions. The events of the last few years show quite clearly that this is no longer a ‘theoretical’ preoccupation, relating to some remote and problematic future. On the contrary, it is a real, immediate and down-to-earth concern. At any time between now and the end of the century, hundreds of thousands—nay, millions—of men and women may well be confronted with problems of the kind here discussed. And on the solutions ordinary people may collectively provide to these problems will depend whether humanity really moves to something new, or whether we just exchange one servitude for another.”

Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s clear humanity has not moved to something new, and that we have yet to confront these problems on any significant scale.

Let us immediately circumscribe the relevant area. We are not concerned with the recipes and double-talk of various ‘reformed’ or ‘partially reformed’ bureaucracies. We are not concerned with ‘workers control’ seen as an adjunct or decoration to nationalization and the political power of some vanguard Party. We are not discussing how to run, from above, a system of workers-management-from-below (as in Yugoslavia). We want to go a little deeper than those Polish bureaucrats, the only recent addition to whose wisdom seems to be that one shouldn’t increase prices, without warning, the week before Christmas. We won’t be examining what happened in Spain in 1936, firstly because this has been done before, and better than we could, and secondly, because it only has limited relevance to the problems of an advanced industrial country, in the last third of the twentieth century.

Nor, for much the same reasons, will we examine the withered remains of what may briefly have flowered in the Algerian countryside, before being swept away in 1965 by Boumedienne’s theocratic putsch (to the plaudits, be it remembered, of the rulers of ‘Communist’ China). Nor will we echo Castro’s paeans to the ‘socialist’ work ethic, his exhortations to his followers to ‘cut yet more sugar cane’, or his fulminations against sundry slackers, uttered without ever seeking to discover the real source of their ‘slackness’: their lack of involvement in the fundamental decisions and their refusal to participate in their own exploitation.

At the other end of the political spectrum, we will only deal in passing with those who believe that all work and all sorrow, all limitations on human freedom, and all compulsion could immediately be swept away, and that socialism implies the immediate transcending of the human condition. With the decay of every social order, various millenarial doctrines tend to flourish. We endorse the vision but are concerned with the steps for making it reality.

Those whom we might call ‘cornucopian socialists’ will probably denounce us for discussing the organization and transformation of work (instead of its abolition). But, such is the capacity of our minds for mutually incompatible ideas that the very comrades who talk of abolishing all work will take it for granted that, under socialism, lights will go on when they press switches, and water flow when they turn on taps. We would gently ask them how the light or water will get there, who will lay the cables or pipes—and who, before that, will make them. We are not of those who believe that reservoirs and power stations are divine dispensations to socialist humanity—or that there is no human or social cost involved in their creation. We are intensely concerned, on the other hand, about how collectively to determine whether the cost is acceptable, and how it should be shared.

Advocates of Parecon will immediately feel affinity for retaining divisions of labor rather than abolishing them all together—specifically, pareconistas seek to balance divisions of labor for desirability and empowerment while abolishing hierarchical ones. The preface also speaks of the necessity of considering the human and social cost in the material means of life, as well as for how “collectively to determine whether the cost is acceptable, and how it should be shared.” Balanced job complexes, self-managed workers’ and consumers’ councils, and decentralized participatory planning are key features of Parecon—the economic system of a Participatory society—facilitating the collective decision making this process.


“In considering various aspects of a self-managed society we will not be discussing the insights, however shrewd, or various writers or science fiction. Their undoubted merit it is that they, at least, have perceived the fantastic scope of what could be possible, even today. Unlike Jules Verne, we aren’t planning to proceed ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ or even to undertake a ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. We just want to walk widely and freely on its surface, in the here-and-now. In this, we will immediately differentiate ourselves from most modern revolutionaries, who under pretext of ‘keeping their feet on earth’ remain waist-deep in concrete.”

"This pamphlet is based on a text by P. Chaulieu (‘Sur Ie Contenu du Socialisme’ ) which first appeared in the summer of 1957 (in issue Number 22 of the French journal, Socialisme ou Barbarie). It is important to keep the date in mind. The text was written just after the Hungarian Workers Councils had been ruthlessly suppressed, following a prolonged and heroic struggle in which hundreds of thousands of workers had put forward demands for the abolition of norms, for the equalization of wages, for workers’ management of production, for a Federation of Workers’ Councils, and for control from below of all institutions exercising any kind of decisional authority.

The text was written before the momentous developments of the sixties, before the massive growth of ‘do-it-yourself’ politics, and before the Berkeley events of 1964 (which showed the explosive new tensions modern capitalist society was busily producing). It was written before the vast spread—at least in Europe—of the ‘youth revolt’ (with its deep questioning of the ‘work ethic’ as such—and of so many other aspects of bourgeois culture and before the development of the women’s liberation movement (with its widespread critique not only of the economic exploitation of women, but of the more subtle forms of exploitation inherent in the attribution of fixed polarities and roles to the two sexes). Finally, it was written more than a decade before the great events of May 1968 (despite the fact that the movement’s demands for ‘autogestion’, or ‘self-management’, at times, sound like the reverberating echoes of what the text is talking about).

Way ahead of its time in 1957, the text seems dated, in some respects, in 1972—not so much in what it says, which retains great freshness and originality, but in what it does not and could not say. Why, in view of all this, is Solidarity publishing this document at this particular time? The answer is twofold. Firstly, because the text remains, in our opinion, the most cogent, lucid and comprehensive vision of the economic structure of a modern self-managed society ever to have been published. Secondly, because we feel that a discussion on this theme is now fairly urgent.

The text does not evade difficulties, but faces them honestly and openly. Its scope is wide. How could institutions be made comprehensible? How could they be effectively controlled from below? How could relevant information be made available to all, so that meaningful decisions might be taken collectively? How could genuinely democratic planning function, in an advanced industrial society? But the text deals with much more: with the essential changes a socialist society would have to introduce into the very structure of work, with how a genuine consumer ‘market’ might function, with problems of agriculture, with the political representation of those who do not work in large enterprises and with the meaning of politics in a society based on Workers Councils.

Revolutionaries usually react to all this in one of three ways:

1. For the Leninists of all ilk there is no problem. They may pay lip service to ‘proletarian democracy’, ‘Workers Councils’, and ‘workers’ control’, but know in their bones that, wherever necessary, their Party (which has as great a role to play after the revolution as before) will take the appropriate decisions. They dismiss workers’ self-management with derogatory comments about ‘socialism in one factory’ or with profundities like ‘you can’t have groups of workers doing whatever they like, without taking into account the requirements of the economy as a whole’. In this, they are tilting at men of straw, for libertarian revolutionaries have never claimed any such thing. Moreover, the Leninists utterly fail to understand what is here being proposed: we are not discussing ‘workers control’ (seen as some adjunct or decoration to a hierarchy of political organs, which would genuinely embody decisional authority, and which would not be directly based on the producers themselves). What we are proposing and discussing is something much more fundamental, a total reorganization of society, a reorganization involving every one of its social relations and basic institutions.
Non-Leninist revolutionaries will react to what we say in two different ways. Either,

2. ‘Why worry about such things? Blueprints are a waste of time. The workers themselves will decide when the time comes’. Or, more simplistically,

3. ‘Under socialism there just won’t be any problems of this kind. All present problems stem from the material scarcity of capitalism which a "free society" will immediately abolish’. The text argues most cogently why these are short-sighted answers and describes what will probably happen if libertarian revolutionaries refrain from discussing these matters as from now.

One may accept or reject what the author proposes (we are not ourselves all agreed on his various views), But it cannot be claimed that s/he fails to tackle a whole range of new problems. We are here firmly in the era of the computer, of the knowledge explosion, of wireless and television, of input-output matrices, and of the problems of today’ s society. We have left the quieter waters of Owen’s New View of Society (1813), of Morris’ News from Nowhere (1891), of Blatchford’s Clarion, or of sundry other socialist or anarchist utopias of earlier years.

Let us not be misunderstood. We are not passing value judgments. We are not decrying the sensitivity and deep humanity that permeated the vision of many earlier revolutionaries. We are merely claiming that the technological infrastructures of their societies and of ours are so immeasurably different as to make comparisons rather meaningless. Although we hate much that we see around us—and, in particular, many of the products of misapplied science—we don’t want to move the clock back (incidentally, a remarkably fruitless occupation). We see no advantage in candles or coke over electricity, or in carrying water from the well when it can be got from a tap. We want to control and humanize this society (by means commensurate with its vastness), not to seek refuge in some mythical golden past. Nor do we use the word ‘utopia’ in any derogatory sense, as contemporary Marxists so often do. We are using it in a purely etymological sense. Strictly speaking, ‘utopian’ means ‘which exists nowhere’. When we say that the author’s proposals are not utopian we are saying no more than that his mental constructs are but extrapolations from what already exists here and now, from experiences the working class has already been through and from institutions it has already created.

We would like to contribute this pamphlet to the serious and sustained discussion now taking place among libertarian revolutionaries about all aspects of a self-managed society. This discussion is already ranging widely and fruitfully over such fields as education, conditioning by the family, internalized repression, urbanism, town planning, ecology, new forms of art and communication, new relations between people, and between people and the essential content of their lives. In this surge of questioning one dimension is, however, missing. The dimension is that of economic organization. The silence here is quite deafening. Sure, there are occasional distant echoes of what de Leon said before the First World War about ‘socialist industrial unions’—or about what various syndicalists have proclaimed, with diminishing credibility, about the need for’ one big union’. For modern revolutionaries, however, this is totally inadequate. Perhaps what we propose isn’t good enough either, but at least it tries to grapple with the problems of our epoch.

In fact, as those familiar with Parecon will more than likely argue, there is too much focus on economic considerations and not enough on what we call “other spheres” of societal life. The vision of a Participatory Society we advocate is comprised of four defining spheres of society:

The Economic Sphere is where the production, consumption and allocation of material means of life occur. The key institutions for the economy are workplaces, allocation mechanisms, property relations and remuneration schemes.

The Kinship Sphere is where child rearing, nurturing future generations, socializing and care giving occur. Key institutions are the family, with parental and child rearing roles, where gender and sexuality, and other relations form for boys and girls, men and women, fathers and mothers, adults, children and the elderly.

The Political Sphere is where adjudication, policy regulation and law making occur with courts, a legislature and police.

The Community Sphere is where identity, religion and spirituality occur with race, ethnicity, places of worship, beliefs about life, death and celebration, etc.

Viewing society in this way is called “Complimentary Holism,” which combines and seeks to transcend “various theories of history (marxism, anarchism, feminism, and nationalism) to develop an alternative conceptual framework….” And apply “this framework to questions of economics, politics, gender, race, and culture for… understanding society and strategizing its transformation.” (Liberating Theory, SEP, 1986) It was developed in response to determinist (orthodox Marxist) theories placing class struggle as the force shaping society and history. Solidarity also broke with the Claissical Left in this way, although perhaps not as much as we would have liked….

”Although economic organization isn’t the be-all and end-all of life, it is the pre-condition of a great deal else. And it is high time revolutionary libertarians started discussing this subject rationally. They must realize that if they have no views on these matters, others (the trad[itionary] rev[olutionarie]s) do. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If we don’t want the economic tyranny of bourgeois society to be replaced by the tyranny of Party-dominated structures—masquerading as ‘socialism’ or ‘workers control’—it is high time we explained, and in some detail, what we mean by workers’ management of production and a society genuinely based on Workers Councils.

Conservatives will say that what is here outlined threatens the rights of management. They are dead right. The non-political will proclaim what many left politicos believe (but are reluctant to articulate), namely that all this is ‘pie in the sky’ because in industry as elsewhere there must always be leaders, and that hierarchical organization is both inevitable and intrinsically rational. The liberals and Labor lefts—aware of the increasing cynicism with which people now regard them—will proclaim that what we say is ‘what they meant all along’, when they were talking about ‘workers’ participation’. Having failed to grasp the essence of what we are talking about, they will then doubtless start arguing how it could all be introduced by parliamentary legislation!

There will be more subtle criticisms too. Those alarmed at the monstrosities of modern science—or those naturally suspicious of what they do not fully understand—will shy away from the text’s bold advocacy of subjugating the most modern techniques to the needs of democracy. They will remember the ‘plan factory’, the matrices and the coefficients, forget who will be determining them, and denounce the text as a ‘technocratic’ view of socialism. The text will be criticized by many anarchists as containing Marxist residues (for instance it still attributes an enormous specific weight, in the process of social change, to the industrial proletariat, a weight which the author himself would probably gauge differently today). Moreover the document still envisages a ‘transitional’ society between capitalism and communism, as Marx did in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. We will be told that the technical capacity of industry has increased so vastly in the last decades as to invalidate the need for such a phase of history. We hope to initiate a wide discussion on this issue.

Many Marxists will denounce the text as an anarchist dream (anarchist dreams are better than Marxist nightmares—but we would prefer. if possible, to remain awake!). Some will see the text as a major contribution to the perpetuation of wage slavery—because it still talks of ‘wages’ and doesn’t call for the immediate abolition of ‘money’ (although clearly defining the radically different meanings these terms will acquire in the early stages of a self-managed society).

The text will also be dismissed by many in the underground. They will consider it irrelevant because it does not call for the immediate ‘abolition’ of work. A more sophisticated criticism—but along the same lines—will be directed at us by the Situationists who constantly talk of ‘workers’ (sic) councils … while demanding the abolition of work! Unfortunately, they seem to confuse attacks on the work ethic and on alienated labor, both of which are justified and necessary, with attacks on work itself. Such an approach fails to relate to the problems of transforming what exists here and now into what could open the way to a new society, for the construction of which, whether we like it or not, many million man-hours of labor will probably have to be expended.

Finally the more percipient supporters of Women’s Liberation will correctly point out that as long as millions of women have to stay at home they will be grossly under-represented in the various schemes the pamphlet envisages. The answer here is neither to consider housework as an ‘industry’ and encourage housewives to organize industrially (which would perpetuate the present state of affairs), nor for all authority to be vested in locality-based units. The position of women will change radically and new forms of representation will undoubtedly be created. All these are areas deserving the widest possible attention.

We hope that what is best in the text will survive the crossfire. We are frequently told: ‘your critique of modern society is telling enough. But it is negative. These are enormous problems. How would you like to see things organized?’. Well, here at least is the draft of an answer, based on a coherent system of ideas. We will tell our questioner that a society, economically organized along the lines here described, would be infinitely preferable to what modern capitalist society has to offer us. And to those on the ‘far left’ we would say that such a society would also be preferable to what they and their ‘vanguard Parties’ are concocting ‘on our behalf’. The ball would then clearly be in their court. They would have to relate to what the libertarians were saying, about economics as well as about other things That alone, in our opinion, is reason enough for putting forward our views.

Part two of review coming soon…

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