For the Conference Celebrating the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Founding of the Centro Nacional de Trabajadores (CNT) in Barcelona, Spain, April 10, 2010.
[A Spanish version of this talk is beneath this one.]
I cannot think of any conference, anywhere in the world, I would be more honoured and excited to attend than this conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CNT, the greatest worker organization the world has ever seen, here in Barcelona, the Mecca all libertarian socialists should visit before we die.
Mostly I am here to listen and learn more about the history of the CNT. But I have been asked to share some thoughts on a subject I have spent more time thinking about over the past forty years than any other: How can workers and consumers best go about planning their own, interrelated economic activities themselves?
Like many of you, I’m sure, I am often asked why I believe this is possible. In light of the resilience of global capitalism, in light of the failure of all twentieth century economies that were called “socialist” to implement anything remotely resembling worker self-management, why do I continue to believe there is an alternative to the market system and elite planning? Libertarian socialists answer this question in different ways: (1) Some point out that the impulse for self-management has manifested itself in every revolutionary upsurge and invariably has had to be repressed through violence. While true, I hesitate to rest my case on this argument because even if there is invariably an impulse for self-management when authoritarian economic regimes crumble this does not prove that the impulse is sustainable even absent repression – which, in effect, is our interlocutor’s point. Besides, debates over the strength of the impulse to self-manage and the force of the repression in particular historical junctures quickly reduces to debates over the credentials of different historians. (2) Others emphasize that the capacity and desire for economic self-management is one component of a more general human striving for freedom for which there is ample evidence throughout human history. As someone who often leads with this argument, I follow up by pointing out that the contrary view — that we humans are so hopelessly socially challenged that we are incapable of consciously coordinating our own economic affairs efficiently and fairly – would be a convenient myth for elites who seek to rule us to propagate. (3) Finally, many who move beyond their gut feelings about human potentials and become more familiar with the actual history of libertarian socialism argue that it is possible because it once happened. It happened in Spain when powerful libertarian socialist organizations, the CNT being the most important, gave birth to a worker-managed economy that performed quite well under the circumstances from 1936 to 1939 when it was militarily crushed by the onslaught of European Fascism.
This last argument holds great weight in discussions with those who are less sanguine about human potentials and reluctant to believe anything is possible unless it has actually happened before. Since many who ask me the question fall into this category, over the years I have gathered a great deal of information about the Spanish Revolution (for an amateur) so I can deploy this argument with good effect. But here, among friends with far more historical knowledge than I, might I dare express some slight misgivings.
The early years of any revolution are both special and difficult. Optimism and enthusiasm are unusually high, by definition. Palpable dangers and difficulties, which elicit above average outpourings of solidarity even in non-revolutionary situations like the recent tragedy in Haiti, are usually present. And I think one can make a compelling case that all these factors were particularly strong in Spain during those brief three years. Would the economy have continued to function as well as it did from 1936-1939 had Franco been defeated? During the war years were there fairly simple and obvious economic objectives? Supply the troops with weapons, ammunition, and clothing. Supply communes with the intermediate inputs needed to grow crops. Get food to the neighborhoods in cities. In other words, with simple priorities, coordination among different producers and consumers is easier to sort out and in times of war sacrifices are more readily accepted. But would the procedures used to plan the relations among the different factories, peasant communes, and urban neighborhoods during the war years have continued to serve well once goals and priorities became more complex and less obvious, and after revolutionary fervor died down? In other words, is it really true that all the essential components of how to plan a self-managed economy are to be found in the practices of these historic Revolutionary comrades? Or were there important missing components that libertarian socialists would do well to continue to explore?
Of course there would have been more learning from doing had the Spanish Revolution not been suppressed. And perhaps there are better ways to formulate my question: Is there anything we have learned since 1939 about running an economy that our revolutionary comrades in the CNT would embrace as an aid to solving problems they had not yet solved in a sustainable way? Or, how would our CNT comrades go about planning the Spanish economy today if they had the chance?
In my opinion it is far from obvious how comprehensive, democratic, economic planning should be organized. As a matter of fact, I think many today who champion democratic planning by workers and consumers are blissfully unaware that many of their ideas about how to go about it are flawed. I think this intellectual failing stems from two blind spots in traditional Left thinking about democratic planning. The traditional socialist vision of democratic planning remains blind to the need to provide workers in enterprises and consumers in neighborhoods with a considerable degree of autonomy over their own behaviour. On the other hand, anarchist visions are blind to the need for carefully designed procedures to help producers and consumers, who should be autonomous in some regards but not in others, plan activities that are highly interrelated and do so in ways that are both equitable and efficient. Unfortunately as a professional economist I have to say I find much of the debate on the Left about how to actually organize a worker managed economy…. how shall I put this without being rude? … to be naive and ill-informed, strong on stubborn faith but weak on concrete solutions to real problems.
The challenge is how to empower worker councils and consumer councils while protecting the interests of others in the economy who are affected by what these councils do. The challenge is how to give groups of workers user rights over parts of society’s productive resources — which include what economists call people’s “human capital” — without allowing them to benefit unfairly from productive resources that belong to and should benefit everyone.
What socialists have long understood is that what any one group in an economy does will inevitably affect many others. The conclusion many socialists have drawn from this fact is that democratic planning must allow all to have a voice and say regarding all economic decisions. This, of course, is correct as far as it goes. But different decisions do not usually affect everyone to the same extent. One might call this the fundamental dilemma faced by those of us who want to organize a system of economic decision making that gives people decision making power to the degree they are affected by different economic decisions: Most economic decisions do affect many people, but to differing degrees. The challenge is how to give workers and consumers in their own councils a degree of autonomy over what they do that is appropriate.
Encouraging popular participation in economic decision making is hard. After all, those who actually do the work have been discouraged from participating in economic decision making ever since humans “ascended” from hunting and gathering societies to class systems with ruling elites. And for the past 300 years workers have been taught they are incompetent to make important economic decisions, and to thank their lucky stars they have capitalist employers and managers to do their thinking for them. Developing a participatory culture that encourages those who have always been a silenced majority inside their workplaces to actively participate in deciding what they will produce and how they will produce it is difficult enough, even though these decisions have immediate and palpable impacts on workers’ daily lives. Encouraging popular participation in coordinating the interrelated activities of millions of different workplaces and neighborhoods, and in investment and long-run strategic planning, where the relevance to one’s personal life is more attenuated and less obvious, is even more difficult. Yet this is the historical legacy of capitalist alienation that socialism must overcome. Moreover, the price of failure is monstrous. Biologists teach us that nature abhors an ecological vacuum, by which they mean that in complex ecological systems any empty niche will quickly be filled by some organism or another. If there is a single lesson we should learn from human history it is that society abhors a power vacuum. If people do not control their own lives then someone else will. If there is a single lesson we should learn from the history of twentieth century socialism it is that if workers and consumers do not run the economy themselves, then some economic elite will do it for them.
A Solution: Participatory Planning
How can we give workers and consumers in their councils the autonomy necessary to stimulate them to become and remain active participants in economic decision making while ensuring that worker and consumer councils do not make choices that are socially irresponsible? How is it possible to grant small groups of workers and consumers enough autonomy to encourage them to put time and effort into participating without disenfranchising others who are affected by the decisions they make, even though it be to a lesser extent? How can we grant groups of workers the right to use some of society’s productive resources as