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Is there an alternative to capitalism?


Rough transcript of a talk given by Paul Burrows (of Mondragón Bookstore & Coffee House) as part of the SMAC forum on “Alternatives to Capitalism” (Wednesday, April 11th, 2001)

“Is there an alternative to capitalism?” The short answer to the question is “yes.” (Can we call it a night and hit the pub?!?) In fact, there are many alternatives—though not all of these are necessarily or equally desirable. I suspect the room is full of Marxists, anarchists, Wobblies, greens, and assorted rare strains of retro-socialists (whatever the fuck that means, I just made it up), and so telling people that there are alternatives to capitalism, telling people that competition/ exploitation/ imperialism/ ecological destruction/ and hierarchy are NOT inevitable, is at best redundant, at worst insulting. At least for this crowd.

But beyond this general Left understanding that capitalism is inherently unjust, and beyond this general hope and insistence that the alternative must be some kind of socialism, some kind of worker-run society, some kind of real (rather than bourgeois) democracy—meaning, a democracy which extends to the economic realm, not just the political realm—beyond a quite passionate belief in these compelling (but somewhat vague) principles, the Left, frankly, doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Worse still, when it talks, it’s usually talking to itself. (Like I’m probably doing right now.) And worse STILL, it often just talks…and talks…and talks—as if the incessant turning of the “forces of capitalist production” in and of itself, relieves us of the burden of action.

Now, before anyone gets too upset and reaches for their ice-pick, let me just say that I don’t exempt myself from these criticisms. For starters, I enjoy talking and debating politics as much as anyone. Don’t get me wrong; I think talking is part of the process of self-education. I think theory can be a guide to action. The problem arises when talking and theorizing becomes a substitute for action. Younger activists are always saying “talk minus action equals zero.” They’re right. There’s nothing to debate about that. But I do think that we need to be less defensive, more honest and open to self-criticism. What do I mean “the Left doesn’t know what it’s talking about”? I certainly don’t mean that Left values are bad, or that the abolition of the market and its replacement by democratic planning is naïve. But I do think that the Left is often incoherent, stupidly dogmatic, and almost unintelligible to ordinary people. I don’t think, in practice, that we convey effectively our vision of a desirable future, nor do we convey a strategy for achieving it that seems … well, achievable. I don’t think most self-described socialists (Marxist or otherwise) could tell you, in straight, ordinary language (and that’s the key) what a market economy IS, what the essential institutions and features and dynamics of capitalism are, and how a worker-run economy might differ, be more fair, and still deliver the goods. I don’t think most self-described anarchists could tell you that either, or for that matter, tell you about the essential institutions and function of the State, and more importantly, how a non-hierarchical polity might differ from a capitalist or State-socialist one.

That’s pretty remarkable, if it’s true. We’re fighting against something but we’re only good at describing its symptoms. We’re fighting for something but it seems too far away to get bogged down with the details, so we fall back on 19th century slogans or vague notions of collective production and the “common good.” What we DO express is often internal to the movement (confined to our own venues and media), or in a language and style that smacks of judgment and elitism (no pun intended). When we’re actually intelligible (and this is NOT a given), we’re not necessarily saying anything relevant. And finally, the institutions, political parties, alternative businesses, and movements that we do create, often replicate the hierarchies, divisions of labour, and decision-making structures of both capitalism and patriarchy. In my opinion, it’s no wonder the socialist Left is marginal! We can’t blame our entire isolation on the sheer magnitude and power of global capital, on the “persuasiveness” of its guns and propaganda, or worse, on the so-called “false consciousness” of the so-called “masses.” There is a good deal that the Left has to own up to—that is, if it actually wants to inspire, and motivate, and grow…and win for Christsake! (I’m not convinced that a lot of Leftists really want to win, that they don’t prefer marginality, because marginality is somehow by definition more “pure” than the mainstream. In my opinion, this is nonsense; “purity as pathology.” The Left should be ecstatic about its values and goals becoming mainstream; it means a revolution is brewing!)

I’m not up here to outline and argue for my particular pet alternative to capitalism. For those who need to define their allies and enemies according to tidy labels, my own allegiances are well-known. I favour a “participatory economic” vision influenced by the libertarian Marxist, anarchist, and syndicalist traditions. But I think it would be redundant, a waste of everyone’s time to stand up here and regurgitate yet another stand-alone variant of socialism. (Anyone who wants to can go read Albert & Hahnel’s books for themselves, which outline the participatory economic, or parecon, model in depth, better than I could ever relay it. I highly recommend them; and incidentally, they influenced the internal structure of Mondragón’s own workers’ collective.)

Nor am I up here to say that anarchism is better than Marxism, or decentralization is better than central planning, or the State will never wither away—it can only be smashed!—and I’m not going to talk about who screwed over who in what revolution. In my opinion, these are irrelevant, hair-splitting debates—carried on for the last 150 years since Marx and Bakunin flexed their considerable egos in the First International. They have about as much relevance to the public as two churches fighting over the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Don’t get me wrong. It’s NOT that there’s nothing of substance to talk about, or that it’s intellectually uninteresting. But I think that these kinds of debates are red herrings—the same way that the debate about cutting taxes is a red herring. “To tax or not to tax?” The taxpayers’ association (and every major political party) are happy to have the public debate that for eternity—precisely because it’s the wrong fucking question! The real question has always been one of decision-making: “Who decides what the tax criteria are, who sets the budgets, how is public money allocated, who benefits?”

The Left seems content to swim in a sea of red herrings, forever asking the wrong questions, forever dredging up century-old debates, forever letting personality conflicts and egos divide them from potential allies, forever letting ideological allegiances and dogma keep them from recognizing good ideas and changing. For ALL these reasons, I don’t even want to talk about participatory economics as an alternative to capitalism. Maybe that’s a cop out. But ultimately, if our goal is to build a broad-based anti-capitalist movement, I think it would be (at best) politically irrelevant to insist that my brand of socialism or anarchism is better than all the others, all-the-while laughing at the silly “utopianism” of other models (which is what the Marxists do to the anarchists), or expressing indignation over the other camp’s authoritarianism (which is what the anarchists do to the Marxists). There’s no respect in that, there’s no dialogue, there’s no hope for new strategy, or growth as a movement, nobody actually gives a shit about the Marxist-anarchist “split” (viewing it something like the Monty Python joke about the “People’s Front of Judea”—you know, how it’s crucially different from the “Judean People’s Front.”). Let’s face it, the way this “debate” has unfolded, and in many ways continues to unfold, is no threat to the ruling class.

So where does this leave us? What are better questions to ask, better debates to have, if we want to build an anti-capitalist movement? Let me borrow from Robin Hahnel: “Would it be sectarian to let differences over economic vision divide us, or are there important differences over economic program and strategy today that logically derive from different ideas about where we want to go?” Think about THAT. How do our different visions of a non-capitalist future affect the strategies we adopt today, and vice versa? How do our organizational forms and strategies today affect the people involved, the content of our media, the direction we want to take, and so on? Another question to consider: “What if differences over long-term vision are also differences over what is wrong with capitalism?” Or: “What if different economic and socialist visions are really differences over what is fair and how people should work together?” Or: “What if different visions are also differences over who—besides capitalists —constitutes the enemy, and who are friends?” And finally: What if the privileges we enjoy today lead us (without even being aware) to obscure class and structural problems in the alternative models we propose, create, and work within?

I think that if we want to build a popular movement, and create an alternative to capitalism, we need to start by asking such questions, and by articulating them in a language that’s real. (Not many people are interested in the subtleties of the “dialectical relationship between base and superstructure.” Get real!) From an organizing perspective alone, we need to recognize that the language we use, the mannerisms, style, and tone we adopt, is at least as important as the substance of our message. We need to have a little humility —we need to be a little less attached to our conclusions, a little more questioning of our assumptions, a little less quick with our judgements and dismissals. Instead of saying everyone else isn’t revolutionary enough (while we sit on our ass waiting for the Revolution; “pure” but alone), we need to look in the bloody mirror. We need to ask ourselves “What are we really doing to create a welcoming movement, a culture of resistance; what are we really doing to foster solidarity; when was the last time I reached out to someone who didn’t already share my politics; when was the last time I actually had an impact on someone?”

Instead of saying “those young anarchists don’t know how to build institutions” (and then calling them “reformist” or “parochial” or “bourgeois” when they do), the Old Left needs to recognize that all the same criticisms apply equally to themselves. In addition to saying “talk minus action equals zero,” younger activists need to simultaneously pay more attention to history, theory, and the experiences of veteran activists. Talk minus action is zero, but it’s also true that action minus well-thought-out ideas and principles can be less than zero. It can be damaging to individual people, and it can hinder the growth of a radical movement. Ultimately, we need to be less concerned about the alleged failings and ignorance of others, and more concerned about our own political relevance. The entire Left, progressive, activist community (young and old, socialist or not) needs to build or expand upon its own institutions, and more importantly, the alternatives we create must embody the values we profess to hold.

Instead of saying “Anything short of complete ‘Revolution’ is reformist” (and then going home to watch TV), we need to recognize that no revolution begins with the overthrow of the State. The dismantling or seizure of the State is usually a reflection of a deep revolution already occurring at the grassroots, community and workplace level. The Spanish Revolution of 1936-39 didn’t just happen because the Spanish were more “radical” or “committed” than we are. It was the culmination of almost 70 years of organizing, making mistakes, building a popular base. Pre-existing structures and worker organizations made possible a workers’ takeover of much of the Spanish economy (especially in Catalonia). Participation in radical unions, factory committees, and collectives for decades, enabled Spanish workers to develop knowledge of their enterprises, a sense of their own competence, and gave them direct experience with collective organizational principles.

The struggle of the Spanish anarchists and communists offers many lessons—not the least of which is that revolution is a long-term agenda. Younger activists especially need to take this seriously, because they tend to think that militancy alone (regardless of popular support) will bring about a fast demise of capitalism. Unrealistic expectations are a fast road to burnout and despair. At the same time, however, observing that the state-capitalist system is powerful, and believing that revolution is a long-term agenda, is not an excuse to stuff our nests, or avoid direct action. As Gramsci pointed out we need to maintain an optimism of will, even if we have a pessimism of mind. In other words, we need to strike a balance between hope and reality—something that is absolutely necessary, if our efforts are to be sustained beyond youthful idealism into the rest of our lives.

We need to think hard about the meaning of solidarity. Solidarity is NOT about supporting those who share your precise politics. It’s about supporting those who struggle against injustice—even if their assumptions, methods, politics, and goals differ from our own. Any anarchist who says they won’t support Cuban solidarity efforts, or could care less about the U.S. embargo, because the Cuban revolution is “Statist” and “authoritarian,” is in my opinion, full of shit. (But this doesn’t imply that we should turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Cuba, just because they’re relatively non-existent compared to the rest of Latin America (or Canada for that matter). It doesn’t imply that we should refrain from criticism of Cuba’s economic system from a socialist and working-class perspective, simply because we’re worried about the declining number of post-capitalist experiments to support.)

The point is that criticism should come from WITHIN a framework of solidarity, not outside it—and this applies as much to the local context, as it does to the global. Any activist who says they can’t support indigenous struggles for hunting and fishing rights, or they can’t support striking hog plant workers, because of animal liberation is full of shit. (But this doesn’t negate for one second the compelling moral imperative of animal liberation.) Any environmentalist who doesn’t buy their paper from Humboldt’s Legacy, because some of its prices actually include social and ecological costs, or because the store’s not registered as a “non-profit,” is full of shit. Any activist who doesn’t buy their groceries from Neechi foods, or Organic Planet, or some other place which is committed to community economic development on principle, because Safeway is “unionized” or the Megastore has “X” … is full of shit. Any Marxist who doesn’t buy their books … right here at Mondragón, because the chain stores are more convenient, or they found a better discount at Chapters, or they think anarchists are “petty-bourgeois,” is likewise…full of shit.

I’m not saying this stuff just to be provocative, or to make anyone feel bad. I think people should be motivated to act by their positive convictions, not their sense of guilt. Solidarity is about putting your money where your mouth is. It’s meaningless if it’s simply theoretical. It has to be put into practice, it has to be lived. I struggle with the need to overcome my own blinders and personal grievances all the time. It takes serious effort to make connections with people from diverse groups, and different generations, to disagree in a respectful fashion, and to support other struggles without compromising one’s own principles. Solidarity is about transcending divisions despite our political differences, and despite the inevitable personality conflicts—it’s about transcending our divisions out of empathy and a sense of shared struggle. If we can’t do this in Winnipeg, we sure as hell can’t take on the world-capitalist system. That’s just a fact.

Having said all this, I don’t want to leave people with the impression that the state of activism in Winnipeg is terrible, that everyone hates everyone, or that back-stabbing is more prevalent than solidarity. (I’m not even saying its prevalent.) I think we have our problems like every other community. We’ve got our share of ideologues, purists, missionaries, and so on—you know, the kinds of people you don’t want to hang out with because their favourite activity is judgment. But we’ve also made a lot of progress in the last five or six years in terms of building broader movements and alliances. (I think the work being done by a range of groups and institutions, like the Workers Organizing Resource Centre, the Community Economic Development Business Association, and of course, by a range of organizations right here in the Winnipeg A-Zone (Mondragon, G-7, Arbeiter Ring, CD, Natural Cycle, and so on) is very positive. Many of these efforts have been consciously and openly anti-capitalist, committed to alternative socialist and anarchist principles since their inception. In fact, the idea and attempt to build a broad, anti-capitalist front in this city certainly didn’t originate with SMAC, even though it refers to itself as the structured movement against capitalism—a characterization which implies that no other organizations or institutions are committed to such an alliance, or at least implies that no others are organized (which is another not-so-subtle jab at the anarchists, who are mistakenly presumed to be opposed to “structure.”). Jabs on all sides notwithstanding, I think the efforts of SMAC to further raise awareness, and further contribute to building an anti-capitalist movement, are a welcome addition to debate and activism in Winnipeg. Such efforts will no doubt continue on many fronts.)

To conclude, I’d like to come back, in a very round-about way, to the question of alternatives to capitalism. Without exploring any alternative model in depth, it seems important to emphasize that we should be less concerned about what we call our particular economic vision, and more concerned about its substance. We should be less concerned about regurgitating the slogans of dead people, or following a party line, and more concerned about asking new questions, based as much on our own experiences and common-sense, as upon the lessons of the past. Do not take this as a rejection of learning from history, a rejection of learning from past thinkers. Anyone who knows me knows the value I place on history, on theory, on learning from the experiences of those who came before. But let’s be serious: the point is to take the insights, to learn the lessons, not to adopt wholesale the assumptions and frameworks and baggage of people we admire.

Is there a future for “socialism?” As Mike Albert notes, it all depends on what you mean by “socialism.” Some people use “socialism” to describe a particular economy, characterized by state or collective property, plus either markets or central planning, but in each case with typical corporate divisions of labour in the workplace. Some people use “socialism” to mean an economy in which producers and consumers have appropriate empowerment, and receive fair and equitable incomes not based on any structural or class or personal advantage. In my opinion, the first of these forms of socialism (which existed in the old Soviet Union and exists today in Cuba) should be off the revolutionary agenda—not because it doesn’t work (it does, even by comparison to capitalism), but because it’s not compatible with the greatest fulfillment and development of the majority, the workers and consumers themselves. Assuming it’s attainable, only the second form of socialism seems worthy of pursuit—and I would argue, it’s the only one that seems to be consistent with the aims of early theorists like Marx.

In any case, we need to ask ourselves what we stand for, beyond vague references to collectivizing the means of production. Let me loosely borrow four questions from Robin Hahnel again (because he says things so wonderfully … and because I’m lazy):

Do we want an economy that rewards people according to differences in morally-arbitrary abilities, or do we want to reward people according to their labour and the sacrifices they make?

Do we want the few to conceive and coordinate the work of the many? Or do we want everyone to have an opportunity to participate in economic decision-making, to the degree they are affected by the outcome?

Do we want a structure for expressing preferences that is biased in favour of individual over social consumption? Or do we want people to be able to register preferences for parks, libraries, mass transit, and pollution-reduction, as easily as they can express their desires for cars, slurpees, CD’s, or chocolate-flavoured condoms?

Do we want economic decisions to be determined by competition between groups pitted against one another for their well-being and survival? Or do we want to plan our joint endeavors democratically, equitably, and efficiently?

There’s nothing complex or mysterious about this––even though the High Priests of Capitalism (and some Marxists) work very hard to make economics seem that way. What do we value? What do we want an economy to achieve? Any attempt to conceptualize alternatives to capitalism must begin with these questions, if we want to interest ordinary people in the debate, if we want to be rooted in the real world. One doesn’t build a broad-based, anti-capitalist movement by pretending to understand the “labour theory of value,” or by saying capitalism sucks (and not having a well-thought-out alternative model to put in its place). We need to ask straight-forward questions about what we want. We need to debate different proposals and options for how to best achieve our desires. I don’t care what you call this —communism, anarchism, participatory democracy, socialism as it was always meant to be—it really doesn’t matter. But if we’re going to develop an anti-capitalist alternative model, we need to be very clear about what values and principles we want to uphold. And if we can’t communicate these values in everyday language, if we can’t persuade anyone of anything, then we either don’t know what we’re talking about, or our ideas suck.

Well, I’m probably past my allotted time, so I’ll end it there. Thanks.

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