This interview was conducted by email in preparation for a trip to Spain by Michael Albert. CNT is Spain's Anarchist Labor Federation and Periodico is CNT's Journal. The questions come from an array of Periodico writers.
1. Historically, only a few anarchist authors have analyzed the economic features of society. According to your view, what are the most relevant contributions from anarchists to economic thinking?
The primary anarchist economic contribution, I think, is its desire to reduce hierarchy to a minimum and to enlarge informed participation and self management in its place. These aims should inform any sensible thought about the economy, or any other social phenomena.
A second anarchist awareness has been its attention to the role of non property sources of class division. Bakunin and others were pivotal, I think, in the emergence of an understanding that a division of labor that gives a minority a monopoly on work that conveys influence, social skills, initiative, and confidence, while the majority does only disempowering work that requires mainly obedience while diminishing social skills and confidence, causes the former group, whom I call the coordinator class, to dominate the latter, the working class. To understand class interests as a motive force in economic change requires that one highlight not only two classes – capital and labor – but three, capital, labor, and, between them, the coordinator class, not least because the coordinators can become the ruling class in what has been called market or centrally planned socialism but what should have been called coordinatorism.
Finally, I think the work of Kropotkin on mutual aid and also regarding the intrinsic virtues of work can help us understand how markets produce anti sociality and what it will require for allocation to instead foster mutual aid, as well as to understand the impact of contemporary divisions of labor and illuminate what it will require to have equitable economic relations and sensible economic incentives.
2. From your point of view, how is the analysis of capitalism that stems from applied economics connected with anarchist proposals towards the creation of a new society? Do any connections exist between Radical Political Economics as a way of analyzing capitalism and the role of the state, and the anarchist approach to participatory economics as a proposal for a future society? If they do, what are they?
If the phrase "applied economics" refers to mainstream economic theory, as I suspect and will assume, I think there is very little connection. Mainstream theory pays little attention to classes per se, and almost no attention to what I call the coordinator class and gives no attention to anarchist or pretty much any other desires for a new society. Instead, mainstream economic theory overwhelmingly exists to say reasonably intelligent things about economic phenomena but only within the crippling constraint that what is said justifies the inevitability and permanence of such structures as markets, corporate divisions of labor, private ownership, and harshly hierarchical decision making. None of this has anything to do with anarchist aspirations, other than by negation.
I should say, however, that there are certain insights, even within the mainstream profession's crippling reactionary constraint, that anarchists should attend to, for example bearing on such matters as the interconnectivity of all economic choices and the associated reality of what are called opportunity costs – which is that when x is done, it means various other things that could have been done with the same labor and resources, etc., were not. The cost of doing x is not doing y. This insight is a useful check on the utopian thinking of some segments of the left who assume people can simply have whatever they want at no cost.
But, that said, most of economics is not only reactionary, but also nonsense – as in, for example, widely held notions about incentives, the impact of markets, what constitutes efficiency, and so on.
As to radical political economy, that is a different matter. I suspect it varies around the world, but in my own country, the U.S., there is actually a Union of Radical Political Economists. This has been primarily but not entirely marxist and has had many worthy and important insights, but also has been hampered, at least in my view, by failing to highlight the third class mentioned above. Radical political economy's greater attention to issues of power, the daily indignities of class, many of the ills of markets, and other matters are relevant, however, to any attempt at attaining an anarchistic economy and society, including participatory economics and a participatory society. I should note, as well, that radical economics' inattentiveness to there being three classes may be fading and even disappearing, hopefully leading to a far closer relation between it and anarchism, including, in particular, participatory economics.
3. What economic and social policies can workers seek to avoid suffering from the current economic crisis? Do other feasible policies, apart from public expenditure, exist to mitigate massive unemployment?
First, I would be remiss if I didn't say at least a few words about this concept – crisis. What makes a crisis? Before the crisis we are currently enduring, tens of millions of people died each year of preventable diseases and starvation. Many more were bombed into oblivion to defend the circumstances generating all that disease and hunger. Billions of people were denied fulfilling work and mired in undignified subservience. Why was all that not a crisis?
Then something happened, some bubbles burst, and suddenly there was a crisis. One might think it was because what happened made things worse for most people. But no, that was not the reason. The reason media proclaimed a crisis was because what happened affected or threatened to affect not only the poorest and weakest, not only those immediately above, the bottom – but those at the top. What became a crisis was a situation that hurt elites, and particularly a situation that could lead to massive dissent in turn causing further losses to elites.
What then is the elite response, other than to call our current situation a crisis while calling tens of millions of yearly corpses and billions of yearly harshly diminished lives business as usual? It is to try to remove or end the crisis, but in ways that cause there to be, once the crisis is over, even more power and wealth flowing to those at the top and away from those at the bottom.
So, in that context, what can workers do? To say we can dissent, rebel, and resist, is obviously true – but to what end? To say, we can do it with the aim of creating a new society is again obviously true, but given that that will take time, what can alleviate the pain now? And, more, what can alleviate the pain now but also move us toward further gains and eventually a new economy and new society?
Some general insights point to some feasible policies. The general insights are: make the rich pay, not the poor; and have the poor come away better organized and stronger, the rich the opposite, if possible.
One kind of worthy activity, then, is the daily practice of sincere and militant mutual aid. This could include communities protecting against evictions, communities protecting against dumping waste, movements protecting against price gouging, unions fighting against people being fired or wage cuts, etc.
A second kind of worthy activity is demands for changes such as increased minimum wages, a cap on high end income, highly progressive taxes that redistribute wealth, and reallocation of national spending from pursuits that are destructive or control oriented to pursuits that serve real needs of communities of working people.
But let's consider unemployment, since it is at the heart of current crisis. Is there anything that working people could seek to mitigate massive unemployment other than public spending? Yes, there certainly is.
Let's consider a particular workplace with a thousand employees. Suppose it is going to lay off 250 workers, or 25%, which is, I think, a typical current figure for many places in Spain and in the midwest in the U.S. Suppose also that diminished demand for the factory's product is the true reason for the proximate decision to fire 250 workers.
What is to be done? Well, if we want to deal with the situation while maintaining or increasing profits at the moment and over time, fine, we should fire the 250. This will weaken all workers by increasing unemployment and fear, and it will maintain at least the rate of profit, likely also leading to reduced wages, and then, when employment climbs back up, a lower wage bill. So in this way owners address the difficult situation of diminished demand in ways suited to their own interests. But what if we instead want to ensure that our choices keep the situation from worsening, or even improve it?
The answer then shouts at us. Instead of firing 250 people, keep all the employees. Due to reduced need for output, reduce the duration of work each week by 25%. Everyone still has a job, but works fewer hours. But, don't stop there. The fault for the disruption of the economy rests with the rich. And, more relevant, they have long gotten infinitely more income than they deserve – so, okay, keep workers salaries as they were. Thus, if I previously worked forty hours, and earned x, now I work 30 hours, but I still take home x as my pay. My hourly rate is up. My decline in hours worked is a benefit, not a disaster.
Who suffers the losses in revenues without a reduction in wages paid? Owners. They indeed lose dramatically compared to before. Note, that workers gain not only in hourly wage rate, but also in leisure – which is no small benefit, since it allows time for organizing and winning still more gains.
We therefore address unemployment in a way that benefits workers, not just in one plant, but across the whole economy, at the expense of owners and paves the way for further benefits, as well. But what if owners literally can't afford the giant hit that is paying wages at a much increased rate?
Well, some who aren't owners also currently earn way more than their share. I refer to coordinators including high level lawyers, doctors, managers, financial officers, and so on. So, we refine our demand again. For all those who earn less than some amount each year – let's say less than $80,000 – they continue to earn the same total as before though working 25% fewer hours. For those who were earning more than the cutoff amount, they do take a 25% pay cut for working 25% fewer hours. So not only the owners pay for the economic crisis, so do those I call the coordinator class – leading, again, to greater equity and justice.
If, by the way, this approach were in place across the country, you could of course wager with tremendous confidence that governments would quickly discover the stupidity of budget chopping policies and the wisdom of new taxes and social expenditures and waste budget reduction to get the economy right again at a lesser cost to elites.
4. From an anarchist perspective, what proposals do you consider necessary to pursue to address the current economic crisis?
A demand for no firing, work week reduction, and redistributive income policies, is a good example, I think. Any proposal that places greater burden on those with higher wealth and income and that creates new social conditions that increase the organization, consciousness, and options of working people so that they are likely to continue to seek still greater gains, is worthy. This would also include cutting military budgets and utilizing the gains for rebuilding infrastructure, creating better schools, housing, health care, etc.
5. What opportunities do you think this situation creates to build an anarchist economy (if any)?
Crisis does not by itself automatically push toward anarchism or any progressive outcome. When things get worse then the familiar norm, indeed, a very natural desire is to want to return to a past condition, not to attain revolutionized conditions, much less anarchist aims.
Worse, the rich and powerful want not only to get back to the pre crisis condition, but to wind up better off than they were before. The poor and weak should also want to escape the new pains, but by attaining new relations in which they are better off than before, and also in better position to continue advancing.
So the issue of the relation of business as usual (which is perpetual crisis) or chaotic disruption (which is current crisis) to building an anarchist economy is not written in some law of society or nature, but resides instead in the character of organized response. Do we, in a crisis situation, effectively increase our numbers, enlarge our awareness, and expand our means of developing and expressing our desires, even as we transfer costs to the rich and powerful? If yes, that is good. If no, then crisis can spell disaster not just for the moment, but for a long period.
6. Which specific tasks do you consider essential so that workers can self-manage an economy? Do you find anarchosyndicalism a useful tool to enable the working class to self-manage means of production? How is it possible to link unionist revolutionary work with the construction of economic alternatives?
I think self management requires a venue where workers and consumers can develop their preferences and determine outcomes for the economy in a self managing way. This is why I think we must create and maintain workers and consumers self managing councils.
I also think that within those councils, unless workers and consumers are all comparably confident and ready to participate, at least on average, in discussions and decisions that affect them, a few will dominate the many. Workers and consumers need to be comparably prepared, comparably empowered by their backgrounds and circumstances, to participate. In my view, that means we must attain and maintain a new division of labor with what I call balanced job complexes.
I also think you also can’t have wide disparities in income and wealth that can be parlayed into power differentials if you want real self management for all. So that means we must attain and maintain equitable remuneration, which is income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valuable labor.
Finally, markets and central planning both generate class difference by imposing a coordinator class, again, above workers. So those modes of allocation must be rejected, and in their place I, and participatory economics, favor attaining and maintaining what we call participatory planning, or cooperative negotiation by the workers and consumers councils of economic inputs and outputs.
If anarchosyndicalism refers to anarchism with an emphasis on worker’s self organization and self management, including attaining classless economy and a participatory democratic polity, then obviously in those respects it is part and parcel of participatory economics and participatory society. If it sees society as only an outgrowth of worker views and actions – and doesn’t also seek neighborhood political assemblies, and consumer councils – that would be a real difference, still to be addressed. Similarly, if for some it precludes comparable attention to issues of gender, sexuality, race, and culture, as to class, then that too would be a difference, at least in breadth of focus.
The last part of your question is incredibly important. We need to create alternatives to learn from them, to provide hope, to orient our efforts more widely, etc. We also need to fight within existing structures in unions, neighborhoods, and so on, to win gains, to remain connected, to develop mutual aid, to enlarge support, etc. Either approach without the other is flawed, the former potentially disconnected and aloof, the latter potentially reformist – so removing the antipathy of each for the other, and indeed connecting the two priorities is paramount. As to how to do this, I don’t think there is any general or single answer. I suspect answers depend entirely on the types of situation we encounter and develop.