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Here’s the thing. I know you know this but I need to say it because I think I am still not making myself clear. I’m not saying what you think I am saying, perhaps.
Working people are not stupid but they have, by and large, not chosen revolution so far, especially in countries like yours and mine. You can say this is because they have not arrived at the proper consciousness yet, have not had exposure to the right ideas or you can give them more credit.
People rightly view revolution and a new social system as very risky business, even when they would seem to have nothing to lose (which has not generally been the case anyway in the West since WW2 or thereabouts). People have families, loved ones, lives. Choices can have consequences, whether these choices be collective or individual. Working class conservatism, tedious as it is to jokers like us, is not simply ignorance. It is more complicated than that.
To know that you are at the jumping off point, you need to have a powerful sense that the forces which put eggs in egg-cups for your children are in the process of becoming social, that is, latently social productive forces. What does this mean? It means that you know your fellows will be out there doing the impossible: making it work because they want to make it work and can make it work. No arrangement can mechanically function without something forceful and authentic animating it from inside.
This something is firstly about people, sure, but also about history. If it were simply a matter of us all waking up one morning and deciding to construct a better world, or a problem of communication or theoretical formulation, a spiritual matter maybe, I believe it would have happened long ago. We are in something, in process, like it or not. It is not that we don’t make our own history but that the narrative of our making it is excruciatingly turgid, twisty and problematic. That we make history with our bodies as well as our minds is the source of the annoyance. History is not simply a matter of intellectual will or desire.
To be more specific, the fact that a truly social economy implies some form of genuinely collective planning is one particularly massive headache history is posing for us and a headache we need history’s help in treating (but never finally curing I would suggest). This is very scary territory. Almost unthinkable to the great bulk of humanity hitherto. We need points of reference in the real historical context to move through this. I do for certain.
To put this another way: she may be a nasty piece of work but capitalism is, in so many ways, in so many minutiae, the mother of the possibilities we have to choose from, even if the one we want would seem diametrical to her. Of course, the biosphere is the mother of everything and we need to pay far greater respects to her, this being a whole other dimension to the situation, but studying with a degree of humility the way capitalism itself has evolved and embedding within this understanding, our ways out of it is, to me, much more compelling than saying capitalism is bad and we have something objectively more ideal because of this, this and this ethical argument.
Revolution may be about abrupt change, a discontinuity, the point where the surface cracks, but there are always underlying continuities of movement below the surface, revolution or no revolution. You don’t make a religion out of these forces as some more frowny marxist types might have done in the past but you have to acknowledge that they exist. If you think they don’t exist ask any ordinary, non-political comrade to point them out
Meanwhile, there are so many ways we can find in history or reality, if you like, places to stand: the progressively real interdependence of industries and economic existence, the nagging, continuous sublimation of private exchange, the clownish obsolescence of ‘rational self-interest’ on display amongst our elites, the productive forces with nowhere to go arising out of modern education, the dire imperative of a green transformation (implying a huge socio-cultural transformation alongside it), the growing, literally maddening emptiness of consumerism as capitalism becomes necessarily more bizarre in its search for markets, the extreme commodification of war, the now chronic and systemically inherent crisis of fictitious capital and debt, the historically perverse but no less grand capacities of information technology as a tool for new non-capitalist economics, the convergence of interests within world social classes and cultures as the dangerous (read promising) flip-side to globalisation, the gradual but eventually explosive churning of the political unconscious, the enormous practical aggravations from below now facing old-school authoritarianism. These are just a few themes and they all play into Parecon.
And it is not a matter of hitching a ride on this train. Ride you must. You either ride with your eyes open or closed.
All this is why I want to understand Parecon from within the world in which it would grow. I reckon you have something wonderful here, and you are living proof of social productive force in yourself, a social productive force unto yourself, but I want to see the connections as well as the breakages between Parecon and what is. There is not one without the other.
Such is the difference between a historical pathway and a mere idea. History and Parecon are not separate topics, matters to put each ‘elsewhere’.
BTW: Do you seriously believe that the revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela have had zero to do with the forces of production?
The revolution in the means of communication has occurred within capitalism (with a little help from government admittedly) over the past thirty years or so. China and Cuba are whole other stories.
Meanwhile, Parecon’s collective planning process relies on fibre optics and fast, powerful, available computer networks. Otherwise your iterations would take up half the production period or might never even reach stability. Can you imagine?
Up until now no one has successfully run a full economy for any period of time on the basis of collective planning in the proper sense. Not even the CNT/FAI managed that during their brief flowering in 36/37. Nor did the Piedmont councils after the First World War. Nor did the original soviets, nor the workers’ councils in Germany. Nothing of the sort happened in France in ’68.
But now we may just have the means to do it so why not?. Computers = new productive force (or whatever you want to call it) and Parecon = new social relations (no?) and capitalism = old social relations. Tell me this at least: could information technology (which has developed under capitalism) contribute to the end of capitalism? If you think so we are in full agreement. You’re just a bit allergic to the language I am using because of certain negative associations. Fair enough but be careful not to put people in boxes.
I am not a marxist, not in any narrow sense at least. I have never even belonged to a marxist organisation. I like what Subcommandante Marcos says: “The anarchists accuse me of being a marxist and they are correct. The marxists accuse me of being an anarchist and they are correct.”
What I am is an independent thinker who is bored with idealist versions of history (which are everywhere, left and right) and dualisms (capitalism good/socialism bad or, equally, socialism good/capitalism bad). This stuff drives me nuts – not just the marxist in me but me. Sets off the old bullshit detecter something shocking.
I have read Marx sure, but plenty else besides. And I have lived plenty else besides. Not a total dummy. Seen some stuff.
I just wanted to offer Parecon a new dimension because (and here I’m sorry) it just ain’t there yet. And for the reasons you outline in your last paragraph it is approaching time to rock and roll.
Be defensive or engage. Your choice.
Thank you so much for your reply so soon. You really have put your soul into this. Your commitment has been superb all these years. Not that you you give a damn about such accolades anyway.
I am finding it very hard to explain what I mean. To people actually involved in practical work, this might seem like a obscure question, this historical element stuff, but it feels important to me.
I remember being a young anarchist twenty five years ago or something reading Gregory Maximov’s The Guillotine at Work and physically raging about how the Bolsheviks could have gotten away with stealing and destroying such a potentially beautiful thing as the Russian Revolution (just like the same people appear to have screwed up Spain and so on). I remember going out with mates and hassling Trotskyites. “What about Kronstadt? Hey? What about Kronstadt?” Of course, anyone listening but not involved in the close little circle of left politics would have thought we were all a bunch of loonies.
However, something changed in me at some stage. Still a loony to be sure, but maybe some equanimity sank in in the face of history. When I was done being indignant I wanted to understand, not just the phenomenon of Marxist Leninism, but also a whole bunch of other things like the survival of capitalism.
Funnily enough, the best methodology for working stuff out for me turned out to be in Marx himself (anarchism, postmodernism and the rest being to my mind pretty useless as ways of reading history). Anyhow, the key to it seems to be this dialectical notion of the productive forces and the social relations. Because people live in bodies as well as minds, and make choices accordingly, people are not free to construct new social relations in a vacuum. The underside, the productive forces, need to be pushing up in the same direction and will indeed ultimately shape things to their own ends, regardless of ideals or the existential fortitude of individuals. This explains much about both the revolutions of the last century and their fate as well as for that matter their, by and large, non-existence in The West.
This may smack of economic determinism but I would put it a different way. It is about the nature of choice. For ordinary people, real historical choices are not merely abstract intellectual propositions but questions of, complex negotiations with physical necessity.
With regard to Parecon, two things:
A revolution has occurred within capitalism in relation to the means of communication. With full respect to folks like Antonie Pannekoek, it is only under these circumstances that that part of my brain which does not give a damn about ideals, only about whether my kids can eat, have decent shelter over their heads, sound education and medical care, is reasonably confident that we can do this thing. Sure, I would have been in there trying in 1917 and 1936 but, anarcho-propaganda aside, I might have had secret nagging doubts, being human, cased in this mortal shell and a father. Decisively, multitudes would have shared similar doubts and would have been far more equivocal to boot about the way they came down.
At any rate capitalism has lately released massive new productive forces through the expansion of the means of communication. These are beginning to push the realm of the possible beyond both private exchange and central planning as the only entirely plausible long-term bases for secure economic existence. I see Parecon as, in part, an expression of this.
Second thing: capitalism despite itself has the tendency to create the very thing its high priests pretend do not exist: social productive forces. Perversely, capitalism has created an ever growing interdependence amongst those under it, not just in resisting it but also in production itself (and this relates also to climate crisis if we think of the biosphere as the mother of all productive forces). Despite the fact that these forces do not yet have full political expression in most places – less so than ever perhaps in much of the world – they are I believe at an all time high as a latency. This latency, were it to ever realise itself, would be the life-blood, the inner flow that would make transformations like Parecon happen, overcome obstacles and sustain themselves. All the technical tinkering in the world could never mean much beside this.
I still don’t know whether I have got there but maybe a bit closer. Thanks for reading anyway.
I have some philosophical questions about Parecon rather than technical ones. They’re all heading in a particular direction, as I try to express something difficult here. So here goes.
Firstly, do you think of Parecon primarily as an ideal (that is, something really good that we should make happen because it is objectively better than the current non-ideal predicament) or as a historical latency (that is, a dialectical potential developing inside the world as it actually is)? Is it both somehow perhaps?
Secondly, do you think one could characterise history as a series of attempts by humanity to ‘get it right’, trying different things on to see which one fits, making mistakes along the way and learning from those mistakes? For example, in your opinion, did workers in the Soviet Union make a kind of historical or ideological error by allowing Leninist centralism and a coordinator class to usurp their power in the 1920s? Should they have opted for workers’ councils even back then? Were the anarchists not just morally right but practically right as well?
Or do you believe there is some secret to the present which could make a participatory economy, with collective planning and so on, viable and sustainable, even imminent and necessary, in a way it has not been before and was not so a hundred years ago?
I guess there is something that has never sat right with me about Parecon, even though it would seem like precisely the kind of work the hour requires. Please don’t get me wrong. All power to you. I am glad you are doing what you do. I am just trying to get at Parecon’s historical content which is still eluding me. I believe this element is important for many reasons, including nitty gritty technical ones