Comment On Albert (1)

First of all, let me make it clear that I don’t see this debate as a polemical confrontation where we’re each out to trash the other’s views. Rather, it’s an opportunity to clarify points of both agreement and disagreement between people active in the same movement. Whenever I read or hear Michael, I’m struck by how much I agree with him (although maybe this is an illusion that will vanish in the course of these exchanges: I hope not). Here are some specific comments on Michael’s opening statement:

1. Values: Our lists of values differ somewhat: Michael’s is solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management, mine justice, efficiency, democracy, and sustainability. I don’t think that these represent huge differences, but (largely) different conceptual arrangements of basically the same outlook. I regard solidarity and diversity as entailed by justice: I agree with Rawls that ‘justice is the first virtue of institutions’. It’s clear from his writings on parecon that Michael endorses efficiency and sustainability. Self-management is central to what I understand democracy to involve.

One more substantive difference relates to how Michael specifies equity. He says that the distribution of income should be based on remuneration according to effort. I agree that this is a better distributive principle that remuneration according to output, which rewards people for genetic or social accidents like their natural endowments and the education that they have received. Nevertheless, remuneration according to effort distributes on the basis of people’s role at work. Individuals may not be able to work because of age, disability, etc., and even their effort at work may be affected by various factors outside their control. Michael says: ‘Those who can’t work of course receive their income by right,’ but he doesn’t give a principle to support this (correct) conclusion. He lacks an over-arching principle governing distribution. One such principle might be that people should have equal access to the resources they require in order to live the life they have reason to value. This doesn’t rule out remuneration according to effort, but the latter is best seen as a subsidiary principle governing how people are rewarded for the work they perform (where such a principle is deemed necessary).

2. Parecon: I completely endorse the basic idea of parecon – a self-managing economy of workers’ and consumers’ councils where planning is ‘a cooperative negotiation process’. This is what I understand socialism would be. I’m attracted to balanced job complexes as a way of equitably sharing out rewarding and routine work consistent with freedom of choice. My main reservation is that the planning process as Michael portrays it – as a succession of iterations as individuals and councils put in proposals and try, with the help of facilitation boards, to reconcile them – seems a bit atomistic.

The individual proposals drive the process in what seems like the absence of any mechanism for defining the overall parameters for the economy – for example, the share of resources to go into consumption and investment. Pat Devine’s model of planning as negotiated coordination provides for these parameters to be set by a representative assembly after discussion of alternative plans. Surely something like this is needed: think, for example, of the enormous work of reconstruction and reorientation that would be involved in moving from capitalism to a sustainable economy. Participatory planning needs a democratic process for collectively setting overall priorities rather than these priorities emerging from the iterations. Maybe I’ve missed something but this doesn’t seem to be incorporated in parecon.

3. Marxism: Michael’s theoretical criticisms of Marxism are too general really to bite much. Of course it’s bad to ‘elevat[e] economics to domineering conceptual or programmatic importance’. Marx’s writings on economics are all titled or sub-titled Critique of Political Economy. He criticized mainstream economics for, among other things, a narrowly technical approach and for failing to understand that capitalism is a set of historical specific social relations with enormous, and often very destructive human consequences. Of course, ‘sexism, racism, and authoritarianism are centrally important’. But we confront these issues in a social, political, and cultural environment decisively shaped by capitalism as a very distinctive kind of economic system. Hence the importance of working out an alternative to it and a strategy for achieving this alternative. Michael must believe something like this, or he wouldn’t have put all the effort he has into developing parecon.

Michael writes: ‘mostly, I reject trying to comprehend modern economies emphasizing only two classes and without reference to the comparably important coordinator class’. He goes on to say that all (once) actual or imagined socialisms are, ‘in fact, coordinator ruled economies’. To my mind he’s running together a number of different issues. Let me just isolate two here: (i) how to make sense of Stalinism? And (ii) what is the class structure of contemporary capitalism.

(i) For the record, in the version of the Marxist tradition that I come from, the Soviet Union from the late 1920s onwards and all the other ‘state socialist’ societies (Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam etc.) from their inception weren’t any kind of socialism, but in fact represented a specific variant of capitalism, bureaucratic state capitalism. This interpretation of Stalinism was developed by Tony Cliff, notably in his book State Capitalism in Russia. Cliff argued that the working class in the USSR were exploited by a bureaucratic ruling class constituted by their effective control of the means of production (via the party-state dictatorship) and locked into a process of accumulation by military competition by the advanced capitalist countries.

(ii) Capitalism since the end of the 19th century has been characterized by the increasing dominance of large corporations. This has necessitated the development of bureaucratic structures to manage these corporations on behalf of the capitalist class: this in turn is one major factor in the enormous expansion of white-collar employees both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the workforce. Back in the 1970s there was a major debate among left-wing American intellectuals (among them Michael) about how these strata – and managers in particular – fitted into the class structure. In my view, the best answer to this question was provided by Erik Olin Wright in his theory of contradictory class locations. What this essentially amounted to saying is that white-collar employees do not form a homogeneous social grouping but are distributed across the class structure according the place they occupy with respect to the fundamental antagonism between capital and wage-labour.

The mass of routine white-collar workers are as much part of the working class as blue-collar workers – exploited, subject to managerial control, and so on. A small layer of top executives, thanks to the economic power they have and the share of profits they receive (through share-option schemes and the like), belong to the capitalist class. Between these two poles are quite a large number of people, many of them managers, who occupy Wright’s contradictory class locations. They are given discretion (and appropriate material rewards) in the roles that they perform on behalf of the core capitalists. But they are in relatively subordinate positions in the managerial hierarchy and are much more economically vulnerable than top executives – think of all the middle managers who lost their jobs as big corporations went in for ‘de-layering’ over the past decade or so. Such managers are in an ambiguous class position because they have some of the properties of both capital and wage-labour.

So I don’t believe that there is a distinct class of coordinators with a shared position in the relations of production. It doesn’t follow that there aren’t circumstances when people in relatively subordinate white-collar jobs become a ruling class. The history of the 20th century shows that, where the private bourgeoisie is weak, and/or the propertied classes more generally are destroyed by revolution, war, or some other external intervention, and the exploited classes are unable to win or consolidate power, elements from the salaried middle class can become the dominant class. I’ve put the preceding sentence in sufficiently general terms to cover a very wide number of cases – not just the Stalinist societies, but the ex-colonial countries where a highly statized economy came to predominate.

From the point of view of revolutionaries like Michael and me, the most important condition is the last one – the failure of an alternative from below to entrench itself. I think our disagreement here comes down to the fact that I don’t think that, in general, such failure is the consequence of the coordinators somehow taking over popular organizations. Revolutions are defeated or corrupted through the interaction of internal class and political forces and a typically unfavourable international environment that requires careful analysis and historical study so that we can learn the helpful lessons for the future. Mixed up in the argument here is the question of Leninism and of democratic centralism, which Michael describes as ‘a form of organization that tends to reproduce coordinator economic dominance as well as political authoritarianism’. I don’t agree, but I’ll save my reasons for another round.


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