Workers' Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society

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appledoze
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Aug 24 2009 22:19
Workers' Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society

http://www.lust-for-life.org/Lust-For-Life/WorkersCouncilsAndEconomics/WorkersCouncilsAndEconomics.htm

It's a bit of a long read, but it's well worth it. A pamphlet written by renowned libertarian Marxist Cornelius Castoriadis, it presents a well-written critique of capitalist and statist Communist systems, and presents a highly detailed vision of a libertarian and democratic socialist society based on direct bottom-up democracy through workers' councils. I'd also like to read the opinions of fellow socialists here on this vision, if you have the time to read it or skim it.

RedHughs
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Aug 25 2009 19:52

Just started reading it but this phrase stood out

Quote:
Under socialism people will dominate the working and institutions of society.

<humor>Yeah, I'm tired of our current Klingon-dominated capitalist society ... Putting people in charge will solve our problems.... </humor>

But seriously...

Despite Castoriades being something of a source for the Situationists, who I like, this text reads like a poorly-worked-out version of Parecon. I mean, I will give Parecon credit for spending considerable effort working out how to deal with things like some jobs being more pleasant than others, etc. The problem is that after all this planning, you wind-up with something like a poorly functioning commodity-society, one that is inferior to capitalism.

Oddly enough, I think Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" makes a much better sketch of a post-capitalist society dealing with scarcity. Here, some processes and decisions, especially how to distribute resources on a large scale, are highly centralized using computers. Other processes and decisions, like how and whether to distribute food to folks who are outside the production process entirely, are left to each area/collective to decide.

Of course, "The Dispossessed" assumes an artificial scarcity situation whereas a communist society would have more abundance if it were established today -- or once we pulled ourselves out of whatever ruinous future capitalism may bring about before its end.

And I'm sure it sounds very geeky but the free software phenomena also gives some hints concerning how voluntary production and distribution of various items could happen, not, of course, that it would be "the model" but that it does shows promise and limits of potlatch-style distribution...

Alderson Warm-Fork
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Aug 27 2009 17:22

I liked it, personally. I think it's really useful to have texts like this to direct people to when they say 'I have no idea how this socialism you're talking about would work'.

I also like the angle of focusing on availability of information as a part of enabling democracy.

Haven't read every bit of it, but on the specifics I don't think there was anything I'd think it worthwhile getting het up arguing against, although there are also plenty of bits I wouldn't get het up defending.

Quote:
The problem is that after all this planning, you wind-up with something like a poorly functioning commodity-society, one that is inferior to capitalism.

Why do you think it would be inferior to capitalism?

RedHughs
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Aug 27 2009 20:04
Alderson Warm-Fork wrote:
Quote:
The problem is that after all this planning, you wind-up with something like a poorly functioning commodity-society, one that is inferior to capitalism.

Why do you think it would be inferior to capitalism?

If you accept my claim that the upshot of this plan would be a commodity-based society, that social activity under this plan would ultimately be based on exchange and essentially involve each person selling their labor power to buy back survival, then you would have to also accept the conclusion that the commodity capital would also have to managed effectively.

But having a commodity-base society where those with control of capital don't own the capital they control just results in these controllers enriching themselves on the sly while managing the capital less efficiently than they would if they were given full power to treat the capital as a negotiable commodity. We can see this most strongly the Former Soviet Union but also in self-managed enterprises in the former Yugoslavia and in non-profits in the West (one interesting thing I believe was observed in Yugoslavia was profitable enterprises refusing to hire more workers because they didn't want to share out the profits of the enterprise - shows how the controllers of profits don't have to those on the top of a hierarchy).

At the same time this is a side issue - regardless of the efficiency involved, I would be against any scheme to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a different system of producing commodities (not that I'd claim such a thing exists or is possible). Instead, I think capitalism should be otherthrown and replaced with communism, where commodity production is eliminated, where all goods are distributed based on "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need".

And naturally, see Joseph Kay's critique of Parecon.

Anarcho
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Aug 27 2009 21:20
RedHughs wrote:
the commodity capital would also have to managed effectively.

According to both Marx and Engels, if the workers owned their means of production then it was not capital. Capital is a social relationship and commodities can be produced without capital (and so wage labour) existing. Proudhon made the same point, as did Bakunin.

RedHughs wrote:
But having a commodity-base society where those with control of capital don't own the capital they control just results in these controllers enriching themselves on the sly while managing the capital less efficiently than they would if they were given full power to treat the capital as a negotiable commodity.

of course that would never cross the mind of people in a communist system... no one would ever dream of working less than others and enriching themselves on the sly by taking as much as possible from the communal stores...

RedHughs wrote:
one interesting thing I believe was observed in Yugoslavia was profitable enterprises refusing to hire more workers because they didn't want to share out the profits of the enterprise

Any evidence for this assertion? I know that neo-classical economics argues this, but without any empirical evidence. Numerous defenders of market socialism state that this never happens in the real world, and did not happen in Yugoslavia. So I was wondering whether there was anything more substantial than mere belief?

RedHughs wrote:
At the same time this is a side issue - regardless of the efficiency involved, I would be against any scheme to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a different system of producing commodities (not that I'd claim such a thing exists or is possible).

Well, every revolution has gone through such a phase so I would suggest that we take into account this -- otherwise you will be against any actual social revolution which takes place.

RedHughs wrote:
Instead, I think capitalism should be otherthrown and replaced with communism, where commodity production is eliminated, where all goods are distributed based on "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need".

I would agree. I'm just not convinced that this will happen overnight and everywhere on the globe so we will be faced with a mixture of systems, including mutualism, collectivism and (some) communism. The real question we should be asking is how do we progress towards communism as quickly as possible rather than dismissing all alternative systems out of hand as not being pure enough. Sadly, no real social revolution is ever pure...

That is why works like "Workers' Councils..." are very useful.

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jura
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Aug 28 2009 11:01
Anarcho wrote:
According to both Marx and Engels, if the workers owned their means of production then it was not capital. Capital is a social relationship and commodities can be produced without capital (and so wage labour) existing. Proudhon made the same point, as did Bakunin.

No. Marx emphasized that if production is truly socialized, commodity production and exchange (and of course capital and wage labour) cease to exist. It is a Proudhonian illusion that socialism = commodity production - money, that all the evils of capitalism can be done away with simply by abolishing money and credit without abolishing private producers.

dave c
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Aug 28 2009 15:44

Jura, I think maybe you misunderstood something, as it doesn't appear to me that what you write contradicts the lines you are quoting.

Alderson Warm-Fork
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Aug 28 2009 17:50
Quote:
If you accept my claim that the upshot of this plan would be a commodity-based society, that social activity under this plan would ultimately be based on exchange and essentially involve each person selling their labor power to buy back survival,

I guess there'd be some of that, but you seem to throw in 'ultimately' and 'essentially' without quite justifying them.

Quote:
then you would have to also accept the conclusion that the commodity capital would also have to managed effectively.

Meaning what? That workers' councils will want to ensure a fair amount of efficiency, or that people will vote for '5-year-plans' that involve a substantial amount of investment to expand production in the future?

Quote:
having a commodity-base society where those with control of capital don't own the capital they control just results in these controllers enriching themselves on the sly while managing the capital less efficiently than they would if they were given full power to treat the capital as a negotiable commodity

So just to clarify, by 'the controllers don't own' you mean, the workers whose decisions determine output don't receive the product they produce to own and sell?

How do they enrich themselves on the sly? And if they manage less 'efficiently', and the output is less overall, why does that automatically cancel out other advantages (e.g. no poverty, the thrilling joy of self-management, etc).

I mean, presumably (unless I got lost in the details of the planning procedure) these workers can find that their work is so inefficient that people are voting for a plan that doesn't direct any resources to them, or doesn't pay them as much, or something. Such a method might be a bit more cumbersome, but if it avoids a lot of externalities, as well as the biases involved in managers making those sorts of decisions, and the informational disadvantages of top-down running of companies, it might well be more 'efficient' than capitalism.

Basically, unless I've misunderstood, your argument seems to be a version of the anti-socialist argument 'without capitalism, people won't have the incentives to produce enough or work enough', but with the addition of 'this will cease to apply as soon as we set up full communism'.

RedHughs
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Aug 28 2009 21:24
Quote:
Basically, unless I've misunderstood, your argument seems to be a version of the anti-socialist argument 'without capitalism, people won't have the incentives to produce enough or work enough', but with the addition of 'this will cease to apply as soon as we set up full communism'.

In a way, yes. Full capitalism is the most efficient way to organize "something-like-capitalism". Though commodity-based societies other than classical market capitalism certainly can/could exist, they would tend to dovetail into capitalism proper when the means of production reach a high level of development.

In a society where people's actions are primarily governed by incentives, cooperative efforts to organize incentives work badly. I could give lots of references but you can Google them yourself.

The main thing is that a communist revolution would not be a matter of moving through a society based on incentives to get to communism. Various transition processes may be possible, especially simple rationing. But none of the incentive systems proposed are either simple or oriented around a quick transition.

What I'd ask also is, "how does this proposal differ from Parecon?"

appledoze
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Aug 28 2009 22:47

Regarding the many arguments about incentives, I've developed a theory based on classical Marxism's theory of alienation. I call it "natural incentive", which proposes that people are naturally motivated to work when they feel it is a rewarding and fruitful achievement at a personal level. Because capitalism removes the workers from any say or power in the workplace as the theory of alienation suggests, this deprives the workers of natural incentive, and thus wage systems for survival must be used in a capitalist system to substitute this natural incentive. In a socialist society, with workers back in power of development in the work, the partial restoration of natural incentive would allow for higher productivity along with a good pay. This was proven in a survey in the early 20th century that showed that workers were more productive when they felt they had a say in the workplace, and productivity also rose exponentially in Republican Spain when the businesses were put in worker control.

Wellclose Square
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Aug 28 2009 23:04

appledoze wrote:

Quote:
productivity also rose exponentially in Republican Spain when the businesses were put in worker control.

I wish I remembered what that pamphlet was called, about work resistance in CNT-managed factories...

alphafunction
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Aug 29 2009 05:58
Wellclose Square wrote:
appledoze wrote:
Quote:
productivity also rose exponentially in Republican Spain when the businesses were put in worker control.

I wish I remembered what that pamphlet was called, about work resistance in CNT-managed factories...

Probably:
http://libcom.org/library/towards-history-workers-resistance-work-michael-seidman

Spikymike
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Aug 30 2009 14:42

Castoriadis was a libertarian, but unfortunately no libertarian communist. He never fully broke from traditional leftist politics. Indeed his rejection of Marx's analysis was never more than a rejection of his own origins in troskyist organisation and theory.

'..The Economics of a Self Managed Society' had it's good points for the period in which it was written but was always the self management of a Market Economy, or rather an idealised version of such, since Castoriadis clearly never really grasped what Marx was on about in his analysis of Value and Price.

Interestingly enough the British Solidarity Group which published this in english back in the 1970's were embarassed enough to put references to money, wages etc in inverted commas in a vain attempt to hide the fact that these terms still meant exactly what they said, for Castoriadis, if not for every one in the old Solidarity group.

Myself and other comrades in 'Social Revolution' from the marxist tradition struggled with the Solidarity group for some time over these issues and eventually, with allies amongst some of them, got a recognition that it wasn't possible to build our whole politics around the concept of 'self-management', without being clear about what it was we were aiming to 'self-manage'.

That recognition however never fully bedded in to our short lived combined group and Solidarity fell back into old ways before disapearing into the void.

Of course there are serious issues to tackle in making a transition from capitalism to communism, but Catoriadis made the classic mistake, consistent with the early orgins of his politics, of turning some ideas about that into a concept of an actual transitional society. Like Lenin (but unlike Marx) he chose to call that 'socialism'.

Funny enough I thought of this old debate when reading the stuff here about Parecon but couldn't sumon the energy to mention it at the time - there certainly are parralels.

lurdan
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Sep 3 2009 00:43

The link given in the first post is to the 1972 Solidarity "translation". As Spikeymike points out the people who translated this in London Solidarity (primarily 'Maurice Brinton') did some major rewriting to make Castoriadis' text more palatable to their target audience. Adam Buick did a very interesting demolition job on this rewrite which was reprinted in an older thread about this here.

Looking again at the Solidarity version I note with amusement the second footnote they had added which reads

Quote:
Our text is a close (but not always literal) translation of the French original. The milieu in which our pamphlet will be distributed and discussed differs from that of the 1957 article. Throughout, our main concern has been with getting essential concepts over to as wide (and unspecialized) an audience as possible. To a great extent, this has influenced our choice of wording and sentence structure.

Just how 'close' their translation is Buick makes clear :

Quote:
It is very revealing to give some examples of the way Solidarity has toned down the 'market socialism' aspects of Cardan's original articles :

Original: shops selling to consumers (magasins de vente aux consomateurs) .

Solidarity’s Version : stores distributing to consumers (p. 24).

Original: The market for consumer goods (le marché des biens de consommation).

Solidarity’s Version : consumer goods (heading p. 35).

Original: This implies the existence of a real market for consumer goods (ce qui implique 1'existence d'un marché réel pour les biens de consommation).

Solidarity’s Version: This implies the existence of some mechanism whereby consumer demand can genuinely make itself felt (p.35)

Original: Money, prices, Wages and value

Solidarity’s version: 'money', 'wages', 'value' (heading p. 36)..

In fact Cardan envisaged a market economy in which everybody would be paid in circulating money an equal wage with which to buy goods which would be on sale at a price equal to their value (amount of socially necessary labour embodied in them). And he as the cheek to claim that Marx also held that under Socialism goods would exchange at their values. Before going on to refute this we must draw attention to two other phrases which occur frequently in the original, namely 'gouvernement' and 'parti ouvrier socialiste' (socialist workers party), which are nowhere to be found in Solidarity's version. 'Government' becomes "Council (of the Central Assembly of Workers Councils)", while 'socialist workers party' becomes "libertarian socialist organisation" !

But - and this brings us on to a discussion of whether or not Marx thought socialism would be a market economy - the best change is towards the end. The original article says (of 'socialism'' as a transitional society between capitalism and communism) :

"In their essence these views absolutely coincide with the ideas of Marx and Lenin on the subject. Marx only considered one kind of transitional society between capitalism and communism, which he called indifferently 'dictatorship of the proletariat' or 'lower stage of communism’ ... Lenin's view, in State and Revolution, were only, in this regard, an explanation and a defence of Marx's view against the reformists of his time" (translated from the French).

In the Solidarity pamphlet this becomes :

"In their essence these views closely co-incide with Marx's ideas on the subject. Marx only considered one kind of transitional society between capitalism and communism, which lie called indifferently 'dictatorship of the proletariat' or lower stage of communism1..." (p.57)

No mention of Lenin! Which is unfair to Marx since it is with Lenin's views on this point and not with Marx's that Solidarity's position coincides ("absolutely" or 'closely’, take your pick!).

Castoriadis' original text has since had a more faithful translation which can be found here at Marxists.org. FWIW I don't like the original any better than Solidarity's bowdlerization of it but at least it's what Castoriadis actually wrote.

Wellclose Square
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Sep 3 2009 19:39

alphafunction wrote:

Quote:
Wellclose Square wrote:

appledoze wrote:
Quote:

productivity also rose exponentially in Republican Spain when the businesses were put in worker control.

I wish I remembered what that pamphlet was called, about work resistance in CNT-managed factories...

Probably:
http://libcom.org/library/towards-history-workers-resistance-work-michael-seidman

Yep, that is the pamphlet - though, online, it looks a lot shorter than the pamphlet, while the pamphlet was just a taster for the full-length book Seidman was doing on the subject - worth chasing up I think.

Wellclose Square
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Sep 3 2009 19:56

OK, further to the above (without wishing to derail the discussion on Castoriadis), here's this: http://libcom.org/tags/michael-seidman

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waslax
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Sep 4 2009 07:59
appledoze wrote:
In a socialist society, with workers back in power of development in the work, the partial restoration of natural incentive would allow for higher productivity along with a good pay. This was proven in a survey in the early 20th century that showed that workers were more productive when they felt they had a say in the workplace, and productivity also rose exponentially in Republican Spain when the businesses were put in worker control.

In a 'socialist society' there will not be 'good pay', since money will be abolished, as there will be no need for it. Also, you speak about workers being 'more productive' and rising productivity as if these were ends in themselves. That is the viewpoint of capital. What is rising productivity but the production of more and more products? Is that the goal (or a primary one) of a socialist society? And what is it that makes workers more productive anyway? You have implied that it is their attitude and their willingness to work harder or work more 'efficiently'. In the early days of capitalism (and in the less capitalistically developed parts of the world more recently), when the productive technology involved was relatively backward, that may have been the case. Today, and for many, many years now (at least a century), it is new productive technology, rather than the subjective attitude or activity of the workers involved, which makes workers more productive.

As far as the text by Castoriadis is concerned, I am in general agreement with the views expressed in the posts above by lurdan and spikeymike. If people think the Castoriadis text is good for offering a sort of 'blueprint' of what a society in transition to socialism might look like, they might as well go back and read the original council communist text offering such a vision, i.e. the GIK's "Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution" (from 1931). I suspect that Castoriadis took many of his (better) ideas from that text. (But please don't ask me to prove that. wink )

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oisleep
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Sep 4 2009 08:50
Quote:
Also, you speak about workers being 'more productive' and rising productivity as if these were ends in themselves. That is the viewpoint of capital. What is rising productivity but the production of more and more products? Is that the goal (or a primary one) of a socialist society?

it may not be the ultimate goal, but if the cherished socialist dream of reducing the amount of necessary work done in society alongside a raising of the living standards of everyone on the globe to decent levels then an emphasis on continued increasing productivity to churn out use-values on the scale and level required seems to be the only method of getting there (short of a retreat into primitivism, or a level of poverty worse that that under capitalism, or forced expulstion of large swathes of population from the planet)

productivity in itself isn't a dirty word/concept that should be thrown out with the capitalist bathwater, sure it's cloaked and sullied with the objectives of capital and shaped by the technology (technology in the most widest sense i mean) that provides it, but ever increasing productivity is the only way of reducing the level of necessary work in society to a minimum (even capital can see this hence the impetus to reduce necessary labour and increase surplus labour) whilst concurrently being able to deal with the swathes of problems that the 21st century is lining up for us whilst maintaining a level of global living conditions that would be commensurate with the appeal to people to support and maintain such a project in the first place

Sotev
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Sep 4 2009 13:08
waslax wrote:
the GIK's "Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution" (from 1931). I suspect that Castoriadis took many of his (better) ideas from that text. (But please don't ask me to prove that. wink )

Although the guy was pretty much fluent in german (in his early twenties in Greece he was doing unofficial lectures on Hegel's Logik) among other things, and an completely unthinkable bookworm, my bet is that he didn't know/read it. Was it actually available in 40s-50s France?

One of the most fascinating things about socialisme ou barbarie is the complete absence of any reference to the council communist tradition.

Actually, regarding both his version of marxism and his critique of it, Castoriadis worked throughout his life using a filter of sorts that excluded anything that was on the left of trotskyism. One will find only passing (and mostly negative, although I think I can recall a nice quote from Bakunin) comments on anarchism or the bordigists etc.

Regarding the text in question, I believe it makes an interesting read. I don't think one should refrain from thinking up the classless society (Le Guin's The Dispossessed is an excellent version in literary form, and one I would recommend to someone asking me). Castoriadis says somewhere else regarding his 'blueprint-making' that, "well, if there were a revolution, I would step up in an assembly and propose this. There's no reason not doing it already". Ofcourse his proposal is some sort of impossible type of democratic capitalism.

petey
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Sep 4 2009 15:59
waslax wrote:
What is rising productivity but the production of more and more products?

'productivity' when used in the business press refers to the amount of stuff produced per time unit. rising productivity means producing the same amount of stuff in less time. this can be prized (w/in capitalism) in order to produce more stuff per workday, or to produce a target amount of stuff and employ, hence pay, the workers less. but as oisleep and jack already said there's nothing wrong with the concept of high productivity.