Firstly, I'd like to say that amongst us in the libcom group, we fully subscribe to the view that radical thought is of necessity critical thought, and that applies to our own ideas and activities as much as to the social conditions in which we live.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on August 13, 2009

We welcome any attempts to critically reassess anti-capitalist theory and practice and are excited at the chance to discuss these ideas with you as while there is clearly much common ground here in terms of what we oppose and what we propose in its place, there are also some important, perhaps crucial differences.

An initial comment I would make on reading your piece is that in the guise of novelty and a laudable desire to learn from the failures of twentieth century socialism, several of the key features of the vision you set out appear to be an atavistic reprise of failed nineteenth century socialism. In my reply, I'll try to address each of the 5 tenets in turn, in order to substantiate this claim, to try and draw out the problems it represents, and of course also to show where the common ground is between us. Whilst this is a debate about visions, I believe ends are made of means, and so it is impossible to discuss a future society in isolation from the desired means of getting there.

Social Ownership
Any differences here would be purely semantic. I tend to talk about communising the means of production rather than socialising them, but this is largely due to the common association of socialisation and nationalisation, as well as the fact the term communisation comes from a theoretical milieu that sees this process as concomitant with that of social revolution, not something that can happen gradually in bit-parts, or something to be done following a ‘transitional period.’ As you say, whatever we call it, the point is that ownership becomes a non-issue.

It is true that democracy is an ambiguous term (a term I’m not actually that keen on for this very reason). But so is self-management, and indeed most political terminology. I think there is a danger of fetishising self-management per se, without regard to the question ‘…of what?’ While your vision clearly contextualises it in a socially owned economy, I think you (as in PPS) do fall into this trap with regard to your current practice. This fetishism is clearly apparent in the dual strategies of ‘participatory credit unions to set up participatory businesses’ and a ‘project for a participatory trade union movement.’ The problems are as follows.

The historical credit union/co-operative movement failed not because it wasn’t participatory enough, but because you cannot out-accumulate the accumulators. While workers co-ops may serve some purposes in the present (such as AK Press publishing radical literature that would be unlikely to get printed otherwise), they do not represent a strategy for social change because to do so they would have to out-compete existing capitalist firms. To be more competitive you have to keep costs down and increase productivity, and so you end up ‘participatorily’ imposing the requirements of capital on yourself, instead of a boss doing it (with the concomitant possibility of resistance).

Brighton, where I live is something of a haven for workers co-ops. A friend of mine works for one of them, a refuse/recycling company, and the conditions there in terms of pay and hours are considerably worse than at the council service Cityclean. Now Cityclean has one of the most militant workforces in the city, with a history of wildcat actions including occupations to secure their conditions against both private (‘capitalist’) and state (‘co-ordinatorist’) bosses. Capital is a class relation, and any strategy for abolishing it cannot avoid class confrontation and struggle. This brings us to the question of trade unions.

Now the last century has been full of failed attempts to reform the trade unions, and we have to ask that even if it somehow possible to succeed where others have failed, why is it a worthwhile goal? To me it seems that our orientation should be towards actual working class struggle, not a particular form (trade unions) that it often takes. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, any reform attempts that seriously threatened the unions role as ‘social partners’ to management would require a significant upsurge in militancy from the membership to force through (Unison recently witch-hunted members who advocated a no vote to pay cuts against an official policy of neutrality; imagine the response of the bureaucrats to demands for their abolition!). So even if you think it’s a good idea to reform the unions, you’d need to focus on building the actual class struggle.

Secondly, the trade union form rapidly becomes a barrier to the extension and development of workers struggles. Trade unions are bound by restrictive legislation that essentially outlaws effective action. Bosses must be given sufficient notice of industrial action to allow them to take mitigating measures, while secondary solidarity action is unlawful. Picket lines are restricted to ineffectual size, independent wildcat action is unlawful must be repudiated and so on… Furthermore, the unions act as a division between different groups of workers (non-members/members of other unions) in the same and different workplaces who share the same interests, acting as a barrier to common class action.

Several of the libcom collective are shop stewards in the public sector and have experienced these problems first hand, with the unions managing to impose real-terms pay cuts on their members despite support for industrial action. In contrast to an approach focussing on reforming the unions, we advocate developing other forms of struggle (which may well also meet your participatory criteria). In particular we advocate mass meetings of all workers regardless of union membership, for these mass meetings to control the struggle and make links with other mass meetings in other sectors, and as and when such assemblies form for them to co-ordinate their activities across divisions of employer, sector and union via means of mandated/recallable delegate councils.

These criticisms relate more to how a vision of self-management is reflected in contemporary practice. Criticisms aside, the idea that those affected by decisions should make them seems uncontroversial, although the specifics of whether this is left to simple or specific majority vote, consensus or complex proportional weighting systems is context-dependent. My preference would be for the most simple practicable (generally simple majority vote), but this is to be decided by those affected, of course! For example we use consensus minus 2 in the libcom collective, a group of 10 people, which works well for us.

Balanced Job Complexes
The principle here seems sensible. Nobody should be consigned to a life of menial chores, and nobody should monopolise the more enjoyable/empowering roles in society. Thus balanced job complexes recognise the need to transform the way our productive activity is organised in an egalitarian manner around human needs. If there is a problem here, it is that there’s a danger of taking work as an activity separate from life as a given, and simply seeking to democratise it.

Communism has always sought the abolition of work, not simply its reorganisation. Of course this doesn’t mean the abolition of productive human activity! There may only be semantic differences here, but it needs to be recognised that the separation between work and life is a product of capitalist society, and that many tasks that become boring, repetitive and dull under capitalism are potentially rewarding activities in and of themselves once stripped of the restrictions imposed by market discipline and workplace hierarchy.

Consequently the task is not just to re-organise work in a fairer manner, but to abolish it as a separate category of social activity. Of course it’s unlikely all menial tasks can be abolished or automated, and it therefore makes sense to have an egalitarian division of labour for productive activity, which seems to be the purpose of balanced job complexes.

Participatory Planning
Unfortunately here a fetish for participation per se again raises its head. I think you fall into the same hubristic trap as central planners here by assuming something so vast, complex and dynamic as total social production can be rationally planned at a macro level. Whether that plan is the product of a few bureaucrats in the central committee or of a peerlessly participatory process of iterative planning taking into account the desires of 6 billion people is somewhat secondary.

The reason market-based capitalism prospered over its central planning rival is that markets are decentralised, adaptive and flexible, and that macro-level order is emergent, not designed. Now we don’t need to recap the criticisms of markets here, I think we’re both on the same page with regard to the fact the emergent order is one that reflects purchasing power and not human need, so countries export grain for cattle consumption while people starve etc. However, there is a lesson in terms of flexibility and emergent order.

It seems to me a single annual plan, however participatorily arrived at is no more flexible than those of central planners, perhaps less so since mass participation in amending it would take much longer than diktat. In contrast I would suggest that production is oriented on a 'pull' basis responding to consumption, producing in response to what is consumed according to the maximum output from the desired, socially agreed working day. If demand outstrips supply in one area, extra workers and/or raw materials can be requested from others.

To mediate any scarcity, priority sectors could be drawn up by various participatory means (such as federations of councils), and rotating/elected recallable delegate committees could handle the minutiae. So for instance you’d expect basic physiological needs to be high priority, and luxury goods to be low priority, with a whole spectrum of other goods arrayed somewhere in the middle. In this manner, the total social plan would be emergent and flexible, and subject to democratic amendment by means of adjusting the order of priority sectors/goods.

Remunerating Effort and Sacrifice
Following the advocacy of credit unions and co-operatives/’participatory businesses’, this is the second unfortunate reprise of 19th century politics. Way back in 1865, Karl Marx wrote of the trade unions of his day “instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” Even if one thinks Marx is archaic, this would be even more true of his conservative opponents.

Communism is about reducing effort and sacrifice not raising them to fundamental principles as a sort of secular protestant work ethic. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice is based on the same assumptions of human behaviour as neoclassical economics (that as price reaches 0, demand increases exponentially), which are demonstrably false (there are some interesting anthropological studies to this effect, as well as the everyday experience that if tea and coffee is free at work we don’t all overdose on caffeine, or all become hypochondriacs when there’s free universal healthcare etc).

Wages, however ‘fair’ are a form of rationing, which is itself a response to scarcity. There are two ways to tackle scarcity, which naturally complement one another. Firstly, the rational reorganisation of production to meet human need eliminates the wasteful production of built-to-fail commodities and introduces efficiencies close to impossible under atomised market relations (such as district heating vs household combi-boilers, decentralised renewable energy production networks, urban planning oriented more towards social community living and public mass transit, not private cars etc). This reduces scarcity. However, we can’t bank on eliminating it, so some form of rationing would then be required.

The question then becomes why retain ‘fair’ wage-rationing, considered conservative a century-and-a-half ago? We would probably agree that access to having your basic physiological needs met should be pretty unconditional, and that everyone should have access to sufficient food, housing, healthcare etc. There is no reason for these things to be scarce, for example already there’s enough food production capacity in the world to prevent famine, but hunger persists for lack of purchasing power. And if a given healthcare treatment were scarce, we surely wouldn't allocate it to the highest bidder.

The question of scarcity would arise with more ‘intermediate’ and luxury goods. There are a myriad of ways this scarcity could be managed, each with their own pros and cons. You could simply have first come, first served allocation. This would probably be sufficient for most goods, since production organised on a pull basis would increase accordingly at the expense of less socially prioritised goods. You could allocate everyone an equal share, but this creates the potential for black markets as peoples needs are not all identical. You could have a lottery for luxury items.

You could also have some form of needs-testing, which could incorporate effort. So for example if the amount of flights were restricted by collective decision on ecological grounds, having relatives abroad or having worked particularly hard could give you a better claim to a flight. Of course any body deciding on these matters would need to be mandated, rotating and/or elected/recallable so as to be properly accountable. Even if it was felt with all these potential means of managing scarcity, some form of remuneration was required (I’d disagree), it would surely be for excess effort and applicable only to scarce luxury items, not made a foundational principle of society.

The final point is that without wages mediating access to consumption, why should people put any effort into producing at all? I would say that if productive activity in common is so unappealing that a significant proportion of the population abstain, then there has been no revolution in social relations. Furthermore there are plenty of organic ways to discourage slackers (from social stigma through to formal sanction) and reward those who give that bit extra to the collective (such as cooking them a meal, throwing them a party or seconding them for that scarce flight to Hawaii).

The vision you outline seems to take a very economistic view of human beings, with productive activity seen as necessarily unappealing, and pecuniary incentives the only way to make people do it or sanction those who don’t do it enough. This simply underlines the fact the abolition of work (and thus the economy) as a separate sphere of social life is paramount to any revolutionary project.

I’ve tried to be concise, but in discussing the potential future social organisation of the lives of billions, there is a lot of ground to cover. I hope I’ve highlighted the points of agreement and outlined where our differences lie, and the implications of these differences for both the society we hope to create, and the means by which we hope to create it.