PPS' second response

Submitted by Steven. on August 29, 2009

Hi, I hope you are enjoying this exchange as much as I am. It seems to me that there is a pattern of topics and concerns already emerging within this debate. My hope is that we can start to identify and clarify areas of agreement as well as differences of opinion.

Like you I am also conscious of repetition within our exchanges (as well as the length of each reply), so below I have replied to the parts of the discussion that seem to me to be of particular importance or relevant to your side of the debate.

Vision and Strategy:
One area where there seems to be a difference of opinion has to do with the very subject we are here to debate – vision. You state that to “separate vision … from strategy … is untenable” and I think that from your perspective that makes perfect sense. But I have a different perspective that I believe will lead to more effective organising.

You say that “as the libcom group, we do not spend much time dreaming of the future” but are instead “oriented to the here and now”. This statement makes it sound as though anyone who focuses their attention on vision doesn’t have their feet on the ground and have their head in the clouds. This, I think, might be true if that same person (or organisation) never gave serious thought to strategic considerations also. All I will say here is that advocates of participatory economics are equally serious about developing realistic strategy as we are to developing compelling vision.

You also point out that “a fully worked-out vision of the future is not a prerequisite for workers to struggle”. Here I would like to point out to you that before I stumbled across ParEcon I was already involved in social justice activities. I would also like to make it clear that I am not advocating passivity, or arguing that people should not organise unless they have first worked out a long-term vision for organising. So I agree with your statement whilst still believing that well-conceived vision is a crucial ingredient for successful workers struggle. But this, I think, is where we completely disagree.

For you “as struggle grows … vision … grows too”. Whereas I would say something like - as our vision becomes clearer and more popular, our strategy becomes more obvious and popular. The dynamic between popularised vision leading to popularly supported strategy is what generates the popular movement we are trying to build.

Whilst you do acknowledge that “having some idea of what a future society could look like can persuade others …” you obviously see the development of any clear vision as a secondary consideration - at best. This, in my opinion, is a mistake that can only weaken your overall program making it much less likely to succeed.

You state that “Ends are made of means” but then admit that “some means get us closer to what we want, others make it more remote”. Here I think you make a good argument against yourself and for the need to “spend time dreaming of the future”. In line with your point I would add that without a good understanding of where we want to get to (vision) our means (strategy) may well lead us in the wrong direction – hence the need for long term vision.

So in an attempt to clarify one of our disagreements I will argue that any serious anti-capitalist movement must have vision of a post-capitalist economy as part of its make-up. To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying that vision is more important than strategy. At PPS-UK we see Knowledge – a good understanding of how social systems work today, Vision – compelling alternative social systems, and Strategy – a realistic means of getting from where we are today (knowledge) to where we want to get to (vision) are of equal importance in the creation of an overall program for progressive social transformation. So for us, when organising campaigns, or working on media or educational projects, knowledge and strategy would be just as important as vision. Any apparent prioritisation of vision over strategy here is due to the nature of this discussion.

Race, Sex, Class …?
To be honest I already feel that this part of the debate has become so confused that I am finding it difficult to reply to your previous comment constructively. It seems that we are both making assumptions about each other’s broader theoretical frameworks that we feel are inaccurate. For example you say that “It seems to me in its haste to declare all groups equal your perspective of ‘complimentary holism’ has no place for class antagonism” which is not the case at all.

This is not to say that I don’t agree with much of what you write. For example, I also believe that, “Capitalism is a class relation, and class struggle is the only way to break out of it – by ultimately rejecting our condition as human resources and asserting ourselves as human beings”. I also agree with you when you say that, “Many groups are oppressed, but racism, sexism, etc are not essential to capitalism and demands for equality can be accommodated within it …” and that “class struggle … won’t get very far if workers are divided by race, gender etc…”

But it is in the following statements that I think our differences are to be found.

You sum-up your position as follows - “In this respect, while only class struggle can replace capitalism … it absolutely must incorporate simultaneous struggle against racial, gender etc divides.” You then state - “So while we would take issues with any notion of a ‘hierarchy of struggle’, it’s only by acting as a class where our potential revolutionary agency can be manifested, where these intra-class divisions can be negated rather than reinforced”.

Now, to my mind there is a tension here between your desire to be seen as not prioritising one form of struggle over other forms of struggle whilst at the same time prioritising class struggle. Obviously you can’t have it both ways. In my experience this tension is quite common amongst those on the revolutionary left – particularly those influenced by Marxism. On the one hand they recognise the importance of anti-racist / sexists etc… campaigns, but on the other hand they want to reduce these campaigns to class struggle which, in my opinion, overemphasises the importance of the economic sphere.

My feeling is that this tension has its origin in the limitations of historical materialism that prioritises the economic sphere and class struggle over other social spheres and forms of struggle. It was in an attempt to overcome these limitations and therefore resolve this tension that the complementary holist framework was designed. In an attempt to illustrate my point, and further clarify this debate, I will quote a paragraph from the first chapter of Robin Hahnel’s The ABC’s of Political Economy (which incidentally is a very good short introduction to complimentary holism)–

The key to understanding the importance of classes without neglecting or underestimating the importance of privileged and disadvantaged groups defined by community, kinship or political relations is to recognize that only some agents of history are economic groups, or classes. Racial, gender, and political groups can also be conscious agents working to preserve or change the status quo, which consists not only of the reigning economic relations, but the dominant gender, community, and political relations as well. Pre-Mandela South African society is a useful case to consider. Of course the economy generated privileged and exploited classes – capitalists and workers, landowners and tenants, etc. South African patriarchal gender relations also disadvantaged women compared to men, and undemocratic political institutions empowered a minority and disenfranchised most citizens. But the most important social relations, from which the system derived its name, apartheid, were rules for classifying citizens into specific communities – whites, coloured, blacks – and defining different rights and obligations for people according to their community status. The community relations of apartheid created oppressor and oppressed racial community groups who play the principle roles in the social struggle to preserve or overthrow the status quo in South Africa. This perspective need not deny that classes, or gender groups for that matter, played significant roles as well. But a social theory recognizes all spheres of social life, and understands that privileged and disadvantaged groups can emerge from any of these areas where the burdens and benefits of social cooperation are not distributed equally, can help us avoid neglecting important agents of history, and help us understand why not all forms of oppression will be redressed by a social revolution in one sphere of social life alone – as important as that change maybe.

Bipolar V’s Three Class Analysis / Us and Them:
Another area of disagreement which is related to the above discussion on vision and strategy is our differences of opinion over class. In response to my criticism of your two-class analysis you say that you are “not describing a two-class system, but a bipolar one.” You then go on to explain what you mean by this. As part of this explanation you recap on what capitalism is, stating “At the one end, those with nothing to sell but their capacity to work and nothing to lose but their chains. At the other, those with the capital to hire workers to expand their capital.” This, you say “establishes two poles of a spectrum.”

Now, as a sideline, I don’t think that it is accurate to say that the working class in the 21 Century “have nothing to lose but their chains”. During the 19th and 20th Century organised labour won some very important reforms, often requiring great personal sacrifice, and we should not forget this. But returning to your main point regarding your class analysis, I’m confused. This is because there still only seems to be two classes on your spectrum and I don’t see how adding the word “spectrum” makes any difference to my initial criticism. Personally when I think of economic classes I tend to think in terms of a power pyramid but I am happy to consider class on a spectrum. My point is that I would locate 3 classes along it - all of which can be clearly distinguished from one another and all of which have their own class interests.

You do acknowledge that “it is true that on this spectrum, there are those who are hired by capitalists to manage their capital, but own no capital themselves.” You also say that “This is not to say that you cannot describe bosses who don’t own capital as distinct from those that do. Clearly there is a distinction.” But then you go on to say “I would argue whether we theorise this as a class distinction or a division of labour within those who personify capital is of secondary importance to the fact this takes place within a bipolar social relation and the us and them nature of struggle this implies.”

In my opinion to demote coordinator class-consciousness to secondary importance is a big mistake. You agree that we should “theorise the conditions in which we find ourselves in light of past failures” but “don’t think this requires a third class”. For me the point is simple, but very important. If there are only two classes (the working class and the capitalist class) then a revolution that replaces capitalist economics must replace it with some form of classless economics. The problem here is that history has shown us that we can have successful anti-capitalist revolutions that do not result in classless economies being established. If there are only two classes, how can this be?

However, if in modern economies there are three classes (the working class, the capitalist class, and the coordinator class) a successful anti-capitalist revolution may have two possible outcomes – the establishment by the working class of some sort of classless economic system or the establishment by the professional-managerial class of a coordinator economy (as during the Russian Revolution for example). All three possible economic systems have distinct features that reflect equally distinct class interests.

This three-class analysis has obvious ramifications regarding anti-capitalist vision and strategy that, in my opinion, we cannot afford to ignore. So, for example, when we are developing vision for a classless economy we not only need to be conscious of power relationships regarding ownership but also power relationships regarding decision-making authority, the monopolisation of empowering tasks, mean by which goods and services are allocated etc. Likewise, when we are developing strategy for a classless economy it not only needs to be ant-capitalist but also anti-coordinatorist – this is my reason for rejecting democratic centralism and Marxist-Leninist ideology.

In response to such claims you say that “this overlooks the fact that many in the 20th Century workers movement – particularly anarchists – argued against the idea that the state or any form of representation could abolish capitalism.” You also state that “more significantly it ignores that what happened in Russia in 1917 wasn’t an unforeseen side-effect of workers relying on ‘coordinators’, but a conscious policy of state capitalism pursued by Bolsheviks, the consequences of which were broadly predicted by anarchists, who had argued such an approach would just replace many capitalists with one – the state – not replace capitalist social relations with communist ones.” Now, putting aside what seems to me to be an inaccuracy of describing the Bolshevik system as “capitalist” (which to my mind illustrates the limitations of your two class analysis very nicely), your points regarding my “overlooking” and “ignoring” anarchist insights concerning the state and Leninist ideology simply are not true. In fact the notion of the coordinator class and coordinator economics has its roots in this same left-libertarian tradition you talk about. In the very first book published on participatory economics the authors discuss “The Origins of Coordinatorism” saying that “Few commentators today have anything nice to say about Stalin, but the problems of Eastern bloc coordinatorism and political authoritarianism began much earlier.” They continue saying that “Leon Trotsky, a famous creator of the first coordinator economic system, said that the social rule of workers over society “is expressed … not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered.” That is, Trotsky felt it would be fine for the Bolsheviks to leave the usual factory hierarchy in place … ” Similarly they say “Lenin evidenced his own coordinator orientation when he argued: “It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management”.” The authors also refer to Chomsky who they point out “also notes that “particularly since 1917, Marxism – or more accurately, Marxism-Leninism – has become, as Bakunin predicted, the ideology of a ‘new class’ of revolutionary intelligentsia who exploit popular revolutionary struggle”.” Chomsky continues his point as follows – “this two-pronged ideological assault … has dealt a severe blow to libertarian socialist currents that once had considerable vitality…”

I hope that these few quotes from “Looking Forward – participatory economics for the twenty first century” make it clear that ParEcon advocates do not overlook or ignore the lessons from history you highlighted. In fact I would argue that advocates of participatory economics have not only learnt these lessons but have also built on them. It seems to me, for example, that Bakunin’s “new class” is what we clarify as the coordinator class and that Chomsky’s “two pronged assault” is an assault by the capitalist and the coordinator class against the working class. What seems clear from all of this is that it requires a three-class analysis to understand what has gone on here, but perhaps more importantly, in order to avoid making these kinds of mistakes again it is very important that we work hard at raising coordinator class-consciousness within our organisations / movements – and not down play it as something of “secondary importance”.

To you however, “this ‘innovation’ seems to distract from the necessity and importance of class antagonism, relegating class to just another oppression and posing the anti-capitalist task as simply a question of management – by capitalists, co-ordinators or ourselves? – not social revolution.” I have to say that I don’t understand why you would think this. Firstly, because I don’t see how the identification of a third class affects the importance of class antagonism. Secondly, because you must know from what I have already said about ParEcon that I don’t see the task of anti-capitalists as “simply a question of management”. Although self-management is a core value of the ParEcon model, as a vision for a post-capitalist economy participatory economics addresses many more questions relating to economic justice than those specifically to do with workplace management – for example, ownership, remuneration, allocation, division of labour.

You also comment “We are not trying to make the same world more participatory, but to create a new one in its place.” My response to this is that the economic vision I advocate proposes alternatives to every major institutional feature of capitalism. I would therefore argue that participatory economics is about creating “a new” economy (as part of a broader struggle to create a new society) and is not just about making the existing system “more participatory”. . I would add that such fundamental changes in social organisation would have profound consequences on life in terms of how we think about ourselves and act towards each other.