Introduction to the theory and practice of self-management.

Submitted by Ivysyn on February 26, 2019

Anarchists advocate not only a self-managed society, but a self-managed movement to achieve it. Why? What does "self-management" even mean? Firstly, self-management is a synonym for "self-organization". It means that administrative powers are shared among each person within a given association. Specialized positions are allotted by the group based on merit and given no powers of control over others. Power is vested in the collective with no one person holding power over others. Nobody is given orders, instead, everyone decides using their full intellectual capacity.

This sets off alarm bells for many people in a society where pretty much every complex institution is organized from the top down. The economy consists of wealth and production and distribution processes owned and controlled by a tiny group of the very rich. When most people go to work they have a boss who tells them how to work and what to work on. While our society has collectively enforced cultural norms there is also a long list of "laws" put into place and enforced by powerful officials and the bodies of hierarchically organized individuals that use organized violence to enforce them. Even many of our collectively enforced social norms empower certain groups over others, whites over people of color, men over women, cisgender people over trans/gender-nonconforming people, straight people over homosexuals, the able bodied over the disabled, and the mentally "healthy" over the mentally ill. Our society is a series of boss, worker relations. Even those with authority over many of us, such as managers at a factory, office, or store, are subordinated to those with authority over them such as higher level managers and ultimately share holders.

This means that most of us have been conditioned to accept that society runs on institutionalized orders and order taking. To many people a society where nobody takes orders an everyone decides sounds like a fantasy. Even leftists who proclaim they want equality and self-determination see a self-managed movement, or even society, as a pipe dream. Many of them prefer to play the game of "realism" where leftist movements and social visions are made possible through the existing society's leadership from above. There are tons of leftists who believe in electing politicians, constructing political parties of professional revolutionary leaders, and taking control of the most top down institution in history, the state, to implement their goals. Lets look at a few common objections to self-management from both leftists and non-leftists.

Non-Leftist Objections

The most common argument against self-management is that there is no reason to trust the common person with the management of society. People are thieves, murderers, war makers, liars, selfish, and lazy. How could they possibly come together to smoothly run society? It's true that people have these traits and that in fact all people technically have the capacity to display them. This objection, however, ignores that many people don't display these characteristics in major ways. Most of us attempt to be good people and have a positive impact on our communities. The reason people even take up revolutionary politics in the first place is because they want to make the world a better place.

Many people do in fact display these socially destructive tenancies in major ways, however the society they live in overtly pressures them to do so. Since the most well off in our society are the very rich and powerful people are given the option of stepping on others to become rich and powerful, or of being destitute and oppressed themselves. This isn't to excuse this behavior, or to say that in a self-managed society everyone will be completely compassionate and moral. Rather, it's to say that one can't argue that people are too amoral to organize society collectively by referencing a society which rewards amorality and punishes compassion. In that same vein, as Peter Kropotkin points out in "Are We Good Enough", those that run our society are people just like us. They are not ordained with compassion and morality by god, they are not fundamentally any different from the rest of us. In fact they are usually the most amoral and anti-social people given that such a disposition and such acts are rewarded by our society. Politicians start war after war while large companies fund and benefit from them. Police use excessive force and kill the innocent, judges throw people in cages, or order them killed by the state, states repress social movements for justice, so on and so forth. Clearly there is no basis to show that people are too amoral to run things collectively.

Another objection to self-management is the argument from competence. We need educated people to organize things rather than the broad rabble. It's extremely presumptuous to say that most people are not qualified to make decisions that affect them. I think workers and communities are much more qualified to make decisions about how production is carried out, because they are the ones who have to carry it out and consume the product. This objection clearly comes from a place of elitism rather than objective observation of reality.

Imagine of the millions of impoverished people the world over got to decide what to do with the wealth produced in their communities, poverty would be made history. Another objection is the "free market" objection. Full self-management of society would mean the elimination of economic competition and impersonal market exchange in favor of coordinated planning of the production and distribution processes. People who believe in economic doctrines of capitalism object that this would mean bureaucratic planning by a central body which would lead to inefficiency and authoritarianism. Central planning is blamed for the failures of the USSR and other communist party regimes. The economist Ludwig Von Mises even wrote and essay arguing that planning in place of market price signals would lack the ability to make necessary economic calculations and thus the planned economy will inevitably fail. There are a few things which must be said in reply to this objection.

1. The communist party regimes were not total economic failures. An industrial revolution with far reaching economic growth was carried out in the Soviet Union during the Great Depression. The communist party regimes generally used their state compelled economies to develop agricultural societies without large commercial economies, or even modern nation states, into world powers. China and Russia would not be where they are now without their communist party regimes.

2. Communist party regimes were/are not "centrally planned" in the way that most people think. The state bureaucrats did not have the final say on economic matters. State firms still needed to be financially solvent through producing, selling, and buying for and on the market. The "central plan" organized by the state was simply a mechanism for ensuring this financial solvency.

3. Planning exists in literally any society so capitalism doesn't escape it. Managers and share-holders decide policy in capitalist firms. The market itself requires a division of labor where those with commodities, means of production, and money set prices, decide what to produce and how to produce it, and decide who to sell it to.

4. Centralist bureaucracies organizing everything isn't really direct and effective planning because decisions are made by a few officials for the whole public. In a self-managed society the whole public makes the decisions that effect them among themselves, i.e. the most direct and effective planning.

Markets, despite being seen as"free" compel one produce for exchange. You can only satisfy your needs through exchanging money for the items that fulfill them. This is why there are millions of people in capitalist society who go without basic necessities because they can't afford them. "Competition" is how the market privileges those who already own means of production, commodities, and money. These things should be eliminated in a humane and rational society with complete democratization of production and distribution.

Leftist Objections

Many leftists who proclaim a desire for a free and equal society nevertheless reject self-management. The most common of these objections is that the broad workers don't have a revolutionary understanding of the world (revolutionary, or class consciousness) and thus need specific individuals trained in revolutionary ideology to instill this consciousness in them. The prominent leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin held this belief, thus arguing that the working masses the world over will only achieve "trade union" consciousness by themselves and can only attain revolutionary consciousness through the guidance of Marxist intellectuals from "the propertied classes".1 This argument fails in that the vast majority of revolutionaries have not been intellectuals of the "propertied classes", but rather everyday working people. They achieved their revolutionary consciousness through involvement in struggles for social justice and their innate interests as workers to end their own exploitation at the hands of capital. Individuals only ever come to any conclusions through their own life experiences. Any teacher knows that if the pupil doesn't want to learn through their own initiative, then they simply won't learn. "You can lead a horse to water, but not make em' drink". You can instill revolutionary values and analysis from "without", in Lenin's terms. People have to arrive at these positions for themselves and revolutionaries can only work with them to provide assistance in this regard. Revolutionary consciousness is achieved through self-activity of the oppressed, i.e. self-management.

Many leftists who want to eliminate the market through planning of production object to self-management on the basis of that planning requires centralization of production under one authority. They effectively agree with believers in "free markets" that planning cant happen on any other basis than from above. Influential 19th century Marxist Karl Kautsky essentially makes the argument for soviet style planning before the existence of the Bolsheviks, or the Soviet Union in the last of his three part series of essays on the state:

If commodity production [production of things to be sold] is removed and in its place is put the production of use values, then, as in the family or the Indian commune, also all labour branches must again be united, brought under a higher authority.........The free society will be a federation of nations and not of groups or communes; whose production will be left neither to free choice nor to the spontaneous formation of groups, nor even to sheer force of social attraction; instead, production will be placed under the direction of a well-organised administration.2
The heads of state in the USSR believed that they were carrying out this rational planning to meet social needs through the plan implemented by the state which controlled the whole economy. To retread some territory from above; top down planning falls short of self-managed planning. Instead of the producers and consumers decided what is produced and how it is produced a group of officials far removed from their situation does so. This decreases efficiency and erects a class structure of planners and non-planners ultimately defeating the leftist goal of a free and equal society. Even the goal of meeting people's needs will be defeated by such a centralist set up. The planners will have to compel the producers to work for them rather than produce to meet their needs. They will be non-laborers that extract the surplus produced by the laborers for themselves.

Many revolutionaries who actually took power never even had a conscious objection to self-management. They saw themselves as the principle agent for enacting revolutionary change so naturally they were the ones to take power and implement changes from above. Any challenge to their power from below was thus obviously a counterrevolutionary effort by reactionary saboteurs. Workers who resisted state policy in communist party regimes were labelled "counterrevolutionary", "bourgeois", "rightest", and other variations for this reason. What these revolutionaries turned rulers never considered, and then had to openly deny once in power, is that having a group of actors at the top of society who institute policy from without requires the existence of power structures that give these policy makers control of production, the social product, and coercive institutions of the state such as the army, the bureaucracy, and the police. The goal of a free and equal society is thus lost.

Why We Need Self-Management

Our society is built upon the misery of the vast majority of us. For thousands of years a small group of people have controlled the organization of society and ensured that we grind our bodies down producing to sustain them. It is said that in modern capitalism we have power through making choices as consumers and voting for our representatives. Even if to some degree we can choose what we "consume", we have no choice, but to be "consumers". We have to get jobs, to make money, to buy what we need to survive from the same institutions we work for. The politicians we elect are 1; bought out by very rich individuals, the people who's companies we work for, and 2; make the fundamental decisions for us. They decide whether we go to war, what the minimum wage will be, whether prisons are run for profit, whether we all will have access to healthcare regardless of ability to pay, what amount of environmental destruction is allowed for industry, whether excessive force by the police is punished effectively, who goes to jail for what, and on and on and on. We have no input in any of these decisions besides voting for the people who do make them based only on what they tell us they will do. We urgently need a society where we decide what goes on. We should decide how justice is administered, how production is carried out and what it produces, what to do with the product of production, how communities are organized, how and what infrastructure is built, ect. ect. This is a self-managed society.

How To Implement Self-Management

If these arguments for self-management have been convincing you are likely now asking "ok, but how do we create a self-managed society, what can I do?". A self-managed society can naturally only be achieved through a self-managed movement. This movement must be the product of the masses of people, in capitalist society, the working class. We are the only ones who have a direct interest in creating a self-managed society since we are the powerless who are dictated to by the powerful decision makers and the only ones who numerically have the strength to defeat the power institutions holding this society together such as the police, military, and bureaucracy. This movement must be international because we want to free all people and societies. We want to create a global, self-managing human community and we can not win isolated from the rest of the world. To built this movement you must act in your everyday life, as soon as possible. Such actions can include writing articles like this one, talking to the people in your life about the social situation and your belief in self-management, studying to be aware of our current situation and it's needs such as reading articles like this, convincing people in your community and workplace to take direct action against their corporate and state institutions to make the powers that be hear your voice on issues that effect you. You can create organizations that agitate for self-management such as militant labor unions. You can get involved with such organizations that already exist such as Workers' Solidarity Alliance in the USA. Together, we can create a world worth living in!


1.“We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.”-What is To Be Done, Lenin

2. The Free Society, Karl Kautsky


The Economics Of Freedom, Solidarity Federation

The Economy Of Freedom, Vadim Damier

State-Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management, Buick and Crump