libcom.org responds

Mark, thanks for your response.

Again there seems to be a mixture of points of agreement, genuine political differences and simple misunderstandings (which may be for lack of clarity on my part). Obviously I’ll focus on the differences and misunderstandings, which may give the impression we have less in common than we in fact do. It will probably be worth recapping our points of agreement at some point, precisely to contextualize the differences and avoid such a skewed perception. For now though to aid clarity, I’ll try and address the points one at a time in the same order you have.

Vision and strategy, ends and means
It’s true that your opening statement didn’t make reference to the PPS strategies on your website. However, the neat separation of ‘vision’ and ‘strategy’ is precisely one of the ‘important, perhaps crucial differences’ in this debate – as you correctly note. I mentioned the PPS strategies to point out the pitfalls of fetishising ‘participation’ and ‘self-management’ per se. That is to say I mentioned them to give a concrete example to back up criticisms of your vision that might otherwise have appeared quite abstract.

I’m glad you see some merits in these criticisms; they are intended constructively and out of a desire to contribute to effective anti-capitalist practice. In fact if you’re attracted to the idea of mass assemblies as a means to co-ordinate struggles, I’d like to extend an invitation to share a pint (or three!) and discuss strategies for realising this vision, as there may well be scope for practical co-operation. However, when you write “your statement seems to suggest that your vision will emerge from your strategy”, I think you misunderstand what I mean by ‘the end is made of means.’

We do have a vision of a classless, stateless, non-mercantile society without money, commodity production and exchange and work as a separate activity, guided by the maxim ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’ We believe that only certain means can create this end, and that these means (‘strategy’ in your parlance) therefore form a part of our vision. As this is a discussion of our respective ‘visions for the UK economy’ – with no specification of post-capitalism – we think this more immediate vision is a necessary part of the debate (indeed we have strategies to realise our more immediate vision of mass assemblies, confirming that they are indeed a ‘vision’ in your terminology).

So we do have a vision in your sense of the word – a vision that extends from the present to the future. What we do think is likely to grow out of means is not vision, but the specific details of its implementation. For example, councils formed to co-ordinate a revolutionary struggle may also begin to co-ordinate and reorganise production as workplaces are seized, as well as deciding on the appropriate decision-making procedures for example.

We can make suggestions as to how such a society might work, and indeed we are doing so in the course of this debate. But these are no blueprint, merely an exposition of possibility. We think it unlikely that would-be political ‘thinkers’ such as ourselves can anticipate all the details of a future society – no society has ever been designed in such a way in advance (indeed the desire to do so is another characteristic of 19th century socialism, and the utopian strand in particular).

Necessity is the mother of all invention, so while we can offer a guiding vision and some speculation as to how it could work, the details will need to be filled in by the self-organisation of millions, whose collective genius far exceeds that of any individual or group of intellectuals. This is not a cop out – as I say we do make suggestions as to how a libertarian communist society could be organised – but an informed humility.

Holism and materialism
Another point you make is to juxtapose your 'complimentary holism' to 'historical materialism.' Now if you're referring to the dogmatic, 2nd International Marxism with its crude economic determinism, we join you in rejecting it. However, our approach is historical, in that we seek to draw lessons from past struggles and ideas. And it is also materialist, in the sense it sees all phenomena as consisting of material interactions, including ideas, which even as they influence the material world are seen as a product, or rather an aspect of it. Philosophically speaking, materialism is a monist philosophy as it sees only the material world existing at an ontological level (as opposed to mind-body dualism etc). However, it appears the monism you refer to is the privileging of one sphere of human action over all others. This is merits some discussion.

We do place class analysis and the accumulation imperative as central to our understanding of capitalism and how to abolish it. But this is not (to use your words) a "before the facts" a priori assertion, but an a posteriori one; that is one arising from rational, critical enquiry into social phenomenon. So when we try to understand the persistence of starvation and malnutrition in a world of calorie surplus, we cannot but note the impact of export-led growth policies that see countries export grain to feed cattle to export to relatively affluent markets while the populations of the exporting countries go hungry. When we try and understand the world's unswerving course towards catastrophic climate change despite scientific consensus as to the causes and the severity of the consequences, we cannot but conclude that the capitalist imperative to 'grow or die' over-rides all else, perhaps even human life on earth.

When we look at things like social and urban geography, urbanisation and the global spread of shanty towns for example cannot be understood without looking at factors of economic development, that is the spread of capitalist social relations into the countryside, turning peasants into landless workers, many of whom are forced to migrate to the cities to scrape out a living. If one considers the family, the decline of the traditional patriarchal nuclear family in the developed economies over the past four decades mirrors a shift from an economy based on the work of male breadwinners in factories to one based on an increasingly casualised, mixed-sex workforce in the service sector. Cause and effect is not immediately apparent, correlation doesn't equal causation, but yet it requires us to take note and account for it. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James wrote an influential pamphlet on how the roles of housewives and the patriarchal family are bound up with factory discipline, drawing heavily on the experiences of housewives themselves.1

Now none of these phenomena can be reduced to the economy, still less do we dogmatically assert so. But this underlines a further point of importance: capital as a class system is a social relation, not merely an economic one. It shapes society, and to discuss capital and class is not to reduce society to the economy, but rather to understand the ways in which this vampire-like relation, sucking life out of the living comes to shape society in its interests, and against ours. So when we talk about capitalism and class struggle, we are not just talking about the economy and workplace disputes respectively, but society as a whole, and the struggles that take place in society between the dispossessed and those who represent the interests of capital .

Social ownership, and loaded jargon
You point out how communism is a loaded term with many negative connotations. This is certainly true, and why we prefix ourselves as libertarian communists, even though communism has always referred to a free, stateless society (even to someone as far from our politics as Lenin, though once a head of state he kinda dropped that objective). As a general rule we try to avoid loaded political jargon altogether in outward-looking media we produce (such as the newswire section of our website, or the Tea Break dispute bulletin we’ve been involved in producing2).

In debates such as this however, where both participants and readers will have a degree of political interest already - and we have ample chance to explain our meaning in plain English - we will more readily use such terms and try and reclaim them somewhat. That said, coining new terms can work too, although while you have no adverse meaning, you also have to create the positive meanings from scratch too. So while 'social stewardship' could be a useful term in the right context, there's no guarantee its meaning will remain untainted. If we’re successful in any way, our enemies have a powerful mass media at their disposal and little interest in fairly and accurately representing our ideas, so any words used by a powerful workers movement, however 'pure' they start out will likely have their meanings distorted at some point. Such distortion is an occupational hazard of social change.

As an example, Murray Bookchin at one stage began using the word 'communitarianism' to describe his locally managed/federated vision of communism. Unfortunately this term also happens to be a central plank of the New Labour project, describing a situation where local funding is split between competing nationally/religious based 'community leaders'. In fact this usage predates Bookchin's, and it seems quite feasible that one of the three main parties or a think tank might claim 'social stewardship' to describe, for example, the offloading of critical local government services to charities (a quick google suggests the phrase already occupies the think tank lexicon). You're right to point out the problems with loaded jargon, and we don't tend to go around gleefully declaring ourselves communists for this reason - at least without explaining ourselves - preferring instead to focus on the concrete things we advocate (self-organisation, direct action, solidarity, rank-and-file control of struggles through mass assemblies etc...). Such concrete propositions are harder to misunderstand or misrepresent, though they're not immune to the above processes either.

Self-management
I think our differences here are precisely that you have a specific vision of a kind of weighted-by-effectedness direct democracy, whereas we take a more pluralist view that there are many means to make decisions democratically, and what’s best in one scenario may not be best in another. The problem with what you’re suggesting is how to go about determining exactly how effected people are by a decision and weighting votes accordingly. This is a non-trivial task to say the least! Just consider what does ‘effected’ actually mean, objectively? Is someone who strongly objects to alcohol consumption more effected by a decision to open a bar than the future staff and patrons who could always serve or consume booze somewhere else? And what about unforeseen consequences where someone denied a say turns out to be massively effected?

Even if ‘effectedness’ can be quantified (no mean feat), the problem remains that weighting votes accordingly is non-trivial and explicitly involves disenfranchisement. This could easily undermine solidarity if people feel they’ve been denied a proper say – which they almost certainly will, it being impossible to please everyone. At least with one person, one vote direct democracy there’s a sense amongst minorities that everyone’s had their say and they may well be in the majority next time. But yes, this could be problematic if a decision really only effects a small sub-set of a council for example. This is why we’re wary of being too prescriptive.

It may be that people who are not so effected by decisions tend to stay away from discussions and votes on them anyway, precisely because they’re not effected by the outcome. If this was the case one-person, one-vote direct democracy may suffice much of the time as a sort of self-regulating weighting according to ‘effectedness’. If it doesn’t, more formal mechanisms may be needed. The idea of weighting according to ‘effectedness’ might be a possibility, but the not inconsiderable drawbacks listed above need to be taken into consideration. Our preference is for the simplest workable mechanisms, rather than prescribing incredibly complex weighted voting systems as the default.

Balanced job complexes
I think we are agreed on the principle that there should be no hierarchical division of labour and that any socially necessary menial tasks should be distributed in an egalitarian manner. We have some problems with the specific means advocated to achieve this – peer-ratings of effort/empowerment etc, which we think respectively are corrosive of solidarity, and take no account of the fact that one person might really enjoy a task generally considered menial while others may despise a task considered empowering. However, as to the basic principle there seems to be agreement, certainly.

I address the question of the ‘abolition of work’ more fully below under the discussion of ‘remuneration for effort and sacrifice.’ Needless to say if we are talking ultimate visions of a future society, we think any vision that does not propose the abolition of work is thoroughly unambitious! (So we are not misunderstood to be saying everyone will sit around all day playing guitars and singing kumbaya, this should be read in conjunction with the fuller explanation below).

Participatory planning – push or pull?
We do want there to be rational, social planning of production, but we do not believe this can work at the level of annual quotas. This is problematic even at the level of a single factory, let alone total global output. Production to quotas is what’s known as ‘push production’ building to a plan and ‘pushing’ this output into stockpiles whether it is being consumed or not. This would also have the problem that there would be an incentive for productivity improvements to be kept in-firm so that quotas could be met – and income earned – more easily. The logic of exchange, however fair carries with it this kind of atomising tendency that works against solidarity. This point is developed below with relation to remuneration.

In contrast, we propose ‘pull production’, which means production is in response to consumption; as safety stocks are consumed this triggers production orders to replenish them, ‘pulling’ goods through the supply chain. As you note, this is not the invisible hand of the market, not least because there is no money, prices or exchange. Our criticism of central planning is not simply that it excludes the majority from input into the plan (although this criticism is correct, as far as it goes), but that the whole concept of rationally planning quotas for something as dynamic as a society of billions is fundamentally flawed, both practically and epistemologically.

Consequently, we see rational social planning taking place though the setting of priority sectors and goods/services, from essential through to luxury. The exact production volumes are then determined locally in response to consumption, with either/or allocation of resources determined by the relative priority of the industries, goods or services in question. In this way macro-order in terms of actual production volumes is emergent and not designed, although it will emerge according to the priorities of the socially decided plan (unlike the emergent order of markets, which simply reflects purchasing power and what it is profitable to produce, not what is needed, or the emergent order of biological evolution, which reflects nothing but reproductive fitness).

The means by which we think this process of social planning should happen are very similar to yours, by means of council structures with mandated, recallable or rotating boards/delegate councils dealing with resource allocation decisions according to the social plan’s priorities. There may be other ways this could be done incorporating technology (like everyone being able to access a database to update their individual preferences, automatically updating the social plan). However such a large-scale database would be unprecedented, and in any case there are probably benefits to face-to-face discussions in councils rather than atomised individual choices. We’re open minded to better means, but a council structure seems a good point of departure.

Remunerating effort and sacrifice
You write “if you and I both have the same job at the same workplace and I work longer or harder than you then I get more credit for consumption. I think that this is a fair criteria for remuneration and if advocating such a criteria makes me a conservative then so be it – although I have to say that I don’t recall any conservatives advocating remuneration for effort and sacrifice.” I would beg to differ, for instance…

“The Conservatives understand that – as important as promoting equality is - fairness is about much more. It means ensuring fair rules, rewarding hard work and ensuring fair opportunities for all.” 3

The ideology of meritocracy is fundamentally conservative and goes against the practice of solidarity. It does this by individualizing people and pitting them against each other in ‘fair’ competition. Everyone gets what they deserve, every man for himself. You say you didn’t really understand our criticisms - thanks for being honest about that rather than arguing at crossed purposes. This may reflect a lack of clarity on my part, or simply the unfamiliarity of libertarian communist ideas. Perhaps a bit of both. I’ll try to clarify now.

The first problem is that ‘effort and sacrifice’ aren’t valid measures for reward on account of people's different abilities - women being pregnant possibly, disabled people (nearly 10 million in the UK), ill people or temporarily injured people, etc. Not to mention normal stuff like some being stronger, taller, quick with numbers, etc. Now parecon attempts to address this by peer-effort ratings, everyone filling out a form of some kind on their workmates, rating how much effort people have put in despite their natural talents or disabilities. Aside from the fact this could make for an atmosphere of suspicion rather than solidarity, this introduces further problems of its own.

For instance how does one distinguish between a gifted slacker and a slightly dim grafter? People could also get more pay for less work by saying they are dyslexic for example, or dyspraxic. But how would you know if it was true? Do you give everyone mandatory medicals and psychological examinations? Psychometric testing? Remuneration for effort and sacrifice builds in incentives to lie and cheat, as individuals can better themselves by foul means as well as fair. The potential solutions to this (mandatory testing etc) just create another layer of unnecessary technocratic tasks more concerned with monitoring workers than meeting human needs.

But there is also a deeper problem. I would argue that parecon’s fixation with measure (of effort, sacrifice, aptitudes, disabilities…) is itself a product of capitalist society; that is of a society ruled by value, by the drive to minimize socially necessary labour time (i.e. to constantly modernize, automate, impose a division of labour that reduces productive activity to repetitive work etc).

For those things which we enjoy most in life – friendship, love, play – the concept of measure is absurd or even obscene. Who would think to measure their friends, lovers or those they have a kick about with in the park on a scale of one to ten? Who would wish to be so measured? Economists perhaps, but the concept strikes us as absurd because the fixation with measure comes from the world of work, where time is money.

Instead of generalizing work, wage labour and measure ‘fairly’ across the whole of society, we seek the opposite movement; a generalization of human activity that is fulfilling in its own right, negating the need for the incentives or sanctions of a wage system. (The assumption such rewards and sanctions are necessary, nay, foundational aspects of a future society is what I mean by an ‘economistic view of human beings.’ It seems to presume Homo economicus, not people capable of producing collectively to meet their needs without wage incentives, and furthermore enjoying it too!).

This generalization of activity beyond measure is what we mean by the abolition of work and of the economy as a separate sphere of social life. The ultimate vision is to eliminate work as a separate category of human activity by making productive activity fulfilling in its own right. So for instance we’d use technology not just to increase productivity but to reduce effort, the working day etc, while production would be a more social affair and directly and transparently serve social needs. The abolition of work, not its democratization is the goal.

Furthermore a society that makes reward for effort and sacrifice a foundational principle provides no incentive to reduce effort and sacrifice. Much like today, workers would do well to keep labour-saving innovations to themselves in order to maximize their rewards (since they’d lose pay if they reveled they’d discovered a way to do the same tasks with less effort). For instance, if I did X tasks and it earned me Y credit for living, I wouldn't want to see my standard of living drop merely because I (or someone else) had invented a new way of doing the task more easily. By contrast, we would see the reduction of effort and sacrifice, alongside ecological sustainability as the driving forces of development under libertarian communism (i.e. concrete manifestations of ‘need’ in the maxim ‘from each according to ability…’).

A century ago the sociologist Max Weber argued that the protestant work ethic of effort and sacrifice represented ‘the spirit of capitalism.’ We can see this spirit reflected in the meritocratic ideology of most mainstream politicians (like the Conservatives quoted above), and in the founding myth of American capitalism, the dream of rags to riches opportunity. Unfortunately, this spirit also seems to animate parecon. Instead of seeking the abolition of the working class, it seeks its generalization. It seeks the emancipation of the spirit of capitalism from the limits imposed on it by capitalist society: generalized wage labour for all, but where effort and sacrifice will be fairly rewarded in a way impossible under capitalism as we know it. An American dream for the post-Seattle generation.