ParEcon Questions & Answers

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Why not Socialism as a Vision?

cWhy look for something entirely new? Why not just advocate socialism?

Socialism is a conundrum. On the one in people who use the term mean it to connote values. For example, the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg who wrote: “Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering.” The values that people calling themselves socialist typically pursue are justice, equity, solidarity, and workers controlling their own lives.

On the other hand people who use the term socialism mean it to connote institutions. The institutions that people calling themselves socialist typically pursue, if they have any institutional commitments at all, that is, are those that characterize societies which in the past have been socialist Including public or state ownership of economic assets, remuneration according to output, and markets or central planning for allocation.

The problem is that the values socialists pursue and the institutions socialists pursue are mutually contradictory. The values have merit. The values are what caused so many people to call themselves socialist over the course of the past two centuries. The institutions, however, belie the values. The institutions, that is, do not promote the values but instead promote virtually opposite outcome..
There is another direction from which people come at the term socialism. They mean by the term an economy in which there is not class rule of some by others. This is consistent with the good values mentioned above. But the institutions mentioned above are contrary to classlessness.

On the one hand, we have Bakunin saying:

“We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”

On the other hand, we have Lenin saying:

“Unquestionably, submission to the single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labor processes based on large scale machine industry…. Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labor process.”

This concept of class and classlessness requires more attention and may help us understand the conundrum that is socialism in values versus socialism in institutions..

In capitalism those who own the means of production are called the ruling class. They have most of the wealth. They have most of the power. Socialists are socialist in the hope of removing capitalists from the equation of economic life. Socialists typically see in capitalism, beneath owners, workers. They say their vision, called socialism, is a vision in the interests of workers. They say their vision, called socialism, means to remove capitalist from above workers. More, we can see that their stated values are consistent with that aim. But the institutions of socialism that socialists who advocate institutions at all seek to implement, are inconsistent with that aim.

If socialists are anticapitalist, if socialists seek to remove capitalists from the economic equation, can socialists be for anything other than the working class? The answer, rarely acknowledged much less explored, is, yes, they can. There is another class socialists can be for. Between labor and capital there is a third centrally important class. This third class is not owners of means of production. But nor is this third class workers.

Call this third class, the coordinator class. It is defined by having a relative monopoly on empowering labor. Were workers do overwhelmingly rote an obedient tasks, members of the coordinator class do a significant percentage of empowering tasks. The coordinators’ labor conveys to them skills and awareness, initiative and confidence, all critical to participating in effective decision-making. What they do gives coordinator class members access to the levers of daily decision making power. It gives them overarching insights into production. It prepares them to have opinions and conveys to them the skills to assert their opinions. In contrast, working-class labor conveys to workers only exhaustion. It tends to deaden and stultify workers. It robs them of initiative. It destroys confidence. It leaves them unable, even uninterested, and certainly too exhausted to participate in effective decision-making. Listen to John Lennon for the pathos and pain, and potential resistance, embodied in these class relations…:

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

There’s room at the top they are telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be
If you want to be a hero well just follow me
If you want to be a hero well just follow me

Where the capitalist class gains power from holding a monopoly on productive property, the coordinator class gains its lesser but still very substantial power from holding a monopoly on empowering work. While socialists of all kinds insightfully and sincerely reject a monopoly on productive property, the institutions socialists seek not only do not reject a monopoly on empowering work, they promote it.

Socialism is anticapitalist. But socialism, as an institutional alternative to capitalism, is not in fact pro-classlessness. Socialism, as an institutional vision, is coordinatorist. Every instance of the institutional implementation of socialism, and virtually every seriously developed socialist vision, and virtually all socialist program, consistently presume the continued existence of a coordinator class above that rules working-class below.

Socialism is an economic vision. That is certainly true. And socialism is anticapitalist. That is also true. But socialism not as a list of values, which are fine – but as a list of institutions – is not pro-classlessness. It is, instead, coordinatorist. And in preserving class division and class rule, it falls way short of the goal we in these pages advocate.

Pete Townsend of the Who was and is no serious leftist, and his motives in the song Won’t Get Fooled Again are at least suspect…but consider:

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!


Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

We need something different, not a new boss, in place of the old boss.

That said, it is also true that for most people who call themselves socialist, or who advocate what they call libertarian socialism, or classless socialism, or twenty first century socialism, what they want is no more the old socialist institutions than what we want. They too don’t want a new boss in place of the old. They too want classlessness. With them, our difference is largely semantic, not substantive. They think retaining the label socialism retains continuity with those who have gone before desiring the same values they and we desire. We agree that that is a good thing to do, a true thing to do, but we think that the label “socialist” conveys that only to people who already agree about such matters. To everyone else it convey allegiance to old socialist institutions, which means to coordinatorism – the rule of the coordinator class – and since we don’t advocate that at all, we choose a new label.


But what about market socialism, what about centrally planned socialism? I see the above applies, but you can take each specifically?

Market socialism is the widely used name for a system that utilizes markets, a hierarchical or corporate division of labor, remuneration according to output, and either social, public, or state ownership of means of production.

Market socialism, in our view, improves on capitalism by eliminating private ownership and thus the capitalist class. But in market socialism we see, instead, that the coordinator class rises in stature and power, utilizing its relative monopoly on intellectual labor and on decision-making bearing on their own work and the work of their subordinates to attain a ruling position. Capitalists are gone and thus the most significant factor leading to income differential is gone, but there is still class division and class rule. There is still the alienation, misallocation, and immoral bases for remuneration intrinsic to markets, and there is still a division of labor that relegates most actors to greater tedium than warranted, reserving for a relative few greater power and reward.

One can imagine a range of variations in such economies, of course. The balance of power between coordinators and workers could shift. If workers accrued more power, they could enact structural reforms to ameliorate the ills of markets, reallocate wealth, etc. If coordinators accrued more power, they could enact the reverse. The system’s internal market dynamics promote the latter. Courageous struggle promotes the former.

Clearly, however, whatever gains over capitalism have been achieved in attaining market socialism, market socialism still is not an economy that by its intrinsic operations promotes solidarity, equity, diversity, and participatory self-management while also accomplishing economic functions efficiently. Instead, all the intrinsic ills of markets—particularly, hierarchical workplace divisions, remuneration according to output and bargaining power, distortion of personality and motives, and mispricing of goods and services, etc.—persist, while only the aggravating presence of private capital is transcended.

Is this economic system aptly called socialism? If we call it “socialism,” then the word can’t simultaneously mean rule by workers over their own labors, because that is certainly absent in this system. If we do not call this system “socialism,” then we fly in the face of popular labels and of the name for their aim chosen by the advocates of the system. The deciding factor in this tension for me, after some years of ambivalence, is that too many perfectly reasonable people associate the label “socialism” with this model and with associated centrally planned models to make trying to disentangle the label from the systems worthwhile. It seems to be more instructive and productive

1    to make clear that these systems are class-divided and coordinator-ruled,

2    to make clear how a preferred system differs from them, and

3    to leave behind the label socialism as a positive descriptor of what we desire so as to avoid guilt by association and related confusions.

And that’s why the economy we favor is called “participatory economics.”

Centrally planned socialism replaces the market allocation of market socialism with central planning. Having discussed this allocation institution we know that the result will be quite mixed. Depending on how the central planning apparatus arrives at data, and the harshness of its regime, we will have more or less authoritarianism and more or less means for planners and other intellectual workers in the coordinator class to propel their own interests over and above the interests of workers.

But however the chips fall regarding the exact balance of power and the institutional forms of a centrally planned economy, the continuation of hierarchical divisions of labor and remuneration according to power, and the imposition of even more starkly authoritarian command and associated personality structures guarantee that such a system will not deliver solidarity, diversity, equity, and participatory self-management. It will be “socialist” only by self-designation and popular usage. Nonetheless, the system will deny those doing the labor and consuming the outputs proper say in the decisions that affect their lives and proper remuneration for their efforts and sacrifices.

Next Entry: Anarchism?


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