Richard Wolff – Socialism and Workers’ Coops

Richard Wolff recently wrote an article “Socialism and Workers’ Coops.”  This article glosses over important points and offers, at best, an entirely vague notion of how workers’ coops fit a “socialist” conception of society.  Wolff’s article is short, but it is typical of much of his writing.

First off, he talks about “actually existing socialisms” without really pointing to any in particular.  He mentions the “1917 Soviet revolution” so he at least includes the former USSR.  So when the says “traditional socialisms” had “abandoned some limited efforts at democratizing enterprise structures relatively early and reverted to the employer-employee model of enterprise organization”  how do we know what he is referring to here?  Wolff’s article is primarily directed at a Western audience, mostly in the USA.  His stated goal is “identifying and evaluating missing elements [that] can provide today’s socialist movements with better means to surpass capitalism than earlier socialist movements had.”  OK, then what exactly is he analyzing from the historical record?  Is he, for instance, alluding to so-called “war communism” in the early USSR, which was implemented by Lenin in the face of a civil war and widespread famine in a nation of mostly peasants, largely illiterate, without significant industrialization?  Or is he referring to the way that Stalin’s rise to power resulted in the outright murder of most of the “old Bolsheviks”?  Hard to say.  Kuzbass Autonomous Colony was founded by the USSR and exists to this day.  It was the exception rather than the rule, but these points are meant to illustrate that Wolff is being so general as to allow him to make apples-to-oranges comparisons.  What lessons should the modern-day USA, with its advanced industrialized economy, massive wealth–albeit in the face of tremendous inequality and attendant widespread poverty–learn from difficult tactical decisions that Lenin made during the unique circumstances of civil war, famine and the absence of industrialization that prevailed during “war communism”? Or what lessons should the USA take from Mao’s China?  These are actually important points, because the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrialized one took place in the USA during a period of legalized chattel slavery.  Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told alludes to a connection between chattel slavery and industrialization in the USA, just as Moshe Lewin’s The Soviet Century shows how Stalin’s gulag/mek system was a crucial part of the USSR’s industrialization.  In either locale, those are circumstances of the past, but they each represent hugely different circumstances from the present (recognizing that present circumstances continue to be influenced by those historical legacies).  Wolff trades in rather empty historical generalizations here.  While he deserves credit for suggesting that there were real achievements in “actually existing socialism”, his points about what was allegedly missing might be disingenuous strawman arguments when historical conditions show that such choices were impossible (Lars Lih’s scholarship is useful here, as is the fictional work of the writer Andrey Platonov).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Wolff frames his article as being about “socialism” (he does not use the word “communism”).  But his arguments about worker coops seem rooted in anarchism, or anarcho-syndicalism.  This is significant.  Perhaps his analysis about things to “add” to socialist projects is wrong not because socialists have failed to consider them, or failed to implement them, but because communists/socialists are opposed to anarchist concepts and their political tactics.  The definitive work on on this point is of course Lenin’s The State and Revolution — the single most widely published book written in the 20th Century.  Wolff offers no engagement with any of those concepts.  In the contemporary age, Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army really presents the clearest statement of the analysis missing from Wolff’s article (and his writing and commentary in general).  Jameson cogently notes that the question of federalism is central to any utopian project (communist/socialist or otherwise).  This is precisely what Wolff fails to explain or address.  Worker coops are problematic—or perhaps a better term is limited—for a number of reasons.  Following Jameson’s question about federalism, we can ask how the various coops would be selected and organized.  Are we simply converting the existing economy to one with coops, without any clear mechanism to decide when and how to introduce new industries (and associated new coops), akin to a modern, industrialized version of an Amish society?  Should we be supporting coops in destructive industries, such as fracking or mercenary armies?  Who decides where coops (and their workers) should be located?  What if large numbers of workers all decide they want to have coops making useless products?  Or if few if any workers wish to work in industries in which chronic shortages of labor or products arise?  These are all questions of federalism.  While, no doubt, worker coops might alleviate some burdens on workers in a capitalist society, just as being in a trade union might, Wolff basically ignores problems like chauvinism—just like “states rights” is the argument of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” against federalism, coops will undoubtedly give rise to much of the same (as they have historically!).  Aside from Jameson, Staughton Lynd has also written in somewhat similar terms, quoting Victor Serge saying that anarchism is about “idealistic aspiration” but anarchist thinking is impractical and anarchists lack any answer to the question of power.  Jodi Dean is also a useful thinker here.  As François Mitterrand said upon the failure of his political program in the 1980s: “In economics, there are two solutions. Either you are a Leninist. Or you won’t change anything.”  Wolff falls in the “won’t change anything” camp, but doesn’t seem to realize it.  Now, if Wolff was instead arguing that coops merely provide a kind of temporary respite from the ravages of late capitalism, from which a meaningful revolution might be waged, that would at least get him as far as Hardt and Negri’s Emprie.  But even that is still insufficient, because it still lacks any acting upon a system of federalism from the start and therefore provides no real motivation or mechanism for the implied second revolution.  Wolff doges the question of power too much.

John Bellamy Foster – Absolute Capitalism

John Bellamy Foster:

“Absolute Capitalism”

 

It is possible to disagree with his formulation of “neoliberalism” (drawn from the unreliable Michel Foucault) and still gain insights for this analysis, including the historical overview.  Though a bit more Gramsci would boost this analysis, plus maybe a dose of Bourdieu.

Pavlina Tcherneva – MMT Is Already Helping

Link to an article by Pavlina Tcherneva:

“MMT Is Already Helping”

 

A takedown of Henwood is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, given that he is so weak on theory and is one of those insufferable centrist journalists posing as a leftist — much like Naomi Klein or Paul Mason.  But still, somebody had to write the takedown.  Sure, Henwood cites some true facts but the main point Tcherneva gets across is that Henwood is being exceptionally petty and obtuse by focusing on trivialities and individual personalities.  He is clearly engaging in a highly superficial smear job.

Bonus links: “Behind the Money Curtain: A Left Take on Taxes, Spending, and Modern Monetary Theory” and “‘Taxpayer Money’ Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)” and “Modern Money Green Economics for a New Era” and Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems (2nd Ed.) and “Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)—A Response to Henwood” (this article more or less explains why Henwood is really a “left populist” or “progressive neoliberal” who adopts the description of “socialist” only as rank opportunism)

Ellen Meiksins Wood – The Origin of Capitalism

The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

Ellen Meiksins WoodThe Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (2002)


Wood summarizes a debate among a certain subset of historians and economists about the origin of capitalism — favoring the theories of Robert Brenner.  This book is really meant as a partisan summary of a long-standing debate that she frames as now being mature and largely settled.  She lands some excellent jabs at some of the less plausible theories, like making the excellent point that critics of certain theories rely on aspects and assumptions underlying those very theories to make their criticisms. But much of her books rests on the insistence that the origins of capitalism must be explained by the rise of a specific, historically-observable economic mechanism.  She says that capitalism is really defined by dependency on a “market”, and any theory of the historical origin of capitalism must explain the rise of a market that did not previously exist.  In her own words:

“Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labour-power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where all economic actors are dependent on the market. *** Capitalism differs from other social forms because producers depend on the market for access to the means of production . . . ; while appropriators cannot rely on ‘extra-economic’ powers of appropriation by means of direct coercion . . . —but must depend on the purely ‘economic’ mechanisms of the market . . . . *** The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital.”

Mechanisms like double-entry bookkeeping are not significant enough for her to discuss in more than passing reference, despite the number of historians who have cited its importance.  This highlights Wood’s rather parochial framing of the debate about the origins of capitalism, ignoring whole swaths of seemingly important arguments.  If — like me — you are unconvinced by Wood’s definition of capitalism and the limited purview of theories of its origin she deems worthy of discussion, then you will be unmoved by much of her book.

What if a working definition of capitalism is that it is a “social construct” (or a “social relation” if you will) in which society favors the accumulation and concentration of capital in private hands?  That is to say, when a favoring of the accumulation and concentration of capital in the hands of a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) becomes “typical”.  To quote Marx and Engels making more or less the same point, “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Under this definition, specific mechanisms, like a “market”, are not central, and a patchwork of other mechanisms like double-entry bookkeeping can assume important roles too (such as by generating “profit” through the externalization of costs).  In other words, this framing places “capitalism” in a different realm of abstraction than where Wood places it, despite many similarities to the wording of her definition.  As a social construct, it is neither a purely objective fact like temperature, wavelength, etc., nor is it a purely subjective individual belief — bearing in mind that even “objective” facts are only meaningful for non-objective reasons.  Moreover, by looking at a kind of tipping point at which this social construct becomes hegemonic so that society sufficiently favors private capital accumulation to reproduce that social construct over time, it is possible to look at the issue of its origins with reference to the philosophical concept of an “event”.  In a philosophical “event”, it is a bit like old Road Runner cartoons, in which Wile E. Coyote would chase Road Runner across a gorge, running over thin air and only plummeting into the gorge when he looks down and realizes there is no longer any ground beneath his feet.  The reason for the chase in the first place is just the usual struggle for power.  Following this analogy, the origin of capitalism is the moment that a society with populations chasing after each other to get ahead looked down and decided that the old system was no longer under their feet.  In this sense, the possibility that “markets” were present before a society, collectively, decided that the old system (whatever that was) was no longer supporting its feet and it had fallen down into a market-based system is not as crucial as Wood insists because the significance and very meaning of a “market” had changed.  But, most importantly, this presents a question that is more a matter of sociology, philosophy, or political science than history, with origins in a power struggle, and Wood really had no particularly relevant expertise to answer that sort of question about the possible origins of capitalism, because these sorts of social constructs are not directly observable in the historical record.  She sticks with a dualistic framework of objective facts and subjective feelings, without recognizing social constructs as a third category.  In this sense Wood commits a scholastic fallacy, being unreflective of her own position as a privileged historian who personally gains from a theoretical framework that centers around historical analysis of “objective facts”.

These criticisms might seem curious given that Wood basically makes many astute statements about ideological hegemony in her book.  She even goes so far as to acknowledge the reproduction of ideologies.  But the problem is really that she makes such comments as passing asides, as if they are effects and symptoms of the economic mechanisms (markets) she elevates to a primary position.  In brief, her incessantly repeated tu quoque criticism that other theorists assume what they need to explain can be leveled at her as well!  She pursues a typical orthodox Marxist base/superstructure framework in which things like “markets” determine an economic base that guides and determines cultural superstructure — ironically, she might be known for objecting to that simplistic framework but here it is implicit in her analysis (in much the same way she criticizes people who hypocritically offer critiques that assume aspects of the commerce model of the origin of capitalism).  But the problem is that she is very consciously trying to denigrate by omission the great bulk of 20th Century politically left theoretical advancements in sociology, psychoanalysis and philosophy.  Her complete lack of discussion of the psychological mechanisms that link individuals to the origin and reproduction of class hierarchies in capitalism or to the distributions of power that produced and were reproduced under capitalism suggests that these things are unimportant.  It is at precisely this point that it can be said that she assumes what is really in need of explanation.  Also, her assumption that “markets” represent a neutral mechanism that explains the origins of capitalism in a way that other theories do not seems to adopt the sort of Karl Popper-like neoliberal perspective that markets are non-ideological.  This opens her to yet another tu quoque criticism.

Her emphasis on “markets” as the central feature of capitalism is also curious in a few other ways.  Isn’t the term “capitalism” a reference to social significance of “capital” and a capitalist class?  Wood would almost have us rename “capitalism” as “marketism”!  But, more deeply, the problem is that Wood puts rather too much gloss on the concept of “capital”, going so far as to appear to conflate it with wealth generally.  The so-called Cambridge Capital Controversies were an arcane dispute between economists that nonetheless refuted some of the things that Wood appears to assume.  This problem is most apparent in her analysis of the Dutch vs. English cases regarding historically competitive locales around the time of the origin of capitalism.  Her analysis is glossed at such a high level that it is difficult to see where the factual support for her “market” thesis lies, while at the same time even her skeletal description suggests that the Dutch were concentrating (non-capital) wealth rather than capital and the difference seemed to lie in the hegemony of different social constructs in those different locales.  Marx argued that in capitalism the (continued) circulation of money as an end unto itself (as opposed to mere consumption) was important.   In the Dutch case, Wood portrays the Dutch as a society concerned with accumulating wealth to support consumption, that is, breaking the cycle of circulation and thus not being capitalist under a Marxist framework.

Does all this mean “markets” don’t matter to capitalism?  Hardly.  They are clearly important to the functioning of capitalism.  But so is “commodity fetishism” and the creation of demand through advertising.  We can partly look at Wood’s thesis as (implicitly, in its framing) overly focused on the specific neoliberal form of late capitalism, with its financialization, state integration, and mature market mechanisms.  Ole Bjerg‘s Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism is a somewhat more convincing, if more theoretical, view of the role of the fantasy of “being in the market” under contemporary neoliberal capitalism.  And for that matter, Wood’s book does not address the insight of Thorstein Veblen‘s The Theory of Business Enterprise, which astutely noted how business people impose markets on everyone else but want neo-feudal monopolies for themselves.  They are happy with everyone else being subject to the arbitrary ravages of the market but want special privileges and status that spare themselves from its ravages in important ways.  This is a bit like wanting both economic and politic power for themselves and wanting everyone else to (preferably) have neither — which suggests that there is more to what Perry Anderson has argued (and less to what Brenner argued) than Wood admits.  In a way, capitalists tend to want the end of capitalism as much as any communist, they just want to see it end by reverting to some form of feudalism (with themselves as the new aristocrats, of course).  Current historical evidence even seems to support this.  Veblen’s framework also perfectly explains the Dutch vs. English cases.

Taking this critique a bit further, sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have posited that there are multiple forms of “capital”, including things like “cultural capital” (he elaborated additional types of capital over the years), that contribute to symbolic domination — a way of describing hierarchical concentration of power very analogous to market relations.  If we accept this, despite a lack of complete alignment with Marxist frameworks, then even in a communist (non-capitalist) society might there still be a “market” for certain types of capital, much like the well-known saying about a “marketplace of ideas”?  This is an intriguing question, with some examples available from the former Soviet bloc, but it is one that Wood’s framework structurally precludes, which casts some doubt on Wood’s theoretical framework.  Bourdieu also extended the analysis of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology to explain how intellectuals and professionals are the thinkers, guardians and gatekeepers of the capitalists class, showing how the bourgeoisie are subdivided into class fractions.  Wood flatly rejects this, arguing that attorneys and such are qualitatively different from the bourgeoisie.  Her comments to this effect are absurd, not to mention conclusory (once again she assumes what is in need of explanation, because “what is in need of explanation” is itself a function of ideology).

Now, the alternative working definition of capitalism mentioned here might not be correct.  But it does seem like Wood’s definition is probably wrong.  At times the book feels like it criss-crosses important concepts, mentioning them in passing but always focusing attention on other, adjacent topics that seem unimportant by comparison.  For instance, she does state that “The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital.”  But she strangely insists that this point must be proven by the appearance of a market, rather than through an analysis of social power in a sociological or political science framework.  What falls flat is very precisely her insistence that there are “purely” economic mechanisms — entirely free from the sorts of indirect power of threatened coercion that people from Leo Tolstoy (see the last chapter of The Kingdom of God Is Within You) to C. Wright Mills (see this summary of his work) have explained — that provide the only way to analyze “the basic objective of the capitalist system”.  This tacitly adopts a neoliberal conception of economics and politics.  And her analysis is quite reductionist in its focus on “markets” as the sole explanation for hegemony of the interests of a capitalist class.  Despite such handicaps, her book does still serve a useful purpose in highlighting the simplistic and even more thoroughly wrongheaded views of the origin of capitalism advanced by the boosters and cheerleaders of capitalism.  While these merits might make the book worthwhile to academics (though it is written in a tone suited more for introductory audiences), this can’t be unequivocally recommended because of questions that remain about the underlying theoretical premises.  Her normative judgments as to what theories are major and which are unworthy of discussion are unconvincing.  If she had instead presented her summary about certain debates over the origins of capitalism as partisan, rudimentary and partial rather than objective, settled and mature (in need of only follow-on confirmation and refinement of small details) her credibility would have been greatly enhanced.  Readers should, if nothing else, walk away from this book with a conviction that Wood and Brenner were wrong, and should take up an investigation of the work of Frankfurt School and post-structuralist/Althusser-inspired Marxist theorists whom she mostly tries to denigrate by refusing to recognize them.

Saker Interview with Michael Hudson on Venezuela

Link to an interview with Michael Hudson:

“Saker Interview with Michael Hudson on Venezuela”

 

Bonus links: “Trump’s Coup in Venezuela: The Full Story” and “The Siege of Venezuela and The Travails of Empire” and “Venezuela-Baiting: How Media Keep Anti-Imperialist Dissent in Check” and “Zero Percent of Elite Commentators Oppose Regime Change in Venezuela” and “Leaked: USA’s Feb 2018 Plan for Coup in Venezuela”

Gerald Coles – Education, Jobs and Capitalism

Link to an excerpt from the book Miseducating for the Global Economy: How Corporate Power Damages Education and Subverts Students’ Futures (2018) by Gerald Coles:

“Education, Jobs and Capitalism”

 

In Lars Lih‘s excellent biographical study of V.I. Lenin, he noted how Lenin’s parents were involved in education and were frustrated that the tsarist autocracy in Russia prevented education (and widespread literacy) in order to constrain the expectations of citizens, in order to maintain the extreme inequality that prevailed under tsarism.  When Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power, reforms were swiftly instituted that resulted in historically unprecedented advances in literacy and education more generally.  It was not a matter of pedagogical impediments to expanding literacy, or a lack of a notion to improve education and literacy, it was that the education system was subordinated to the maintenance of a particular socioeconomic hierarchy.  What was needed was a shift in who held power, and the ideologies of those people, and Coles’ book excerpt makes that point abundantly clear.  Capitalists simply disavow their real motivations.

 

Bonus links: “The Tech Education Con” and Pedagogy of the Oppressed and “Red Diaper Babies” and Democracy and Education and The Higher Learning in America and …And the Poor Get Prison and The Scapegoat