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.

Geoffrey Dutton – Talking Trash

Link to an article by Geoffrey Dutton:

“Talking Trash: Recycling Inches Up, But Problems Remain”

 

Curiously absent from this otherwise excellent discussion of the present-day facts about recycling practices in the USA is why municipalities are expected to submit to a “market” rather than intervening directly in it or circumventing/modifying it (as governments often do).  Why shouldn’t municipalities create their own recycling entities and manufacturing facilities to bypass markets, or engage in more far-reaching bans (like banning all materials that are not provably and practically recyclable)?  The article simply tacitly accepts that municipal governments should look to private businesses and markets in significant ways, or simply treat private profitability as the uncrossable horizon of municipal politics, as if this is self-evident, which is precisely the goal of all political propaganda—“to annihilate an unnoticed possibility of the situation“.

Bonus links: “Recycling Crisis is Capitalist Business as Usual” and “It’s Time to Break Up Capitalism’s Love Affair With Plastic”

Robert Pfaller – The Ideology of Postmodernism is to Present All Existing Injustice as an Effect of Discrimination

Link to an interview with Robert Pfaller:

“The Ideology of Postmodernism is to Present All Existing Injustice as an Effect of Discrimination”

 

In this brief interview Pfaller does understate the problem of discrimination, in that even in a situation of complete economic equality, there can be inequalities in terms of access, prestige, or other forms of capital — Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed even has a plot point to this effect where a stupid physicist tries to distort and suppress the work of another in order to maintain and enhance his own prestige and power (even though the two are economically equal).  Still, Pfaller’s analysis is remarkably astute for being so direct and easy to understand!

Bonus links: The Trouble with Diversity and “The Politics of Identity” and “Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not”

Lance Olsen – Why All the Uproar Over the Green New Deal?

Link to an article by Lance Olsen:

“Why All the Uproar Over the Green New Deal?”

 

Bonus links: “Will A Green New Deal Save the Climate, or Save Capitalism?” and “A Class Struggle Strategy for A Green New Deal” and “The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State” and “A Green New Deal for Agriculture” and “This Historical Moment Demands Transformation of Our Institutions. The Green New Deal Won’t Do That.” (the Stan Cox quote is willfully obtuse — R. Buckminster Fuller? — but otherwise the article is good) and “How Green is the ‘Green New Deal’?” and “Modern Money Green Economics for a New Era” and “Communism, Fascism and Green Shaming” and “Politics, Democracy and Environmental Rebellion” (“Calls for a stripped down Green New Deal, one that forgoes a robust Job Guarantee, is a ploy to engineer a capital strike where millions of workers will be tossed out of their jobs to ‘prove’ that the economy requires environmental destruction and militarism.”) and “Planning the Green Tech Revolution” and The State and Revolution

John Steppling Quote

“I am struck almost daily, I think, with the fact that the worst and often most psychologically unstable and damaged people are in the positions of the most power. And the second horror is the apathy of those who are able to see this. They see it and justify to themselves their own lack of action. There is another group, the not apathetic, but the rationally fearful. And this sort of leads back full circle to the first horror. For it is not insane or irrational, at all, to fear arrest and punishment by the state. By the organs of the state. And the power of these organs of state are in existence because the people in authority are never so crazy as not to protect their own authority and power.”

John Steppling, “Algorithm Kids”

 

Bonus links: Critique of Cynical Reason and Alain Badiou Quote and Snakes in Suits

John Steppling – Population Bomb or Bomb the Population?

Link to an article by John Steppling:

“Population Bomb or Bomb the Population?”

 

Bonus links: “Ashley Dawson: Extreme Cities” (Steppling’s article essentially provides the answer to an audience question that Ashley Dawson stumbled with in this video of an otherwise excellent talk) and “Population Explosion”