Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Whither the left: part 791

This probably comes under the 'restatement of core message' heading for this blog, but looking at Mike Killingnorth's whither the left post, I think that there is something of a problem with this way of addressing things.

Mike comes around to endorsing co-ops. Now I've worked in co-ops for a number of years. I helped to set one up was a director for five years before it all started to crumble. One thing I found to be almost non-existent was a debate about the scientific management of co-ops.

How is ownership distributed most effectively? How far is there a tension between 'fair' and 'effective'? How much control should ownership confer (an echo of the control by representatives v direct input into day-to-day policymaking argument that has turned into an obsession around these parts). How do you reward initiative? How do you strike the balance between being orderly and being competitive? And what about the unfraternal reality that sometimes, to survive, you have to shaft your rivals?

Brian Clough (pbuh) used to fill out his various biographies with entreaties to keep it simple. Football, he argued, was about getting the basics right. Don't obsess around the details of how you are going to take on a particular opponent. Just make sure that your players are familiar with the ball.

Make sure that you have the right configuration of players with particular characteristics. Make sure that they are happy. Don't bore people with flipcharts, videos and organograms, because every plan has to be revised upon first engagement with the enemy. Plans don't work. In short, get the basics right and keep it simple.

Before the co-op, I sold ads for a well-known lefty magazine. I used to go to the editorial meetings on a Monday morning, and it was like Groundhog Day each time. There was always a 'whither the left' feature in the pipeline, usually reacting to the shortcomings of the previous one. Each one had the usual suspects demanding the usual prescriptions. And because this was the standard fallback and filler for the title, no-one seemed prepared to state what now seems to me to be the bleedin' obvious: That we need to keep it simple.

Mike's co-op example is a case in point. Firstly, co-ops are just one form of collective action. Why endorse this particular model at all? Why can't we just endorse collective action? This is what distinguishes us from the right.

We, on the left, are in favour of collective action. The right are against it. Most of them are against it for entirely dishonest reasons - when they call themselves 'principled libertarians', you can usually see - beneath the surface - nothing more than a defence of hereditary wealth and ancient power-relations, combined with a determination to co-opt those who manage to naturally-select their way off the lower social tiers.

There is a minor disagreement on the left about how collective action should be directed. The older left tend towards the state, and the newer left (of which I hope I'm one) tend to prefer it to be organised in a much more dispersed and spontaneously directed way - with strong voluntary, local and regional structures that are capable of taking on and beating more central ones.

The beauty of this, of course, is that the left have always had this argument in their peripheral vision. We have won huge victories while no-one was looking - often with Tory governments in power. European social legislation has delivered many of organised Labour's demands - safer workplaces, a defence against discrimination (however imperfect it still may be) and so on. Bafflingly, this has often been done in the teeth of left-wing demands for EU disengagement. These are the result of the one unqualified victory that the left has unwittingly enjoyed: The triumph of post-war European representative democracy. All of those awful elites in Brussels have achieved more that the Labour Movement could ever have dreamed of.

Court politics - the Westminster Village - are not that important in all of this. The left can make it's biggest strides by having an open neutral debate on how best to promote collective action - and to act on the conclusions of that debate. For my own part, I think that the conclusion will be that we should only focus upon improving the quality of representative democracy and upon promoting decentralisation, bicameralism, a reassertion of elected officials over permanent ones, and so on. How these principles translate downwards will give the answers that anyone involved in a co-op, social enterprise, ethical business, and so on, will ever need.

Demanding particular socialistic structures is for the fairies. If anyone wants to go off and set up a co-operative, they are more than welcome. But they will find that they are working with people who have no opportunity to take part in a lively debate about collective action.

Co-ops can only really succeed if there is a consensus on this subject - and as far as I can see, the left hasn't even started talking about it properly yet. This is what the left is for. It is the only thing that the left is for.

You wouldn't think so though....


Tim Worstall said...

"and the newer left (of which I hope I'm one) tend to prefer it to be organised in a much more dispersed and spontaneously directed way"

Straight Hayek. How very "principled libertarian" of you.

Neil said...

Well you don't get much more, er, 'spontaneously directed' than UKIP...

punkscience said...

Strong work. I approve.

Reminds me of something I read about performance indices in organisations. Apparently as soon as an index is identified by the constituents of an organisation its value as an index of performance is instantly invalidated as people adapt their behaviour to elevate the index whilst compromising their true performance in appearing to perform better.

The same goes for rigidly structured national organisations (I'm referring to the 'old left' here). As soon as a structure is established that structure is used as a framework for power games and ambition which degrades the performance of the whole.

I'm not an anarchist but I strongly believe that doing things in an informal and unstructured way is the most efficient. It makes you engage with and trust individuals instead of roles.

Will said...

Worstall is an apologist for a murderous system of exploitation.

That's all you need to know.

PS. Adam Smith was a proto-socialist.

Tim Worstall said...

"Worstall is an apologist for a murderous system of exploitation."

I am? Wow!

Which one? Just so I know where to send the invoices like....

Anonymous said...

Worstall employs hackneyed "what, who, me?" rhetorical device; world yawns.


John Meredith said...

Tim W is right, you are just endorsing Hayek. It is a common misapprhension on the left that libertarians arsare somehow against collective or collaborative actions. They are not. They are just against having it enforced by the state or anyone else. Any large scale manufacture is a massively cooperative concern, for example, often involving thousands of people who will never meet each other but who have to be extremely responsive to each others needs. But all the cooperators are entering into it voluntarily and for selfish reasons, rather than being rounded up by the ministry in order to work for 'the greater good'.

The Plump said...

you are just endorsing Hayek

Not just Hayek but also Kropotkin, Bakunin, Marx, William Morris, G D H Cole, Jim Larkin etc., etc., etc. The decentralist tradition is a strong one in socialism. It would be just as logical to say that Hayek endorsed it.

Any large scale manufacture is a massively cooperative concern

And also hierarchically organised and a source of coercive power both through its internal organisation and its strategic position in the economy.

But all the cooperators are entering into it voluntarily and for selfish reasons

Yep, survival is both voluntary and a choice. I could have chosen to live in abject poverty and die young. Instead I got a job. Selfish of me wasn't it?

This is the point. Though there may be some element of choice in the type of work one does - though the choice of who gets employed is in the hands of the employer not the employee who is merely a supplicant (power again) - work itself is not voluntary. The employment relationship is not co-operative it is, as many 19th century libertarians thought, servile and submits the employee to the autocracy of the employer.

rather than being rounded up by the ministry in order to work for 'the greater good'

This is a rhetorical trick that is used far too often by libertarians. They pose a false choice between the present and some imagined and exaggerated dystopia. Of course paid employment is better than forced labour - but is it better than what Paulie advocates, patterns of ownership, control and autonomy that allows the employed to resist the coercion of the employers, whilst being overseen by a representative democracy? Make your case against the reality not some fantasy.

And finally, a quote from Hayek.

"Probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire".
Hayek, "The Road to Serfdom" p.18 U of Chicago Press 1972

Thanks to Will for sending me the quote. Yes, that Will.

John Meredith said...

"Of course paid employment is better than forced labour - but is it better than what Paulie advocates, patterns of ownership, control and autonomy that allows the employed to resist the coercion of the employers"

Not necessarily, but no libertarian would argue that it was. So long as the cooperative structures are entered into voluntarily and you are free to leave, it would be a thoroughly libertarian way of going about things. Everyone would be acting for their individual benefit but cooperating as in any other business. How long it would hold together without coercion is anyone's bet. The That was the point that Tim W was making.

mikeovswinton said...

Paulie; just seeking clarification. When you write about Co-operatives do you mean workers' or consumers' co-ops or simply both?

Paulie said...

Both and neither Mike. For the purposes of this post, I'm saying that particular models are less important than the need to understand what collective action entails in the first place.

mikeovswinton said...

OK. But just remember that there are specific problems with specific types of collective action. Some of the problems connected to workers' co-ops are irrelevant in the context of consumer co-ops and vice-versa. (And I write as a supporter, broadly, of both - but, and I guess this may be the root of your point - in the right place at the right time.)

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