Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Competent critics. Useless for anything else.

Lenin (*snigger*) is talking about the whole problem of collective action, and the primacy of the market in it's claim to incentivise us all only by greed. There's quite a lot of it is very good stuff there - a very fluent explanation of the wastefulness and inconsistencies of market economics and it's illusions about the lack of planning involved.

The fluency of the diagnosis (and, as a summary, I thought it was genuinely impressive) is contrasted dramatically by the fantasy that is offered as a response:

"It is because of the fact that planning has been confined to individual units of capital, and conducted in the interests of a minority ruling class, that socialist planning has been proposed as a corrective. It involves, not the complete suppression of markets, but their active supercession. Markets are to be subordinated to imperatives arrived at democratically and implemented democratically. And because the limitations of representative democracy in the liberal capitalist state are obvious, because it can all too easily assume the regnant functions of capital (often simply by hiring capitalist managers and placing them in charge of recently nationalised institutions), socialist planning requires a different kind of polity. It has been called "workers' democracy" because it takes planning from the boardroom to the shop floor - elected workers' councils, deliberating under the advice of technical advisers who were previously subordinate to capital, take decisions in place of cabals of appointed executives and shareholders. Moreover, democratic organs built in each particular workplace are aggregated into local, regional and national structures, in which delegates are subject to instant recall. In such a scenario, there is a direct and continuous line of authority that exerts itself from the bottom up rather than the top down. For this reason, it has also been called 'direct democracy'."

It's a demand for universal role-playing done in an industrial context that is no longer recognisable. And then the kicker:

"It is impossible to imagine such a transformation, though simple and obviously just, taking place in a normal political situation. It is just as impossible to see it happening unless based on a powerful experience of solidarity and collective action. As a start, then, the experience of grassroots democracy would need to be routinised in workplaces across the country, in order to offset the pressures of competition, careerism and atomisation. Such is one of the many uses of trade unionism and rank-and-file organisation. The collective defense of jobs and living conditions against the inevitable attempts to force us to bear the costs of this crisis can be the basis for establishing such solidarity. Defying the logic of capital and the priorities of those who presently rule may be one crucial step in preparing us unruly natives for authentic self-government."

Note: "Normal political situation"? Then note 'impossible'. Then marvel at the energy that goes into this whole futile position. This explains a lot of the negativity of oppositional politics. The criticism makes sense as far as it goes. Its authors (and this is a collaborative effort, believe me) have often devoted a great deal of time to perfecting it because there was no point in developing the response to the problem beyond the few airy-fairy sweeping bits of idealism about workers councils.

This fluency of criticism precludes an involvement in the kind of experiments in collective action that are required to actually make things work. For all of the criticism about representative democracy, it is a good deal less granular and tricky to make work that the kind of dispersed direct-democracy model that is advocated here - something that it seems will just drop into place, as long as the political situation isn't normal.

With so little attention paid to the details of how co-ops (for example) can work outside a narrow band of well-trodden partnership models, we're left with a series of generalised offerings that all have get-outs - ones that can be explained by some sort of betrayal or other. Essential pre-conditions that can never be met. So we have....

  • competition (what if people *are* competitive?)
  • careerism (ditto)
  • atomisation (has there been no reaction to oppressive 'community' or parochialism in recent years?)
We're offered ...

  • trade unionism (presumably the current bloody-awful bureaucratic blend of brotherhood will be scrapped beforehand?)
  • rank-and-file organisation (a traditional example of socialist cant. It reminds me of that gag about people who use the word 'community' liberally - they don't live in communities)
It's a bizarre post that points to a bizarre ideology. A determination to advocate something that can never happen in the sure knowledge that there will always be a get-out - a betrayer of some sort to blame. It's like the libertarians that argue for a rip-roaring free-market within a representative democracy. They know that their bluff will never be called.

I'd take the far-left seriously if it ever got involved in any kind of attempt to model workplace democracy, rank-and-file organisation or collective action. But I've never seen any evidence of this kind of hand-dirtying.

And it may sound like a cheap shot, but the hissy opportunistic and incompetent politics tells you everything you need to know about this perspective. These people want the world to be run by workers councils, and they couldn't arrange to make a round of sandwiches without tumbling into some nasty spat, inspired by microscopic differences of 'analysis' on global matters that they aren't equipped to deal with in the first place. It's an example of misdirection writ large.

Q: Have you an idea about how any form collective action can be improved somewhere nearby?
A: No. But I've got a fucking long essay about the impact of imperialism in somewhere you've never heard of - will that do instead?

Socialists have rarely achieved anything approximating to socialism by promoting socialist solutions. Promoting democratic solutions - ones based on a representative model of democracy - have, on the other hand, worked wonders, bringing huge material improvements to workers all over Western Europe over the past 60 years. In the UK, its architects were more often than not liberal democrats (Keynes Beveridge, Wilson, Jenkins). So why won't socialists get their hands dirty by experimenting around effective co-op models (for example), understanding deliberative democracy or making representation work?

Because it's not as easy - that's why. Grandstanding may get you laid for a while, but the SWP (and it's variations) never last long, never make a dent, and just waste everyone's time.

As Johnny Caspar put it, "yez fancy pants, all of yez"

(Cross-posted over at The Trots)


Paul said...

Interesting. I've been engaging, somewhat more charitably about what's on offer but also seeking clarity on what real socialist struggle look like, with Dave over at Though Cowards Flinch. I agree that it can all to easily look like lots of analysis/not much action, but to Dave's credit - while he believes in the need for workers' councils in the long run -he is trying to work through practically and intellectually what action/campaigning needs to happen along the way within the context of representative democracy (e.g. with his CLP).

And to be a little bit fair to Lenin and his mates - though I admit it's harder than it is with Dave because there's less obvious commitment to actually doing anything - the practicality of workers' councils is raised in the comments.

lenin said...

I don't have a particular comment on the arguments raised here at the moment. But I will just point out that the post was actually written by one person, me, late on a Sunday evening, and thus was not a "collaborative effort" as you confidently assert.

CharlieMcMenamin said...

Sort of. I agree that the Left - and not just the Trotskyist Left either - has,far too often, waved away the problem of the proper relationship between direct/workplace democracy and the absolutely necessary continuation and deepening of representational democracy. But some interesting thought is going on in nooks and crannies all over the place on this subject. I am attracted to the emerging parecom and parepol movements (participatory economics and participatory politics) and some of the more serious ultra-Leftists are looking again at actual previous experiences in terms of forms of workers control.

Actually, the thing that took my breathe away in Lenin's piece was not his (fairly traditional) Marxist-Leninist counter posing of direct and representational democracy, but the airey way he waved away the problem of scarcity as one created by a market economy. Sure, capitalism does develop 'false' needs - any one coming outside for a smoke? - but accepting this is a whole world away from denying that scarcity exists and therefore some form of prioritisation system for allocating resources is necessary. You can't abolish markets merely by declaring they have no function: you have to have a workable scheme for carrying out that function in a better way.

Paulie said...


I've no doubt that one person typed it, but the analysis is well-honed over years with all of the summary fluency of a party line. That's your problem - the criticism is so fluent that the inadequacy of your response is thrown into sharp releif. No-one can beleive that anything is missing in the quality of prose.

It's like reading a two-hander - the first half written by a grown up, the second half written by a child. Sorry to be so blunt, but I can't think of a kinder way of saying this - your post absolutely sums up the inadequacy of your own brand of political thinking. You have nothing coherent to offer by way of solutions.

cian said...

The SWP are hardly representative of the hard left. Trotskyists yes, but there's a whole range of other positions, some of which are grappling quite hard with these problems (Parecon being one, though it sounds pretty hellish to me. I don't like meetings).

As for running companies using worker's councils. It has happened at various times, just not in the UK. There were factories quite successfully run along those lines during the early days of the Russian Revolution, before they were smashed by the Communist party for being a political rival (which tells you all you need to know about the real Lenin). There were variants in Spain during the civil war, and today you will find similar operations in Italy, Spain and South America (possibly also Africa, but economics in Africa is not as we know it, which is why so much of Development Economics is so detached from reality) and of course Argentina. It can be a very successful model, but it normally has problems accessing capital, as well as the general suspicion of the authorities (political and business).

You can also see ways in which such companies might be constructed in the ways that companies like Toyota operate. Autonomous teams tend to be more flexible and efficient that Taylorisation - but its hard to create that kind of structure in a top down managerial system (one reason why Toyota's techniques haven't translated very well, perhaps), whereas it would seem like a much more natural structure for a more autonomously run company.

mikeovswinton said...

Interesting stuff Paulie, yet again. The ghost at the feast in the stuff by "Lenin" is of course that the word Party isn't mentioned once. You may have cut bits with it in, but even so...

Just in case anyone is seriously attracted to Parecon, you may want to google David (I think) Schweickart's critique, which to Michael Albert's credit is on the parecon webpage. It is called "Nonsense on stilts". In fact there is a sort of debate between Albert and Schweickart that raises a lot of interesting points on both sides.

You still ain't specific about workers and consumers co-ops, but at least they are both now in the same Co-operative movement in the UK. I was at a Co-op members meeting last saturday and some of the points you make about direct/representative democracy came up in a practical way.

Paulie said...


I'm not avoiding the issue about co-ops. I really don't know. I helped to set up a worker co-op tech company about seven years ago and it worked really well for a about three years. But it happened in a vacuum - the big questions we were asking ourselves found no echo anywhere - not least on the left where you would expect one.

How do you balance ownership and control? How do you delegate decisionmaking? How do you reward initiative... etc.

Consumer co-ops, credit unions, mutuals, partnership and so on, all have very antiquated doctrines that underpin them and none of them are really growing - this is what the left should be for, and it's a discussion that no-one seems to be bothered to have because it is, instead, obsessed with fictional court narratives, anti-imperialism and gesture politics.

Paulie said...

Sorry Cian, I meant to reply (I did but blogger ate it I think?)

I'm very interested in participatory economics and various sorts of particpatory budgeting - but only as an advisory exercise at the moment.

I don't understand why the left in general isn't absolutly obsessed by this stuff, but that's just me all over I suppose.

Paul said...


I'm clearly not as obsessed as you wih 'all this stuff' but I did read quite an interesting article by Ian Bache and Phil Catney (Sheffield University) where they sought to claim that, right under our noses in 'urban regeneration' there are emerging examples of what they call 'embryonic associationalism' which draw on quite old Labour(ist) tradtions of guid socialism. Many on the left would jump straight down my throat at the merest suggestion that guidl socialist set ups might be a bit like workers' councils, but it might just be that in terms of day to day process there'd be similarities.

I'm not sure I quite buy the overall argument, as I still tend to see the associationalist stuff as cover for increased centrality of control on regeneration spend, but it is quite an interesting article.

It's 'Bache I and Catney P (2008)Embryonic Associationalism: New Labour and Urban Governance, Public Administration, Vol 86/2, pp411-428. I can email a copy of you're really keen.

Tom said...

"Q: Have you an idea about how any form collective action can be improved somewhere nearby?
A: No. But I've got a fucking long essay about the impact of imperialism in somewhere you've never heard of - will that do instead?"

Perfect summary. It's fringe student union politics.