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Reading for a New Economy: Two New Books Tackle Cures for Global Crisis

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Two new books, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism by Richard Wolff and Of the People, By the People: The Case for a Participatory Economy by Robin Hahnel, explore the future of our economy. Receive a copy of Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism from Truthout with a minimum contribution. Just click here.

The last two years of global upheaval have been cast largely in terms of an oppositional politics – protest, struggle and (in some cases) the toppling of long-entrenched dictatorial regimes. While any general verdict on these events is hardly clear or established, one is hard-pressed not to observe in popular discourse the recurrence of particular questions, even laments or critical assessments.

In the case of outright cataclysmic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, one increasingly detects a certain disappointment, inasmuch as the power vacuums these produced ultimately gave way to conservative, largely Islamist governments – regardless of the historically complex, colonial tailwinds at work, or what is still unfolding and unwritten in each case. With regard to uprisings that have since swept across the Mediterranean to southern Europe, and westward across the Atlantic to Chile, Mexico, the US and Canada – whether a calculated tactic of dismissal and marginalization, or a genuine confusion – the question of objectives, propositions, demands and so on persists. While the terminology is not often used, the absent referent in question is a given movement’s reconstructive vision. Further, to the extent such a vision can be discerned, there remains a secondary reference to the texture and detail of interim, transitional forms.

The various iterations within the Arab Spring have, thus far, (deliberately or under pressure from outside forces), set about reconstruction along largely familiar, neoliberal lines. Western upheavals, having not yet toppled regimes or been tasked with enacting reconstructive models, have thus far operated within a general terrain of reform. In short, the door is open to argue that the present era of global upheaval is long on opposition and resistance, short on any novel, prefigurative politics – on both sides of the Mediterranean. This is, of course, a claim not without its problems, as Occupy Wall Street’s recent foray into breathtakingly dynamic and effective community relief work post-Hurricane Sandy makes quite clear (to take just one example). Nonetheless, the extent to which such a critical evaluation offers an accurate picture of events is ultimately neither here nor there. It is, with a few exceptions, the driving narrative – one that dogs movements for substantive social transformation, still.

A certain flaw of premise here retains, however, and it is this: that the administration of social needs necessarily unfolds from a particular site. One can read this as a reverse-engineering of the rather widespread inkling most of us are raised with in the US, that democracy, freedom and so on are fine and well – even vital such that we would take up arms to defend them – except at the sites of production – the sites from which the fulfillment of many social needs meaningfully begins. It is a truism so tender that we often (rather conspicuously) lack vocabulary with which to discuss it, much less contest it. Consequently, much recuperative effort has been thrown at discursively buffering capitalist modes of production and social organization since the global financial meltdown drew their logic – and its vulnerabilities – into something of a stark relief.

A number of books are appearing of late to underscore that relief. Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism accomplishes a number of impressive feats for such a relatively short work, and does so with such seeming ease that it’s hard to believe such effectiveness hasn’t been exacted more frequently in other, prior anti-capitalist writing.

A leading socialist economist in the US, with strong ties to the Occupy movement, Wolff counts himself among a number of scholars of Marxism given to what he refers to as “Surplus Analysis.” Whereas many conventional readings of Marx have privileged analysis of ownership or distribution, Wolff takes surplus – specifically, how it is controlled, and by whom – as his point of analysis and the driving, determinative feature in economic relations. By this logic, what makes an enterprise capitalist is its internal organization; how surplus is managed, and who controls those decisions. On the surface, it seems an overly-simple and insufficient argument, but in Wolff’s contribution one finds rather convincing illustration of how the forms of organization driven by particular approaches to surplus contribute in model-specific ways to outcomes in innumerable aspects of life – from education, to childcare, to racial and gender equality, to public health, to ecological sustainability.

Beginning with the first Great Depression, Wolff details how a spectrum of forces, ranging from organized labor to revolutionary communists in the US, developed such momentum that more moderate representatives of working-class movements were able to leverage demands on President Roosevelt for what became the New Deal. In Wolff’s account, this had two key effects: It blunted working-class movements in a compromise for Roosevelt’s concessions (marginalizing revolutionary organizations), and it split the business class into two camps – those who accepted Roosevelt’s compromise to head off more radical potentialities, and those who became the modern Republican Party. The next half-century or so saw the latter in a fierce battle to roll back the gains of the New Deal, effectively culminating with the end of Fordism in the early 70s. His objective is fairly clear: Debunk the liberal romance for more regulated forms of capitalism, as the state has proven an insufficient safeguard of working-class gains.

From here, Wolff details how the sudden halt to rising wages engineered in this rollback (colliding with a number of concurrent shifts, including a dramatic decline in demand for labor with the increase in off-shoring and the mass entrance of women into the workplace) set in motion forces that gave way to the present crisis. Namely, a massive increase in consumer and mortgage debt, social deterioration as households shouldered multiple jobs and so on. Throughout, Wolff’s sticking point is the matter of surplus, and how control of it on the part of capitalists, the logic those efforts have produced at all levels of society and the state’s inability to function as anything but enabler, have and will reproduce crisis, ad infinitum.

Rather smartly, Wolff then turns his attention to what popular discourse has situated as would-be alternatives to capitalism. Given the straw-men options promptly constructed and torched by anointed experts, as the contemporary market system hit a wall in 2008, this is perhaps one of the real gifts of Wolff’s work. His claim (one long voiced by grassroots movements the world over), bolstered by the analysis of surplus, is that virtually every historical instance of state socialism/communism has, in fact, been capitalist. Unsurprisingly, he dials in on this the fulcrum on which their respective crises have turned. Throughout, his account and analysis of the last century’s economic unfolding is a fluid, pleasant and convincing read. He argues in a fashion that conveys both emphasis and flexibility, which goes a good distance in keeping the work squarely within the attention span of a popular audience. Further, while the book’s stated task is a re-organizational proposition, considerably more of it is devoted to an economic history of the last century, with specific attention to the last half-decade, through the lens of surplus analysis. On the surface, this would seem something of a weak point, but Wolff manages something of a pedagogical coup. By the time a reader reaches the point of the text where he begins laying out a reconstructive, post-capitalist vision (or any transitional strategy), the logic of his analysis is so plain and intuitive that his proposals are likely to seem self-evident. An understanding of how non-democratic approaches to surplus have yielded particular forms, relations and crises somewhat naturally implies what a democratic approach might look like.

The crux of Wolff’s reconstructive strategy is what he calls Worker Self-Directed Enterprise(s). In setting this form apart, he does a brilliant job of illustrating how ESOPs, cooperatives and other alternative (non-state) forms are ultimately inadequate to the task of elaborating anti-capitalist relations. And in so doing, he deftly avoids polemic, or the appearance of doctrinaire, dogmatic rigidity. It nonetheless feels (for a more radical reader, anyway) as though he’s branding an otherwise longstanding practice. Conspicuously, despite a rich and increasingly well-known history, no reference to anarchism or any anarchist thinkers who’ve contributed to this tradition appear anywhere in the book. No mention, even, of council communists such as Pannekoek, or even critical reference to more modern proposals, like Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s work on Participatory Economics. Vague reference is made to anonymous critics of state capitalist projects such as the USSR, but Wolff quickly moves on, seemingly to avoid acknowledging who these critics were, specifically. This reaches something of an extreme when he makes rather broad claims about there being no historical instances of anti-capitalist organization to contrast with state socialist/communist experiments, without (at least) some reference to the CNT in Spain – particularly its rather impressive development in 1936-1939 Barcelona/Catalonia. This becomes all the more difficult to swallow when he gives considerable attention to the Mondragon Cooperatives as a prime example of the model he’s proposing.

Wolff also, at times, exhibits a certain naiveté about the state, and its utility to efforts at establishing and bolstering Worker Self-Directed Enterprise(s), despite himself. At various points in the text, he seems rather candid about the role of the State, and even goes so far as to suggest that the sort of secondary, reverberative effect democratizing surplus would have in society more broadly would eventually accomplish the withering away of the State predicted by Marx. Thus, his occasional strategic propositions about legislative support for and incentives for Worker Self-Directed Enterprise(s) feel like desperate, not-terribly-sincere attempts to close modest gaps in his argument. Pragmatically, they seem like gifts to his critics.

These notwithstanding, the overall effect of his reconstructive vision (and the manner by which he argues it) is the joining of two generally disparate things: an analysis and vision broadly familiar to anarchists and anti-authoritarian anti-capitalists, and a palatability and accessibility to popular audiences. It’s an unlikely and often elusive pairing. The result is invaluable. Rarely has it been accomplished so well, certainly not so readably. Further, his propositions feel much less micro-managing or prescriptive than has often been typical of anti-capitalist literature. There’s a refreshing, humble reverence for the human dynamism of authentic democratic practice. It’s quite apparent Wolff takes as a given that people experimenting with these forms will produce insights and innovations impossible to anticipate. Indeed, another world is possible, but its possibility holds ample space for imagination.

Under such conditions, the technical illustration – the proverbial reboot, even – of something like Participatory Economics offers something quite vital, even where it is not altogether new. Amidst widespread struggle the world over, we’re reading it with new eyes, effectively. Participatory Economics, or ParEcon, has been an attempt to propose economic organization beyond the poles of the market and central planning, with an emphasis on democracy and self-management. One of its chief architects, Robin Hahnel, has recently offered something of a re-examination of its various aspects through his work, Of the People, By the People.

In terms of content, there’s nothing new in Of the People. One encounters a cursory but adequate parsing out of foundational economic concepts to market, centrally planned and participatory economic models, as well as the staple features of ParEcon – from its particular logic of incentive/remuneration, to its insistence on diverse job complexes, to worker and consumer councils (and their relationship to each other), to participatory templates for education, development and investment. All of these are, by and large, laid out clearly, and concisely – which makes the text an appropriately brief (and thus not intimidating) intervention in popular conversation.

But beyond a brief here-to-there postscript, it’s all territory well-worn by both Hahnel and his former co-author, Michael Albert. And this is, I think, a major drag on ParEcon’s ability to gain traction with broad audiences, or provoke the conversations necessary for sustained relevance. While far more detailed and thorough than most competing anti-capitalist visions, ParEcon lacks vitality inasmuch as it does not seem to evolve or adapt. This, despite competing propositions that have proliferated in the last decade, with the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of “full communism!” in everything from radical discourse to internet memes. Here and there throughout the text, Hahnel responds to particular critiques, and alludes to (in particular) anarchist debates about ParEcon’s various propositions, but seemingly only to shore up and insist upon the durability of claims he and Albert have made many times since the early 90s.

That said, this doesn’t necessarily strike a critical blow to the utility of the text. While much of what Hahnel lays out often feels overly-prescriptive, hypothetical and even micro-managing, one must take into account that what he’s proposing is not something interim – as is the case with, say, Wolff’s reflections on Worker Self-Directed Enterprise. ParEcon is not an interim strategy; it is a utopian proposition, fully flared to illustrate the entirety of social production and distribution, driven by a different set of priorities. In this sense, it functions best as less roadmap, more weathervane. Regardless if one embraces its technicality as practicable or sufficiently reflexive, it nonetheless opens necessary conversations and goes some distance in clarifying how new aspirations might shape actual organization. Just in providing a framework for that intellectual exercise, ParEcon remains fairly unrivaled, and thus necessary.

The text does, however, suffer in one way that seems standard for ParEcon, generally: It is often quite boring. Hahnel gets away with it, on account of brevity, but in a number of places, particular principles could’ve benefitted from being explored in conversation with the literature of economics, more generally. Lacking this, the book can read like the script to an infomercial, at times. Beyond serving as a classroom text through which the reader is likely to be guided by supplementary instruction, odds are it will be read by people with little or no background in the discipline; and while Hahnel’s prose is keenly accessible and warm, it’s wanting of more than his own personal explanation of a given principle. This, if only because his prose sometimes accumulates to a point of feeling cumbersome, even while remaining clear.

Both Wolff and Hahnel have valiantly responded to the conspicuous lack of rigorous approaches to re-building social organization in opposition to capitalist forms. The open (and critical) question is whether movements will mount a companion offensive, investing long-term structural projects with the values that have brought people into the streets.

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