by Lucien van der Walt, ASR 75
This is an edited transcript of a talk at the 11th Global Labour University Conference: “The Just Transition and the Role of Labour: Our Ecological, Social, and Economic Future,” September 28-30, 2016, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Thanks very much for having me on the panel, along with comrades Hilary Wainwright, who has been a key figure in the British feminist and socialist movement, editor of Red Pepper, Ozzi Warwick of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union in Trinidad and Tobago, and Martin Egbanubi of the Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies, Nigeria. There is quite a nice link between the different inputs, with their stress on self-activity and the immense creative potential of working class and poor people, as organizers, as rebels, and as creators of new models and ideas.
What I want to look at in this paper are the ways that we can think about the role of the self-activity of ordinary workers as a means of reshaping society, as a means of taking society in a different direction to where we are currently going. I want to open a conversation on the role and potential of unions as a force for progressive change, and about the possibilities of that change. I do not want to get into an argument about which labor and left traditions are right and which are wrong, but rather, to try to push the boundaries of what we think unions can do. And I want to do this by engaging with the core project of the most radical, yet maybe the most misunderstood of the big left traditions: syndicalism.
It is fairly obvious that the world is in a huge mess. It is fairly obvious that the mainstream political system is not delivering to ordinary people. Yet the fact is that a lot of the frustration ordinary people face, and the suffering and the insecurity that characterizes life today, is being channelled by right-wing, xenophobic and national, racial and religious fundamentalist forces.
It is in this context that we really need to open up a dialogue on the left, and to really look into the tool box of left ideas and history, the repository of the past, of painfully learned lessons and powerful approaches, to rethink ways that we can creatively take our struggles forward. Yes, we need to avoid dogma, to avoid imposing formulae without thinking about context. But we need the record of past experiences. We have to have a really rigorous discussion, but while we should not simply pour old wine into new bottles, we should also avoid throwing the toolbox away by labelling views we do not like “dogmatic” or outdated.
The Core of Syndicalism
At the heart of syndicalism is the argument that bottom-up, democratic unions, autonomous of the state and of party control, should defend and advance working class claims in the present, and at the same time develop popular technical, organizational and ideological capacities that will enable the working class as a whole, through its self-activity, to both defend and advance its power, its claims, its rights, within the capitalist framework – but also to form, through unions, the nucleus of a new social order. A new social order based on workers’ self-management, based upon a democratic planning of the economy, based upon popular power and workers’ control.
This is an “embryo hypothesis,” which is that the union structures can themselves form the basis, the nucleus, of that new social order, in order to avoid the situation which we often have, which is that working class movements hoist others into power, in the state.
This approach is one in which the self-activity of the working class is both the means of struggle, and also the aim of the struggle, for working class power. The struggle for working class power and emancipation is not something done for a moment and then outsourced to other forces, like political parties and the state, but is something developed on a daily basis through self-activity; the struggle itself is actually the core of the new social order.
Now there are a couple of general points I want to make, before I engage with some other union traditions.
Myth of the Declining Working Class
First, unions matter. Around the world there has been a very popular discourse that the trade union movement is in decline, that it represents a minority, that it is something, perhaps, that belonged to an early period of history. This argument, which is not just made by the right, but also by a surprising number on the left, is wrong. If we look at some of the available figures, the number of people involved in unions has actually increased, looking worldwide.
Underlying this is a larger process around the world, of massive proletarianization. We don’t have a clear figure of exactly how large the working class is right now – I mean the class dependent on wages but lacking control of work, so I include white collar jobs, service jobs, the unemployed, and the families of employed and unemployed workers –but we do know that, for example, there has been a demographically much larger process of proletarianization in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the last 50 years than in all of the history of the West over the last 300 years.
We also know that according to ILO’s Global Wage Report, wages are the largest single source of income for households around the world. We know that around half the global work force is in waged or salary jobs. We know that while the industrial working class fell by 5 million from 2000 to 2013 in the Western industrial countries, it has grown by 195 million in the middle-income countries alone. We know that by 2006, the majority of the world’s population was urban. And we know that while the overall agricultural population is declining, within that population the peasantry is a shrinking part, as agricultural wage labor expands.
So the working class is bigger, unions are getting bigger, and the potential for unions is growing massively.
Constructive Dialogue on the Left
Second, we really need to think about the different left traditions as a family of ideas, that comes out of a common set of struggles and a common set of concerns. The big traditions, such as Marxism, social-democracy and anarchism (including syndicalism), emerged in response to capitalism and the state. As Daniel Guérin argued, anarchism and Marxism both “drank at the same proletarian spring.” The different traditions may vary on how they tackle the problems, and we cannot claim the family has always been a happy one, but, I think, a dialogue between the different traditions is quite productive.
A constructive dialogue allows us to examine different historical experiences, the paths of ideas, different insights, and engage in a process of collective learning. This is a way of both affirming common concerns and common working class roots, but also of clarifying issues, surfacing assumptions, and revisiting important challenges, debates and moments.
I really do not think we are in a position where we should efface differences in the left; I do not think we need to be afraid of differences in the left. I do not think the old divides are irrelevant, and I do not think we are in some new era where the existing traditions are irrelevant. We have not left the 19th century: classic capitalism is back, but bigger.
Learning From the Past
I think we are all in complete agreement about rejecting the dogmatic methodology of looking at older traditions as having the answers to everything, from Karl Marx’s implied approval of polyester suits to workers’ control! But this does not mean we must abandon the traditions. We need to understand the left traditions as a resource that was and is collectively and internationally generated. Neither Marx, nor Mikhail Bakunin, Piotr Kropotkin or, for example, C.L.R. James sat in an ivory tower, and came up with these traditions. They were, rather, part of a collective process of knowledge production that has been sustained, elaborated and applied by millions and millions of people across the world over the last 150 years. If we look at this repository, this toolbox, with an open mind, we can, on the one hand, find and develop many good and useful ideas; and, also with an open mind, we must, on the other hand, draw the lessons from the past experiences.
Critical historical reflection matters. We need to be very careful not to repeat old mistakes and sow old illusions, and at the same time we also we need to recognize that a lot of what is now being called “21st century socialism” is not new and not particularly 21st century. Many of the ideas people put under this label have been around in various forms on the left since at least the 1820s! Many have been tried; very few have been very successful. It is easy enough to say, these days, that the Russian Revolution failed and draw the lesson that revolutionary dictatorship has failed.
But we also need an honest balance sheet for other proposals. For example, the idea that we can have a transition from capitalism through a massive expansion of the cooperative sector, a so-called “social” or “non-capitalist” sector, was for example, P.J. Proudhon’s position, back in the 1830s; the idea these should be sponsored by the state was argued by Louis Blanc at roughly the same time. This did not get anywhere, despite a mass base and mass support. This grand failure – rather, series of grand failures – is precisely why people like Bakunin shifted to a much more confrontational approach, of collectively seizing the means of production, instead of creating alternative means of production on the margins.
So a dialogue on the left, with our own history, and a constructive debate and reflection, can help us avoid reinventing the wheel, avoid repeating mistakes that we can avoid – and there have been huge mistakes on all sides, we need to be quite clear on that – but also allows us to look at how earlier generations grappled with challenges we imagine are new, but are anything but: mass immigration, hostile states, global capital, the absence of the so-called “standard employment relationship” – and a global division of labor that pits workers against each other.
Global Traditions, Not Western
Third and last, I want to emphasize that, just as the working class is a universal and global class, its big left political traditions – Marxism, social-democracy, and anarchism/syndicalism and others – are also global ideas and traditions. I am proceeding from the premise that we cannot really think about the world of ideas and politics and class formation in terms of unique civilizational silos, African, European, Asian and so on: we are talking, in this case, of class-based traditions, representing a global class and traditions that have been globally constituted. For example, Marxism may have begun in Germany, but was also indebted to British economics and French socialism; it has been profoundly shaped and reshaped by experiences in, for example, China, Cuba, India, Mozambique and Russia. So to present such an idea as “Eurocentric” is inaccurate and misleading. There is no simple one-way flow from the “West to the Rest,” but something else entirely going on here, part of a global labor history.
Syndicalism emerges from the broad anarchist tradition: I want to be very clear, here, that by “anarchism” I mean a working class political tradition that emerged in the First International from the 1860s, a tradition indelibly associated with figures like Bakunin and Kropotkin, a rationalist revolutionary form of libertarian socialism opposed to social and economic hierarchy and inequality, which fights for a radically democratic, global, federation of workers and community councils, based on assemblies, mandated delegates, and common ownership. It aims at putting the means of administration, coercion and production under popular control, enabling self-management, democratic planning-from-below, and production for need, not profit or power.
Freedom Requires Solidarity
The core premise is an insistence on the value of individual freedom, but also the related claim that individual freedom is only possible through cooperative, egalitarian and democratic social relations. In the genuinely communist society advocated by Bakunin, people are genuinely free in that they have both shared, equal relations to major social resources, no inequalities of class, gender, race and so on, and the real, substantive possibility of making direct, meaningful decisions in a wide range of areas of life. The fact of the matter is that you can have all of the rights that you want in a Constitution, but if you are homeless and sleep under the railway bridge, you are hardly in the same position as a railway owner.
This view – individual freedom through economic and social equality, in a society based on political pluralism – leads directly to a critique of capitalism, landlordism and the state itself, for all are seen as means of centralizing wealth and power in the hands of small ruling classes. But it also involves a critique, for example, of authoritarian family relationships, of multiple forms of social oppression by gender, empire, nation, race and hierarchy between people generally.
Thus, individual freedom requires a revolutionary reconstruction of social relations, one in which all people are guaranteed a basic means of life, one in which there is greater and every increasing freedom for individuals and the abolition of artificial and imposed inequalities. This requires, among other things, the abolition of structures like capitalism, landlordism and the state that are locked into anti-popular logics precisely because they are built upon, and express, class inequalities of power and wealth. They enable as well as require the subjugation and exploitation of the popular classes.
The state, which is always centralized, is not, from this perspective, a neutral, technical solution to governing complex societies. It is primarily a means of placing administrative and coercive power in the hands of the few, enabling these to administer these resources in a top-down chain of command, and at the expense of the popular classes.
Writers like Max Weber, who were well aware of the negative consequences of modern state power, and of how empty the claim that the people actually govern was, misunderstood this, and therefore saw state power as a necessary evil. But, for Bakunin and Kropotkin, the state was neither efficient nor essential, but a form of class rule. When we take class into account, it follows that the enemy is not everyone in the state, because state bureaucracies as such are not interest groups that overlap with classes; rather state bureaucracies are an organized apparatus of class rule, by a small number of state managers who cooperate closely with a small number of private owners, and that most people in these systems are ordinary workers. Opposing capitalism means opposing capitalists, not the workers they employ or any useful products they provide or sell; likewise, opposing states means opposing state elites, not the workers they employ nor any useful products they provide or sell.
For syndicalism and anarchism, the idea that the popular classes can play the state, or political, elite against the private capitalist or economic elite, or that we should replace the existing state elite with a new state elite, or get the state elite to merge with the private capitalist elite through massive nationalization, simply misses the fact that the state elite is part of the problem, is part of the ruling class and is driven by an anti-popular logic that is no way different, and in no way more contingent or changeable, than the anti-popular logic of the private corporations.
This means that people who manage the state are – regardless of intent, ideology, personal history, or social origins – part of an oppressing ruling class. It is not that good people are co-opted by the state because they are corrupted or do not understand the issues; it is the logic of their position at the top of the state that forces them to act in ways that are anti-popular. South Africa is a case in point: look at the once-glorious movement of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 22 years down the line, and see what it has become. It is not the first example, and will not be the last, and it cannot be blamed on a few bad apples like Jacob Zuma. It is completely typical case; there is nothing exceptional about what the ANC has become, for the story is the same with all political parties that have got state power, whether they are of the left or of the right.
Not Elections, But Counter-Power
Now the question must arise: how do you solve this problem? Electing yet another party, and hoping that this time, magically, the outcome will be different, is not reasonable.
The anarchist tradition is a diverse one, with a lot of internal debates, but the main strand, the anarchism of Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, is what I call “mass anarchism.” It argues that we need organize, from below, for an alternative society, through a pre-figurative politics of mass-based, class struggle organizing.
This means, firstly, building alternative mass organizations in struggle against the ruling class. Organizations that constitute the base of resistance, the levers of social revolution as well as the nucleus of a new, self-managed, egalitarian order. This is an approach that can be described as building popular, class-based counter power.
This involves bottom-up, democratic, mass organizations that can resist, then defeat, then surpass the ruling classes: the aim is essentially the extension of a democratic egalitarian popular project that is the complete opposite of the core, centralized, elite-run, hierarchical institutions of the state and the corporations. To extend this project across society requires a move beyond resistance, or small experiments, to enabling common ownership of, and democratic control over, all core social resources. I agree with comrade Hilary that the autonomist John Holloway is wrong to think that capitalism will “crack” through the proliferation of experiments and exits. It’s far too powerful for that; we need to warn people how dangerous the system is. We need a direction, a politics, a plan about where we are going.
As my comrades on the panel have demonstrated, ideas matter: there is nothing automatic about mass, democratic bottom-up organizing leading to a transformation of society. On the contrary, the typical pattern is that mass democratic organizations and popular struggles – despite the gains they may win and imprint on the social order – get captured; they get used as mechanisms for small elites to ride into state power, where those self-same small elites – former union leaders, national liberation heroes, one-time grassroots militants, whoever – then become part of the system, and play a role in the reconsolidation of ruling class power.
For Bakunin, without a revolutionary theory the popular classes are doomed to repeat an endless cycle of ruler replacing ruler, and exploiter replacing exploiter, as revolts against oppression generate new oppressors. Therefore, there is a need to use the democratic space within the mass organizations to make the argument for an alternative, for a critique of the present, a vision of the future and a strategy to reach it. A new “social philosophy” (Bakunin), and the real possibility of a new order and a faith in the ability of ordinary people to create it.
This project, then, of counter power requires as its twin a revolutionary project of building popular counter-culture – of counter-hegemonic struggle – so that, ideally, you have a situation where there are not only mass democratic, class-struggle movements, but those mass democratic movements are at the core of the constitution of a popular alternative worldview.
Ideas, Debate, Pluralism
Therefore we will need specific anarchist or syndicalist political organizations – not as a substitute for popular self-activity, but as a force to promote it; not as a party aiming at state power, but as a force to help push the mass organizations themselves, and so the popular classes, to take power directly.
What Bakunin wanted, for example, in the First International, was not an anarchist international, any more than he wanted a Marxist international. He wanted the First International to be a body that provided the greatest possible class-based unity, and within that framework, to have the democratic discussion, elaboration and testing of different perspectives.
This is not what happened, as the First International split between the anarchists and the Marxists in 1872, but the record is quite clear that the anarchist wing included many non-anarchists and that the Bakuninists, over the next five years, consistently tried to organize a reconciliation. This was not because the differences did not matter, but because the unity of the working class and the peasantry was paramount, because revolution required mass democratic organizations, not small political sects, and because, they believed, issues could be democratically resolved. This was at the core of their project.
Where do unions fit in here? For most mass anarchists – Bakunin and Kropotkin included – unions are an essential part of building counter-power. As mass-based organizations, based at the workplace, they are the single most important and irreplaceable means of placing means of production under popular control; as extremely resilient mass organizations that function best when overcoming divisions among workers and championing common demands –for example, around wages – and more specific demands – for example, around gender equality or immigration rights – they can be mighty levers of revolution; as formations based at the point of production, they wield enormous structural power by being able to disrupt capital accumulation and state functions.
There is obviously a complete rejection here of the idea that unions can be fundamentally incorporated into the status quo. Obviously union leaders can be corrupted and incorporated. Obviously many unions develop a bureaucracy – full-time officials and leaders – which acts as a brake on struggles and contain the seeds of betrayal. But unions themselves cannot be co-opted. They represent a fundamental contradiction within society. They cannot be bought off, and workers cannot be bought off. The very fact of unions’ existence arises from the inability of this society to meet the needs, political, economic and social, of the popular classes.
Reforms, Not Reformism
For syndicalism, you can and should win reforms – progressive changes, within the existing system – through mass democratic, class-based movements, including unions, but what is key is how we win reforms. For syndicalism and for mass anarchism generally, reforms should be won from below. This enables them to be a means of activating ordinary people, a means of developing confidence, of building organization and consciousness, a means of creating further momentum for more and escalating demands – and a means of improving people’s lives.
But, as someone said earlier, after one contradiction is resolved, another emerges. Mass anarchism insists that one victory for reforms does not solve the problem. Reforms are valuable but inadequate.
The point of syndicalism is an application of the counter-power/ counter-culture strategy in the workplace. But the ambition and scope of syndicalism also means building a union movement that is not just economistic, focused only on wages and conditions, or reformist, giving up the revolution, or only workplace-based. It involves a union movement that organizes on a wide range of issues, at work and beyond work, economic, social and political. It stresses direct action, is open to alliances with a range of popular class forces, and it is profoundly political but independent of political parties. It is popular, radical and political, but also tolerant of diversity. It is a transformative unionism that constitutes within itself the seeds of a new order within the shell of the old society.
I want to be very clear here that in the vision of syndicalism, and of the mass anarchism from which it emerged, involves the idea that unions will be political, but they will not be “political unions” in the sense that we usually mean – unions allied to parties. On the contrary, unions will simultaneously engage in economic and political activities, and in practice reject any effort to set up a division of labor where unions “do” economic issues, and parties “do” politics. The aim is overcome the gap in the working class between economic and political struggles, and help therefore block the dead end of seeking state power that parties tend to follow.
Unions and other forms of counter-power, which would take the same line, would thus replace parties in many respects, and avoid the pattern of allying to political parties to betray. Within the counter-power, let a thousand political currents bloom, and operate, but reject substitution of parties for the mass democratic organizations, and path to state power – for the state arena is an “enormous cemetery,” where the “real aspirations” and “living forces” of the masses are “slain and buried” (Bakunin).
Goodbye to the Parties
As Bakunin argued, a bourgeois-democratic state is a “thousand times” better than the most “enlightened” dictatorship, but elections are an “immense fraud” in a capitalist system: “The day after election everybody goes about his business, the people go back to toil anew, the bourgeoisie to reaping profits and political conniving.”
We continue to speak, in most of the labor and left milieu, as if the state is something different than capitalism – as if capitalism has an essential nature, where the place of power is always occupied by capital, where the dynamics of capitalism are iron laws of history – yet, despite all of our experiences, as if the state has no essential features, fusion with elites, or iron laws. We had reformist and revolutionary parties in power, we have had left social-democrats, right social-democrats, we have had radical nationalists and Marxist-Leninists; right next door to South Africa, we had a revolution under the Marxist-Leninist party, FRELIMO, in the 1960s and 1970s, in Mozambique. But every one of these state projects, without exception, saw the parties join the old elites, or form new elites. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the logic of mass organizing for the popular classes, and of self-management and democracy from below, and the logic of state and corporate rule. Setting up yet another party, or trying to fix existing parties, is a dead end. The whole approach is wrong.
“Movement Unionism” Not Enough
In closing, I want to suggest that syndicalism is not the same as “social movement unionism,” which refers to democratic unions that build alliances with other forces, and fight for democratic reforms, because while it shares these elements syndicalism rejects alliances with political parties aiming at state power, something that the quintessential social movement unions – Brazil, Korea and South Africa – all accepted.
While social movement unionism has a vague, often elusive, aim, syndicalism has a clear revolutionary project, as it aims very explicitly at a project of self-management through the unions and other organs of counter power; this is a battle that, it is very clear, unions cannot fight on the alien terrain of the state, but organized outside and against the state. It will involve organizing state workers, but it rejects the use of the courts, parliament, the official policy and corporatist machinery and the pursuit of state power.
It aims at organizational self-sufficiency and working class autonomy, including financially. I do not suggest we completely reject any external funding, for example, from other unions, even parties, but this must never be a substitute for being largely self-financing– and every care must be taken to ensure the democratic control of funds, and subordinating all funding to existing goals, rather than changing goals to get funding. Every effort must be made to keep the number of full-time posts in unions limited, paid at the wage of average workers, and subject to the strictest accountability; funds must focus on education and organizing, not investments. And every effort to use funds to build systems of patronage must meet zero tolerance.
The anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain in the 1930s had two million members, no state funding, no rich donors, had a tiny staff, yet ran thousands of worker and neighborhood centers, dozens of newspapers including the largest daily in the country, a radio station, and fought a brutal ruling class. It is absurd that there are left-wing unions in South Africa with a billion rands tied up in investment firms, while they cannot fund a decent media or education programme and chase foreign funds to keep going. Those billions should be poured into mass organizing and education. Self-sufficiency is a precondition for autonomy, and a safeguard against lazy organizing and a union bureaucracy that controls the money through centralized accounts, access to donors and a role in union investment companies.
Plans for workers’ self-management, which Hilary mentioned, like the proposals of the Vickers workers in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, are absolutely inspirational; I think we can all agree in being awed by the creative capacities of the working class, and recognize the need to extend real democratic control over production and roll back management control. But as Vickers showed, faith in the state was misplaced; despite support by the Labour Party left, like Tony Benn, no real support came from the state – and in any case, Benn favored a heavy role for the state in managing industry, which is the opposite of real democratic control over production
To fight against capitalism is also to fight against the state; to fight against social and economic inequality in society is also to build a mass democratic, class-based movement.
Unions Can Change Tracks
Finally, syndicalism rejects notions that unions automatically develop in one way or another. It rejects the pessimistic view of Robert Michels – who had been, by the way, very close to syndicalism before moving rightwards – that all unions, like other mass formations, inevitably end up undemocratic; it rejects Richard Lester’s notion that unions inevitably “mature” into bureaucratic, conservative bodies. It equally rejects the views that unions are automatically or inevitably revolutionary. They are not, and in most cases are far from it.
When I talk about the need for the working class to extend power through unions, I am not making the argument that every single union can do it; many are completely incapable of doing it; and that is precisely why we need to reform and renew the unions, through such means as rank-and-file movements. We need both ideological and organizational renewal.
In South Africa there is a major split in the unions, with the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) emerging from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), but this is, so far, basically a division of unions largely sharing the same political traditions; for many involved, it’s not a profound political break with the traditions of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress movement of the African National Congress (ANC), but an effort to rescue those from the SACP and ANC – a return to the “national-democratic” revolution project, the party form, the ideas of Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and so on
From the mass anarchist and the syndicalist perspective there is nothing automatic about mass democratic movements becoming revolutionary. There is also no pre-set trajectory in history that takes us inevitably towards socialism, there are no stages of history that are taking us anywhere, or that capitalism itself will inevitably collapse, whether we give this a 19th spin, and bet on economic crisis, or a 20th century spin and bet on imperialist wars, or a 21st century spin, and bet on ecological disaster.
It is fundamentally the self-activity of ordinary people that can switch history onto a new track, but it is fundamentally by changing ideas that people will change the track. Ideas are the driving force here. This is not an idealist conception: ideas only take root when they intersect with social formations and class interests; but it is the recognition that it is that ideas that are going to change the world, and that this is the only certainty we can have about the future.
Capitalism is quite literally killing the planet.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty. The Paris Agreement calls for limiting warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is now clear that even if the bosses succeed in this effort (and there’s little evidence that they’re trying) the results of this “success” would be catastrophic.
The world is already more than halfway to the 2.7-degree mark. At current rates of warming, we will cross this threshold sometime between 2030 and 2052. Arctic regions are warming at twice the global average, melting sea ice, enabling toxic algae blooms and sparking extreme weather events across the planet. To avoid ecological catastrophe, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and virtually eliminated by 2050. Otherwise, the IPPC forecasts a world of worsening food shortages, wildfires, massive flooding and environmental collapse. If temperatures rise to the 3.6 degree target politicians are failing to meet, the results will be far more devastating.
Animal and insect populations are already plummeting. Since 1970, the numbers of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have dropped by an average of 60 percent, according to the World Wildlife Federation. The world’s largest king penguin colony shrunk by 88 percent, more than 97 percent of the bluefin tuna that once lived in the ocean are gone. Habitat destruction, overfishing and hunting, and plundering of resources are combining with climate change to destroy the web of life upon which human society depends for clean air, water and everything else.
Insect populations are plummeting, as are the territories where they live, in what the New York Times Magazine refers to an “insect apocalypse.” The number of monarch butterflies has fallen by 90 percent in the last 20 years. A German study found that, measured by weight, the presence of flying insects in nature reserves is down by 75 percent over the last 27 years. Ornithologists report that birds that rely on insects for food are in deep trouble: eight in 10 partridges are gone from French farmlands, and half of all farmland birds in Europe disappeared over the last three decades. Earthworm populations are also collapsing, as our manufactured ecosystem loses the capacity to sustain life.
Famine and misery are everywhere on the rise. The United Nations refugee agency reports that there are more than 68.5 million refugees and displaced persons – many directly forced from their homes by climate change; others fleeing conflicts sparked by environmental devastation (and of course there are the countless victims of nationalism and repression and the routine workings of a system that values only power and profit). The World Bank predicts another 140 million climate refugees if global warming continues at its current rate.
These are not natural events. Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to the Carbon Majors Report. Scientists have been warning of the dangers for 40 years, but the capitalists and the states they control have continued their reckless despoliation of our planet. In December, several pension funds, insurers and investment firms called on governments to take action, recognizing that ecocide will, over the long term, be bad for profits.
The IPPC says avoiding this catastrophe requires transforming the world economy at a speed that has “no documented historic precedent.” It is still technically possible to slow the pace of global warming, but they acknowledge that it is politically unlikely. Why? Everyone knows that urgent action is needed, but capitalism is an economic system built on pillage and short-term thinking; as long as they are left in charge there will always be plenty of bosses eager to score a quick million no matter the long-term cost.
This ecological crisis is coupled with a social crisis that is equally urgent, if only because it is preventing us from stopping those who are murdering our planet. Outright fascists are now in government in several countries, and governments now openly flaunt their crimes. Full-scale genocide is underway in Myanmar, U.S. authorities continue caging child refugees, and several governments openly deploy death squads in the streets. Militaries are expanding as the plutocrats pursue their futile dreams of holding the desperate hordes at bay. While the wealthy have never been more prosperous, workers endure economic stagnation and decline. In 2017, United States life expectancy fell for the third straight year – relentlessly driven down by diseases of despair.
And so the bosses are looking for new ways to live with (and profit from) a ruined planet. One researcher published an entire book (the misnamed Atmosphere of Hope) calling on governments to ameliorate climate change through geo-engineering, such as polluting the atmosphere with billions of tiny metallic particles to block the sun’s rays from reaching the earth. Physicist/futurist Michio Kaku proposes massive investments in space exploration so we (more likely a handful of the rich and a cadre of servants) can escape a dying earth. In Holland, researchers are trying to create robotic bees to take over pollination once capitalism’s relentless war on the environment forces bees into extinction. In China, shortages of insect pollinators have led farmers to hire human workers to replace bees, pollinating apple blossoms by hand. Buildings and roadways are being elevated, giant seawalls proposed.
Even as the ice melts at the North and South poles, business looks to profit off the destruction. Cruise ships take advantage of open waters to bring tourists ever closer to what remains of the ice shelf. Cargo firms are running giant ships through waters once covered in ice, speeding the melting of what remains.
The bosses would have us believe that there is no alternative to barbarism – that our very survival requires that we cage our dreams and fight our fellow workers for the crumbs that remain.
In a way they’re right. If we leave the bosses and politicians in charge, we can be sure that they will continue their reign of plunder. We cannot resolve the ecological and social crisis that confronts us without ridding ourselves of those who created these conditions – and who will continue to sacrifice our future to their avarice if left in a position to do so.
What is needed is organization in our communities and in our workplaces to demand a different economy – one based not on plunder and destruction, but on sustaining us and the world we live in. We need direct action to shut down polluters, whether through blockades or strike action (including refusals to deliver supplies). We need to mobilize and campaign for a sustainable economy – renewable energy, mass transit, shorter working hours, reforestation, environmental remediation and the like. We urgently need conversations with our fellow workers in the fossil fuel industries about the need for a very rapid transition, and to invite them to develop plans to make that a reality. In short, we need to dump the bosses off our backs before they kill us all, and organize a new, sustainable society that works to meet the needs of all.
Brooke Jarvis, The Insect Apocalypse is Here, New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27, 2018.
Damian Carrington, Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds. The Guardian, Oct. 29, 2018.
George Monbiot, The Earth is in a death spiral. The Guardian, Nov. 14.
Tess Riley, Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says. The Guardian, July 10, 2017
Daniel Boffey, “Robotic bees could pollinate plants in case of insect apocalypse,” The Guardian, Oct. 9, 2018.
by Iain McKay, ASR 71/2, Fall 2017
The election of Donald Trump came as a surprise to many, given the obvious demagoguery, incoherence and authoritarianism he exhibited as a candidate. It matters little that he lost the popular vote, the fact is that enough people in specific states were willing to vote for him – and now we all have to live with the outcome. The result of decades of right-wing glorification of the wealthy, calls to run the state as a business (i.e., as a dictatorship), and the like can now be seen in all their glory. A better argument for anarchism would be hard to find.
That does not mean, of course, passively awaiting the next election as the myth of democracy would have us believe. It means resisting – and there have been promising signs of that, such as lively town-hall meetings (which raises the question, why not make them permanent and so become a power no politician can ignore?). It has also been seen in protests against the worst of Trump supporters – the KKK, neo-Nazis and the rest of the so-called “alt-right.”
That Trump could not bring himself to read a simple prepared statement and instead ad-libbed about “both sides” shows that he did not want to alienate them. Sadly, significant numbers of Republican voters likewise cannot see the difference between fascism and resisting fascism. A significant part of America has lost its moral compass.
The events in Charlottesville bring home that resisting fascism is not only necessary but also dangerous. This can be seen from the rise of fascism in Italy after the First World War, something which was never inevitable and from which lessons can be learned.
“A Preventative Counter-Revolution”
The rise of Mussolini cannot be viewed in isolation. After the end of the First World War there was a massive radicalization across Europe and the world. Union membership exploded, with strikes, demonstrations and agitation reaching massive levels. This was partly due to the war, partly to the apparent success of the Russian Revolution. Across Europe, anarchist ideas became more popular and anarcho-syndicalist unions grew in size as part of a general rise and growth of the left.
In Italy, the post-war ferment grew into a near revolution, with the rise of workers’ councils and the occupation of factories in 1920. The anarchists and syndicalists took an active, indeed, leading role in the movement as Errico Malatesta, who took part in these events, writes:
The metal workers started the movement over wage rates. It was a strike of a new kind. Instead of abandoning the factories, the idea was to remain inside without working … Throughout Italy there was a revolutionary fervour among the workers and soon the demands changed their characters. Workers thought that the moment was ripe to take possession once [and] for all the means of production. They armed for defence … and began to organise production on their own … It was the right of property abolished in fact…; it was a new regime, a new form of social life that was being ushered in. And the government stood by because it felt impotent to offer opposition. (Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas [Freedom Press, 1993], 134)
The socialists and their trade unions did not back the movement in spite of having talked of being revolutionary for decades, although groups and individuals within the party did (such as in Turin, with Antonio Gramsci taking the lead – these would later split from the Socialists and form the Italian Communist Party). Faced with the hostility of the “official” labor movement, the occupations ended after four weeks.
Unsurprisingly, the promises given by the employers and state to end the occupations were not kept and “after the factories were evacuated” the government (obviously knowing who the real threat was) “arrested the entire leadership of the USI [Italian Syndicalist Union] and UAI [Italian Anarchist Union]. The socialists … more or less ignored the persecution of the libertarians until the spring of 1921 when the aged Malatesta and other imprisoned anarchists mounted a hunger strike from their cells in Milan.” (Carl Levy, Gramsci and the Anarchists [Berg, 1999], 221-2) They were acquitted after a four-day trial.
This period of Italian history explains the growth of fascism in Italy. As Tobias Abse points out, “the rise of fascism in Italy cannot be detached from the events of the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920, that preceded it. Fascism was a preventive counter-revolution … launched as a result of the failed revolution” (“The Rise of Fascism in an Industrial City,” David Forgacs (ed.), Rethinking Italian fascism: Capitalism, populism and culture [Lawrence and Wishart, 1986], 54) The term “preventive counter-revolution” was originally coined by the anarchist Luigi Fabbri, who correctly described fascism as “the organisation and agent of the violent armed defence of the ruling class against the proletariat, which, to their mind, has become unduly demanding, united and intrusive.”
The capitalists and rich landowners backed the fascists in order to teach the working class to know their place, aided by the state. They ensured “that it was given every assistance in terms of funding and arms, turning a blind eye to its breaches of the law and, where necessary, covering its back through intervention by armed forces which, on the pretext of restoring order, would rush to the aid of the fascists wherever the latter were beginning to take a beating instead of doling one out.” (Fabbri) To quote Abse:
The aims of the Fascists and their backers amongst the industrialists and agrarians in 1921-22 were simple: to break the power of the organised workers and peasants as completely as possible, to wipe out, with the bullet and the club, not only the gains of the biennio rosso, but everything that the lower classes had gained … between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War. (54)
The fascist squads attacked and destroyed anarchist and socialist meeting places, social centers, radical presses and Camera del Lavoro (local union councils). Thousands of individuals were attacked and murdered. However, even in the dark days of fascist terror, the anarchists resisted the forces of totalitarianism:
It is no coincidence that the strongest working-class resistance to Fascism was in … towns or cities in which there was quite a strong anarchist, syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition. (Abse, 56)
The Arditi del Popolo
The anarchists participated in, and often organized sections of, the Arditi del Popolo (The People’s Shock-troops), a working-class organization devoted to the self-defense of workers’ interests. The Arditi del Popolo organized and encouraged working-class resistance to fascist squads, often defeating larger fascist forces: for example, “the total humiliation of thousands of Italo Balbo’s squadristi by a couple of hundred Arditi del Popolo backed by the inhabitants of the working class districts” in the anarchist stronghold of Parma in August 1922 (Abse, 56).
The Arditi del Popolo was the closest Italy got to the idea of a united, revolutionary working-class front against fascism, as had been suggested by Italian anarchists and syndicalists during the biennio rossa. This movement “developed along anti-bourgeois and anti-fascist lines, and was marked by the independence of its local sections.” (Red Years, Black Years: Anarchist Resistance to Fascism in Italy [ASP, 1989], 2) Rather than being just an “anti-fascist” organization, it was “not a movement in defense of ‘democracy’ in the abstract, but an essentially working-class organization devoted to the defense of the interests of industrial workers, the dockers and large numbers of artisans and craftsmen.” (Abse, 75) Unsurprisingly, the Arditi del Popolo “appear to have been strongest and most successful in areas where traditional working-class political culture was less exclusively socialist and had strong anarchist or syndicalist traditions, for example, Bari, Livorno, Parma and Rome.” (Antonio Sonnessa, “Working Class Defence Organisation, Anti-Fascist Resistance and the Arditi del Popolo in Turin, 1919-22,” European History Quarterly 33: 2 184)
However, both the socialist and communist parties withdrew from the organization. The socialists signed a “Pact of Pacification” with the fascists in August 1921. The communists “preferred to withdraw their members from the Arditi del Popolo rather than let them work with the anarchists.” (Red Years, Black Years, 17) Indeed, “[o]n the same day as the Pact was signed, Ordine Nuovo published a PCd’I [Communist Party of Italy] communication warning communists against involvement” in the Arditi del Popolo. Four days later, the Communist leadership “officially abandoned the movement. Severe disciplinary measures were threatened against those communists who continued to participate.” Thus by “the end of the first week of August 1921 the PSI, CGL and the PCd’I had officially denounced” the organization. “Only the anarchist leaders, if not always sympathetic to the programme of the [Arditi del Popolo], did not abandon the movement.” Indeed, the leading anarchist newspaper, Umanita Nova, “strongly supported” it “on the grounds it represented a popular expression of anti-fascist resistance and in defence of freedom to organise.” (Sonnessa, 195, 194)
However, in spite of the decisions by their leaders, many rank-and-file socialists and communists took part in the movement. The latter took part in open “defiance of the PCd’I leadership’s growing abandonment” of it. In Turin, for example, communists who took part in the Arditi del Polopo did so “less as communists and more as part of a wider, working-class self-identification … This dynamic was re-enforced by an important socialist and anarchist presence.” The failure of the Communist leadership to support the movement shows the bankruptcy of Bolshevik organizational forms, which were unresponsive to the needs of the popular movement. Indeed, these events show the “libertarian custom of autonomy from, and resistance to, authority was also operated against the leaders of the workers’ movement, particularly when they were held to have misunderstood the situation at grass roots level.” (Sonnessa, 200, 198, 193)
The Communist Party failed to support the popular resistance to fascism. The Communist leader Antonio Gramsci argued that “the party leadership’s attitude on the question of the Arditi del Popolo … corresponded to a need to prevent the party members from being controlled by a leadership that was not the party’s leadership.” Gramsci added that this policy “served to disqualify a mass movement which had started from below and which could instead have been exploited by us politically.” (Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 [Lawrence and Wishart, 1978], 333) While less sectarian towards the Arditi del Popolo than other Communist leaders, “[i]n common with all communist leaders, Gramsci awaited the formation of the PCd’I-led military squads.” (Sonnessa, 196) In other words, the struggle against fascism was seen by the Communist leadership as a means of gaining more members and, when the opposite was a possibility, they preferred defeat and fascism rather than risk their followers becoming influenced by anarchism.
As Abse notes, “it was the withdrawal of support by the Socialist and Communist parties at the national level that crippled” the Arditi. (74) Thus “social reformist defeatism and communist sectarianism made impossible an armed opposition that was widespread and therefore effective; and the isolated instances of popular resistance were unable to unite in a successful strategy.” And fascism could have been defeated: “Insurrections at Sarzanna, in July 1921, and at Parma, in August 1922, are examples of the correctness of the policies which the anarchists urged in action and propaganda.” (Red Years, Black Years, 2-3) Abse confirms this analysis, arguing that
[w]hat happened in Parma in August 1922 … could have happened elsewhere, if only the leadership of the Socialist and Communist parties thrown their weight behind the call of the anarchist Malatesta for a united revolutionary front against Fascism. (56)
As with libertarian calls for a united front during the near-revolutionary situation after the war, these calls were ignored.
Perhaps needless to say, the state verbally denounced the violence (on both sides, of course!) but primarily targeted those opposing the fascists as Fabbri noted:
Italian jails are filled with workers and the heaviest sentences rain down on workers who made the mistake in clashes of using violence to defend themselves from the fascists. Moreover, we have already seen the government’s stance as soon as the spontaneous initiative of the people came up with the idea of forming proletarian defence units which were dubbed the Arditi del Popolo. Outside of Rome … the mere idea of setting up Arditi del Popolo chapters has been pre-emptively stamped out in the most vigorous fashion – through bans, threats, raids and arrests.
Fabbri also indicated “the police’s class function” and how fascist attacks “happened under the very eyes of huge police, carabinieri, Royal Guard and constabulary forces who would, after some initial sham opposition, let things proceed” while “chapters of the Arditi del Popolo are broken up and its members arrested for offences against the security of the state – or is the state fascism, perhaps? – merely for their intention to offer other than passive resistance to fascist violence.” Governmental edicts “trigger[ed] the imprisonment of many more workers as supposed Arditi del Popolo, whereas no action will be taken against the fascist action squads.”
In the end, fascist violence was successful and capitalist power maintained:
The anarchists’ will and courage were not enough to counter the fascist gangs, powerfully aided with material and arms, backed by the repressive organs of the state. Anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists were decisive in some areas and in some industries, but only a similar choice of direct action on the parts of the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour [the reformist trade union] could have halted fascism. (Red Years, Black Years, 1-2)
After helping to defeat the revolution, the Marxists helped ensure the victory of fascism.
Conclusions for today
The rise of fascism confirmed Malatesta’s warning at the time of the factory occupations: “If we do not carry on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fear we now instil in the bourgeoisie.” (quoted by Abse, 66) It is not surprising that when their privileges and power were in danger, the capitalists and the landowners turned to fascism to save them. This process is a common feature in history (to list just four examples: Italy, Germany, Spain and Chile). Moreover, capitalists have always hired private goons to break strikes and unions – American capitalists being at the forefront of that.
Yet there is no mass working class revolt – nor has there been for many decades. The neo-liberal onslaught started by Carter and intensified by Reagan has been successful – labor has been defeated to a large degree and wealth has flooded upwards (rather than “trickled down”). As such, there is no real equivalent of the ruling class’s fears in the 1920s:
The anarchist Luigi Fabbri termed fascism a preventative counter-revolution; but in his essay he makes the important point that the employers, particularly in agriculture, were not so much moved by fear of a general revolution as by the erosion of their own authority and property rights which had already taken place locally: ‘The bosses felt they were no longer bosses.’ (Adrian Lyttelton, “Italian Fascism,” Fascism: A Reader’s Guide [Penguin, 1979], 91)
The rise of Trump has been somewhat driven, ironically, by those most subject to Republican policies – policies which Trump seeks to continue (under the usual rhetoric of tax reform). However, we should not stress that aspect of his support too much – he has always been more popular with the top-end of the wealth distribution. Most elements of the capitalist class seem happy enough to have the crazies in office so long as they can secure that agenda. Short-termism, perhaps, but there is no popular movement to disabuse them of such notions.
So the “alt-right” are currently not needed by the ruling class – but obviously it would be suicidal to ignore them on the hope (if that is the word!) that there is no upsurge in class struggle which would make their services more appealing to the elite. Lack of ruling class backing will not stop them from attacking black people, feminists, the left, strikers, etc. if they feel strong enough. So we need to confront them; otherwise they will be emboldened by the lack of resistance, just as the Italian fascists were. And if we confront them – even verbally – we need to be able to defend ourselves, just as the most forward-looking of the Italian left did.
Similarly, we must remember that the state is not a neutral body and will seek to defend the powers and property of the few (even if we ignore any personal sympathies individual law enforcement officers have with the right). Any appeal to the state to pass laws restricting freedom of assembly, speech and so on will see them used primarily against the left and rebel workers. Such illusions must be dispelled.
While the obvious lesson from Italy is that we must unite with those seeking to defeat fascism, we must be watchful for two dangers.
First, that anti-fascism gets watered down so much that it forgets the roots of fascism in capitalism. Fascism rises, mostly, to defend capital but also to some degree because it offers false solutions to real problems. Any effective anti-fascism must provide a class analysis, a critique of capitalism, real solutions. This cannot be done if we seek a popular front and submerge this analysis. This does not mean isolation, quite the reverse as we must win others to our views, but any united front must be aware of the roots of fascism and how to counter its scapegoating with genuine alternatives. Urging people to simply vote for the lesser – but still neo-liberal – evil will not do it.
Second, we must be watchful for those on the left – primarily Leninists of various kinds – who will view any militant anti-fascist movement as merely a means for building their party. As the example of the Italian Communists shows, this can go so far as to undermine popular resistance if they think that is working against the interests of the vanguard. Popular resistance and organization needs to be viewed as a positive in and of itself, not as a means of building a party.
While learning from history, we must beware of mechanically applying what worked in the past. We are not living in Italy during the early 1920s. There is no mass libertarian movement with firm roots in workplaces and communities. The need is to build both and in this the Arditi del Popolo shows the way forward. It united those who saw the threat of fascism and were willing to act. However, it was also part of wider working class social movements – and worked with these to defeat the fascist gangs. Without this wider social base, any militant anti-fascist organization is in danger of being isolated and so defeated by the powers of the state.
This article is based on section A.5.5 of An Anarchist FAQ vol. 1 (AK Press, 2008), which covers the near revolution in more detail.
Luigi Fabbri’s The Preventive Counter-Revolution (https://libcom.org/library/preventative-counter-revolution-luigi-fabbri) is an excellent early (1921) account of the rise of fascism by a leading Italian anarchist.
M. Testa’s Militant Anti-Fascism: A Hundred Years of Resistance (AK Press, 2015) has a useful chapter on the resistance to Mussolini.
Tom Behan’s The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini (Bookmarks, 2003) should be avoided. While meant to be about the Ardito del Popolo, it is really about the Italian Communist Party and its errors. While it has some useful material, it was written by a member of the British SWP during their short-lived return to anti-fascist activity in the early 2000s and suffers as a result. See my critique “The irresistible correctness of anarchism” (http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/the-irresistible-correctness-of-anarchism).
President Donald Trump has embraced the conspiracy theory that his supposedly popularly elected administration is being undermined by the career bureaucrats in the CIA, FBI and NSC who are part of a “state within a state,” the so-called “Deep State.” Trump was introduced to the theory by his former political strategist, Steve Bannon, the Machiavelli of the “alt-Right” and until recently the head of the Mercer family’s Breitbart News website. According to the theory, the Deep State does not want Trump to make peace with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, and has been spreading “fake news” and leaks trying to prove that Trump is a pawn of Putin. The goal is supposedly to either control Trump or failing that, drive Trump from power.
The idea of a shadow government that makes the real decisions contrary to the will of the people and their elected representatives is not a new one invented by Bannon. In various forms the idea of a group of kingmakers hidden behind the apparent ruler is as old as the state itself. But more recently the “Deep State” idea was used to refer to the power of military establishments in third world countries, particularly in the Middle East, to stymie efforts to create democracies or stage coups when democratically elected governments try to rein in the generals. It is neither a left-wing nor right-wing concept, since it has been used by those on all sides of the political spectrum. Glenn Greenwald, investigative journalist and co-founder of the Intercept, has cautioned his readers not to trust the “Deep State” by relying on the FBI and other national security agencies to provide us the real information about Russian interference in the defeat of their ally, Hillary Clinton, lest we inadvertently increase the “Deep State’s power.” Similar remarks have been made by Noam Chomsky.
But is there really such a thing as a “Deep State,” a conspiratorial shadow government that threatens the ability of Americans to choose their leaders? Yes, but it is not who Bannon and Greenwald say it is. As well as the State bureaucracy, the “Deep State” is the ruling class: the unelected elite of billionaire capitalists that holds the most power in the United States. It is the ruling class that decides who will be the candidates in the presidential election from both capitalist parties. But the ruling class is not all of one mind and has conflicting interests. There is a constant struggle for power between capitalist factions, which explains the two-party system. One faction of the ruling class has decided to ignore Trump’s background as a money launderer for Putin and the Russian oligarchs, as long as Trump is willing to serve their interests. This faction has been called various things, the “libertarians”, the “conservatives,” the “capitalist fundamentalists,” the “cowboys” (due to the preponderance of oil and energy-mining as their source of wealth).
The other side of this “Deep State” family feud are the “Yankees” (due to their reliance on Wall Street finance), but also dubbed the “neo-liberals,” the “liberal elite” or just “liberals.” There is no doubt that some of the resistance to Trump and his new regime comes from hold-overs of the Obama-Clinton bureaucracy, but to credit the bureaucracy with a power completely independent of their capitalist masters is a real stretch whether the credit comes from the likes of Greenwald or Bannon. This is not to mention that many in the FBI, CIA and other security agencies have more right-wing sympathies and were appointed by the previous cowboy President George W. Bush. If there is a conspiracy against Trump, it is a conspiracy of the “outs” versus the “ins” of the ruling class, between the two factions of “the Deep State” with the working class being used as vote fodder to support one side or the other.
This is not to suggest working people should remain neutral. The policies of Trump are certainly draconian and need to be directly resisted as long as his regime lasts. However the corporate globalization policies of the neo-liberals are not being reversed by Trump, and will certainly continue in his wake. Both factions have invoked an anti-labor, anti-working class program over the last forty years. To end these policies will require a new labor movement which is not a pawn of the ruling class Deep State or any of its factions.
— Jeff Stein
Democrats, Trump & the 2020 Elections
by Wayne Price, ASR 77
To many liberals, progressives, unionists, activists of various just causes, Democrats of all stripes, democratic socialists and concerned citizens, the problem the U.S. is facing is essentially that Donald J. Trump is president, and is backed by the Republican Party. I disagree with this widespread belief.
It is likely that Trump will be removed from office in the next two years, whether by impeachment (unlikely due to the Senate Republicans) or by national elections (probable but not certain). Liberals, progressives, etc., look forward to this as a glorious day. The sun will come out from behind the darkling clouds, little birds will sing again, the miasma of evil and stupidity will lift from the land, and all will be well again. Things will finally go back to “normal.”
Alas, I do not think that things will be “normal” ever again. I too long to see the vile Trump gone. I am not cynical and have hopes for the future. Yet I do not see the replacement of Trump by a Democrat or other establishment politician as the coming of a glorious new day.
But first I should make clear my views on Trump. As a revolutionary anarchist-socialist, I have never liked any of the presidents of my lifetime. But I have particularly hated a few, starting with Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, because of the U.S. war on Vietnam. (We chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”) And I especially hated the Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They were the cutting edge of the ruling class’ attacks on working people of the U.S. and the world.
But I have never hated any politician as much as I hate the despicable Trump. Personally he is utterly devoid of conscience or of empathy for others. Mean and cruel, he is completely self-centered. Devoid of honor, he breaks laws and ethical norms, big and little, and sells out friends and associates (and “his” country) without a qualm. He sees women as things to be used. He is a racist. He cannot keep from lying on matters important and unimportant. While he has a certain sly cunning, Trump is ignorant, incurious and stupid. He makes stupid decisions – not just from my standpoint but from that of U.S. imperialism.
Politically, he holds some bizarre views which are unusual even among the corporate rich and the right wing Republican establishment: his attachment to the Russian state and Putin, his unwillingness to condemn Nazis, his reckless use of tariffs, his commitment to building a wall on the Mexican border, his quarrels with U.S. allies, etc. While most Republican politicians have bowed to anti-immigrant fervor, Trump really believes in the “threat” of immigrants. He is not a fascist, but neither is he a non-fascist.
As a result of all this, Trump is a very unpopular president according to the polls. This is so even in spite of a relative (if shallow and uneven) prosperity (which raises the question of how voters would react if the next downturn takes place before the national election). Why do the Republican politicos still support him? Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans, is an intelligent man – if totally cynical. Why does he back Trump, considering what he must think of him? There are two pro-Trump forces pressing on the Republicans, one from above and one from below.
From above: Most of the capitalist class did not support Trump in the last election and would prefer someone else even now. But they love the enormous tax cuts for the rich which the Republicans passed, with his strong support. They like his and his party’s attacks on Obamacare. They love the deregulation which he has pushed through all parts of the executive branch. They are delighted with the conservative, pro-business judges whom he has appointed – to the Supreme Court and throughout the federal judiciary. And so on. They do not want to kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs, even if the goose is otherwise nuts.
From below: Around 40 percent, more or less, of the population supports Trump solidly and fervently. This is the base of the current Republican Party. Republican politicians fear being voted out in primaries if they oppose Trump. This grouping ranges from crazed fascists (who identify with the Nazis and Klan) to some who voted for Obama in previous elections (the loosest part of this base). These people have been lied to and miseducated in a conscious effort by right-wing forces. They are fed a steady diet of Fox “News,” talk radio and Internet blogs which put them in a delusional bubble. Their sexual fears are whipped up, over homosexuality and abortion rights, by their church leaders. Many are strongly racist and vote for Trump for that reason; others vote for him for other reasons but are not turned off by his racism.
Many of these people do have real grievances: after eight years of Obama, including a brittle “recovery,” much of the country was still poor, stagnant and lacking good jobs. This included many rural and semi-rural areas, in and out of the “Rust Belt.” The white workers and middle class residents of these regions rejected Hillary Clinton as an establishment politician. They expected (correctly) that she would continue the policies which had not helped them (but many also rejected her because she was a woman). Unfortunately, turning to Trump was no answer to their problems.
The Historical Pattern of Presidents
Does this mean that kicking Donald Trump out of the White House will bring things back to “normal”? Even though big business will still push for its program of tax cuts and deregulation and even though a big minority continues to support right wing politics? Can these forces be defeated through elections?
It is worth going over some history here. The Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who had betrayed liberals’ hopes by his war on Vietnam, was followed by Richard Nixon. Hated by the Left, and caught up in the Watergate scandal, Nixon was forced to resign. Then his hand-picked successor was beaten in an election by Jimmy Carter. To liberals, progressives, etc., these were indeed glorious developments. A new day dawned! Yet Carter, after one term, was defeated by Ronald Reagan, a far-right “conservative” (which is what reactionaries are called in the U.S.). He won two terms, plus one presidential term for his vice president, George H. W. Bush. But Bush was then defeated by Bill Clinton.
Clinton could play the saxophone and appeared to get along well with African-Americans. Again, a glorious new day finally seemed to have dawned! But after two terms of Clintonian Democracy, the people voted down his vice president, Al Gore, and elected George W. Bush. (Actually Gore won the popular vote, by a hair’s width, but the Supreme Court majority put Bush in.) Bush was terrible and stupid, said the liberals, progressives, etc., gnashing their teeth. He won a second term (probably fairly).
Then Barack Obama was elected, an African-American president! Liberals were ecstatic. Pete Seeger sang at the inauguration with Bruce Springsteen. Naturally, African-Americans were particularly pleased, although few of them believed claims that the U.S. was now a “post-racial” society. Sure enough, the history-making Obama was then followed by… Donald Trump. (Actually Trump lost the popular vote by a few percentage points, but the archaic Electoral College put him in.) I am not going to discuss voting suppression by the Republicans, and various shenanigans by Comey of the FBI, the Russians, etc., which undermined Hillary Clinton. The U.S. state has intervened in other countries’ politics at least as much as Russia has.
This little history does not mention the effects of mid-term elections, which often empowered the reactionary opposition to block Democratic presidents from carrying out their more-or-less progressive agendas (as in Obama’s last six years). Nor am I discussing just how limited these “progressive” agendas turned out to be, time after time – much to the surprise and dismay of the liberals, progressives, etc. (as in Obama’s first two years). My point here is the obvious one that the repeated defeats of reactionary presidents and presidential candidates has not ushered in the dawn of a glorious new day. Instead, more-or-less progressive presidents have repeatedly been followed by another reactionary president. Over time the Republicans have gotten more reactionary and the Democrats have occupied the space once taken by the Republicans – until we have reached the current president, a new low in U.S. history.
Why is this? Partially the reason is the two-party system. Unlike many other countries, U.S. laws make it very difficult to form effective third parties. (There has not been a new major party since Lincoln’s Republicans replaced the Whigs.) So if people get fed up with one party, they have little choice but to turn to the other. The range of political discourse is very limited, generally from mildly liberal to extremely reactionary (but not usually fascist). The newspapers and television play this up, mostly analyzing elections as “horse races” and ignoring programs. Citizens are taught to look at the personality of the individual running rather than at what programs they might implement.
However it would be a mistake to focus too much on U.S. factors. The growth of right-wing, nationalist, “populism” is world-wide. Other countries, with leaders with personalities quite different from Trump’s, and with electoral systems quite different from the U.S. constitution, have developed their own forms of reactionary “populism.” There is Britain with its “Brexit,” authoritarian right-wing leaders in Hungary, Poland, Italy and Brazil, the rise of the far-right LePen in France, Netanyahu in Israel, Modi in India, Duerte in the Phillipines, and other examples. There are also authoritarian regimes which do not bother with elections but have similar politics – Putin’s Russia being somewhere in-between these types.
So, on the one hand, there has been a pattern of increasingly bad presidents, ratcheting down, through waves of “moderate” Democrats and reactionary Republicans. On the other hand, there is a world-wide growth of far-right, authoritarian regimes. These developments demonstrate that the problem is bigger than just Trump.
Something New is Happening
For decades after World War II, U.S. politics swung back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans. There was little difference between the two. It was a platitude of U.S. “political science” that this was a strength of U.S. politics, providing stability and consensus. This changed about the time that the post-World War II prosperity came to an end (in the 1970s). The economy stagnated, and making profits became more difficult. Big business declared war on the working class (and the environment) in open and covert ways. The Republicans became the leaders of that attack. Today many look back on the era of political consensus with sighs of regret. The bitter partisanship of the two parties is dismaying to many politicians, political “scientists” and ordinary voters. The Republicans have moved to the far right, and the Democrats have stayed just behind them.
Even this development has been shaken up in recent years. On the right, there has grown white-supremacist, fascist, violent forces. (By “fascist” I do not mean people who are simply very conservative, but people who wish to overturn the representative bourgeois democracy of the U.S. and replace it with a dictatorship.) They have been encouraged by Trump and have encouraged him, even if he himself is not a fascist.
Perhaps even more surprising is the growth of a socialist movement. Polls have found thirty to forty percent of the population – especially young adults – with a positive view of “socialism.” Many have become disillusioned with capitalism. The presidential runs of Bernie Sanders built on this sentiment and encouraged it. The Democratic Socialists of America rapidly expanded, attracting people of varying views (even some anarchists joined, to form a Libertarian Socialist Caucus). Socialists were elected to local and national office, the most well-known, besides Sanders, being Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
These socialists are not very “socialist.” They do not advocate taking away the wealth of what Sanders has called “the billionaire class.” They do not propose socializing the major corporations – not even the oil producers and the rest of the energy sector. By “socializing” I mean anything from national government ownership to municipal ownership to worker management to consumer cooperatives. (As an anarchist-socialist, I am for the last two.) Their model is usually an idealized version of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. This was an effort to save capitalism from its own failures in the Great Depression – to save capitalism from itself. That is, they hope to use the existing capitalist state to manage the market economy in a more efficient, more benevolent, fashion, supposedly in the interests of the working population. As such their program is not particularly different from that of liberals such as Elizabeth Warren. This should not be surprising given the semi-liberal programs of European social-democratic parties, such as in the Nordic (Scandinavian) countries, the UK, France or Germany. Although far from Stalinist totalitarianism, liberals and democratic socialists have an unjustified faith in the effectiveness of the state to solve social problems.
As I am writing there is a year and some months to go before the election. The Democrats still enjoy over 20 candidates for their presidential nomination. They are struggling over how “left” their rhetoric should be and how generous their proposals should sound (so far, not one has called for big cuts in the military budget). If they sound “too left” they may seem to threaten the capitalist system. This could drive off the big donors who otherwise would support them against Trump. And it might (or might not) drive off the moderate base of the Democrats (as opposed to educating them). But if they are not “left” enough, they will not really challenge Trump, his Republicans and his corporate backers. Nor will they motivate their liberal base. What to do?
Liberals often complain about how wishy-washy and spineless the Democrats are in the face of right-wing attacks. This is in contrast to the Republicans who are “principled” and even fanatical about their goals. There is a reason for this difference. If the Republicans stir up their white, relatively privileged, racist, middle class base into hysterical frenzies this might result in the nomination of a Trump or, at worst, an attack on bourgeois democracy – but not on capitalism. But if the Democrats were to rile up their base – to excite the African-American community and blue collar workers, to mobilize unions and to organize mass action by youth – this could threaten capitalism. Unlimited demands by workers, People of Color, people threatened by climate change, etc., would go past the limits of the capitalist economy. This the Democrats cannot allow and will not permit.
The Democratic candidates are vying to be the top manager of the most dangerous institution in the world today – the U.S. national military-state and its capitalist economy. I am not sympathetic to this goal. (The U.S. has a military force larger than the next eight national states combined. It is a key part of the life-threatening, climate-destroying, system of national states and the capitalist world market.)
Some liberals, progressives, etc., are impressed with the current flock of Democratic candidates. This requires taking their words at face value, ignoring what they do not say (about foreign policy or military spending, for example), and focusing on individuals, rather than the history of the party. Others, more realistic, argue that the Democrats are the “lesser evil.” This is to admit that they are evil, even if lesser. I would not deny that, especially in comparison to Trump and his minions.
But here is my question: Who has a program which is adequate to solve the deep problems of the U.S. and world? That is, global warming and other ecological catastrophes, the danger of nuclear war, the probability of a collapse of the capitalist economy – as well as “lesser” problems such as continuing racism, gender oppression, LGBTQ repression, economic inequality, stagnation,”small” wars, political authoritarianism, and so on. The very survival of industrial civilization, and perhaps of humanity and our fellow creatures, is at stake. Whether the Democrats mean well or are hypocrites and liars, their programs are simply inadequate for the crises we face. Can it be claimed, by any knowledgable person, that any Democrat has such a needed program?
It would be delightful to get rid of Donald Trump, this pustule on the ass of humanity. But if the result is that we are still on the road to Armageddon and the destruction of the world, then my joy is limited.
What Shall We Do?
This is not a discussion of whether any isolated individual should vote. I don’t really care. I doubt that the votes of a handful of anarchists – or even of all the conscious socialists and radicals in the country – would make a difference.
The issue is not what a few individuals should do. It is what we radicals should advocate that mass institutions and movements should do. This includes the unions, the African-American community, Latinx communities, LGBTQ groups, the ecological and environmental movement, feminist organizations, etc. These are the base of the Democratic Party. They donate a large amount of money, and human energy and time, to the Democrats’ electoral efforts. Yet their rewards have not been great. In recent elections, the Democrats have turned their backs on them, especially on the unions and the working class. Similarly, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have admitted that there is a climate crisis. Yet they have done little about it and advocated limited programs. They have sought African-Americans votes but done little to improve their lives. And so on.
Errico Malatesta, the Italian revolutionary anarchist-socialist, was a co-worker with Bakunin and Kropotkin. He commented,
Electionists… compare what is done in the electoral struggle with what would happen if nothing were done; while instead they should compare the results obtained when other methods are followed and with what might be achieved if all effort used to send representatives to power… were [instead] employed in the fight to directly achieve what is desired. (“Towards Anarchy”; Malatesta in America 1899-1900, 179, reviewed in this issue)
There need to be massive union organizing drives through the U.S. There should be city and regional general strikes to fight back against attacks on working people. There need to be massive and militant demonstrations, with civil disobedience, to fight against police brutality and other aspects of racism and poverty. Cities should be brought to a halt until steps are taken to limit global warming. Colleges should be occupied by their students. Factories and other workplaces should be occupied by their workers, who should run them for the common good.
If a Democrat is elected president, with a Democratic Congress, we can expect liberals, progressives and activists to be disappointed. The Democrats, whatever their motives, will stay within the limits of capitalism. Therefore they cannot stop climate change or improve the living conditions of working people – not under the current conditions of capitalist stagnation and decline. This disappointment will lead to greater opposition, I hope. Opposition should not be channeled into the Democratic Party (there to wither and die),nor into other electoral parties (that is, into other supports of the capitalist state). They should be directed to direct action and militant activities.
To save the humans, a different system is needed – one based on cooperation, equality, and freedom, with production for use not profit, and with radically democratic self-management of the economy and all aspects of society. Only a few are for this now, but a radical left wing of the developing movements can be built to fight for this revolutionary goal – if we are not mesmerized by the flimflam of the electoral system. (written for www.Anarkismo.net)
By Jon Bekken, ASR 76
In the modern school’s heyday, the U.S. labor movement recognized the importance of education. Unions fought against authoritarian school systems designed to funnel workers’ children into endless wage slavery. A wide variety of working-class organizations set up their own educational institutions, ranging from preschool and elementary school programs to labor colleges offering programs in history, economics and literature, as well as practical organizing and union administration skills.
The short-lived Chicago Modern School operated a Sunday school for children and evening lectures for adults in 1910. In 1888 German workers launched a network of free-thought Sunday schools for children, alongside libraries and reading rooms for adult workers.
It is revolting to expect the worker to accept a promissory note for “heavenly joys” in lieu of profits stolen from him by greedy sharks. That the children shall not bow to such an economic system is the aim of the liberal Sunday schools…
Czech workers operated 18 schools in the 1920s, serving 1,340 Chicago students. The Free-Thought School Association was closely tied to a network of mutual aid societies, workers’ choirs and other associations which raised funds for their support and made their halls available to the schools. For adults, the Socialist Workingmen’s Society offered evening lectures in economics and social science, while nearly every Czech hall had a reading room or library.
The Chicago Federation of Labor and Women’s Trade Union League jointly sponsored the Chicago Labor College, offering night courses in English, parliamentary procedure, public speaking, economics, and other subjects in the 1920s and 1930s. The Workmen’s Circle bought an auditorium in 1920 for its labor lyceum, which hosted lectures and cultural events, while on Chicago’s Northwest side the Socialist Institute offered evening classes for children as part of an effort to counter capitalist indoctrination in the public schools. The Polish People’s University, organized by socialists active in Chicago’s labor movement, offered lectures and courses in science, history, mathematics, literature and English. Similar educational programs were sponsored by workers’ organizations of every political tendency and ethnicity.
Similar projects could be found in every city with a significant labor movement. IWW and other union halls hosted libraries, classes and public lectures addressing a wide range of issues of interest to workers. One such project that deserves to be better remembered is Work People’s College, in Duluth, Minnesota. Organized in 1903 as a Finnish “folk” school, it soon affiliated first with the Finnish Socialist Federation and, after 1913, the Industrial Workers of the World.
Work People’s College was part of a vibrant Finnish workers’ culture, including cooperatives, daily newspapers (including the IWW-affiliated Industrialisti), libraries, dramatic societies, choirs, etc. The College initially served a Finnish student body, but gradually expanded to other workers. Work People’s College sought to educate students not to rise out of their class, but to become more effective actors in the class struggle, offering classes in economics, labor history and industrial unionism as well as more “practical” subjects such as public speaking, journalism, bookkeeping, English, Finnish and running meetings.
The College launched a summer program for Finnish youth in 1929, offering courses in radical literature, Finnish language and culture, labor history and economics in the mornings, with afternoons set aside for recreational pursuits.
WPC instructor Fred Thompson described the economics curriculum in the September 1937 One Big Union Monthly. After reviewing increased productivity made possible by modern machinery, and working the increases as math problems, students
reached the inevitable conclusion that if we can produce so much more than we used to, and do not live more than a couple of times as well, it must be that the working class is gypped of a good part of what it is now able to produce.
To determine where this robbery happened, they turned to a hypothetical candy and ice cream store.
Suppose that there is a general complaint that where you buy your confections they charge such high prices that you are robbed. Will those who have no money to spend there be robbed? All agree the answer is “No” [The more they spend, the more they are robbed.] … Is it possible to explain that one class with plenty of money, and spending plenty of it, lives without working by assuming that when people go to buy they are robbed by high prices? And so these 12-year-old economists conclude that the gypping of the working class must be perpetuated by the time the worker gets his paycheck, that “exploitation occurs predominantly at the point of production.”
Similarly, students tackled the problem of unemployment, proving somewhat more astute than the U.S. Congress. When faced with the fact that 12 million lacked jobs, while 28 million worked for nine hours a day, they treated the problem as a simple mathematical problem, concluding that a six-hour day would allow for full employment.
While the four-week summer program classes were structured by the WPC staff, students took charge of organizing social and recreational activities, putting their lessons in running meetings and organizing to practical use. Worker-students in the regular program played a more active role, helping arrange the curriculum, organizing the evening debates and lectures (as well as entertainments), and handling conflicts and discipline.
Work People’s College had neither traditional tests not grades nor diplomas. The faculty were not academics, but rather workers with many years’ experience as wage slaves and in labor agitation.
While there was a schedule of classes, Thompson recalled, there was little lecturing.Rather, students were encouraged to hunt up information and present it in the form of debates, soapbox talks, articles and skits, many of which found their way into the pages of the IWW press. (A WPC theater troupe also regularly toured northern Minnesota and Upper Michigan, performing for immigrant and labor groups.) One of those plays, “Banker’s Island,” told the story of three workers stranded on an island with a banker who used his supply of gold to get them to build him a home and provide him with the necessities of life. But they organized when the banker decreed that they could not eat the bounty on “his” island without paying for it, and reorganized things to suit themselves. After a few days the boss capitulated, agreeing to wash the dishes in exchange for an equal share of the food.
Regular classes ended in 1941 (the summer program continued for a few years) and the army seized the campus during World War II. WPC did not reopen, and its building was sold in 1953.
ASR 76, Summer 2019
The following call to action is part of a common framework that aims to help connect May Day activities and support communication on the global level.
Every year people take to the streets and go on strike on May 1st to commemorate International Workers’ Day. With the following call, which was initiated by several syndicates of the grassroots unions Free Workers’ Union (FAU) and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), we want to encourage groups on the grassroots level, labor unions and initiatives worldwide to link their May Day activities and by doing so provide visibility to the transnational dimension of the struggle.
We, workers and students, will stand together in solidarity, because we are all involved in the same struggle against profit-driven interests regardless of our place of residence. Budget cuts in social services, outsourcing, depressing wages, privatization, increasing costs of living as well as tuition fees are just a few of the symptoms directly related to the global economic system. A system that is based on exploitation and competition leads to commercialization of all aspects of our lives.
The constantly increasing pressure to perform is sickening, be it at the workplace, university, school, and increasingly even during childhood and youth. The logic of the market economy and the corresponding nation-state structures require that adaptation to the dictate of competitiveness and the value-added production take priority over the development of emancipatory capabilities.
We do not intend to simply disrupt; we seek to overcome.
Given the transnational nature of the capitalist system, it is necessary for workers to connect on the global level. By networking across borders, the global interconnections that shape our local conditions can be made visible. Furthermore it opens up new potentialities and scopes of action within the struggle against exploitation as well precarious working and living conditions. The bargaining power of workers would increase tremendously, if we were to unite within the same value-added chain. Let us imagine what differences it would have made, if the striking miners in Marikana (South Africa) and workers of the BASF chemical plants located in Germany were connected and had united in their struggle given that BASF is the primary purchaser of the resources produced by the miners. Such linkages could have significantly altered or perhaps even prevented the 2012 massacre.
Another example are garment workers in Sri Lanka (producing textiles for the retailing company H&M) who fought for wages enabling them a proper living on November 27, 2018. On the same day groups across Europe and the USA organized activities in solidarity in front of outlets of H&M. This shows that pressure can be generated through a network of actors within the value-added chain, from the producing workers to those working in the retails stores and those purchasing the product.
The same applies to strike actions taking place at Amazon: For example the labor union ver.di called for strikes in 2016 at logistical centers across Germany. Since logistical centers in Poland were used as evasive locations, the labor union IP organized solidarity actions. By now action groups are forming at Amazon centers around the world, which are also increasingly shaping a network.
Last but not least IT workers are resisting precarious working conditions and get organized across borders. As an example we want to point out the initiative Game Workers Unite! and mention the walkout by workers at Google, which was joined by tens of thousands of people in 50 cities worldwide last November.
With a transnationally coordinated May Day 2019 we strive to realize a collective goal of a better life by networking and building solidarity on a global scale. Especially in times of increasing nationalist and racist tendencies, we emphasize the common struggle and resist being played off against each other.
For a better life for all – across all borders!
Initial supporters: Bangladesh Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation, Free Workers’ Union (FAU) Hamburg. Inter-Factory Workers’ Federation (FBLP) Jakarta, Forum for IT Employees (FITE) India, Garment Workers’ Trade Union Center (GWTUC) Bangladesh, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Gainesville, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Hamburg
Each syndicate/group/union will organize its activities autonomously with their own focus. More details available on this blog: https://globalmayday.wordpress.com
Editorial, ASR 78
The support in the polls for two liberals, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, has the capitalists worried. A constant bombardment is heard in the media that “the Democrats are going too far to the left” and how it would be a shame if this might help President Trump get re-elected. Never mind that it is not the Democrats that are shifting to the left, but the voters who are being polled. The subtext in this message is that regardless of what people want, the rulers will not allow it.
It is the capitalists who have revived the fascist movement and seek to terrorize the people with the specter of totalitarianism, even if they try to label it as “socialism.” As is always the case with tyrants, they project their own ambitions on their enemies and blame them for following the same path they have taken. What else but totalitarianism could you call unending war, reckless pursuit of private wealth in spite of global environmental peril, superstition replacing science, and government by decree of a head of state, a real life “Big Brother”? We are forbidden to question this best of all possible societies, and voters must double think who might vote for either Warren or Sanders.
Contrary to the fear being spread by the capitalists, neither Warren nor Sanders threaten the capitalist system. Warren says openly she is no socialist and believes in markets. Sanders claims he is a “democratic socialist,” but when asked what that means he invokes the examples of the New Deal in the 1930s United States and Scandinavian [social democratic] countries. Capitalism remains alive and well in Scandinavia, as it did under Franklin Roosevelt. Many credit FDR as saving capitalism with his New Deal. Neither Warren nor Sanders advocate nationalization of banks, or industry, even a key industry like oil in Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Socialism” under Chavez. The only industries they threaten are the health insurance industry, with their “Medicare For All” single-payer system, and the college loan industries. But those things have been done in most other capitalist countries without threatening the existence of the capitalist class. Capital is fungible. If profits aren’t to be had in one industry, the capitalists invest elsewhere.
Even the “Green New Deal” is not the game changer both its advocates and opponents claim. Government credit will be made available for renewable energy and carbon mitigation, much as funding was provided for canals, railroads, interstate highways, etc. Some capitalists will make new fortunes, and a few may lose them, but capitalism itself is not threatened by the Green New Deal. Workers will still be workers. The poor will stay poor. Neoliberalism will make sure that many of the products needed to rebuild the “Green Economy” will be made by low wage workers living in union-free regions. As the liberal economist Thomas Piketty has shown, a growing economy does not change the fundamentals of capitalism. As capitalists accumulate capital, inequality increases. Only the loss of capital by the capitalist class reduces inequality. (This is why Piketty advocates a global wealth tax, surely something the capitalists will never allow.)
The fundamental principle of socialism is the expropriation of the capitalist class and the social ownership of the means of production. There is no one in the Democratic Party advocating this, and the politicians would be useless in bringing it about. The only way it will happen is if the workers do it themselves.
Iain McKay reviewed this book in ASR 73. Here, as an online bonus to ASR 78, we present a review essay by Ridhiman Balaji.
Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
“Private government is government that has arbitrary, unaccountable power over those it governs…”
— Elizabeth Anderson
Perhaps the most striking feature of Capitalism is its reproduction of the Master-Servant relationship in the sphere of production. There exists a strict hierarchy in most work environments, where the managers of a firm exercise power, authority and influence over its workers. From an economic standpoint, the role of the firm is to use raw materials, including labour, as well as other commodities (inputs), in order to produce final products (outputs). But the firm is also a social institution, a place where humans come together and interact with each other, for a common purpose. It is in this environment, that those who work in the firm, adopt their institutional roles as managers, subordinates and owners. In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson explores how employers use the firm to control and dominate employees. The structure of the book is divided into two lectures, followed by responses by four authors. Anderson begins by tracking the intellectual history of the free-market doctrine, initially as an egalitarian ideology, its downfall during the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the emergence of what she calls “Private Government.” Anderson then describes the contradictory nature of how those in a position of authority, with respect to the internal structure of the firm, call for freedom external to the firm, such as in our private lives, yet overlook how managers themselves subordinate workers.
What follows then are comments by four different authors, Ann Hughes, David Bromwich, Niko Kolodny, and Tyler Cowen. The book ends with a reply by Anderson herself, where she responds to their points. The book is directed towards a mass audience, particularly those interested in employment law, political philosophy and workplace democracy. This review essay is both a supplement to and a critique of Private Government. I start by supplementing Anderson’s analysis of Adam Smith by looking at his relationship Physiocracy, an 18th century school of economic thought originating in France.
Adam Smith vs The Laissez-Faire Doctrine
Anderson begins her first lecture by tracking the intellectual history of the free-market ideology, what she calls “free-market egalitarianism.” She argues that “the left,” which she defines as “egalitarian thinkers and participants in egalitarian social movements,” were, at first, proponents of this free-market ideology. Anderson writes, “To be an egalitarian is to commend and promote a society in which its members interact as equals. This vague idea gets its shape by contrast with social hierarchy, the object of egalitarian critique.” Her analysis begins by contrasting the views of Adam Smith with those of Karl Marx. Smith suggests that a party undertaking an exchange in a market economy must necessarily address the interests of the other party. Thus in Smith’s view, market interactions occur among, “free” and “equal” entities. Marx rejects this view as superficial. Marx suggests that there exists a fundamental asymmetry in power relations, where the capitalist has no incentive to pay any attention to the interests of the employee, yet the employee is coerced to pay attention to the interests of the capitalist, vis a vis the capitalist’s rate of profit.
It might strike some readers as unusual, to regard Smith as a “leftist egalitarian”, given the indoctrination which is pervasive in U.S political discourse. Recall the Laissez-Faire doctrine emerged with the rise of a group of 18th-century French economists known as the Physiocrats. The two main proponents of Physiocracy were François Quesnay (1694-1774), and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781). Unfortunately, discussion of the rise of Physiocracy, as well as the ideas of Quesnay and Turgot are missing from Anderson’s analysis. Hence, I will take a brief moment to go over the ideas and economic theories of the Physiocrats, due to the significant influence they had on Adam Smith, as well as David Ricardo.
Economic Historian E. K. Hunt describes the Physiocrats in Chapter 2 of his History of Economic Thought as follows:
The Physiocrats were interested in reforming France, which was experiencing economic and social disorder caused primarily from a motley combination of many of the worst features of feudalism and merchant capitalism. Taxation was disorderly, inefficient, oppressive, and unjust. Agriculture still used feudal technology, was small-scale and inefficient, and remained a source of feudal power that inhibited the advance of capitalism. The government was responsible for an extraordinarily extensive and complex maze of tariffs , restrictions, subsidies , and privileges in the areas of industry and commerce. The results were the social and economic chaos that culminated in the French Revolution.
The Physiocrats believed that societies were governed by natural law and that France’s problems were due to the failure of her rulers to understand this natural law, and to order production and commerce accordingly. Quesnay developed a simple model of how a society should be structured in order to reflect natural law, and, on the basis of this model, the Physiocrats advocated political reform: the abolition of guilds and the removal of all existing tariffs, taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and regulations that hindered industry and commerce.
They proposed substituting large-scale, capitalist agriculture for the inefficient small-scale farming that prevailed. But the proposed reform for which they are most remembered was the recommendation that all government revenue be raised with a single, nationwide tax on agriculture.
Thus, we can see how the Physiocrats’ call for the abolition of guilds, tariffs, taxes, subsidies and other regulations relating to business and commerce, made them the forebears of the modern economic doctrine of Laissez-Faire. In fact, it was the Physiocrats themselves, in particular, Jacques Vincent de Gournay, a disciple of Quesnay, who coined the phrase Laissez-Faire et Laissez-passer.
Book IV of The Wealth of Nations is devoted entirely to analysing various systems of political economy. Smith devotes 8 out of the 9 chapters in Book IV to analysing Mercantilism as a system of political economy. The last chapter, Chapter 9, is devoted to analysing Physiocracy. If one reads Chapter 9 selectively, and out of context, it might seem like Smith is praising Physiocracy (and therefore Laissez-Faire) as “the best” system of political economy. However, this is an illusion. Although Smith initially praises Physiocracy as an “ingenious system,” Smith goes on to present a fairly sophisticated critique of the Physiocrats on the basis of differences in methodological conceptions of Natural Law, and by demarcating labour into productive and unproductive labour.
Scholar Jeffrey Young suggests that the main reason why Smith opposed the Physiocratic doctrine stems from the fact that Smith was an empiricist, who believe that human agents learn from experience. Young writes,
For Smith, knowledge of the natural, whether in physical or moral philosophy, derives from experience. As such it is always imperfect, yet tending over time toward improvement. Systems of natural jurisprudence are possible if we examine the general principles which systems of positive law have in common. These principles, once discovered, can be used to reform the imperfections in existing systems that have arisen either because they are lagging behind the natural process of development and /or because accidents of history have left in place laws and constitutions that no longer serve their purpose, or that have simply warped the positive law.
By contrast, Young argues that Quesnay was a rationalist, who believed that humans gain knowledge and learn concepts independently of experience. Quesnay believed that there exists some imaginary and immutable ‘Natural Order’, presumably most beneficial to society, from which human-made law has diverged. Ronald Meek, perhaps the most rigorous scholar of the Physiocrats, translated original excerpts of Quesnay’s philosophical writings, which provides valuable insights into Quesnay’s metaphysics. Quesnay writes,
The host of contradictory and absurd laws which nations have successively adopted proves clearly that positive laws are often apt to deviate from the immutable rules of justice and of the natural order which is most advantageous to society.
Quesnay goes on to say
We have seen that even in the state of pure nature or of complete independence men enjoy their natural right to the things they need only through labour, i.e. through the endeavours necessary to obtain them. Thus the right of everybody to everything is reduced to the share which each of them can procure for himself, whether they live by hunting, or by fishing, or on the natural produce of the earth. But in order to carry on these endeavours, and to succeed in them, they must possess those bodily and mental faculties, together with those means and instruments, which are necessary to enable them to act and to succeed in satisfying their needs. The enjoyment of their natural right must be extremely limited in this state of pure nature and independence, in which we are assuming that there is as yet no cooperation for purposes of mutual aid among them, and in which the strong are able to use violence unjustly against the weak. When they enter into society, and come to agreements among themselves for their mutual advantage, they thereby increase the enjoyment of their natural right; and they also assure for themselves the full extent of this enjoyment, if the constitution of the society conforms to the order which is self-evidently the most advantageous to men, with respect to the fundamental laws of their natural rights.
Thus, we can see that the root of the dispute between Smith and Quesnay lies in the fact Smith pursued scientific inquiry using a fundamentally different methodological framework of Natural Law compared to Quesnay. Given Smith’s drastically different views of Natural Law, if we further examine Smith’s analysis of the Physiocratic economic doctrine, we see that the Smith’s metaphysics, inspired by the likes of Francis Hutcheson, as well as David Hume (Smith’s teacher), greatly influenced his critique. Recall, one of the main tenets of the Physiocratic economic thought, is that all government revenue be raised with a single, nationwide tax on agriculture. Quesnay’s Tableau économique contains a model which shows the processes of production, circulation of money and commodities, and the distribution of income. The model assumes that production takes place in yearly cycles and that everything produced in one year is either consumed in that year or becomes the necessary inputs for the next year’s production.
The focus of Quesnay’s model is on agriculture, particularly the agricultural class, such as cultivators, who are assumed to retain excess output from last period, which is then paid to the landlord class as ‘rent,’ i.e. payment for a factor of production in excess of the costs used to bring that factor into production. For this reason, there exists a surplus in Quesnay’s Tableau économique that is appropriated by the agricultural class. Furthermore, the Physiocrats saw this surplus as a gift of nature and believed that only in dealing directly with nature in extractive or agricultural production, could human labor produce a surplus. Thus, Quesnay and the Physiocrats regarded the agricultural class as the sole “productive” class, hence Quesnay’s advocacy for a nationwide tax on agriculture. In Quesnay’s model, no surplus or profits were thought to have originated in the manufacturing sector.
Smith disputed the notion that labor used up in the manufacturing sector was “sterile,” or unproductive. Smith believed that “productive” labor was the labor that furthered the accumulation of capital. For Smith, the level of production in any society depends crucially on productive labor and the level of their productivity. However for Smith productivity was in turn determined by the degree of specialization with respect to labor, that is, the extent to which there existed “Division of Labour” in a society.
Discussion surrounding Smith’s notion of “Division of Labour” has been confusing, polarizing and ideologically-driven. The late E.G West (1922-2001), in his 1964 paper, “Adam Smith’s Two Views on the Division of Labour,” illustrates the contradictory views of Smith with respect to the Wealth of Nations. Not many are aware for instance that Adam Smith in Book V of Wealth of Nations, denounced the division of labour. It is true for instance that in Book I of The Wealth of Nations, Smith says that without division of labor, the worker will become “slothful and lazy”:
A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions.
However, in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith goes on to condemn the process of division of labour, and suggests that the process itself will lead to the worker becoming “stupid and ignorant”:
In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.
Hence, we can see that Smith’s attitude towards division of labor, a tenet taken to be sacred among capitalist ideologues, are far more complex. Anderson rightly portrays Smith as an egalitarian social philosopher, contrary to the preconceived notions of some “libertarian” philosophers who might be of the erroneous belief that Adam Smith was a proponent of the economic doctrine of Laissez-faire.
Coase, Demsetz, and Economic Theory as a Red Herring
Anderson resumes her investigation by analyzing why egalitarian social thought changed drastically between the time of Smith and Marx. She argues that the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), radically changed the way egalitarians assess the ideal “free society” with respect to a market economy. Anderson then examines the English Civil War (1642–51), particularly the emergence of The Levellers, a political movement seeking to realize egalitarian goals near the end of the English Civil War. Anderson writes, “Notwithstanding their name, given to them by Cromwell, who feared that democratization threatened a mass redistribution of property, the Levellers were also firm defenders of the rights of private property and free trade.”
By contrast, attitudes towards the end of the Industrial Revolution shifted drastically, as Anderson writes
Preindustrial labor radicals, viewing the vast degradation of autonomy, esteem, and standing entailed by the new productive order in comparison with artisan status, called it wage slavery. Liberals called it free labor. The difference in perspective lay at the very point Marx highlighted. If one looks only at the conditions of entry into the labor contract and exit out of it, workers appear to meet their employers on terms of freedom and equality. That was what the liberal view stressed. But if one looks at the actual conditions experienced in the workers’ fulfilling the contract, the workers stand in a relation of profound subordination to their employer. That was what the labor radicals stressed.
In her second lecture, Anderson correctly argues that “Advocates of Laissez Faire, who blithely applied the earlier arguments for market society to a social context that brought about the very opposite of the effects that were predicted and celebrated by their predecessors, failed to recognize that the older arguments no longer applied.” Hence, this paved the way for a “symbiotic relationship between libertarianism and authoritarianism that blights our political discourse to this day.” Anderson suggests that “Private government is government that has arbitrary, unaccountable power over those it governs,” and that in many of these governments “the governed are kept out of decision-making as well.” Anderson accurately points out that “Legally speaking, employers have always been authoritarian rulers, as an extension of their patriarchal rights to govern their households”. Anderson identifies the “Theory of the Firm,” developed by Ronald Coase of the Chicago School, for rationalizing hierarchical relations, at an ideological level, in relation to contemporary non-democratic firms.
The origins and evolution of “Theory of the Firm” is not studied in great detail in most graduate or undergraduate economics classrooms. Ronald Coase’s “Theory of the Firm” is often conflated with Alfred Marshall’s “Theory of the Firm,” the latter in relation to so-called “Classical Demand Theory” which is in fact studied extensively in most higher-level Microeconomics classrooms. The latter is not what’s being discussed by Anderson. Anderson discusses the work of Ronald Coase (1920-2013) of the Chicago school, not Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), a potential source of confusion worth clarifying for non-economists. Furthermore, Coase’s “Theory of the Firm,” is also conflated with the Coase Theorem. Coase developed his “Theory of the Firm” in a 1937 paper titled, “The Nature of the Firm,” whereas the Coase Theorem was developed by Coase in his 1960 paper, “The Problem of Social Cost.” In contrast to Coase’s “Theory of the Firm,” the Coase theorem is studied extensively in the various sub-disciplines of economics such as Environmental Economics, Health Economics, and Public Economics.
Coase’s “Theory of the Firm” looks at the question of why people organize their economic activity in a firm, as opposed to conducting them in a series of “one-off” transactions, or in some other manner. The theory identifies “transaction costs,” such as search and information costs, bargaining costs, and trade secrets as reasons why people might organize themselves into a firm. The theory also looks at law and legal institutions as facilitating the creation of firms. In his own words, Coase writes
The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of “organizing” production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are. This cost may be reduced but it will not be eliminated by the emergence of specialists who will sell this information. The costs of negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction which takes place on a market must also be taken into account.
Coase goes on to say,
It is true that contracts are not eliminated when there is a firm, but they are greatly reduced. A factor of production (or the owner thereof) does not have to make a series of contracts with the factors with whom he is cooperating within the firm, as would be necessary, of course, if this cooperation were a direct result of the working of the price mechanism. For this series of contracts is substituted one.
Anderson rightly chastises Coase’s “Theory of the Firm”, for establishing an “ideological blinder,” used to justify hierarchical relations within the workplace, but in my view doesn’t go far enough. Anderson argues that Coase’s “Theory of the Firm,” “fails to explain the sweeping scope of authority that employers have over workers.” Anderson contrasts the operations of a vertically integrated firm with that of a non-vertically integrated firm. In a non-vertically integrated firm, that is, a firm that uses multiple independent contractors during its various stages of production, the firm incurs “excessive costs of contracting between the suppliers and the factors of production,” leading to “bilateral monopolies” and “opportunistic negotiations.” Within the framework of the Theory of the Firm, “the demand to periodically renegotiate rates [lead] contractors to hoard information and delay innovation for strategic reasons.” By contrast, the vertically integrated firm “[replaces] contractual relations among workers, and between workers and owners of other factors of production, with centralized authority,” enabling “close coordination of different workers.” as well as the “[internalization] of the benefits of all types of innovation within the firm as a whole.”
Anderson then continues her analysis of how modern economic theory, motivated by a composite ideology of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism, provides ideological justification for hierarchical relations within the workplace, by looking at some papers within the sub-discipline of economics known as Managerial Economics. She begins by examining a 1972 paper by economists Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz called, Production, Information Costs, and Economic Organization, published in the American Economics Review. The paper extends the “insights” of Coase (1937) by assessing the role of joint production, team organization, measuring (“metering”) and controlling output, as well as the problem of “shirking,” that is, avoiding one’s duties and responsibilities in the workplace.
Armen Alchian (1914-2013), and Harold Demsetz (1930-2019) were both economists who fell into the economic school of thought known as the Chicago School, a neoclassical school of thought advocating “free-markets” and minimal government intervention in the economy. In terms of their ideology, both Alchian and Demsetz adhered to the political philosophy known as “Libertarianism.” Of course, readers familiar with the Anarchist tradition are aware that Libertarianism was originally an anti-state, and anti-authoriatarian political philosophy which originated in socialist circles in Europe. The late Joseph Déjacque, an Anarcho-Communist, coined the phrase “Libertarian” in a letter to Anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon titled, De l’être-humain mâle et femelle, criticizing Proudhon for his sexist views. The modern American variant of “Libertarianism” has little, some would say no, relation to its American offspring.
Both Alchian and Demsetz have written extensively on the topics of Information, Transaction Costs, Property Rights, and the Theory of the Firm. Both Alchian and Demsetz are regarded highly by the economics discipline for their contributions to the sub-disciplines within economics known as Managerial Economics, as well as Law and Economics. The particular paper that Anderson examines by the two authors is an interesting choice. In their 1972 paper, Alchian and Desetz dispute the notion that a firm exercises any power or authority, since one can “punish the firm by withholding business or by seeking redress in the courts for any failure to honour our exchange agreement.” The essence of the “argument” being made by Alchian and Demsetz is contingent on voluntariness, that is, informed consent of the individual free of external intrusion by other individuals and the state. The apparent argument here is that there is no authority being exercised, since employees voluntarily enter and exit the “employment contract” at any moment. Anderson rightly berates this rationalization by suggesting that “This is like saying that Mussolini was not a dictator, because Italians could emigrate. While emigration rights may give governors an interest in voluntarily restraining their power, such rights hardly dissolve it.”
However, in my view, Anderson omits discussion of one of the main reasons given by Alchian and Demsetz as to why economic organization takes place in the form of firms. Alchian and Demsetz invoke the problem of “metering”, measuring and controlling output according to productivity. Alchian and Demsetz argue that organizing economic activity through a firm reduces the cost of “shirking”, the tendency of workers to do less work and put in less effort while working. They write,
If detecting [shirking] were costless, neither party would have an incentive to shirk, because neither could impose the cost of his shirking on the other (if their cooperation was agreed to voluntarily). But since costs must be incurred to monitor each other, each input owner will have more incentive to shirk when he works as part of a team, than if his performance could be monitored easily or if he did not work as a team. If there is a net increase in productivity available by team production, net of the metering cost associated with disciplining the team, then team production will be relied upon rather than a multitude of bilateral exchange of separable individual outputs.
They go on to ask,
What forms of organizing team production will lower the cost of detecting “performance” (i.e., marginal productivity) and bring personally realized rates of substitution closer to true rates of substitution? Market competition, in principle, could monitor some team production.
They conclude, “One method of reducing shirking is for someone to specialize as a monitor to check the input performance of team members.”
The paper goes on to justify the need for an ultimate “monitor of monitors”, the so-called “residual claimant,” an economic agent who imposes constraints on the various monitors of a firm and appropriates the net cash flow once all other claims against the firm’s assets have been satisfied.
Missing in this line of reasoning is the factual question of whether workers are compensated according to their “marginal productivity” in the first place. Marginal Productivity Theory is a theory of input demand and income distribution developed by John Bates Clark in The Distribution of Wealth, which suggests “every agent of production [receives] the amount of wealth which that agent creates.” Of course, this is a preposterous claim. Workers do not get paid according to the “value of their marginal productivity.” If a worker is 10% more “productive,” does that worker’s compensation also increase by 10%? Not according to the Economics Policy Institute, which has charted the relationship between “productivity” and wages since 1979, and has determined that while productivity has increased by roughly 70% from 1979 to 2018, hourly pay has only increased by a miserly 12%. Furthermore, in relation to the minimum wage, which is set by policy through the state, David Cooper of the EPI writes,
…since the late 1960s, lawmakers have let the value of the minimum wage erode, allowing inflation to gradually reduce the buying power of a minimum wage income. When the minimum wage has been raised, the increases have been too small to counter the decline in value that has occurred since 1968, when the minimum wage hit its peak in inflation-adjusted terms. In 2018, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 was worth 14.8 percent less than when it was last raised in 2009, after adjusting for inflation, and 28.6 percent below its peak value in 1968, when the minimum wage was the equivalent of $10.15 in 2018 dollars.
In reality, it is the “residual claimant,” the shareholder(s) of a firm, who appropriate gains in worker productivity and output, vis a vis increases in the value of the company’s stock price. Furthermore, this divergence between productivity and remuneration is most visible in the Third World, particularly in labour-abundant countries like China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and so on. If a garment worker in Bangladesh is paid, as an example, $2 per hour, this is not a reflection of that worker’s “productivity.” Yet, the premise of Alchian and Demsetz’s analysis of the firm presupposes that “If a farmer increases his output of wheat by 10 percent at the prevailing market price, his receipts also increase by 10 percent”, and that “If the economic organization meters poorly, with rewards and productivity only loosely correlated, then productivity will be smaller; but if the economic organization meters well productivity will be greater.” Anderson does not challenge this surface-level description of how workers earn their living. In her attempt to understand how ideology “misrepresents the situation of workers in the economy,” Anderson omits discussion of the locus classicus of neoclassical economic theory, Marginal Productivity Theory.
Tyler Cowen’s response is perhaps the most striking, illustrative of the ideological insulation of hard-line libertarians, and Laissez-Faire ideologues of Capitalism. Cowen essentially parrots Alchian and Demsetz (1972) and suggests that the authoritarian nature of modern firms is a non-issue, and says “ I don’t worry so much about the dictatorial power of companies if the costs of worker exit are relatively low.” Cowen then contradicts himself a few pages later and says “I readily grant the costs of exiting many jobs are too high,” but gives health insurance, retirement benefits, and immigration status as examples of why the costs to an employee for exiting a firm are high.
On the Democratic Governance of a firm and the role of Ideology
Anderson’s analysis in Private Government is concerned with particular form of egalitarianism, known as Relational Egalitarianism, often contrasted with Luck Egalitarianism. Relational Egalitarians argue that the focus of egalitarian justice should be the egalitarian nature of social relations, whereas Luck Egalitarians argue that the focus of egalitarian justice should be on the equal distribution of particular goods. It is in this context of Relational Egalitarian thought that Anderson examines how public institutions such as governments make themselves accountable to the public, and promotes four ways to advance freedom and democracy in the workplace: exit, rule of law constraints on employers, constitutional rights, and voice.
Like the government, Anderson argues that the right of individuals to exit a private firm should be upheld, the same way a democratic government upholds the right of individuals to exit a country. Anderson argues that “exit rights put pressure on governments to offer their subjects better deals.” Anderson goes on to say, “While employers can no longer hold workers in bondage, they can imprison workers’ human capital,” giving the example of California, which prohibits non compete clauses. Regarding “rule of law,” Anderson suggests that, like the state, the workplace should also embolden legal, intra-firm methods of resolving complaints, where managers exercise discretionary authority in accordance with centralized objectives. Anderson supports the establishment of a “workplace constitution,” akin to a country’s constitution or the bill of rights, which would explicitly demarcate the various protections workers are entitled to, as well as protect workers from harassment and abuse. Finally, similar to how the citizens of a country are able to voice their discontent and their opinions with respect to public policy, Anderson suggests that workers should also be able to voice their discontent with respect to a particular firm’s operational decisions. Anderson writes that in the U.S. unions organize at the level of the firm, rather than at the level of the industry. She contrasts this with the German Codetermination model, re-installed by the Allies in the 1950s after the defeat of the Nazis, as part of a wider strategy of denazification. The German codetermination model allows both labour and labor unions to participate in the management process by democratically electing almost half (depending on the type of firm and the particular industry) of a company’s board of directors.
Anderson remains latched on to her convictions as a thinker in the Classical Liberal tradition, and ends up reifying neoliberal approaches to reform the workplace within the Capitalist system. Though important reforms in their own right, Anderson’s four recommendations do not contain an overarching critique of Capitalism. Anderson suggests, “a market society, with appropriate reforms, could liberate workers,” but the question of a market-society itself being problematic, the question of Capitalist institutions like private property and the price system being problematic, are not addressed, falling in line with the underlying Classical Liberal ethos throughout the book. In fact, Anderson herself is a critic of neoliberalism. In her lecture, “The great reversal: How neoliberalism turned the economic aspirations of classical liberalism upside down in favour of capital interests,” she begins by addressing the very point I make above, regarding the divergence between productivity and hourly compensation. But even her lecture on Neoliberalism does not chastise Capitalism per se, rather it chastises Neoliberal Capitalism, a particular form or type of Capitalism. This leads me to conclude that Anderson embraces Capitalism, but repudiates Neoliberalism. A logically consistent position, but one that does not address the root causes of many of the social problems in a society where Capitalism as an economic system has primacy over all other modes or production.
Anderson argues “ideologies mask problematic features of our world, or cast those features in a misleadingly positive light, or lack the normative concepts needed to identify what is problematic about them, or misrepresent the space of possibilities so as to obscure better options, the means to realizing them, or their merits.” She goes on to say,
If it misses only relatively small, random, and idiosyncratic features, we should not condemn it. When these features are structurally embedded in the social world, so as to systematically undermine the interests of identifiable groups of people in serious or gratuitous ways, we need to revise our model to attend to them and identify means to change them. This is harder to do when the interests of those who dominate public discourse are already served by the dominant ideology.
The “ideology” that Anderson is criticizing in her two lectures is one that’s ill-defined, and changing over time. One might refer to this ideology as “liberalism,” or “classical liberalism,” but the focus of Anderson’s analysis is not the tenets of this “ideology” but rather the way in which this ideology “misrepresents the situation of workers in the economy, and that is thereby unable either to appreciate their complaints or to generate and properly evaluate possible remedies.”
In summary, Anderson does an excellent job addressing some of the most serious problems in our society today. Anderson’s examination of pre-industrial egalitarian social thought, beginning with the rise of The Levellers during the First English Civil War, provides a detailed picture into how the demand for private property and free trade emerged as a protest against the primacy of the Church of England in social affairs. Anderson also does a good job of arguing that the Industrial Revolution drastically changed egalitarian social thought through her examination of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Anderson also makes a strong case that Classical Liberalism has been appropriated by proponents of the Laissez-Faire doctrine, giving rise to a synthesis of libertarianism and authoritarianism, what Anderson calls Private Government.
Although Anderson does a good job of discussing the views of Adam Smith, Anderson omits discussion of the role the 18th century French school of thought, Physiocracy, and the role it had on Adam Smith’s assessment of Laissez-Faire as an economic doctrine. Furthermore, Anderson’s analysis of “Private Government” neglects criticism of the various methodological premises underlying modern neoclassical economic theory, which also give ideological justification for perpetuating hierarchical relations in the workplace. For instance, Anderson is keen to criticize Coase’s “Theory of the Firm,” but she does not mention Marginal Productivity Theory and its a priori presuppositions about empirical reality, which often go unchallenged in mainstream economic discourse.
Additionally, Anderson does not do a satisfactory job of analyzing alternate modes of production and economic systems. Although Anderson briefly mentions the German codetermination model, she does not examine Mondragon, perhaps the most successful example of an existing worker-run cooperative, founded in 1956. Furthermore, the question of class, race, and caste as analytical categories by which you can analyze hierarchical relations in the workplace is missing from Anderson’s analysis. Anderson’s analysis of “Private Government,” this non-accountable private entity, neglects how the internal hierarchy of the firm became highly polarized on the basis of race, class and other social indicators of status such as caste, as is the case in India.
In neoclassical theory, the concept of class is not considered useful as an analytical tool to analyze the economy and capitalism as an economic system. By contrast, classical political economy, which builds on the work of Smith, Ricardo and Marx, generally divides capitalism into three classes – Landlords, Capitalists, and Laborers – on the basis of the multiple iterations of the Labor Theory of Value. Neoclassical theory, on the other hand, analyzes distribution of income through the lens of “producers” and “consumers.” This, in my view, gives a distorted picture of the distributional impact of a particular policy. The “libertarian” approach, that is, American-style “libertarianism,” better styled as propertarianism, has an even more narrow perspective, the employee-employer relationship. This is problematic in my view because this approach abstracts from power relations, thus presenting a skewed perspective on distributional effects. As an example, many CEOs are “employees” of a firm, however some would suggest they are more than just employees, and that they enjoy a level of superiority and dominance in terms of social relations. Anderson fails to examine why this shift in the perspective of the production process occurred.
Moreover, there is no analysis of the state as an abstract entity in Anderson’s analysis. The remedies that Anderson suggests to reform the workplace – i.e. exit, rule of law constraints on employers, constitutional rights and voice – are modeled on the ideal democratic state. However, Anderson does not address the various ways in which the state itself enables hierarchical relations and unjust institutions. She simply assumes that the ideal Capitalist society ought to be modeled after the perfectly democratic state, a problematic presupposition. As a result, though insightful in its own right, Anderson’s investigation and policy prescriptions for “liberating workers” remain nested within our current, existing neoliberal paradigm.
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