Sunday, May 27, 2007

Now You Can Read the Whole Essay

My essay on "Making the Right to a Job More Than a Slogan" is now published. You can read it in the entry dated 21 May.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Monday, May 21, 2007

Making the Right to a Job More Than a Slogan

Keywords: job rights, jobs for all, employment rights, full employment, libertarian socialism, libertarian communism

Making the Right to a Job More Than a Slogan

A longstanding and widely held assumption has been that socialism and libertarianism are antagonistic. I intend to challenge this.

Now, there are some people who say they're for libertarian socialism. What they mean, in the best of cases, seems to be that socialist democracy should be largely decentralized to workplace collectives, with larger-scale planning only specifying overall input/output directives to the collectives; or, in some cases, that collectives should compete in a marketplace and be completely self-governing.

There are various weaknesses to these proposals. In the case of decentralized planning, there's the problem that it hasn't yet been shown to be workable anywhere; people are reluctant to work for a system that may not itself work. In the case of market socialism, the objection is raised that market mechanisms will cause capital to re-concentrate in whichever collectives have a technological advantage, and class differences will re-emerge in the form of "bourgeoisified" and "proletarianized" collectives.

In answer, market socialists sometimes say that state regulation and taxes can be used to prevent imbalances. I don't find this satisfactory, for two reasons. First, state regulation has a poor record when it comes to controlling market forces; state bureaucrats are too few to monitor a whole economy, and can often be bought off by whoever already controls the most wealth. One can hope that supervision by the community at large will do the job, but again no examples can be offered where this has worked in the long run. It may not be realistic to expect that most people, most of the time, are going to be that vigilant.

Secondly, the state-regulation approach permanently writes off the idea of having the state wither away, a utopian aspect that is one of the most appealing features of the communist vision for me, and probably for many others.

At the same time, the historical record suggests that a pure-planning approach carries considerable statist dangers. The record of Stalinism is often cited as proof that this is inherent in socialism. While orthodox Trotskyism makes a reasonable argument for alternative causes of Stalinism, it cannot prove these empirically. Again, this record makes people reluctant to support revolutionary socialism, especially in countries with a long tradition of civil liberties.

So, does this mean that libertarian socialism is an unrealistic project? I don't think so. Instead, I think the problem is that none of its advocates, to the best of my knowledge, has taken it to its logical conclusion. That conclusion is that, to be truly libertarian, socialism's fundamental agent of production can't be the work collective; it has to be the individual worker.

Hold on a minute, you're thinking -- how can it be socialism if the individual is the fundamental agent? To answer this question, let's step back a moment and examine closely what really defines private property.

What makes private property private?

Today, it's common to view private property and state property as the two branches of a dichotomy. But for most of history, private owners and state owners have been largely one and the same: god-kings, feudal lords, etc. The counterposing of the two categories as essential opposites really only arises with the appearance of capitalism as a social system; embarrassingly for conventional (procapitalist) libertarian theorists, it's the appearance of public (initially royal) property whose essential function is to facilitate transit and commerce, rather than to monopolize productive wealth, that makes the capitalist system possible. (Its novel status is subsequently consolidated through constitutional/republican revolutions.)

So, what does the creation of this public property mean? It means that everyone has an equal right of way on it -- making possible the free movement of goods, key to the superior productivity of capitalism over preceding systems. By contrast, private property is property that a private owner can monopolize and control access to, be he a personal sovereign like precapitalist rulers, or a modern capitalist.

In fact one of the classical political economists, David Ricardo, argued to make capitalism even more efficient by nationalizing land, so that wealth wouldn't be siphoned off by "idle" landlords from the "working classes," which from his standpoint included both capitalists and waged workers. Instead, land would be re-leased periodically to whoever could pay the highest rent, which would presumably be whoever could put it to the most productive and therefore profitable use. (An echo of this idea is heard today in the "Single Tax" of the Georgists.)

Note that, importantly, Ricardo's idea was not to statize land in order to implement central governmental control of its use, but rather to free the individual capitalist to invest wherever he could do the most good. But this overlooked the fact that capital is also created from natural resources, and so its private ownership is ultimately just another form of monopoly over a part of nature, allowing some to profit from the application of (other people's) labor to it -- which Ricardo himself first recognized to be the sole source of new value.

The nub of the issue is that property is private insofar as someone -- anyone -- can deny access to it. (Note that the word is related to deprive, privation, and privilege.) Whether the entity doing the denying is an individual, a corporation, a state, or a collective, the ability arbitrarily to deny access gives it power over the individual seeking employment. She consequently may have to subordinate herself to that entity's terms, regardless of whether they are legitimately entailed by the requirements of production, in exchange for the opportunity to work. This is what gives her the status of wage-slave, no matter who is setting those terms. So the key to real freedom, from a materialist standpoint, is unqualified access to economic wealth: the right to participate in social production.

So, then, how does one finally give agency exclusively to those who actually create new wealth? The answer should now be apparent: nationalize capital to give the individual worker freedom to invest her labor wherever she feels she can use it best. So where the political republic created by bourgeois revolutions gives people unilateral freedom of movement to exercise their civic rights in the state, county, ward, and division of their choosing, the economic republic created by a proletarian revolution would give them unilateral choice of the enterprise in which to exercise their economic rights. In the same way that, today, no one can arbitrarily prevent me from voting where I want, provided I'm willing to live in and give some of my money (taxes) to that political unit, so, in an economic commonwealth, I couldn't be arbitrarily excluded from exercising my franchise in and sharing in the profits of any company I wished, in proportion to the number of hours I was willing to give to it.

This solves at one stroke the principal objection to market socialism -- that market laws would cause class differences to reappear under a new guise -- not by the dubious, inefficient method of state regulation, but by creating a new individual right, one that would provide an automatic corrective to any tendency for wealth to re-concentrate. Much as, under capitalism, the rate of profit "seeks its own level" via capital's flow toward the arenas of greatest return, so in this system hourly wages would equilibrate via labor's flow toward wherever it enjoyed the best rewards (qualitative as well as quantitative). Now, instead of the burden of proof's resting on the state to show that a collective had broken a regulation or evaded taxes, it would be on the collective to explain why it hadn't let someone clock in.

An objection may be raised at this point that, with a job guaranteed, people wouldn't feel the need to actually work.But with wages directly linked to a company's profits, rather than a fixed hourly rate, everyone would have a clear incentive to be productive. True enough, if a company became outstandingly profitable, more people would join to share in this, bringing compensation per member down again. But insofar as the high profits had been based on working harder or smarter, not just longer, this would leave the original members with more leisure time than they'd started with, so they'd still be ahead.

The role of social incentives might be even more important. Most people will not be very comfortable slacking off, if they have to spend a full workday around those whose labor they're living off of.

How do we get there?

Now that we've sketched the outlines of an economic commonwealth, we have to think about how we can bring it about. With Marx, I think that socialism can arise only from workers' self-activity and self-organization, both political and economic; the question then is how this vision of socialism would inform workers' self-activity.

For the labor movement, it could have considerable implications. If the fight against unemployment -- the main factor holding wages down -- is not focused entirely on asking the government to create jobs, but largely on opening existing work to the unemployed, this suggests that unions should try to wrest control over hiring from employers, and use this to spread the work around. The ultimate objective would be for the workers to control the company totally, self-managing it through their union.

In most cases this couldn't be accomplished in one leap, inasmuch as political power was still held by the capitalists. It might involve a strategic "detour" wherein a union would not demand an increased wage package, but ask instead for it to be converted to a collective profit share for it to divide among its members. (To work to their benefit, such a contract must include a guarantee of access to the company's -- real -- books.) The sweetener for the capitalist in such an arrangement would be the union's direct investment in the company's profitability. The strategic gain for the union would be a reduction in the area unemployment level, an increase in community goodwill and identification with the union, and a consequent reduction in the likelihood of scabbing in the event of a strike.

Doubtless some capitalists wouldn't agree initially to any loss of control over hiring; unions could still pursue this strategy in other ways. They could raise members' dues sufficiently to provide everyone in the area pay equivalent to their net wages; or they could create free community services such as a kitchen, health clinic, etc. It might be held implausible to expect members to sacrifice some of their immediate interests for the sake of their unemployed neighbors; but consider that this is just what many union workers have done over the years in the name of keeping their employers in business -- a gamble that often didn't pay off. This approach differs in that it proposes to invest in solidarity not with the capitalist but with fellow workers, who are far less likely to renege if only because they often have nowhere else to go. It may go over especially easily with community-based labor organizations like Black Workers for Justice, since they already have a perspective that transcends the purely trade-union.

Some may object to this approach because it would subject unions to the "logic of profit." But such an objection reflects a confusion between two different meanings of profit. One sense is the capitalist's profit: the net income he has after covering all costs. Insofar as he's done no socially useful work himself, this is value created entirely by the workers' labor, but not kept by them -- what Marx termed surplus-value. Profit in this sense has an inverse relation with wages.

But the other sense of profit is revenue after non-human elements of production are covered -- the net increase of wealth to be divided between workers and capitalists. This is simply a measure of the social utility of the enterprise, and not of exploitation. It's profit in this sense that I'm proposing to divide up among the workers -- and for unions to demand a percentage of within the context of the present system.

If the argument is made that it's inherently less "pro-social" to operate on the principle of profit rather than planning, I would answer that there's simply no evidence that this is true in practice. There appears instead to be abundant evidence that markets are very efficient aggregators of information, and that if they don't meet human needs optimally at present, this is due to the skewed distribution of income, which would be precluded by my proposal.

None of this should be construed as suggesting that areas already widely recognized as "externalities" to the market should be subjected to it. Things that even developed capitalist countries generally treat as public goods -- such as the environment, infrastructure, and health care (with the notable exception of the U.S.) -- could continue to be.

Political approaches

I've discussed things labor organizations can do to start constructing the new order within the cocoon of capitalism. But what about political action?

As a historical materialist, I doubt that any anticapitalist movement can get very far without the support of organized labor. Nonetheless, even groups that as yet lack much of a labor base, such as the Greens, can propose something like this as an alternative vision for society. It's even more natural for the Labor Party, which counts some major unions among its members and affiliates. A suitably radical approach would be to advocate a Constitutional amendment to change property relations in fell swoop. As I noted in an earlier entry, Congress is presently derelict in its duty to call a Constitutional Convention, having been petitioned by forty-nine states when, according to Article V of the U.S. Constitution, only two-thirds (34) of them must do so to mandate such a call. A convention would be the most appropriate forum for introducing such a revolutionary amendment.

As the opportunity arises, a more gradual path could also be tried, such as offering tax incentives to capitalists who agree to donate their companies to the public for conversion to "open enterprises," or however one might choose to designate them. (I'm suggesting this term to indicate that they'd be open for anyone to join at will.) The possibility that many capitalists may do this voluntarily should not be underestimated, especially as a generation of them grows up in a world where such arrangements have become increasingly common and possibly "hip." In this connection, it's worth recalling that, as Frank Sulloway has demonstrated, support for many radical social movements, such as the French Revolution, has been predicted more by individuals' birth order than by their class origins [1].

Some may condemn such an approach as antirevolutionary. It's undeniable that, at the time he wrote the Communist Manifesto, Marx believed only "forcible" revolution could overthrow capitalism. This is understandable given that democracy was nowhere to be found in Europe then. Another factor shaping his early thinking was that it appeared inevitable that workers' wages sank to the minimum necessary for survival, or below. He later saw the need to revise this view in light of advances by the labor movement, and conceived a distinction between "natural" and "social" components of the value of labor-power, with the latter being determined by trade-union and other struggles. Even with this correction, however, he may have continued to underestimate the degree to which workers could improve their position under capitalism.

If Marx erred on this point, it's because he thought he was analyzing capitalism in its last throes when it was really still in its infancy. I would suggest that the proletarian revolution may turn out to be much more like the bourgeois revolutions than Marx thought possible, in the sense that it will have been preceded by a considerable period of gradual accumulation of strength by the revolutionary class, perhaps in part through the sort of labor movement strategy that I described previously.

This is not to deny that, at some point, there may be violent resistance by a hard-line element of the old ruling class to finally rewriting the fundamental rules to clear away the remaining "bourgeois rubbish" in the legal system, to paraphrase Marx. But the more workers have done to build up a broad-based and deeply rooted social/political/economic power base before this point is reached, the less of a problem this will be.

To summarize, I propose to redefine socialism in terms of the individual right to employment, rather than by a general preference for planning over markets or "human needs before profits." This conceptualization would have the advantages of not arousing fears of totalitarianism associated with planning, and of being based on a mechanism (the market) that is known from experience to work well for those with an adequate income, which this system could guarantee everyone. Last but not least, it will appeal viscerally to anyone who has ever hated having to work for a boss.

Eric Hamell
27 May 2007

[1] Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, by Frank J. Sulloway. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Anticopyright -- Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this essay, provided it is reproduced in its entirety, including the author's name, blog title and URL, and this paragraph.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Seen on a T-shirt the other day: "I'm not an asshole -- JUST AN AMERICAN." Perfect for traveling abroad!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Veto No, Peace Yes"?

Some people at the impeachment rally the other day were holding signs saying, "Veto No, Peace Yes." So I approached one and said this made no sense to me. Surely it's good that Bush is vetoing a war spending bill, whatever his motives may be. She agreed, but added that she feared the Democrats would eventually "cave" and vote a bill without any deadlines.

This may indeed be, but it misses the point. The point is that it utterly confuses the issue to protest, in the name of peace, the veto of a war spending bill just because it was passed by an opposition party that claims to be for peace yet votes for more war with only a few dubious strings attached. It lets the Democrats off the hook for being prowar while letting them, rather than the objective requirements of peace, set the agenda.

What would have been an appropriate slogan, you ask? How about "Veto All War Funding"? It's just as concise as the other slogan, with the bonus of actually making sense!

Eric Hamell