Friday, February 15, 2008

Schweickart's Utopian Blueprint

This guy was reccommended reading by the professor of my Marxist Philosophy class years ago. I finally got around to reading it, and my response is below.

David Schweickart's Economic Democracy: A Worthy Socialism That Would Really Work(

Schweickart starts his essay with the concession that Marxists are "skeptical of blueprints" and that "it is not the business of Marxist intellectuals to tell the agents of revolution how they are to construct their postrevolutionary economy" he then goes on to layout a fairly utopian blueprint of a new economy. He justifies this contradiction by contending that the "long standing argument that socialism cannot work" needs now more than ever to be answered with "a theoretical model of a viable, desirable socialism".

This is not enough. Resistance to utopian blue prints is based on the fact that revolutionary processes are too radical to be hypothesized. Any radically different future society is going to be rooted in events and realizations that occur during the course of the revolution. They aren't just "not our business" they are completely outside our sphere of possible knowledge. Attempting to answer critics of socialism with anything other than evidence of capitalism's increasing instability and unsustainability is a fool's errand.

Is that then the total business of Marxist intellectuals? To repeatedly shout "doom!" at the stock market and the accumulation of capital? Is the only attitude leftists can adopt some mix of bitter pessimism about the present and absurd dreams about the future? Well, shit, I sure hope not. No wonder Marxism is getting less and less popular.

I think the business of Marxist intellectuals ought to be to track and identify observable macro-economic trends that indicate the beginnings of a spontaneous revolution. The question ought not to be "what will the future hold?" it ought to be "how are we progressing?" or "what indicators of a real revolution are present, and how can they be encouraged?"

If Schweickart is only advancing Economic Democracy as an alternative to capitalism to answer critic's claims that not-capitalism is impossible, then it's merely a rhetorical tool, a weapon used in parlor games and academic debates, not the outlines of "a worthy socialism that would really work." Oh well. I'm not above the occasional academic debate. This response is merely a diversion.

Schweickart summarizes his argument thusly:

"We have the tax revenues from capital assets, collected by the central government, dispersed throughout society to a network of local banks, which dispense these funds (some earmarked to encourage certain kinds of projects) to their affiliated firms and to newly created enterprises so as to optimize employment and the profitability of their affiliates. Thus we have a network of [cities whose economy is based on industrial cooperatives] that receive their funds for new investment from the public Investment Fund. The bank at the center of each can make grants as it sees fit, charging the standard use-tax [interest] on most, but allowing a reduced rate on encouraged projects. These grants, once received are not repaid, but they add to the capital assets of the firm and hence to it's tax base." (page 28)

This system is not radical enough. "Capital assets" are what Marx called the means of production and "Tax revenues" gained from them are only rhetorically different from "appropriated surplus value." The central government then acts like a shareholder, siphoning off profits from the worker's labor. The fact that these profits are "dispersed throughout society to a network of local banks, which dispense" them is wide open to favoritism, pork barrel legislation and outright corruption. Competition between banks to make the most profitable loans, and between applicants for those loans will tend toward monopolization. The companies that get grants this year will have a competitive advantage next year. They'll also be paying the bulk of the taxes and will demand the bulk of the revenue from those taxes. This whole thing fails to solve the problem of accumulation of wealth, which is the central paradox that makes capitalism unsustainable.

Well. That wasn't much of a diversion


Carl Davidson said...

You've got to do better than that, Comrade Winsome.

I see Schweickart's model, not as a 'near utopian' blueprint, but as an organizing principle for a socialist movement, an answer to the questions, 'What are you for' and 'how are we different' both both redistributionist liberalism and the failed socialisms of the past.

His model informs how we put together programs of deep structural reforms to work for an implement today, reforms that can both empower working class communities in the present, while serving as a school for their future mastery of all society.

We used his ideas to create and shape a new public high school in Chicago in a low-income Black neighborhood, the Austin Polytechnical Academy. But the better example is the 65,000 or so workers in the Mondragon region in Spain, in some 200 firms. They are thriving, and Schweickart based much of his model on what they are actually doing, and have done, over several decades. Now Mondragon, and Schweickart, are being closely studied in Argentina, Venezuela, Vietnam and China, by the governments and worker groups there.

Your idea of the task of Marxist intellectuals as giving 'progress reports' on the macro economy so we might have some idea of the timing and place of 'spontaneous' revolution is a curious one, but I don't share it. Reminds me of 'Waiting for Lefty,' the Odets play from the 1930s.

When a revolutionary crisis and situation is upon us, the shit hits the fan, as you suggest. But those periods are relatively rare, and if you're not preparing for them organizationally, at all levels, during the more protracted nonrevolutionary situations, then when they do occur, to use a term common where I grew up, you're 'up shit creek without a paddle.'

But a Marxism for nonrevolutionary conditions, but that still points to the future, is just what Schweickart has offered us here.

I think you would do well to give it much more serious attention than you do here.

--Carl Davidson

R. Winsome said...

I am faulting the entire socialist movement for organizing around an endless stream of utopian ideals. I'm saying that past socialism's didn't fail because they had the wrong economic ideal, i'm saying they failed because they approached the problem through imposition of ANY supposedly post-capitalist sytem on a capitalist world.

Models that inform programs of reforms aren't useful for radical change in the broader society. They might empower the working class today, but i suspect that empowerment is actually resulting from Scweickart's model inspiring well meaning bourgois folks to do things like invest in inner city high schools, rather than from the students of that school getting a significant benefit from the model itself. Starting inner city schools is great, it's a very charitable thing to do, improves many people's lives. But it's not going to make a revolution, and more importantly the model the school is founded on makes little difference. Schools based on conservative christianity benefit poor neighborhoods all accross this country. So do schools based on laissez faire ideologies.

If mondragon is employing this system, it's not really escaping capitalism. It might be making a new kind of capitalism, one which might be more sustainable, but (like most socialisms) the fact that it seeks to empower the working class means it hasn't left the capitalist mode of production. The proletariat is a product of the capitalist society and cannot be a revolutionary class any more than the feudal peasantry could rise, take the crown off the king and say "we're in charge now". Feudalism fell to the rise of a new class, not the empowerment of the lower class. Capitalism will fall the same way.

Marxists ought not be looking for spontaneous revolutions or crisis situations within the working class, or preparing for them in non-revolutionary contexts, they ought to be looking for radical new classes that are acting in non-capitalist ways and rising in power as a result. Like how the creative class is.

Carl Davidson said...

We'll just have to disagree--on a lot.

But you're missing the point on Mondragon.

The capital and labor markets there, within MCC, are abolished or severely restricted, even if the markets for goods and services are not.

How? First, there is no wage-labor. The worker-owners get a monthly draw on their annual share of the profits. Second, the capital market is restricted to the MCC worker-owned bank, essentially a credit union. A worker-owner can 'cash out' of a coop, but his or her share can only be sold to an incoming worker, and that worker, if there is a need, can only borrow funds for the buy-in from the worker-owned bank. Because the MCC worker-owners are not 'wage-labor,' the Spanish government excludes them from social insurance, but MCC has its own health and benefits provider, owned by it, to take up the slack. And the whole thing was started decades ago by a worker-community-owned technical school and its graduate, now an MCC university.

The whole MCC project is doing well and on a relatively large scale.

As for the school I mentioned in Chicago, you would do well to learn a little about it before dismissing it as liberal do-goodism, which it is not. Much closer to the Gramscian counter-hegemonic bloc on the micro-level, training its students with a view to worker control of the society and economy.

You can still still dismiss all this as irrelevant to your brand of what revolutionaries should be doing or not, but at least know what you're dismissing.

As for the 'creative class,' are you referring to the book with that title? It's very interesting as a 'values and lifestyle' clustering analysis, even useful politically, but hardly a 'new class,' unless your notion of class is any set you want to pin that label on.

R. Winsome said...

Richard Florida's creative class encompasses people that i wouldn't include in my understanding of the creative class. I'm talking primarily about the people who he describes as "street level culture" or as the "super radical core of the creative class". There's overlap (just as there is with any class) but the economic activities of many artists and culture creators do not fit the capitalist mode at all. So i would consider the creative class, to be those people whose primary economic activity is artistic rather than capitalistic.