Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2019

Aaron Bastani and the empty promise of utopian futurism

Filed under: utopian thought — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

Most of my readers probably had the same reaction to Aaron Bastani’s NY Times op-ed piece last week titled “The World Is a Mess. We Need Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that I had. Like the countless articles in the bourgeois press hyping the DSA and Jacobin, this was just another attempt to defend a toothless version of Marxism.

Bastani’s op-ed was tied to the release of his Verso book of the same title that is a compendium of futurist wet-dreams about how mining asteroids, gene editing, synthetic meat and other technological fixes can create “automated luxury”. Bastani sees himself as a prophet of an information technology based economy that will be the third “disruption” that was preceded by two other “disruptions”: the agricultural revolution that pushed aside hunting and gathering societies and the industrial revolution that laid the groundwork for the material basis for communism. Essentially, Bastani’s book is a mixture of the Communist Manifesto’s breathless embrace of capitalist productivity and all the contemporary Wired Magazine type articles about information technology-based advances that will make communism feasible. Since I haven’t read the book, you might wonder how I can sum it up in this fashion. The answer is that I watched the YouTube interview with the author above and it was all I need to know. I should add that it was one of the longest hour and twenty-four minutes I have sat through in many a moon.

My reaction to Bastani was about the same I had to Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s “People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism”, another Verso book that made an amalgam between leading-edge informatics and a classless society. Unlike Phillips (I am not sure about Rozworski), Bastani is not an ecomodernist touting atomic energy, GMO and the like. For example, Bastani believes that meat consumption is a waste of land and water whereas Phillips is a Green Revolution groupie. Bastani favors synthetic meat and milk using laboratory techniques that apparently have produced goods close to the real thing. Who knows? Maybe nuclear power could be an answer to our energy needs under communism. But you will search in vain for anything in books by Bastani or Phillips about  overcoming capitalist rule. They are futurists, not now-ists.

There is something deeply utopian about such futurist projects. Rather than constructing utopian socialist settlements like Robert Owen, Phillips and Bastani hearken back to Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”, a utopian novel written in 1888 that has the same starry-eyed vision of a classless society of the future based on technological breakthroughs. Oddly enough, Bellamy was fixated on department stores just like Phillips and Rozworski. Like Rip Van Winkle, the novel’s main character falls asleep but for a much longer time. 113 years to be exact. Like Woody Allen in “Sleeper”, he is astonished by all the changes that have taken place but favorably so. His guide is a young woman named Edith who clues him on all the new-fangled ways of doing things:

I suppose so,” said Edith, “but of course we have never known any other way. But, Mr. West, you must not fail to ask father to take you to the central warehouse some day, where they receive the orders from the different sample houses all over the city and parcel out and send the goods to their destinations. He took me there not long ago, and it was a wonderful sight. The system is certainly perfect; for example, over yonder in that sort of cage is the dispatching clerk. The orders, as they are taken by the different departments in the store, are sent by transmitters to him. His assistants sort them and enclose each class in a carrier-box by itself. The dispatching clerk has a dozen pneumatic transmitters before him answering to the general classes of goods, each communicating with the corresponding department at the warehouse. He drops the box of orders into the tube it calls for, and in a few moments later it drops on the proper desk in the warehouse, together with all the orders of the same sort from the other sample stores. The orders are read off, recorded, and sent to be filled, like lightning. The filling I thought the most interesting part. Bales of cloth are placed on spindles and turned by machinery, and the cutter, who also has a machine, works right through one bale after another till exhausted, when another man takes his place; and it is the same with those who fill the orders in any other staple. The packages are then delivered by larger tubes to the city districts, and thence distributed to the houses. You may understand how quickly it is all done when I tell you that my order will probably be at home sooner than I could have carried it from here.”

It is likely that Bellamy got his ideas from utopian or semi-utopian experiments of his age. Wikipedia reports that the novel’s hero “is taken to a store which (with its descriptions of cutting out the middleman to cut down on waste in a similar way to the consumers’ cooperatives of his own day based on the Rochdale Principles of 1844) somewhat resembles a modern warehouse club like BJ’s, Costco, or Sam’s Club.” Or Phillips/Rozworski’s Wal-Mart for that matter. Interestingly enough, my little village in the Borscht Belt that PM newspaper described as a ‘Utopia in the Catskills” back in 1947 was founded on Rochdale Principles. It was about as close as you got to Rojava in the USA at the time, and about as connected to the task of socialist revolution for that matter. The Catskill Jews, like the Syrian Kurds, had an egalitarian spirit but little understanding of how that might be generalized in a brutal capitalist society. That has always been the Achilles Heel of utopianism, I should add.

The more I dig into this Marxist futurism stuff, the more it seems like an avoidance of the far more dicey challenges we face as revolutionary activists and thinkers. It doesn’t take much more than a knowledge of information technology, biology and chemistry to write a book about Future World. But what good is that when you are faced with wrenching issues such as Brexit and Corbynism? Despite all the assurances Bastani gives us about a feasible automated luxury communism of the future, his political orientation today is simply one of supporting Jeremy Corbyn. While I would likely do so myself if I were in England, I would also be trying to help create a revolutionary organization that avoids SWP type sectarianism. To move toward communism, it is essential to create a working-class vanguard party that is rooted in the lived experience of Americans, British, French or workers wherever they live. Writing books about mining asteroids strikes me as an empty exercise that might make money for the author but have little impact on society. (Bastani’s book is rated #11 in Communism & Socialism, according to Amazon.)

Other leftists have weighed in with the same kind of futuristic scenarios. Paul Mason, a well-known British journalist who was in a Trotskyist sect when young, came out with a book titled “PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” in 2015, one that largely escaped my attention. According to Wikipedia, Mason “builds on Marx’s Fragment on Machines, supporting the labour theory of value over the marginal utility theory, and drawing particularly on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Peter Drucker’s Post-Capitalist Society.” I don’t want to accuse Bastani of plagiarism but this is exactly the same sort of thing you can hear from him in the YouTube video above. He shares Mason’s fondness for Peter Drucker and Jeremy Rifkin, quite a bit. An acquired taste, I guess.

Google Books has a capsule description of Rifkin’s book that is virtually identical to the arguments made in Bastani’s interview, where you can hear the term “marginal cost” at least 25 times:

Rifkin uncovers a paradox at the heart of capitalism that has propelled it to greatness but is now taking it to its death—the inherent entrepreneurial dynamism of competitive markets that drives productivity up and marginal costs down, enabling businesses to reduce the price of their goods and services in order to win over consumers and market share. (Marginal cost is the cost of producing additional units of a good or service, if fixed costs are not counted.) While economists have always welcomed a reduction in marginal cost, they never anticipated the possibility of a technological revolution that might bring marginal costs to near zero, making goods and services priceless, nearly free, and abundant, and no longer subject to market forces.

Now, a formidable new technology infrastructure—the Internet of things (IoT)—is emerging with the potential of pushing large segments of economic life to near zero marginal cost in the years ahead. Rifkin describes how the Communication Internet is converging with a nascent Energy Internet and Logistics Internet to create a new technology platform that connects everything and everyone. Billions of sensors are being attached to natural resources, production lines, the electricity grid, logistics networks, recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores, vehicles, and even human beings, feeding Big Data into an IoT global neural network. Prosumers can connect to the network and use Big Data, analytics, and algorithms to accelerate efficiency, dramatically increase productivity, and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero, just like they now do with information goods.

I probably couldn’t persuade Bastani to lay off an intellectual lightweight like Rifkin if I tried. According to Wikipedia, Rifkin has taught at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania since 1995, where he “instructs CEOs and senior management on transitioning their business operations into sustainable economies.” Who knows? With Bastani having the clout to get an op-ed in the NY Times, maybe he’ll end up giving the same kind of advice to CEO’s down the road.

Then, there is Peter Frase, a Jacobin editor who came out with a Jacobin book in 2016 titled “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism”, a book that Bastani hailed in his interview—surprise, surprise. (It looks like Verso and Jacobin have cornered the futurist market.) Frase was into crystal-ball gazing five years before the book was published. In 2011, he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “Four Futures” that sounds a lot like Rifkin’s. Frase views automation as freeing us from labor for the first time in history:

What possible society could be so productive that humans are entirely liberated from having to perform some kind of involuntary and unfulfilling labor? Yet the promise of widespread automation is that it could enact just such a liberation, or at least approach it—if, that is, we find a way to deal with the need to generate power and secure resources.

Like Bastani, Frase is gung-ho on 3D printers:

But recent technological advances suggest the possibility of returning to a less centralized structure, without drastically lowering material standards of living: the proliferation of 3-D printers and small scale ‘fabrication laboratories’ is making it increasingly possible to reduce the scale of at least some manufacturing without completely sacrificing productivity. Thus, insofar as some human labor is still required in production in our imagined communist future, it could take the form of small collectives rather than capitalist or state run firms.

He also riffs on Star Trek, computer games and other free-floating popular culture signifiers. The article is worth reading because it will give you an idea of how these futuristic themes have become so endemic in a leftist milieu that operates in two radically disjointed spheres: “democratic socialist” electoralism of the here-and-now and science fiction-like excursions into the future.

I have a completely different idea on how the political awakening of American or British workers will take place. It will not be the result of a book like “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” being passed from worker to worker at an auto plant in Tennessee or in a meatpacking house in Nebraska. Most workers are conservative, atomized and family-oriented. Their life revolves around the children and their pastimes like watching sports on TV, bowling, going to church, hunting, fishing and the like.

In the same way, I was conservative back in 1965. Not in the sense of being a William F. Buckley fan (although that was true when I was in high school, mostly to annoy other students who worshipped JFK.) I hardly expected in my senior year of Bard to be facing the draft a year later. That was an intrusion into my quotidian existence that consisted of smoking pot, listening to records, reading fiction and trying to find a girlfriend. The idea of going into the army to kill or be killed was such an attack on my personal safe space that I was forced to try to understand why this intrusion was happening. This meant reading the NY Times carefully on Vietnam (an unproductive exercise in 1966) and listening to what my classmates at the New School were saying, including a member of the SWP.

The same thing will happen in the USA as the contradictions of capitalism continue to mount. At some point there will be an assault on Social Security and/or Medicare that will force the conservative and atomized American working class to investigate the source of their pain. The last thing on their mind will be mining asteroids or eating synthetic hamburgers. Instead, it will be how to remove the knife that has been plunged into their back. You saw something like this happening in France with the gas tax fomenting the Yellow Vest movement that appears to have petered out.

The historical dynamics are unmistakable. Capitalism has entered an irreversible crisis that has to this point generated reactionary populist tendencies. As long as the bourgeoisie is careful not to go too far, the situation will not favor the growth of revolutionary parties. However, there will come a time when people become so desperate about the misery that is being forced on them that they will feel the need of challenging the system in the same way workers did when Debs was a presidential candidate. When this period develops, there will be a profound struggle on the left about reform versus revolution. You see the beginnings of this debate being foreshadowed in the exchanges on “neo-Kautskyism”, the sterile formula so popular among the Jacobin cadre. Like the 1960s, the next radicalization will be a fertile seedbed for the kind of revolutionary organizing we need to be successful in the final struggle for socialism. In the here and now, the most important thing is to adhere to uncompromising class principles and avoid utopian thinking like the plague.

September 21, 2016

Michael Albert versus Karl Marx

Filed under: economics,utopian thought — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm

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Michael Albert

After reading the interview Michael Albert gave to the Turkish journal Democratic Modernity and that was crossposted on ZNet today under the title “Beyond Marxism”, I had to carefully consider whether it was worth my time and effort to answer him. Quite frankly, Michael Albert’s left publishing kingdom is no longer what it once was. His South End Press had shut down in 2014 with Publishers Weekly citing Howard Zinn’s agent “we had a hassle with South End, getting back rights to 10 of Howard’s books. And we have not received payment from them for several years.”

My cyber-friend Charles Davis had recently circulated a petition with the heading “Give Charles His Money, Michael” that stated: “Charles Davis is owed $500 by Michael Albert of Znet, who administered teleSUR English’s OpEd page at the time Charles wrote two OpEds for said page. Mr. Albert was given money with which to compensate writers for that page. That money never made it to Charles Davis, a good boy who has politely and repeatedly requested that he receive it, to no avail.” Apparently the petition had the intended effect—Charles got his hard-earned money.

When ZNet was in its heyday, it was the go-to place for left analysis from Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and others outside of a strictly Marxist framework. Albert himself had invented an ideology in partnership with economist Robin Hahnel called Participatory Economics (Parecon) that was advertised as being beyond Marxism, just like the article mentioned above. I always thought that this was chutzpah of biblical proportions but that’s not unusual on a left where megalomania rules.

While hundreds, if not thousands, of websites are devoted to spreading Marxist ideas, somehow nobody has come forward to disseminate the Thoughts of Michael Albert. His influence is questionable at best. While I am not sure how much science there is to the Alexa ratings, Counterpunch has a ranking twelve times that of ZNet, namely 7,081 to 86,631 (a ranking of 1 is awarded to the most visited website, in this case google.com). My own obscure and openly cranky blog is ranked 105,634 and I do everything I can to alienate people.

I finally decided to write this article in the same spirit as the one I wrote on 9/11 Truthers. As absurd as Parecon and controlled demolitions are, something might be gained by defending facts and logic.

Albert begins:

Crisis engulfs. We react. Out comes Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and whoever else.

We quote, quote, quote icons. We shove our own words down the hopper of history so we can echo the Ultimate Angel. Elderly left scholars just keep muttering, Marx said it, Marx knew it, see Volume Three.

Marxologists seem to not care that normal people avoid regurgitated unexplained jargon that lacks clarity and timelyness [sic]. The listener’s anticipation of obscure, impersonal, irrelevance cripples communication.

Who is it exactly that invoked Volume Three of Capital like a radio preacher referring to biblical chapter and verse? Michael Roberts whose blog consists mainly of a review of statistics from government agencies? I know it couldn’t be me since I never read V. 3 of Capital except in dribs and drabs. Since Albert has crossposted articles I wrote for Counterpunch on several occasions, I suppose I pass muster. I am only glad that I never found myself in the position of being owed money. (Counterpunch always paid promptly.)

For Albert, there is a disjunction between word and deed within Marxism. The Marxists believe in a classless society but once in power they become a new ruling class. It always struck me that people who make this argument should not have bothered. The Who said it all, plus you could dance to their analysis:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

The term that Albert coined for this new Marxist class formation is “coordinationism”. It is basically a function of operating an economy from the top down rather than the bottom up:

Put every Marxist text about economics in a pile. I bet that to the extent they provide a serious institutional explanation of preferred allocation mechanisms, incentives, distribution of income, and producer and consumer decision making, they advocate overwhelmingly and perhaps even exclusively, markets and or central planning, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for output, and authoritative decision making, all of which breed coordinator class rule.

Mercifully, Albert spared his readers the cure-all for all this hierarchical top-down control that he and his writing partner Robin Hahnel cooked up. Have any of you ever read their stuff on Participatory Democracy? It is not only mind-numbing; it is an exercise in what Karl Marx called writing recipes for the cookbook of the future. (Oh, my gosh! I quoted Marx. I am doomed.)

Self-managed worker councils have autonomy over how they go about rating their members. The only restriction placed on them is that the average effort rating that worker councils award their members is capped. This could be done by either giving the same cap to all workplaces or by basing it on the social benefit to social cost ratio of the workplace as explained in participatory planning on the next page. The reason for capping is to avoid the possibility of workers over-estimating each others effort ratings in return for the same favour, or what could lead to “effort rating inflation”.

Think about this. If in 1990 or so, Albert and Hahnel had gotten their hands on a time-machine like the DeLorean in “Back to the Future” and transported themselves back 70 years to the USSR and put their lofty thoughts into the hands of V.I. Lenin who then slapped his forehead and exclaimed “Why hadn’t I thought of this?”, would that have made any difference?

Unfortunately, the Parecon twins are obviously unschooled in historical materialism, which is the only methodology that would have explained how the USSR degenerated. The people who were committed to a classless society were largely killed off in the civil war. Young workers who fought with the Red Army sacrificed their lives in the hope that a new society could be built on the principles of the Paris Commune or the Soviets. For their efforts, they were bombed, shot and bayoneted by 21 invading armies. When the Soviet economy required people with the basic literacy and administrative skills to run a telephone company or a post office, the government was forced to put men and women in charge who had not joined the Red Army like factory workers and poor peasants had done. They relied on apparatchiks from the Czarist bureaucracy.

Maybe Albert would have recommended an alternative to the centralized phone company and post office that are hangovers from capitalist society. I can just see his recipe for avoiding such an essentially hierarchical mode of production—using tin cans connected by waxed string and carrier pigeons.

Around 20 years ago I wrote an article titled “Neo-Utopian Socialism”. It is worth repeating what I said about Albert and Hahnel back then:

Turning to their “Looking Forward”, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s [and Hahnel’s] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as the schemas of the 19th century predated it. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Another cause of utopian thought is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies. Except for North Korea and Cuba, there is not a country in the world that doesn’t seem to be galloping at full speed into the capitalist sphere. As this anti-capitalist reality becomes part of history, it is tempting to create an alternative reality where none of the contradictions of “existing socialism” existed.

This is fundamentally an ahistorical approach and will yield very little useful new political guidelines about how to achieve socialism in the future. These answers will not come out of utopian fantasies, but in further analysis of the historical reasons underlying the collapse of the USSR. In-depth analysis by serious scholars such as Moshe Lewin focus on the structural problems, not on statements made by Lenin and Trotsky made on management wrenched out of context.

January 26, 2011

Dueling Utopias

Filed under: utopian thought — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Russell Jacoby

Erik Olin Wright

In the latest issue of Dissent, a social democratic journal founded by Irving Howe in 1954, there’s a remarkably vituperative review of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias by Russell Jacoby, a UCLA professor. This is the most vicious paragraph:

WHAT IS one to make of this morass? Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. He refers to exactly one book in the utopian tradition, Martin Buber’s 1949 Paths in Utopia. Buber’s book closed with a discussion of the kibbutz, a subject that would seem to call out to Wright. After all, the kibbutz is a “real utopia” with a socialist ethos and decades of practice. Are there lessons to be found here? Daniel Gavron’s suggestive book The Kibbutz, subtitled “Awakening from Utopia,” sought to appraise its past and future. Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it. Nor does he say much about the “real utopias” in Brazil, Canada, and Spain. He says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.

It must be understood that Jacoby has a special interest in knocking down someone who writes about utopian socialism, especially a figure with some authority in the academic milieu that is home to both of them. Reading Jacoby’s appraisal of Wright, one wonders if there is a kind of envy at work:

He [Wright] is a chaired professor who has just been elected president of the American Sociological Association, the premier professional organization of the field. He often lectures at universities across the globe. He teaches in what many consider the finest sociology department in the country, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Madison department is where C. Wright Mills received his doctorate, and it housed his mentor, Hans Gerth, an émigré scholar who was a student of another sociologist, Karl Mannheim, whose 1929 Ideology and Utopia remains a touchstone study.

From the looks of it, Wright has won more blue ribbons than Heineken beer, as my good friend the late Mark Jones once described David Harvey. In this rarefied arena, the competition is very intense when it comes to Marxism, at least as defined as published articles and books that few sans-culottes activists will ever have the time or the energy to read.

This is not the first time that Jacoby has gone for the jugular. In the April 10, 2006 Nation Magazine, he went after a young academic named Eric Lott whose book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual he described thusly:

In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the “liberal front” he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you’d think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.

I wrote about the Jacoby attack on Lott not long after it appeared:

Since Jacoby is a sworn enemy of post-Marxism and anything remotely smacking of academic obscurantism (he was seen as an ally of Alan Sokal in a Lingua Franca article on the fight against jargon, while Lott has taken Sokal down a notch or two in the pages of the Village Voice), it is to be expected that he would attempt to smear Lott with alleged connections to figures such as Etienne Balibar (there are surely much worse than Balibar) and a propensity for terms like “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity.” Frankly, with what I have learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contests of yore.

Improbably invoking Lenin, Jacoby suggests that Lott’s work smacks of ‘infantile leftism,’ but when “Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.” I don’t quite know how to put this, but there should be a law against somebody like Russell Jacoby invoking Lenin. This is what the Turks call chutzpah.

But you can really figure out where Jacoby is coming from through his defense of Todd Gitlin’s and other “old fogies” call for a “universal left.” Let’s get something straight. This “universal left” has nothing to do with reconstituting the Communist International. All it is a call for rebuilding the Labor-Civil Rights-Democratic Party coalition under the leadership of a latter-day Hubert Humphrey. Gitlin voted for Humphrey in 1968 and will never forgive the radical movement for telling the truth about Humphrey, namely that he was a warmonger and a corporate stooge.

The latest contretemps with Wright has an added dimension. Although you might not have figured it out from Jacoby’s review, Jacoby is a long-standing utopian socialism theorist so there is a kind of turf battle going on. How dare Wright tackle a subject that Jacoby has made his own?

In some ways, the intensity of Jacoby’s attack reminds me of the beating Mark Danner took at the hands of George Packer in the NY Times Sunday book review. Both men have staked out turf in the “decent left”, with Danner urging NATO punishment of the dastardly Serbs throughout the 1990s and Packer defending Bush’s war in Iraq—until it turned sour. But if you are vying for top honors in State Department liberalism, there’s going to be a need to knock your competitor down a peg or two.

On the question of utopianism, it must be stressed that Wright and Jacoby have completely different approaches. Wright is far more interested in experiments like Mondragon than Jacoby whose notion of utopia mostly revolves around the need for projecting lofty goals, especially through imaginary literature such as Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”.

Unlike Wright who has a very active presence on the Internet and who does not mind duking it out with his ideological opponents, including me, Jacoby is a rather aloof and remote figure whose output is almost completely restricted to print journals. Indeed, he does not even have an email address on his UCLA website, an effort one supposes to preempt exchanges with riffraff like me.

Although it is restricted to subscribers, there is an electronic version of an article that Jacoby wrote in the December 2000 Harper’s Magazine titled “A Brave Old World: Looking Forward to a nineteenth-century utopia.”

The article was written to commemorate Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887” and to make the case for its relevancy in 2000, which mostly has to do with the need for visionary schemes for future societies. Jacoby’s main point is that utopianism has gotten a bad rap because of a failed experiment in the USSR that also embraced ambitious goals. He writes:

Anti-utopianism continues to suffuse our culture. Conventional as well as scholarly opinion posits that utopia spells concentration camps and that utopians secretly dream of being prison guards. Robert Conquest, a leading chronicler of the Soviet terror, is lauded by Gertrude Himmelfarb for telling the truth about “totalitarianism and utopianism” in his latest book Reflections on a Ravaged Century. And the final chapter of The Soviet Tragedy, by Martin Malia, another leading Soviet historian, is tellingly entitled “The Perverse Logic of Utopia.” Indeed, we now think of utopian idealism as little more than a prelude to totalitarian murder. At best, an expression of utopian convictions will call forth a sneer from historians and social scientists. In the nineteenth century the anticipation of a future society of peace and equality was common; now it is almost extinct. Today few imagine that society can be fundamentally improved, and those who do are seen as at best deluded, at worst threatening.

Now who am I to condemn anybody, least of all a widely respected academic like Russell Jacoby, for having utopian convictions? Given the terrible state of the world, one can surely understand why Jacoby would want to hole up in his UCLA office and fantasize about a world where there is no hunger, war, or alienation. It also certainly beats getting your hands dirty working on a campus protest against the war in Afghanistan.

But I think the whole idea of utopia has very little use in the class struggle today. As an old fashioned Marxist, I think the focus has to be on the here and now. As American Trotskyist James P. Cannon once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

I don’t think there is any great harm in dreaming up utopian solutions to our problems. Erik Olin Wright’s endorsement of Mondragon will not set us back in the class struggle, nor will Jacoby’s musings do much harm either.

My own approach, however, is at odds with utopianism as I tried to make clear in an article I wrote over ten years ago. It follows in its entirety:

Neo-Utopian Socialism

It is really hard to believe, but adherents to rival utopian visions can have nasty splits just like “Marxist-Leninists”. Evidence of this is contained in the most recent copy of “Democracy and Nature”, a journal formerly known as “Society and Nature”. The International Managing Editor is Takis Fotopoulos.

In the “Dialog” section of the issue, the editors air their dirty laundry. Murray Bookchin, a member of the advisory board along with other luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Andre Gunder Frank and Cornelius Castoriadis, is tendering his resignation. Bookchin is the guru of the social ecology movement, which –crudely put– is a mixture of anarchism and environmentalism. He lives in Vermont and posts jeremiads against capitalism to his followers near and wide.

“Very disturbingly, Takis and I have even drifted apart on the issue that long held us together, libertarian municipalism. (I now strongly prefer the word ‘libertarian’ over ‘confederal’ municipalism because ‘libertarian’ has a revolutionary political content, rather than merely a structural and logistical one.) His current advocacy of a personal voucher system and an ‘artificial market’ (whatever happened to a libertarian-communist moral economy?), and his notion that libertarian municipalism could somehow creep up on the bourgeoisie and erode the power of the state are highly disturbing to me. These notions divest libertarian municipalism of its confrontational stance toward the state in the form of a revolutionary dual power. I did not propound this theory of politics to see it mutate into Bernsteinian evolutionary social democracy.”

Bookchin’s “libertarian municipalism” is offered as an alternative to the Marxist vision of a transformation of society led by the working-class.

Social ecology would embody its ethics in a politics of confederal municipalism, in which municipalities cojointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would send their mandated, recallable by delegates to adjust differences.

Okay, let’s see if we can get this right. Capitalism will be replaced by a more humane system through the incremental replacement of capitalist chunks of real estate by new egalitarian units. Today we have liberated Putney, Vermont and Madison, Wisconsin. Next week we have a shot at taking over Dallas, Texas. When all the towns and cities have been become liberated zones, we then celebrate our victory by eating dishes of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

What is that Takis Fotopoulos believes in that so exercised Bookchin? The fight is over models and nothing else. Bookchin clings to one model, while Takis to another.

In his “Outline of an Economic Model for an Inclusive Democracy”, contained in the very same issue, Fotopoulos makes a sales presentation for this breakthrough in model-creation:

Although it is up to the citizens’ assemblies of the future to design the form an inclusive democracy will take, I think it is important to demonstrate that such a form of society is not only necessary, so that the present descent to barbarism can be avoided, but feasible as well. This is particularly important when the self-styled ‘left’ has abandoned any vision that is not based on the market economy and liberal ‘democracy’, which they take for granted, and has dismissed an alternative visions as ‘utopian’ (in the negative sense of the word.)

Fotopoulos takes swipes at Hahnel-Albert’s Parecon in his article, who are of course rival utopians. He believes that their schema invites bureaucracy because it provides for some state agency that invites people to state what their consumer “needs” are. Agencies, as we know from bitter experience, can turn into utter monstrosities. One day they will ask you whether you want pleats in your trousers or not. The next day they will be sending you to prison for stating the wrong preference.

Fotopoulos’ schema revolves around the issuance of vouchers.

Basic Vouchers (BVs) are used for the satisfaction of basic needs. These vouchers, which are personal and issued on behalf of the confederation, entitle each citizen to a given level of satisfaction for each particular type of need that has been characterized as ‘basic’, but do not specify the particular type of satisfier, so that choice can be secured.

In contrast to these kinds of detailed but essentially useless blueprints, Marx and Engels saw utopian thought as having limited value. For them, there were three essential features:

  • Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.
  • Moralism: What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.
  • Rationalism: The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”:

To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.

All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer, or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.

At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In “Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work”, he says that “it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so.”

This doesn’t sound particularly ‘visionary’, does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.

Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer’s thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism –the labor theory of value– it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.

Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:

Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes.

My, isn’t this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.

Furthermore, one has no idea how Roemer’s theory can ever be put into practice since it is not really addressed to the working-class, the historical agent of change in Marxism. Who will change the world, the subscribers to “Economics and Society”? Roemer’s proposals are directed toward the narrow, insular, academic world of “dueling blueprints”. I suppose if one was to be given a choice of utopian worlds to identify with, a much more palatable choice would be that of their new left rivals, Albert-Hahnel.

Turning to their “Looking Forward”, another work obviously inspired by Edward Bellamy, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s and Hahnel’s enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgment on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be beside the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

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