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.
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.