In a speech given at the Global Labour Institute summer school in Manchester earlier this year, life-long trade unionist Dan Gallin stated:
The need of the hour is a serious challenge to global transnational capital and to the world order it has fashioned, but such a challenge cannot be mounted unless the movement recovers a common identity based on an alternative vision of society. (1)
Our movement is in a deep crisis, a two-fold crisis: a crisis of the trade union movement and a crisis of socialism, and we should be aware that these are related, so much so that it is impossible to deal with them separately.
Here I think Gallin is spot-on! The reason organised labour cannot mount a serious challenge to global capitalism is due to a crisis of socialism which has had an inevitable weakening impact on the international trade union movement. It therefore follows that in order to overcome the crisis in the trade union movement we first need to address the crisis of socialism.
Drawing on the work of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel I will briefly explain why I think socialism is in crisis. I will also propose an alternative economic vision to that of socialism (informed by ‘participatory economics’ theory) as a means of overcoming this crisis. Finally I will describe how this new economic vision could be used to inform global unionism – presented here as an alternative to the current international trade union movement – as a means of organising the desperately needed challenge to the current insane system of capitalist destruction and greed.
Economics – capitalism and socialism…
Economics is about production, consumption and allocation of goods and services. Under capitalism the economy is privately owned by, and run in the interests of, a very small minority – typically referred to as the capitalist class. Socialism, on the other hand, was meant to be a very different system – one in which there are no private owners and where the economy functions in the interests of the common good. Whereas capitalism generates private tyrannies, socialism was meant to foster economic democracy where workers and consumers have control. However, as we know, things did not workout that way. So what went wrong?
Central to the analysis presented here to why socialism is in crisis is class consciousness. Looking back at so called socialist societies during the twentieth century it now seems clear that the workers and consumers were not in control of the economy. However, it also seems clear that there were no capitalist owners in control either. So if the working class and the capitalist class were not in control of the economy who was?
The answer offered here is a third class of professional managers that Albert and Hahnel call the “coordinator class” which they define as follows:
Planners, administrators, technocrats and other conceptual workers who monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes. An intermediate class in capitalism; the ruling class in coordinator class economies such as the Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia. (2)
From this we can see that what were conventionally seen as socialist economies – by both those on the left and the right – are understood by Albert and Hahnel as coordinator economies which they define as:
An economy in which a class of experts / technocrats / managers / conceptual workers monopolise decision-making authority while traditional workers carry out their orders.
Apologists for the smashing of the soviets and centralisation of power by the coordinator class during the Russian Revolution typically highlight external factors, such as the Civil War. However, as Albert and Hahnel also point out, such accounts fail to take into consideration the fact that Trotsky himself stated:
I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtably have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully.
From this candid expression of coordinator class desires for control we can safely conclude that if Trotsky, instead of Stalin, had followed Lenin as leader we still would not have had worker and consumer control of the economy – we would not have had classlessness – and, given the influence of such figures, I think we can draw a similar conclusion generally regarding twentieth century socialism.
Central to understanding the demise in working class support for socialism, then, is coordinator class consciousness. Without it it is impossible to understand the two-fold crisis highlighted by Gallin. Once we develop coordinator class consciousness it is possible to begin to address this crisis by identifying the source of coordinator class power and developing a vision for an alternative economy that removes this power source.
This is exactly what Albert and Hahnel have done in their development of the participatory economic model – sometime shortened to parecon – which is offered as a vision for a classless and sustainable alternative to both capitalism and twentieth century socialism / coordinatorism.
But before moving on to describe and discuss parecon and how it could inform global unionism I first need to briefly explain the power source of the coordinator class as this is often a point of some confusion and misunderstanding.
The corporate division of labour…
Many people, especially those from a Marxist background, seem to confuse the idea of the coordinator class as being the same as that of the middle class or petty bourgeoisie or that of the bureaucracy. This is a mistake that most likely results from the limitations of the Marxist conceptual framework.
First, the notion of the middle class really says nothing much about anything – which is not the case with the concept of the coordinator class. Regarding the petty bourgeoisie, like capitalists, they derive there economic power via private ownership – again this is not the case with the coordinator class. As for the bureaucracy, it is not clear exactly what is meant by this but the concept is not usually presented to mean a group of economic actors with their own class interests – as is the case with the coordinator class.
As already suggested above, the coordinator class derives its power, not from ownership, but instead from monopolising empowering tasks within the economy. So the question becomes: what economic institution allows this monopolisation of empowering tasks to occur? The answer offered by Albert and Hahnel is the corporate division of labour.
The corporate division of labour results from a specific formulation of jobs in which some are made-up of tasks that are more empowering than others. For an example, think of a hospital where you have workers who clean all day and others who, say, do surgery all day. This uneven formulation of jobs creates the corporate division of labour, which in turn allows the coordinator class to monopolise empowering tasks within the economy.
From this analysis we can see that if we want to move beyond the class system and towards meaningful economic democracy we must not only reject and replace private ownership but also the corporate division of labour. This, along with other additional institutional proposals for a classless economy, is what parecon offers.
Now that we understand the root cause of the socialist crisis we can turn our attention towards the solutions to this crisis offered by the parecon model. (3)
From the above analysis we can see that – if we want classlessness – we need, not only an alternative to private ownership (which, as we have seen gives rise to the capitalist class) but also an alternative to the corporate division of labour (which we have seen gives rise to the coordinator class). Here is what the parecon model offers as alternatives:
Self-managed worker and consumer councils:
As an alternative to private ownership, and the tyranny that accompanies this, the parecon model proposes self-managed worker and consumer councils. In a parecon everyone belongs to a worker and consumer council which they self-manage. Self-management is a principle that guides decision-making within the councils and is defines as follows – people have a say in decisions in proportion to how much the outcome of that decision impacts on them.
Balanced job complexes:
As an alternative to the corporate division of labour the parecon model offers balanced job complexes (BJC’s). In a parecon everyone has a job and everyone’s job is made-up of an equal balance of empowering and desirable tasks. This, it should be noted, still allows for specialisation whilst simultaneously eradicating the elitism that results from the corporate division of labour.
Combined these two new institutions remove the power source of the capitalist class and coordinator class, replacing them with institutions that generate classlessness. However, in themselves they do not constitute a full working model for an alternative economic system. So, in addition to self-managed worker and consumer councils and balanced job complexes the parecon model also proposes the following two economic institutions:
Remuneration for effort and sacrifice:
As an alternative to remuneration for ownership and bargaining power (that we see under capitalism) the parecon model offers remuneration for effort and sacrifice. This criteria for remuneration simply states that (1) the harder you work the more economic rewards you receive, (2) the longer you work the more economic rewards you receive, (3) the more onerous the task undertaken the more economic rewards you receive.
As an alternative to competitive markets and central planning, the ‘parecon’ model offers participatory planning. Participatory planning is a cooperative process in which producers (via their workers councils) and consumers (via their consumer councils) propose and revise their own economic activities in a series of rounds until arriving at a mutually agreed upon plan.
Parecon-informed global unionism….
Parecon is an easily understandable economic model that requires no formal training in economics to grasp. It is therefore accessible to the vast majority of people including trade union activists with an interest in organising for economic justice the world over. A big part of the initial work that would need to take place in overcoming the two-fold crisis of socialism and the trade union movement is the popularisation (not to mention the further development) of the parecon model within organised labour.
Planting the seeds of the future in the present…
As awareness of, and support for, the parecon model grows within organised labour, trade unionists would undoubtedly use this knowledge to (1) inform the structure of their own organisation (the trade union movement itself) as well as (2) inform the campaigns they initiated for economic justice. This dynamic would mean that, with every victory won by parecon informed global unionists, it would take the unions a step closer to becoming fully functioning self-managed workers councils. In this sense global unions could be understood as self-managed workers councils in embryonic form – planting the seeds of the future in the present.
The transition from a capitalist or coordinatorist economy towards a participatory economy can not happen over night or in one single step. Yes parecon is a revolutionary vision, but to reach it requires a transition that can only come about via reforms. This insight has lead to the development of what some advocates of participatory vision and strategy call “non-reformist reforms” – by which is meant a series of step-by-step changes, informed by a vision of a new social system, that ultimately lead to that new system.
Parecon informed global unionism could engage in such non-reformist reform activities, and in-so-doing plant the seeds of the future in the present. This, I have argued, would help overcome the two-fold crisis of both socialism and trade unionism – accurately highlighted by the life-long trade unionist, Dan Gallin. Furthermore, I have argued that such organisational efforts as those briefly described above as “parecon informed global unionism” could play a crucial part in mounting a much needed serious challenge to the international system of economic madness that is capitalist globalisation.
1. Dan Gallin’s full speech can be read here – https://newunionism.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/dan_gallin/
2. All of the Albert and Hahnel quotes are taken from Looking Forward which is available to read online here – http://www.zcommunications.org/zparecon/lookfor.htm
3. For more on the parecon model go to – http://www.zcommunications.org/topics/parecon