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Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists - Chapter 11 - Response to Lawler < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists
Chapter 11

Response to Lawler

It is a pleasure to participate in a serious debate over the future of socialism, really the future of capitalism if capitalism is to have any future. The participants in this debate share a profound antipathy to capitalism and an equally strong attraction for communism, but disagree over the kind of society that is needed to bring about the transformation of the one into the other. Unlike anarcho-communists, none of us believe that communism will emerge full blown from a socialist revolution. Some kind of transition and a period of indeterminate length for it to occur are required. It should also be clear that none of us thinks it possible to construct a detailed blueprint of the post-capitalist future or that those of our descendants who are lucky enough to live then must heed all of our pronouncements. Still, the first foundations for that day-after-tomorrow will be constructed in large part out of what we do today, and to begin work on these foundations the people who suffer most under the status quo have to recognize that there is an alternative, which is to say they have to acquire a better understanding of how the present, the past and the future are linked together. While our debate focuses on the future, the chief aim is always to effect the present so as to make a communist future possible.

Jim Lawler's main criticisms of my essay are that I have an overly negative view of workers' coops and that I underestimate the degree to which a "social market", one dominated by coops, could solve the problems associated with markets in capitalism. (Some of the other "weaknesses" he mentions receive their response in my criticism of his essay). As for my criticisms of workers' coops, they were directed almost entirely at the view that coops are the ideal economic form with which to build a future socialist society. My attitude toward coops in capitalism, on the other hand, is very mixed. In my essay, I gladly admitted that coops can increase, albeit modestly, workers' empowerment as well as their sense of dignity. Coops also give a powerful boost to such crucial socialist arguments that production can go on without capitalists and that workers have what it takes to run their own enterprises. Since coops often get started when a capitalist owner goes bankrupt or is about to move out of the community, coops also play an important role in providing workers, who would otherwise not have them, with jobs.

Admitting all these progressive effects, however, should not keep us from recognizing that coops participate in the capitalist economy like any privately owned enterprise, which means that they treat their consumers, their competitors, people seeking employment, the environment, and—yes—their own owner-workers in their function as workers in whatever ways are necessary to maximize their profit. Yes, coops have difficulty—as Lawler rightly points out—picking up their factory and moving it to Mexico, but this is a relatively minor difference when compared to all the ways in which they are similar to capitalist owned firms. Undoubtedly, there are exceptions, but they are few, because the rewards and punishments established by the market are simply too great to be ignored and—I might add—too easy to rationalize. Promising wealth and threatening lower living standards and even bankruptcy, the market compels workers' coops to behave in a capitalist manner, while socializing their new collective owners into whatever it takes for them to become effective competitors. The increase in class consciousness that would ordinarily accompany any growth in workers' power falls victim to the more urgent dynamic that arises out of market relations. Thus, to the surprise of some, workers in workers' coops are no more radical socially and politically than other members of their class. If the very existence of workers' coops bolsters some arguments for socialism, to wit—capitalists are not indispensable, their practise and most of the attitudes they generate in their members allow those who defend capitalism to claim, erroneously, that a worker run society would not be very different from the present one. Despite this mixed record, I am usually very pleased when new coops get started in our society. It's quite another thing, however, to envision a socialist economy composed primarily of coops even when, as in the Schweickart model, the only market operating is in finished goods.

Here, I must register my surprise and disappointment that Lawler does not confront my main criticism of market socialism, which is that people's experiences in exchange will produce the same mystified consciousness that it does in capitalism, and that without a clear and accurate understanding of their conditions it is impossible to build a socialist society. More than anything else, it is because of the role of workers' coops in helping to reproduce this mystification that I cannot see them operating under socialism. Complete transparency of social relations can only be obtained by production based on a rational, democratic, centralized plan, which will also foster cooperation not only in but—unlike the case with coops—between the worker managed enterprises of this new era.

As regards the market, Lawler criticizes my position as too inflexible. After all, markets have undergone considerable reform and regulation since Marx's day. This shows it can be done. Replacing capitalist owners with workers' coops, a process that has already begun, would be the biggest reform of all, since it does away with the market in labor power. Lawler equates this change with the abolition of capitalism itself, which he understands as a system dominated by a class of capitalists who extract surplus-value from workers. With the capitalist class removed, Lawler believes, there is nothing to keep the market from being reshaped to serve the interests of the new ruling class, the workers. But if it is not the capitalist class but capital that is the essence of capitalism, then what?

Marx, as we all know, entitled his main work not Capitalism but Capital. Unfortunately, for the English speaking reader, the distinction he was trying to make was watered down by Engels' mistranslation of the subtitle of volume I, which is Critique of Political Economy—The Production Process of Capital, as The Capitalist Process of Production. In any case, it is clear from the body of this work that Marx's concern is with capital and not with the capitalist class, which he refers to time and again as the "embodiment" and "personification" of capital. Though I touched on it in my essay, this point deserves to be expanded. Capital is self-expanding value, not simply wealth or whatever it is that produces it, but wealth used for the purpose of creating more wealth. The contrast is with wealth used to satisfy a need, or serve God, or expand political or military power, or attain glory or status. With capital, wealth becomes self-centered, interested only in its own growth. As a particular function of wealth, capital is expressed in whatever social relation is required for it to work and embodied in agents—like the capitalists—who incorporate this function in their practise.

The market, before all else, is a moment in capital's process of self-expansion. It is internal to capital itself, part of what it is and how it functions, and conveyed in the full meaning of its concept. It is the moment of circulation by which the value produced by capital moves in a series of exchanges through the economy only to return as a larger mass of wealth than what it was when it began. Buying and selling is its mode of movement. While money serves as the mediation between each act of exchange and the system of value expansion as a whole. Marx's Capital tries to characterize this entire process in a way that brings out its overwhelming impact on all that comes into its path. Like a whirlpool, nothing and no one completely escapes. As a moment in capital's accumulation, the market (and its constituent parts—value, commodities, money) partakes fully in capital's power to embrace and to transform what it embraces.

In his attempt to preserve some kind of market for socialism, Lawler asks us to recall that capitalism did not invent the market. To be sure, there were goods exchanged before capitalism and some of the places where this took place were called "markets", but not every society that produces a surplus and engages in some exchange can be said to have a market. Barter, for example, whether between individuals or whole societies, does not constitute a market, because the act of exchange in this case is not organically related to the process by which the goods that are exchanged come into being. It has no influence on production; nor does production have any influence on it. To have a market that plays a role in the economy, it is not enough for a society to produce a surplus some of which gets exchanged. Only when a portion of goods are produced with the aim of selling them is it worth speaking of a market, at which point we can also see the first signs of capital emerging in the crevices of this pre-capitalist social formation. For the age of capital is far older than capitalism, the name we give to the civilization in which capital has become the dominant form of productive wealth. Once the full power of capital and with it of the market is released, however, humanity's only respite from all the suffering brought on by capital can come from abolishing it altogether, that is to replace self-expanding value operating through a market with a rational plan to produce what people need. Anything less, that is partial reforms of all sorts, runs the risk of being pulled back into the whirlpool, as the logic of capital—now grown to gargantuan proportions—reasserts itself, destroying all measures intended to control it (various economic regulations and the welfare state today) and transforming even radical attempts to redirect it into new embodiments of its essential function (market socialism tomorrow).

Lawler says little about capital. Yet, it is the power of capital that is at stake here, and its ability to expand no matter whose hand is on the rudder, whether it is that of the capitalist class, the state, or workers' coops. Once goods are produced to sell and to make money, which will enable those in control of the means of production to make more goods to sell and to make more money, once this rhythm has been established, it is the rhythm itself that is responsible for the host of ills associated with capitalism and not the capitalist class that currently enjoys its benefits. That's why capitalists can be rehabilitated, whereas capital cannot. And this is why my opposition to the market is so inflexible.

My disagreement with Lawler over workers' coops and the market, then, reveals an even more fundamental difference over the nature of capitalism and socialism. Whereas Lawler understands capitalism primarily as a society ruled by the capitalist class, I understand it first and foremost as a society dominated by capital. Marxists have generally stood out from other kinds of radicals in opposing not just our rulers but the system in which, by which, and for which they rule. As that which gives capitalists their power as well as their purpose and helps to reproduce both, capital stands at the core of capitalism and is the most essential part of what is meant by the "capitalist system". And while socialism for Lawler is—again, primarily—a society ruled by the working class; for me, it is chiefly a time when the logic of capital has been replaced by a production logic that has as its overriding purpose to serve social needs. Before this new logic is fully operative and part of common sense and everyday practise, it must be planned and new rules and regulations put into place. Hence, the need for a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic central planning in the first stage of the post-revolutionary society.

At the start of this response to Lawler, I said that though the focus of our debate is on the future, our main aim was to effect the present so as to make a communist future possible. The kind of world we both desire, however, will not be created by the people of today but by those who are formed in the struggle to fashion a better tomorrow. Politically, then, my chief complaint against market socialism is that it takes workers as they now are—and leaves them that way. As far as human beings are concerned, the socialist sprouts Marx saw in capitalism are not helped to grow to their full stature but simply rearranged on the same landscape. Teaching workers how to become their own capitalists has replaced socialist consciousness raising.

It is not surprising that workers today react more favorably to coops than they do to the idea of a rational economic plan. Too mystified by their experiences in the market to suspect that there may be an alternative to it, most workers would favor any reform that improves their competitive position. But rather than an argument for market socialism, as Lawler believes, this is another reason to increase still further the amount of critical fire directed at the market. This is not a plea, as Lawler suggests, for letting corporations off the hook, but for criticizing them in a way that links their humanly destructive behavior to both private ownership and market logic. For only when the majority of workers understand that most of the problems from which they suffer come from the domination of capital and the operations of the market and not just from the rule of the capitalist class will socialism move to the top of the political agenda. At a time when the internal ties between our worst social problems and the market, just as the elements of a rational, democratic, socialist alternative, are easier to see than probably ever before, both in the U.S. and around the world, the school of market socialism has arisen to redirect workers' attention elsewhere. Offering a solution that is itself a version of the problem, market socialism hides its real solution. We can do better. History will not forgive us, nor should it, if we fail.

  1. Meszaros, Istvan, Beyond Capital (Merlin Press, London, l995), 980.