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America Beyond Capitalism:
A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives
By Bertell Ollman
Gar Alperovitz's book, America Beyond Capitalism (2004), is of great importance to socialists, despite his casual dismissal of socialism, his equally off-hand use of the Soviet Union to represent the dangers of socialist planning, and his unwillingness to traffic in such stock socialist categories as "capital accumulation," "class," "class interests," "class consciousness," and "class struggle." So, what gives?
One of Marx's greatest achievements in Capital was to show that capitalists, understood as the owners of the means of production, do not make a necessary "material" contribution to the production of wealth, and, therefore, that production can go on without them. We do not need them, so there is no good reason that they should takeand that we should allow them to takeany of the wealth, power and status that goes with owning capital. Marx arrives at this conclusion through a detailed analysis of what goes on in the production process in capitalist society. Alperovitz makes the very same point that Marx does, but whereas Marx arrives at it theoretically, Alperovitz arrives at it empirically by marshaling a warehouse full of instances in the U.S. where production (and distribution and exchange) goes on without capitalists. There are few readers who won't be surprised by how often this happens or by the huge numbers of people involved as workers and consumers in this process, but, as we learn, even most of them do not know how widespread is the movement of which they are part. No one who reads this book will ever look at the American capitalist economy in quite the same way he/she did before reading it, and for that we all owe its author a hearty vote of thanks. It is true that Alperovitz is not ready to drawat least explicitlythe obvious conclusion from all this (his own proposals for reform are rather modest), but his argument runs out in front of him, and many of his readers will be drawn to ask, "Why do we need the capitalists at all?"
I suspect that most of the capitalists and their liberal and conservative apologists, who appear to be Alperovitz's main targeted audience, will recognize the "dangers" in this simple question, and will quickly reject the new brand of economics that he would have them adopt. Workers, on the other hand, all kinds of workers, should find most of Alperovitz's account very attractive, including the $64 question regarding the need for any capitalists to which it unerringly leads. Too bad these workers were not Alperovitz's main targeted audience, but, then, that might have required less talk about ideals and values, and more talk about class, class interests, class struggle, and socialism.
There is a second way in which America Beyond Capitalism is of great importance to socialists, and this has to do with the glimpse it offers us of life beyond capitalism. Alperovitz calls the impressive variety of case studies he has assembled "precedents." My preferred label for them is "germs" (Marx's term) or "seeds" of socialism. By calling them "precedents," Alperovitz seems to suggest that on the whole cooperative and other forms of public ownership have worked quite well in the U.S. and that there is nothing, nothing substantial in any case, to keep the rest of the economy from developing in the same way. There is, of course, a lot of truth in the first claim. The size and relative success of the non-capitalist sector of our economy is (for obvious reasons) one of the best kept secrets in America, and Alperovitz deserves a lot of credit for providing us with such a clear and detailed account of it.
Yet, much of what is at least equally important is largely missing from Alperovitz's account, and this includes most of the essential context for understanding and evaluating what he does put in the book. Where are, for example, the effects of competition between the enterprises in a market economy, especially in a global market economy (and not just on prices, employment, compensation and conditions of work but to people's lives and ways of thinking and feeling generally)? What happened to periodic capitalist crises and depressions? What happened to the machinations of our capitalist controlled state (for the capitalists are not going to take the growing evidence of their irrelevance lying down)? Though mentioned here and there, there is no serious discussion of any of this in Alperovitz's book, but it is only through resolving the problems associated with the very nature of the capitalist system that the reforms advocated here could spread and benefit the great majority in the way the author intends.
What does it mean, though, to resolve the problems of competition for jobs and markets, of economic inequality and social alienation, of economic crises and depressions, and big moneyed abuses of what many still want to call our "democracy"? (No one needs to be reminded of the nefarious effects of imperialist wars and ecological degradation on all proposals for reform, so I don't have to mention them.) It means, in briefin very briefsome kind of socialist transformation in and through which Alperovitz's "precedents" will themselves be transformed. How could it be otherwise? Thus, the various case studies he has assembled don't show us so much what the future will be as what some of the potential for the future looks like inside the present, a potential that is likely to be realized in forms quite different than those assumed within the capitalist framework in which it first appears. Hence, "seeds of socialism" seems to be a much more accurate label for Alperovitz's case studies than "precedents."
So what can we learn about the real possibilities of socialism from the large quantity and great variety of seeds of socialism that have emerged in our developed capitalist society? 1) I have already mentioned what is probably the greatest lesson, conveyed by all the case studies, which is that production can go on without capitalists, without people making all the decisions that owners do thinking only of the bottom line. This truth cannot be repeated often enough, and its implications for the future are enormous. 2) Alperovitz's numerous examples also make it perfectly clear that ordinary workers have the ability to run their own enterprise, which may or may not involve bringing in a manager to help them. People, in other words, do not have to be forced, threatened, bribed, lied to, spied on and otherwise manipulated to do what is in their interest, and do it well, once they are given a chance to do so.
3) America Beyond Capitalism also shows how increasing people's power over their working lives can lead to a clearer grasp of their identity as workers and of at least some of the interests that accrue to them as members of this class. 4) That same power also reduces the competition borne from insecurity between the workers inside an enterprise while simultaneously expanding their cooperation with each other. 5) It also develops their self-confidence and sense of self-worth along with some of the human qualities that underpin these changes in attitude. 6) By giving a higher priority to issues of health and safety and to job security generally, workers owned enterprises also reduce the degree of worry and anxiety for both workers and their families that ordinarily accompany most of the jobs in our society. 7) The evidence also suggests that it is not only the workers but the consumers of what they make, the community in which they work, and the surrounding environment that also benefit, at least to some degree, from greater care, because of the workers' enhanced identification with these groups and places as compared to whatever it was their absentee employer felt before.
8) By becoming co-owners of their enterprises, no matter how passive, workers are also brought to think about a variety of new questions. Planning and what goes into making a good plan, for example, is put on the table, at least as regards their own enterprise, even where the relations between enterprises are left to the laws of the market. And whenever economic planning succeeds on the micro level, it is impossible not to suspect that it may also work for the larger society. 9) The move to any form of public ownership also represents a significant increase in the freedom, equality and democracy of all the people affected, in how they experience these conditions and come to understand them, particularly in their interdependence as necessary preconditions and results of one another. It usually leads most people in this situation to want more freedom, equality and democracy in the other areas of their life as well. 10) Finally, Alperovitz's book brings out the dependence of most of these positive developments on the workers having enough time away from work to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally to take advantage of the range of opportunities offered them by their new status as owners in the mode of production. Here, too, the implications of shortening the work-day, and then shortening it again, for developing new kinds of human beings as well as a new way of life are enormous.
All of these achievements point to what is possible in a form of society beyond capitalism not as something finished and ready to be set down there, but as a potential, an early stage of a transformation awaiting completion, a barely begun tendency. To concretize these projections any further requires a great deal of information that can only come from other kinds of studies made with other methods, or, in some cases, isn't and won't be available until further progress is made in the struggle to create such a society. These are seeds of the future, not finished forms, and must be viewed and treated as such.
The "Pluralist Commonwealth" that Alperovitz constructs with his rich and varied materials is so much better on every front than anything being discussed in the political mainstream that it is very tempting to spend all one's time simply listing its virtues. But that would be unfair to the serious issues Alperovitz raises and his insistence that we take them seriously. I am forced, therefore, to add that without an adequate analysis of the capitalist context in which all of Alperovitz's "precedents" / germs have to operate, his practical efforts to arrive at reasonable reforms become very unpractical. The frequent repetition of "freedom", "equality" and "democracy" in our public life, for example, is usually treated as evidence for the American people's commitment to common goals, rather than the ideological mask that our rulers wear so that they can do the exact opposite of what most people take these terms to mean. Then, instead of helping those who favor positive freedom, more than formal equality and real democracy (rule "of, by and for the people") see through these debilitating charades (a long, arduous, but absolutely essential task), Alperovitz's approach is to look for ways to realize these "common goals". The incompatibility of the workers' and capitalists' class interests are never raised because they are never found, and they are never found because they are never looked for. And if shared ideals is the name of the game, why not appeal to everyone equally, as Alperovitz makes a special point of doing, for there is no longer any reason to target those who would benefit most from his reforms?
The same omission of context that leads to an unrealistic strategy for bringing about the changes he favors leads Alperovitz to project an equally unrealistic future in which a score of cooperatively owned enterprises do competitive battle with each other in what remains a "free" market economy. This is not the place to reproduce the debate over market versus planned economies. (Readers interested in my views on this subject can find them on this website: www.dialecticalmarxism.comunder Articles: section"Against Market Socialism"). Here, it is enough to point out that as far as enterprises are concerned, markets are not simply about buying and selling but about the profit maximizing imperative that arises from the very nature of the competitive struggle, an imperative that exercises a decisive influence on what one must do if one wants to succeed or, sometimes, even survive. Capital (or the use of wealth to produce still more wealth), as Marx pointed out, is not only owned but "embodied," and if workers become the owners of an enterprise in a market economyin which competition for customers, raw materials, finances and workers is the rulethey will behave very much (though, as we saw, not completely) like their capitalist predecessors. Whenever the business is threatenedwhich is the "normal" state of affairs in a market economythe humanizing potential contained in the cooperative form of ownership will often get sacrificed on the altar of economic necessity. In which case, most of the seeds of socialism listed above will remain undeveloped seeds. For death in the form of bankruptcy is always the worst possible outcome in any market society, and both worker and capitalist owners will do whatever they can to avoid it.
Furthermore, the economic instability and crises that plague capitalism would also plague Alperovitz's Pluralist Commonwealth, for nothing has been done to remove their cause (or could be done without drawing up a democratic economic plan for both production and consumption for the entire system). This would seem to be particularly troublesome for Alperovitz's vision which requires, as he recognizes, that the communities into which society is divided enjoy considerable economic stability. Again, Alperovitz's project really required that he devote at least as much attention to the larger capitalist context, now global as well as national, in order to adequately grasp any of its particulars, whether in their present or likely future forms. Capitalism, which has a structure and a dynamic, has a decisive influence on all that goes on and can go on inside it as well as on the kind of system that is likely to follow it, and simply cannot be comprehended in bits and pieces.
In summary, here are my answers to the five key questions posed by America Beyond Capitalism: 1) Does it offer a vision of the future that is better than the society in which we live? Yes. 2) Can we expect any help from the capitalists and their state in moving toward such a future? No. 3) Is such a future, therefore, possible? Probably Not. 4) Still, if it were to come about, would the form of organization described here resolve the main problems from which employees (my "workers") (90% of the U.S. population according to Alperovitz) now suffer? No. And 5) So, do I support Alperovitz's attempt to build a political movement aimed at spreading cooperative and other forms of public ownership? Surprisingly, perhaps, my answer is yes, and not only because everyone needs to learn more about socialism from the aforementioned seeds scattered throughout the capitalist landscape (and less, much less, from the experiences of countries that had little in common with our own), but also because the failure to achieve such modest and reasonable reforms will lead many workers to recognize the need for a class based politics aimed at overturning capitalist power and creating a fully developed socialist society that would solve their problems.
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