by Andrew Kliman
Editor’s note: This essay is a corrected and slightly revised version of the author’s presentation, entitled “Not by Politics Alone,” during a panel on “Thinking Through a Post-Capitalist Future” that took place at the Left Forum conference in New York City on March 11, 2006.
I believe that the central problem faced by people struggling for freedom today is the widespread acceptance of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA – the belief that “there is no alternative.” The main things that have led to the acceptance of TINA are the collapse of the state-capitalist regimes that called themselves “Communist” and the widespread failures of social democracy to remake society.
The struggles for freedom do not stop because of this, of course. Yet the acceptance of TINA acts to confine the struggles. They become self-limiting. In the perceived absence of an alternative, it is perfectly sensible that social struggles stop short of even trying to remake society totally. As Bertell Ollman has argued, “Why bother to struggle for a change that cannot be? … people [need to] have a good reason for choosing one path into the future rather than another.”
People need to have a good reason. That’s because they are rational. It is rational to engage in struggles to change what can be changed, and it’s rational to refrain from struggling against what cannot be changed. People who do not want to hear about socialism because of the failures and horrors of what they believe to have been socialism are making perfect sense. On the other side, of course, is a new global justice movement, part of which identifies itself as anti-capitalist, and which has raised the slogan “Another World is Possible.” This slogan, too, is eminently rational, if one interprets it, as I do, as a call to think through the possibility of another world and to prefigure another world.
But ultimately, the rationality of struggles that are not only struggles against injustice and exploitation, but struggles for a completely different, non-capitalist, human society rests on whether another world is indeed possible. At the present moment, I believe, no activist or theorist can really answer with confidence that it is possible.
I do not think this is a reason to despair. The effort to work out how another world might be possible is really just beginning. This problem received almost no attention throughout most of the last century. Until the collapse of so-called communism and living proof that social democracy is a futile dream, almost everyone on the Left simply assumed that socialism was possible, because it actually existed. Some were willing to critique Russia, China, Cuba, etc., to varying degrees, but they too tended to think that the actual existence of these countries was proof that socialism was possible. As they saw it, the defects or evils in these countries didn’t flow out of their mode of production; they were essentially political. What was needed was political change – “socialism and democracy” instead of socialism without democracy, or “socialism from below” instead of socialism from above, etc. And other people were confident that effective political action would enable the achievements of social democracy to be sustained and gradually extended to encompass more and more aspects of social and economic existence.
So it is only in recent years that any significant theoretical attention has been paid to whether another world is possible. I believe that this is the central problem of revolutionary thought today. Exposing the evils of capitalism is an insufficient approach when the question being asked by tens of millions of people is whether there is any alternative. Nor is it sufficient to focus on organizing or movement building, or to leave everything up to spontaneous action alone. Freedom struggles will no doubt continue, because the impulse to change things, the felt need to change things, arises spontaneously out of the defects of existing society. But again, the struggles will not reach for a wholly different future as long as such as future is perceived as pie-in-the-sky.
And again, such perceptions have arisen for rational reasons, largely because of the failures and horror of the last century. So it is likewise insufficient to simply affirm that another world is possible, or to remain contented with an ungrounded hope that it is possible. The possibility of another world needs to be shown. And this can only be shown by showing how it is possible to break with capitalism and how such a break could be sustainable.
There are several different issues that I’m thinking of when I use the term “sustainable.” One is that it is hard to imagine that a break with capitalism will emerge throughout the world all at once. This presents a very serious problem of sustainability, since history has shown, I believe, that socialism in one country is indeed impossible. What can be done to defend the break with capitalism in the meantime, against both the inevitable attempt at counter-revolution and capitalism’s totalizing tendency, its tendency to swallow up and incorporate everything within itself? I do not know. I do not know anyone who knows. But I do know that this is a question that needs to be thought through with extreme care – and now. It cannot be put off until “after the revolution.” To assume that there will be time, at that point, to think it through or time to work it out through experimentation, is wishful thinking at best. It is quite hard to believe that there will be any time at all before the counter-revolution and the tentacles of the capitalist system go to work.
In referring to “sustainability,” I also have several economic problems in mind that must be confronted. If the emergent new society does not “deliver the goods,” and if it does not move towards elimination of alienated labor and reduction of working time, there will be no popular mandate for it – and indeed, no reason for its continued existence. At this point, it could be kept alive only through force, through suppression of mass opposition, so it would turn into its opposite.
So how can the new society deliver the goods, move to eliminate alienated labor, and reduce working time? I think this is a much more difficult problem than is usually realized.
First of all, there is a problem of economic coordination. Some people tend to envision a new society in which everyone will be left alone to do just what she or he sees fit. They never seem to consider that an absolute precondition for them doing their own thing is that they have food on the table, a roof over their heads, and so forth, so that – unless they want to scrounge for berries and sleep in caves – they can do their own thing only if other people produce food and shelter for them. In other words, they can do their own thing only if others are prevented from doing their own thing. I don’t know anyone whose “own thing” is to spend their lives slaving away so that others can be freeloaders. So the demand to do one’s own thing is a recipe for a return to class society, not a recipe for freedom.
A less extreme version of the same position envisions not single individuals, but relatively small groups, doing their own thing. There will be, for instance, factories run by workers councils, in which the workers within a particular factory will decide what to produce, how to produce, and everything else. Such visions likewise fail to come to grips with the coordination problems. One workers council decides to produce more juice. Great. Other workers councils in factories that produce bottles and cartons decide to do other things instead, because these production processes are too unsafe and alienating. Wonderful. But now there’s nothing in which to put the juice, so the workers council that decided to produce more juice cannot actually produce more juice.
This example looked at just one economic link, between the production of bottles and cartons and the production of juice. The number of such links is astronomical. Like it or not, we are part of a gigantic, global, criss-crossing web of production units and distribution units. Unless we want to scrounge for berries and live in caves, or perhaps live in small communities eking out a bare subsistence off the land, there must be economic coordination.
So there’s something seriously wrong with imagining that the new society can be characterized as one in which people or groups of people decide for themselves. Of course, what we all want is a society in which we decide for ourselves, rather than one in which other people, or the impersonal alien laws of capitalism, make decisions for us. But the “we” who decides must, in a great many cases, be the global “we,” and in other cases the continental or regional “we.” Even more importantly, the coordination problem is one thing that makes starkly clear that achieving a new society is not principally a matter of decision-making, or politics, or forms of organization.
This is the case even if we agree that, in many cases, decision-making must be a global process. The global “we” can decide to produce more of almost everything in order to end starvation and dire poverty. We can decide to reduce everyone’s working hours in order to give us more time for leisure and more time to develop ourselves. We can decide to make work less alienating, to get rid of unsafe machines and work processes, to end speed-up conditions, and so forth. We can decide to invest in new technologies that lessen the need for human labor. But it doesn’t matter what the global “we” decides: it is simply impossible for all of this to happen at once. If you invest more in new technologies, you must do less to end poverty now. The more you do to end poverty now, the less you cut working hours and the less you reduce alienated labor. And so on. Even the most non-hierarchical and participatory forms of organization will necessarily operate under these strict physical and logical constraints, constraints over which they have no control and which they cannot wish away by deciding to abolish.
So politics alone, decision-making alone, cannot create a new society. It doesn’t matter how non-hierarchical and participatory the decision-making process is. What to produce, how to produce, and so forth are not questions that can be solved by making decisions or by working out new forms of organization that will make the decisions.
Now at this point, people often try to deny that the constraints I’ve been talking about pose a real problem. Supposedly, the constraints we face are actually very loose. They say that such things as redistribution of income, the elimination of waste, and increases in productivity obtained by means of revolutionary enthusiasm can allow us to satisfy all of our material and spiritual needs, and work less, and make work creative and fulfilling – and we can do all of this right now, immediately after getting rid of capitalism. This is extremely wishful thinking.
Average income per person in the world today is only 22% of average income in the U.S. So if we redistribute everything equally, we’ll all have a standard of living less than 1/4th of the current average in the U.S. If we also eliminate waste caused by unemployment, and war, and production to satisfy alienated needs, and if we eliminate waste that now exists because of bosses, jails, ideologists and everything else that is now used to keep people in their place, and if we eliminate the waste stemming from advertising, commerce, and financial speculation – if we eliminate all of this, then, if we’re very lucky, it may be possible to double genuine output overnight. That would be a tremendous achievement. But a doubling of the current figure, 22%, means that we’ll all be living at 44% – less than half – of the current average standard of living in the U.S.
Now factor in some revolutionary enthusiasm, and perhaps some way to increase output that I’ve forgotten about, and add in an extra 10 percentage points because you think that my estimates are way too pessimistic. So imagine that we’d immediately have triple what we now have. That would be a truly stunning achievement.
But it would bring the global standard of living only to two-thirds of the current U.S. average. And that’s before any reduction of working time, before any effort to eliminate unsafe and alienating work processes, before any elimination of speedup, and before any additional investment in new technologies that will reduce the need for human labor. Cutting the workweek from 40 to 30 hours, for instance, immediately brings our standard of living back down to half of the current U.S. average.
So the constraints we face are very real, and rather strong. Because of this, acheiving a new society will not simply be a matter of the things that the Left has focused heavily upon – changing our social priorities, changing who makes the decisions, and changing how decisions are made. These things are important, but they alone are not the solution to our social problems. We will not be able to create a utopia overnight, or in the foreseeable future, simply by winning political control, having new forms of organization and decision-making, and establishing different social priorities. We’re clearly still very far away from the point at which society will be able to inscribe on its banners, “From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs.”
And this brings us to what I regard as by far the most important and difficult problem, the problem of so-called “incentives.” It simply won’t be possible that, right after we get rid of capitalism, everyone will be able to get whatever they need, irrespective of how much of a contribution they make. There isn’t enough to go around. And as I’ve suggested above, you shouldn’t think that other people will freely devote their lives to satisfying your needs if you don’t make what they regard as an adequate contribution. So we will have to work out ways to link what people receive from society to what they contribute to society.
And if we are to have a break with capitalism, we will have to find a non-capitalist way of linking what one receives and what one contributes. This implies that people will not receive in accordance with the value of what they produce, as measured by its money price. Nor will they receive in accordance with the physical quantity of their output. That’s what we have now; workers utilizing more advanced technologies, and skilled workers, and strong and able-bodied workers reap very high rewards compared to everyone else. In fact, the single most important source of poverty and inequality in the world today is not the extraction of surplus-value in capitalist production, but the operation of the law of value in its simplest form. Abstracting from surplus-value, the law of value implies that producers are rewarded according to how much physical output they produce. The result is enormous poverty and inequality, since, in China and India and so on, agricultural output per working-hour is less than one percent of what it is in the U.S.!
Clearly, what we must try to work out is how to link what people receive as workers to how much and how hard they work, not how much value or output they produce. (I say “receive as workers” because I’m certainly not suggesting that people who are unable to work should starve.) But linking what people receive to the duration and intensity of their work turns out not to be as easy as it sounds. This is because, as long as people are not freely contributing according to their abilities, without regard to what they receive, they have an incentive to misrepresent how long and how hard they’ve worked, as individuals or as a group.
The problem of misrepresentation of working time and effort is very difficult to solve. For instance, it seems to me that Michael Albert well understands the need to break the link between what workers receive and the amount of physical output they produce. Yet faced with the misrepresentation problem, he ends up advocating that work teams have production norms that they must fulfill. Thus, if the work team’s output falls short of the norm, the members of the work team will be punished by a proportionate reduction in what they receive. So, to a large degree, the law of value, the link between what workers receive and the amount of physical output they produce, would remain intact. Nor does Parecon offer anything close to a solution to the extremely serious problem of technologically-based inequality between the first and third worlds that I alluded to above; Albert imagines that “Parecon in one country” is possible.
The reason I point these things out is not to criticize Parecon per se. I think that Albert and Hahnel have thought very seriously about some of the problems I’ve been talking about. They understand well that a genuine alternative to capitalism must have its own self-sustaining logic. Parecon seems to me to be the most successful attempt yet to articulate the internal logic of a democratic society without value production, the commodification of labor-power, or markets, and with little if any division between mental and manual labor. So my point is not to criticize their work, but to emphasize that serious theoretical problems remain unsolved. So more work of the same sort, more thinking along similar lines, is urgently needed.
To conclude, I freely acknowledge that the issues I’ve been talking about are technical. But they are not only technical. What is at issue is whether another world is possible. Societies absolutely must solve the problems of coordination, incentives, and misrepresentation of work effort, and they must “deliver the goods.” To date, only one way of solving these problems in an advanced economy has been found: the capitalist way.
Capitalism does not work to the benefit of the immense majority of the world, and it does not even work particularly well on its own terms; it is subject to continuing crises and persistent instability. But it does work. It solves the problems of coordination, incentives, and misrepresentation of work effort, it “delivers the goods,” and so forth, well enough to keep itself going from one year to the next. Unless a non-capitalist way of solving these problems is found, there is no liberatory alternative to capitalism. Any break with capitalism that does not solve these problems simply cannot succeed. Society will quickly revert back to capitalism, in order that these problems might be solved. Or society will descend into even worse alternatives, such as complete chaos or warlordism. It is perhaps more pleasant to talk about the kind of world we would like to see, but the really urgent task that humanity faces is to work out how another world is even possible.
 To break with capitalism, I believe, it will be necessary to end the production of value. This implies a profound change in what workers contribute; they will not contribute abstract “value” in addition to the actual amount of labor they contribute. Thus the problem of working out a new way of linking receipts and contributions is not a stand-alone distributional problem. It depends upon and follows from the needed change in production relations (i.e., the change in what workers contribute). For further discussion of this issue, see Section IV of my essay “Alternatives to Capitalism.”
I really appreciate this article, even more so than most MHI articles (and that’s saying something). I frequently recommend it as it touches upon so many points on which there are apparent impasses within left discourse.
Now that being said, I need to bring it into conversation with this piece which was published by the periodical “Gegenstandpunkt” in 2004
As you can see in the link, the name of the piece is, “Why we don’t make a pitch for communism with a well thought-out concept of a ‘planned economy’ “. It is a response to a letter which asks, basically, if your critique (of capitalist society) is so important, where is your practical alternative? So it’s the same question.
But they answer it very differently:
“1. Those who, after hearing a critique, ask whether something other than the criticized object would actually work, leave the analysis of what causes the “evils due to the system” uncontested, as if they agreed with the analysis. If they did agree, however, they could no longer foster any reasonable doubts about whether something other than the criticized evil were feasible. The specified causes are after all not natural necessities but based on social relations of power, which in no way have to be as they are. It’s the other way around. Those who doubt the feasibility of an alternative are not convinced that they have been presented with the real causes in the explanation of the social causes of the circumstances whose harmfulness they concede. On the contrary, they are convinced that there must be an entirely different reason than the prevailing relations of power, some not yet understood necessity that lends stability to the criticized circumstances. They thus deny the soundness of our arguments. One cannot avoid arguing about that.“
And this is only the first of several points in which they argue, why the question of what is the alternative to capitalism is the wrong question. You take an entirely different tact: for you it ends up being the only question, at least if we go by this article.
So the issue for me is that I find myself agreeing with your article here, but I also have a hard time disagreeing with Gegenstandpunkt’s points either. They seem apparently to be in contradiction. Maybe they aren’t in reality, but I’m still trying to make up my mind about it.
Then again, maybe there is no contradiction. After all, you and Gegenstandpunkt’s share a disdain for defining our aims in terms of a “planned economy”. However, it still seems that fundamentally they have some good points. I don’t know, I’m still making up my mind.
Thanks for your kind words.
I don’t think the paragraph from Gegenstandpunkt that you quote is specifically about a “planned economy.” The language is far more general. The argument is a justification for evading the demand to propose a feasible alternative in case after case after case.
I think its reasoning is extremely poor. It’s basically just a false dilemma ( https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/False-Dilemma ). The “criticized evil” (CE) is supposedly either
(a) “cause[d by] natural necessities”
(b) “something other than the criticized evil [is] feasible,” because the CE is “based on social relations of power, which in no way have to be as they are.”
No. There are MANY other options I can think of. E.g., the current social relations of power “don’t have to be as they are,” and the CE is based on them, but still, nothing other than the CE is possible. One might argue, for instance, that although exploitative work relations in capitalism are based on capitalist social relations of power, which don’t have to be as they are, nothing other than some kind of exploitative work relations are possible.
Or, e.g., the same thing, except that nothing other than the CE is feasible, even though other things are logically possible.
Also, this false dilemma turns on a more basic false dilemma–the CE is either solely “cause[d by] natural necessities” or solely “based on social relations of power.” And thus, either Gegenstandpunkt has identified all of “the real causes” of the CE or “there must be an entirely different reason” for the CE–entirely different, not additional. Few things, if any, fit this stark either/or. And explanations never detail all of the causes of a phenomenon. I’m certain that Gegenstandpunkt’s explanations do not. (The issue of incentives, which I discuss in my article, comes to mind. Incentives appeal to self-interested behavior, which is more or less a “natural necessity,” the outcome of evolution. Does Gegenstandpunkt think that the effects of eons of evolution will cease to operate the moment we have different “social relations of power”?)
The argument either misunderstands, or plays fast and loose with, what people mean when they say that they agree with an analysis of the causes of something. We don’t mean that we think that the analysis has detailed all of the causes (because we know that this isn’t possible; also it would be dreadfully time-wasting and boring to listen to someone try).
If people meant that they agree that Gegenstandpunkt has provided a complete, detailed account of all causes of the CE, and that these causes are exclusively “based on social relations of power,” and that none of the relevant social relations of power “have to be as they are”-—well then, the logic of their argument would be much stronger. But reasonable people don’t mean that. I’m kind of stunned that Gegenstandpunkt seems to.
Finally, the argument uses the term “feasible” in a tricky way. When people want to know whether an alternative is feasible, they don’t usually mean just “capable of existing in practice.” They mean that, but also, something that’s better or at least as good as what now exists. But the logic of Gegenstandpunkt’s argument relies on a sense of “feasible” in which all that needs to be shown is that something else is capable of existing in practice, because the CE is “based on social relations of power, which in no way have to be as they are.” But it’s trivially easy to demonstrate the feasibility of an alternative in that sense: a nuclear war can eliminate the CE, because it eliminates the current social relations of power, which it does by eliminating society altogether, as well as the vast majority of humankind. That’s a “feasible alternative”—i.e., capable of existing in practice.
What people want is an alternative to the status quo that is better, not one that is worse. Gegenstandpunkt is just evading the need to provide this, and even the need to think about it.