The Samovar

After Capitalism
June 12, 2007, 2:11 am
Filed under: Capitalism, Economics, Parecon, Politics

I’ve just finished reading David Schweickart’s book “After Capitalism”, in which he describes his alternative to capitalism, called Economic Democracy. I wasn’t particularly expecting to like this book after reading the debate between him and Michael Albert on the subject of participatory economics (parecon, which I wrote about recently), in which I don’t think he acquitted himself well. It was better than I thought.

Economic Democracy (ED) is a form of market socialism, and so is automatically subject to the problems that markets introduce. There were a couple of other concerns I had. Bear in mind that this is only based on one reading of “After Capitalism”, which is a less rigorous book than his earlier “Against Capitalism” (which I haven’t read).

  •  ED still allows for a great deal of inequality. Schweickart talks about, for example, ranges for income between $20,000 and $200,000. This still spans the range poor to rich, even if it’s not very poor to very rich. Pragmatically speaking though, the question for me is: does the relative difficulty in achieving ED compared to a more egalitarian revolutionary idea justify this inequality? ED would require a revolutionary change in society, so would it be that much easier to achieve than, say, parecon, for it to be worth considering given the outcome is still quite unequal?
  • Schweickart – although he is a Marxist – doesn’t appear to take class into account. A socially stratified society is not impossible in ED and the level above suggests it is likely. To be fair, to make this criticism of ED rigorous, you would need to demonstrate afresh that class based stratification would occur in ED, because the mechanisms by which it would occur would be somewhat different to those in a capitalist society. Once you have class, is a stable egalitarian society possible? I would argue not. Along these lines, see also my comments on a very different book, Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”.
  • Schweickart suggests a scenario in which the transition to ED might be made in the USA if an economic crisis happened. Given that a socialist revolution is unlikely to occur in the USA any time soon, it might be worthwhile to consider how it could come about in poorer countries where there were strong (capitalist) outside influences.
  • Finally, although he outlines a possible transition from economic crisis to ED assuming that there was a will to implement ED, he doesn’t talk about how you could build a political movement and party that would do so.

The last two criticisms above apply to almost all socialist or anarchist schemes for a better world, but the first two I think are serious and specific to ED.

That all said, I do think this book is well worth a read. Economic Democracy would be undoubtedly be a better system than capitalism, and it’s possible that it would be easier to achieve than more radical schemes like parecon. My fear is that it isn’t radical enough – if we fought for it and achieved it, it might not be a lasting solution and may well share many of capitalism’s problems.



INTRODUCTION – Your Dreams Fulfilled

The following ideas and concepts have the potential to radically change your world for the better. Every aspect of your life could be enhanced and every dream you have could become a reality.

Every hope you’ve ever conceived,
Every need you’ve ever known,
Can easily be achieved

Welcome to the growing group of people on this planet who want more from life…
STAGE 1 – Understanding the physical world

The world exists outside of our heads. It’s there to be analysed and understood. It’s not a hard task. The organic material between your ears, your brain, is more than capable of understanding the current world situation.

You are connected.
You are not alone.
You are part of this world.
You have the solution within you.
The world needs you to do your part.
You need you to do your part.

You are connected to every one else on this planet. You may not feel it, but it’s a fact. A fact that can not be refuted, proved wrong, or even sensibly denied. Anyone that does deny it can be ridiculed, and you’ll see why…

Did you have a cup of tea this morning? Have you ever had a cup of tea? Do you drink coffee? If you’ve had any of these experiences, or you’re familiar with the concepts then the ideas below are going to make so much sense to you, and have such an impact on you and your life, that you’ll be asking why you’d never thought of it sooner and then you’ll be demanding that everyone begins to think it too.

Imagine the cup of tea that you had this morning and the process of creating that cup of tea. You took a cup, you boiled some water and you took a tea bag and placed it in that cup or in a tea pot. Now, stop for a second to imagine what that tea bag is, what it means and what it represents.

For that tea bag to exist at all, humans, no matter how far away or close to you, need to that have ploughed a field, planted tea bushes, tended tea bushes, nurtured them through their growth cycle, harvested the leaves, dried the leaves, packaged the leaves, transported the leaves and finally stacked the leaves in a shop where you could purchase them. You know all of these things to be solid, undeniable and verifiable facts.

You are connected to all of those humans in that chain of production as without them, you could have no tea bag. For you to have something as simple as a tea bag to put in a cup, to begin to make tea, there may have been thousands of humans involved. That Tea Bag is a result of their labours and their endeavours, no matter how unseen by you. The Tea Bag should have HumanityTM embossed on it. Those humans have lives, they exist. They have had a direct impact on your life as you are able to enjoy a cup of tea. You are connected to them. They are connected to you.

For, if it was not for you, using their tea bag, the fruits of their labours, their lives would be dramatically different.

And remember, that’s just the tea bag. Think about the kettle that you boiled the water in. Where did the water come from? And did you use gas or electricity to heat the water? Where did that energy supply come from? How many miles of pipes and pumps and wires had to be used? How many connected humans were involved?

And this is all so that you can have a cup of tea! You can now see that you are part of the collective of humanity on this planet, you are not alone; welcome to the realisation.

STAGE 2 – How we currently operate

The collection of humanity on this planet, though highly efficient at getting you the basics like tea and coffee, is currently organised in a very self defeating way.

You and I work for different companies. The companies that we work for may very well be in competition. Companies are only there to make a profit for the company. That is their role. That is their reason for existing. Someone had an idea to make money, and they started a business. All very well as far as it goes. However, now, at this period in our history, the idea of individual companies, working alone to produce the “next big thing”, is something that is holding you and I back from realising our full potential. That is, full potential of the productive capabilities of humans, of humanity, on this planet are being squandered by competition and the profit motive.

Again, this is very easy to demonstrate and again, it’s undeniable.

For example, take two competing drugs companies; you work for one and I work for the other one. Both companies are in business to make a profit and as such they are pouring millions of dollars into research and development to find the next big cure for blindness, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, paralysis, HIV, or pick an ailment or condition that’s close to your heart.

We know that the humans that make up the work force of these companies are members of the collective of humanity that brought us the humble tea bag. So we know that each member of that collective would benefit from a break through in any new treatment; you and I included. ¬¬

So let us assume that the solution that both of these companies are working on will take 10 years to develop. Now what if, after 5 years, the company that you’re working for has half of the solution and the company that I’m working for has the other half of the solution? As a collective, as humanity, we have the whole solution. You know half of it, and I know half of it. So, in theory, we could actually bring it to the other members of the human collective directly. That is after 5 years, not 10. We could half the time that it currently takes to share the break through, as we have all the pieces.

That is, we, as a collection, have done all the work we need to do as both halves of the solution are now known. However, given the fact that we are working for companies that are in competition, for greater and greater profits, the solution will not flow to the members of the global society as no one company owns the whole solution. In theory it will take each company another 5 years to fully understand the solution thus any benefits for humanity are delayed by that time. Even then the companies will only release a product if they can realise a profit from it.

We have just worked out how, with this one example, capitalism is not best suited to the needs of you and I and humanity. In case you think this is just a one off, let us examine the case of mobile phones and competition within that sector..

Mobile phones, at least in the UK, are used for 3 main tasks; sending text messages, making phone calls and sending multi media messages such as pictures and sound files.

You are more than aware of these functions and I dare say you’ve used at least one of them and if not, you know people that have. Now, in the UK there is competition, again, from Orange, O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone etc, etc. Each of these providers may erect separate radio masts to build their coverage foot print. So potentially we could have 4 or more different masts covering the same geographical area because each of the operators wants coverage in that particular area, of course. That’s competition.

No matter which provider you choose to be your mobile phone carrier the service you get at the end will be very much the same from one to the other. You’ll be able to make and receive phone calls and send and receive text messages etc. The major criteria that you’ll have used in your decision will be how many minutes and text messages you get for your monthly outlay.

So instead of distributing mobile phone capabilities to each geographical area once, we, as an unconscious act of the collective and as a direct result of competition and the profit motive of Orange, O2, T-Mobile etc, have actually rolled out enough radio masts, computers, switches and cables to cover each geographical area 4 or more times. However, if we had, as a collective, been working towards providing for the collective, instead of working within competing companies, we could have covered the UK 4 times over in the time that it took us to do it once. We all could have had the benefits of mobile communications sooner than we actually did.

At this stage in our human development we are holding back the potential of humanity on this planet by organising in competing companies. We are holding ourselves back from achieving. We are wasting time. We are squandering our resources. We are distracting ourselves from our full potential.

The current system discards and overlooks a huge number of humans on this planet as they have no practical benefit to the current system; capitalism.

If you condone the current organisational method, in light of this logical evidence, then you are part of the problem. The world needs you to rethink, and understand that a shift in emphasis from working for competing companies and their profit motive to actually working for humanity would bring untold freedoms and benefits to you, your family, your friends, your loved ones, your neighbours.

You are part of the solution if you take these concepts forward. Tell more people about them. Spread them around. Your future depends on it.

STAGE 3 – Imagine The Future

So now we’ve discussed the idea of the collective and of humanity wasting time it’s time to consider what it could mean for us to organise ourselves differently.

Imagine a place and time when all of our endeavours as humans are used for our benefit. No more working for some company’s profit. No more distractions from the needs of humans. No more impediments to you getting exactly what you want from this life. No more antagonism amongst humans. An understanding that each human, if they play their part in the collective, can reap any and all of the rewards of that collective.

Imagine the number of people we can also bring into the system to work towards the goals of the collective. All those people that are currently disregarded by the system; the countless millions in “under-developed” [have you ever asked yourself why?] countries.

With all of these extra resources, we can half the working week or even make it two days long or so. Who knows how we will decide to organise the massive resource on this planet that is the collective community of humanity.

And no enlightened community of humanity would ever decide to make any decision that did not best fit the needs of the community as that would be akin to suicide. Only the best decisions for the collective would be made. Think what that would mean for governmental organisations? Would we require them? Maybe we’d need some form of “commodity request list” or “goals list” that we could all view and prioritise, with the most obviously important goals being raised to the top of the list with ease. How about eradicating famine, poverty, diseases, war, global pollution etc? What about planting trees to form lungs for the planet? What about designing technology that can clean the atmosphere?

If we organise ourselves with us as the priority then all the material items that we struggle to collect just now such as houses, cars, gadgets, and even just the basics of food and water will flow to us as a logical consequence. Far from compromising or goals and our desires, by organising for humans, we can achieve them all! And more importantly we can bring the endeavours of every human on the plant to bear for our well being. Each human who is cast aside by the current system of capitalist production and its insatiable drive for greater and greater profits will be brought into the global collection of working productive humanity and they will be able to influence and bolster that global community. Hence, all of our lives become infinitely better and immeasurably easier.

The solution needs you. It needs everyone you know. So how big is this task? Can we do it? Well, the maths says we can.

The population of this earth is somewhere in the region of 6,000,000,000 (6 Billion or 6 Thousand million). So that makes any effort you make alone, as an “individual”, equivalent to 1/6 Billionth of the effort needed to realise all of your hopes and dreams.

However, if in the first instance, you can tell just 10 people, of this way of thinking, and they feel as passionately as you do about it, and they set themselves the same goal of just telling 10 people, then the numbers soon become very large indeed;

You – 10 – 100 – 1,000 – 10,000 – 100,000 – 1,000,000 – 10,000,000 – 100,000,000, 1,000,000,000, The World!

Just 10 iterations! That is, just 10 times the process of telling 10 folk and the whole world would know! So the chain that you start, by telling 10 folk about these ideas and about your passion for them, will only have to be repeated 10 times and we can all share in the understandings!

You have the solution within you. The world needs you to do your part.
You need you to do your part.

When you know how it works; it’s easy to change the world!

Comment by dunk

I think your notion of class has some flaws, which give you a rough time with Schweickart as well as some illusions about Parecon.

Even Mike Albert’s Parecon is a class society, even if he claims otherwise. It has a huge working class (even if not paid in the usual sense) and a small petty producer class (one person working for himself or herself). It may even have an underground ‘black market’ illegal capitalist class (almost certain to emerge, in my opinion, unless you imprison them, then you have a ‘class’ of prisoners and jailers to factor in.)

Class, to be a useful concept in any Marxist sense, has little to do with income differences or strict egalitarianism, but is primarily one’s relation to production and how one makes a living–worker, owner or self-employed producer, ‘be their payment high or low’, to use Marx’s phrase.

Communism, my goal, is a classless society, meaning ALL classes, markets and states wither away, including the working class, (as a class, not as individuals). As Marx put it, that’s when true human history, as opposed to the history of class struggle, really begins. It cannot be done by fiat or decree. The means is the high design and high tech of full cybernation, sustainably in tune with the ecosystem, where the living labor time in commodities approaches zero. This is possible, even likely, but a century or two down the pike, for sure, unless ‘shit happens’ like nuclear war or ecocide.

In the distance between here and there, all ‘successor system’ societies to today’s capitalism are class societies and mixed economies utilizing and regulating the market in one form or another, and to one degree or another. I don’t care what labels you put on it, trying to call things by another name. Some are better and some are worse, to be sure, and that’s what the discussion is best about if we want to make some progress.

Schweickart’s version, rather radical but still very practical, abolishes the capital and labor markets, but keeps the markets in goods and services, with regulation. The labor market is gone because no one is paid a wage. The worker-owned or worker-leased factories divide up their profits at the end of the year, as they see fit and in accord with how well they’ve done. The workers essentially become self-employed owners, but still a class, even if you want to call it a working class ‘of a new type.’ The real existing model he points to is the extensive network of Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, but not only those. Mondragon is doing very well by and for the workers that own it. It makes everything from household goods to large tourist buses, and out-performs their tradition capitalist rivals. One leg up they have is that they don’t have a large number of supervisors to hire. They hire and fire some managers, but the worker-owners themselves cannot be fired. They set the income differential between new hires, skilled labor and hired managers as they see fit. Generally today the range is one to five, bottom to top.

Mike Albert has huge problems with this, but the 60,000 or so worker-owners in MCC in Spain do not.

Your point about a party or electoral instrument of some sort, and it’s relative absence in ‘After Capitalism’ is a very good one. But as you point out, it’s absent in the vision of all Schweickart’s critics as well, even the Greens.

Some of us, including Schweickart, are working on one, which we call the independent nonpartisan high road alliance, based on the politics or insurgency and development. We got some pieces of it, but it’s a work in progress. I don’t think Albert has much of an electoral strategy. If he does, sent me the link.

Comment by Carl Davidson

Hi Carl, thanks for posting.

You may well be right that my notion of class is confused, it’s not something I know an awful lot about. Actually, after finishing the book I added a few of Schweickart’s references on class to my reading list – it’s something I want to understand better. I’m not sure I would subscribe to the Marxist notion though. Ownership or not of the means of production is certainly important, but there is more to class politics than ownership. In the UK and (I think) the US, income differentials certainly seem to have a fairly significant class effect, through – for example – access to private education. That maybe wouldn’t happen in ED, but when there is great inequality (and I would certainly say that 10:1 income ratios is great inequality, even if it’s small by today’s standards), the danger is that people will find a way to institutionalise it and turn it into political inequality rather than just income inequality.

I think it’s naive to hope that there is a technological solution to our problems, even one that is 200 years down the line. Actually, this is something I think Schweickart gets very right in this book. We have all the productive power already that we need for everyone to live decently, but that’s not what happens.

In defence of parecon, I don’t think it is a classed society – I don’t recognise your description of it. Certainly a black market capitalist class doesn’t make sense because what sort of ‘capital’ could they have? Ownership of possessions doesn’t add up to control of production – Schweickart makes the same point. Also, parecon isn’t a mixed economy regulating the market, it’s a genuine alternative (and to my knowledge, unique in being an alternative that is both decentralised and provably efficient).

Electoral strategy is something I really haven’t made up my mind on. I think you’re right that Michael Albert doesn’t have one. There is a question in my mind though as to whether it’s even sensible to bother with electoral politics. The “independent nonpartisan high road alliance” (catchy name) probably isn’t going to make any more progress than any of the other left-wing parties. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try of course, especially given that there is no other option that is clearly better, but you have to admit that the likelihood is that it won’t get very far (unless other conditions change fairly substantially).

That all said – there’s absolutely no reason why people on the left shouldn’t participate to the extent that their goals overlap. Michael Albert and David Schweickart may disagree fairly vehemently on markets, but there’s a lot about the nature of capitalism that they would agree on.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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