An Anarchist Replies: installment 2
Daniel -- July 1, 2003
1.) The Core Contradiction:
Ben has stated in both of his essays – and repeatedly in his most recent offering, Finding the Confidence to Build the Future (http://struggle.net/alds/part_05_content.htm) – that in order for working class to rise up and ultimately liberate itself from the talons of its own alien labour (capital), it will require a machine with which to co-ordinate its actions against its oppressor class, the bourgeoisie. If – like Ben – we are to think of communism as being an “inevitable” product of the current revolution in digital communications, then this machine could be thought of as being effective during a transitional period in which what remains of the bourgeois property is gradually broken down and disseminated throughout the social body, through the struggles of ordinary people. There is no doubt that if the working class is to truly organise itself as a class for-itself, conscious of its own collective interests as a class, then it will need some kind of mass-based coordinating mechanism (or “machine”, as Ben prefers to call it) – an infrastructure for uprising, which may or may not have to radically structure itself after the destruction of the state, in order to continue this uprising to its conclusion. This I stated quite clearly in my first post, where I pointed out that the very structure of the question we are debating implies the necessity of such a machine, and such a period of struggle from below after the overthrow of the state.
Whether or not such a “machine” is required or not is therefore not what is at issue in this debate – Ben and myself both accept the need for such a machine. I prefer not to think of it as a “machine” though. A technology of liberation – a collection of techniques with which to collectively organize our liberation – is more like what I have in mind. The word “machine” hardly gets to the guts of what must ultimately be a conscious self-coordination of a large number of people by themselves, from nobody outside, above or beyond themselves. Not something separate from us that we control, influence or tinker with from outside in order to regulate each other, but rather something that we ourselves embody and constitute in and through our cooperation against those who seek to control and regulate our lives from “outside”. What is at issue here then, are such crucial points as what this technology might look like, what functions it will need to perform in order to get us “there” (stateless, classless society) from “here” (capitalism – i.e. the rule of capital) – and most importantly, what kinds of powers we ought to vest this entity with so that it that can fulfil its purpose, i.e. allow us to organize our own liberation. It seems to me that only on the basis of the actual properties this “machine” or technology will need to have, can we decide whether or not it is a state – or indeed, whether this mechanism, with its peculiar properties, has anything at all in common with a state. Ben wants us to grant him that this machine is, a priori, a state – “scientifically” mind you, but without the evidence that scientists usually produce to substantiate their hypotheses. Sorry Ben, but the claim that this machine is a state is exactly what we are debating here.
Of course, all this must obviously depend on what we define a state to be – what we take this word “state” to actually mean. This in my mind is the central issue of this debate, the political prize that is up for grabs. The reason this is important, in my mind, is that if we agree that this technology constitutes a state, then we agree that it must in some way resemble states that exist today in its mode of operation. I however hold that this shall not be the case. My argument basically runs along the lines that as soon as this machine adopts any of the tactics or properties that states have traditionally used (in particular, the application of laws accompanied by the strategic use of force over entire populations of people), the “revolution” is finished for good. I assert that the period after the destruction of the state must be a period of struggle, a period of mobilisation from below. We are the ones who do all the fucking work under capitalism: there is nothing left for us to “learn” that we do not already know from our current existence as proletarians. It is argued by Ben and other Leninists that the failure of previous revolutions arose from a lack of ‘understanding’ on the part of the working class; that it was not ‘educated’ enough to run the material means of production on its own; that it did not give itself enough ‘time’ or “protection” to learn how to do it. This is argument sounds reasonable, but it is pure mystification, as it attempts to take class out of the equation altogether. The fact is we are already the ones who do all the work, and the only thing we need to learn is how not to boss each other around, or be bossed around by each other. The failure of previous revolutions, far from being the product of “ignorance” on the part of the working class, can be reduced to its submission to groups of people who claimed to know how they should run things. This shall be my core argument in this reply.
But what I will also assert, in relation to the question of state, is that under no circumstances is the suppression of this mobilisation from below ever in the interests of the working class – not even in the direst of political or economic conditions. This is the fundamental principle that distinguishes an anarchist from a Leninist. The fundamental contradiction of Ben’s position is that although he would like to claim that modern, “stable” conditions of production – particularly with modern communications infrastructure – guarantee future “revolutions” against “counter-revolutions” such as that suffered in Russia after 1917, he nonetheless also wants to maintain that the “emergency measures” (including the shooting of anarchists: see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pof-200/message/67) which ushered in these counter-revolutions were historically necessary, as a matter of principle, given the concrete conditions of the time. This implies that should such dire “concrete conditions” again emerge in some future revolutionary scenario – in particular, to the point where people’s basic material needs are no longer satisfiable at a mass level – then similar measures would in principle be equally justified.
At this point, just in case I have in fact misrepresented Ben’s actual ideas on the utility of “emergency measures”, I am going to offer Ben the valuable opportunity to refute what I am asserting is implied by what I understand of his theoretical framework:
in mind that there is no limit to how irrational the capitalist system can be,
and therefore no limit to how severe its recurrent economic
crises can be (something that Marx demonstrated “scientifically”), is
there any foreseeable revolutionary situation in which, under “modern”
(i.e. volatile) geopolitical and economic conditions, it would be
necessary in principle for an incumbent “workers’ state” to implement globally
repressive emergency measures – such as those implemented by the Bolsheviks in
the immediate aftermath of October 1917 – in order to
maintain the political supremacy of the working class, or the economic stability
of “its” state?
All you have to do Ben is reply in the negative – a firm and categorical no – and you’re off the hook! Not a feeble “Well, such measures are unlikely to be necessary if a reasonable level of economic stability is maintained...” – what I am asking for here is a principled reply stating that under no circumstances are such measures necessary, useful, helpful – or worse – inevitable, in the quest for the liberation of the working class. And then, comrade, you will indeed have proven to our audience that all those nasty allegations of me twisting and “misrepresenting” your principles were in fact true! But if not, then our audience must surely have the right to ask the following question…
2.) Have I really misrepresented Ben’s views… or has Ben misrepresented them to us?
Alas, unless I have completely misunderstood the substance of Ben’s theory, he is not going to give us the categorical negative reply to this question that would assuage our ‘confusion’. If he does, then the reader should completely ignore this entire section for future reference. (In fact if he does, then this debate is over: such an entity would not be a state in my mind.) What is actually going on here is that rather than me “misrepresenting” Ben’s theory, it is Ben who doesn’t want to grapple with the full implications of that theory.
Before I go into any analysis here, it is worth me clarifying an assumption I am making: that if Ben no longer subscribes to material that he has written in the past, he is quite welcome to do what anyone else would do in that case, and withdraw the material from his own website. The fact that Ben has not done this, since I quoted this material in my last reply, I am taking as implicit confirmation that Ben still agrees with most, if not all, the principles he has expounded in these writings – principles that he quite simply hasn’t mentioned at all in his writings specific to this debate, let alone attempted to justify to his audience.
So what principles am I talking about here? And why do I think that they do not lend to a negative reply to the question I asked Ben at the end of the previous section? Let’s see what Ben writes in chapter 8 of his Party of the Future series (@ http://leninism.org/pof/pof8.asp; all emphasis is Ben’s own):
Today, the bourgeoisie and its flunkies, as well as many who are simply confused, argue that Lenin was very "undemocratic". It is wrong in all circumstances, such people argue, to prevent the population from having access to the views of all political trends and to decide for themselves whom to support. Lenin called this view (and the arguments that support it) "pure democracy". This "pure democracy" view argues that if the majority of the population are fooled in one way or another and make serious mistakes in terms of whom to support and whom to put into power--they can simply learn from these mistakes and draw their own conclusions. So therefore, according to this view, shouldn't the masses be allowed the traditional bourgeois-democratic rights?
The reason Ben will not – if he is still a Leninist – give his audience a categorical rejection of Bolshevik-style “emergency measures”, is because such a rejection would amount to the position that Ben argues against in the above polemic: the position of “pure democracy”. Now regarding Lenin’s views on “pure democracy”, let me be the first to say that there is an element of truth in them as well as in Ben’s account of them. For at the time of this debate on “pure democracy”, the people Lenin was polemicising against were arguing for the reconstitution of the Duma – the dissolution of which had been an event that anarchists and anarchist-communists throughout Europe had loudly applauded. Lenin was right to engage in polemic against these statist “democrats”. But he was wrong in believing that any level of repression that he felt to be necessary – or even any repression at all – could be instituted to ‘protect’ the fledgling “workers’ state” from the (very) real interests these “democrats” represented, without such measures having long-term degenerative consequences. Even Ben himself comes very close to pointing this out in the same chapter, in the following telling segment:
Lenin understood that the suppression of the petty bourgeois democrats required, to a very large extent, the suppression of the independent voices of the masses. The petty bourgeois democrats, he noted, had "learned to don the 'non-party' disguise". This made it quite difficult and complex to allow the masses to express themselves without providing a platform for the petty bourgeois democrats. In practice, it meant that the independent voices and initiative of the masses could only express itself on rare occasions and with close and careful Bolshevik supervision. Or, in simpler terms, that the independent political activity of the masses had to be largely shut down.
This was unfortunate inasmuch as it was the independent political activity of the masses that would have been the powerful force capable of preventing the degeneration of the party that took place in the years after Lenin died.
The central paradox, it seems, is right under Ben’s nose here… and yet he somehow fails to pick it up! That “the independent political activity of the masses had to be largely shut down” was more than just “unfortunate” – it was the principle that such an action is acceptable which sealed the fate of the whole uprising. It is Ben who rightly emphasises how decisive principles can be, and it is Ben who correctly points out, above, that “the independent political activity of the masses… would have been the powerful force capable of preventing the degeneration of the party”. What is implied here by Ben, but importantly, not explicitly stated by him, is that from the standpoint of what Engels called the “materialist conception of history”, no other force could or would have been capable of this: the independent political activity of the masses was “the powerful force”, writes Ben. It is also important to note here that Ben does not speak of any kind of relative class autonomy being able to circumvent this “degeneration” (a term that I am borrowing for want of a better one, under the assumption that some states actually are better to live under than others) – on the contrary, when Ben speaks of the “independent political activity of the masses” being “the powerful force capable of preventing the degeneration of the party”, he seems to mean it in an absolute sense: not the partial, but only the fully independent political activity of “the masses” would have sufficed. And if this isn’t what Ben is saying, then let us take this opportunity to ask him: perhaps there was some other force capable of this Ben? Perhaps some aethyric force innate to the juridical mechanics of the state, far removed from the actual political activity of the working class, that was capable of circumventing this “degeneration”?
But Ben – being the consistent historical materialist that we know him to be – knows that no such force of change, outside of the class struggle, actually exists. On the one hand then, Ben argues that the survival of the fledgling “workers’ state” required the suppression of the “petty bourgeois democrats”, which in turn “required, to a very large extent, the suppression of the independent voices of the masses”. Yet on the other hand, Ben argues, only this same independent political activity of the masses could have constituted a force powerful enough to prevent the “degeneration of the party that took place in the years after Lenin died”. It seems pretty clear to me that it can’t work both ways. If the independent political activity of the working class is the only thing that can combat this “degeneration”, then as far as I can tell, to “shut down” this independent political activity would have to render such a degeneration inevitable. And even if Ben speaks only of a degeneration of “the party” rather than of the state (which in any case would be concretely untrue, a. because the state did degenerate in fact; and b. because even in theory Lenin and Marx both agree that the state is not a neutral instrument which “the party” can simply lay hold of for its own ends – as even Ben apparently agrees, the form of the state determines to what extent it can be a “workers’ state”.), I fail to see how that would save Ben’s position from the circularity that I’m surely not the first to expose: that it was only suppression that could save the ‘revolution’, yet it was the same suppression which suffocated the only forces capable of preventing its “degeneration”. Only one of these two propositions can be logically true Ben. Isn’t it perfectly clear, historically speaking, which one of them it was? Isn’t it perfectly clear that it was the political suppression itself which constituted the origin of this supposed “degeneration”?
It reduces to a very simple equation Ben: as soon as you take away the space in which ordinary people can agitate politically, then you allow that space to rot politically: whether in whole or in part, it instantaneously becomes a fertile ground on which a new ruling class can expand and grow to consolidate its nascent political, economic and ideological hegemony and interests. And the longer that space is allowed to rot, the firmer the hold the roots of this nascent class grow over society. This means that not even given the ‘concession’ of “close and careful Bolshevik supervision” could the working people of Russia have adequately organised themselves to prevent the degeneration of “their” state or “their” party – for it was precisely this “supervision” which, at all levels, established the space in which this new class could initially consolidate itself as a class. The only thing that can derail this kind of consolidation of political power is the autonomous political action of the working class. And it is for precisely this reason that historically – and despite the best efforts revolutionary politicians have made to give these emergency measures a limited lifespan – they have only ever been amplified in their severity by the state, until such widespread dissatisfaction develops among the population that large numbers of people rally to the streets to take action against them.
3.) Was the dictatorship of a minority “inevitable” in Russia after 1917?
Contrary to what Ben has argued, it is never “inevitable” that repressive measures be instituted to protect the class rule of a minority – on the contrary, Lenin had to vigorously argue, against great intellectual and physical opposition, that these measures were both acceptable and useful to the working class in principle. Indeed, according to Ben (see casual reply A, @ http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pof-200/message/63):
Lenin was realistic in his assessment of events and Lenin knew that, in the curcumstances of the time, it was inevitable that a minority would rule -- the only issue was which minority: the bourgeoisie and landlords -- or a section which intended to create the foundations (for the first time in history) for majority rule ten or twnety years down the road when the country had a functioning economy.
The dictatorship of a minority was inevitable, Ben argues, given the material circumstances of the time. In another essay of his titled Why did Lenin suppress all competing trends after the civil war ended in 1920? (@ http://struggle.net/alds/essay_152_content.htm), he even goes as far as to say that the state run by the Bolsheviks “was never a workers’ state in the full sense of the word”. Instead, he compares the state that existed to a “lottery ticket” which was to give the working class a “fighting chance” at one day establishing a “workers’ state”. Now clearly, Ben has put himself in a polemically sticky situation by using the term “lottery ticket”, and I’m not going to devote the time to ridicule this notion that I perhaps should, apart from stating that this certainly isn’t the kind of lottery I’d be clamouring to take part in. What I and other anarchists want to know is: where was this fighting chance going to come from, once the Bolsheviks had taken away the working class’s capacity to organise its own political existence, and wage its own struggles against those it deemed to be its oppressors? Certainly not from any kind of mass-based class struggle, it would seem. Indeed, as far as I can tell – and correct me if I’m wrong Ben – this “fighting chance” was supposed to come purely from the good intentions of a few Bolsheviks, who would create the basis of a functioning economy ‘on behalf’ of the working class; with its good faith and cooperation at best (since it was, according to Ben, this minority of Bolsheviks, and not the working class, which actually and ultimately held political power); or from behind the barrel of a gun at worst.
And what was supposed to guarantee that all this would lead to “real socialism”? Why, not the actual mechanisms of political struggle that the working class had developed by itself, and through which any limiting control it retained over the growing state apparatus was in fact exercised. Ben does not speak anywhere of these kinds of actions having a degenerative effect on the revolution, despite agreeing that the form of the state matters, and that not just any state run by “the Party” can be a ‘worker’s state’ “in the full sense of the word”. It would seem that since “the Party” was free to decide which of these political instruments would or would not be part of the new state apparatus, that the degeneration that took place did not even concern the existence of these organisations at all; it was purely an inner degeneration of the party itself, not an outer generation of the state it came to control. It would seem that “the Party”, in Ben’s schema – not the working class – was and is the only guarantee that “socialism from below” – “real socialism” – would or can ever be achieved. (After all Ben, what else was there left, once “the independent voices and initiative of the masses” had been “largely shut down”?) The struggle of the working class, if it is to play any role at all in this schema, is not in having to take some kind of power back from the Bolsheviks by force by (for example) asserting the organisational primacy of its associations (as took place at Kronstadt); the struggle of working people seems to be reduced in this schema purely to the passive role of cooperating in the implementation of the Bolsheviks’ five-year economic plans. For according to Ben, so long as “the Party” was able to create a functioning economy ‘in the nick of time’ as it were, it would kindly give the working class back its ability to organise itself independently. Economic development is the only variable Ben cites in this power ‘lottery’.
But to paraphrase Ben, this is
nothing but idealist nonsense. In this schema, the political activity of
the working class is reduced to an essentially supplementary role to the
intellectual and political authority of “the Party”. Ben will assert that this
situation wasn’t ideal, but that that’s the way it had to be. But this wasn’t
the way it had to be at all. With all the instability that had wracked the
country, the only forces which were capable of dissolving the organisms of
workers’ power, were those of the Bolsheviks themselves – not even the
whites could do it, despite having far greater material forces of coercion.
Furthermore, the Bolsheviks were able to do this not purely by means of forces
of coercion they had at their disposal, but because large numbers of people
within the party, as well as its autonomous followers, believed that these
measures were correct, temporary, repealable and necessary to save the
fledgling state. They believed, like Ben, that through an adequate system of
checks and balances, the emergency measures the Bolsheviks implemented could
have been given a definite life span, given the working
class’s ability to control its state. (To Ben’s credit, his theory
is predicated on the working class having this ability in theory, if not in
fact.) The only problem here is that all these emergency measures either
dissolved, or legislated into impotence and
ineffectuality, all the political instruments (soviets,
factory committees, mutual aid organisations, etc.) that the class had developed
during its period of insurgency, with which it mobilised,
militated and focused its struggles from
below; and through which, alone, it exercised any
control whatsoever over the state that had cropped up in its
name, and which claimed to exercise power on its behalf. Without
these associations, the illusory control of which Ben speaks completely
disappears. The real, material power of the working class in
In short, the dictatorship of a minority was not inevitable, because it didn’t actually exist until the Bolsheviks set it up. Before they did this, the working class exercised a genuine power over its own collective existence, through various different types of organisations and associations. And they were prepared to defend this power by force: millions in fact died trying to defend and save it. This power had to be forcibly shut down by the Bolsheviks, just as it would have been by the previous ruling class had it come back to power. In Chapter 8 of his Party of the Future series, Ben asks:
My reply to this is quite simple. If the working class does not hold political power, then it is effectively in the hands of the bourgeoisie: no matter what it might call itself. An easing of Bolshevik censorship and repression might well have led to the restoration of bourgeois rule, since it was this very censorship and repression which smashed the autonomy and confidence of the arising working class. But if this censorship and repression hadn’t been instituted in the first place, things could have been very different. “Bourgeois rule” would have been no less harsh or more democratic than that of the Bolsheviks, simply because the Bolsheviks were themselves, from the outset, the ruling class of the state they set up: and in time, with their state capitalism (“war communism”), they became its bourgeoisie.
4.) Framing the ‘post-revolutionary situation’:
Let me be clear by what I mean by the term “ruling class” in these replies. I am not talking about the same physical human beings, or mostly the same human beings, taking back their divine/philosophical right to exploit us. Nor am I talking about a different group of human beings who come from largely the same socio-economic strata, and who adhere to similar political philosophies. They could come from a completely different socio-economic background to the previous ruling class; and they could hold a completely different political philosophy; or again, they might not. What I am talking about is this: in the context of the types of production relations which characterise how a social body reproduces itself, which group of people decide what is produced, how it is produced, and to whom products go. If this group is not the whole of the people, then that group is a ruling class. When I talk about “the ruling class reclaiming power” then, what I mean is the re-emergence of a ruling class onto the historical stage per se. It might not be the same ruling class which held power previously – or then again, it might be. Really, this is like asking whether one can step into the same river twice. What is important is that during what revolutionary socialists call a “counter-revolution”, either the same ruling class or a different ruling class “takes back power”.
The reason it isn’t important which ruling class takes power, so long as that ruling class is the minority over the majority, is this: the consequences for us are identical. We get hung, shot, drawn, quartered, guillotined – or in more recent times, gassed, carpet bombed, occupied, starved and diseased into oblivion. I don’t care if the people who put us before the firing squad claim to act in the name of our people or our class; what I care about is that I’m being put before a fucking firing squad. Our hanging, or our shooting, must be a strong public demonstration that a ruling class, whether new or old, has assumed power; has the political strength to defend that power through its various tools of torture and death; and has the will to use these tools should its interests ever again be threatened. It is a murder that might dwindle silently into history so long as that ruling class retains its power; that ruling class might saturate society with images of the good it does and has done; but nevertheless, the threat of death will always be there whenever its rule is threatened, or transgressed in any way.
No doubt this image of the dark white knight of the ruling class striding back into power makes all those who know themselves to be its enemies cower with a legitimate fear. The fear is a valid one – if they get their power back, we’re all dead. And in a situation where we have claimed our power back from them, where our autonomy is weak and vulnerable, we will naturally listen very carefully to anybody who claims to know how we can maintain that power and autonomy. And we will want to know that we are using all the forces available at our disposal which can help us prevent the old ruling class from coming back to power, without at the same time creating the space in which a new ruling class can ascend to power – for despite the many differences separating the two, the consequences for us would be identical: the Guillotine. In the time of Marx and Engels, Bakunin’s argument that a new ruling class could emerge was scoffed at by state socialists as pure fear-mongering – because revolutionary socialism had never truly been put to the test. Their dialectic of history simply did not factor the possibility of “degeneration” into account. But this possibility can no longer be laughed at: because it happened. And it has happened many times over, and over, and over again. We now know that communism doesn’t inevitably flow down from the beneficence of “the Revolution”. We now know that the overthrow of the state is an important turning point in the struggle against capital, but that it does not once and for all lead to victory. We now know that the decisive actions we take to defend our class power and class autonomy in this tenuous situation will need not only to prevent the old ruling class from coming back to power: they will also have to prevent a new ruling class from coming to power as well.
4.) How then can the working class liberate itself without a state?
Ben has stated repeatedly that the “scientific name” for his machine is a “state” – but he hasn’t explained the exacting scientific process that has led him to this conclusion. Science just isn’t science if you can’t explain the processes you used to arrive at your results… right Ben? If I may speculate as to what “scientific” process led Ben to christen this machine a “state”, it is probably because, in his mind, this machine would need to have certain essential similarities to existing state machineries: namely, the ability to ensure social stability through the organized and planned deployment of force, and the juridical codification of laws. The material needs of “the masses”, Ben would have us believe, cannot be ensured without this mechanism of legality and violence that is embodied by the state. Or rather, such economic stability cannot be achieved “overnight”. The argument goes that until we all “learn” how to operate the material productive forces without this interference from on high, we are going to need a state.
Now there is a certain validity to this argument, which I shall try to explain. In my mind, the state as it now exists, exists primarily to guarantee the reproduction and development of a given set of production relations, which are in turn centred around a certain core set of formal property rights. Fundamentally, the state as it currently exists makes sure that the laws which inscribe and guarantee these property rights are respected. In this guaranteeing sense, the most basic role of the state is negative. The relations of production are a system unto themselves, which the state is both essential to and yet “outside” of. In many respects (as Marx traced in Capital), capitalist relations of production are very imperfect indeed, with their irregular cycles of boom and bust. And yet fundamentally, so long as people respect the property rights which make these production relations possible, they could continue indefinitely without threat. If all people would voluntarily respect these property rights, capital would have no need of a state. Large banks could organize a central currency bank (much like the US Federal Reserve is organized) – with its own monetary policy – without any help from a state whatsoever. Similarly, there would then be no need then for a state to oil this accident-prone machine – for all state policy, from the economy upward, is centred on the correction and regulation of the population. If all people respected the law, then there would be no need for any kind of intervention at all. Why for example would the (non-state) regulators of the currency system care about levels of unemployment, if there was absolutely no risk of increased absenteeism, low morale, strikes or insurgency in the local and regional community? After all, it is these factors which make state bureaucrats get so panicky about correcting the business cycle when the downturn sets in.
course, I am talking about a hypothetical dreamworld here. The reason the state
is so very essential to capitalist production relations, is precisely
because people don’t voluntarily respect the law, nor the property rights
the law inscribes. At the macro level of the population, political instruments
such as the military and police are required to regulate large numbers of people
through the strategic and often brutal deployment of force. (Ben, living
in the United States, would probably be quite familiar with this
strategic use of force right at this moment – notice how anti-war
protests are allowed to continue by the government, but specific groups – mostly
those promoting non-violent direct action (NVDA) – are systematically targeted
to ensure that these protests remain “peaceful”, i.e. ineffective .) If the
system grinds to an absolute halt – to the point where people take to the
streets in threatening and possibly “violent” numbers – the first requirement
for getting production back on the rails is that the streets be
cleared, and the “feeling” of social discipline that the state
must continually sow is reinscribed
in blood. Similarly, at the micro level, the threat of force must
linger over the head of every proletarian objectified in the production process
– every proletarian who might steal, who might slack off, who might sabotage
equipment, and most dangerously, who might organise or incite a collective
stoppage of work. The loss of employment itself implies this threat of force –
after all, the numerous things one might do to get by are mostly illegal, if not
criminal. The direct use of force
within the capitalist enterprise, historically and today was and is rife as
well, the whole world over (not just in the “
The reproduction of capital as a political totality then, is incumbent upon this micro-level regulation of the capitalist enterprise. The state does not therefore achieve this magical, formal reproduction of property all by itself: it requires a whole hierarchy of overseers and supervisors to ensure that things run smoothly at the very lowest levels of the social (re)production process. The state (which we are considering largely as a set of institutions and regulatory bodies), in order to ensure the reproduction of capital, must therefore exist in a dynamic and dialectical relationship with all the systems of regulation which exist outside of it, and/or ‘underneath’ it. Similarly, all those overseers and supervisors operate in largely the same way as the intervening instruments of the state: when things are running smoothly, they stay pretty much out of the way; but when the contract is not being respected, they step in and use what powers they have to discipline those who do not stick to the contract, or who disrupt the labour process in any other way. It is up to management (or policymakers), rather than supervisors (or police), to figure out ways of increasing efficiency and productivity when things are running smoothly.
basic framework then – should the reader choose to accept it – has the following
implication for anarchist-communist militants. Once the state and its
centralised machinery has been toppled, there are still a whole range of
micro-level regulatory systems left in its wake, which will still have a great
deal of inertia behind them. If
production is not to grind to an absolute halt, leaving dire poverty, disease
and starvation in its wake, the proletarian class must be able to assume control
– “overnight”, as it were – of the production process. In my first post, I
detailed a process which I called communalisation, whereby the
people who have up until now depended upon a certain piece of land, or a
factory, etc., for their livelihood, take it over, and use it how they see fit.
An example I gave of this process of community-based seizure, was how the people
The central idea of communalisation – that it is up to the people who carry it out to decide how it is carried out – implies, in the context of a “modern, complex economy”, that if we are to use (some of) the material productive forces that capital has been forced to abandon or become unable administer in the context of an absence of state power, large-scale systems of economic cooperation will need to be set up. Indeed, it is my belief that such a series of networks will need to have been set up and be functional already. At this point, I will attempt to answer Ben’s fourth question: what this setup might look like. To do this, we make deductions about what kinds of measures might be necessary to sustain an organised economy, without violating the essential principle of communalisation.
• (a) do you plan to use money to regulate relations between the different economic enterprises, co-ops and so forth?
No. As in a hyper-inflation situation, numerous forms of currency will exist – particularly gold. Enterprises which are part of the coordination mechanism I envisage will have no need of this kind of currency, and those which depend upon the currencies which exist will be very vulnerable, because there will be no state to protect or regulate the relative values of these currencies. To survive then, enterprises will either have to be self-sufficient (i.e. subsistence based and probably small-scale), or part of the larger coordination mechanism that will have to be formed (and will have already been formed, in the shape of the shadow economy) to take advantage of those means of production that capital has abandoned in the absence of state protection. I see no reason why these two types of enterprise cannot co-exist, though forms of production based on the exchange of currency will probably dwindle without the state’s guarantee of currency exchange-value.
• (b) Or do you plan to use some kind of trade or barter system?
If this coordination mechanism is to facilitate the autonomy of each enterprise that chooses to be a part of it (and thereby be consistent with the core ideal of communalisation), then it cannot employ a top-down planning system. It will have to use a kind of trading system, which in turn will have to use some kind of value measure, with the corollary that this measure is not a value-unit one can own (as in money, cash currency – a thing with exchange-value but not use-value), but rather a measurement of the relative values assumed by things which are produced. A universal equivalent (i.e a currency) is a material exchange-value which can be exchanged with all other things and thereby makes all things exchangeable with each other; conversely, a value measure would merely perform the latter function alone, and only for economic units operating within the sphere of the coordinating mechanism itself. It would therefore be a barter system: only ‘things’ (i.e. use-values, products of labour) can be exchanged for other things.
• (c) Or some kind of labor hour certificate?
Well, the amount of labour hours devoted to the production of a thing might be a good universal measure for this coordinating mechanism to adopt… but if the system of production it facilitates is to be a dynamic one, then the final value of things might need to have “hours” either added or subtracted to or from their value, depending on the demand for the thing and the supply of it. If enterprises don’t like the value attributed to their product by the collectivity of other enterprises which constitute the coordinating mechanism, then they have the option of withdrawing from it, back into the perilous “cash economy” (which because it is so perilous, without a state to protect the value of its currencies, will probably shrink into relative non-existence).
• Am I screwed no matter how I answer?
Yes and no. Yes, because what I have done above is to try and create a blueprint for the future – that is what Ben is trying to do, and he is right in saying that I remain unconvinced that this is important. Ben mistakes his own blueprints for principles – if you look at Ben’s writings, the future is plotted out before us on graphs, as if in a business proposal. The reason I have answers to Ben’s questions is because, a few years ago, I spent a great deal of time coming up with a scheme like this one – I did think this was important at the time. I no longer do, primarily because it consists in trying to demonstrate what must ultimately be taken as a given (that another world is possible), and trying to anticipate the decisions which the people who actually have to make them in the concrete circumstances which arise will be in a much better position to decide than either myself or Ben. (A simple analogy: logicians like Alan Turing did their best to come up with chess-playing programs before there were real computers on which to test these programs. Clearly, people making such programs today are in a much better position to test them than Turing ever was.) What people like me and Ben are in a position to do though, is look at the decisions which were made in the past; in particular, by looking at the core principles through which these decisions appeared realistic and useful – and deciding where it was that mistakes of a fundamental nature – i.e. mistakes of principle – were made. This in turn produces principles for future action – principles which shall hopefully be decisive, insofar as the working class will not this time be fooled by those preaching centralisation and suppression as the ‘only way forward’. Principles do not provide an architecture for future structures: they provide us only with a way of either affirming or rejecting the structures we create at the time. We can create a specification of what is required; but only those who come after the destruction of the state will be able to fully comprehend the breadth of what kind of structure is necessary to prevent its re-emergence. Only those people will be in a position to fully outline the structure to be implemented.
And no, I am not fucked no matter how I answer; because, objectively, it seems to me that these are the kinds of measures such a coordinating mechanism might realistically have to employ, if it is to stick to the fundamental principle of communalisation: that the people who carry it out decide how it is carried out. Furthermore, I fail to understand why or how it is that such a system amounts to “nothing more than an inferior form of money that lowers the productivity of labour in comparison to the more modern free circulation of money and capital.” You have made no effort to explain why this should be true (or why the same shouldn’t also apply to your own conception of a “gift economy”), apart from citing these mysterious “Laws of Commodity Production”, which you have neither explained, nor as far as I can tell, understood. Marx talks nowhere about the “laws of commodity production” except for those laws which actually exist in a given system of commodity production. In the genealogy of capital that Marx carries out in his Capital, he begins with the problem of the commodity and the exchange of commodities; beginning with barter, and moving from there to more and more complex forms and relations of exchange. Eventually, he reaches the capital relation: the production relation in which currency is exchanged for labour power (labour that is to be deployed in some anticipated task some time in the future – as opposed to real labour being carried out at this moment). The fact that Marx traces this genealogy from the existence of barter as the primary form of exchange, does not imply that any form of exchange relations will inevitably lead to the existence of the capital relation: this production relation cannot exist purely on the basis of exchange alone, but (as Marx explains) requires the existence of a universal equivalent – currency – which can be owned and exchanged for all things which have an exchange-value defined in relation to it (i.e. just about anything).
I’m sorry Ben, but I retain a certain view of the world as consisting ultimately of autonomous individuals who have the right to retain that autonomy and combine in associations of their own choosing – and I think Marx did too (just have a look at his Ph. D. thesis on the atomism of Epicurus and Democritus, and his discussion of Democritus’s clinamen). If we are to believe that there is a possible state of affairs called “freedom”, which is a state in which no being is forced to do anything that it does not want or need to do; then in my view, it must be possible for two beings to come into a relation which facilitates the exchange of different energies, such that the freedom of both beings is maintained throughout, and at the conclusion of, the exchange. If the form of this relation – the ‘agreement’, or contract, to which both parties adhere in order to carry out the exchange – is not skewed from the beginning in favour of one of its parties, then I have to believe that an exchange of equivalents is indeed possible and real. That is what I believe Marx argued – that the exchange of equivalents is not an oxymoron, but something that is not possible under the conditions of commodity production: the production of goods for sale (currency exchange) on a market. The problem with markets is not that they involve exchange per se, but that they involve a particular type of exchange which relies for its existence on an infamous “third” item, that is just as autonomous and exchangeable as the first two, and by means of which the value of the former two items is defined, confirmed and agreed. That third item is currency.
Marx argued that such a transaction is skewed from the beginning in the favour of the richest party, the party with the greatest ‘negotiating’ power; commodity exchange implicitly involves the ‘assymetric’ exchange of energies. The two entities are not really engaging in an equal exchange at all, because that infamous “third item” in fact represents the monitoring presence of a third party which – all things being equal – always takes the side of the party with the greatest amount of property. The very structure of the transaction negates the autonomy of both beings, since it is cast from the first in terms of property ownership and, secondarily, in terms of currency as means of exchanging property. Private property, in turn, was created by stealing it from one of the parties, and placing it in the hands of the other. There can be no level playing field under these conditions; no equal right to the “pursuit of happiness”. Before the primitive accumulation of capital came the primitive accumulation of property; before (or during) the divorce of small producers from their means of production must occur the initial creation of property in a region per se, under the protection of a state. Barter on the contrary relies on no such third item or adjudicator to circulate products through a social body; it is rather an exchange between two freely consenting beings, the terms of which are defined relative to each particular instance of an exchange.
In this context, it seems to me that there is nothing necessarily wrong with the idea of a contract as such. If an equal exchange of energies is to take place, in which the freedom of both parties is maintained throughout, then both the exchanging parties must come to an agreement which is consciously known and equally acceptable to both. The “formalisation” of the contract in turn can help ensure that there is no confusion or misunderstanding between the two parties on what exactly the terms of the exchange are, though not all contracts are formal. Nevertheless, there is surely nothing wrong with such a process if it helps to maintain the freedom of both parties (rather than confirm the superiority of one, as do market contracts). Sexual intercourse for example, if it is to happen in such a way that the freedom and enjoyment of both parties is preserved throughout the experience, must rely on an agreement that amounts to more than a simple “right of consent”, which dissolves into abstraction and nothingness after both parties have said “yes”. If either party does not retain the right to terminate the exchange as it is taking place, then it cannot be a free exchange of equivalent energies; one party would instead have to ‘dominate’ the other, in order to enforce the terms of the “contract”: terms that were actually defined in the first place not by two freely consenting beings, but rather by a pre-existing third party which had already negated this freedom from the beginning of the engagement. It is the form of the exchange which regulates the contents the exchange can circulate between beings.
The problem with commodity production then is that the rules of exchange exist a priori, and the exchanging parties have little choice but to accept them if they are to engage at all. (The same also applies to Rousseau’s Social Contract, which I maintain to be a logically sound conception in theory, flawed by the practise of modern (state) politics: a contract is not a contract unless you have the right to turn it down. The non-contractual nature of this original contract defines the nature of all other contracts which exist as a legal consequence of it.)
5.) How will the working class “keep the supply chains running” in the period immediately following the destruction of the state, when the circuit of capital is dismantled ‘overnight’?
It is my belief that the longer the circuit of capital is maintained after the destruction of the state, the less time there is before the ruling class eventually returns to power. For workers to win the class war against the bourgeoisie, the material basis of the bourgeoisie’s class rule must be destroyed. That material basis, as we all know, is a series of production relations centred around the exchange of wages for labour-power, called the capital relation. The bourgeoisie cannot be ‘suppressed’ whilst maintaining the material basis of its reproduction. The capital relation, in order for it to be reproduced, requires a state. So long as that state defends the circulation of capital, that state is a capitalist state: it is under the control of the class whose economic interests it materially defends, no matter what level of ‘political mobilisation’ the workers may achieve. This is a machine which needs to be destroyed; it is not a machinery of liberation.
The question is then: in the period immediately following the destruction of the state, what kinds of measures could the systems of cooperation on which the shadow economy relies deploy in order to quickly absorb the greatest possible number of new economic units into itself?
According to the principle of communalisation, this mechanism cannot force people to join it. Rather, it must be ready for a huge upsurge of autonomous groups which seek to join it. The task of this coordinating mechanism is to provide a framework for these groups in which they can engage in exchanges in which large units do not dominate smaller units, and in which the whole does not impose upon its parts (e.g. with quotas). As I have said, I believe a labour-hour measurement could be useful toward this end.
It may seem that since this mechanism would be effective in all major population centres, that the ‘whole’ as it were may have to assume control of key social infrastructure, such as utilities, public transport, hospitals: in fact, any resource where the majority of members in participating units believe that it isn’t appropriate to give total control of the enterprise to its particular members alone.
I don’t believe this should necessarily be the case though. In any area of the economy, it should be enough that the whole has the right to demand the any good or service a meet a negotiated specification, and that each instance of this specification entitles the unit responsible for its production to a given amount of labour-hours worth of exchangeable goods and services.
For a good, the mechanism ought to have the right to define:
a.) what is produced
b.) the value, in terms of labour hours, of each thing that meets this specification. This value need not depend too much on the actual amount of labour hours devoted to it, but is rather an amount negotiated between the unit and the whole.
And for a service it ought to have the right to define:
a.) the quality standard this service must meet
b.) the value, in terms of labour hours, of each instance of a service that meets this standard, in the same fashion as for a good.
“Implementation” will be the responsibility of each enterprise, depending on how important the good/service is to the ‘whole’. For enterprises of lesser importance, the elected (and recallable, as in the Paris Commune) representatives of the ‘whole’ will require less consultation from an enterprise on its processes; enterprises of greater importance may be required to work more closely with these people in order to ensure that standards and specifications are in fact met. In any case, it is the workers themselves who will retain control of how exactly the enterprise performs its tasks; consultants’ roles will be purely consultative, with the whole reserving only the right of rejecting the good/service as not meeting appropriate standards.
It may be that a given enterprise continually fails to meet its required specification standards. In this case, such an enterprise will be eventually be expelled from the coordinating mechanism.
It may also be the case that the above is true, and that all other participating units depend on this particular unit to produce a quality good/service. I.e. it may be that some groups, knowing their importance, make a calculated attempt to take advantage of their autonomy to profiteer from the labour of everybody else. In fact, it is realistic to say that every participating enterprise will eventually attempt to do this. Some will simply be better able to do this than others, depending on the scarcity of the skills required. It may be that the whole just has to put up with very high demands from certain industries relying on scarce technical know-how. Or it may be that new people can be trained.
One thing is certain though. There will be conflicts over who has the right to ‘communalise’ what resources. ‘Within’ the coordinating mechanism, there will have to be an agreed method of negotiation and decision on this. ‘Outside’ the coordinating mechanism, all that can really be said is that it will be a jungle. It is my belief that the coordinating mechanism will be the strongest in this jungle, i.e. in areas it wants to be. Currency-based systems will probably die out, leaving only the coordinating mechanism, and local subsistence networks operating outside of its sphere. I see no reason why the two would not be able co-exist; for if the ‘coordinating mechanism’ begins to assume control of resources it does not need, this will indicate that a new ruling class is beginning to dominate its operations, and that ordinary members are suffering.
Members of participating units will have to defend themselves against this kind of thing by waging both internal struggles within the enterprise, as well as political struggles outside of the enterprise. The overall aim of these struggles will be to eventually break down all walls and bonds between workers in all enterprises, so that any worker can perform any task s/he likes in any enterprise. The best training is informal and on-the-job.
Hopefully this demonstrates how workers within this system can prevent the bourgeoisie from “saturating the mass media with their garbage”: they can’t use what they don’t control.
And finally, all this of course is just a sketch of what might happen. What will happen depends on which arguments prevail when the time comes.
6.) A list of important questions for Ben to ponder:
1.) Bearing in mind that there is no limit to how irrational the capitalist system can be, and therefore no limit to how severe its recurrent economic crises can be (something that Marx demonstrated “scientifically”), is there any foreseeable revolutionary situation in which, under “modern” (i.e. volatile) geopolitical and economic conditions, it would be necessary in principle for an incumbent “workers’ state” to implement globally repressive emergency measures – such as those implemented by the Bolsheviks in the immediate aftermath of October 1917 – in order to maintain the political supremacy of the working class, or the economic stability of “its” state?
2.) By engaging in a slow deconstruction of the circuit of capital over time, under the auspices of a ‘worker’s state’, how do you plan on preventing capitalists from materially bribing and corrupting the elected representatives of the working class, and the “armed bodies of men” that these elected representatives will have the right to command? For example, not being able to shut down the internet doesn’t prevent a state from massacring striking workers, does it?
3.) Or, if there are no such “armed bodies of men to push anyone around” except those under their own autonomous control on the streets, then what right do you have to call these groups of people a “state”? What similarities will the organisation such groups adopt have with states that have existed in the past, if they are not controlled from outside under a top-down chain of command?
4.) If you still believe I have misinterpreted your overall political framework, then what, precisely, is it that I have misinterpreted?
5.) How do you respond to my reading of Marx’s Capital, in which it is not exchange itself but exchange taking place through a universal equivalent (currency) that is the origin of the capital relation?
6.) If you still believe that exchange itself is the origin of exploitation, then explain precisely how it is that we go from exchange-economy to gift-economy. You have stated that this will happen, but as far as I can tell haven’t explained how.
7.) In your opinion, was there a degeneration at all of the Russian ‘workers’ state’ after 1917? Or was it only the inner degeneration of the Communist Party that really counted? If it is only ‘the Party’ that matters, that surely contradicts your claim that I misrepresented your view of the state as being able to take any form imaginable so long as it performs the right functions – a view I believe to be flawed.
8.) If there was in fact a degeneration of the entire apparatus of the ‘worker’s state’ after 1917, how could this degeneration have been prevented after “the independent political activity of the masses” had been “largely shut down”? If your answer is that a return to normal rights of association would have been possible after economic stability had been achieved, how would this return to normal rights of association have taken place without the working class forcibly taking back these rights?
How Ben answers these questions depends crucially on how he addresses my first question. That question could be reformulated as follows:
If class struggle from below is the only thing that brings us any closer to communism, then how can an entity which has the capacity to dissolve the instruments which galvanize this struggle from below, bring us any closer to communism?