I’d never heard of this thing called the “Veal Pen” before, or the woman who wrote the article. I thought that, perhaps, since she wasn’t writing about this sort of thing anymore, I’d help her spread the message.
The Veal Pen.
|By: Eric Patton Wednesday November 14, 2012 10:20 am|
I’d never heard of this thing called the “Veal Pen” before, or the woman who wrote the article. I thought that, perhaps, since she wasn’t writing about this sort of thing anymore, I’d help her spread the message.
The Veal Pen.
|By: Eric Patton Friday November 2, 2012 5:38 am|
If a bomb goes off and kills a lot of people, does that mean the bomb is broken? The question is ludicrous. If the bomb were broken, it wouldn’t go off.
That is self-evident, but why is it self-evident? It’s because, intuitively, we all understand that the purpose of a bomb is to kill people. Successfully designed, manufactured, and detonated bombs do just that.
Now ask about a society: If people in that society suffer and die, does that mean the society is broken? The question can’t be answered without knowing the society’s purpose.
Actually, we first have to ask, “What is a society?” A society is a group of people and a set of institutions that connect those people. Societies always have institutions. As a very bare example, a society’s economic institutions include (but are not limited to) workplaces. A society’s governmental institutions include (but are not limited to) legislative bodies. There are other types of institutions beyond the scope of this essay.
These institutions are not like laws of physics. They are mutable, changeable, shapeable. The acceleration of gravity and the laws of thermodynamics are the same today as they were 5,000 years ago, but human social institutions are very different. I would argue that, fundamentally, people are basically the same, but a discussion of human nature is beyond the scope of this essay.
So when we ask about a society, we’re really asking about a society’s defining institutions. Are they broken? Can they ever be broken? Well, how do when know when a bomb is broken? When the bomb doesn’t accomplish what its designers, builders, and users want, that means the bomb is broken.
In the same manner, assessing society’s institutions means asking who designed them, who built them, and what is their purpose?
If people live in squalor, does that mean economic institutions are broken? If rules-making bodies act dictatorially, does that mean they aren’t functioning properly?
In any society, there is objective power. There are people who make decisions and shape the society. They quite naturally see that social institutions serve their interests. If people live in squalor or live under tyranny, it’s because the big people want it that way.
No (stable) society ever has “broken” institutions. It’s impossible for institutions to be broken; they always function exactly as intended — just like people-killing bombs. If a bomb kills people, that’s a feature, not a bug.
If people live in poverty, or have no say over their lives, again, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Realizing this brings up obvious questions, but they are beyond the scope of this essay.
Photo by KAZ Vorpal licensed under Creative Commons
|By: Eric Patton Wednesday June 8, 2011 12:18 pm|
In comment #10 to his own article Peterson Foundation Proposals From the Roosevelt Institute, CAP and EPI Abandon Progressive Policy, Jon Walker writes “It is madness to know of the existence of obvious solutions and pretend they don’t exist.” This is incorrect, and demonstrably so. It’s quite rational and makes good business sense, as Walker’s own article plainly shows.
Actually, Walker’s comment illustrates what might be the major failing of the left: Its virtual total inability to see that, in fact, virtually all human behavior is quite rational given the circumstances of the people behaving as they do.
Generally, people fall back on easy bromides such as “people are stupid” or “human nature sucks” to explain behavior they don’t understand. But these mythologies are virtually never true. In fact, people are basically good and rational.
When EPI (or whoever) takes money, or people watch American Idol instead of reading Chomsky, or whatever, they’re not doing it because they’re stupid or bad — essentially never. A truly honest and powerful left capable of moving mountains will be one that understands this. Since the extant left doesn’t, however, it isn’t.
People should ask themselves how a good, rational person can take corporate money. It gives real insight into how the world works.
However, since someone will ask … you run a left-wing organization dedicate to cause X. What’s your primary goal? You will probably answer X, and you most likely really believe this. But X is not your primary goal. Your primary goal is always the sustainability — meaning the cash flow — of your organization. That doesn’t make you a bad person, and your goal partially makes sense — without money, your organization ceases to exist.
This need for money dominates your thinking, even as you very likely continue to honestly believe (you’d pass a foolproof polygraph if one existed) your real goal is X. And you want — need — to see yourself as a good person, of course.
An opportunity for a large influx of cash comes along. Without an organization properly structured to maximize its ability to resist taking this cash (the subject of a whole ‘nother essay, but it involves participatory economics), and without radical theory sufficient to understand the world, it becomes very easy to convince yourself that taking the money is the right thing to do. After all, you really believe your goal is X and that taking the money will help you achieve X.
Once organizations reach a certain scale, they always behave this way, without exception. If FDL reaches such a size, it will too. The only (long-term) solution is pareconish organizations, but in the short term no one will fund these sufficiently.
So, for now at least, FDL is probably the “sweet spot” marrying sufficient radicalism with sufficient ability to raise money. But in the long run, FDL will sell out and need to be replaced by something more radical. And everyone who is a member or owner or manager or whatever of FDL will continue to be good and rational people.
|By: Eric Patton Saturday May 14, 2011 8:01 am|
The biggest unacknowledged issue facing the left right now — and it’s been this way forever — is the existence of a third economic class: the coordinator class. The left will not be truly powerful until it seriously addresses the division of labor in advanced economies.
That is, class relations do not just arise from ownership of the means of production (though ownership does give rise to a distinct capitalist class). They also arise from a division of labor wherein a segment of actors in the economy monopolizes decision-making power.
Coordinators are people like doctors, lawyers, managers, and engineers. They do not own the means of production, but they run the means of production on behalf of the owners. Their class position distinct from workers and capitalists allows them to hold hostage the operations of the firm in advance of their own class interests.
The left refuses to see the existence of this third class … because the left IS this class. It refuses to acknowledge its class privileges over workers, preferring instead to hew to a two-class paradigm in which anyone who is not a capitalist is a worker.
In so doing, this latent-Marxist left (which is not even conscious of its latent Marxism) seeks to overthrow capitalists and install itself — the coordinator class — as the new ruling class. This is what happened in the former Soviet Union and in all other countries where coordinatorism took hold.
However, in first-world countries, the coordinator class is reviled (and rightly so) by the workers it lords over. No revolutionary movement can be formed in advanced societies until this true middle class comes to grips with its own existence. And only a revolutionary movement can put enough of the fear of God into capitalists to make them give ground and otherwise-hated (by them) reforms such as single payer or ending U.S. imperialism.
The ONLY way for the working class to be liberated — and I use the word “liberation” in the same way one might discuss women’s liberation — is by the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by participatory economics (parecon). There is literally no other way for workers to be freed not just from capitalist rule, but coordinator-class rule as well.
And ONLY an anti-capitalist, pro-parecon movement can ever be strong enough to win new social democratic reforms like single payer. If you honestly think that, say, global warming is ever going to be addressed by the tactics and strategy currently being employed by the left, you are literally either stupid, ignorant, or insane.
You may call me dogmatic or strident if you wish. However, to buttress my argument, I would say you need only look at the constant and ongoing ass-kicking being taken by the left on virtually every issue. The only way you can be happy taking this kind of beating over and over again is by being a loser. No winner would ever take this shit without changing SOMETHING.
The something you need to change — and I say “you” and not “we” because, whatever my flaws are (and there are many of them), I refuse to be associated with people who take constant losing in such stride — is to look in the mirror, stop hating on the working-class culture of Old Milwaukee drinking and NASCAR watching, and truly see your coordinator-class privileges for what they are.
As the son of a truck driver and a factory worker, I don’t begrudge you your (division-of-labor) privileges. I resent the fact that you refuse to see them. You’re not janitors, plumbers, pipefitters, coal miners, secretaries, Wal-Mart cashiers, factory workers, or truck drivers. You don’t work with your hands, and you’ve never punched a time clock to feed your kids or keep a roof over your heads.
I don’t begrudge you any of that. You’re largely good people who mean well, but you don’t understand that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You don’t understand why working people hate you, or why right-wing rhetoric plays so well in rural trailer parks, because you don’t understand it’s not about facts. You largely have the facts on your side.
It’s about culture. You hate working-class culture, and by extension, you hate the working class. That’s fine. I don’t begrudge you any of that, nor do I even ask that you change.
I just want you to be honest about it. Once you start doing that, the world will change rapidly. Seriously. You’ll have single payer, you’ll have ended at least three wars, you’ll have radically affected global warming (in a positive way), and many other things — all literally within ten years once you do this.
No bullshit. You can radically change society within ten years. Working people are desperate for change, and I don’t think they can do it without your help. But they can’t and won’t follow you in your current form.
Hey, maybe I’m wrong. I’m just one guy. I have no power, and who gives a fuck what I think anyway? If you can prove me wrong, I’ll be the first one to stand up and applaud. I’ll eat all the humble pie you want.
But the bottom line is results, and right now, if you’re being honest with yourself, you have to admit you aren’t getting any. And if you think you are, then you’re a loser. Getting Bradley Manning to no longer be tortured is good yes, but if think what you’re doing now is ever actually going to free him, you’re a dipshit who’s never heard of Mumia, Peltier, or Lynne Stewart.
Finally, honestly, I’ve probably wasted fifteen minutes of my life that I’ll never get back by typing all this out. The left isn’t going to change anytime soon. But it had better change. The U.S. isn’t Egypt, and you can’t build a movement here the same way you would there. This is a first-world society. Egypt will eventually have a coordinator class that it will have to transcend.
The real question is, Can first-world societies figure out how to transcend this class? Because if we can’t, then we can be pretty certain Egypt never will. And, most likely, the human race really will go extinct, because capitalism is killing us.
|By: Eric Patton Monday January 10, 2011 5:23 am|
Introduction (Jan. 10) What follows is an article of mine from Dec. 26. While it may be macabre to say, the left now has a new cause célèbre in Gabrielle Giffords. But basic questions remain. Chiefly, what’s the goal? What does the left wish to accomplish? Yes, you’re highlighting a tragedy, atrocity, act of right-wing terrorism — whatever you wish to call it — and all of those terms accurately apply. But what’s the left’s goal?
Is it just raising awareness? That’s a rather weak goal. But if it is the goal, then once awareness has reached critical mass, what’s the next goal? Is it the implementation of a real mental health system? Increased gun regulation? Making sure Sarah Palin never becomes President?
I think the goal is raising money (and this goal is not consciously known). As I say in the article that follows, raising money partially makes sense as a goal. If people or organizations have no money, they both cease to exist. But building organizations that survive financially by flitting from one cause to the next will cause no change in society; such a strategy is no threat to elites.
Commonly in life, we honestly think we have one goal when we really have another. (The easiest place to see this is in relationships, but it’s true elsewhere as well.) The left really believes it wants to free Bradley Manning. It really believes it wants to do … something … vis-a-vis Giffords. It really believes it wants to stop global warming, or win single payer, or end the ongoing U.S. occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It really believes these things, but it’s not close to winning any of them.
Winners always pay attention to things they can control. The amount of attention winners pay to a thing is directly proportional to the degree to which they can control it. With the left, the reverse is true. The left has no control over what the right does, so naturally it spends all its time dealing with this.
What the left can control is its own internal organization. So let’s go back to the original question: What’s the goal? I think the goal has to be the complete annihilation of capitalism as a means of conducting economic activity. (I do not wish to suggest sexism or racism are not important, but to me the big fight that needs to happen right now is an economic one.)
The only things stopping the left from remaking itself along pareconish lines today are (1) desire to do so, and (2) where will it get its money from? Parecon is a truly radical economic theory, representing the ultimate threat to the U.S. ruling class. You want to move mountains? You want to win single payer and stop wars? Put the fear of God almighty into capitalists.
How do you put the fear of God into elites? Parecon.
There’s no other way, folks.
However, the places the left currently gets its money from aren’t going to be very hot to fund real radical social change — truly revolutionary social change — of the kind parecon represents. So while the left is wrestling with the desire question, it’s also going to have to grapple with the money question.
However, to quote Margaret Thatcher (albeit from a very different context), “There is no alternative.” If you want to see Bradley Manning out of jail, or global warming seriously addressed — or even just fewer Giffords and Christina Taylor Greens getting shot, you don’t actually have a choice.
But, at the end of the day, it’s all predicated on what do you want? What’s your GOAL?
* * *
The victorious army wins first, and then goes to war, while the defeated army goes to war first, and then seeks to win. – Sun Tzu
Successful coaches tell their teams to worry about themselves and not their opponents. Teams that win pay no attention to things they can’t control. They have goals that they don’t waver from, and they formulate strategies to achieve those goals. If strategy A fails, winning coaches and teams examine the strategy, modify it, and move on to strategy A-1. Repeat as necessary.
This is how the right operates. Consider Social Security. The right has literally wanted to destroy SS since its inception. That goal hasn’t changed. But any substantive attack on it has remained largely beyond their reach – until now. “Temporarily” cutting the payroll tax is just the first salvo in a new offensive against the hated program – as most people on the left correctly recognize.
Do you think that the right worried about how the left was going to react to this new attack? Perhaps a little, but very little. Why does Rahm call the left retards and recommend to his advisees that they ignore it? Because winners largely ignore their opponents.
The left, on the other hand, obsesses about what the right does. That’s all the left ever thinks about. This is because, while the left does have goals, it doesn’t have the goals it thinks it does.
Consider Bradley Manning. The left’s current strategy to free him will not be successful. Oh, it will likely win Manning soft blankets and the right to do push-ups in his cell, and this is not completely insignificant (certainly not to Manning, anyway) – but it is largely insignificant as part of the overall “good” war the left likes to imagine it’s fighting.
If the left hasn’t figured out how to free Mumia, Peltier, or Lynne Stewart, why should anyone believe it will free Manning? The left will fail to free Manning, and then it will flit on to its next cause célèbre.
The right doesn’t operate this way. And actually, neither does the left. The right knows what it wants. The left only thinks it knows what it wants. What the left really wants is to be able to solicit donations, raise money, and get paid.
If you hook the left up to a polygraph, it really does believe it wants to free Manning. But actually, its main priority is to raise money. Partially, this makes sense. If people have no money (even people on the left), they starve and go homeless. And if organizations have no money, they go out of existence. So yes, money is important.
But the left doesn’t see this, and that’s the problem. The first step in battling addiction (or any problem) is seeing the problem. The left, however, doesn’t see that’s its operating model isn’t about freeing Manning (or whatever), it’s about raising money. Seeing the problem might lead to a solution. Not seeing it will simply leave Manning – as Mumia et. al. – in jail.
|By: Eric Patton Saturday January 8, 2011 5:00 pm|
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Historical economic models
When economists classify economic models, they typically refer to two facets of the model in question: ownership and allocation. Historically, the possibilities for ownership have been public or private (so, for example, a few people own the workplaces, or they are owned variously by the state or the public); the possibilities for allocation have been markets or central planning.
(Allocation refers to the mechanism by which resources are divvied up amongst producers and consumers. Markets feature certain economic actors trying to buy cheap with others trying to sell dear, while central planning features major decision being made by a few planners at the top.)
Historically, all possible combinations of these have existed: private-enterprise market economies (capitalism, e.g., the U.S.), private-enterprise centrally-planned economies (fascism, e.g., Mussolini’s Italy), public-enterprise centrally-planned economies (centrally planned socialism, e.g., the former Soviet Union), and public-enterprise market economies (market socialism, e.g., the former Yugoslavia).
Centrally-planned economies are highly authoritarian, and there is literally no way a centrally-planned economy can be otherwise due to the structural features of the model. Planners make decisions, and these decisions must be rigidly enforced throughout the economy. And with or without private ownership, centrally-planned economies give rise to coordinator-class rule over workers (with coordinators serving capitalists in the case of fascism). “Coordinator class” will be explained in moment.
Market economies are, contrary to popular myth, highly inefficient. Markets misstate prices on nearly everything due the effects of bargaining power on transactions between actors, and (chiefly) because of the ease with which what economists call externalities can be foisted onto the general public in market transactions. For example, you buy a car. You want the car, and the seller wants to sell you the car. But the costs of the pollution created by the car are borne by the public, who have no say in the transaction. Also, with or without private ownership, market economies also give rise to a coordinator class dominating workers, though for different reasons from centrally-planned economies.
The coordinator class
Marx was a genius and he got a lot of things right. But Marxism misses a class. It’s true there are owners of workplaces (in private-enterprise economies) and workers in those workplaces. But economies of scale have historically all featured another class: the coordinator class – people like doctors, lawyers, managers, engineers, accountants, professors, and the like – people who do not own the means of production, but who run the means of production on behalf of the owners (in private-enterprise economies) or simply run them (in public-enterprise economies).
Any workplace is just set of tasks, and tasks are bundled to create jobs. In economies with corporate-style workplaces (and these economies are all four mentioned so far), tasks are bundled according to their relative empowerment effects. So tasks like sweep the floor and empty trash cans are bundled to create the job of janitor, while tasks like hiring and firing and certain investment decision are bundled to create director of human resources.
The coordinator class dominates these empowering tasks, while the working class is relegated to onerous, rote, or dangerous tasks. This is true with or without private ownership in all the economies mentioned to this point. It’s also true that both markets and central planning necessitate the existence of a coordinator class, though for different reasons.
In centrally-planned economies, decisions of planners at the top must be enforced at the workplace level. Some manager has to be in charge or the workplace to ensure the planners’ directives are followed. Since these managers are held accountable for enforcing the plan, they are necessarily given the power to do, since it would be senseless to do otherwise. It is literally impossible to have a centrally-planned economy that is anything other than highly authoritarian, as history has proven over and over again.
Markets give rise to a coordinator class for different reasons. In a market economy, firms must compete to survive. This competition means that wages, benefits, and other perks must be cut if the firm is to survive, since if one firm resists this, another firm will do so and the first firm will be outcompeted and go out of existence. But this sort of self-discipline is painful, and workers don’t wish to do this to themselves, so they install a coordinator class to do it for them – a coordinator class insulated from the results of their decisions. Indeed, firms in the former Yugoslavia routinely hired graduates from U.S. business schools to take up just this role.
Do you want a classless economy?
In public-enterprise economies, there were no capitalists, but workers were still not liberated. I use “liberation” in the same way one might talk about women’s liberation. The only way to achieve working-class liberation is through an economic model that is not a private-enterprise market economy, public-enterprise market economy, public-enterprise centrally-planned economy, or private-enterprise centrally-planned economy.
I claim that the only way the working class can ever truly be liberated is through participatory economics (or parecon for short).
Workers can never be liberated as long as they obey coordinators – whether capitalists rule over coordinators or not. Workers can never be liberated as long as either markets or central planning reigns supreme. A full treatment of parecon is beyond the scope of this essay, but interested readers should check out Michael Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Verso Press, 2004 (other books on parecon exist, but this one is the best and most complete, with Albert drawing on earlier work by American University economics professor Robin Hahnel).
The problem with corporate-style workplaces is not the existence of coordinator functions. Of course there are decisions that must be made. The issue is whether or not such decision-making tasks are dominated by a few, or spread across all actors in the workplace. Parecon features balanced job complexes, in which tasks are bundled into jobs based on the relative empowering effects of those tasks. Workers do not perform every task in the workplace; that would literally be impossible. But all workers do their fair share of rote work, and all workers have some decision-making responsibilities as well.
Incidentally, this would require a completely different education system from the one we have now. Currently, working-class kids go to school to learn how to endure boredom and follow orders – the primary skills required of them by corporate-style workplaces. A pareconish educational system would have to train people at a much higher level and instill much higher levels of confidence in students. This is all doable, and desirable quite apart from the obvious economic benefits.
The importance of allocation
Parecon uses a method of allocation called participatory planning that is neither markets nor central planning. Participatory planning is an iterative process whereby producers make production proposals, consumers make consumption proposals, and over a series of iterations the two are brought into balance.
Both consumers and producers are grouped in nested series of councils. For example, you are a consumer, so are those in your neighborhood, your county, your region, and your country. You may wish to consume a T-shirt, your neighborhood a pool, your county a park, and your region a hydroelectric dam. Your choice of shirt does not affect the country, but your choice of deodorant might, and the national-level consumer council might need a say.
Each of these consumption requests would be made by councils at the appropriate level. But everyone who’s a consumer is also a worker. You not only make consumption requests in your role as consumer, but also production proposals in your role as a worker. If you wish to consume more, you are proposing that you (and everyone else) work more. If you propose to work less, you are proposing that you (and everyone else) consume less.
If all initial consumption requests and production proposals are summed, the economy has an initial plan. Through successive iterations, requests and proposals are brought into balance to achieve a workable plan.
This is barely a thumbnail sketch of parecon. There is more that needs to be said before you could possibly really understand it, let alone decide whether or not you think it’s feasible as a replacement to capitalism. If it interests you to learn more, I recommend you check out Albert’s book. (I have no involvement with the author or the publisher, and I receive no money if you buy the book. For me, this is something I believe in, not something I profit from.)
|By: Eric Patton Friday January 7, 2011 5:23 am|
I would like to make a recommendation to those on the left: The words “capitalism” and “class” (or, perhaps even better, “class warfare”) should become staples of what we do.
I think, for many people on the left, they correctly recognize that the real enemy is the capitalist system. But if they say that publicly, they risk losing their jobs. I get that.
But to whatever extent possible, I think an awareness that the roots of virtually all the problems we face can be found, at least partially, in private-enterprise market economies would benefit us, and that pointing this out in what we do would benefit us even more.
I don’t want people to get fired – not ever, but really not in this economy. You have bills, you have kids to feed, and so forth. But does anyone really doubt that our primary enemy (at least one of them) is capitalism?
Private-enterprise market economies (that’s what capitalism is, and one can, if one wishes, also discuss public-enterprise market economies, public-enterprise centrally-planned economies, and private-enterprise centrally planned economies) have certain structural imperatives. These systemic features mandate that, even if Mother Teresa is resurrected, cloned multiple times, and put into all the shot-calling positions, the outcomes we see all around us on a daily basis won’t change much.
I think it would be useful for the left to begin a discussion of what kind of economy we really want. Actually, it might be necessary for the mere survival of the species.
Toggling back and forth between Democrats and Republicans accomplishes nothing. There’s no reason to think electing third-party candidates will either. The whole system is the problem. I know it’s hard to say that it your employment depends on your not saying it, even if you realize it’s true.
But when the means of production are privately owned, and resources are allocated via markets, one gets certain predictable results – among them a small class of people who run the universe. This small, fantastically privileged group only cares about one thing, and that’s preserving the system.
I think this suggests a clear strategy: address the system to the greatest extent possible. The masters will, at some point, fight back ruthlessly to protect what they have (what they’ve stolen). But the alternative is death by a thousand cuts.
|By: Eric Patton Saturday January 1, 2011 5:49 am|
Know well what leads you forward, and what holds you back. – The Buddha
Without any question whatsoever, the most important thing the left should discuss is money – its money: where it gets it, what it does with it, how much it has. The left should find it absurd that one can literally find out more about the operations and finances of a publicly-traded corporation than any of its own entities.
Money is important. Individuals who lack it starve. Organizations without it cease to exist. He who pays the piper, or controls the purse strings, call the shots. And people who develop dependable revenue streams are loathe to even acknowledge them in any substantive capacity, much less give them up.
This is all reasonable. People on the left aren’t irrational or behaving badly. They’d like to win some things, but they have to eat along the way. But the crumbs they’re winning are not adequate to the work that needs to be done.
Consider global warming. Honestly, do you believe anything the left is doing now will make even the first dent in addressing climate issues? We all know that on its present course the left will have zero effect on the planet (except for doing an excellent job stenographizing its demise).
So if you want to seriously change global warming, you first have to honestly say what the problem is: capitalism, that is, private-enterprise market economies. If you can’t use this language, you literally can’t do squat about the environment. But if this is true, why is it so difficult for the left to use the word “capitalism” in all but the most vague and insubstantial ways?
Because the people who fund the left are doing okay for themselves, and they aren’t interested in seriously addressing the root cause of global warming. For them, addressing the problem means CFL light bulbs and recycling pop cans. That won’t help, but it will allow funders to look themselves in the mirror every night.
A left seriously committed to fighting global warming has to figure out where it’s going to get its money from. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten – and if you keep getting your money from the same places, you’re doing what you’ve always done. And the planet will continue to rot.
Again, this partially makes sense. People, even on the left, have to eat. But the left needs to take a hard look in the mirror and determine what its true goals are, and determine whether its actions are consistent with its words. There aren’t many things more important than that.