04 October 2011

The new men in the High Castle....

Further greetings to those diehard followers of the blog, once more from inside 'the Bunker' in NYC, this time due to some literal teething problems that have exposed me to the much maligned US healthcare system - which as I expected, was excellent, if a little pricey. Anyhow, it will not have escaped people's notice that arguably the greatest symbol of Capitalism, New York's Wall Street has currently been 'occupied' by protesters for about 3 weeks. This has excited significant media attention across the world. Some ill advised forays against the NYPD, whose admitted partial over-reaction has instead of dousing the fire, roused it, has intensified the spotlight. With the protest showing no sign of being over, despite the Police actions, perhaps it's best to look at the protestors somewhat myriad demands in a little more detail. Helpfully, veteran Leftist Richard D Wolff, a supporter of similar popular protest movements in countries such as Cuba ( at least until 1959) and Vietnam (at least until 1975) has outlined what he hopes will be the end result in today's Guardian

'Let me urge the occupiers to ignore the usual carping that besets powerful social movements in their earliest phases. Yes, you could be better organised, your demands more focused, your priorities clearer. All true, but in this moment, mostly irrelevant. Here is the key: if we want a mass and deep-rooted social movement of the left to re-emerge and transform the United States, we must welcome the many different streams, needs, desires, goals, energies and enthusiasms that inspire and sustain social movements. Now is the time to invite, welcome and gather them, in all their profusion and confusion.'

Leave aside the fact that approximately 5000 protestors is dwarfed by the population of one Manhattan street, but the message is not that objectionable. However much I disagree with denizens of the Hard Left in any form, they are free to express their opinion (although like some other right wingers I notice this tolerance does not extend from some on the left to anyone deemed 'right wing' especially in regards to race) - Thus we see, thus far a gathering of a whole raft of single issue pressure groups and Left wing activists, which is all well and good.

However, with the ensuing paragraphs, the true agenda becomes clear:

'So permit me, in the spirit of honoring and contributing something to this historic movement, to propose yet another dimension, another item to add to your agenda for social change. To achieve the goals of this renewed movement, we must finally change the organisation of production that sustains and reproduces inequality and injustice. We need to replace the failed structure of our corporate enterprises that now deliver profits to so few, pollute the environment we all depend on, and corrupt our political system'

So the red fist within the Green glove becomes clear - we are to replace the existing 'economic system' and replace it with what precisely, Richard?

'We need to end stock markets and boards of directors. The capacity to produce the goods and services we need should belong to everyone – just like the air, water, healthcare, education and security on which we likewise depend. We need to bring democracy to our enterprises. The workers within and the communities around enterprises can and should collectively shape how work is organised, what gets produced, and how we make use of the fruits of our collective efforts'

A classic paragraph - and seemingly ignorant of the history of the past century. Richard, Newsflash for you, my old son - There was a country that did exactly what you suggested. Perhaps you've heard of it - comprising much of the landmass of Europe and Asia, and stretching across 11 time zones, it lasted from bloody beginnings in 1917 for 74 years and was so vast, even it's dismemberment into 15 separate 'official' states left it's largest statelet as the world's biggest country - it was called the USSR. As I say, I'm assuming with your academic background, you've encountered it? Ah, but anticipating that objection, what's this we see?

'We all know that moving in this direction will elicit the screams of "socialism" from the usual predictable corners. The tired rhetoric lives on long after the cold war that orchestrated it fades out of memory. The audience for that rhetoric is fast fading, too. It is long overdue in the US for us to have a genuine conversation and struggle over our current economic system. Capitalism has gotten a free pass for far too long.'

So the rhetoric is 'tired and faded' is it Richard? I'd suggest you visit Russia, or more enlighteningly for you, The former COMECON states of Eastern Europe to see just what their memories (and I agree they are fading all too quickly) of genuine socialism are - I'm not sure you offering to recreate it will win you many friends in Vilnius, Tallinn, Riga or indeed even Tirana or Skopje.

However, let us assume, for a moment, that like some political alchemist, you can manufacture a system that doesn't go down the lines of every other collectivist regime I've ever seen, and grant that what happened in Eastern Europe was a long and disastrous anomaly, - what then?

'Humanity learned to do without kings and emperors and slave masters. We found our way to a democratic alternative, however partial and unfinished the democratic project remains. We can now take the next step to realise that democratic project. We can bring democracy to our enterprises – by transforming them into cooperatives owned, operated and governed by democratic assemblies composed of all who work in them and all the residents of the communities who are interdependent with them.'

I'd argue this paragraph betrays such a misunderstanding of human nature, it's hard to know where to begin. Ask the people of another socialist icon (although unlike Cuba and Vietnam this seems to be 'persona non grata' for the Left over here and in the UK - perhaps it's too close to genuine socialism for comfort - the truth can be very painful), the Korea DPR, whether humanity 'has learned to do without Kings and Slave masters', as a third generation of hereditary tyrant is groomed for power, with a network of gulags at his disposal. Indeed, in fairness, you could look to autocratic regimes across Central Asia of an ultr-nationalist bent in Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and Turkmenistan and see much the same. As for your demand that the economy be transformed into 'cooperatives owned, operated and governed by democratic assemblies composed of all who work in them' it's been tried before, and the results weren't pretty.

However, despite it's blatant flaws, I'm grateful to this article for revealing who the intellectual influences behind the 'Occupy wall Street' protesters really are - vicious, retread socialists who were thwarted in their desire for Global Socialism two decades ago, but have seized on the admittedly dire economic situation, and taken advantage of many Americans profound ignorance of the world outside the USA, to reiterate the old rhetoric 'of democracy and economic freedom' , knowing what the actual reality was and, in places like Cuba and North Korea, still is. One of my favourite works of 'alternate history' is the Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle, a dystopian novel posited in the alternate future wherein the Axis WON World War Two and a new 'Cold War' had developed between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. If we follow Wolff's prescriptions, I think some future writer might posit a future whereby the USSR Won the Cold War and the World lived under primarily Communist rule. My greatest fear is that the naive 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters are doing their utmost to make that less of a dream, more a reality......


red two said...

I get the thing about history suggesting that human nature is a natural impediment to the socialist ideal. Consequently I understand the rejection of the article in question.

I don't understand the venom that follows. Wolff's article may be misguided, but at worst he's naive? Entrenched? Not evil. I can't see how objecting to the moribund status quo, either in a rigidly idealistic way (Wolff?), or in ways that are perhaps disparate in their motivation or ambition (the protesters?), however flawed (or indeed non-existent) the alternatives put forward is more reprehensible than the implied defence of the greed-fuelled mechanisms that got us here?

Van Patten said...

R2 - The problem with the naive is that they may be used as tools by people with far more sinister intent, and for my money a professor of Political science could and should know better. Also, some of the US academic Left has a very shaky record in relation to brutality and human rights abuse within Communist states. (especially both Cuba and Vietnam - oddly they do condemn Korea DPR normally)

I'd certainly say that more of the same isn't what the Doctor ordered, but having seen the legacy of the USSR across Eastern Europe I find it curious that it can be dismissed as 'paranoid Cold War rhetoric' by someone so credentialed.

Did you go to St.Marys at the weekend - I'm presuming not?

Hal Berstram said...

How, exactly, does what Richard Wolff was suggesting correspond in any way, shape or form to the USSR - an undemocratic totalitarian state? The USSR is actually far closer to what the Tea Party Republicans want to do in the USA than anything Wolff is suggesting. Industry wasn't run by workers in the Soviet Union... production targets were dictated by party officials.

I read Wolff to be advocating a democratic socialist republic similar to what Tony Benn was advocating for the UK in 1974 - and Benn would have described himself as a traditional liberal. Certainly it would be hard to find anyone more attached to democracy.

I certainly don't think it'd be easy to introduce the reforms Wolff is arguing for, but frankly, the current situation is so screwed up that we would be fools not to try. Of course it would have to be done with a democratic mandate (something that never existed in the USSR... the Bolsheviks were a relatively small band of people.)

Van Patten said...

But the issue is what he's suggesting runs counter to human nature and the ashes of the USSR hang over it like a cloud - if there is no 'democratic mandate', as you suggest (and there's a real possibility of a GOP win in 2012, make no mistake) then are the 'Occupy Wall Street' people simply going to pack up and go home?

The entire Bolshevik system was nominally based on Workers Councils and being run for the proletariat, as are its holdovers in places like Korea DPR. It's true they were a very small force in 1917 but they got sufficiently organised to overthrow the existing system and ruthlessly purge out 'reactionary elements'. That the 'workers control' soon became an empty facade to hide unbridled state power, especially under Stalin but equally under his successors, is equally true. Nonetheless, its because someone has to assume some kind of authority, that you do often get rather shabby, bureaucratic societies (at best) or vicious tyrannies (at worst) when you implement socialism or a variant of it, in the real world.

Furthermore, I believe that by rejecting capitalism, with all its flaws, in favour of a system that has never been tried, and indeed doesn't seem to exist anywhere or at any time to have existed, is pie in the sky. We have the evidence of decades of repression within Eastern Europe, and to dismiss, as he does, such concerns, however ludicrous some of the people making them (see Ann Coulter's latest outburst on Fox Business via the Huffington Post) as 'paranoid Cold war rhetoric long since past it' (or words to that effect) is dangerously naive! I can only assume someone of a distinguished academic background (at least according to his Guardian bio) is either being idiotic or disingenuous. I've chosen, based on his academic background and knowledge of some of the more manic sections of US academia, to infer the latter, be that wrong or right.

Hal Berstram said...

I presume that the Occupy Wall Street people are hoping that the movement will grow to encompass millions of people - and could well bring the existing US political system (which is in fact very undemocratic, being based on first past the post with extensive gerrymandering) down to be replaced by a modern system based on proportional representation and with state-funded political parties.

In a way you've made my point for me. Yes, the Soviet system was nominally based on workers' councils - but that was never where the real power was. If it had been, and they'd had multi-party democracy, I very much doubt Lenin or Stalin would have come to power.

"A system that has never been tried?" Ever shopped at the John Lewis Partnership? It's a system that's already in operation on a small scale. Societies like the US are in fact extremely oppressive because they are run by unaccountable corporate behemoths who have presided over a huge redistribution from labour to capital. This is what Occupy Wall Street is protesting about and maybe it will be as significant a change as the Arab Spring.

Van Patten said...

Absolutely agree with your points on the USSR - but in a way I'm not really sure what your point is, or indeed the 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters want. The list of demands looks like a 'hobson's choice' lists of things I wanted when I was 16. I am staggered you equate, surreptittouslt, the level of oppression in the US with the USSR, which is what your last paragraph seems to imply.

State funded political parties is a very bad idea as it implicitly gives politicians a vested interest in a large state. It's very popular and indeed is an ongoing proposal with the Socialist bloc in the EU as it would enable them to eliminate 'geographically isolated parties' such as the UKIP.

The John Lewis analogy (Don't forget my ex employer was part owned by it!)is an interesting one but nevertheless it remains a capitalist enterprise with a hierarchical managerial structure to boot. I can point to other companies (ever shopped at Lakeland for example?) that , albeit not run as co-operatives, have excellent Labour relations. Ask employees of Tesco or Morrison whether they feel oppressed?

You are of course correct, as are the 'Occupy Wall Street' protestors, on one thing - that the unaccountable excesses of Wall Street and Bankers in the City who then expected to be baled out by the taxpayer (to which the Great man Gordon Brown said 'Yay'!)are an outrage but resuscitating a dead idea is not going to do much to rein them in. Better and more vigilant regulation, such as the reimplementation of the Glass/Steagall legislation, together with, I agree possibly a pay cap on financial services (seems to be the only thing that will stop them) would go much further to sorting the issues and preventing a repetition of what seems an economic groundhog Day in the financial markets - that was noticeably absent from the Wolff article, which advocated basically mass nationalisation, the end of Stock exchanges and, regardless of his honourable intent in your eyes, a tyranny far worse than the one you perceive currently holds sway.

Hal Berstram said...

It seems to me that the US nowadays is a very oppressive state. The Patriot Act, for example, gives huge powers to largely unaccountable security services. And many of the functions of the state are carried out by big business which is not subject to democratic control.

State funded political parties is the only way to guarantee a level playing field as otherwise the side with big business behind it (i.e. the right) will have more money to spend than the workers (i.e. the left). You only have to look at spending by Republican candidates in recent elections (ever since the Supreme Court ruled that spending caps were unconstitutional - a good example of how the US Constitution destroys democracy) to see that this is the case. Even though the Democrats take money from business as well...

I have now idea whether people in Tesco or Morrison are happy in their work or not but I would doubt they have any say in how the company is run. Of course John Lewis is a rather sedate workers cooperative but nonetheless it shows that the structure is viable.

The point Wolff was making was that without major reforms you won't see any change to the system as at the moment, big business has things stitched up the way they like it.

Van Patten said...

And the Security services of something like the EU (to use a contemporary example) or the USSR are/ were accountable to whom, exactly?

Reference what you say Wolff is proposing and its relation to the real world, Whilst I actually enjoyed Tony Benn whenever I have seen him speak, he is dangerously naive and far too trusting of human nature. Whilst not a soviet agent himself, he was undoubtedly seen as an 'asset' in the somewhat twisted world of the Soviet Intelligence services, as his proposed solution, a virtual siege economy would have polarised 1970's society to such a degree that genuine Soviet backed Leftist guerillas would have orchestrated a genuine takeover.

In terms of State funding of political parties, what I enjoy is the total absence of the choice element here - my taxes will fund political parties regardless of whether I approve of any of them, or, like so many hold most of the political class in complete contempt. There's no need for them to actually worry about engaging with what I want as their campaigns will be stumped up for by the taxpayer. I take your point about Right and Left but would argue that if the Leftist parties weren't as demented as the views you and Compass seem to be putting out, they wouldn't need recourse to state funding. I'm also intrigued you posit the Left as the 'workers party' when it's presided over marginal tax rates of up to 75% at the lower end of the economic pay scale and at least in the Private Sector has completely destroyed Old Age pension provision but there you go.

In terms of Lakeland, Tesco or Morrison, which are not run as cooperatives, the workers do have a say in how the company is run, and indeed according to either Sir Terry Leahy or the now departed Ken Morrison, many of the ideas on how to run their businesses were drawn from the businesses' lower echelons. I admit these are not necesssarily typical British companies, but my point is , yours and Wolff's solution seems to be to just destroy everything in terms of private enterprise, with only the vaguest, most indistinct idea of what will replace it - to repeat, something that has never been tried on a societal basis, anywhere, at least in modern times, in the world.

Hal Berstram said...

On the political parties point - isn't this the basic idea behind democracy? i.e. political parties are actually trying to provide a programme you might vote for? At the moment, instead, they are trying to provide a programme which big business will pay to fund.

I would be very interested to find one concrete example of Tesco or Morrison listening to the workers - and they certainly don't give the workers any of the profits from the business (unlike John Lewis or the Co-op.)