Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Unions and vision.

[short thoughts]
Labor organizations must necessarily orient their overall trajectories and structures in relation to the economy in which they find themselves. How could it be otherwise in institutions meant to govern wage relations in the favor of workers? There have been fairly radical changes in the economy relative to the period of greatest American organized labor growth, the 30s-50s. As such, it is necessary to reconsider the structures and goals of organized labor, the ideals that animate its long-term projects and thereby inspire short-term projects.

What has changed? Communism is no longer a viable political ideology among American leftists. The Cold War is over, meaning there is no ideological imperative for international economic leaders to seek any level of just treatment for workers. Much of manufacturing has moved to low-wage regions of the global south. The US economy is dominated by low and high wage service sectors. Organized class consciousness barely exists. Economics and business training have been taken over by laissez-faire ideologies and politics has followed in suit. Environmental problems have taken center stage among American progressives and throughout much of society.

The nature of labor in America is currently very mixed. We have a very large immigrant population doing mostly low-wage service and construction work. Anyone involved in production now has the constant threat of outsourcing. The only perceived "safe" jobs, besides the highest levels of the professions, are directly applied skilled labor. Nursing, skilled construction, etc.

How can labor respond in this climate? The first step must be accepting something we rarely seem to consider, that any approach organized labor takes must be all-encompassing. That manufacturing employment has declined in America and that it is more tenuous does not mean that manufacturing should not be considered in terms of the trajectories and goals of organized labor. American labor must consider the aggregate of labor, the economy of the world as a whole, if it is to begin to mount successful campaigns against the directives of global industry.

That being said, the next step may be to recreate a vision for labor, a direction to guide its efforts, applicable to the economy as a whole and adequate to both the current organization of labor and the values and desires animating members of the working class, both in the US and abroad.

It is clear that these values are not systemic, the "working class" of the world is highly fragmented by culture, interest, and economic position. So any semi-coherent vision would have to allow that level of fundamental diversity.
[phenomenology of labor; immediacy of translating desire into work, autogestion, cooperative commonwealth]

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Autonomous labor.

[incredibly loose notes towards a post-structural theory of labor, i.e. accounting for production by the structural dynamics between an embodied collection of participants]
We have two very broad schemas for thinking about labor and business, that equate to roughly the "capitalist" ideological position and the "communist" ideological position. The "capitalist" schema is dominant in business, American pop culture, and economics. This is the standard story of how goods and services are delivered in a market. An investor or pool of investors finance a business, hire management, and employees work for whatever wages the relevant labor market will bear. Management deals with labor through paying wages and salaries and benefits, and making decisions about the operation of the company day-to-day.

The "communist" counter-narrative is more intriguing. All real value in a good or service is created by the work itself (or the work plus nature, or work plus nature plus machines, etc). Capitalists (investors and/or financiers and/or upper management)steal the surplus value created by workers, and that is source of profit. This will lead said capitalists to exploit labor as much as they can to extract greater profits. A class struggle necessarily exists between the capitalists that steal surplus value and the workers from whom it is stolen. There are variations on this theme of course, and we could lump a great deal of left populism in this camp. Corporations exploit workers and the community through sweatshops and externalizing the residue of commerce, etc. The key theme here is the tension between owners who exploit labor and workers whose labor is exploited. This narrative is dominant in some form in many leftist organizations, in sections of academic theory, in much of the Third World, etc.

These are gross simplifications of both "positions". I think though that they serve the purpose of very briefly summarizing two tendencies we receive about how to think about economic life. These tendencies are very important. They structure what sort of actions we try to take in the economic world, and both enable and constrain our experience of economic agency. If we adopt the "capitalist" position we also adopt certain choices of action- trying to become a manager or leader in business, starting our own small business, considering the desires of employees as secondary and purely reactive, attacking unions, investing. If we adopt the "communist" position, we adopt other courses of appropriate action- working in unions for wage and benefits increases, fighting for labor laws and workplace regulations, joining adversarial and critical political groups, fighting bosses in one form or another, or participating in the "capitalist" position in occupational life while feeling moody and cynical about it (or, participating but promoting moderation of the "capitalist" position).

These approaches both have major problems. "Capitalism" as a position allows and rewards tremendous exploitation and inequality. "Communism" as a position tends to be self-limiting and destructive because its notion of agency is primarily reactive, secondary, oppositional. Unions tend to fight for conditions, wages, and salaries, but they don't tend to join their efforts to those for worker ownership or worker self-management, in any form. This isn't simply a question of "racialism." Unions in theory could promote self management or employee ownership through a variety of means, from full takeovers to buyouts to supporting small business or cooperative formation among members. With notable exceptions, this sort of effort just isn't embedded in the general schema of labor as exploited, struggling against owners for rights and privileges.

Libraries have been filled with books detailing and debating the strengths and weaknesses of these positions in all their forms and iterations. I'm not going to join that process of critique. I would like to offer instead a different "schema" for looking at workplace relationships, that is a little more thorough than either system yet allows for both to occur. What I'm proposing is a genuine change in perspective of analysis, which would allow for different sorts of "constructive analysis" in the form of facilitating the development of new economic projects.

I will label this position, provisionally, a "populist" perspective.

Taking a cue from the Italian autonomist theorists, we can begin by adopting some of the "communist" perspective, that the conditions of production are created by the efforts of the working class completely, and that investment and management are in a deep sense "secondary." But what can we mean by this, such that it doesn't just present an antagonistic model?

Consider an actual workplace, that generates a good or service. Consider what actual happens. A diverse array of people, occupying different positions regarding their values, desires, and abilities, unify around a particular process in order to develop and release a product. We tend to think of the design and organization of that process as primary, and this is essentially what I want us to reconsider. We can look at the process that way, focusing on the form of the thing, the abstract organization of a work process. Or we can look at the structure, the content, the "building blocks" of the process primarily, namely the particular people involved and how they relate and interact with one another and their "tools" of production. This doesn't mean that "management" of the process doesn't exist, far from it. But it means that this management is primarily a function of facilitating a coordination of desire around a particular product or set of products and services, binding together am array of people and things towards one semi-stable relationship.

Instead of only considering the direct aspect of a workplace, the part that gets planned out by bosses, we can consider the entire field of experience created by all the interactions of the participants. In this case, each "participant" can be considered as a field of desiring-experience, with multiple points of contact with the fields of desiring-experience of other "participants". The official "work-process" is the point of contact that is most stable, creating a single point of contact, a single event between all these "fields". There are multiple other points however, involving any number of the "fields." The privileged point though, the point that maintains across time and restricts the participants of the set, is the event of the work process. This is a sort of hegemonic event. The work event isn't the only point of contact, it is simply the dominant one, and "acts" at times to repress the other points and prevent them from becoming stable events in their own right.

In this characterization, the real tension to look for is the relative dominance of that stable event of the work process. If this event is configured to repress other events among participants so as to protect its dominance and integrity (for instance, preventing unionization at a sweatshop), then the incidence of contact between participants decreases outside the "work" point. A decrease in contact incidence, though, has the effect of reducing overall change in the set, stifling "innovation" or "experimentation" in the work process itself.

The optimal arrangement of power in this scenario is one that maintains the integrity of the work event while allowing easy connection and disconnection of points among fields.

{namely, an organization based on a cooperative model that doesn't create a strong barrier between independent connections and the event of the work process, so that those independent connections can feed into the work process fluidly and easily. both worker cooperation and consumer cooperation, see for instance discussion surrounding prosumers}

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Notes towards an alternative economics.

We have a host of theories on the left designed to offer positive prescriptions for reform and action. I am concerned here with economic life. Among those of an anarchist bent, the most comprehensive contemporary proposal is undoubtedly Michael Albert's parecon (participatory economics). This system is grounded in extrapolating economic life from some left values, equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management. The most salient characteristics of this plan include the following: mixed job complexes; coordination of production through workers' and consumer councils; remuneration according to effort and sacrifice; and participatory planning.

This is an intelligent system developed by brilliant thinkers, whose tireless devotion to human emancipation in unquestionable. Their system incorporates elements of the best in left and anarchist history and theory, and as a whole parecon offers something very rare, a comprehensive vision for economic transformation of the world.

The strength of this proposal makes it difficult to critique, but that same strength makes it a suitable starting ground for offering a different schema for a new economic organization.

I am completely sympathetic to all of Albert's proposals and the values girding them. My criticism lies not with any particular aspect of his program. I find fault in that it is precisely this, a program, a system developed from abstract ethical principles that he proposes we apply throughout the economy. It is utopian in a sense Albert readily embraces, rightly proposing that utopian projects can guide real positive change in the world as long as we are mindful of any disempowering or absolutist tendencies within them. I agree, I agree to the worth of his project, but I also think this obscures a fundamental weakness.

A "utopian" project that attempts to build the skeleton of a new society in the shell of the old has tremendous merit and potentially has great power and possibility. But there are two ways we may construct utopian projects. We can build them from ideals, ethical precepts, and then hope to mold the world to those precepts. This entire strategy is problematic, both because of the dangers of utopian dogmatism and formalism for individuals and collectivities, but also imply because it doesn't connect to what actually exists in the world primarily and so becomes that much more unrealistic and unachievable.

Marx damned utopian projects, anarchist, cooperative, liberal, and he was both wrong and right to do so. He wwas wrong to deny the importance of real collective agency and the necessity of autonomist collective action that tries to create something outside the bounds of capitalism and the state rather than simply seizing the mechanisms of capital and state. But he was right to point out their detachment from the world that is in favor of abstraction that has no real connection to existing struggle, and the economic possibilities in which we find ourselves.

I will not spend another word critiquing Albert, because again I agree with his principles. Instead I want to offer some observations towards an alternative economic world that I'm drawing from existing operations in the world.

As an anarchist (or one who tries to live up to the word when he can, however unsuccessfully and confusedly), I draw my initial concerns not from formal ethical principles, but from what people seem to be doing that seems outside of or opposed to capitalism. I don't want to tell anti-/non-capitalists how they should organize their projects. I want to see what the projects they undertake seem to have in common at the economic level. What actually distinguishes them from qualities we find in capitalist enterprises, and what does this mean for a "third way" in economic theory, neither capitalist nor Marxist?

The chief problem I think we encounter as 'anti-capitalist' people is actually deciding what it is about capitalism that we don't like. This is a real problem, especially in rhetoric, becausse what we think of as "bad" in capitalism are not necessarily what people tend to consider when they think of business in general. They think of hard work and creating quality goods consumers want, they think of labor-saving technology that reduces their drudgery, they think of exchanging goods and services for other goods and services using another medium (money) as an expedient. I really don't think we're fundamentally opposed to this. There are deep criticisms possible of the division of labor as we have it, and I will address these later. But generally speaking, I like not having to make everything I need myself. I think most of us do. The level of commodification capitalism promotes takes this much too far, and I also hope to address this in a moment. But when we say capitalism, there are basic qualities of the system that aren't really that odious. Here are some of the broad faults we seem to agree on regarding the modern economic world:
*exploitation of labor, in a host of ways
*destruction of local economies in favor of corporate economies
*incredible environmental devastation
*political and existential inequality that results from economic inequality and tends to create class division in society
*a tendency towards drudgery and regimentation of work
*mass production of lifeless crap over more diverse and diffuse production of high quality goods and services
*social and cultural homogenization tied to mass production and mass consumption
*a tendency towards promoting individualism as a cultural trait, and the repercussions of that (destruction of family and community, competition and suspicion over cooperation and trust, a dog eat dog world, every man for himself, etc)

I think that pretty much sums it up.

Now, my real question is if we can look at projects that don't embody these values and derive a general approach to economic understanding from those, that would allow us to construct real policy and real economic institutions that promote these better values?

I think we can, because I've noticed some odd similarities between various non-capitalist projects, and I think we can bring them together in a mutually reinforcing manner.

Let me begin by listing the "projects" I am considering:
*peasant economics, specifically that described by the Russian agronomist Chayanov
*labor-owned cooperatives (meaning worker coops)
*DIY, localized production
*small business that in some countries is labeled "artisanal" meaning owned and managed by a skilled worker who shares in the basic work of the firm
*skilled trades unions
*certain types of green business
*microenterprises of the informal economy

I think if we can find a common thread between these types of economic organization, we will have found a key to the grand mystery of transforming capitalism.

I also think I have begun to see this common thread, in studying a core similarity between labor-owned firms and the peasant economics of Chayanov...

The key lies in the way an organization will deal with chaos, specifically in the case of economic institutions, the chaos of the market, meaning unpredictable fluctuations in demand and supply. [this can't be right, it's too simple, but might be, somehow, it might be just this easy, just this undogmatic, just this intuitive]

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Executive power.

Today I did the final lab in my solar cell installation class, wherein we actually practiced installing solar cells. Easier in some respects than you'd expect, harder in others. Then we went and looked at the city hall array, which produces 16,400 kWhrs a year. More of a showpiece than anything, but a swank little showpiece. One of the teachers mentioned how he likes the city hall for its design and feels very "austin" to him. Nice solar array, again more of a showpiece than anything, but a very effective showpiece- it covers the front steps where the city hosts free concerts every week, and myriad other events (everything in Austin happens outside, if you've never been here, even the freaking electronic shows). So whenever people coming to these events feel like taking a load off and sitting under the shade on the elegant (local) limestone steps, they take a gander up and notice they're under a giant solar cell array. There are no phallic elements that halls of power are known to embrace. Feels like a giant bungalow with a big porch area, and the front has lots of benches. There's a waterfall in the whole thing, and it flows out to little pools that descend in spirals and circulate the water back, and the benches are arranged around said pools; or around trees. The bottom floor has an open air coffee shop (locally owned, standard prices, the barrista who comped me a free cup of java this afternoon said the owner's a pretty chill guy). There's free parking underground, open to the public, no pay if you're out by 5pm, and lots of bike racks. The whole thing looks out over the river. The main conference table is made fromt he Treaty Oak, the tree the constitution of Texas was signed under? Something like that, any actual Texan seems to know these things. It died a few years back and they had to cut it down before it crushed whatever was next to it, but they used the pieces for memorials and plaques all over the city. I really love the city hall, if anyone ever visits I'll take you by it. Nice place to chill and see the bigwigs do their bigwigging.

Anyway, one of my teachers was talking off to the side about the national energy political situation, and he mentioned how amazing it was to him how corrupt and pathetic politics has gotten, how short-sighted. He's from a NASA family, and he referenced the Kennedy pronouncement of sending a man to the moon, from a sort of insider's perspective. He said that at the time, aerospace engineers were just looking at airplanes and seeing what they could get from them, and planning for squeezing an extra percentage of power every year to eventually get a plane 10% more efficient. And then Kennedy announced "we're sending a man to the moon and back within the decade" and they walked into work the next day, tore down their project sheets, and said "well, time to start over." The executive redefined the problem entirely, and they had been stuck in the same well-established set of problems, so they were thinking in these ossified lines and squeezing ever greater precision from them. But their entire way of constructing the problem was inadequate to the demand Kennedy made, well below the bar. So his executive pronouncement cleared their thinking so to speak, forced them to let go of the routinized problem and procedure, and to reinvent something else they hadn't even been considering. The teacher was comparing that to the incredible lethargy of politics and leadership today, when we know of looming ecological catastrophe and we also have the beginnings of ways to address it, but a total lack of leadership to change the scope of the problems, to get people genuinely working on these dramatic problems.

This struck me, as though it was the real reason I needed to be there today, to just hear that story. I think any democratic system, anarchism or whatever, has to think about this. This is the power of an executive, the function they can actually serve (at any level) that we have to consider if we are to replace their role with something different, something better.

If a democratic situation tends often and easily to lead to a sort of stalemate of action, through a balancing of interests and intentions across the spectrum of a community, how can we break through that ossification, that bureaucracy, to let something new come up? By what mechanism do we allow for a new problem to be generated and displace a weak or stalemated set of arrangements and desires?

This is really the problem of freedom, or reconciling the freedom of a citizen or a community member or participant with the freedom of power to create novelty, to adjust a social, economic and cultural situation? For this is the real meaning of the word "power"- it means power to create or deny change.

It's such a fascinating question - and I prefer to think of it as fascinating because otherwise it would just be tragic, because this core problem of agency and the meaning of freedom, when badly constructed and badly answered, has produced the greatest horrors imaginable. Nazism, armed and statist Communism, Neoliberalism (and its antecedents) and its bloody sweatshops, militarism.

I don't know what the answer to it is per se, what sort of prescription to offer for the democratic construction of novelty, the genuinely democratic exercise of power. I think anarchists have taken this question furthest, not so much in theoretical prescription but in attempted practice, through work in consensus and autonomist politics. The anarchists, the Quakers, assorted and sundry bands of populist across all time and tempers. They have attempted to answer the question of reconciling liberty and social justice, of the freedom of the individual and the freedom of power, through experimentation in in the concrete. In philosophy Deleuze and Guattari address the question, and we might following them rephrase it as "how can we construct macromolecular events?"

By this point I have some idea as to how this works theoretically, conceptually. But I'm not so sure how it works practically, concretely. It would make an interesting book- half theory, half practice. What, in a deep and powerful sense, what is freedom?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Towards a genuine libertarian movement.

We have reached a strange phase in American life, one characterized by overwhelming political apathy and general civic and economic disempowerment. The mainstream parties have failed. The minor parties and political groups remain marginal. The greens and socialists act as simple extremes of the Democrats. The libertarians and conservatives are extremes of the Republicans. Both major parties have reached a quiet consensus on the political and economic makeup of the world, and their fights over certain matters (how soon to leave Iraq, how to deal with health care costs) mask a deep congruity (visible clearly in the business press).

There must be a new configuration in American politics capable of presenting a semi-coherent alternative to the two parties that we know and their extreme versions. This must come through a new political movement, that finds common ground among a sizable portion of Americans across cemented ideological camps.

So the question is, on what can we agree, what can be the terms of this new coalition?

I will list a few themes that might make a solid core of a real "third way."

For the right:
*Opposition to big government.
*General, permanent reduction of federal income taxes.
*Reorganization of Social Security to encourage mixture of shared income guarantees and personal savings and investment accounts.
*Voucher programs for non-profit (including religious) schools.
*Reduction of foreign military and economic involvement.

For the left:
*Opposition to corporate power in government.
*Eliminating $100k income cap on Social Security taxation to stabilize program.
*Some form of guaranteed, cheap universal health insurance.
*Major reduction of funding of offensive capability of the military, and a far less interventionist military policy.
*Major investment in renewable energy research, paid for by redirecting subsidies away from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Nonpartisan planks:
*Major reorganization of farm subsidies, towards local, small-scale production and distribution.
*Rebuilding local manufacturing centers through preferential loans, etc.
*Reducing trade dependence upon authoritarian nations by enforcing basic levels of political and economic rights for trading partners.
*Promotion of localization of banking and investing.
*Promotion of employee ownership of firms.
*Addressing housing affordability through community land trusts and inclusionary zoning.
*Replacing environmental regulation with public trusts, with officers elected by the general populace.
*Stronger preferential tax mechanisms for small business against corporate business.
*Exploring stronger state requirements for corporate legal and financial privileges, such as employee ownership clauses.
*Gradual shifting of federal forestland towards locally owned and managed sustainable forestry programming.
*Major expansion of Americorps program, with each year of participation equaling a year of university room, board and tuition; or an equivalent fund for small business or nonprofit grants; or an equivalent fund towards purchase of a first home [in a CLT].
*Reorganization of military service towards reduction of active duty soldiers and expansion of National Guard. Major expansion of state rights in releasing and calling back guardsmen.
*Total elimination of political lobbying funded or undertaken by any group besides democratic, membership-based organizations of citizens. (flesh out) Major political corruption reform through constitutional amendment- IRV, elimination of concentrated lobbying, contribution limitations locked at one day's minimum wage per month, etc.
*Removing cabinet offices from the executive office and placing them under the direct control of Congress, besides State and Defense. [ahem. cough.]
*Creation of mechanism for national initiative and referendum.
*Citizens' panels [adapt from proposal in Democracy In Small Groups]
*Education reform (broad)