Lou Rinaldi reviews and gives criticism to parecon writer Robin Hahnel's essay in The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics.
Imagine this: you wake up early in the morning before the sun even comes up for work. You can’t afford a car so you take the bus forty minutes to work. Because you only earn barely above minimum wage you live in a small apartment, but it’s crammed with your friends to make the rent cheap enough for you to afford. The bus is five minutes late so you’re late to work, your boss spends half an hour screaming at you when you could be working and writes you up at the end of it. You’re on your last straw. After an exhausting ten hours, you walk half a mile to the bus stop only to wait another 20 minutes. In a capitalist society, many of us experience life like this, as workers. So where are the alternatives, where do we look for them? As a project to bring some of these ideas to light, the Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics does its job well. The essays contained in the book say life need not be about work and drudgery, but democracy, kinship, creativity and more. Not only that, but there have been mass movements to try and make it so, with a history spanning over one hundred fifty years!
I have to admit, I am huge fan of AK Press and I was excited when I saw they were releasing a book on anarchist economics featuring essays by some of my comrades whom I respect tremendously and others whose opinions I was interested in learning more about. One thing in particular I liked about the book was the wide range of opinions in anarchism it presented, because I think they can be complementary to a project like The Accumulation of Freedom. The book is divided into six parts, each with three or so essays: history, analysis, critique, practice, resistance, and vision. I think they are arranged in a way that allows an excellent flow, with history being the best place to begin (though perhaps as a history major in university I am biased there!)and vision as the best place to end, leaving us on a positive idea of what the future may look like. I would definitely recommend this book to newcomers to anarchism. It sets the foundations that are necessary to truly inform yourself and doesn’t overburden you with confusing jargon.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the essays in this book, but in this article I respond specifically to the essay contributed by Robin Hahnel. His essay (adapted from a talk given in Greece in 2010, with a short addendum from late May 2011) “The Economic Crisis and Libertarian Socialists” is found in the critique section of the book. Originally I was hoping Hahnel’s essay would be on participatory economics (parecon), a concept he and Michael Albert put forward in their book Looking Forward. Parecon is a libertarian socialist economic theory based on a worker and consumer councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning. As a libertarian communist I disagree with parecon’s remuneration and accounting schemes, favoring a gift economy where we take and receive according to need and need not monitor each other’s “productivity.”
However, in this essay Hahnel takes on the problem facing libertarian socialists in the age of economic crisis – as well as a bunch of analysis of the said crisis. Thematically speaking, it is divided up into two parts. The first, which I think was far too short, addresses the problems that must be overcome within the libertarian socialist milieu. The second is analysis and proposed remedies to the crisis, which tie into his ideas in the first part.
A Problem of Recruitment?
Hahnel begins by explaining why we reject capitalism. He states that we “reject capitalism because it is authoritarian and exploitative not only in bad times but in good.” This is true enough, and I don’t expect anything too in depth in what is largely meant as an introductory book. In thinking about the current crisis we are going through, he poses some important questions that dig to the heart of the matter. “Why is the current economic crisis of any particular importance to us? Why should libertarian socialists say or do anything differently than we were before the crisis struck?” Hahnel asks. His answer, though, I find underwhelming: “Because we are too few.”
Taking this statement at face value, it’s true. There are not that many libertarian socialists. I know from the A New World In Our Hearts network, a grouping of anarchist organizations in the United States, there are probably not more than two hundred members in “organized anarchism.” The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is some two thousand (with crossover from the In Our Hearts Network), plus various non-associated libertarian socialists. This puts us at a significant disadvantage if we are to believe that our quantity alone will win us victories. Hahnel elaborates that our problem as libertarian socialists is that we focus too much on other people’s problems and not on fixing out own – and that our problem is that not enough people listen to us, nor do they join our formal organizations. Hahnel purports that we would solve “our recruiting problem” with a relevant analysis of this specific economic crisis we’re in.
This falls on a bad example of what organization should be for – fighting a battle of ideas. In this methodology, we merely need to make ourselves seen and the people will flock accordingly. I disagree with taking on this strategy for establishing a free society. Foremost I believe it is not organizing to build power for the class, nor will it present itself with a clear set of results or victories – no concrete material gains or reform. As revolutionaries our first priority must be to create space for proletarian autonomy and we do this in a number of ways, the first being building class-wide unions like the IWW. Here by “class-wide” I don’t mean to suggest the IWW is actually One Big Union, but rather it is open to all members of the class – from manual laborers, precarious retail workers, to those involved in domestic, reproductive labor, and the unemployed. No one, so long as they are a worker, is turned away from the IWW, this marks a crucial difference between the IWW and other unions. I am also for creating and maintaining solidarity networks to fight battles in other spheres of life such as reproductive labor and against landlords, with the most prominent modern example of this being Seattle Solidarity. Another worthwhile organizational project would be creating counter-institutions like social centers or cooperatives. We also do this by participating in broader social movements, creating within them spheres of libertarian influence not through our pamphlets, theoretical journals, or newspapers, but by our on-the-ground relationships and the hard work we put into them.
This all is not to say we should not present out ideas. We should, of course, gather together to develop and sharpen our theory and analysis. This is part of what a political organization is for, but to say we are unsuccessful for lack of theory or analysis is grand overstatement. The reality is that for years our tendency has been bloated with theory and analysis that does not come out of practice. What should be our heading is organizing in a way that will build power, our ability to act, and that pushes the boundaries of our existing praxis. In this respect, I believe that means creating praxis around fighting systemic white supremacy and patriarchy (namely, in organizing around reproductive labor, something sorely ignored by libertarian socialists).
Though I don’t believe there is a “death star” type scenario for capitalism – that there is one weak spot – there are definitely strategic areas that we should concentrate on if we want to build a mass movement that is truly popular and representative in nature. Not only that, but I believe it would be foolhardy to attempt to talk about class as if it only applies to the white, industrial proletariat. In combating white supremacy we must fight whitewashing in the workplace, repression in our communities, and strive for multiracial organization at all times. We must stand in solidarity with all proletarians regardless of immigration status and make it a point to be with the most oppressed – the black and brown community – in our struggles. This has practical applications in syndicalism, community antipoverty work, antiracist and antifascist organizing, and antipolice organizing.
Aside from merely stepping up in your personal life to take care of more domestic work, what needs to be developed is a concrete, system-challenging way to take on the role of reproductive labour. This could take the form of domestic workers union or something else – truth is, I don’t have a definitive answer to this question and maybe I never will, but I do want to see a praxis develop around it. Selma James did a lot of work around that question and more recently I’ve seen an essay and commentary by Gayge Operaista on the topic.
We have seen organizations like Sojourner Truth Organization, Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, the recently dissolved Bring the Ruckus, and the newly formed Black Orchid Collective take on these tasks in part or in whole and they all have valuable lessons we can take from them. In many ways their experiences have been more valuable than some organizations boasting hundreds more members.
The “Wisdom” of Keynes?
Let me get back to Hahnel. As I said, Hahnel thinks a main problem we have is a recruiting problem. In the rest of the essay, Hahnel sets out to provide the analysis he believes is so sorely missed by libertarian socialists, an analysis he says will solve the recruitment problem. This is where things start to get even rockier. It’s not that Hahnel’s explanation of why the crisis occurred is wrong, but his prescriptions to amend them are social democratic at best. He provides three major lessons that we must espouse. The first is that deregulation is bad. The second is that we need to tax the rich. The third is that we need the Employee Free Choice Act.
What Hahnel really thinks we should espouse is not socialism, which would challenge the social relations of our society, but Keynesian economics. He refers once to the “single most important lesson Lord Keynes taught the world” (deficit spending) and then in his addendum says that for the European leaders “all Keynesian wisdom is abandoned.” These views seem more like those of Joseph Stiglitz, Ben Bernanke, or Paul Krugman than of a socialist taking influence from Marx, Bakunin, or Kropotkin.
I challenge the notion that Keynes had wisdom that in anyway relates to creating libertarian socialism. Keynes, a bourgeois economist, advocated a system to save capitalism in a specific historical context and ushered in decades of cooptation of workers struggles by social democratic class collaborationists who represented the left-wing of capital. Keynesian thought is dead, but its memory “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1852).
An Analysis Not Divorced of Practice
Hahnel’s “Big Three” – the lessons he says we must learn and form analysis around – are well and fine, if we are reformists or not engaged in the struggle. However, an analysis that is divorced from our practice is useless and Hahnel’s priorities in this essay clearly mark where his practice lay. In lieu of his top-down style demands, I propose organizing from the bottom-up.
His call for more regulation of the economy is something meant only for the playing field of capitalism, but this is a system we wish to abolish. Instead of working around regulation – a reformist issue – we should be working around power. Power is our ability to act as we please, in most cases in our lives we do not have power, or we only have a little bit of power. We build power by organizing to build solidarity and through direct action tactics that challenge authority – in this sense we build power with, rather than for or over, our comrades. We need to challenge the bosses’ power on the shop floor, the cops’ power in the streets, and the politicians’ power in everyday life.
Taxing the rich, again, is an issue only for the reform of capitalism and his demand of it is far more reminiscent of Trotskyists acting out the Transitional Programme than a libertarian socialist approach to fixing the world’s problems. Instead we need to build for expropriation, and we can do that by, again, building power. Building for the eventual expropriation of the rich, however, means fighting property in specific way – I think we can see it most obviously in anti foreclosure organizing. In addition to fighting for the right to housing regardless of ability to pay, we should be fighting for the reclamation of the commons – by this I mean physically taking back land and putting it into collective, self-organized ownership by the communities that need it. The Occupy Movement has begun this, but it is not as developed as many of us would like (I think we should continue to work within the movement to bring the revolutionary potentials to the forefront). Another struggle around the issue of social use of property was the Use It or Lose It struggle in Toronto, Canada, which attempted to pass a bylaw stating that you either had to use property or it would be confiscated by the city and turned into affordable housing. Perhaps unrelated but along the same lines is anarchist organizing at Occupy Philadelphia around the idea of “Commons Not Capitalism”. I think using the idea of the commons as a starting point is great for a number of reasons. Not only does it start off by directly confronting capitalism as the issue, but its remedy demands collective action. Additionally I think that the idea of a “commons” is relatively easy to explain without using jargon.
The issue of the Employee Free Choice Act presents itself as an interesting conundrum. On one hand it strengthens labor, but this is a double-edged sword, because in strengthening labor through the State we also strengthen the union bureaucracy that chokes the lifeblood out of workers’ power. As I mentioned early, I propose building horizontal unions like the IWW instead of working to reform the state-labor relationship. In this sense I advocate remaining agnostic on the issue of the Employee Free Choice Act because I recognize that simply having a union does not make a union – organizing directly on the shop floor, at all times, does.
For a New Fanaticism!
In 2009, the late Joel Olson (RIP) gave a talk on the concept of fanaticism and in it he talked about what, for him, defines fanatics. He said that it was not merely people who were convinced of their ideology, but those who believed their ideas were right and liberatory and began to build a constituency around them – in other words, they organized. For Joel, he believe that truly dedicated revolutionaries had to be fanatics, people willing to organize for decades of their lives to make the revolution happen. All the coffee shops in the world could be smashed and it would be useless unless there was a group of dedicated, stalwart people ready to work hard to legitimize it through building a base. This is the dedication that any movement will need in order to become successful – whether anarchist, marxist, a hybrid of the two, or white nationalists. The real danger lies in letting our enemies be the fanatics and thinking that our analysis will be enough to solve the many problems of our milieu.
Here I’ve outlined my disagreements with Hahnel’s conception of what the tasks and analysis of libertarian socialists should be, but the conversation is still open. Honestly I’m happy that Hahnel has written his essay because it has given me the opportunity to write down a lot of my thoughts on organizing and reformism. His essay may not have been possible without the book The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics – something I suggest people pick up, read, and use for their own development and the development of those sympathetic to anarchism, free communism, and libertarian socialism.
What I would like to see come out of these discussions is a new fanaticism among anarchists and a dedication to building our power as a class. I believe developing our power as a class means developing praxis around the key issues of smashing white supremacy and patriarchy — and that these are not separate issues from the class struggle. Until the time we have done so, anarchism can never be the liberatory movement we want it to be.
Originally posted: June 4, 2012 at ideas + action