Left behind modern times

The left in general lives far too much in the past. Society screams for radical solutions, but the left is seen as the defenders of the status quo because it lacks an alternative. The vicious demagogues of the so-called populist and extreme right parties and movements such as the Tea Party in the US are filling the gap.

Source: freedigitalphotos.net
Source: freedigitalphotos.net

As for the other sectors in society: revolution is ?le mot du jour? (Fr., ?the word of the day?): they speak about the technical revolution, the digital revolution, the bio-technical revolution, the scientific revolution, or talk about the need for a revolution in education, in business models, etc. The matter of fact is, that the only people who don?t speak about revolution, is the revolutionary left. Lots of examples ca be given. Workers understand that you won?t solve the budget crisis, the debt crisis, the migration crisis, mass unemployment, etc. with a tax on wealth or the establishment of a public bank. They know that radical measures are needed.

In Belgium, the idea of splitting the country is winning more and more support. The nationalists are saying sure, in the short run, a split will lead to economic difficulties and we will become poorer. But keeping Belgium as it is and the status quo will be worse. So, they are proposing a radical solution that will of course solve nothing and make matters much worse, but the party that put forward this idea is the main party in Flanders, with 30 percent of popular support.

We need to develop an offensive programme

defending the need to expand public services instead of cutting them. We should explain that this is necessary to solve the ecological crisis, the environmental crisis, the traffic crisis, etc. We should explain that the use of modern communication networks should be free! Why pay huge amounts of money for bits and bytes that can be easily and freely transported through the Internet. The culture of ?free knowledge?, ?free software?, ?free music? etc.? that rules the internet but is under threat by capitalist property rights should be extended to areas like public transport, energy, etc.

That needs huge investments in environmental friendly energy: solar energy, wind energy, the heat of the earth energy, etc. Then, the question arises what sort of institution can do these kinds of investments? We should really point to the fact that the ?collective? state sector in Europe build a tunnel under the English Chanel, build the massive particle accelerator for CERN in Geneva, developed Airbus, etc. The Internet as so many other inventions was an invention of the Pentagon. In fact, probably a majority of the developments in science and new inventions is done by the state, not in the least during times of war when the state usurps more powers.

We should defend ?the state? or rather the public sector,

but link it with the democratisation of the state institutions, and expose the lies of the neo-liberals about the so-called impotence of the state.

And if we go back to the question of property rights: what institution or which power will be able to expropriate the owners? If we talk about socialisation of the means of production, we need to start somewhere. Capitalism tries to overcome the limitations of the national state by creating international institutions like the EU, but the only instrument the EU gas to impose its rules, are the national states. They gave the European parliament more power over the Commission, in order to give the EU some democratic credentials, but the fact of the matter is that in reality, bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism is in decline. And even in its high days, parliamentary democracy is a very limited form of democracy anyway, that has nothing to do with real power of the people over their representatives.

On the question of freedom and democracy,

which is supposedly a neo-liberal value opposed to bureaucratic state dictatorship, I think we should stand for ?radical democracy? (I think that the concept of workers democracy is out of date and that using that kind of language is a barrier that alienates ourselves from workers), defending the idea of maximum freedom for the individual for matters concerning our personal life (choice of education, euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, personal consumption etc.) but that people should have a say in all the collective decisions that have an influence on their personal life. These are decisions concerning the workplace, the local community: infrastructure, shops, parks, schools, Medicaid, etc., the regional community, the national and finally the international community. Some issues really have to be solved on a continental or even a world scale: the environment, the climate crisis, the use of natural resources, international transport, etc. The question of we should pose these issues as transitional demands aimed at existing international institutions is to me a secondary or tactical question. The main thing is that we need to develop a programme for all these different levels and work out in practice international alternatives based on the existing international organisations, not only of the working class, but also of different world social movements such as doctors without borders, NGO?s, Greenpeace, the anti-global movement, the P2P movement, etc.

Finally, that leaves us with

the question of the market.

I think that price mechanisms and the market would still play a role in the allocation and accounting of the means of production. I think that planning as perceived by classical Marxism is quite unrealistic and we need to learn from historical experiences of the NEP in Russia and present day reforms in China. In its own way, capitalism has already integrated the world economy. Financial markets are global, multinational are global, corporations are more and more integrated through all kinds of networks.

The main developments in modern technology did not follow a rational plan, but followed rather the laws of chaos theory: the Internet, Linux, Wikipedia, Flicker, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But the old, vertical hierarchic structures of the traditional capitalist business model is more and more a fetter on further development, just as intellectual property rights are a fetter on the further development of science and knowledge. Never before in history the means of communications have been more powerful and ?democratic? than today. With the use of the Internet and a cheap camera, everyone in the world can contribute to news channels. The possibilities of today?s technology are beyond our imagination. Education, culture? could be totally free and accessible to everyone on the planet. But this is not happening under capitalism. It will only become possible under socialism, on the condition that we can integrate all these possibilities (and necessities) in a clear and coherent socialist programme and arm the left again with a realistic vision of a new, socialist society.

Jean Lievens

3 thoughts on “Left behind modern times”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Jean’s analysis. The Left is so far behind developments and backward-looking.

    I also agree with his call for a new kind of democracy, although I would prefer to call it “full democracy” rather than “radical democracy” which I don’t believe explains anything.

    One thing I would question in Jean’s account is what he says about the market and planning. Here unfortunately, his brevity risk leading the reader towards confusion and incorrect conclusions. I believe that when we criticise planning we should be very careful to criticise bureaucratic planning not planning as a whole. Ironically, even within capitalism, it was those countries which had strong elements of planning that were most successful since the Second World War.

    And of course, China’s planning system is delivering the fastest economic growth in human history.
    The key is who is doing the planning and for what purpose. To bureaucratic planning we should counterpose democratic planning, transparent and fully accountable to the citizens.

    As to the market, yes it will continue to play a role at local level and in niche sectors but I believe there are far better ways to deliver responsive and low cost economic performance.


  2. Just a brief reaction: I think the best we can do in relationship with planning, is defending “democratic planning”, but we need to explain what that is.

    In the world of scarcity, this is the world where we need to allocate scarce resources, there are fundamentally three mechanisms to do so: hierarchy, the market but also democracy. I think the best we can do on a micro level (public institutions, factories etc) is a democratic election of a hierarchy, and a maximum democratic involvement of the workforce to maximise intrinsic motivation. But there will be still a form of coercion, accepting majority rule, doing jobs that need to be done but nobody likes, etc. I think that in some cases we need to involve the broader community (stakeholders) in the election of the leadership of these institutions and take into account elements of meritocracy. But this statement need clarification and further discussion (as all the rest of what I am writing here).

    On a macro-level, we also need to decide democratically what needs to be done on issues like public infrastructure etc., but I think we need to amend representative democracy with forms of direct democracy where we can (I think we need to study liquid democracy as proposed by the Pirate Parties more deeply to see to what extent these mechanisms are useful). Democratic planning poses off course also the question of ownership, but I don?t think that repeating the same old slogan of nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy is enough. I think we need to step back from the traditional dichotomy (state ? private sector), to a triarchy model (state ? private sector ? commons), and that we should actively promote and support commons on all levels (local, regional, national, international). Within this framework, I think we ne need to defend the public sector but also fight for a democratization and an extension of it.

    With peer production of knowledge, code and design we enter the world of abundance, where those mechanisms to allocate resources (hierarchy, the market, democracy) are not necessary. Under capitalism, this immaterial abundance is causing a crisis of value. That?s why capitalism creates artificial scarcity in that field using IP Regimes (copyrights, patents etc.) In doing so, they make sharing and cooperation in many ways illegal and hamper human progress, which is best served by using peer to peer mechanisms where possible (they pop up everywhere by the way: open source, open innovation, open education, open science etc.)

    By the way, because these are new phenomena, there are a whole bunch of new words describing different aspects of them (they are not synonyms): the open source economy, commons-based peer-production, the network economy, the sharing economy, the solidarity economy, collaborative consumption? etc.

    In this process, there is a revival of cooperatives. In addition, knowledge workers creating immaterial commons are also creating their own organisations and institutions (just as the workers in the 19th century created their own health insurance, trade unions and political parties). Examples are the for-benefit associations managing the infrastructure of the commons, and special licenses to prevent their commons being privatized.

    By the way, I also want to point out that there is no clear boundary between material and immaterial production. Everything that needs to be produced needs to be designed first. The best way to do so is through peer-to-peer networks on a global scale. But as physical production is becoming more and more automated (computers are not only means of production for the production of immaterial value, but they are also linked to material production sending instructions to machines producing the real stuff), and as after the computer also machinery is becoming ?miniaturized? (think 3D-printers), more and more production can be relocalized using less resources and producing on demand (with the active involvement of the user). This makes the old concept of planning of the production of some consumption goods obsolete.

    I hope to find the time in the next weeks and months to write a more substantial article on all these issues, but meanwhile I throw these points on the table to stimulate the discussion?

  3. In general, I agree with the article.

    Two comments, though:

    1. I am a bit skeptical to a blanket “individual freedom”. “You can do whatever you like as long as you don´t hurt somebody else” is an old liberal maxim. What is strictly “personal”? To which degree should society stay out of peoples lives – legalizing drugs, dropping high taxes on alcohol and cigarettes?

    A lot of things that individuals do affect society. Children growing up in families with addiction, for example, or alcohol-related violence. Or just the passivising effect that certain drugs can have, negative for the struggle as well as society and the individual.

    There are many more examples. I fully agree with the examples of individual freedom of choice that you give, although I don´t quite understand what is meant by free “choice of education” and if I agree with it. I think education is a key part of creating a society, and that for instance home-schooling, religious schools etc should preferably not be allowed.

    We have to have a clear vision of how we build a society, not from the top to bottom or by pushing down individuality, but we should still build a society. I think it´s harmful when common norms break down, when people live apart and don´t understand each other. It breeds reaction and hinders the building of both the labour movement, progressive movements and society.

    There should be other, progressive, socialist, feminist, anti-racist norms which we have to mould and spread through a wide movement. They should in my opinion also be guidelines in education for kids.

    2. A general comment. We should be aware that in the real world, we will not be able to put our plans to work in a sealed-off atmosphere. Concretely, when it comes to nationalizations, price-regulations etc, in many countries this will not strictly follow an ideal plan.

    Businesses will be used in a political as well as parasitic way to sabotage progressive governments. There will be investment strikes, hoarding, “citizens strikes” with closed shops etc. It will be hard for any socialist government to control the situation, and in some cases probably become necessary to intervene through local, regional or national bodies in companies of various sizes.

    It will be more messy than in our models, because we often face a conniving and at times even desperate and irrational opponent. There have been big complications in Venezela for example.

    On the issue of nationalization, it needn´t necessarily imply fully centralized planning. One example is the venezuelan factory Sanitarios Maracay, which was abandoned by the owner in 2007. After a long occupation ended in splits among the workers, it was finally nationalized in 2010. This year they will make 150.000 bathrooms for the housing mission of the government. It is an exemple of how an individual, relatively small company, can be connected to a wider planning.

    A benefit of it not being owned by the workers is that the “owner mentality” is not spread among the workers. Another benefit is that it becomes connected to larger societal goals. Companies run by the workers should be treated preferentially and helped with education courses, resources etc. Nationalized or not, they should not be left on their own. Most companies can be of use for society.

    The importance of the demand for nationalization of key resources is also that socialism is essentially not about the individual worker collectives, but has to be based on a common vision of the class as a whole as well as the liberation of mankind. Socialism has to be a conscious creation, based on material development and objective circumstances, but still the “subjective” factor is of enormous importance. I would say more so than with any of the changes of modes of production so far in history. This requires a class consciousness that not only crosses workplaces or sectors but national borders as well.


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