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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cooperative Islands in a Capitalist Sea?

Via Ecodema. This absolutely brilliant quote comes from Ethan Miller's "Other Economies are Possible!" at Dollars & Sense.

Can thousands of diverse, locally-rooted, grassroots economic projects form the basis for a viable democratic alternative to capitalism? It might seem unlikely that a motley array of initiatives such as worker, consumer, and housing cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organizations, intentional communities, and neighborhood self-help associations could hold a candle to the pervasive and seemingly all-powerful capitalist economy. These "islands of alternatives in a capitalist sea" are often small in scale, low in resources, and sparsely networked. They are rarely able to connect with each other, much less to link their work with larger, coherent structural visions of an alternative economy.

Indeed, in the search for alternatives to capitalism, existing democratic economic projects are frequently painted as noble but marginal practices, doomed to be crushed or co-opted by the forces of the market. But is this inevitable? Is it possible that courageous and dedicated grassroots economic activists worldwide, forging paths that meet the basic needs of their communities while cultivating democracy and justice, are planting the seeds of another economy in our midst? Could a process of horizontal networking, linking diverse democratic alternatives and social change organizations together in webs of mutual recognition and support, generate a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global capitalist order?

I proposed something similar in this post: "Building the Structure of the New Society Within the Shell of the Old." I repost it in part below:

The solution is to promote as much consolidation as possible within the counter-economy. We need to get back to the job of "building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." A great deal of production and consumption already takes place within the social or gift economy, self-employment, barter, etc. The linkages need to be increased and strengthened between those involved in consumers' and producers' co-ops, self-employment, LETS systems, home gardening and other household production, informal barter, etc. What economic counter-institutions already exist need to start functioning as a cohesive counter-economy.

As Hernando de Soto has pointed out, the resources already available to us are enormous. If we could leverage and mobilize them suffiiciently, they might be made to function as a counterweight to the capitalist economy. For example: the average residential lot, if subjected to biointensive farming methods, could supply the majority of a family's vegetable needs. And what's more important, the total labor involved in doing this would be less than it takes to earn the money to buy equivalent produce from the supermarket. The average person could increase his independence of the wage-system, improve the quality of his food, and reduce his total work hours, all at once. This is an ideal theme for mutualist propaganda.

A key objective should be building the secondary institutions we need to make the resources we already have more usable. Most people engage in a great deal of informal production to meet their own needs, but lack either access or awareness of the institutional framework by which they might cooperate and exchange with others involved in similar activities. Expanding LETS systems and increasing public awareness of them is vital. Every need that can be met by producing for oneself, or exchanging one's own produce for that of a neighbor, increases the amount of one's total consumption needs that can be met without depending on employment at someone else's whim. If an organic gardener lives next door to a plumber and they exchange produce for plumbing work, neither one can provide an outlet for the other's entire output. But both, at least, will have a secure source of supply for both his vegetables and plumbing needs, and an equally secure market for the portion of his own output consumed by the other. The more different trades come into the system, the larger the proportion of total needs that can be met outside the framework of a job.

Ultimately, we need a cooperative alternative to the capitalists' banking system, to increase the cooperative economy's access to its own mutual credit....

The capital and land of the rich is worthless to them without a supply of labor to produce surplus value. And even if they can find labor, their ability to extract surplus value from their labor force depends on a labor market that favors buyers over sellers. Anything that marginally increases the independence of labor and reduces its dependence on wages, and marginally reduces the supply of labor available to capitalists and landlords, will also marginally reduce the rate of profit and thus make their land and capital less profitable to them. The value of land and capital to landlords and capitalists depends on the ability to hire labor on their own terms. Anything that increases the marginal price of labor will reduce the marginal returns on capital and land.

What's more, even a partial shift in bargaining power from capital to labor will increase the share of their product that wage-workers receive even in capitalist industry....

And the owning classes use less efficient forms of production precisely because the state gives them preferential access to large tracts of land and subsidizes the inefficiency costs of large-scale production. Those engaged in the alternative economy, on the other hand, will be making the most intensive and efficient use of the land and capital available to them. So the balance of forces between the alternative and capitalist economy will not be anywhere near as uneven as the distribution of property might indicate.

If everyone capable of benefiting from the alternative economy participates in it, and it makes full and efficient use of the resources already available to them, eventually we'll have a society where most of what the average person consumes is produced in a network of self-employed or worker-owned production, and the owning classes are left with large tracts of land and understaffed factories that are almost useless to them because it's so hard to hire labor except at an unprofitable price. At that point, the correlation of forces will have shifted until the capitalists and landlords are islands in a mutualist sea--and their land and factories will be the last thing to fall, just like the U.S Embassy in Saigon.

Monday, January 15, 2007

You Don't Get to Be Pharoah by Working Hard Building Pyramids

Or what the hell--let's call it Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part Umpteen Million

When I decided to drastically scale back my posting and concentrate mainly on organizational behavior stuff, I figured that meant the "Vulgar Libertarianism Watch" thing had probably run its course. But when a target this easy comes along, I just can't pass it up. Via Julian Sanchez. Jagdish Bhagwati argues in the Financial Times (where else?) that "technology, not globalisation, drives wages down":

The culprit is not globalisation but labour-saving technical change that puts pressure on the wages of the unskilled. Technical change prompts continual economies in the use of unskilled labour. Much empirical argumentation and evidence exists on this. But a telling example comes from Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times. Recall how he goes berserk on the assembly line, the mechanical motion of turning the spanner finally getting to him. There are assembly lines today, but they are without workers; they are managed by computers in a glass cage above, with highly skilled engineers in charge.

This is the kind of by-the-numbers puff piece I'd expect from the Adam Smith Institute. Shifting the blame from "globalization" to "technological progress" doesn't do much good. The neoliberal argument that "technological progress" is some anonymous force of nature holds no more water than the similar neoliberal defense of "globalization" as something that "just growed."

The state's R&D subsidies, its subsidies for substituting capital for labor, its subsidies to technical education, its patent system--all of them have had a massive distorting effect in promoting skill- and capital-intensive forms of production. And in the process, they have promoted the deskilling of blue collar labor, the shifting of control over production work from the shop floor to white collar hierarchies, technological unemployment, and a two-tier job market.

This sort of thing is by no means a monopoly of the "free market" right, by the way. It's also quite popular among technocratic liberals, who likewise see such technological trends as a force of nature, and see universal higher ed and "job retraining" as the answer to everything. See, if everybody has a master's degree, then everybody will be a manager or engineer--just like that!

Joe Bageant, who apparently inherited the mantle of Christopher Lasch, made quick work of such meritocratic bullshit after getting a pile of it in a reader email. The reader signed his (her?) name "Kelly," but I wonder if he wasn't deliberately adopting the pose of an over-the-top, type-A personality as some sort of satiric commentary on that social type (like "Frank Grimes" on The Simpsons, or "Norman Greene" in The House Next Door):

I starved my way through college and am now making $75,000 a year -- and I'm only 27. I made it through by the skin of my teeth, fearing every moment that I wouldn't make tuition, that I'd be kicked out of the dorms and have nowhere to live. When they gave me my diploma, I was crying so hard I couldn't see. I forgot to shake the dean's hand. It wasn't easy, but with a little sacrifice it was possible. Upward mobility in the U.S. is neither a myth nor a pipe dream.

The reason these people you talk about can't move up in life is nobody's fault but their own. They are the reason I despair for this country. We have become lazy, fat and stupid. I appreciate your attempts to exonerate the masses, but unfortunately, even without "The man keeping them down" most of these people would be still doomed to failure. There's no reason they can't go to college. They just don't want to.

Bageant replied:

Look at it this way: The empire needs only about 20-25% of its population at the very most to administrate and perpetuate itself -- through lawyers, insurance managers, financial managers, college teachers, media managers, scientists, bureaucrats, managers of all types and many other professions and semi-professions.

What happens to the rest? They are the production machinery of the empire and they are the consumers upon [whom] the empire depends to turn profits. If every one of them earned a college degree it would not change their status, but only drive down wages of the management class, who are essentially caterers to the corporate financial elites who govern most things simply by controlling the availability of money at all levels, top to bottom, hence your hard struggle to pay for college in an entirely capitalist profit driven economy....

Clawing down basic things like an education in such a competitive, reptilian environment makes people hard. And that's what the empire wants, hardassed people in the degreed classes managing the dumbed down, over-fed proles whose mental activity consists of plugging their brains into their television sets so they can absorb the message to buy more, and absorb themselves in the bread and circus spectacles provided them through profitable media corporations operating mainly as extensions of the capitalist state's propaganda system, such as "buy this," or "you have it better than anyone in the world," (not at all true). The more generations subjected to this, the more entrenched ignorance, materialism and lack of intellectual drive becomes. So you are right to the degree that we live in a degraded society. But the dumb mooks down on the corner did not do the degrading. They never had that much power.

There are only so many vacancies at the top of the pyramid. If you don't change the shape of the pyramid itself to make it less hierarchical, the only thing you'll accomplish by giving everybody a master's degree will be to increase the educational requirements for dragging around a giant block of granite.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Goo-Goo History: Or, Everything You Know is Wrong!

Via Joel Schlosberg, by private email. The NYT recently published an op-ed in honor of the 100th anniversary of publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Quoth Schlosberg: "as you might expect, it describes the 'official' interpretation to a T." Indeed:

“The Jungle,” and the campaign that Sinclair waged after its publication, led directly to passage of a landmark federal food safety law, which took effect 100 years ago this week. Sinclair awakened a nation not just to the dangers in the food supply, but to the central role government has to play in keeping it safe. But as the poisonings of spinach eaters and Taco Bell customers recently made clear, the battle is far from over — and in recent years, we have been moving in the wrong direction....

As a result of Sinclair’s crusade, Congress passed the Food and Drug Act, which had been effectively blocked by industry.

The only problem with the official version is that it's just about a 180-degree reversal of the truth in every detail. To get around the Art Schlesinger mythology, all you have to do is read Gabriel Kolko's The Triumph of Conservatism, a brilliant work of New Left history on the role of the regulated industries in formulating "The Great Trust-Buster's" regulatory agenda. You see, the big meatpackers were already subject to a federal inspection regime. The federal government had adopted the older system at their behest in the late nineteenth century, when an embarrassing tainted meat scandal threatened their market in Europe. The federal government at the time adopted inspection regulations for all meatpackers engaged in the export trade. It was a classic example of cartelization through the state: the meat exporters, which happened to be the largest firms, for all intents and purposes adopted an industry code enforced by the state. It was exactly the kind of code an industry might have adopted on its own initiative, with the added benefit of being non-defectable. So the costs of compliance were not a competitive issue between the big packers. There was only one drawback: it didn't apply to the small packers that didn't produce for the export market. What TR's Meat Inspection Act did was bring the small packers into the regime, to remove the competitive advantage they received from their exemption.

USA Weekend recently ran a similarly goo-gooish puff piece that used the e. coli spinach scare as an object lesson on how safe American food is, thanks to the efforts of "our government."

Thanks to the efforts of the CDC, FDA and USDA, our food supply is among the safest on Earth, and, if a problem arises, they're on top of it.

Golly gee whiz! Just close your eyes after reading this, and you're magically transported back to the 1950s: Watch those wonderful, grainy black and white educational films with countless loaves of Wonder Bread speeding down the line, and similarly endless ranks of pasteurized milk in quart bottles on their way for pickup by the friendly guy in the white truck! See the panoramic view of rippling Midwestern wheat fields with giant machinery rumbling through! Hear that up-beat industrial music in the background! Imagine the menacing face of Immanuel Goldstein, shouting insane gibberish! Oops, wait--wrong propaganda film.

There's one thing this pleasant myth conveniently leaves out, though:

Where does this particularly virulent strain [of e. coli] come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms....

When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

In other words, the source of the problem is the very model of factory farming the USDA was created to support. That's right: those nice people that do such a swell job handing out all those crutches are the same ones who broke our legs. What's that you say, girl? Timmy's in trouble?

As Roy Childs put it, liberal intellectuals are the running dogs of big business.

Police State: A Compendium of Posts

The Drug War: Test Run for Fascism
Snitching for Fun and Profit
Screwing You With Your Own Dick
Taser Tuesday: Too Close to Home
Sean Gabb on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms
Only the Guilty Need Fear
Fighting the Domestic Enemy: You
Fighting the Domestic Enemy: Follow-up
The War on Posse Comitatus
Patriot [sic] Act Abuses
Making Ourselves Ungovernable
Filthy Pig Timoney in the News
R.A. Wilson: Prophet
Trying to Keep a Straight Face
Pinkertons for the New Gilded Age
If the President Does It, It's Not Illegal
It's the Soldier Who Gives You the Right to Protest, and Other Horse Shit
With Friends Like John Yoo, Who Needs a Reichstag?
If You've Done Nothing Wrong, You've Got Nothing to Hide
Chris Dillow: Managerialism and the Police State

Establishment Journalism: A Compendium of Posts

All the News That's Printed to Fit
Once Bitten: Newsweek Abandons Journalism for Stenography
More on the Lapdog Press
Putting Monica Lewinski to Shame
Stephen Colbert: Just as Fake as the "Real" Journalists
The Media and Matrix Reality
Question Authority (Obligatory Election Day Post)

Health Issues: A Compendium of Posts

Medical Nemesis: or, Follow the Money
The Right to Self-Treatment
Put the Public in "Public" Hospitals
A Couple of Items on Healthcare
The High Cost of Developing Drugs
Libertarian-Left Alliance Once Again: This Time, Health Care

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Issue of Just Things

The latest issue of Just Things is out: Volume 2, Issue 1 (January 2007). There's some great material in there, so check it out. Editor Steve Herrick was experimenting with a format that opens up full screen, so to page down just use the spacebar or the "scroll down" arrow on the right side of your keyboard.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Fish! Philosophy: Opiate of the Powerless

See also "More On (Moron?) Fish! Philosophy"

Powerful people control events. Powerless people control their attitudes about those events. It's that simple.

Fish! Philosophy is a lesson from the powerful to the powerless. It involves an enormous sleight of hand. One of the Fish! reviewers at Amazon.Com drew, as the central message of the book: "since you're being raped, you might as well enjoy it." In the bizarro world of Fish!, the rapist and the victim are equally powerless: "Gee, I sure hate doing this to you. If only there were some other way.... Ah, well, at least we can both have a good attitude about it!" And to be sure, the rapist usually manages to accommodate himself to his fate.

Fish!, by sleight of hand, conceals the elephant in the living room: we're not all equally powerless in the face of circumstances. Some people make circumstances, and some people adjust to circumstances.

But take a minute to consider how strenuously Fish! pushes that theme of your powerlessness:

We can either give in to external events and pressures, few of which we can control, or we can take control of our own happiness. Our choices are, after all, the only things that no one can take from us in this world. [And our only "choice," as far as these people are concerned, is whether to spit or swallow]

Many of us believe our attitudes are caused directly by outside influences like unpleasant experiences or negative people. While these things may act as triggers for our feelings, we can choose to either be subservient to these events, few of which we can control, or we can take charge of our own responses.

We can't control what happens to us, but we do have a choice about how we respond.

You can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you respond.

You can’t always control circumstances, but you can control your own thoughts.

To grasp just how presumptuous Fish! really is, just try a thought experiment: imagine management's reaction if the circumstances were reversed. Imagine the bosses' reaction of you and your coworkers matter-of-factly announced that, henceforth, you would be working less hard for the same amount of money, or that you would be receiving a higher hourly wage. Imagine telling the boss "you can't do anything about these events, but you can choose to have a good attitude about them!" My guess your boss would demonstrate in short order that he does have control over events, and that it's not his attitude that has to be adjusted. That's because, while you may be powerless, your bosses most certainly are not.

This assymetrical power relationship is implicit in Fish! Philosophy. And you'd better believe that the people who push it are fully aware of their agenda. If you have any doubts of what the agenda is, and who's pushing it, just Google "Fish! Philosophy"+"your organization." The people who control organizations are the primary market for Fish!, and the audiences they buy it for are the "human resources" they manage.

They are the ones who do things. We are the ones that things are done to. Learn to enjoy it, or else. That's the message of Fish! Philosophy.