Utopian Vision and Working-Class Capacities
By Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch
Monthly Review 2000
Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias: Socialist Register 2000 (dist. by Monthly Review Press), edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys.
"A continental welfare state, modeled on the comparatively successfulsocial democracy of the United States. That's the ticket. Do it the American way." This recipe for what path Europe should follow isn't the Economist calling for a new realism, or the voice of American imperialism talking through the Wall Street Journal, or even a stolen quote from a member of Tony Blair's cabinet caught in private conversation. It's the concluding lines of an article on an alternative for Europe published in the New Left Review, once the home and hope for a rejuvenation of creative Marxism.1
Narrowing of the Intellect, Exhaustion of the Will
While the institutional content of such alternatives extends beyond social democracy, what remains common is the same defeatism and related overcautious pragmatism. They have not so much abandoned the idea of change but, like the Greek god Procrustes, who adjusted the size of his guests to fit the size of his bed, they have shrunk the meaning of change to fit what capital and the state will accommodate. The result is what Ernst Bloch referred to as "abstract utopias:" worlds too small to deliver on the large promise they hold out and a telling neglect of the politics of getting there.5
The utopias of old, for all their limits, at least fundamentally challenged the values of the existing society. Across the centuries, utopian writers framed the alternative as a different world rather than selected institutional changes. Long before Marx, they insisted that a utopia that accepted private property—and therefore the existence of classes—as a given wasn't worthy of the name. "The power of the great old utopian books," Bloch demonstrated, was that "they almost always named the same thing: Omnia sint communia, let everything be in common." As the protagonist in Thomas More's Utopia (1516) so clearly asserted, "... you'll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property altogether."6
In contrast, the recent books that put forward alternatives limit democratic expectations of the state and the scale of economic transformations in the name of "getting real." Abandoning any "mega-projects," they also manage to ignore the "mega-reality" of coping with actual existing capitalism and the capitalist state. Focusing on changing the nature of the capitalist firm, writers like Bowles, Gintis, and Unger tend toward a depoliticization of both the firm and the union. They underestimate the social power of capital and the oppositional politics necessarily involved in changing it. And, committed to some notion of making economic competition into something that is progressive, they stunningly fail to see that the whole point of addressing alternatives is to liberate ourselves from the notion that it is only through competitiveness that we can confront the development of our productive capacities. To accept competition as the goal—even for a poor country and even qualified as "progressive competitiveness"—is to give up on the socialist project before you begin.
In all of this, vision and agency overlap. For Scott, the question of agency is reduced to getting the state out of the way. Bowles and Gintis don't even bother to dwell on why workers would commit to a struggle for control over capital assets if the economic decisions ultimately made will still be determined by competitive markets. And Unger proposes cross-class partnerships with export-oriented "vanguard" firms and thereby erodes the very possibility of the militant organization of the "oppressed, the poor, and the angry" that he once called for.7 There seems to be little point in worrying about agency if the transformation being considered is not really a transformation at all—just as there seems to be little reason to dream, if there is little confidence in the existence of an agency that might actualize those dreams.
The Rehabilitation of Utopia: Agency and Social Capacities
For all the valuable insights, promising signposts, and rich hints Marxism bequeaths, the historical optimism which inspired generations of socialists came with an underestimation of the chasm between the scale and scope of the socialist dream, and the capacities of the capitalism-created agency honored—or saddled—with carrying it out. Between Marx's vision of revolution and his detailed critique of political economy, there was an analytical and strategic gap—unbridgeable without addressing the problem of working-class capacities—which later Marxists sometimes addressed, but never overcame. Nor has the problem been overcome by recent social movement theory. For the rethinking that is required must be more profound than just imagining that the problem can be resolved by substituting a plurality of new social movements for the old workers' movements. The compensatory stifling of ideals we saw in the institutions of the labor movement has also appeared in the new social movements. Every progressive social movement must, sooner or later, confront the powerful tendency of capitalism to cripple our capacities, stunt our dreams, and incorporate our politics.
Agency is, of course, the key to transitions from one socioeconomic order to another. But at this particular moment in time, when there is little convincing empirical argument for the revolutionary potential of the working class (or any other agency), simply keeping the socialist goal alive is paramount . A greater burden is consequently carried by the socialist vision. Writing in exile after Nazism's destruction of all the labor movement's institutions in Germany, Ernst Bloch emphasized this crucial need to rehabilitate, within Marxism, the category of utopia to "make the defeated man try the world again."8 The issue here is not an idealist turn in Marxism, but a recognition that Marxism as a material force needs what Bloch called its "warm stream" of desire, passion, and dreaming as much as it needs its "cold current" of analysis.
What motivates and sustains us in a commitment to change? We might define that desire for change as the yearning to close the gap between lived experience (life as it is) and imagination (life as it might be).9 The two are not independent: the social construction of our experience—and its contradictions—affects our imagination. Saint Simon, writing two decades before the Communist Manifesto, rhetorically asked: " ... [since] the worker is exploited materially, intellectually, and morally ... Can the worker develop his intellectual faculties and moral desires?" And then he added: "Can he even desire to do so?"10 This same influence of lived experience on the range of imagined possibilities is directly captured in Barbara Kingsolver's novel Animal Dreams. A woman asks her lover: "Didn't you ever dream you could fly?" He answers: "Not when I was sorting pecans all day." When she persists and demands: "Really though, didn't you ever fly in your dreams?" he replies: "Only when I was close to flying in real life ... Your dreams, what you hope for and all that, its not separate from your life. It grows right out of it."11
The struggles of daily life shape and focus our desires—they "educate desire," enrich it, and teach it to reach further or differently.12 Educated desire can be radical (I want to change the world) or conservative (I want to change my own place in the world). And even if radical, it may be constructive or destructive, selfish or communal.Socialist morality educates desire towards the goal of realizing our potential to be full human beings and extending that principle to all members of society. Socialist analysis discovers, in the dynamics of capitalist society, the possibility of that new world and the agency that can, in the process of "doing-other," change both itself (including its dreams) and society, thereby "becoming-other." In using such terms, Bloch was developing a concept of "concrete utopia."
The impact of socialist morality and socialist analysis on desire is the foundation of socialist hope. That hope is both part of and activated by the emergence and growth of particular social capacities within the socialist agency-to-be. The notion of capacities is inherently dynamic and developmental; it speaks to a process and to a potential within the working class. The qualifier "social" emphasizes that this potentials resides not just in the individual but in the collective. Social capacities are therefore the link between the ideal and the possibility of reaching it, of means and ends. To complete the voyage from desire to socialism, workers must develop the social capacity to dream, to understand, to participate, and to act politically.
Consider each of these in turn. The terrain of the socialist dream or ideal is distinguished from its liberal roots by an insistence that the flowering of human capacities isn't a liberation of the individual from the social, but is only achievable through the social. When we share similar dreams and dreams become part of a common culture, that social capacity to collectively dream opens a door to acting beyond the present. As for knowledge, it is always a social undertaking, but social here still means the activity of a minority. If the issue at stake is the historically unique project of an underclass creating a new world, knowledge and the generalized social capacity to understand must be about more than that class only receiving knowledge, but their inclusion in the development of understanding through a radical democratization of theory. The more general confidence that we can one day fully participate in society involves the development of a productive force appropriate to a new society (and the simultaneous expansion of the notion of productive). That specifically socialist productive force is the democratic capacity to collectively administer our daily lives.
Finally, the capacity to act politically is a class capacity that coordinates these other capacities, invents new forums and structures struggles to take them further and, above all, tries to make the development of our social capacities cumulative, as opposed to sporadic and vulnerable to the prevailing winds.
Unions and the Accumulation of Capacities
Once we approach the issue of class and transformation as related to overcoming dependency on capitalists (to the end of developing full human capacities), further expectations emerge around what unions—as the frontline economic organization of workers—might possibly do. This in turn implies a different kind of unionism, in terms of how it chooses and structures its struggles, applies its resources, defines internal democracy and participation, responds to its role as producers and service providers, and relates to the community and the state.
The problem with unions is not, as so many seem to think, that they have been too defensive but that, in most cases, that they have not been defensive enough—at least not defensive in a way that allows them to get beyond merely being reactive. To be defensive doesn't mean to be static. A trade unionism committed to mobilizing its defensiveness would be committed to developing a culture of resistance. Nothing is more important to the future possibility of socialism than the current existence of a working class that is determinedly oppositional and organizationally independent, self-conscious of its subordinate position and ideologically confident in the legitimacy of its demands, and insistent that its own organizations be democratic and accountable so as to embody this spirit of popular activism and militancy. In addition to fighting aggressively for traditional demands, the content of union demands could, on this base, take on new dimensions and creatively lead other struggles.
Examples include: pushing to take productivity gains as time off from the job and for education both at and away from the workplace; linking health and safety issues to demands about how work is organized and the priorities of technology; negotiating learner-driven training from employers and developing, through internal union educational programs, the confidence and therefore the capacity to participate among all members; and extending the collective capacity to discuss and disagree—to debate—before the arrival of those moments of crisis when external pressures reinforce tendencies to define all internal opposition to the leadership as sabotage.
In contrast to a defensiveness that is part of building a culture of resistance, there is a set of union alternatives that co-opt the language of "capacity-building" and economic "empowerment" to the same ends as the supply-side defeatism we discussed earlier. They operate comfortably within the existing framework of power and this is expressed in proposals for jointness in production, partnerships for competitiveness, alliances for jobs, worker representation on corporate boards, and most discussions of the use of pension or labor funds for social investment purposes. Since they assume what labor and capital have in common is more important than any differences, they are oriented to placing worker representatives alongside management in "problem-solving".
What emerges are not alternative capacities, but only practices which echo capital (e.g., learning to run businesses and funds like capitalists do). And even these are restricted to a small handful of worker representatives and officials who participate in keeping information from their members because of "corporate confidentiality." The actual access to influencing decisions is, not surprisingly, extremely limited since it isn't won through mobilization but offered to limit mobilization. The trade-offs made for that access—material concessions and the symbolic distancing of the leadership from the members—carry dangerous institutional implications with regards to rank-and-file suspicions and leadership credibility. And finally, even if there is something positive that comes out of initiatives such as access to information and input into certain decisions, this can generally be achieved at less cost and with more long-lasting results through the very mobilization this approach pushes aside.
This would take private-sector unions beyond the workplace and the single firm, to thinking in terms of the whole economic sector; and it would take public-sector unions beyond their role of representing civil servants, who do things for others toward mobilizing with the people they serve, to expand the range and access to social rights and spaces. Worker and consumer councils at the level of whole economic sectors, in contrast to single companies driven by accumulation and competition, would be better able to associate production with use values and with technological linkages across the economy, and would be able to address developing the collective capacities to govern the economy democratically. Public sector councils, for their part, would begin the difficult process of eroding the distinction between public-sector workers and their clients as well as between their work and the very different "consumption" of that work than is involved in the consumption of commodities.14
The point of addressing jobs and services in this way is not that this is an immediately viable strategy for the gradual encroachment on and eventual takeover of capital and the state, but rather that it involves a gradual development of new capacities and vision and an independent sense of how unions could engage in that "doing-other" to the end of "becoming-other". It puts, for instance, a priority on organizing meetings of workers in and across sectors to develop their ability to analyze their situation in the economy and society as a whole. It suggests the importance of demands on the state such as state funding of unions' research and expansion of the range of information government departments collect, while insisting on access to those departments. And it requires the creation of new political and economic structures to implement this direction, ranging from job development boards and municipal ownership to democratic public financial institutions for controlling and allocating capital flows.
This kind of capacity-building on the part of the labor movement also raises the question of a new relationship to the community—if only, at first, stimulated by the concern in these particular times to avoid isolation. What is involved here is the broader strategic challenge to position unions as potential centers of working-class life. This is not simply a matter of finding support for unions in the community through linking workers to others, but of highlighting the multidimensional life of workers. It means addressing their needs in ways that value such glimpses of their potential as their limited experience of citizenship now affords, and raising their expectations of becoming fuller human beings than their social status as workers now allows.
For this relationship to the community to be substantive rather than rhetorical (which invocations of "the community" by many union leaders often are, no less than by many academics and politicians), it must affect the kinds of demands unions make on employers and the state. Issues like the environmental implications of a worksite, reduced worktime to share jobs, and ending the inferior status of part-time jobs must become priorities in collective bargaining. The nature of union structures must change as well, such as by opening up local union committees to include teenagers and spouses to mobilize for changes in school education, health administration, public spaces for leisure, urban and regional services and structures. Such a new unionism, committed to enhancing local community life, would inevitably have to play a leading role in joining with other movements to engage the state at every level, from both inside and outside, to force the development of the kind of democratic administration implied by both the sectoral and community aspects of the radical union strategy outlined here.
In both their militant defensiveness and in expanding their role beyond the workplace it is therefore clear that unions must inevitably engage the local and national state in ways that go beyond lobbying and support for electoral allies. The struggle to democratize the economy is ultimately about collapsing the distinction between economics and politics in a very particular way: one that alters the nature of the state so that the state does not stand external to everyday economic life as a bureaucratic regulator, but is integrated in the struggles to transform social relations.
Rekindling the Socialist Imagination
When first uttered on stage in 1949, at the start of the Cold War, these words spoke to the ambiguity of the freedom represented by the "free world." Fifty years later, when Linda sobs "we're free" at the end of Death of a Salesman's revival on Broadway, she seems to embody the angst of an entire world enveloped by the American dream at the end of the twentieth century. One can everywhere sense the anxiety—an anxiety as omnipresent as globalization itself—that has emerged with accumulating awareness of the enormous odds against actually "beating this racket" and escalating doubts about the worth of a life defined by the freedom to compete.
The frustrating reality is that as socialists, we are living through a singular period: the collapse of communism and the complete abnegation by social democratic parties of any vocation for radical change has left us, for the first time in well over a century, with no organizational focus for our goals. The lacuna we consequently face is, as we've emphasized, accompanied by a great deal of pessimism. But overcoming that pessimism is not a matter of asserting a new, yet equally short-sighted, optimism. Rather, it means drawing inspiration from the concrete, popular struggles in evidence around the world as people strive, in a multitude of diverse ways, to assert their humanity. It means drawing encouragement from the activist left's broadening of its political project to encompass ideals that integrate a utopian sensibility and a concern with capacity-building.
The best of such ideals are summarized below. Any motivating vision for the left would have to encompass at least the following ten dimensions:
Attenuating the division of labor. The principle at the heart of the socialist project—the potential of each of us to become full human beings—cannot be achieved in the context of hierarchical structures "that obstruct participation or deny equitable access of all workers to equal opportunities for fulfilment and influence."17 Because this won't be easy, socialists are obliged to begin this process in their own parties, unions, movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), offices, plants, and universities.
Transforming consumption. Socialists must recognize that any "transformation of the relations of production and the organization of work would be conditional a number of other, equally dramatic, changes of life-style and mode of consuming."18 This is not only a matter of ecological sanity but of connecting consumers to decisions about what is produced, the development of capacities for diverse enjoyments rather than the consumption of homogenized commodities, and the expansion of accessible and generally more egalitarian spheres of public and collective consumption.
Alternative ways of living. The household as a space where glimpses of socialist capacities are afforded suggests that experiments with more communal forms of living that have the potential of extending "intense, affectional bonds" to a broader supportive community beyond the nuclear family and other forms of household relations, can provide "a compelling point of entry for a prefigurative politics which proposes new kinds of sharing relationships and new kinds of public places."19
Socializing markets. Bringing decisions about capital allocation into the democratic public sphere, alongside transformations in modes of consumption and ways of living, allows us "to envision ways of reclaiming and transforming markets and money, so that they become a means of facilitating mutually beneficial exchange based on a mutually beneficial division of labour in an economy with an egalitarian distribution of economic power."20 Only these kinds of markets and social relations will allows us to escape the steel bonds of competition that entrap so much of what passes for utopian thinking today.
Planning ecologically. The socialist project means developing the capacities within each state for the democratic allocation of time and resources and the quantitative and qualitative balance between production and consumption. The goal is to "maximize the capacity of different national collectivities democratically to choose alternate development paths ... that do not impose externalities (such a environmental damage) on other countries, by re-embedding financial capital and production relations from global to national and local economic spaces."21
Internationalizing equality. Envisioning this type of planning at the national level means developing international alliances and, eventually, an international system that facilitates rather than undermines these efforts. In turn, developing the consciousness and capacities that allows for the building of egalitarian social relations within states must include a growing commitment to a solidaristic transfer of resources from rich to poor countries and to facilitating the latter's economic development via common struggles to transcend geopolitical barriers to the development of socialist capacities. This not only means recognizing the existence of contemporary imperialism but coming to terms with the "geographical conditions and diversities" of working-class existence and learning how to "arbitrate and translate" between these diversities and spacial scales in reviving socialist politics.22
Communicating democratically. Socialists need to give priority to developing a vision and strategy for a diverse, pluralist communications media in place of the commodified market-driven media today. Diverse media allows for the capacities for intelligent, collective dialogue to grow and nurtures the opportunity for rich cultural development. "For a renewed collective debate about the fundamental principles of social organization to be possible, and for a new socialist project to be articulated and get a hearing, a new media order is needed." 23
Omnia sint communia. Progressive intellectuals in our time have devoted enormous energy to trying to get around what was obvious to many pre-Marxist utopians: that you simply cannot have private property in the means of production, finance, exchange, and communication and at the same time have an unalienated, socially just, and democratic social order; and that you cannot begin to approach a utopia on the basis of the acquisitive and competitive drive. There is no way of rekindling socialist imagination so long as this basic principle is obscured, not least because doing so avoids all the difficult questions about making democratic collectivist capacities into real potentialities.
Overcoming pessimism means, above all, apprehending what the very power of capital is inadvertently proclaiming as it overruns, subordinates, and narrows every aspect of our lives—that capitalism is "the wrong dream," and that only an alternative that is just as universal and ambitious, but rooted in our collective liberating potentials, can replace it. The real challenge before us is not to contract, but to expand, utopia's inspirational and visionary function.
1. James K. Galbraith, Pedro Conceição, and Pedro Ferreira, "Secrets of U.S. Economic Strength," New Left Review 237, September-October 1999.
2. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).
3. S. Bowles and H. Gintis, Recasting Egalitarianism: New Rules for Communities, States and Markets (New York: Verso, 1998).
4. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative (New York: Verso, 1998).
5. Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, translated by N. Plaice, S. Plaice and P. Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986).
6. Thomas More, Utopia (London: Penguin Classics, 1965), p.66. Cf. Bloch, The Principle of Hope, pp. 530, 582.
7. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, False Necessity, Part I of Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1987)
8. Bloch, The Principle of Hope, esp. pp. 148, 197-198, 209, 622-623.
The role of the literary imagination in this yearning is taken up by Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination, CBC Massey Lectures, 1963.
9. The Doctrine of Saint-Simon, Translated with an introduction by Georg G. Iggers (New York: Schocken, 1972), p.83.
10. Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 133.
11. The term is taken from H. H-M. Abensour. It is referred to by E.P. Thompson (the text is not available in English) in the 1976 postscript to his William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1977).
12. Andre Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason (London: Verso, 1989).
13. See Greg McElligott, "An Immodest Proposal, or Democracy Beyond the Capitalist Welfare State," Socialist Studies Bulletin, no. 52 (Winnipeg, 1998).
14. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (London: Penguin, 1998), pp. 111-112.
15. Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason, p. 231.
16. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty-First Century (Boston: South End Press, 1991), p. 35.
17. Kate Soper, "Other Pleasures: The Attractions of Post-Consumption,"Socialist Register 2000 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999). Cf. the debate on Juliet Schor's "The New Politics of Consumption" inBoston Review 24 (Summer 1999), pp. 3-4.
18. Johanna Brenner, "Utopian Families," Socialist Register 2000.
19. Diane Elson, "Socializing Markets, Not Market Socialism," Socialist Register 2000.
20. Greg Albo, "The World Economy, Market Imperatives and Alternatives," Monthly Review vol. 48, no. 7 (December 1996), p. 19. And see also Albo's ten point program in his "A World Market of Opportunities? Capitalist Obstacles and Left Economic Policy," Socialist Register 1997.
21. David Harvey, "The Geography of Class Power," Socialist Register 1998, esp. p. 70.
22. Colin Leys, "The Public Sphere and the Media: Market Supremacy versus Democracy," Socialist Register 1999.
SAM GINDIN has been the chief economist and assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers union fo rhte past twenty-five years. LEO PANITCH is Distinguished Research Professor in Political Science at York University.