I have been reading Fredric Jameson’s new book An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, an anthology opened by his audacious proposition for the achievement of socialism combined with responses, including a science fiction vignette by Kim Stanley Robinson. I do not feel it is necessary to articulate another critique of Jameson as much as use his proposition of dual power to suggest an alternative venue for such an effort, one anarchists in across the global northwest have been proposing for some time now.
I am currently working with others across America to build a grassroots movement around Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work organization and radio program, which you can also join via this directory of local D@W groups. Wolff has taken in the breadth of Marxist economic/political literature and recognized that the end goal of all the various parties and movements has been workplace democracy, which in simpler terms is defined as an economy made up of worker self-directed enterprise (WSDE) cooperatives that are unique in a substantial way from the twentieth century worker-managed cooperatives that entailed great problems. Now our goal is to create a cultural revolution that will make this a reality.
I think this is a viable dual power platform for two inter-connected reasons.
First, we are approaching a moment when a vast number of small businesses are going to be for sale due to the age demographic of a large percentage of their ownership. Consider this point from Shelterforce:
Numbering 70 million strong, baby boomers (the name given to the post-war group of Americans born between 1946 and 1964) privately own more than two-thirds of all businesses with employees. This adds up to a potential loss of millions of jobs over the next 20 years as boomers transition into retirement. For many, the notion of passing the family business down to the next generation can’t be counted on. A global study co-authored by Campden Research and Prince and Associates found that only 15 percent of family businesses passed through to the second generation, and even fewer to the third.
This is not a fact that has escaped Wall Street. Recently Rhode Island’s Wall Street-friendly Gov. Gina Raimondo was gleeful to welcome Goldman Sachs to the state.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, US Senator Jack Reed, Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence and Goldman Sachs President and COO Gary Cohn today announced the launch of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative in Rhode Island, marking the first-ever statewide launch for the program. Goldman Sachs and the Goldman Sachs Foundation are committing $10 million in capital and philanthropic support to help create jobs and generate economic growth in local small businesses.
She made headlines because Goldman’s new offices were to be located in the Community College of Rhode Island’s daycare center, effectively kicking toddlers out of their play spaces. Yet few noticed, or perhaps few were willing to point out, that these loans might very well end up being the same predatory types that formed the housing bubble underwriting the 2008 crash, only this time middlemen like Countrywide are cut out of the picture. In other words, this is a race to either put economic activity back on Main Street or Wall Street.
Second, this solution is the only way to make peace with the Libertarian half of the working class. At their best, the Libertarian Party is the party of the working poor small-business owner. Jameson’s proposal violates the core Libertarian value of the non-aggression principle by effectively drafting the entire population into the military, a move that would overload the system and cripple empire. But the co-operatizing of small business by the workers as the founder-owner prepares to retire is fully within the realm of voluntary decision making.
Furthermore, the Democratic Party no longer has any respect or interest in even pretending to care about their union base. Consider this recent piece from Jeremy Lott at the Detroit News :
The latest WikiLeaks document dump — containing emails by high-ranking staffers of the Democratic National Committee — caused considerable heartburn for America’s oldest political party… Even casual political observers can see that labor union leadership and the Democratic Party are allied. AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka spoke at the convention the other night, endorsing Hillary Clinton and calling the Republican nominee “wrong, wrong, wrong” for America. Yet the emails that have been released highlight the rather one-way relationship between the Democratic Party and labor unions. DNC staffers see the unions as good soldiers in skirmishes with Republicans, as a pain when it comes to getting things done and, ultimately, as pushovers… The union-DNC alliance does impose a few constraints on the DNC, which staffers both mocked and worked to circumvent. DNC staffer Katja Greeson, for instance, complained about delays involved in getting new business cards printed. She explained to an irked communications director that sending work to union shops caused delays. “Believe me — it is equally frustrating to us,” she said. Greeson also threatened “if they can’t deliver,” DNC staffers would “go to FedEx Kinkos” and do it themselves.
Between those sorts of micro-examples of screwing labor and the macro instance of the DNC having just nominated two pro-TPP candidates one begins to wonder if the labor movement is trying to kill itself. It goes well beyond their Stockholm syndrome relationship to the Democrats, unions have simply failed to adapt to neoclassical economics and need to embrace a new organizational model that can bridge this divide within the working class. I believe Wolff has presented this idea with his efforts around WSDEs.
From here, almost the entirety of the Libertarian platform is fused with the traditional Socialist platform. Lower taxes for small businesses becomes a lower tax on unionized workers. The loathing of unions within the Libertarian Party becomes a love of these same workers united to carry on the small business. A reduction of environmental regulatory over-reach becomes advocacy of a genuine ecological protection effort because, as Wolff points out in his book Democracy At Work: a Cure for Capitalism, WSDEs have within their coordinates a basic orientation towards not polluting the communities that they have to live in. Furthermore, it makes up for the gap created when environmental agencies run by the government effectively fail their constituency.
Consider an ongoing case with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, one of the more robust state agencies nationwide, that is classic Ocean State shenanigans. On Allens Avenue in South Providence, a historic working class neighborhood now made up of predominantly black and brown poor people, a ghastly and illegal metal scrap yard opened in the immediate aftermath of 2008 when China created a huge market for metal imports, turning half of the state’s unemployed male workforce into scavengers for any and every bit of metallic material that could be found. The excellent reporters at EcoRI News have covered this story from the beginning and have more to add:
The 6-acre scrap-metal processing facility was contaminated during the 1980s by a computer and electronics shredding company that conducted its operations on bare soil. The site has tested positive for toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a carcinogen commonly used in electronics. The site was capped after some of the contaminants were removed. The lot sat unused until the scrap-metal yard opened in 2009. The current and previous owners never received permits from the city or the state Department of Environmental Management to operate a scrap yard, when the site was purchased in 2006. In 2009, RIRM opened as a car-crushing yard and in June of that year received a temporary permit from the Coast Resources Management Council (CRMC) to dismantle the Cold War-era Russian submarine Juliette. Without permission, RIRM began accumulating additional boats and barges to dismantle. RIRM has been cited by DEM for disturbing the [Superfund] soil cap at the site with trucks and heavy machinery, in addition to releasing pollutants from dismantled vehicles into the soil and Providence River… In 2010, DEM began issuing violation notices for disrupting the soil cap and failing to manage runoff into the Providence River.
This is a textbook case of environmental racism combined with freebies for the rich. Editor Frank Carini makes this plain in a separate commentary:
While the combined powers of the city and state can’t close, or are afraid to really try, an illegal business polluting the waterfront at will, residents of Providence’s South Side have been put under surveillance because recycling trucks have been rejected at the Central Landfill because of contamination. Local residents have been fined for not recycling properly, but Rhode Island continues to ignore the many businesses that fail to comply with the state’s decades-old recycling law. There’s no enforcement on the business side. There never has been. For the businesses that do recycle, all they get for their law-abiding efforts is to be put at an economic disadvantage.
The nature of WSDE cooperatives requires one to invest a level of earnings into the business in a way that makes living close to the workplace necessary. It therefore becomes selfish to not pollute. And, as we know from every Cold War critique of the old way of creating socialism, Communism (allegedly) failed to account for the selfish nature of man, instead arguing that the New Soviet Man would be selfless. Here Wolff has successfully taken that critique into consideration and used it to his advantage.
Simultaneous with this, one must seriously account for the reserve army of labor that populates the 1099 ‘gig’ economy, those who live by a free lance and ride paycheck to paycheck doing jobs that take advantage of their talents. And in this regard the WSDE cooperative becomes amazingly useful. The Network of American Tech Worker Cooperatives created a pamphlet in 2009, A Technology Freelancer’s Guide to Starting a Worker Cooperative, that is a roadmap for this sector. In one sense, it is an employment agency, taking on gigs with clients and sending the workers to the job. But in another sense, it also provides the path to the ultimate Keynesian goal of full employment. If you build enough of these freelancer cooperatives using the structure presented by the IRS T corporation and each state’s cooperative license structure, you begin to build a dual power welfare state that fills in the gaps neoclassical economic policy has created.
Once you do that, you effectively have an entirely unionized workforce which can work within their communities to negotiate wages and payment for goods and services. For instance, a friend of mine in the painters union is desperate to get his workers jobs because “they need to put food on their tables”, a matter that has caused a great deal of friction when it comes to unionized projects like fracked gas power plants.
But what if you reduce the cost of house painting by negotiating to augment a lesser cash payment with the promise of a certain number of meals to put on that worker’s table? At this point in history it is obvious that bulk food is cheaper than smaller grocery purchases, why not just do what comes naturally? In such an instance, it also becomes unnecessary to require the cook/homeowner to obtain a food vendor and other licensing while still insuring their food is not going to make the laborer sick and, on the other hand, the painter/eater knows not to do a shoddy job or they quite literally will be unable to bring home the bacon.
Right now I am working to build such a WSDE with my Rhode Island Media Cooperative (RIMediaCoop.org). On the front end, it is intended to be a news aggregator for progressive/leftists, particularly Sanders supporters, that brings together RSS feeds from various news websites that are willing to be anti-imperial and critical of the Democratic Party, such as RT, TeleSur, PressTV, CounterPunch, and a few other favorites. This is augmented by original content from local media creators (actors, filmmakers, artists, writers) that effectively showcases material for potential clients.
On the back end, the intention is to get enough members who want to go to our local healthcare exchange, HealthSourceRI, to buy a small group insurance plan that would be complimented with a health savings account (HSA) to pay for expenses like copays and deductibles. We also would work on retirement by having a meeting to select a financial institute with which we would all open individual retirement accounts (IRAs). After a year of paying into the institute, say 20 people putting in $1,000 each, you have people with $20,000 worth of leverage that can be utilized when cosigning a loan for cooperative business infrastructure. This method can also be utilized, by the way, with the aforementioned small businesses that would transition to a cooperative.
Wolff has created here a schematic that uses the culture shift from Keynesian to neoclassical economics in public policy to the advantage of the working class. It is meeting neoliberals like Gov. Raimondo on their turf and using free markets and deregulation to build a new society from where the old has absconded their responsibilities. The neoliberal state is the exoskeleton in which a WSDE economic order can grow until it is ready to burst out of that shell and give way to the withering of the state. And this is because he has effectively created a dialectical antithesis of a union organizing drive while keeping democratic control central.
This year is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, an event that has reached a fetishized level of adulation on the Left for reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion. Yet in all the debate that occurs over who is responsible for the fall of the Republic, there is, objectively speaking, a failure to account for how the Republic survived. It was the Mondragon cooperative, founded by Basque Father José María Arizmendiarrieta Madariaga, which came about under Franco’s rule that serves as the model Wolff has adopted for this project. The corollary of that story is that such a movement must have within its orientation room for those who are not leftists. So too must things be here in America. By creating full employment, we create far less pressure on the working class, the primary engine of reactionary chauvinism driving the Trump base. Simultaneously, we begin to have the conversations with white workers that politically educates them about chauvinism with what Fr. Madariaga would have called grace.
Putting it another way, conventional wisdom in Providence is that you don’t vote for politicians, you buy them. In that vein, why not get the best democratic socialism money can buy and cut the middleman, the state, out of the process like they wish to be?