We Are in Midst of a Seismic Shift, It Is up to Labor to Decide the Outcome
This is a lead essay in the C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: "Decentralization and Economic Coordination." The related readings and list of all other articles can be found in the introduction here.

About a decade ago The Third Industrial Revolution was published, and a few years later The Zero Marginal Cost Society came out by the same author, from a mainstream and politically moderate economist who advises the EU and German government, making very radical predictions such as moving to a society without money as a result of industrial development. During the same decade, The Homebrew Industrial Revolution and Postcapitalism came out as well, by Kevin Carson and Paul Mason with a similar analysis, the former articulated a political economy of independent backyard manufacturing while the latter called for a ‘radical social democracy’. All three of them have independently reached similar conclusions, that the price signal under capitalist markets will eventually wither away to some more complex decision making for coordination. However, they diverge on what it would be replaced by, from a strong welfare state to socialist planned economy, or barter and local currency exchange. 

Politically, the Green New Deal seems the most likely candidate, not as a result of its objective merit, but because it is the easiest to implement with the existing framework of liberal democracy. When a moment of crisis rises, such a program will be the point of least resistance to implement, in other words, a modern reboot of social democracy. While such a plan will very likely uplift millions out of poverty and improve living conditions for many, it also functions as a crude patch and avoids questioning the legitimacy of many existing social institutions. To show how things can head in the wrong direction, the original New Deal created the social safety net, which today translates to a stock market being two thirds owned by pensions, so the workers have ‘won’ by being the legal owner of the means of production, but as a result of structural layers across the economy, they still function as a property-less class when it comes to negotiating with their employer, and financial institutions use their own pensions as leverage against them and to the benefit of minority investors in a housing crises.

What seems to be gone from today’s labor rank and file organizers, is that labor organizations do not last more than a few generations until they become ineffective. From guilds as an association of independent artisans, to craft unions organizing skilled wage laborers along skill lines, until employers managed to nullify their bargaining power by introducing the assembly line and replace them with unskilled workers. Which left the room for the industrial union to form organizing along class lines and was later out maneuvered with global logistics and supply chains, making capital more mobile than labor.  Just like syndicalism was a force to be reckoned with in the inter-war period, eventually the political economy adapts to avoid friction. The labor movement has always been aware that the organization isn’t supposed to be the end on its own, but a transition vehicle to a better society, but the act of transition has been understood as something far in the distant future, such as a general strike, or winning electoral seats by a socialist party. Rarely has it been seen as something to be done in the here and now. 

The idea of envisioning a society with realistic material abundance isn’t necessarily new, it can be traced back at least to Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism in 1971. Since the 60s in North America it became physically feasible to have a society with enough surplus going around to pass the necessary threshold to distribute resources without relying on price signals and splitting hairs with quid pro quo social relations. What has been changing since then, is with each decade passing by, the barriers of entry get lower and lower to have such a society until eventually it becomes hard to avoid. Today, it is possible to build a neighborhood with 90% self sufficiency in energy, and given the price of solar that is projected to grow at 16% annually in terms kilowatt hours purchased per dollar, not only is self sufficiency is around the corner, but the entire stack will keep declining in cost adding more surplus energy every year to be distributed according to need and not for exchange. The same can be said with manufacturing, with compute doubling every two years advances in robotics follow suit leading to similar exponential growth rates and ever declining cost of producing goods, to eventually be cheap enough where social relations outside exchange and distribute goods in a way that favors needs becomes more feasible.

While a post-scarcity society isn’t fully here for every single good and service, it has been feasible for many fundamental needs, such as food, water, shelter, and basic energy. The reason that we don’t live in a society where some fundamentals are distributed based on need where possible and the remaining resources are left to be distributed by the market — whether capitalist or not —  is in of itself a collective action problem that needs to be solved. Markets don’t seem to be useful for such coordination, but they can help lower the cost of goods drastically enough to be solved by non-market collective action bodies. The most obvious non-market collective action body is the state, and assuming the state is democratic, it has its own overhead costs in terms of actually getting whatever action to be considered to be on the ballot box, plus the need for a majority to take the simplest action. What remains outside the state and market is admittedly much smaller, from civil society associations and community institutions, most are special interest groups related to a religious group or ethno-linguistic community and aren’t meant for mass organization, the ones that remain are political parties working outside electoralism and labor unions.

There doesn’t seem to be many political parties formed explicitly along anti-electoral lines beyond the Bolsheviks, and even that is questionable. And the ones that do exist, tend to end up being political organizations formed as labor organizations. Labor unions, when not busy negotiating with employers, can also serve useful with ‘internal economic calculations’ for their members, such as having their own insurance or credit union. While currently unions don’t coordinate resources as effectively as they could, historically there was a period where the Knights of Labor had within its structure producer and consumer cooperatives to provide essential services for its members. Such services and coordination is exactly what is missing from the modern labor movement to manage the transition into full or relative post-scarcity.

The labor movement is not only fit as a mass organization to be the coordinating body for a post-exchange political economy, but also situated such that it can leverage itself to be the main organ to build and sustain the transition, while still improving working conditions under legacy institutions, where each dollar gained by labor increases the operating costs, which in turn makes more alternatives viable.  One of the more brutal conditions of capitalism has been the company town and the company store, where the money given in wages goes back as sales in goods and rent, this ‘circular economy’ isn’t exclusive to capital per se and can be flipped by labor, such as demanding the company to fund and build the neighborhood energy grid on the company dime, and have a contract that dictates the company purchases a fixed percentage of its goods from community cooperatives. This isn’t to say that the coordination problem has been solved, far from it as price signals are still the primary method of organizing, but what has been solved is the coordination of opening up a pipeline of resources from the old political economy to its successor. What comes afterward is a transition period with experimentation until the optimal method is found without relying on price signals. To use the example of energy again, should the distribution be minimum quotas for all and the surplus be up for grabs, or should there be a measurement where those who consume the most will be queued to be unplugged the first when energy is in need, in order to create the incentive to be considerate? Many of these methods will be developed one by one to solve each class of resources at a time, dropping the need to rely on price signals one at a time, but what this requires is the right environment with enough material abundance. As such, having resources flowing from the old political economy is necessary.

Out of the Cybernetic Socialism literature, one text stands out as the most libertarian, Information Technology and Socialist Construction, it reads mostly like a text from De Leon or council communism. It still relies too much on worker council democracy and hierarchy to coordinate, but at least it shows that it’s possible to have a planned economy without a central state controlling everything and being driven by labor, by having worker councils openly advertise their needs and ability, a model is built to coordinate the optimal method, even if the trade off is that it treats worker councils as the main organ in society, not the individual worker. When Rudolf Rocker coined anarcho-syndicalism, he took existing syndicalism as worker praxis into a political program and the union as a vehicle to build an anarchist society, and such a praxis has been useful in implementing the biggest anarchist social experiment during the Spanish civil war. If we want to solve the collective action problem, something similar has to happen, a labor movement that gradually solves the distribution problem, one class of resources at a time. While still raising the ceiling for wage laborers in a steady state transition. As the Wobbly tradition goes, to build a new world in the shell of the old.

Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email editor@c4ss.org or emmibevensee@email.arizona.edu.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory