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Synthesis/Regeneration 22   (Spring 2000)


  • Charlie Jones
  • Paul E. Gagnon
  • Edith Gbur
  • Tom Smith

To the Editor,

Steve Welzer offers medieval serfdom as an example of "Community-Based Economics," noting that the serf had Sundays off and had "over 100 holy days during the year when work was proscribed." One must point out that these holy days were unpaid, and that these benefits were extended not by "the community" but by that vast international empire, the church. The slim margin of survival for the serf was provided by the extramanorial market.

Tom Smith justly takes issue with Paul Hawken's imaginative-not to say imaginary-history of the early American economy. He might have added that even publicly owned corporations, a category that included 21 of the 22 antebellum canal companies and the first two railroads, acted to maximize profit as though they had been in private hands, as in more recent times the TVA invested in nuclear reactors like any other power company.

But he dismisses this Disneyish fantasy of the early corporation only to arrive at a vague socialism wihout markets. The former, actually-existing socialist alternative to the market was what tories called the "command economy," and the most insightful of tory economists dubbed "the new serfdom." This nonmarket socialism was planned with... market simulations! At the time of the collapse of actually-existing socialism, the Wall Street Journal suggested that western computer capacity would have made the simulations work, so maybe it's potentially viable if uninspiring.

It was with some relief that I turned to Don Fitz's piece on "A Democratic Economy and a Democratic Worklife," with his proposal for referenda on basic questions of life and labor. Unfortunately, the American constitutional apparatus has no provision for referenda. In the 1970s there was an organization devoted to rectifying that but I think it's been gone for some time.

In the absence of such a device, an organization I was part of decided to try the next best thing. We commissioned a poll by the Peter Hart organization. People were asked whether they would want the economy run

a. as it is now- 25%
b. by the government- 8%
c. by the workers- 63%

Dan Rather reported it on the evening news with his weightiest demeanor but alas the People having spoken were told to shut up. Nevertheless, it was a rare occasion when the People (well, a statistically valid sample of the People) were asked a revolutionary question, and they gave a revolutionary answer: power to the workers.

Should the workweek be 30 hours? 20? William Godwin 200 years ago thought the advance of science would bring us to a four hour week. In any event, I'm glad the discussion got around to harnessing the popular will to "the economy," which is what the Rulers agree to call the administration of their property.

Charlie Jones

Dear Editor,

Synthesis/Regeneration issue #21 was the most thought provoking magazine I have read in months. David Korten's "A Planetary Alternative to the Global Economy" was insightful and mature thinking. Steve Welzer's "Community-Based Economics" makes a powerful statement on why we should reject socialism and universal systems in favor of a decentralized economy based on community interaction.

However, I disagree with Tom Smith's "Eco-socialism." He is historically incorrect about the birth of corporations in America. Early Americans, who experienced British mercantilist corporations, were fearful of corporations.

Indeed the early state legislatures put strong controls on corporate charters. Unfortunately, the wealthy land speculators and merchants were able to overcome those difficulties. Socialism, centralized and imposed by force, has caused even more human suffering than corporatism. Marxist philosophy has led the left down a path of horror. The left needs a new paradigm and community-based economics is the best candidate.

Community based economics implies cooperation and competition. Competition is like fire-both dangerous and useful. When people compete to destroy the opposition, it is socially detrimental. When people compete to find their niche (much as animals do in nature) to serve a greater good, then we all benefit. Marxists tend to see life in either/or terms. Cooperation and competition, like most things in nature, have to be balanced in order to function optimally.

Paul E. Gagnon
Northern Virginia Greens

To the Editor,

I agree with Tom Smith's criticism of Community Based Economics (CBE) and his critique of Green Populist Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce who wants to keep the market.

However, I have problems with Smith's description of Community Based Socialism (CBS) because it has room for small business. In my opinion it is no more realistic or logical than CBE. Small business is a profit making venture which as Smith says, "leads to exploitation" and oppression.

Some of the arguments he invokes against CBE can be used against CBS. Corporations may not be initially allowed to function under CBS. But reality shows that it's just a matter of time for small business to expand into corporations and change the system into a market based economy.

Smith doesn't explain how the state under CBS will prevent small business from becoming large enterprises. Furthermore if assigned that task wouldn't that expand the role of the state? This does not jibe with classical socialism under which the state is supposed to be phased out.

I agree that "to be sustainable, every single small capitalist would have to be a saint, would have to give away his profits to his competitors." That is impossible.

From my observation, many small business or cockroach capitalists have become a sorry breed. Are there not many small family-run sweatshops? Large corporations in most instances pay higher salaries and offer better conditions than small businesses. They save money by subcontracting jobs to small business owners who hire workers for low wages, eliminate benefits such as healthcare, or cut full time work to part time work.

Smith says that community based socialism would be based primarily on small workers' cooperatives. Why not a mixture of basic large scale industries such as steel mills, automobile factories and other industries requiring large machinery?

I'm glad that he is looking at workers' cooperatives critically. He says that if they are organized as broad employee- and-community-shared stock ownership only a few will survive in the race for profit.

In Spain, the Mondragon collective, still held up as a model by Greens, is indeed a successful enterprise consisting of 142,000 workers in 124 industries. The rub is, that it has been assimilated into the private market system.

In researching cooperatives I discovered that the largest one in this country is "The Farm." It has a population of 200 started in the 1970's by 300 Haight Ashbury hippies who were witch-hunted by the police and settled in Tennessee. Gaskin, who is competing for the Presidential nomination on the Green Party ticket, is a founder.

Edith Gbur
Green Party of New Jersey

Community Capitalism vs. Socialism

In Synthesis/Regeneration 21, I presented a critique of "community based [capitalist] economics" from a socialist perspective. In that same edition, Steve Welzer argued in defense of such economics. Welzer's thesis statement was as follows: "If Greens advocate regionalization of economic activity and hold out a vision of diverse and decentralized communities, it would be contradictory for us to advocate uniformity in regard to property relations or a single economic system as best for all communities."

Welzer concludes, "The communitarian perspective of the Greens can encompass market relations here and economic planning there. It can encompass the profit motive and the desire to 'start one's own business,' or municipal socialism with workers control." Welzer admits that such coexistence "cannot encompass" present-day capitalism, with its "unlimited accumulation of capital" based upon the "exploitation of labor." But Welzer argues that "Face-to-face communitarian relations mitigate against" these dangers.

In the first place, Welzer's statement that his system can embrace the "profit motive" of capitalism and yet reject the "exploitation of labor" is completely contradictory. Where does he think profits come from, if not from such exploitation? Secondly, economic "coexistence" between capitalism and socialism cannot work. This is true no matter how "communitarian" the original social relationships are.

Face-to-face intimacy is no match for the overwhelming force of competition for profit under capitalism, which ensures that the workers will increasingly be exploited, the natural environment devastated, consumers ripped off. The capitalist concerns themselves will either be driven to the wall or mushroom into corporate-sized entities, which will turn any "government" into their own instrument for class rule. As these corporations develop, they will insist upon concentrating their offices, factories, and work forces into big cities and their surrounding suburban sprawl, and upon maintaining our destructive, wasteful, yet highly profitable auto/highway systems (as well as our imperialist military systems). So once again, class exploitation, commuting, and social fragmentation will replace genuine community.

...economic "coexistence" between capitalism and socialism cannot work.

Welzer argues that regionalism, diversity, and decentralism are antithetical to a universal socialism. But this ignores the actual intellectual history of these ideas, and the people who developed them. Lewis Mumford, Henry Wright, Catherine Bauer, and Clarence Stein, of the Regional Planning Association of America in the 1920s, were regionalists as well as socialists. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued for a decentralization of population from the overburdened cities into more livable, smaller communities. Even bourgeois anarchists like Proudhon, as well as anarcho-communist Kropotkin, who also developed the regionalist idea, would disagree with Welzer that universalism is necessarily oppressive, or that a multitude of economic systems can peaceably coexist.

Historically speaking, then, Welzer's animus towards socialism is not derived from the regionalist movement itself. Rather, he derives it from contemporary, "politically correct" "post-Marxism," derived from the sixties, that confused "autonomy," and "self-determination" with separatism. Socialists argue that capitalism and the capitalist ruling class is what oppresses the rest of us-the vast majority. Thus we must oppose any sort of division, any "separatism," among us. While we must be sensitive to the problems of racism, sexism, and genderism, we must understand that these things are evil because they divide and thus weaken us in our struggle against capitalism. If we want to be free, we must solidarize with each other.

Socialism is only a system whereby we all come together to make decisions about our lives and to plan our economy collectively.

The separatist movements of the sixties, however, promoted the idea that privileged sectors within the working and middle classes-whites, males, straights, rather than capitalists or capitalism-were the real enemy of progress for the specially oppressed sectors-blacks, Latinos, women, lesbians and gays. Only by separating from each other can we be free. In the separatist vision, there is no society, only monolithic, single-identity "communities." If anyone tries to promote their vision of what society as a whole should look like, they are guilty of the alleged sin of "universalism." It is to this ideology that Welzer seems to appeal in arguing that universal socialism must be "oppressive" and "wrong"-not because of any understanding he has of regionalist philosophy or of the economic relations necessary to establish a decentralized, regionalist society.

Finally, Welzer attacks socialism for "predicating its conception of human liberation on the achievement of generalized abundance, the material basis of which must be a high level of development of the productive forces." As Saral Sarkar has pointed out, there is actually much truth to this allegation. The problem with Welzer's argument, however, is that he concludes that socialism cannot transform itself, that it cannot do without such a "developmentalist," technology-based, often ecologically destructive vision of the future. But that's unfair. Socialism is only a system whereby we all come together to make decisions about our lives and to plan our economy collectively. It need not be based upon technological abundance; it is fully compatible with face-to-face community.

Tom Smith,
Park Slope Greens

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