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Synthesis/Regeneration 52   (Spring 2010)

Proposals for Antiproductivist
and Participatory Socialism

by R. Burke

The capitalist world system is facing its final crisis. In its attempt to contain labor costs in the developed world, capitalism has globalized production to less developed countries, hoping to take advantage of cheap, easily exploitable labor. In the process it is increasingly de-ruralizing the world; most of the human race now lives in cities, creating a global proletariat, and shrinking the sources of that same cheap labor which it has sought to tap. This global workforce will put an increasing upward pressure on labor costs.

In the developed world the advancement of automated production insures that socially necessary work is done with progressively less labor. Well-paid industrial jobs disappear to be replaced with badly paid service work, undermining the social contract of the post World War II era. Despite the assaults of neoliberalism, demands for health, education and guarantees of income continue unabated. Millions starve each year while the food that can feed them, produced in abundance, rots due to the unprofitability of feeding the "wretched of the earth."

The environmental crisis of global warming threatens to wreck civilization, the direct result of 200 years of economic activities driven by the quest for profit and the productivist imperative of limitless growth, not to mention the possibility of nuclear war in the wake of environmental meltdown. The handwriting is on the wall. By the middle of this century we will have a new world system, and we are faced with the choice of one which maintains the hierarchies and inequalities of capitalism in a new form, or one that is more democratic and egalitarian. For those of us who choose the later option the time has come to consider what the shape of this new world system will look like. The following measures will prove necessary in the decades to come.

By the middle of this century we will have a new world system.

Reduction of labor time

As advances in technology assure that socially necessary production will require less and less labor, it becomes imperative to spread the savings in labor time among workers, so that everyone can work, but work less. This is also necessary to break the hegemony of productivist mindset in which one serves an ever expanding production. Time is freed from being in service to endless productive growth and made available to autonomous activities rather than serving the megamachine. The progressive reduction of labor time must be put at the disposal of free individuals for their free development.

Guaranteed income

To further break the stranglehold that productivist values have on our lives it is necessary to break the connection between working and receiving an income. Less of our livelihood must come from individual wages. The right to a guaranteed income is an irreducible right which stems from the simple fact that we are human. No one's right to live should be dependent upon being a cog in an economic machine.

...it is necessary to break the connection between working and receiving an income.

Social ownership

In order to insure that the productive forces serve the public good rather than private profit they must be owned socially. Industries must cease to be tools of profit and be directed instead to the production of use-values. An essential component of the meaning of 21st century socialism is decommodification. This cannot happen unless the means of production, communication, transportation and consumption are owned in common to the greatest degree possible.

Workers' councils

Socialism is nothing if it does not mean the extension of democracy into the economic realm. This can only be achieved if the socially owned enterprises are managed as much as possible by the workers themselves. This is workers' democracy, organized from the bottom up and federated into larger units. As the basic class conflict in our age is between the order givers and the order takers we must place as much control as possible in the hands of those who do the work. The cause of technical self-management must be promoted as far as possible within context of socially determined production. We must democratize the workplace.

Consumers' councils

In order to insure the maximum possible satisfaction of consumer demand, both individually and collectively, we must replace the current system of consumption with a network of consumers' councils. This allows for the democratic management of consumer demand by the consumers themselves. We must break with the system in which the needs of consumers are subject to manipulation through advertising and marketing, constantly urging us to buy ever more. Consumers must freely express their demands, rather than having their needs being created for them in order to fuel the expansion of production. Consumers' councils are the key to this.

Participatory planning

The problem with markets is their inability to cope with externalities and social costs, their bias towards private versus social goods, and their inability to mobilize the tacit knowledge of those who are not possessors of capital. This necessitates some form of participatory planning and exchange of information, within a context of social ownership. Exchanged information must be revised in a series of iterations and summed up by "plan factories" to be voted on democratically by all concerned.


To deal with the environmental crisis it is necessary to break with the productivist paradigm in which material well-being is equated with an ever increasing production, stimulated by the pursuit of profit. To this end, and within the context of social ownership, there must be an end to planned obsolescence and the continual stimulation of demand though fads, fashions and stylistic changes. Socially owned production must set itself to the creation of consumer goods that are durable and easily repairable. We must exchange quantitative consumption for qualitative consumption.

Convivial restructuring

A further step towards addressing environmental problems is the importance of convivial (a society "in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers," according to Illich) restructuring. We must move away, though not completely, from large scale heteronomous production towards small-scale autonomous production. The nature of tools defines their social and ecological impact. Large-scale tools which are energy-intensive subvert democracy and ruin the environment. This implies, among other things, the development of renewable energy, the rejection of nuclear power, and the abandonment of the automobile, especially in urban areas. The spread of convivial restructuring opens up the possibility of a greater application of the principle of from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need.

World government

Capitalism is a world-system, and it has created an increasingly interconnected world. The problems it has created are global in scope. A de-facto system of institutions of global government already exists, such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and the World Bank among others. These organizations, unelected and unaccountable to popular control, help to manage the affairs of the world in the interests of Capital. This requires their replacement by institutions of global democracy. These should be organized on principles of federalism, in which smaller units combine to create larger organizations with limited power. This world government will pursue the tasks of global nuclear disarmament and peacekeeping, addressing the international effects of the environmental crisis, and the fostering of participatory socialism globally. Resistance to the concept of world government on the part of portions of the world-left is due only to attachment to the outdated features of 19th century leftist ideologies incapable of dealing with the real world problems of 21st century society.

To this end a world party of participatory and anti-productivist socialism is necessary. While direct action and extra-parliamentary activities are crucial, there can be no excuse for abandoning an important arena of struggle. Particularly in the developed world we find a long-term reduction of industrial work and an increase of non-unionized and unskilled service employment. Increasingly workers define themselves not by their jobs, but by their activities outside of work. A working class incapable of taking control of the means of production through purely extra-parliamentary means has been created. To overcome this fragmented situation of the workers, construct the hegemony of a different vision of society, and become the collective agent of action on a global scale, the world party of participatory and anti-productivist socialism is crucial.

R. Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[3 sep 10]

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