Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Failures and Successes of Alternatives to Capitalism

     First an apology, to readers who may or may not exist. The lateness of this post is unseemly. Letting other concerns interfere with my writing has become a redundant theme of late. But lamenting one's follies rarely amends them. Onward!

     The volumes that can be written about the above titled subject are myriad. Indeed, the entire late 19th to 20th centuries can be categorized as either an attempt to implement an alternative to Capitalism, or an attempt to push back the forces attempting such an implementation. Because there is so much information to go through, I am going to cover a few of the most notable examples of such attempts, in chronological order.

     Universally considered to be the grandfather of all attempts at creating an alternative society to that of capitalism, the Paris Commune remains an inspiration to the majority of the radical leftist currents today.
    The Commune was the result of conflict between France and the Prussian Empire that ended with military defeat for France. In 1871, in part of an armistice with the Prussian State, German forces were allowed to ceremoniously occupy Paris for a brief period of time, after what had been a four month siege. Combined with the economic issues created by the siege, and a deeply widened gap between those with affluence and those without, the symbolic gesture sparked discontent amongst Parisian workers and the armed cadres of citizens that made up the National Guard. Fearing that the monarchy might be re-established by the National Assembly (which contained a heavy royalist faction) in the resulting chaos of military defeat, the workers and guardsmen of Paris granted greater authority to the Central Committee of the National Guard. After French loyalist soldiers were dispatched to take armaments away from the Parisians, it became a full blown rebellion, and the Central Committee called for democratic elections for a Commune.
     From the start it was clear that the type of organization and government in the Commune would be quite different than the semi-democratic Republican efforts of organizing the State in the past. For one, the elected officials were not representatives as such, but instead delegates, subject to immediate recall by their constituents at any time those constituents saw fit. The wages of such delegates were reduced to that of the wage of an unskilled worker. Universal Suffrage was enacted. The standing army was also abolished, to be replaced with citizen Militia, made up of Parisian workers. Karl Marx wrote concerning such organization of the new Commune government, that "The Commune made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions, cheap government, a reality, destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the permanent army and the State bureaucracy."  In one fell swoop, a new form of government was born, one that was far more participatory than those that had came before. Democracy was for the first time truly living up to it's promise. 
    The Commune, in it's short lived existence, did a masterful job of taking care of it's two million Parisian inhabitants. Most services remained decentralized and under worker's control. Each of these public services and works cooperated fully with the Commune, but had autonomy to carry out democratically agreed upon decisions on how to complete tasks, and carry out their independent roles. Amongst the decisions decided upon by the Commune were the following.
  • the separation of church and state;
  • the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which, payment had been suspended);
  • the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries;
  • the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service;
  • the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workmen's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege; the Commune was concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war;
  • the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and the abolition of interest on the debts; and
  • the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner; the Commune, nonetheless, recognized the previous owner's right to compensation.
     The Commune was the first attempt at something truly new. It's chief failure lie not in it's attempts to organize participatory democracy, or it's basic governmental structure, but it's failure to appreciate it's fragile position in lieu of it's enemies desire to crush it. Combined with too loose of an organization structure for the militias tasked with defending the city, missed opportunities to stop it's enemies from massing to destroy the Commune, doomed it to failure.
    Later in the same year of it's creation, the Commune was attacked by a military force from Versailles. An attack that could have been prevented if the Communards had taken up arms to crush the Versailles' forces before they had had significant time to organize. As it was, the Versailliese troops slaughtered over fifty thousand Communards, with over twenty thousand of those being executions, after combat had ceased.The Paris Commune was effectively destroyed, and Paris would experience another five years of martial law.

2) The Russian Revolution of    1917
     Probably the most well known and most maligned attempt at building an alternative society to capitalism, the Russian Revolution was a mass uprising in the latter half of the First World War. Proceeded by a revolution in 1905 that met with failure, the revolution of 1917 differed in character mostly due to a widespread view of the Tzarist monarchy being illegitimate, one that had even spread to the military, who after three years of  devastating war, had come to similar conclusions as the workers in the cities. Due to the incredible strain the war had placed upon the Russian economy, shortages of basic provisions, and rampant inflation were commonplace. While the privileged dined and enjoyed themselves in relative comfort, the working classes toiled to try to survive. Strikes became common through the years of 1915-1917, culminating in intense strikes in Petrograd starting in February into the month of March. By March 10th it had become a general strike, with most places of business closed, while workers, many of whom were women, took to the streets to issue demands for a more equitable arrangement in society. To quell the demonstrations, the Tzar ordered the army to fire upon the crowds. This led to widespread mutiny, as many soldiers would refuse to fire into crowds that  included so many women, children and individuals they considered to be familial. With the spread of mutiny, all Tzarist authority vanished. The State Duma as a last act issued a proclamation for the formation of a provisional government, while the working class demonstrators formed a Soviet (Working Council) in Petrograd to represent the wishes and ideas of the soldiers and workers of the city. By March 15th the Tzar abdicated the throne, and was placed under house arrest by the provisional government.
     Following these events was a period of uneasiness between the provisional government and the various Soviets in various cities, which had very quickly developed into a nationwide movement with a national leadership. (The All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets) A dual power existed. On one side was an institutionalized government that carried over many of the old officials who had existed under Tzarism, and on the other a democratic and participatory organ of the Soviet, which increasingly was reflecting a growing discontent with how the revolution had turned out. To many of the workers and soldiers who were directly responsible for the revolution's success, the feeling was one of disillusionment at not receiving the fruits of their labor. No serious attempts at reform had been made, and the unpopular war with Germany, was going on as it had before, with no sign of political will in the provisional government for it's abatement. In April, Lenin arrived in Petrograd. Seeing the situation, and receiving much support from the soldiers and workers there, he called for the maxim "All power to the Soviets!" Asking the Soviet council to take political power into it's own hands. In June, after a disastrous attack on the German lines, the provisional government ordered additional troops to the front lines, reneging on a former promise not to do so. The sailors and soldiers, along with Petrograd workers, took to the streets in violent protest, calling for "all power to the Soviets!" in echo of Lenin's proclamation. When asked to lead the sudden uprising, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership were completely unprepared to do so. They had not thought so far ahead in their plans, so the uprising was ultimately very short lived. However, as the situation between the Soviets and the Provisional Government worsened, and more political power was transferred to the Soviets, it began to create a situation in which Lenin was sure the Soviet councils could indeed wrest power away from the former Tzarist cabinet members of the Provisional Government. By September, Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. By October, the Bolshevik Central Committee drafted a resolution, calling for the dissolution of the Provisional Government in favor of the Petrograd Soviet. The resolution was passed 10–2. Thus began the October Revolution.
    On 7 November 1917, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin led his party in a revolt against the now largely ineffective Provisional Government. All power was transferred to the regional soviets. Almost immediately, monarchist and liberal forces loosely organized to fight back and restore the provisional government. These forces were aided by the capitalist nations of Great Britain, France, USA and Japan, who did not want to see Russia exit the war against Germany, and who were afraid of the implications of socialist revolution in their own nations. Also of great significance was the resolution of the new Bolshevik government to default on the debt accumulated by Tzar Nicholas.These nations even went as far as to land troops on Russian soil, the United States landing 5,000 troops at Arkhangelsk, while 8,000 soldiers were landed in Vladivostok, and the Japanese sending over 70,000 troops in an attempt to create a buffer state in Siberia. 40,000 British soldiers were landed in the same area near Vladivostok. 12,000 French were involved around the Odessa region, and 5,000 Canadians also invaded. On top of direct intervention, these Capitalist powers sent arms and food to the largely Monarchistic White Army, and attempted to starve out the Russian people by blockading all ports into Russia. What followed was a nastily brutish civil war in which an estimated total number of men killed in action in Civil War and Polish-Soviet war was about 300,000 (125,000 in the Red Army, 175,500 White armies and Poles) and total number of military personnel died from disease (on both sides) was about 450,000. In addition, an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine, by the White Army. Worse was the pandemic disease and famine in the civilian population caused by the blockades and constant war against the fledgling worker's state. Over 3 million died of Typhus alone in 1920. Millions more were also killed by the effects of widespread starvation.
     The civil war ultimately had permanent scarring effects for the Soviet Union. Chief amongst these was gradual tightening and restriction of political freedom within the confines of it's borders, due to very justified fears that the Capitalist powers would attempt to roll back the revolution and re institute a monarchy with a puppet parliament. These fears led to the dissolution of the Soviets as a real political force in government, as a far more centralized party apparatus took over the running of the country. This allowed for more direct decision making, needed during a time of great crises. Trade Unions were suppressed due to fears that labor difficulties would end up destroying the ability of the Red Army to defend the revolution against foreign and White aggression. In the end, the revolution did not live up to it's democratic promise. Whereas the Paris Commune had been destroyed through lack of vigilance against counter-revolutionary aggression, this revolution seemed to have fallen in the opposite trap. The soviet government never really recovered from this ordeal. The State as an institution never really transferred power back into a form of participatory democracy needed to realize the fruits of socialism. In the end, elite non democratic power structures born out of the ashes of this civil war and the fortresses of power Stalin himself had created, dissolved the Soviet Union, against the will of the people who had voted in referendum to keep the Soviet Union alive. The lessons to learn here are just as important as those in the Paris Commune. One must be vigilant against both.

Here ends this section of this article. In my next installment I will delve into the German revolution of 1918 and the Spanish Civil War.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Misconceptions, Misconstructions, Errors, and Faults.

     As a first article on the ideas of a new revolutionary society, I thought it fitting to analyze criticisms of past efforts in this regard. To challenge some basic preconceptions that our current capitalist society has fostered in our minds regarding any alternative to it's dominance. To criticize past efforts in creating more equatable societies, where criticism is needed, and more importantly, where lessons need to be learned. In short, this first article will not be dealing with current events as much as current ideological paradigms, concerning Socialism, Anarchism, and Communism, and our mental relationship to said paradigms.

     One basic preconception that appears to run rampant in the Western Capitalist world, is the idea of "Utopian Idealism", being a byword for any alternative society to the current entrenched Capitalist world-view. You, the reader, may have heard some of this phraseology yourselves. The common argument runs something like this:
     "On paper,* -insert alternative to capitalism- sounds great! But, in reality, "human nature" precludes us from exploring such a society in any serious manner. Quite frankly, human beings are too greedy, and only work to profit themselves or their immediate family unit. There are no incentives for people to work demanding jobs in a -insert alternative to capitalism- society."
*(This phrase.. "on paper" is an important part of de-legitimizing the ideology in question. It creates the idea of a concept devoid of reality outside the parameters of putting pen to paper)

This argument, though common, is filled with logical fallacies and gaping holes in it's theoretical structure. It is based off a number of mistaken preconceptions, which have been drilled into our collective consciousness through our popular culture, media institutions, and our severely propagandized education system.
   The entire foundation of the argument is built off the conception of an idea called human nature. This conception erroneously places all human behavior into a small preset area of limitation. That humans only respond to stimulus in this "way", or that particular "form". This conception may make room for a small degree of aberration on the part of the individual, but as a whole, humankind is placed in a box, so to speak, where it's behaviorisms and motivations are defined quite rigidly. (In this case, greed, and the profit motive.) 
    This foundation, is logically, and in it's essence, unsound. To presuppose that human behavior only fits into a rigid set of parameters, defined by the current status quo's ideology, is to ignore all historical evidence of former societies, and paradigms, that our current epoch grew out of.
      It is to ignore the fact that human behavior is far more complex than a few simple surface motivations. It is to ignore the fact, that historically, different societies create different societal expectations for their citizens. That these social motivators have differed greatly epoch to epoch and society to society, and mostly reflect the current beliefs and structure of the ruling class of each, respectively.  It is quite frankly, to ignore all of human history, and instead focus only on our current ideology and time-frame. There is no evidence to back up the summation that humans have anything resembling a concrete "nature". Indeed quite the opposite is true when you look at the historical record. Amazing as it is, this foundation, whilst trying to set up the premise that an "alternative" society is idealistic in scope, creates it's own misguided idealism. How nice to be able to lump all of human history into the current epoch! One must simply adopt a purely Eurocentric view, and ignore countless co-operative societies ranging from pre-historic tribal communities to 1800's Native American communities, like that of the Iroquois.
     The second half of the argument deals with the concept of "incentive based work". To clarify, the above argument does not formulate a broad conception of what the word "incentive", entails.  It's scope is narrow. Specifically, it is referring to monetary compensation.  Again we are dealing with the erroneous supposition that humans are purely motivated by material gain.  A classic example offered by many regarding material gain incentives, is that of the noble practitioner of medicine. The Doctor. The argument is as follows: If all people are paid in monetary rewards that create an equilibrium of wages, with no particular person being paid more than another, what is the possible incentive for a person to join a career that is more "challenging", such as a becoming a neurosurgeon? Also, what is the incentive for any particular worker to be more productive than his/her neighbor?
     First, I would like to deal with the "Doctor" element of the argument, as it provides a perfect opportunity to show that indeed the exact opposite of what the question presupposes to be true is true, namely that individuals will not join "challenging" careers for anything other than material gain. One must only look to two recent "alternative" societies to see that such fears of a vast shortage of "skilled labor" in these areas, are unfounded. The first is the former Soviet Union.  In 1980 for example, the number of doctors per 100,000 citizens was 429. The same number in the US was 225. Both nations had comparable population sizes, with a slightly larger population in the Soviet Union, at 280 million citizens, and 241 million, respectively. For further information, see  .    So the number of physicians in the Soviet Union, which practiced egalitarian wage distribution, not only wasn't in crises mode, but was TWICE as high as in the United States, where doctors received much higher rates of pay! Cuba is a second example. Currently the number of doctors per 100,000 citizens is 530. That ranks Cuba third in the world in number of physicians per capita. Both of these nations, at their respective time frames had comparable or healthier levels on health indicators, such as infant mortality, life expectancy, and quality of life, as the United States. Cuba does it with one of the lowest costs for health care in the world. It is quite clear that material gain alone is not the only factor when people decide to enter such careers. So why the huge discrepancy in pay and why the massive shortage of doctors in the United States, when compared with these nations? Frankly, it's rather simple. The United States has some of the highest tuition fees for medical students in the world. This ensures that only the richest of citizens can enter schooling for such a profession. This creates a natural shortage of doctors, which increases the cost of health care, combined with large loans hanging over the heads of practitioners, you can see why American doctors are payed so highly.

     So our preconceived ideas about the equation of doctor to pay is quite an artificial situation, created by the social decisions of institutions.  It does not automatically follow that skilled labor needs to equal high pay. People become doctors, astronauts, marine biologists, astrophysicists, musicians, authors, and philosophers for a number of reasons, pay usually the least important of factors. Mostly individuals follow a career, because they are PASSIONATE about their work.
     The second part of the question has many of the logical problems of the first. Instead of rehashing the subject again, I offer a counter question. If productivity is purely decided by material incentives, then why does Japan have one of the highest productivity rates in the world? Japan does not use pay differentials based on productivity of the individual worker. Instead they use a pay scale graded by how many years of service rendered. This does not stop junior members of corporations from being highly productive. Obviously societal expectations have just as much to do with productivity as so called "material incentives".  Still not convinced? Still think that the profit motive is the chief creator of innovation and productivity? Compare the non profit Linux OS to the very much for profit Microsoft Windows. At the very least one must concede that similar results can be obtained without the profit motive involved in the equation.

    For today I will end here. In a few days we will begin part two of this article, dealing with the failings and successes of former and current alternatives to Capitalism.