Capitalism, Socialism, and Community

I have not posted here for almost a year now.
The primary reason for this has been that I have been placing my primary
energies at the service of the Social Democrats USA of which I am a member. I
hope in future months to change this pattern starting with the following post.
Enclosed is an article called “Capitalism, Socialism and Community” which I
originally posted on Socialist Currents on October 7, 2011.


I want to add some additional comments to those I made at the last SD
discussion on the issue of socialism, capitalism, and human nature. I would
argue that while capitalism gives a full reign to the satisfaction of human
competitive instincts for wealth and power over others, it does a very poor job
of providing for the human instincts for community and solidarity.

In saying this of course I am aware that the word “community” is a very hard
word to define. Currently community is used to refer to abstractions as large
scale and impersonal as “national,”  “international,”  or “faith” communities.”
The word “community is is used to describe  to the communal relationships that
exist within small religious sects and the various village and clan communities
of traditional agrarian societies. So in order to define what I mean I will use
the classic definition of community given by the great German sociologist
Ferdinand Tonnies in his book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ( Community and
Society) written in 1887. Tonnies makes a distinction between “society”
(gesellschaft) which tends to be the impersonal, large scale world of politics,
economics, urban anonymity and atomized individualism and “community”
(gemeinschaft) which are the tightly net, small scale, face to face forms of
living which have characterized most early human societies. Early hunting
gathering bands, early horticultural villages, clan societies, and traditional
agrarian peasant villages were all forms of gemeinschaft. Latter forms of
community within  earlier forms of capitalism would be the working class, ethnic
neighborhoods of 19th  and  20th century America. Modern religious bodies such
as churches, synagogues, and mosques at least to a certain degree recreate ties
of community in the modern world with varying degrees of success. The wikipedia
article on “gemeinschaft” characterizes it thusly.

Gemeinschaft (often translated as community)
is an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as
much, if not more than, to their own self interest. Furthermore, individuals in
Gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores,
or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the
association, to each other and to the association at large; associations are
marked by “unity of will” (Tönnies, 22). Tönnies saw the family as the most
perfect expression of Gemeinschaft; however, he expected that Gemeinschaft could
be based on shared place and shared belief as well as kinship, and he included
globally dispersed religious communities as possible examples of Gemeinschaft.
….Gemeinschaften are broadly characterized by a moderate division
of labour
, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively
simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce
social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel
for society.”

Given that for tens of thousands of years humanity has lived in and in fact
evolved within a matrix of small scale closely netted communities of the
gemeinshaft type, I think that it can be said that life within such community is
hardwired into the human gene pool.

What is also clear is that modern capitalism has developed a society which is
increasingly unfriendly toward gemeinschaft forms of community. Modern society
is increasingly a society of the isolated individual in which the largest
community unit is the often dysfunctional nuclear family. Individuals of course
over the course of their lives do attempt to establish communal ties through
workplace friendships, clubs, and religious bodies, etc. It is clear however
that most of these relationships tend to be fleeting and ethereal by nature. And
certainly they are seldom characterized by any sense of common purpose or
collective meaning.

There are of course a multiple of reasons why capitalism has been disruptive
of traditional communities and unfriendly to the development of new forms of
community. There are three that are the most obvious. The first and most obvious
is that capitalism has disrupted the rural life of villages and small towns
increasingly by concentrating rural populations within huge cities.

This movement of people out of rural areas,  disrupting and destroying many
forms of community, has not gone unchallenged. In the United States in
particular and  other nations as well, tightly net ethnic, working class
neighborhoods developed within the large cities during the course of the 19th
and 20th centuries as a means of maintaining some stability and community in
people’s lives. Unfortunately within information age capitalism even these forms
of community have began to breakdown.

The second characteristic of modern capitalism that has been disruptive to
community has been the cultural production of an almost universal capitalist
ideology of extreme individualism / consumerism. The supreme goal of life in
this worldview is the enhancement of the individual and the meeting of his / her
consumption desires. The second goal is that individuals must increase their
economic status within the capitalist society. It follows that if these two
cultural drives are primary then any need for community must be relegated to
second or third place in people’s lives.

The third characteristic of modern capitalism which destroys community lays
within the structure of the capitalist work place itself. The workplace for the
vast majority of the world’s “employees” is simply a place in which one
exchanges ones labor for a weekly or biweekly paycheck. The capitalist workplace
is a place in which one must suppress ones real desires to serve the will of a
hierarchy of owners, stockholders, CEO’s etc. It is the realm of unfreedom and
servitude. It is not a place of freedom, autonomy, or creativity. Thus it is not
surprising that the capitalist workplace itself is not the center of community
in peoples lives.

It is of course easy to point out the evils of capitalism, it is more
difficult to show how a concrete socialist society might work and how some of
the negative consequences of capitalism can be overcome. Certainly the Communist
societies of the past were not successful and they did little to build viable
forms of human community. In fact by their actions they openly opposed such

The fact is that a real existing socialism on a national scale has never
developed. However through the examples of worker cooperative movements such as
that of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a realist vision of what a future
socialism might look like can be seen. A socialist society would be one in which
the dominant form of property would be cooperative and one in which workers
would simultaneously own and democratically control their places of labor and
economic enterprises.

That transformation of the relationship of workers toward capital, the means
of production, would also likely transform the life of workers toward the work
place, work itself, and toward other workers. The workplace would become
transformed from a place of unfreedom and repressive hierarchy to one of
freedom, egalitarian forms of ownership and autonomous self management.

Within a society of free workplaces, it is easy to envision that, second to
the family, the workplace itself would become the primary place of community in
people’s lives. Instead of community being lived out primarily within the
context of its earlier forms, it would develop primarily in relationship to the
self governing workplace. Other forms of community would follow. Thus the
residential pattern of cities would perhaps change  to meet a desire of workers
to live within closer proximity to their places of labor and each other. After
all the workplace would be much more central to life than it is in its currently
alienated form.

It is also possible that newer forms of democratic government perhaps of a
more directly democratic nature will develop. This could stimulate new forms of
face to face political organization which could form the basis of more communal
lifestyles. Religious bodies may change. Of course Jewish, Christian, Muslim,
and other religious faiths would continue. But society’s new forms of community
would perhaps inspire religious revival in which the major faiths would
reexamine older forms of religious community for example, that of Christian
monasticism, the Sufi brotherhoods, or the close forms of communal life of the
Jewish Hasidim. These earlier forms of religious community could be utilized by
the more creative elements of the traditional faiths in order to develop new
forms of common life. While  competitive capitalist society sees any kind of
real communal life as strange and bizarre, the newer forms of cooperative life
that would develop within the matrix of socialist society would perhaps
reinvigorate the life of religious faiths.

OK, of course socialism is not just around the corner. I do not delude myself
that it is. Of course much of this writing has been a exercise in “wishful”
thinking. However much of what we have on our side is “hopeful or wishful”
thinking. The endless protests of the left, its bottomless hatred of the United
States, its dogged obsession with direct action or on the “realism” of single
issue politics will at its best produce results that hopefully may roll back
some of the attacks of the tea party right. It seems to me that if we are to get
any where we have to go back to radical thinking regarding basic human realities
such as community, power, freedom, and justice. That is what I hope I have done
in this article. If we don’t do this we will be simply running a race on a
treadmill, a race that we can not win.



An Alternative Socialism

lady-justiceWhile the headline in a national news weekly recently started with an article entitled “We Are All Socialists Now,” the reality is obviously quite different. From all appearances Capitalism has won the ideological war against socialism which began when socialism took the world stage during the first half of the 19th century. Capitalism of some sort seems to most people particularly within the United States to be the natural destiny of humanity. However while capitalism won the war against the brutal perversion of socialism called communism and while the great social democratic parties of Europe seem to have given up on any socialist vision greater than that of a mixed social democratic economy, the instinct for social justice, human equality, community, and freedom that socialism historically has tried to realize has not died. The sparks of socialism still survive within  small groups and  within individuals in the United States and many other parts of the world. As the current world recession, energy, ecological and global warming crisis show; world capitalism’s future is not assured. Socialism could ultimately win the last war.
However a precondition for that victory must be a rethinking of the socialist vision. Most Americans and in fact most of the world’s people still imagine that socialism is primarily about the power of the state being utilized to dominate or control the economic direction of societies. This certainly has been the dominant conception of the Marxian and Fabian forms of socialism. Both European Social Democracy and Soviet Communism envisioned future socialist societies as being  based on statist models of  governmental ownership and control of all of the economic activities of society. Little if any role existed in either model for private enterprises or for companies which were directly owned and managed by workers themselves. The primary difference between these two was that Communism supported the totalitarian communist state and Social Democracy supported the western liberal democratic state. These are important differences.
However  historically other powerful minority forms of socialism  have existed which envisioned  alternative non statist models of a socialist future.   The socialist movement of  19th century France was dominated by “associational socialism” which foresaw a future socialist society in which workers themselves through their labor associations would ultimately take control of society. The economy of this future socialist society would be dominated by  worker owned and managed cooperatives / companies. Latter in the late 1800s and early 20th century this associative or cooperative socialism transformed into revolutionary anarcho syndicalism.  Anarcho syndicalism still  held the same basic socialist vision of a free society directly controlled by workers themselves however.   Spain and Italy were also dominated by anarchist ideals which also rejected the vision  of socialism  in which the state / government would hold absolute power over the economic institutions of society. In stead the socialism of these nations advocated a socialism of free producers or associations as did the French.
In the United States the socialist movement dominated by the Socialist Party of America reached its high point of influence in the early decades of the 20th century. Early American socialism seemed to take an intermediate position  between the purely statist concept of socialism and the more syndicalist forms of socialism. Out side of the American socialist movement during the 19th century  at least two movements one dominated primarily by American farmers and the other dominated primarily by American workers  developed ideas similar to that of Southern European socialism. These were the Knights of Labor one of the first and largest national labor unions that developed during the 19th century  and the other being People’s Party the agrarian party of reform which represented the interest of the impoverished  farmers of the American South and West. Both of these movements before they collapsed in the 1890s held a strong belief in economic cooperatives as the solution to the  “wage slavery”  of workers and the  poverty of indebted small farmers. Both typified the desire of workers and farmers for an economic system that  would incorporate the values of economic democracy and worker self management.
In France the anarcho syndicalist movement reached its height during the first decade of the 20th century and then disintegrated. The anarchists of Italy  fell together with the socialists before Mussolini’s fascists in the  1920s. The powerful anarcho syndicalist Spanish labor unions and anarchist dominated villages fell before General Franco’s fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War. From  that point in history it appeared that the alternative socialist tradition had been cast into the dust bin of history.
  However the vision of a worker self managed society or of economic democracy while it  ceased to be embeded in powerful  political movements continued in another form. Large numbers of workers and reformers beginning  in the 1800’s while avoiding politics and revolutionary rhetoric  worked hard to develop various  forms of  worker owned and managed businesses / cooperatives which have been  economically successful though out the world. These businesses if they were small often  are operated on principles of direct democracy by their worker owners. If large they are commonly governed  by workers councils elected by worker owners.  In general the worker councils of large cooperatives often having hundreds of workers  will hire a team of professional managers which instead of being to accountable to stockholders are ultimately responsible to  the worker owners of the company.
Today thousands worker owned cooperatives through out the world successfully compete for markets and customers. These cooperatives which are of many kinds agricultural, consumer, producer, service, etc have not become the dominant economic sector in the modern world. However many have become very successful in competing in the hostile environment of capitalism, Some  examples are the strong worker cooperative movement in the Emilia Romagna area of Northeast Italy. Of the 7500 cooperatives in this area over two thirds are worker owned. Over 10% of the work force in the region is employed by cooperatives. In Switzerland two of the largest supermarket chains Migros and Coop are in cooperative form. In Japan over 14 million citizens are members of the consumer cooperative movement.
However  the most successful example of worker owned cooperative success is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation  head quartered in the town of Mondragon Spain. In 1956  five workers who had been trained at a technical school founded  by the Roman Catholic priest Don Jose Maria Aristmendi developed the first worker owed cooperative ULGOR to produce kerosene stoves. The company initially employed 24  worker owners. Now the world wide Mondragon Cooperative Corporation employs over 85,000 workers in various industries  in nations such as Brazil and China through out the world. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation includes a united system of  self managing banks, insurance companies , a university and many other economic enterprises. Currently the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is the 7th largest corporation in Spain. The example of the Mondragon and other successful examples of worker ownership and self management give the lie to the commonly held belief that workers simply do not have the ability to manage their own workplaces and companies. They give evidence that a different form of civilization is possible.
As this brief historical summery shows the statist form of socialism which is in fact what most Americans think of when they think of socialism has never been the only form of socialism. Another alternative form of the socialist vision has also existed.  I would argue that it is this alternative vision of socialism with which the future of the socialist movement lies. This is not to suggest that the anarchists, the syndicalists etc had all the right ideas. The political strategies developed by  these movements were extremely  flawed thus causing their  ultimate dismiss. Social Democracy in the form of the German Social Democratic Party, the France Socialist Party and the British Labor party were strategically much wiser in their overall championship of reforms which would help workers immediately. However I believe that the basic motivational vision of socialism lies in its vision of a free and just society in which workers themselves own the means of production. This is the liberatory vision of the alternative socialism in which the future lies.
Glenn King