New Book on the Right to the City

I just received a copy of a new collection of essays on the right to the city (by Francesca Iovino, Lefebvre, Harvey, me, Kolektyw Syrena, Marco Deseriis, and Jodi Dean).  The book is in simultaneous Italian and English. It was organized and published by a group in Italy to go with a gathering called Babel2, an independent festival of critical housing, which took place in Forteprenestino, a squatted social center in Rome that has been occupied and self-managed since 1986.  The lead on the book was Valerio Bindi, and it is under a creative commons license, so if you are interested you should contact him and see if there are copies available.


Market Democracy

A contemporary drawing of Karl Marx as a young...

Image via Wikipedia

A new post at ABC Democracy offers excerpts from a new book called Free Market Fairness.  It is a bit stomach-churning every time a free-marketeer tries to capture the banner of democracy, especially when it is a scholar who has thought about things a bit.  Here is part of the excerpt:

In this book, I introduce a liberal research program that I call market democracy. Market democracy is a deliberative form of liberalism that is sensitive to the moral insights of libertarianism. Market democracy combines the four ideas I just mentioned: (1) capitalistic economic freedoms as vital aspects of liberty, (2) society as a spontaneous order, (3) just and legitimate political institutions as acceptable to all who make their lives among them, (4) social justice as the ultimate standard of political evaluation. Here is a simple way to begin thinking about this view: market democracy affirms capitalistic economic liberties as first-order requirements of social justice.

The author’s claim that “capitalistic economic freedoms” are “vital aspects of liberty” and “first-order requirements of social justice” is just absurd.  But I was struck more by his insistence on “society as a spontaneous order.”  This resonates pretty clearly with the forms of acentered, non-hierarchical, leaderless, and emergent social organization that I think are an important element of what democracy means.  This resonance has been noticed many times before, and it is the basis of a supposed critique often raised by more party/vanguard-inclined leftists: such “anarchist” or “libertarian” values are right in line with liberal capitalism.  But I am not sure this critique concerns me as much as they think it should.  Because democracy as I understand it can in no way accommodate capitalist economic relations.  Marx made clear in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts that capitalism involves stark forms of alienation (worker-labor, worker-product, worker-worker, etc.) and exploitation (rooted in that alienation), and these are inimical to democracy’s insistence that people should manage for themselves the conditions of their own existence.  Put another way, Marx’s free activity beyond capitalism is a necessary part of democratic life.  So instead of seeing the Hayekians’ fondness for emergent/spontaneous organization as impugning my fondness for it, I take it instead as a deep contradiction at the heart of their thought.  It might be that they too want democracy—real democracy.  It might be that their praise for democracy is not merely a cynical attempt prop up capitalism’s legitimacy but flows instead from a sincere desire for real freedom, autonomy, and communal life, all of which could only exist in a world beyond capitalism.  I think there is hope for them yet.

Joel Beinin on Egypt

I just saw Joel Beinin give a talk here at the University of Washington on the Egyptian uprising.  One of his main points was that the events of 2011 did not come out of nowhere, but rather were heir to a long series of popular struggles in Egypt.  While Beinin acknowledged the importance of the middle classes (liberals, professionals, intellectuals, etc.), students, and tech-savvy young people, he was keen to highlight the importance of workers’ struggles.  He argued that over the last twenty years there have been thousands of strikes and other actions by Egyptian workers, most of which were not organized (and often even opposed) by the official unions and their leadership.  The strikes were typically wildcat strikes, spontaneous and organized by a grassroots leadership (often led by an elected, ad hoc strike committee).  Beinin was good in that while he wanted to emphasize workers’ activism, he didn’t make the tired old-Left argument that “only the working class” can be the agent of history, that the Arab spring is reducible to workers’ struggles against neoliberalism, and that those workers’ must organize into a party to seize the state.  However, he also didn’t seem to see much potential in Egypt for such grassroots worker activism in the long term, since, he said, each action was highly localized and unable to see beyond the walls of its own factory.  I am not quite sure his pessimism is warranted, given the remarkable energy and courage the workers showed.  In any case, there seem to be multiple resonances with the long history of self-generated and -managed workers’ struggles (e.g. Spain, Italy, Russia, Germany, Poland, Hungary…), struggles that  concerned themselves not only with wages and working conditions, but also with the development of democracy: they insisted on workers’ capacity to control and manage economic production for themselves, without managers and without capitalists.  At the very least, I think the workers’ struggle is an element of the Egyptian uprising that should get more attention than it has.

I have an audio recording of the talk.  If you are interested email me and I can send it on.

Autogestion, autonomy, and democracy

I am enjoying Ours to Master and to Own, which is a collection of many different essays on worker’s control throughout history.  The central tension in the book is that between more centralized, heteronomous, hierarchical, top-down forms of workers’ organization (unions, parties) and more decentralized, autonomous, horizontal, grassroots forms (here typified by the workers’ council).  That tension of course implicates the state, and it is part of the ongoing debate about what role the state should play in any attempt to radically transform society.  The book offers a wealth of  empirical case studies (Russia, Germany, and Italy after WWI; Spain in the 30s; Yugoslavia in the 60s; Italy in the 70s; Argentina in 2001; Portugal; Indonesia; Poland; Algeria…), and despite that scope the quality of the work is pretty consistently high.

In several places the discussion recalls Marx’s analysis in “On the Jewish Question,” in which he argues that resisting capitalism requires resisting the bourgeois state and its division of society into a political/state sphere and a social/economic sphere.  We accept that division when we accept the division of labor between a workers’ party that operates in the state sphere and a union that operates in the economic sphere, neither one of which aims at transforming the structures in which they exist.  It is always good to be reminded of the importance of the early Marx, and OJQ in particular.

While this volume limits itself to class politics and capitalism, there is no reason it cannot instructive for those of us who are interested in how we might move beyond heteronomy more generally: not just capitalism but all forms of life in which people give up control of their own affairs to an entity beyond and above themselves.  Any struggle for democracy–which is to say the ongoing struggle to increasingly manage our affairs for ourselves–has a lot to learn from the countless examples throughout history and throughout the world of workers’ movements trying heroically to do just that.