Battle for the Heart of the Occupy Movement


by Kevin Carson
http://c4ss.org/?p=8737

Center for a Stateless Society Media Coordinator Tom Knapp, summarizing his experience with the Occupy St. Louis movement, reported a movement “with an ideological center of gravity somewhere in the neighborhood of ‘mild reform Democrat.’” Most of the people there, apparently, were basically Coffee Party people with better signs and slogans.

They’re probably not representative of the nationwide Occupy Together movement — the vibe coming from Occupy Wall Street, at least, is a lot more like Seattle. But there really is a contradiction in the movement between those who see it as part of a larger process of creating a new kind of society, and those who see it primarily as a source of pressure on the state to revive the New Deal or Social Democratic model.

Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer recently described the agenda — “Jobs for All” — unanimously approved by the OWS Demands Working Group (LBO News, October 20). “The anarchists are not happy about this,” he writes, “and are trying to block its adoption by the General Assembly.”

Henwood makes no bones about his support for the agenda, encouraging readers who agree with him to make their support felt. As for those who don’t like it, “please reflect on the size of the potential constituency for this agenda compared with that for your own.”

Among the expedients for “creating jobs” is a massive project to “rebuild infrastructure” — an approach well-loved by the Michael Moore “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, but fundamentally antagonistic to the portion of the movement with a more or less anarchistic vision of a post-corporate alternative economy.

The “Jobs for All” agenda is essentially a return to a greenwashed version of the centralized corporate-state Consensus Capitalism of the mid-20th century. That model relied on massive waste and capital investment boondoggles by the state to guarantee full utilization of capacity and full employment — the very pathologies of corporate capitalism that the folks at Monthly Review have been pointing to for years. Just leave the centralized, capital-intensive, bureaucratic structure of Galbraithian capitalism intact, and then let the state build a new (but greenwashed!) Interstate Highway System every ten years to keep it running at capacity. Then everybody can work forty hours a week at a “job” doing things at least half of which are the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again, in an economy organized by Rube Goldberg. It’s the world depicted in the movie “Brazil.”

In other words, we’ve got a bunch of “Leftists” who are nostalgic for retro capitalism.

It was subsidized infrastructure, as much as anything — starting with the railroad land grants of the 19th century — that was responsible for the pathological model of 20th century corporate capitalism: A system based on overaccumulation, capital intensiveness and high overhead, with the imperative of using subsidized waste, planned obsolescence and mass consumption to fully utilize capacity and keep the wheels turning. The mass production model itself — a model enabled by an activist state in alliance with big business — was inseparable from all the dysfunctional aspects of postwar corporate capitalism.

Those “roads and bridges?” The Interstate — created under the supervision of that great “progressive” Charlie Wilson, who said what’s good for GM is good for America — gave us suburban sprawl and enabled Wal-Mart’s big box/warehouses on wheels model to destroy Main Street.

There’s simply no way, in an economy with efficiently organized production, to employ 150 million people for 40 hours a week. Far better would be to eliminate all the subsidized waste, relocalize manufacturing with lean supply and distribution chains, adopt less capital-intensive and more flexible manufacturing processes, and adopt product designs for modularity, durability and ease of repair. The next steps would be to:

1) Eliminate the artificial property rights that are sources of rents, and allow market competition to flush out the embedded rents in the prices of goods and services, so that all the cost savings are transferred to the consumer;

2) Eliminate barriers to the shift of production from wage labor to the informal/household sector and to self-employment, wherever possible (and technological change is making it more efficient in a radically expanding portion of total production); and

3) Allow whatever wage labor remains to be evenly distributed through a shorter work week and job-sharing.

There’s a fundamental divide between those who want the state to prop up Corporate America in the interest of creating “jobs,” and those who want to kill off the whole job culture, the economic model by which we meet our needs through working at jobs provided by giant, hierarchical institutions.

In my opinion there’s no contest between them. As they said in the French General Strike forty years ago: “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.”

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13 responses to “Battle for the Heart of the Occupy Movement

  1. The key problem of 20th century corporate socialism is that the corporations involved are up states arse. That is one issue.

    However, mass consumption =having a decent life as opposed to a dirt-poor one. We would have a far more prosperous life without the scum of the state. Other types of business enterprises will appear and evolve under conditions of freedom. I don’t see much freedom in your plans however.

    I’ll say it again in case there is any doubt–I don’t know what you C4SS types are aiming for but I, and I hope most other Libertarians, want a more prosperous life for everybody on this planet. Your cottage industry fantasies (even with 3d printers–still a long way from being a mature and reliable technology) point us back to the dark. It was Mao’s bucolic fantasies that made the “Great Leap Forward” a leap into oblivion for so many millions of unfortunate Chinese.

  2. Mr Ecks above describes the problem with Carsonism. It is simply another conservative rejection of mass production/consumption/what have you, clearly in the same school of “Progressive Era” fantasies of the simple life and anti-capitalism.

    Now I know it’s likely that Thomas Knapp will say, oh no, that isn’t the case at all, but all of Carson’s writing, and the output of the C4SS in general, is simply predicated on a (intense) dislike of “big” business. It is localist/protectionist; hence the repeated blame put on the road system for allowing goods from far away to compete with locally produced goods. Sure, if there were no transport, we’d all have to buy the local baker’s bread. That might be good for the local baker, but not for the bread consumers denied cheaper bread from the next town or state.

    All bad political ideologies seem to have in common the same problem identified and elucidated so clearly by Bastiat two centuries ago; a preference for the producer interest. So Wal-Mart is hated for killing the businesses on Main Street. But WalMart didn’t kill them. The consumers preferring Wal-Mart killed them. The tension between the producer and consumer interest is always central to political economy. Failure to identify, as Bastiat did, that preferring the producer interest is a recipe for economic disaster leads to this common pool of similar, bad, economic ideals.

    Carson wants to kill of the “job” culture. Great, so do I. Eventually. Maybe. Some day. When we don’t actually need workers and can have labour performed by a class of android slaves, or something. In the meanwhile, businesses will need to hire labour. We should be shifting to a form of universal self employment, in my opinion, but you can’t stop people working for each other without shredding the economy, because we are all, in the end, working for other people. That’s how the economy works.

    In the simplest possible terms, prosperity is created by forcing down the labour cost per unit of production. The essential inverse consequence of this is that more is produced per labour unit. That is all that matters. Carson et al would seek to raise the unit labour cost, believing as he does in a labour theory of value. The inevitable consequence, from the simple arithmetic of the situation, is a general impoverishment.

  3. Mr. Ecks,

    You write: “I don’t know what you C4SS types are aiming for”

    Free markets.

    Glad to be of help.

  4. Thomas,

    The problem there is that it’s a bit like “freedom”. Everyone says they want that. It’s what they mean by “freedom” that tends to matter. The problem as I see it with Kevin is that he’s not just in favour of free markets as such, but believes in a very specific type of market that he takes great pains to try and prove will happen without State intervention. In particular, one without big businesses in it, and with local manufacture of suspicously fungible products. It is the same kind of thinking as e.g. a communist saying, “without the bourgeoisie, the workers will form themselves into cooperatives with workers councils, and there will be no price system”. So there is the issue of whether that is desirable, and also the issue of whether it will actually occur.

    So I reiterate; the C4SS (and particuarly Carson in this instance) aren’t just saying, “let’s stop State intervention”. We all want that. Carson is then saying, “and this is the shape of the market that will occur”. You can speculate on that, but you cannot know. He really is going a stage further, or several stages further, and declaring that this localist anti-capitalist thing is what he’s convinced is the shape of a free market. So that is what distinguishes him and invites criticism.

    And it seems that Carson gets to this sort of “natural” free market by simply declaring that everything that might encourage any other type of market is not natural and must be done away with. Land ownership, property rights, roads. Indeed, if you cut off every village and take away the farmers’ ownership of their land, you probably will end up with something like Carsonism. You’ll also end up with everyone dirt poor. Quite where everyone in this village is going to get computers, “CNC machines” and 3D printers when there’s no “big business” to manufacture them is something we can only speculate on.

  5. IanB,

    I’m not in the business of defending “Carsonism,” for the simple reason that “Carsonism” and “the output of the C4SS in general” are not the same thing. A Venn diagram of the relationship between the two would show them as two circles with shared territory.

    To be specific, Carson (a mutualist steeped in the work of e.g. Tucker) has written 302 articles for C4SS. I’ve written 264 (I’m a recovering Objectivist since discovering Austrian economics). David D’Amato (a hardcore Rothbardian) has written 159. It’s fair to say that “Carsonism” is a major component of “the output of C4SS in general,” but it’s nothing like the whole thing.

    So, while you may or may not have a point when you claim that “Carsonism” is “simply predicated on a (intense) dislike of ‘big’ business,” making that point does not reach the issue of whether that point is relevant to “the output of C4SS in general.”

    As for myself, I don’t like or dislike “big business” per se. I dislike bigness that is a function of, and only to the extent that it is a function of, economic distortion via state privilege; and it appears to me that this is true of most actually existing “big business.”

    Sure, if there were no transport, we’d all have to buy the local baker’s bread. That might be good for the local baker, but not for the bread consumers denied cheaper bread from the next town or state.

    Except that if it’s the state building the roads, they’re not getting cheaper bread. They’re paying at least as much as they were for the bread — it’s just that part of the price has been hidden in the cost of the roads and extracted from the customer coercively by the state instead of voluntarily in trade.

    Ditto for state-granted “limited liability.” It makes prices apparently lower because it saves companies the cost of either paying or insuring against, ruinous damage claims. That savings, however, is only apparent — the “insurance premium” is being borne by every prospective victim of a future tort.

    To the extent that business gets “big” by transferring its operating costs to others via subsidy or externalization, that “bigness” is a non-free-market characteristic.

    Free the market, and I don’t give a tinker’s damn how big a business gets. Keep it unfree, and I’ll continue to point out when and where “bigness” is nothing more than the trickery of socializing risk and overhead while privatizing profit.

  6. IanB,

    The problem as I see it with Kevin is that he’s not just in favour of free markets as such, but believes in a very specific type of market that he takes great pains to try and prove will happen without State intervention.

    Fair cop.

    But once again, that doesn’t reach the issue of “the output of C4SS in general.” Kevin’s predictions of what would happen in a freed market environment are very different from mine and, I think, from D’Amato’s.

    Indeed, if you cut off every village and take away the farmers’ ownership of their land, you probably will end up with something like Carsonism.

    Well that’s a strange damn thing to day. It’s only months ago that you were complaining about his condemnation of taking away the farmers’ ownership of their land via Enclosure.

  7. Thomas, we’ve been around whether Kevin and the C4SS are mutually responsible for each others’ opinions before. But Kevin puts this stuff out under the C4SS banner, who are an activist collective, not merely a neutral “publisher”, so there is a mutual responsibility, as with any such enterprise.

    A to the specifics, I think this is germaine-

    Except that if it’s the state building the roads, they’re not getting cheaper bread. They’re paying at least as much as they were for the bread — it’s just that part of the price has been hidden in the cost of the roads and extracted from the customer coercively by the state instead of voluntarily in trade.

    That makes a very specific claim, which is that the cost of the roads to the taxpayer is sufficient to negate all the apparent economic benefit to the consumer. That is a tall order. I don’t think it can be proved, or even calculated. For instance here in Britain many roads were built privately. Some date back to the Romans (as do some still working sewers). The actual costs of maintenance do not seem to me to be within orders of magnitude of the benefits of market competition; but I haven’t measured the two and I don’t think anyone even can, without making so many assumptions as to make the exercise worthless. The UK State is apparently speniding about £8.4bn on roads annually. GDP is over a trillion. Can we really conceive that a UK without roads would have a GDP just .8% smaller? It’s not credible. YOu might say Iv’e done the wrong calculation there, but then, what calculation should we do instead?

    The problem is, any road that is useful for general use allows transport of goods as well. To get rid of the “roads subsidy” you literally have to cut off every town and village; and then calculate the loss of value by loss of private, personal transport.

    I think you’ll probably say I obsess too much about Kevin’s roads and railroads, but I think it is central to his insufficient economic analysis. He’s only looking at part of the economy, not the whole economy. It simply does not add up. There seems to be a complete lack of appreciation of why competition makes markets more efficient, or understanding of why I’d rather buy a loaf from Kettering or Coventry than from Northampton (where I live). In Kevin’s world, there is just the local bakery, and it’s a cooperative, and whatever they make is what I get, because I can’t buy a loaf from Kettering or Coventry. Does the relatively paltry State spending on transport (most of which is inefficent and would be cheaper done by the private sector anyway, not to mention vanity raliways and so on) really negate ALL the benefits of regional competition? Would we really be better with just the one town baker? Can you really support that position with a straight face?

    • In Kevin’s world, there is just the local bakery, and it’s a cooperative, and whatever they make is what I get, because I can’t buy a loaf from Kettering or Coventry.

      No, In Kevin’s world, you can get a loaf from Kettering or Coventry if you and the Kettering/Coventry bakers are willing to pay for it, instead of fobbing off the cost of making it convenient to transport it to you in Northampton onto “society” via the state.

      Now, as you point out, it’s conceivable that there’s a miscalculation here — that state roads actually reduce general prices / increase general wealth by facilitating competition and so forth — and that the effects may even be impossible to calculate.

      I apologize for being so specific, e.g. roads, so let’s expand it a bit:

      Carson’s argument seems to be that the entire web of subsidies, privileges, etc. which he describes (scratch that “describes” and make it “posits” — I agree that it’s arguable whether certain things actually constitute subsidy/privilege) creates a net loss on the part of one “class” and a net gain on the part of another (the “productive class” versus the “political class”), and that this process has its own momentum (the “political class” gets its unearned gains, which it uses to buy even more unearned gains, in perpetuity).

      I happen to think that his general argument is correct, but even if I didn’t, I’d oppose that web of subsidies and privileges as a moral wrong … and I’d say that tearing that web apart would solve the calculation problem you refer to. If “big business” remains “big” and gets “bigger” without those subsidies and privileges, my toes are still tapping.

      Which, when you boil it down, comes to this:

      - C4SS’s writers tend to agree on a moral critique of state privilege as such.

      - C4SS’s writers do not agree on all the particulars of what constitutes state privilege (for example, we are not of one mind on the subject of whether ownership in land is a legitimate property right or an illegitimate state-bestowed privilege), but we agree that state privilege is a bad thing.

      - Nor do C4SS’s writers agree on all the particulars of what kinds of economic distortions state privilege produces and how significant those distortions are (e.g. how distorting are state-subsidized roads?), but we agree that abolition of the state is the key to getting rid of said distortions.

      - Nor do C4SS’s writers agree on precisely what would transpire if state privilege was abolished (for example, Carson thinks that the impact on wage labor and work hours would be much larger than I think it would be), but we agree that we’d like to see it happen.

      - There are other areas of non-agreement. For example, Carson is a Labor Theory of Value advocate; I’m an Austrian subjectivist, and I’m pretty sure D’Amato is as well.

  8. Iain: You still seem to be identifying mass-production as such with modernity and prosperity. I believe it’s one of two possible models for integrating electrical power into manufacturing — the other being the industrial district/networked manufacturing model we see in Emilia-Romagna today — and that the state tipped the balance between them. Micromanufacturing isn’t a step back into the dark. It’s more modern, higher tech, and more efficient than the mid-20th century model deliberately parodied by “Brazil” and unwittingly parodied by Galbraith.

    Re transportation, I don’t argue that fully internalizing the costs through user fees will eliminate all long-distance trade. But to the extent that even part of the cost of long-distance shipping is subsidized, to that extent the competitive balance is artificially shifted. So internalizing the cost will tend to reduce — to some extent — average firm size and market area.

    Likewise, I don’t believe — and if I’ve ever stated it in such terms it was hyperbole — that no large-scale enterprises would exist in a free market. Obviously, for example, the microprocessors in those laptops and CNC tools will have to be fabbed at a billion-dollar microfoundry for the time being. My argument is that new decentralized machinery is making a rapidly growing share of total consumption needs more efficient to produce locally in garage factories. It will be a different mix of large and small, with the typical enterprise becoming much smaller and more localized.

  9. Gosh, this is all very civilised for you lot! Are you just going through the motions of arguing? Or is there some emerging exploration of differences?

  10. Well, I’m going easy because I’m outnumbered three to one.

  11. Oops, David D’Amato’s in the other thread.

  12. Ah, divided forces – it never did the Germans much good!