Not so alternative
Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. By Yanis Varoufakis. Bodley Head. 249 pages. £16.99
At the inaugural summit of the ‘Progressive International’ (a new attempt to link up various vehicles for left-leaning politicians) Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and the driving force behind the Diem25 portion of this new international, gave a keynote speech: ‘Why we need a Progressive International that must plan for today and for beyond capitalism’ (tinyurl.com/y5vvrtmn ).
The plan he proposes is actually banal, including targeted boycotting of companies such as Amazon and companies that engage in abusive practices in a ‘Day of Inaction’. There is no vision of co-ordinated democratic political action. He does say ‘while this is neither the moment nor the place to plan for postcapitalism, it is useful to imagine what a postcapitalist world might be like.’
As it just so happens, he has a new book out which addresses this very activity. Its conceit is that a group of radicals get access to their versions in an alternate reality, one in which the crisis of 2008 spurred radical action that dismantled the world financial system and abolished both the labour market and massive financial institutions.
In his Other Now (as his alternate world is referred to), the labour market is abolished. There are still firms, and jobs, but once someone joins a firm they can do whatever work they want within the firm, all pay above a basic share of the firm’s profits and a universal basic dividend (collected by taxing the revenue of firms, rather than profits) is democratically allocated by the workers of the firm based on perceived merit. This shares similarities with Michael Albert’s idea of Parecon. It is amenable open to the same criticism as Parecon, based on the Yugoslav experience.
Self-management of Yugoslavian firms fell victim to the inequality of the technological differences inequalities between firms: some were more productive and profitable than others, without any difference in skill or effort difference between those partner-workers and those of a different firm. The workers there would defend their relatively high wages by excluding other workers, and ultimately using the features Varoufakis describes for workers hired for a specific role (as opposed to employees/partners) to exploit the labour of other workers (he calls this the disjointedness criterion – where it is possible to measure an individual’s contribution, rather than value created by teamwork). This would create a situational logic and incentive for the restoration of exploitation. That said, his depiction of a firm without rigid division of labour is itself enticing and interesting to think through. He is savvy enough to note that unofficial hierarchies and prejudices may still linger in the Other Now, which is worth consideration.
More than a good deal of the book is given over to talking about banking. Given the massive expropriation implied in converting all firms to co-ops and abolishing the labour market, this seems redundant (and wouldn’t the banks themselves now be worker co-ops?). This is particularly the case, given he assumes an express ban on buying and selling shares. The workers own the firms, but cannot sell them. But, in great detail, he discusses creating public utility banking that would wipe out the commercial high- street banks, and form a means for handing out the universal basic dividend. He prefers a dividend to a fixed income, since this is then a share in the collective product of society, rather than being perceived as some sort of handout.
He still envisages a banking function, but one, given the ban on investment banking, where banks return to being simple financial intermediaries rather than ‘creating money.’ (In a slightly more intelligent sophisticated than usual version of the usual currency crank narrativestory, he avers that now banks can create money based on a claim of expected profits, and related to their interventions in the share markets). Of course, this would only exacerbate the inequality between capitals, since some individuals would be able to harvest interest profits from other firms. So much for ending capitalism.
Consciously, he depicts the continued existence of financial crises in this society: albeit that he adds that swift government action of creating money quickly resolves the matter. Again, this means that so long as there are markets, he accepts there is a situational logic for speculation/fraud and financial instability.
In the Other Now, all land titles have been transferred to regional authorities which operate as trusts (quite how this could happen through the sort of minority targeting of companies described in the book is mysterious, such expropriation would require a determined and organised conscious movement, that would surely meet serious resistance) which operate as trusts. The properties would be let commercially, with the community collecting the rent. A permanent auction system would be used to ensure people pay the right rent without excess bureaucracy (essentially, each occupier would assess the value of the property, with the threat that anyone else could ‘bid’ a higher value/rent to take it off them).
The central thread is that this saves markets from capitalism: and avoids the worse alternative of centralised allocation and rationing in a soviet style, which he rightly deplores. The framing device is of two radicals: Eva, a radical capitalist (who is won over by the workability of this market system) and Iris, a woman who could ‘ever conceive of a good market, a noble war or an unjust strike’.
In a strange detour via discussing ‘politically correct transactional love’, Varoufakis does discuss the idea of a society where people freely give, where commodities are ended. He refers to it as Star Trek Communism, but maintains that until Star Trek style replicators are available, money will remain essential. That does seem a limited outlook as, even where resources are scarce, there are alternatives to both money and centralised allocation that can be used.
The character of Iris is manoeuvred into opposing the Other Now, because its market system might hinder her preferred no-commodity society (opposing everything else which is something of a caricature position that some people falsely impute to us, and which, as far as we know, no-one actually holds or ever held). Further, disgracefully, the text also pathologises her position by stating ‘raging against the system was [her] only way of being, her loneliness vaccine’. What comes across, is that Varoufakis is wrestling with a notion of moneyless socialism, and finding the ideas attractive, he struggles to dismiss and contain them through an ad hominem dismissal of its proponents.
The book is intelligently written, and none of the characters are mere cyphers. That it opens the conversation to post-capitalism, and because it (unsuccessfully) wrestles with views like ours, it is a welcome addition to debate.
Not So Radical
Paul Mason: Clear Bright Future: a Radical Defence of the Human Being . Penguin £9.99.
In Postcapitalism (reviewed in the September 2015 Socialist Standard– ) Paul Mason argued for what he called revolutionary reformism, a gradual transition to a supposedly new kind of social system. There would be a basic income for everyone, while essential goods and services would be made cheaper, with more and more of these becoming free. Yet there would still be money, markets, profits and banks, so it was hard to see how what he was proposing was really ‘postcapitalist’.
In his latest book Mason advocates a similar system, but he goes by a rather roundabout route to get to this proposal and then makes a detour at the end that promises very little. He looks at why people support Trump, a man who thinks facts are irrelevant. Racism and misogyny, he says, are the key factors driving white voters to Trump. We then get a discussion of many topics – including neoliberalism, the alt-right, post-humanism, trans-humanism, postmodernism – and various writers, such as Nietzsche, Arendt and Foucault.
Mason supports radical humanism, which means achieving freedom by transforming technology and society. Artificial intelligence should be placed under human control and made subject to an appropriate ethical code, and information technology (as argued in Postcapitalism ) can be part of what makes economic abundance viable, as it creates goods that can be copied at minuscule cost. IT ‘makes Utopian Socialism possible: the appearance of islands of cooperative production for sharing, the massive reduction of hours worked and the expansion of human freedom and self-knowledge’.
Two chapters are devoted to the views of Karl Marx, with both positive and negative comments. Marx suggested that humans can set themselves free by changing their social circumstances, which would involve abolishing private property. But he did not give an adequate account of women’s oppression or of reproductive labour as a specific form of exploitation. There is something in this critique, but no merit at all in the claim that Marx saw the revolution as ‘the blind actions of a single class’, as it would in reality be the achievement of class-conscious workers (it is not clear, but it may be that Mason sees the working class as manual workers only). His vision is of the networked individual taking part in collective action, but this differs only in that it would now be far easier than just half a century ago for a revolutionary working class to communicate with each other and co-ordinate their activities.
Later comes a totally pointless chapter which argues that what passes for Marxism in China is nothing like the real thing. The book ends with a chapter on how to ‘live the anti-fascist life’ that is pretty vague and makes little connection to what has been said previously. More on the supposed ‘Utopian Socialism’ and how it could be a global system rather than just ‘islands’ would have been a more appropriate conclusion.
Love and Labour. (Red Button Years – Volume 1). By Ken Fuller. ISBN: 978-1-6990-9278-1. 2019.
As there is no publisher accredited, we presume this is a self-published book. The author lists seven other books, six being non-fiction. One of them, ‘Radical Aristocrats: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1985, provided the basis for this story.
Self-publishing has become widely available due to technological advances making it much more affordable. It is an avenue for authors of books, fiction and non-fiction, with such limited appeal as to be unlikely to generate profit enough, or even at all, to interest commercial publishers.
This must not be taken to imply such books are badly written, but rather their appeal is to a limited audience due to the subject matter. The weakness of the process can be the absence of the critical eye of an experienced editor. Such is my the overall impression of this novel.
There can be no doubting Ken Fuller’s immersion in the subject on which he writers. A former bus driver and full-time officer in the Transport and General Workers Union, he has dedicated much of his life to exploring and recording the history of this element of trade unionism, with specific reference to London. Perhaps he is too close to his subject.
A basic tenet of writing good fiction is ‘show, don’t tell’, engage the reader, invite the reader to construct mental scenes, challenge those constructs through the story taking unexpected turns. Reading should be an active process.
Unfortunately, this novel does an awful lot of telling. There is page after page of what reads like verbatim minutes of union meetings. Anyone who has been active in a union will recognise how drawn out and, frankly, tedious, even though important, such meetings can be. Especially so for someone on the outside glancing in.
I am not convinced Fuller is does not seem clear as to his intention. As a chronicler of London bus workers’ history he has undoubtedly a creditable depth of knowledge. He is also keenly aware of the wider contexts in which that history flowed its course.
However, to make sure no research goes to waste, characters find their mouths being over over-stuffed with historical details. They don’t so much have conversations so much as swap lectures. For example, George Sanders, a union official, delivers an impromptu potted history of London Transport companies, along with American influence and dividend returns while standing, supposedly chatting, at Hyde Park Corner.
The novel opens in 1913 and works its way through to 1917. Its two main characters are Mickey Rice, erstwhile tram driver in Reading who becomes a bus conductor, then driver, in London, and Dorothy Bridgeman.
Dorothy has fled a privileged, but stifling upbringing, to become a radical socialist in what would become the Leninist sense. Dorothy and Mickey become lovers as well as union comrades and we are treated to a number of their explicitly erotic scenes.
The first of these is revealing (sorry) in that mid-coitus Mickey and Emily, the name Dorothy was using at the time, engage in a discussion on the radical, or otherwise, nature of impromptu sex. Emily (Dorothy) concludes, it is ‘…no threat whatsoever to the bourgeois order – unless, that is, they also embrace the class struggle.’ (Page 52).
Both are fictional characters, but many others are historical personages. As such they serve to give voice to the competing elements within the burgeoning Red Button, a reference to the badge worn by bus workers’ union members, union.
Dorothy takes the story off into London’s seriously impoverished East End when she meets and allies herself with Sylvia Pankhurst, who has split from Christabel and Emmeline who betray themselves by becoming purveyors of white feathers activists to as they aid the war’s recruiting drive.
Dorothy ends up in Holloway after indulging in the suffragette habit of smashing windows; a hammer being more effective than a rock, Sylvia opines. This leads her to conclude that breaking windows changes nothing.
The First World War does energise the novel, especially the accounts of those trying to stop workers killing each other on behalf of capital. The danger this invites in a jingoistic atmosphere is explored and does point up that the war effort was not universally popular.
Fuller explores how circumstance, especially extreme circumstance, can affect an individual. When Dorothy is killed by a German bomb, Mickey seriously considers enlisting. He is eventually talked out of it by Dorothy’s ‘ghost’ as his own conscience and political consciousness manifest through his memories of her voice.
The politics of the novel focus on the role of the British Socialist Party, the Labour Party and the ILP. There is a Leninist thread represented by the character Rothstein, but the main focus is on the union and competing factions within it.
A familiar story of the left-right dichotomy, still playing out over a hundred years later. The pro- versus v anti- war elements give expression to this, and there is some understanding of how capitalism is the root cause of war. There is no mention that in the ten years leading up to the war’s outbreak the Socialist Party of Great Britain had consistently voiced this point.
Indeed socialism, as dealt with in this book, is to be achieved via reformism or some Bolshevik- style revolution. That the working class will have to look beyond trade unions and political parties vying for power and achieve socialism through its own conscious action is not addressed.
Any undertaking on the scale of this novel is admirable, . It appears to me, though , there is a much better novel in here begging to be revealed. I started Tthis review began by invoking the role of the editor. If the book was 200 pages shorter it would be 200 pages better.
‘Love and Labour’ is a labour of love on the author’s part, and also the reader’s. Dispense with the potted histories, the detailed accounts of union machinations and let the story emerge. Dorothy and Mickey are strong characters, but even they are too often recruited as mouthpieces for the author.
Socialist Standard November 2020