One of the most salient aspects of the current stage of neoliberal capitalism is an entrenched individualism in all areas of life, which makes collective struggle almost impossible for many to conceive of. If the U.S. left is to truly affect a mass movement of socialism and solidarity, we must begin by subverting the economic base on which today’s alienation and individualism is built and train ourselves to take collective responsibility in our economic and political lives. In the words of Hugo Chavez: “Every factory must be a school to educate… to produce not only briquettes, steel, and aluminum, but also, above all, the new man and woman, the new society, the socialist society.”
The U.S. left must create a base for socialism by developing and building on people’s capacity for empathy, cooperation and solidarity. This can’t be done in a solely top-down or idealistic fashion. People won’t be forced to be more cooperative, and they can’t simply be reasoned into it. Instead, we need to change the material reality of people’s everyday lives, of their employment, their homes and communities, to foster such values as we know all people are capable of. We do not have to invent the tools to do so, they already exist around the world. Co-operative businesses and community land trusts (CLTs) can subvert some of the most exploitative and alienating aspects of the neoliberal economy, and teach workers what it means to own and operate the means of production without bosses. Participatory budgeting and communal councils subvert bourgeois representative so-democracy and teach communities to take collective responsibility over political life. Where these institutions are present, the people involved in them hold more intrinsic values and are deeply enmeshed in relationships of solidarity.
The beauty of institutions like worker-owned cooperatives, CLTs, and communal budgeting councils is that they are enacted directly by working people on a small, grassroots, local level. But we won’t get anywhere if we are constantly struggling uphill against both the conventional capitalist economy and the bourgeois state that perpetuates it. While we build our co-ops and CLTs, we should be working to elect officials who will shift power from the private market to the co-operative one, and use state power, to the extent possible, to protect and empower these emerging forms of solidarity economy and direct democracy. By pushing for social democratic safety nets such as universal healthcare, and reforms such as job and housing guarantees, elected socialists can weaken the existing capitalist economy and reduce the risks poor people face in participating in these co-operative experiments. It is a lot easier to leave the relative safety of an exploitative workplace if one knows that one is guaranteed healthcare and a job.
Marx argued that the industrial production and the division of labor under capitalism alienated workers from the inherent human quality of creative production. Under capitalism, these processes of creation and production, processes so integral to being human, become “hostile and alien” to the worker. The worker is creative and productive, not because she is a human being, for whom creation and production are innate qualities and paths to self-actualization, but in return for a wage and in the service of another. In being forced to labor in return for a wage, that labor, and the laborer herself, become mere commodities. The moments of her life become something to sell for the highest price. The objects she produces, and the very process of their production, become entities belonging not to herself but to her boss, objects stealing away the moments that make up her life. The more of her life she dedicates to producing, the less she has for herself. The worker finds herself in the unenviable position, familiar to anyone who has eagerly watched a clock tick away the moments to quitting time, in which he “only feels himself (sic) outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.”
While many American workers don’t create or produce anything physical, Marx’s insight is still meaningful. The new forms wage labor takes today color the process of alienation in a particularly pernicious way. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80% of the workforce is employed in the service industry. What these workers create is customer experience; what they produce is human relations. For many hourly wage jobs, the overwhelming emphasis is on customer service. Service workers are told they must provide exemplary customer service, and that the key elements to this are things like building rapport, listening to customers’ concerns, and expressing empathy. In other words, they should build (or at least simulate) a relationship with customers, for their boss’s benefit. Workers provide transportation, health and child care, plumbing and other services not out of their innate capacity for empathy, solidarity and community, but for a wage. The perniciousness of this trend cannot be overstated. Just as industrial production alienates human capacities for creativity and productivity, so service work takes the human act of interpersonal connection and makes it into something alien and hostile and belonging to the boss. These activities of relating to and caring for one another are now the ones stealing away the moments of our lives.
In addition to this, workers generally no longer work alongside dozens or hundreds of fellow workers on the factory floor, a condition Marx hoped could engender a sense of solidarity among the workers. Instead, many workers toil away in isolated cubicles, engendering a sense of competition between workers, rather than one of solidarity. Cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han has observed that “neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise.”
Of course, service work is not the only aspect of today’s economic and political world that discourages collective responsibility in favor of individual competition. Neoliberalism valorizes the individual entrepreneur, unassisted in their success by friends or family, above all else. Neoliberalism tells us that competition between atomized individuals will automatically lead to the most desirable outcomes. The “naturally deserving” individuals, having achieved success through their own hard work, are given their rightful due, while the rest are rightly condemned to a life of privation. Such values cynically and unnecessarily inhibit the social potential of human beings. The consequence of this is the loneliness epidemic. This epidemic has disturbing public health implications, but it also has implications for creating a mass socialist movement, which inevitably relies on the human propensity for solidarity and empathy.
The economic and political institutions within which people live strongly affect how they see themselves and their relationship to others. Those living under systems of alienation and exploitation, in which individuals are left to fend for themselves, such as neoliberal capitalism, tend to favor what are called extrinsic values. They seek personal success above all else. They see themselves as in competition with others and are not concerned with collective or systemic problems. People with extrinsic values have a negative view of cooperation and are less likely to vote or be involved in political activism. In fact, the more alienated and lonely someone is, the lower their empathy. The opposite is true for those growing up in a society in which people are seen as having inherent value and where an effort is made to provide a good standard of living for everybody. Such people express a preference for intrinsic values like cooperation and universal justice. These value sets are also mutually exclusive, the more emphasis placed on one, the less placed on the other.
These values are historically conditioned and mutable. To build the world we want, the left in the U.S. must reverse the tendency toward extrinsic values and individualism by building programs which encourage ourselves and others to take collective responsibility, and bring the practice of interpersonal connection into all aspects of life, appropriating it from its exclusive ownership by wage labor. This is the first task we must undertake to make a political revolution a reality in the belly of the capitalist beast in the 21st century.
Worker-owned cooperatives are potentially among the most effective tools for engendering solidarity. Worker-owned co-ops are socialist in the most basic sense of the term: the workers own and operate the means of production. Rather than have a single capitalist owner or a board of directors making despotic decrees on behalf of shareholders, workers are able to democratically decide what and where to produce, how to structure the production process, and how to distribute profits. This is the first step toward a rational economy oriented toward human need rather than capital accumulation – in other words, a socialist economy. Speaking of the revolutionary work still to be done in 1923, Lenin observed that “if the whole of the peasantry had been organized in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism.”
It’s important to note that a series of isolated cooperative islands operating in the sea of the capitalist market economy is still capitalism, but the experience of producing without bosses and capitalists can still be a liberating and enlightening one. It reveals to workers what it means to take collective responsibility over our own lives. It promotes a sense of solidarity, that the success of others is one’s own success, and that an injustice to one is an injury to all. In co-ops, workers can get a taste of what it would be like in a world without bosses, in which their creative and productive capacities are used towards ends they have a say in, and are not expropriated by another for profit. This is not a hard sell to working people. Most workers know that they and their fellow workers are capable of running their workplace without their boss and have probably already done so for days at a time or longer. It also helps that worker co-ops provide, on average, higher wages, more skills training and implicit management and leadership training compared to conventional capitalist enterprises.
Elected officials can help empower the cooperative economy in several ways. At the most basic, local government contracts can go to cooperative ventures before capitalist ones. A portion of the state funds currently going toward subsidizing capitalist corporations can be appropriated to go toward cooperatively run businesses only. In the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is already proposing a law which would give the right of first refusal to employees. This means that any time a capitalist wants to sell a business, move it overseas or even go public, they must first give the employees the opportunity to purchase the business as a co-op. State funds with low interest rates would be made available as loans to the employees in order that they might accomplish this.
Community Land Trusts
CLTs are to real estate what cooperatives are to conventional capitalist industry. Made up of local community members, local government officials, and residents, a CLT takes ownership of, and responsibility for, a piece of land. The community itself gets to democratically decide what the land is used for, whether it be ecological conservation, agriculture or, most commonly, actually affordable housing. The land trust acquires land with the intention of holding it forever. It leases off use of the land at affordable prices. Residents pay in to the trust rather than to a private landlord, and the non-profit trust uses the money to improve and sustain the quality and affordability of the housing. Such schemes reduce foreclosures and financial speculation, keep prices affordable, and crucially, give communities democratic control over what their local land is used for.
As with cooperatives, there is no point in denying that a CLT does not, on its own, transcend capitalism. Land remains private property, albeit owned by the community as a whole. What a land trust does do is train communities to be collectively responsible for the place they are located, and empowers them to decide what kind of environment they want to live in. It simultaneously weakens one of the most pernicious aspects of capitalism: landlordism and real estate speculation. In a CLT, residents answer only to their communities, and their responsibility is to maintain a healthy, livable community, not to make a profit for their landlord.
Local elected officials can support CLT movements by giving them access to privately held land or public land being leased by private corporations. This can take place most easily when the land has been left to stagnate in disuse, as with abandoned factories all throughout the Rust Belt. A more ambitious approach would be to seize, through eminent domain or other measures, real estate which is being held and left empty or for which the landlord is charging exorbitant rent for speculative purposes. Finally, of course, a federal housing guarantee could empower and fund these organizations as a key way to give everyone a house, while keeping the decisions about land use and community aesthetic in the hands of the community itself.
Participatory Budgeting and Community Councils
Participatory budgeting brings direct democracy to the process of funding communities. A town or city that undertakes participatory budgeting puts a certain percentage of the budget aside to be used as the members of the community see fit. Where possible, socialists should push for this percentage to be as high as possible and to make sure that the areas of the traditional budget this portion takes from are regressive ones, such as corporate subsidies, and not essential services). Each neighborhood or other relevant political unit holds a quarterly meeting to discuss areas in need of funding, often in infrastructure or social services, and elect delegates, with clear mandates, to the city-wide budget council. The council discusses and allocates the funds according to need, poverty level, lack of infrastructure and so on. Cities that use participatory budgeting tend to have more drinkable water and breathable air, to have better infrastructure and more access to essential services including schools, daycares and health clinics.
Under participatory budgeting, residents feel they have a say in how their community is run. Rather than feel as though such important decisions are made by politicians far away behind closed doors in statehouses and city halls, they realize they themselves know best what their community needs. They come to realize that this understanding is all that’s really necessary, that the economics involved can be simply explained, and that the process of funding and running their immediate environment need not be an esoteric or overly byzantine one. They begin to see the benefits of direct, collective control over all aspects of their lives. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the first major participatory budgeting experiment was established in 1989 under the leadership of the Workers’ Party (PT), residents have demanded their taxes be raised, so that more funds can be available for the budget council to allocate, demonstrating an understanding that it is in their interest to support the collective good.
One danger with participatory budgeting (and any direct democratic institution) is that the democratic process can be captured by reactionary majorities. For instance, studies of “community controlled policing” meetings show that landlords and older citizens tend to be over-represented and that people of color, queer people, renters and the poor are under-represented. The numerical advantage enjoyed by some reactionary majority groups in the local councils may be diluted at the level of a city-wide budget council, but to ensure protection against the possibility of takeover, any participatory process must be made as accessible as possible and mechanisms preventing such takeovers must be in place. For example, quorums of minority identity groups can be implemented, ensuring that no decisions can be made without a certain percentage of the voting body being from one of these minority groups.
One obvious way to make meetings more accessible is to have an online iteration of the voting process. Online voting is no panacea, it has been shown in some circumstances to over-represent young white men. Having officials available at local libraries, and other government buildings, to assist with online voting can help ameliorate this tendency. Another essential aspect of ensuring opportunities for participation would be making the meeting day a holiday, so that working people have the opportunity to attend and contribute, and perhaps having several days of online voting before and after. Finally, a potential solution is to simply mail each community member a ballot (like Oregon does with its general voting system) to propose budget items, and another one to vote on proposed items and delegates to the city-wide meeting. Whatever the ultimate process decided on, it should always be open to revision if something isn’t working, a process made much easier in a political system made up of delegates instead of representatives.
Electing a representative is not the same as having a say in government. Politicians don’t follow through on promises, are influenced by big money and lobby groups, and are often too cowardly to propose fundamental solutions. Being an officeholder tends to be a career and representatives worry about losing their job or their campaign funding. Communal councils are an alternative way of doing local politics, in which everyone in the community gets a say in how the government runs. Communal councils are already operating in many localities around the world, under myriad different names and with locally adapted practices.
Whatever their form, the general idea behind them is simple. In communal councils, communities hold local assemblies to which all members of the community are invited. At these assemblies they can debate and vote directly on proposals for their community. In matters involving only the community in question, nothing further is needed – the people involved decide how they would like things to work, and that’s it. For issues involving larger areas, local councils elect delegates to represent them at the level of a larger regional council. Delegates differ from representatives in that they are empowered only to deliver the community’s decisions to the larger body, are immediately recallable if they stray from their mandate, and only serve temporarily (sometimes even randomly) so as not to encourage careerism. There is theoretically no limit to the area that could be governed by progressively larger, nested councils. In Venezuela the national council of delegates holds regular meetings with the President, though direct participation will inevitably become diluted the larger the area in question.
Conclusion: Solidarity Economy as Prerequisite for Political Revolution
Direct involvement by the people in the most immediate aspects of their life will undoubtedly be fought tooth-and-nail by careerist politicians and elites who view the masses with scorn. Electing local socialist politicians who promise to essentially abolish themselves to support community democracy is necessary but likely not sufficient. In this case, community organizing and agitation should be the primary focus. Begin by forming the grassroots groups, even if, to being with, they don’t have any power but the ability to exert pressure on existing politicians. A critical mass of neighborhood councils throughout a small city can force politicians to give concessions, abandoning issues one at a time to the authority of the of the councils, and can also be a powerful electoral force in supporting socialist candidates.
Co-ops, CLTs, participatory budgeting and communal councils are tools to build a base for socialism through the political education of the working people of America. At the same time we weaken key capitalist institutions and create islands of socialism that can be the building blocks of a future political revolution. The fact of the matter is that even if we were to enact all these institutions tomorrow they would not, on their own, constitute socialism. But in our hyper-individualized world, organizing ourselves in this way is the necessary prerequisite for building toward a political revolution. By enacting these policies on a large scale, we create a base of people who understand the significance of a socialized economy and the promise of a world without bosses, who will be much more likely to support us in our more ambitious steps toward a better world. The U.S. left cannot delay in creating a mass movement that will be ready for the wave of social and ecological crises we are likely to face in the coming decades. Let’s start building now so we are not as small and isolated as we are now when these events come to pass.