“If I could but see a day of it,” fretted William Morris’s fictionalised self in his novel News from Nowhere, before awakening in a libertarian communist future. In this vein, I first offer a vignette of a libertarian socialist future in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where indecent inequalities have been eradicated by the establishment of equality of liberty and conditions, and sociability. Second, I concentrate on the feasibility of left-libertarian industrial democracy, now and in the future. I hope that being persuasive about a non-hierarchic, democratic work sector might open minds to the possibility that working people do not need rulers in the polity either. If I fail to persuade, I hope to provoke.
Vignette: A vision, not a dream
You and I rest on a sun-doused, grassy clearing amidst the flowering manuka and kanuka trees, drowsing to the susurration of the honey-bees. This is a convivial rooftop for our canteen lunch, here in the Federated City of Tāmaki Makaurau, part of the Confederation of New Zealand/Aotearoa. We observe other verdant, peopled rooftops, some of which form part of the urban farming network, and the constant motion of birds: the vertiginous flight of the tui and the shrilling dash of kakariki.
A flock of enthusiastic school children arrive for a lesson in social ecology: How our self-managed society, freed from the drive to accumulate and maximize private profit, is coping with the second wave of the global ecological crisis. We listen to students, their teachers, and adult family members segue quite easily between English and te reo Māori in their discussions. Presently, the students hive-off into smaller groups to pursue scientific activities, and their own youthful agendas. We hear some children speaking Samoan, Standard Chinese, and Tongan.
The watchful adults take time-out to talk amongst themselves. Like all community schools, theirs is communally funded and yet self-managed by the workforce (self-management includes ‘governance,’ to use an antiquated term, as well as daily management). Rather than either authoritarian community control or parentocracy, there are equalitarian, kanohi ki te kanohi partnerships between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher assemblies and committees inquire into broad educational priorities at school level and seek consensus. In a culture of freedom and solidarity, teachers feel morally responsible to the families of the children they teach—it’s not about compliance with external authority. In a society of small schools, most on the same campus, parents have real freedom to choose, as well as co-create with educators, the kind of education they want for their children. Teachers seek their own affinity groups too. As students mature, they are afforded greater opportunities for individual and collective decision making, and experience communal, direct democracy.
Power is decentralised to the locality, in this case the school as workplace-community, yet schools freely cooperate and federate to share resources and knowledge. The principle of majority rule is eschewed, and consensual processes are favoured, although majority voting is employed in some contexts. Such horizontal authority as exists is equally diffused. This comports well with revitalised labour traditions, marae-style democracy, and new fono practices.
From the parapet, we view an array of revolutionary flags beckoning the eye along the tree-lined boulevard of multi-storey buildings with their commercial, industrial, residential, and neighbourhood uses. The flags identify labour unions, neighbourhoods (roughly speaking your former suburbs), and the Confederated towns, rural districts, and regions, and a variety of other voluntary and free associations, like marae and churches (naturally, there are no flags of political parties as people have rejected electing their rulers and suffering those others have elected). Below, the pedestrianized street is paved with solar panels, and people languish outside cafés, window-shop, interact with street-vendors, participate in street art and politics, and gather for the tram service. Turning to the north we take in the new waterfront and the azure glitter of the Hauraki Gulf, with the turning blades of wind turbines visible on the cloud-piled horizon. The wharf cranes are at rest on this holiday commemorating the Spiral/Makaurangi Revolution that instituted federated industrial and communal democracy. The Revolution continues to develop iteratively, progressively unfolding, growing, and reaching into the future.
The principles of libertarian socialism
Free socialism has three interdependent principles vital to its growth. First, the principle of liberty for individuals and voluntary social groups to determine their own lives. Equality of liberty and the power to act are intrinsic to this principle; anything less is privilege. Second, the principle of social equality, based on equality of conditions. Working for social equality means aspiring to a society free from social class, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and heterosexism. Third, the principle of sociability, or solidarity and free cooperation, where mutualism and mutual aid are complementary. Communities living these principles could create opportunities for the economic and cultural wellbeing of each and all, where inequalities of income are minimal.
Against capitalism, and for industrial democracy
Under a capitalist regime, a fundamental cause of inequality is the fact that working people as a class lack access to, and control of, capital as a means of life. To make a living and support their family, workers have to hire themselves out to those who possess capital. The existence of “human rentals” is founded on disparities of wealth, which in turn explain inequalities of income. Under “industrial feudalism” workers are unfree, and do not get to collectively decide income distribution; under industrial democracy they would. Class counts in our society, but does not account for all inequalities. People of Māori and Pacifica descent are disproportionately working class, more likely to suffer from poverty, unemployment, and underemployment than their Pākehā counterparts, for complex historical and contemporary reasons, including colonization and dispossession for Māori. Many women do unpaid labour to maintain their family, without which the economy could not function, often while working jobs where they are paid less than men doing equivalent work. Industrial democracy would empower the diverse working people of Aotearoa to address these interconnected inequalities of class, race, and gender. To get to the root of the problem of inequality is to abolish social relationships founded on human rentals; to be radical is to dismantle the autocracies of capitalism by building industrial democracies, where social wealth is in the hands of the workers.
Some industrial democracies will be democratic firms operating in a species of market economy. As for the criticisms of “market abolitionists,” the onus is on them to explain how economy-wide planning (by the state or society) can create rational prices, or exchanges, without the price mechanism of the market. Three generations of Soviet Union economists and planners failed to find an alternative, so expect no theorist to succeed. Planning as a substitute for the market means centralization—crushing freedom. As for the baleful effects of market competition, federations of workplaces, firms, and industries can coordinate their efforts to solve market failures such as unemployment and poverty.
There are other venerable objections to democratic firms, and each has been rebutted. Consider the risk aversion of workers to starting-up democratic firms, or hiring new members, expanding, and innovating in extant ones. Risk aversion can be overcome through intelligent cooperative banking, and free federation where ownership rights are spread together with the risk. As for the “degeneration thesis,” worker cooperatives need not regress into private firms: social ownership and a sustainable democratic work culture can counter trends to inequality. If worker cooperatives have a tendency to become isolated from societal labour struggles and direct action, then counter-tendencies can be institutionalized. There are successful organizations that have in practice answered such objections: the collectives of the Spanish revolution; the Basque, Mondragon workers’ cooperative complex financed by its own bank, the Caja Laboral; the Kibbutzim in Israel; the Emilia Romagna Model; the recuperated firms of Argentina; to cite a few instances. We should look for examples not exemplars, possibilities not prodromes, learning from what we consider failures as well as successes.
Another world is possible: It is in our nature
Human nature is innate and biologically fixed; fortunately capitalist relations of dominance and subordination are not fixed. Our linguistic, rational, affective, and moral species-properties provide us with the capacities to create egalitarian and free communities of work, interest, and neighbourly propinquity. That people are self-interested by nature is no obstacle to free socialism. On the contrary, shared self-interest, or mutualism, is a sound basis for conceptualizing the common good. Altruism is part of human nature too, and a potential source of mutual aid. The grain of humanity runs in contrary directions: libertarian and authoritarian. Take your pick. Voluntary socialism could work quite happily with “the crooked timber of humanity,” because the humans in question would participate freely.
“Kiwi-can-do” for socialism
“Kiwi-can-do” can be turned to building another freer world, community by community. A do-it-yourself, voluntary socialism is possible, here and now. We can envisage pockets of freedom within an authoritarian society, and a prefiguration of extensive “structural renewal.” This ought to appeal to New Zealanders who value egalitarianism. Recuperating aspects of our national identity is compatible with rejecting the nation-state and its ideology of nationalism, freeing multiple social identities from the secular religion of patriotism, and embracing internationalism. Free socialism is a process of structural and cultural transformation, not a finitude. It will have small beginnings. At the outset participants do not have to believe in the viability of a stateless future. This may develop as people practise radical democracy in labour unions working in the private or public (state) sector, and in an emerging democratic sector of worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, mutualist savings and credit institutions, housing cooperatives, modern equivalents of friendly societies, affinity groups, clubs, cafés, bars, schools, libraries, independent media, social centres, and in cyberspace.
Sceptics will claim that social democracy is a better option: An electoral victory by the Labour Party can provide immediate benefits for its constituents, and far sooner than social reconstruction at the flax-roots. It is true that the state can outflank communities and mobilize resources rapidly, but social democratic gains may be difficult to sustain as electoral fortunes change, or even attain in the face of aggressive neo-liberal organizations and institutions at the national and global level. An imaginative left-reformist government might play a long game by “rolling back the state” in favour of working people and their communities. This could “expand the floor of the cage,” making it progressively possible for working people to assert their collective agency and consolidate their decentralized gains. A leftist government could provide seed capital for regional cooperative banks. In turn these banks could supply cheap credit, together with advice on entrepreneurialism and workplace democracy, to worker cooperatives that contract to prioritize sustainable and growing employment, equality, and ecological sensibility over profit.
It is agreeable to think that social democrats and parliamentary socialists could meet libertarian socialists in the middle. Socialist anarchism is, after all, a middle-of-the-road politics between liberalism and socialism, or an authentic third way between the extremes of liberal-capitalism and state-socialism.
Adam Driver’s essay was the winner of the over-19 Category in the 2015 ‘Another World is Possible’ Essay competition.