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Sunday, November 29, 2009

No Rich, No Poor

Charles Andrews' book, No Rich, No Poor, occupies a special place among the many books on socialism and radical social theory. Though it is a bold argument for moving beyond capitalism towards a “new commonwealth”, the book is refreshingly free of cant, straightforward, and laudably clear and direct in its statement. There is no fat in Andrews’ presentation, but he spices his account with many pertinent and engaging facts and examples.

Andrews argues that capitalism has failed “common people”, especially in the last 35 years. He marshals ample evidence to demonstrate this truth, emphasizing mostly the explosive growth of income and wealth inequality.

The locus of this failure, Andrews finds in the mutation of the industrial process from labor intensive to labor saving. For Andrews, technological change has shaped the division of labor, leaving human labor unneeded, simple, or substantially cheapened in value:

Automated new machines and processes based on the sciences crowd out industrial labor. Capitalist corporations cannot make money on millions of people whose developed skill is human work, broadly based in a high level of culture, education, and social understanding – all requiring broadly decided allocation of resources directly for human development. Such resources would be at the expense of profits that were invested in equipment and facilities. People cannot be owned like a machine. Except in small supplemental amounts, corporations cannot “invest in people,” neither directly nor through toleration of taxes on their revenues and profits. The very phrase “invest in people” and its partner “human capital” express the contradiction that is the problem.


In short, modern industrial capital doesn’t need educated, creative, skilled workers and the way of life – what many today call “middle class” – that would sustain these attributes; it needs mules. While this is far from a complete or, I believe, flawless account of capitalism’s failings, it is a compelling story, a story that would resonate with many working people.

Andrews is less clear on why this trend in what he calls “industrial labor” is not sustainable. Nor does he develop a complete theory of change – what Marxists would call “class struggle”. Instead, he offers a program and a narrative, an approach in the fine old tradition of Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and H.G. Wells. This tradition, often crudely dismissed as “utopian”, offers a speculative account of how socialism, in Andrews case “the New Commonwealth”, will be achieved. Andrews’ program hinges on three principles:

• Eliminate rich and poor.
• Establish the inalienable right to a job.
• Change corporations into “institutions of genuine economic service”.

He readily concedes that his programmatic goals require a new political order, a radical transformation of our political institutions—a democratization of the state in the most profound sense. He offers three conditions sufficient for this to be achieved: the extreme distance between existing rulers and the ruled, wide spread consent for change, and an organization committed to change and agreeing on a worthy program. He sees these conditions maturing in an – dare I say – inevitable manner. He resorts to the fashionable and seductive, but fundamentally circular, term “tipping point” to cement this inevitability. I think it’s fair to say that Andrews views the crash of 2008 as one such tipping point.

While I might quibble over aspects of Andrews’ presentation – for example his account of “the major turning points of history” or his labor-process account of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction – I think this would miss the point of the book. No Rich, No Poor is a popular polemic aimed at bringing the idea of socialism to a mass audience long accustomed to heaping scorn on the word.

What separates Andrews’ book from other appeals for socialism is his calculated avoidance of the language associated in the past with the struggle for socialism. There are few references to Marx, Marxism, Communism, class, or even socialism. Instead, he couches his argument in a language less likely to generate the knee-jerk negative sentiments that have been so fervently grinded into working class consciousness by a self-serving capitalist class. I believe it is apparent that Andrews has a good understanding of and respect for the Marxist tradition, but chooses this route to sidestep the deeply ingrained prejudices that blind people to their own best interests.

Now some may see Andrews’ approach as opportunistic, sugar-coating truths that should be presented baldly and forcefully. My colleagues and I at Marxism-Leninism Today forego the sugar and offer the bitter truth as we see it. Nonetheless, I think there is a commendable place for a general introduction to these ideas that remains faithful to the spirit and partisanship of working class empowerment.

No Rich, No Poor is a visionary account and not a deeply theoretical tome. At a time when too much of the Communist movement, especially in Western Europe and the US, is mired in self-examination and defensive retreat, it is a refreshingly clear and welcome statement of the ideal of socialism. As William Morris writes at the conclusion of News from Nowhere: “Yes, surely! And if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”

I will be ordering several copies as holiday gifts for friends who have had their fill of empty Democratic Party promises and labor movement accommodation. No Rich, No Poor is available at Amazon.com.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

Norma Harrison said...

'Job' as the source of maintenance is a capitalist fallacy. No two year old can maintain themself with a job. Nor can a 90 year old. All can work - almost all can work, can do their human impulse to participate and contribute in society.
Utopian goals are essential to envisioning what we need to do. We want all the good stuff for us all - by us all of course. We need the opportunity to do that.
Work for our Owners must end. No more rich, slightly rich, well off, etc. Just us. All work equal - no strata by work. Recognition of people's input into our world, enjoyment of it - by that input, by our seeing it, and if it's meant to be, by our using it.