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New York Police Slowdown and the Classic Challenges of Alternatives to Capitalism

Gar Alperovitz

Quite apart from the political challenges it represents, the current New York City police slowdown illuminates a classic general issue that must be faced by those concerned with how to structure a next system that moves us beyond the problems of both traditional corporate capitalism and traditional state socialism.

While we may enjoy some satisfaction in the NYPD's attempt to enrage its critics by giving them exactly what they've been asking for - i.e. a drastic reduction in the criminalization of the lives of poor communities of color - it's important to confront the additional question of who should be able to make these kind of decisions and how, both now and in serious system-changing discussions. (If every decision about how the NYPD operates were left up to its workers, that would certainly not further the goal of real justice.)

A common position among some theorists is that the answer to the failures of state socialism, for instance, is simply to encourage worker-ownership and self-management of virtually all industry, instance by instance, case by case. Historically, this position was commonly termed "syndicalism."

The traditional "socialist" alternative placed ownership and control in a "community-wide" institution rather than in one that yielded power to "the workers" within any functioning unit. This meant municipal, state, regional or nationalized ownership and control. For syndicalists critical of the kind of top-down bureaucracy that has all too often been associated with socialist experiments, self-management by the workers presents what seems to be a compelling alternative based in freedom and participation.

One thing that is illuminated by the police slowdown is that the interests of the workers in any specific unit of production or social administration are not the same as those of the community as a whole - and that different situations require different structural solutions. In the extreme worker-ownership model, the police would, in fact, be in control of the police industry - a model which, of course, very few would affirm. Even to assume total self-management by the police within the context of a "socialized" institution like municipal government raises obvious problems.

The late social ecologist Murray Bookchin focused on the general importance of this problem in one of his last essays criticizing "revolutionary syndicalism," because it "emphasized factory control by workers' committees and confederal economic councils as the locus of social authority, thereby simply bypassing any popular institutions that existed outside the economy."

Clearly the answer to the classic worker-control syndicalist challenge to socialist or communitarian positions is to recognize the fundamental distinction between situations that require a common, collective resolution of critical issues - and situations best left exclusively to those who work in the sector - and, finally, situations where joint or more complex resolutions of the challenges are possible.

The well-known modern anarchist theorist David Graeber offered similar thoughts in a recent dialogue: "There is a subtle question that we all have to handle in any sort of democratized society," he pointed out, "which is how do you square the problem of one principle that says all those people engaged in a project should have say over how that project is done, and the second principle, which is that all those people affected by a project should have some say in how that project is done. One of them, if you take it exclusively, leads to pure workers' control, the other leads to a sort of general direct democracy on every level. Well clearly some compromise between the two principles has to be worked out . . . "

In the case of small- and medium-scale firms, in more straightforward industrial and other economic sectors, full worker ownership and control seems self evidentially important and appropriate. This is the world of worker cooperatives and self-managed firms of all kinds, whose current accelerating growth is justly celebrated.

What is appropriate at larger scales and different sectors is probably best considered case by case. Would it make sense, for instance, for full worker ownership and control to prevail in the case of nuclear energy production? Or are we here in another area where the "socialist" or communitarian position of community-wide ownership and control is essential - with various forms of worker self-management as an important counter-force to the problems of top-down statism?

What of education? A fully developed "syndicalist" or worker-dominated socialism would yield all authority to teachers, with little or no residual authority to the "state" - i.e., in this case mainly the municipality. An alternative might involve tripartite control: the municipality, the teachers, but also the parents and even students, in different forms at different levels from kindergarten to college.

There are also other economic and equity issues to consider: Full worker ownership and control of the oil industry would likely create worker political interests at odds with society's larger climate concerns. And it might also create high degrees of inequality in a society that might hope one day to move in the direction of genuine equality. The oil workers' interests in their own economic gains, again, may not be the same as the broader equity interests of society as a whole.

On the other hand - as Tom Malleson has recently urged - if the state were to simply nationalize such industries and turn them over to the workers, it would create massive inequalities between the new worker-owners of multi-million-dollar enterprises and the rest of society. In his model, significant scale enterprises - "oil, steel, auto, pharmaceuticals, etc." - must be state-owned, but in ways that implement some form of broader comanagement. His solution is for the state to take ownership and for management to "be divided between representatives of the internal workers and representatives of the community."

Further issues concern the relationship between different forms of ownership and control and the reconstruction of a more communitarian culture. So, too, the development of more thoroughly social conceptions of 21st century socialism - and, in particular, the approaches urged by Marxists theorists like István Mészáros add additional dimensions of inquiry and concern to the problem of structure - and to classic syndicalist versus communitarian/socialist debates.

The intensifying problems of corporate capitalism have begun to generate an increasingly thoughtful discourse about how to structure a next system that takes us beyond the difficulties of state socialism. The realities of the NYPD remind us that worker self-management cannot be simply and automatically equated with political justice in all situations. The slowdown helps focus some of the genuinely challenging issues any system must grapple with at various levels if we are ever to create a genuinely humane and democratic next system.