Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Your fascinating book It's not over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment shows us why we need to move beyond capitalism and it also provides the tools on how to do so. Can you explain to our readers how we can effectively fight to destroy definitively this aberrant system that is capitalism?
Pete Dolack: That’s the central question, isn’t it? None of us individually has the answer; this is a question that can only be answered collectively and, given the current state of the world, perhaps one that at this moment can be answered more in the abstract than concretely, however much we’d prefer the latter. I do think what is indispensable now, and can be done now, is to break down the tired concept of “there is no alternative.”
“There is no alternative” is what keeps capitalism in place. Which is not to deny that lots of force is necessary, too. But when enough people believe a better world is possible and are willing to act on it, it will be indeed be possible. It will be possible through organizing on a global scale, across national and all other lines, linking together the myriad of particular struggles and understanding the connections between them while naming the system, capitalism, that is at the root of so much suffering. A “movement of movements” as others have called such a global uprising, an uprising in which people understand that not all our problems will be solved upon the transcending of capitalism, but that humanity would then have the basis in which it could meaningfully solve problems and end oppressions.
A multitude of popular organizations, reflecting not only the differing sites of struggle but the necessarily different types of struggle, will be necessary. A successful movement will inevitably be a coalition; the political expressions of this should be coalitions as well. Popular-front types of organization, movement coalitions organized to achieve specific goals while allowing participating groups to express their particular perspectives, are forms likely to be necessary to create the sufficient scale of activists needed to effect advances.
An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force. A serious movement needs a full toolbox and not simply one tool.
Such a toolbox can only be wielded by cohesive organizations welding together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneous with rooting these in larger understandings of the structural causes of them and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to wait your turn and, anyway, your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness.
It is not necessary to choose between “identity politics” and “class politics,” as the unfortunate split among North American activists has framed the question as if there are no connections between these. We need to fight on all fronts, using both what is relevant from past struggles and new tactics and strategies reflecting contemporary understandings arising out of current conditions. Nor should it be an obligation to accept or reject organizational structures simply because they are old or new.
One question that can’t be avoided is the question of violence. However peaceful a “movement of movements” intends to be, the history of the violence used to keep capitalism in place, and the willingness of the leading imperial powers at the top of the world capitalist system to wield it, can’t be wished away. Blunting the ability of the capitalist state to use violence through its militaries and its militarized police forces would be essential. There are positive lessons from the past — such as workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors turning the military and disarming the police in 1917 Russia — and there are negative lessons from the past — such as the tragic tactic of placating the military in Chile from 1970 to 1973.
In the era of precarious work, digitalization and financial capitalism, how can the working class be organized?
Organizing within the workplace was easier when workers were gathered in huge numbers in single locations. The challenge is to find new forms of welding together worker solidarity when we are scattered, and to connect organizations set up in and around workplace struggles to other struggles, both on a geographic basis and with other types and sites of struggle.
The traditional model of “business unionism,” whereby a hierarchical union leadership works with corporate executives to obtain limited gains or to prevent deeper losses (depending on the circumstances) and does this in isolation from not only other workplaces but from all other struggles — as if our ever deteriorating working conditions and stagnant pay have no relation to anything outside the office or factory — is a dead end. There is no alternative to grassroots organizing to build new forms of unions and other worker-solidarity organizations. Rather than organizing by individual workplace or company, this organizing needs to be on two higher planes — industrywide and citywide.
By industrywide, all the employees in a particular industry, throughout a country or region. By citywide, all employees of all occupations with a given geographic footprint. And by “all employees,” all those on permanent staff, full or part time; all those working on a contractual or temporary basis; and those freelancing or otherwise independent contractors, with a central goal of having everybody on a full-time basis with no tiered contracts under which new hires are paid far less than workers hired before the advent of the tiered contract. Individual unions or other organizations could belong to two federations — one for its industry and one for its geographic location, with strong links among all.
None of what I suggest is possible without systematic on the ground organizing over a long period of time by highly motivated organizers who train, educate and organize new organizers as rapidly as possible. Much of this organizing would need be clandestine to keep organizers from being fired in an era of few protections for workers and slow the ability of bosses and the state to disrupt the work. None of this would be easy — we need only review the long history of organizing in the United States and the massive repression against it. New tactics, such as sit-ins, were developed in the 1930s, and more new tactics will surely be necessary.
Perhaps most importantly, new worker organizations must not become hierarchical as did unions so as to be able to maintain flexibility and militancy. Such flexibility and militancy will help ensure that workplace struggles are not seen as separate from other struggles, including those for affordable housing, access to health care and education, and against racial, sexual, national and other discriminations. In turn, the necessary linking of struggles would prevent the return of harmful narrow “business union” ideas that a union should only concern itself with enforcing a contract while ignoring external social issues as if those are wholly separate.
To return to the concept of “there is no alternative,” we must have examples of alternatives. I believe this is a compelling reason to support cooperatives and, where they can be established, state-owned enterprises that are under the democratic control of the enterprise’s workforce and the community. Caution is needed here — cooperatives are quite compatible with capitalism. But the example of democratic workplaces in which the workers have better working conditions and higher pay, while being rooted in the community, will demonstrate a better alternative. But cooperatives by themselves will not get us to socialism; only a “movement of movements” will do that. A growing cooperative movement would be one important wing, among others, of such an upsurge.
In your opinion, isn't it more than vital to have a combative union movement to defend workers and above all to put an end to modern slavery and to destroy capitalism?
Absolutely! The foregoing critique of unions doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have unions. However imperfect they are in their current form, worker organizations are necessary. Nor should we lay all blame for stagnant pay and declining working conditions at the feet of union leaders. Four decades of neoliberalism, and the ability of multinational capital to move investment capital and production to anywhere in the world, continually chasing locations with lower pay and less regulation, has resulted in our present world.
Given the massive imbalance in power between capital and working people, and the decisive influence of capital over governments, even a strong union is often in a position to merely mitigate losses rather than achieve advances. The stronger and more combative a union movement the better, but we should be careful to not reduce everything to the relative militancy or strength of unions. Those operate in specific conditions, and without drastic change to overall socioeconomic conditions and the relations of social forces, reforms can go only so far. A militant, international movement that works for reforms now but with an ultimate goal of replacing capitalism with a new system of economic democracy would feature organizations of many types, but would need strong unions as a key component.
You have already dealt with fascism in your articles. In your opinion, are we safe from a new fascist order? Has humanity learned the lessons of the past? And how do you explain the rise of extreme-right and fascist movements in the world?
As long as we live under capitalism, we are never safe from the threat of fascism. As long as capitalism exists, the possibility of fascism exists.
It is useful to understand what fascism is: at its most basic level, a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.
Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the crucial supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits to be gained with the destruction of all workers’ organizations. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big business leaders are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them.
Given the rise of far right governments, such as those that have arisen in Brazil, Hungary and Poland (even if there are significant differences between them in terms of their social bases and immediate objectives), and the threat arising from “strongmen” with fascistic tendencies and clear goals of becoming dictators although as of yet constrained from becoming one by institutional barriers (Erdoğan and Trump, for example), clearly humanity has not learned the lessons of the past.
Openly fascists movements and others of the extreme right can arise under two circumstances. One is when movements of the left grow powerful and industrialists and financiers can only stop such movements by putting a violent end to democratic structures (however formal as opposed to real those structures may be) and instituting a system of terror. The classical fascist governments of the 20th century (Italy, Germany and Spain) are examples of that, as is the different form of fascism of Chile under Pinochet.
The second circumstance is when there is increasing and ongoing economic instability leading to social instability accompanied by the absence of a left or left movements. This is the present condition. When the left doesn’t provide an answer, the right will step in and do so. Layered over the top of this dynamic is the failure of traditionally center-left parliamentary parties. We see the same patterns throughout the global North — European social democrats, North American liberals and their equivalents elsewhere have ceded all economic initiatives to the “market.” But what is the market in a capitalist economy? It is the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.
Conservatives would have us believe that markets are neutral entities sitting loftily in the clouds above, sorting out the worthy from the unworthy. Their nominal political opponents have adopted exactly the same attitude, wanting only some token reforms to slightly ameliorate the damage. With all of economics taken out of the political realm, there is little to choose among mainstream political parties. Combined with a weakened left, the mass media solidly in the hands of industrialists and financiers, and much of the population stultified by an endless barrage of propaganda, the gates are open to a “strongman” of the extreme right who lies and provides simple answers and scapegoats to structural problems.
Another consequence of there being little appreciable difference among mainstream parties in economic matters, and all allowing corporate globalization to run amok unchecked and even portraying that as some natural phenomenon like the tides of the ocean, is that is becomes easy to mobilize a section of the population through manipulative propaganda masquerading as news, forming a base for an extreme right or outright fascist movement. All that is needed then is a leader willing to lie by claiming he will solve your problems even though it is apparent to those paying attention such a régime will be for the benefit of that state’s most powerful capitalists. So it was with fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, and so it is with those who dream of someday becoming fascist dictators such as Bolsonaro and Trump.
In your opinion, doesn't the working class need its own alternative media to counter the capitalist propaganda relayed by the mainstream media at the service of big capital?
The working class most certainly needs its own alternative media. Given the near monopoly of mass media institutions by corporate interests and those whose interest is in maintaining the current global system, and the ability of those interests to suffuse their perspectives throughout society via a web of other institutions — including schools, militaries, workplaces, foundations, research organizations and cultural institutions — we need all the alternative media we can organize and support.
The Internet serves and distracts in this regard. One the one hand, it’s never been easier to disseminate viewpoints alternative to prevailing corporate orthodoxy. On the other hand, it’s never been easier for disinformation to be propagated and targeted to specific audiences. As with most technologies, communications technology can be used for good purposes or for bad purposes, and what the ratio will be is determined in large part by who controls the technology.
Just as computers and other high-tech equipment could be used to ease the workday by reducing boring, repetitive tasks and to enable us to work fewer hours thanks to the increased productivity technology enables but instead is used to speed up work, increase workloads and surveil us, communications technology could be used to improve understanding among peoples but instead is used to provide platforms for disinformation and to extract vast reams of personal data for the profit of a handful of capitalists.
Nonetheless, it is imperative that we find ways to use technology to build credible sources of news and information that counters the pervasive capitalist propaganda to which people are endlessly subjected.
As every year, Oxfam has published its report and as every year we can see that inequalities are increasing between the 1% and the rest of the world population. How do you explain that despite this report, which does not come from an organization known to be Marxist, there are pseudo-intellectuals or spin doctors who still want to sell us the illusion that capitalism can be reformed? In your opinion, isn't capitalism a system that is out of breath and irreformable?
I would agree that capitalism can’t be reformed. But plenty of people, unfortunately, still believe it can be. Indeed, as Fredric Jameson famously wrote, it is easier for most people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Fear of the unknown seems at work here as well. Capitalism is familiar to us, while an unknown future is just that — unknown. Leaping into the unknown is a scary proposition for many, if not most, people, and they aren’t going to be willing to take that leap until they become convinced they have no future under capitalism.
A basic problem is that reforms are always temporary. That is so because reforms are the products of mass movements that grow big enough to force concessions. We can’t stay in the streets forever, and when movements stand down because they have won some of their demands or when they fade because the pace can’t be sustained or due to disappointment at the limitations of gains won, the concessions begin to be taken back. And given the stranglehold the 1% holds over governments — and the 1%’s ability to close their productive facilities and move them around the world — we find ourselves going backward in terms of pay, working conditions, etc.
This power imbalance has reached extreme levels, accounting for ever more grotesque inequality, and requiring ever more frantic scribbling to excuse it. But nothing lasts forever, and capitalism will be no exception. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and endless growth is choking the planet. What will replace it? Maybe something worse if a global “movement of movements” doesn’t arise. The future is up to us.
Big business is united around the world to preserve its interests while the working class is only suffering its oppression. Don't you think it's time we had an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist global front?
I think it’s past time we had an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist global front. The international capitalist class — industrialists and financiers — are conscious of their interest and are organized. National borders are barriers to be removed for them, which is why so-called “free trade” agreements have become so ubiquitous. These agreements are a product of the “logic” of capitalism: Expand or die. Cut costs or be run out of business. Capitalists themselves have no control over the system that they exploit; they ride the tiger as best they can (and of course have vastly more resources to survive than working people do).
There is no better way to cut costs than to move production to where wages are a tiny percentage of where you had been. When your competitor does that, and thus can now produce for less, you must do the same if you intend to continue to compete.
And when you have to move raw materials and component parts around the world, assemble it in another country and then import into your original country the finished product, tariffs, trade barriers and other measures protecting domestic industry are impediments to be removed. And when you and your fellow capitalists have accrued so much wealth and power that you can not only mold public opinion through the mass media and a host of institutions but you also control public policy through the power of the money you give public office holders, then those domestic protective measures are going to be removed. The powerful won’t stop there, going on to demand that health, safety, environmental and labor rules be knocked down, too, as “barriers” to trade — in reality, as barriers to the highest possible profits regardless of social cost. That’s why “free trade” agreements have increasingly little to do with trade and more to do with cementing into law corporate control of the regulatory process.
Industrialists and financiers operate internationally and organize themselves internationally. Any movement of working people must be international as well.
Today the climate issue is more vital than ever for the survival of the planet. Isn't the human race digging its grave by being in a frenetic capitalist consumer society? Hasn't the time come to look for a serious alternative to this system?
The state of the environment speaks for itself, as does the inability of the current capitalist world system to do anything about it. The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. In a system of intense, unrelenting competition, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.
That expansion in itself causes more pollution and global warming because when production is moved, more energy is used because much more transportation is necessary to move materials longer distances. Nor does capitalism guarantee anyone a job. If the choice is between starvation or taking a job in the fossil fuel industry, obviously people are going to take the job and resist any effort to eliminate that job. Despite our common interest in preserving the environment and reversing global warming, the scramble for survival that capitalism inflicts on working people means that immediate interests — the need to survive — are in alignment with the destructive behavior of capitalist production and not with the broader, long-term interests of their own descendants and their community.
A modern capitalist economy is highly dependent on consumer spending, usually totaling 60 to 70 percent of a global North national economy; thus the ever frenetic effort put into advertising and the extremely wasteful planned obsolescence that makes manufactured products, especially electronics, break down far sooner than they should. Waste is in the financial interest of capitalists, however irrational waste is from any environmental perspective.
Humanity has no choice but to move to an economy based on meeting human need in a cooperative economy that has no need for growth other than keeping pace with the population. Political democracy is impossible without economic democracy, and without political democracy, reversing global warming is impossible. We need look no further than the yearly climate summits, which end with the world’s governments issuing statements that “note” there is a problem and which promise to talk again next year. We need action, not talk.
In one of your articles, you raise the question of big capitalist companies which are exempt from taxes while the citizen is overflowing with taxes. Shouldn't the resistance against capitalism also require a concrete measure that would be to no longer pay the taxes imposed by the dictates of big capital that controls the politicians?
Tempting as it may be to suggest people should stop paying taxes, I believe that is not a realistic approach. Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society — how else are we to raise the funds necessary for schools, and provide social services and necessary infrastructure? A tax revolt might get a particular administration to resign, but the system would be intact and there’d be another similar administration put in its place.
A movement with the goal of forcing corporations to pay a fair share of taxes would be a positive, and success in this arena would be a welcome reform. But it would be a reform only. A reform that could be, and eventually would be, taken back. And even if such tax reforms could be made permanent, it would leave social relations untouched — industrialists would continue to extract surplus value from their employees, financiers would continue to apply the whip to deepen that extraction, and industrialists and financiers would continue to divide the spoils between them while the employees — those who do the work and thus produce the surplus value that is converted into capitalists’ profits — would continue to be immiserated.
A movement serious about bringing a better world into being has to put an end to exploitation and the confiscation of wealth by a privileged few. Tinkering with tax rates is nibbling around the edges.
How do you evaluate the policy and the track record of Donald Trump? At the Davos summit, Trump boasted of having improved the lot of the Americans and listening to him it sounded like he solved all of America's economic problems. Are these puppet presidents who rule the world worthy of governing the people?
Trump has been a disaster for the working people of the U.S., and a disaster for all peoples already under attack by U.S. imperialism. This result was entirely predictable. The Republican Party expected to lose in 2016 and now the demographics of the U.S. are steadily turning against them. Trump winning was a shock, but as he quickly and remorselessly gives the 1% everything they thought possible, capitalists and financiers have rallied behind him despite the significant split in their ranks in the 2016 election.
I suspect the underlying psychology for U.S. capitalists and those politicians who most openly serve them in the Republican Party is that this may be their last chance for a long time and they had better impose their will in as many areas as fast as possible. The damage that has been done will take many years to reverse, even if Trump is ousted in 2020 and a Democratic Party president will have to make more concessions than usual in deference to the voters who would have put them back in the White House.
Trump in every way is acting in his own personal interest, and as long as that interest coincides with the interests of capitalists and financiers, he’ll enjoy their backing. A propaganda offensive even more at odds with reality than in the past is necessary to keep the base on side, and unfortunately the corporate media is up to the assignment.
Can you tell us about your next book?
My next book (What Do We Need Bosses For?) has been written to promote the idea of economic democracy and socialism, and to provide a text to help break down the concept of “there is no alternative” that provides much of the ideological glue that hinders so many people from seeing beyond capitalism even as more people are critical of the dominant economic system. The core of the book are six national-level examples, three historical and three current, of societies that sought to establish new systems of economic democracy on a national or society-wide basis. These six examples are workers’ self-management in Yugoslavia, workers’ control in Prague Spring-era Czechoslovakia, the social-property area of Allende-era Chile, the democratic confederalism of Rojava, the cooperatives of Cuba and the communes of Venezuela.
These efforts of course faced implacable hostility from capitalists and the governments over which capitalists exert decisive influence. I also discuss a few other examples more briefly, analyzing cooperatives in China during the Japanese occupation and during 1970s Britain in the context of that decade’s work-ins; analyzing co-management through the examples of Nyerere-era Tanzania and the concept’s evolution in Germany; and deconstructing Sweden’s abortive effort at taking control of its corporations through buying shares of stock.
Studying these examples, past and present, is essential for creating a better future. Also essential is studying the structures and organizations that were integral to these struggles, and a realistic analysis of what worked, what didn’t work, the good decisions made, the mistakes made and the difficult international context in which they had to operate. The book is a comparative study that intentionally chose the six core examples for their disparate features, ideologies, conditions, geographies and goals.
Knowledge of what has been accomplished in past and present attempts to build new societies, and the capitalist forces that defeated those in the past or are creating difficulties for those ongoing today, can only help prepare us for future struggles. A better world is in our reach if enough of us act on that belief through organization. In societies around the world, working people have struggled to overcome their subordinate positions in capitalist production and to instead take charge of their working lives and their workplaces. That struggle will continue.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Pete Dolack?
Pete Dolack is the author of It’s not over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, a book examining the 20th century’s socialist experiments written with an eye toward doing it better in the 21st century. He also writes about the ongoing economic crisis, and the environmental and political issues connected to it, for several online publications, including CounterPunch and ZNet, and on his Systemic Disorder blog. He is also the labor and economics columnist for CounterPunch’s print magazine. He has finished the manuscript for his next book, What Do We Need Bosses For?, a study of struggles for economic democracy.
As an activist, he has been an organizer with several groups, currently with Trade Justice New York Metro. Among the groups he has organized with in the past are Amnesty International, the National People’s Campaign, New York Workers Against Fascism, the New York State Green Party and the No Spray Coalition.
Published in American Herald Tribune February 28, 2020: https://ahtribune.com/interview/3924-pete-dolack.html