Yesterday during one of my Twitter rants, I reintroduced an idea I had floated several years ago: namely, that the creation of a corporation that could actively reorganize production while expanding could be a possible vehicle for leftist goals. After all, if the corporation is the most powerful form of organization in the world today, why shouldn’t we have one?
When I first brought up the idea, some people objected that any corporation would be essentially forced to make ever-greater profits and therefore give up on the goals a leftist corporation would presumably have. While it’s true that every business has to “make money,” it is not the case that every business must always make more and more profit. In the long run, a business simply has to remain solvent, to break even — making a profit is a prudent way to build up a reserve for lean times, but the demand for ever-greater returns is generated by the stock market-driven model of contemporary capitalism. The reason that companies participating in this regime “have to” keep making ever greater profits (or do things like laying off employees or cutting wages that market participants, for ideological reasons, believe will lead to greater profits) is that if they don’t, shareholders can replace management and force them to make those changes. These pressures do not hold in the same way for a privately-held company. If the owners and board of directors are content with modest profits, a company can continue more or less indefinitely at that level. Bain Capital might come along and offer to buy out the company in order to apply the more dominant model, but they have no way of forcing a company to sell if it doesn’t want to. While there’s no way to absolutely defend against eventually having people in charge who will be willing to sell out, it should be possible to organize the People’s Corporation in such a way that it would be extremely unlikely. In short, the people making this objection were treating the self-justification of contemporary finance-driven capital as an immutable economic law.
Yet the People’s Corporation would face competition in whatever line of business it operated in (and I think it more or less wouldn’t matter which line that was to start). Surely the more exploitative corporations would have an edge! I think the case of Apple is instructive here, though. Their profit margins are huge, and in fact they are stockpiling more money than they know what to do with. There is ample “room” to pay workers much more while still charging a similar price. There are good reasons that trying to compete on price in Apple’s space would not be a smart strategy, but the point of the example is that cutting labor costs is not the only way to compete on price — that is an ideological illusion. Indeed, the People’s Corporation would have room to compete on price from the other direction: while its labor costs would be higher, it would not need to pay obscene executive salaries or dividends or buy back its shares or do any of the other things that amount to throwing the company’s money away. I’d imagine that using local labor forces would result in lower administrative overhead that would help to make up for the difference in labor costs as well.
On purely economic grounds, then, I think it’s doable. The notion that corporations “have to” behave as they do behave is partly an ideological illusion and partly a result of the way corporations relate to the stock market — and there’s no need for the People’s Corporation to be publicly traded. The more serious concern, I think, is whether this would really change things. After all, one could say that the 20th Century saw the rise of a People’s Corporation already, and it was called the Soviet Union. That experience does not seem to provide an attractive model, nor did it prove sustainable — indeed, the equivalent of the People’s Corporation selling out and going public basically did occur in the end.
This is where I’d draw on Postone’s critique of traditional Marxism. The problem in the Soviet Union was that their solutions focused on the realm of distribution without really problematizing the mode of production — in fact, their goal was to replicate the capitalist mode of production as quickly and aggressively as possible, believing that removing the distortions introduced by market distribution would actually lead to better results and that then they could instrumentalize the machinery for other ends. The result was mass exploitation of labor and the environment for the purpose of building up as much fixed capital (as opposed to money capital) as possible.
The way I envision the People’s Corporation is that it would change the mode of production, at least to some degree. Environmental sustainability (and ultimately, environmental rehabilitation) would have to be “baked in” from the beginning — I suggested building everything from the ground up for recycling, but even if that turns out to be the wrong emphasis (as a commenter suggested), the environmental concern would have to be central. The People’s Corporation wouldn’t expand for its own sake, but in order to displace and ultimately replace the current mode of production entirely. It wouldn’t be a matter of giving people an ethical option — the goal would be to ultimately deprive them of the unethical option by putting exploitative, polluting companies out of business (or buying them out and restructuring their operations in line with the People’s Corporation’s goals).
Obviously this doesn’t entirely get rid of the problem of alienated labor and the commodity-form, which would be the ultimate communist horizon — but it could be a step in that direction, more so than my distribution-focused advocacy of a universal basic income. (If Emily’s around, I hope she appreciates that her comments were not entirely in vain in that thread.)
I think what’s important about this proposal in the short-term, though, is that it envisions a concrete way that the left could get access to actual material resources — stemming from ongoing, sustainable production rather than from begging for donations. That’s what the left had when it was at its strongest (whether funding from trade unions or from the early Soviet Union), and I think that’s what the left needs more now than an abstract sense of “organization” or “discipline.” No amount of “discipline” is going to change the fact that the left cannot afford to support many full-time militants or to fund its own presses or researchers, for example. Yes, organization can be very powerful, but not if it doesn’t have material resources behind it — and by the same token, having access to greater material resources would allow more room for experimentation in terms of strategy, etc., which is to say that we could afford to try and fail once in a while.
What made the Communist Party in Russia powerful wasn’t simply that they were a disciplined Party, but that they gained control over the economic apparatus of a vast, resource-rich country through a series of events that probably could never have been planned. The notion that organization and discipline as such will directly produce the desired results strikes me as more akin to a Stalinist voluntarism than to a Marxist materialism.
But it’s not as though I actually know how to bring this about, etc., so I’m open to suggestions.