Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Experiencing the Holocaust


When we think we know about an historical event -- the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Jim Crow years in America -- generally what we know is a limited and miscellaneous set of facts, impressions, interpretations, and summaries we have gathered through many avenues -- monographs, novels, films, poetry, historical lectures in college. No one now living has had direct experience of the French Revolution. And even if we came across a time-traveling Parisian from the relevant dates, we would probably quickly learn that this person's perspective on the events he or she lived through is highly limited and perhaps even misleading.

What do most American adults know about the Holocaust? Here are some core beliefs that most people could probably recite. It was a horrible crime. It was a deliberate program of extermination. Over six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered. Other groups were also targeted, including Roma people, homosexuals, and Communists. It was the result of racist Nazi ideology. There were particular agents of this evil -- Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Hess, ... There were countless ordinary people across the face of Europe, in Germany and many other countries, who facilitated this evil -- the "banality of evil". There were some heroes who fought against the killing -- Wallenberg, Schindler, Bonhoeffer, Marc Bloch, the villagers of Le Chambron. There are noted tragic victims -- Anne Frank, Maximilian Kolbe. And the Allies could have done much more to disrupt the killing and to facilitate escape for the Jews of Europe.

But notice how thin this body of beliefs is. It is barely thick enough to constitute "knowledge of the Holocaust". It is encapsulated in just a few sentences. If it has emotional content it is a hazy version of the emotions of pity and sorrow. Is this knowledge adequate to the realities it represents? When we repeat the words, "Never again!", do we know what we are saying? And how can a more full and satisfactory level of knowledge of this horrifying and defining event in the twentieth century be achieved?

Here is one possible answer. There is a different way of gaining a more personal and nuanced understanding of the Holocaust -- an extended visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau (link). It is a museum, an historical site, a killing ground, a place where one and a half million people were systematically murdered.  A visit to the concentration camps is a very different avenue of knowledge -- knowledge through personal, empathic understanding of the vastness and horror of the crimes committed here.

So, for example, one can see the photographs of individual prisoners, their life stories encapsulated by the date and place of their arrest and the date of their death in the gas chambers. One can read a very personal family tragedy in these photographs.


There are mountains of human hair. There are piles of kitchen goods, shoe polish, clothing, combs, and other items of daily life, all carried through their final days of desperation and transit, all stolen from the dead. There are the drawings by child prisoners found on the walls of the barracks, depicting scenes of concentration camp life through the eyes of children. These children too mostly did not survive. 


This drawing by a child depicts something the child must have seen -- the arrival of prisoners and their separation at the platform into those who would perform slave labor and those who would die immediately.

So an intensive visit to Auschwitz is very powerful at the level of emotion and empathy. It makes the horror of the Holocaust both personal and particular. The visitor is led to imaginatively place himself or his loved ones on the platform, in the barracks, in the changing room. The Holocaust is no longer just a set of numbers and facts, but am invitation to vicarious empathic understanding -- and then a mental multiplication of that experience by a factor of millions. 


The museum and grounds of the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau receive over two million visitors a year, from dozens of countries. Some number of these visitors are perhaps unaffected by what they see. But surely large numbers of visitors are profoundly affected, and come to have a much more nuanced and personal understanding of what happened here. And surely this is a more important way of influencing our collective understanding of the Holocaust than any number of monographs.

There is a practical consequence of this kind of more personal experience of an historical horror. This experience strongly pushes the person to consider how the currents of hate that led to this historical crime are present in the world today. It leads one to care in a more particular way about the Rohingya people today, or about the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the United States at Charlottesville. And it brings one to see the danger implicit in anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and other countries today.

In other words, we may speculate that the more particular experience of the Holocaust afforded by a meaningful visit to Auschwitz contributes to creating a different kind of twenty-first century citizen, one who has a deeper visceral appreciation of what these crimes of the Nazi period involved in human terms, and a better and deeper understanding of the enormity of this experience. Equally important, it helps to create a much more specific emotional experience of pity and sorrow that honors the humanity of these millions of human beings who were murdered during this period. 

(I offer special thanks to Teresa Wontor-Cichy, a senior researcher and educator at the museum, for the very intensive tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau that she provided.)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Worker-owned enterprises as a social solution

image: Mondragon headquarters, Arrasate-Mondragon, Spain

Consider some of the most intractable problems we face in contemporary society: rising inequalities between rich and poor, rapid degradation of the environment, loss of control of their lives by the majority of citizens. It might be observed that these problems are the result of a classic conundrum that Marx identified 150 years ago: the separation of society into owners of the means of production and owners of labor power that capitalism depends upon has a logic that leads to bad outcomes. Marx referred to these bad outcomes as "immiseration". The label isn't completely accurate because it implies that workers are materially worse off from decade to decade. But what it gets right is the fact of "relative immiseration" -- the fact that in almost all dimensions of quality of life the bottom 50% of the population in contemporary capitalism lags further and further from the quality of life enjoyed by the top 10%. And this kind of immiseration is getting worse. 

A particularly urgent contemporary version of these problems is the increasing pace of automation of various fields, leading to dramatic reduction for the demand for labor. Intelligent machines replace human workers. 

The central insight of Marx's diagnosis of capitalism is couched in terms of property and power. There is a logic to private ownership of the means of production that predictably leads to certain kinds of outcomes, dynamics that Marx outlined in Capital in fine detail: impersonalization of work relations, squeezing of wages and benefits, replacement of labor with machines, and -- Marx's ultimate accusation -- the creation of periodic crises. Marx anticipated crises of over-production and under-consumption; financial crises; and, if we layer in subsequent thinkers like Lenin, crises of war and imperialism.

At various times in the past century or two social reformers have looked to cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises as a solution for the problems of immiseration created by capitalism. Workers create value through their labor; they understand the technical processes of production; and it makes sense for them to share in the profits created through ownership of the enterprise. (A contemporary example is the Mondragon group of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.) The reasoning is that if workers own a share of the means of production, and if they organize the labor process through some kind of democratic organization, then we might predict that workers' lives would be better, there would be less inequality, and people would have more control over the major institutions affecting their lives -- including the workplace. Stephen Marglin's 1974 article "What do bosses do?" lays out the logic of private versus worker ownership of enterprises (link). Marglin's The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community explores the topic of worker ownership and management from the point of view of reinvigorating the bonds of community in contemporary society.

The logic is pretty clear. When an enterprise is owned by private individuals, their interest is in organizing the enterprise in such a way as to maximize private profits. This means choosing products that will find a large market at a favorable price, organizing the process efficiently, and reducing costs in inputs and labor. Further, the private owner has full authority to organize the labor process in ways that disempower workers. (Think Fordism versus the Volvo team-based production system.) This implies a downward pressure on wages and a preference for labor-saving technology, and it implies a more authoritarian workplace. So capitalist management implies stagnant wages, stagnant demand for labor, rising inequalities, and disagreeable conditions of work. 

When workers own the enterprise the incentives work differently. Workers have an interest in efficiency because their incomes are determined by the overall efficiency of the enterprise. Further, they have a wealth of practical and technical knowledge about production that promises to enhance effectiveness of the production process. Workers will deploy their resources and knowledge intelligently to bring products to the market. And they will organize the labor process in such a way that conforms to the ideal of humanly satisfying work.

The effect of worker-owned enterprises on economic inequalities is complicated. Within the firm the situation is fairly clear: the range of inequalities of income within the firm will depend on a democratic process, and this process will put a brake on excessive salary and wage differentials. And all members of the enterprise are owners; so wealth inequalities are reduced as well. In a mixed economy of private and worker-owned firms, however, the inequalities that exist will depend on both sectors; and the dynamics leading to extensive inequalities in today's world would be found in the mixed economy as well. Moreover, some high-income sectors like finance seem ill suited to being organized as worker-owned enterprises. So it is unclear whether the creation of a meaningful sector of worker-owned enterprises would have a measurable effect on overall wage and wealth inequalities.

There are several ways in which cooperatives might fail as an instrument for progressive reform. First, it might be the case that cooperative management is inherently less efficient, effective, or innovative than capitalism management; so the returns to workers would potentially be lower in an inefficient cooperative than a highly efficient capitalist enterprise. Marglin's arguments in "What do bosses do?" give reasons to doubt this concern as a general feature of cooperatives; he argues that private management does not generally beat worker management at efficiency and innovation. Second, it might be that cooperatives are feasible at a small and medium scale of enterprise, but not feasible for large enterprises like a steel company or IBM. Greater size might magnify the difficulties of coordination and decision-making that are evident in even medium-size worker-owned enterprises. Third, it might be argued that cooperatives themselves are labor-expelling: cooperative members may have an economic incentive to refrain from adding workers to the process in order to keep their own income and wealth shares higher. It would only make economic sense to add a worker when the product of the next worker is greater than the average product; whereas a private owner will add workers at a lower wage when the new worker's product is greater than the marginal product. So an economy in which there is a high proportion of worker-owned cooperatives may produce a high rate of unemployment among non-cooperative members. Finally, worker-owned enterprises will need access to capital; but this means that an uncontrollable portion of the surplus will flow out of the enterprise to the financial sector -- itself a major cause of current rising inequalities. Profits will be jointly owned; but interest and finance costs will flow out of the enterprise to privately owned financial institutions.

And what about automation? Would worker-owned cooperatives invest in substantial labor-replacing automation? Here there are several different scenarios to consider. The key economic fact is that automation reduces per-unit cost. This implies that in a situation of fixed market demand, automation of an enterprise implies reduction of the wage or reduction of the size of the workforce. There appear to be only a few ways out of this box. If it is possible to expand the market for the product at a lower unit price, then it is possible for an equal number of workers to be employed at an equal or higher individual return. If it is not possible to expand the market sufficiently, then the enterprise must either lower the wage or reduce the workforce. Since the enterprise is democratically organized, neither choice is palatable, and per-worker returns will fall. On this scenario, either the work force shrinks or the per-worker return falls.

Worker management has implications for automation in a different way as well. Private owners will select forms of automation based solely on their overall effect on private profits; whereas worker-owned firms will select a form of automation taking the value of a satisfying workplace into account. So we can expect that the pathway of technical change and automation would be different in worker-owned firms than in privately owned firms.

In short, the economic and institutional realities of worker-owned enterprises are not entirely clear. But the concept is promising enough, and there are enough successful real-world examples, to encourage progressive thinkers to reconsider this form of economic organization.

(Here are several earlier posts on issues of institutional design that confront worker-owned enterprises (link, link). Noam Chomsky and Richard Wolff discuss the value of worker-owned cooperatives within capitalism here; link, link. And here is an interesting article by Henry Hansmann on the economics of worker-owned firms in the Yale Law Journal; link.)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Responding to hate


The Southern Poverty Law Center documents that hate groups and hate-based mobilization are on the rise in the United States (link, link). Here is a current map of hate-based groups monitored by SPLC:


Through provocative epithets, slogans, and extremist demonstrations a variety of hate groups -- white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-muslim bigots, anti-immigrant activists, anti-LGBTQ extremists, and others -- are seeking to establish a broader foothold in various parts of the country. They seek to build distrust, hate, and antagonism towards various groups and to undermine the bonds of community that hold together the multi-ethnic, multi-racial communities that exist all over the country.

We have also seen that social media can be used very intentionally by hate groups to cultivate mistrust, fear, and antagonism. This is an unsolved problem: Twitter, Facebook, and other social media are deliberately used to spread and cultivate hate.

These facts are easy to observe. The question here is a harder one: what are some of the ways that organizations and individuals can resist the onslaught of division and hate? How can a multi-ethnic or multi-racial community inoculate itself against the spread and influence of hate? How can our communities maintain and increase their resilience in the face of this organized effort?

Several things seem clear. One is that racist appeals generally seek to cultivate fear and resentment in their intended audiences. They work by cultivating mistrust across groups, framing the "other" as an interloper and a dangerous threat -- a threat to safety, to jobs, and to the hegemony of one's own group. And there is a logic of escalation that is implicit here. When the out-group perceives the growing antagonism and mistrust aimed towards its members, it is likely enough that individuals and organizations will become defensive -- and in their defensive actions they may provide more basis for the hate-based organization to extend its efforts.

So how can a multi-cultural community prepare itself for these kinds of strategies of division and intolerance? It can work hard to cultivate cross-group knowledge, understanding, and trust. Progressive community-based organizations are key. When an ethnically-grounded CBO makes deliberate efforts to involve partners from other communities in its efforts, the organization furthers the knowledge of each other that is available to members of both groups, and it enhances confidence in both groups of the good intentions of the other. A higher level of knowledge across groups is an antidote to hate and mistrust. More deeply, a history of partnership, collaboration, and successful initiatives together provides a solid ground for confidence and trust across groups.

Community leaders have a key role to play in enhancing the resilience of a community. When the mayor of a city is clear in his or her commitment to the equal value of all groups in the city, when he or she maintains a high level of community engagement through city offices, the various social groups in the city are enabled to develop a higher level of trust in the institutions that surround them and the values of respect and equality that their polity embraces. A mayor can be an important source of community cohesion in the face of divisive events and extremist efforts.

Leaders and organizations in civil society are equally impactful in maintaining an environment of trust and respect. Hospitals, universities, faith-based institutions, social-service organizations, and civic clubs all have the capacity to influence the values and behavior of large numbers of people. By being explicit and clear in their commitment to civility, respect, and equality, they can have a major impact on social cohesion as well.

It is crucial that individuals, organizations, and leaders speak out when hate-based incidents occur. By doing so they signal their solidarity with the affected group, and they reaffirm the commitments of respect and equality that they have articulated in easier times.

In the longer term, it is crucial to help children and adolescents understand the values of inclusion, respect, and acceptance of others. This means that it is very important for schools, places of worship, playgrounds, or youth organizations be attuned to the affirmative value of a democratic, multi-cultural society, and what goes into participating in an inclusive social world. Children are naturally open to each other without regard to differences; it is imperative to cultivate and extend that trust and mutual acceptance into adulthood.

Each of these social forces have the potential for signaling and advancing a set of values of inclusion that provide a powerful buffer against the toxic workings of hate. And in the end, we have the ability to stand together and affirm the values of solidarity, mutual respect, and democratic equality that are anathema to the purveyors of hate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a report with some very useful strategies for combating hate at the community level; link. Here is a related post on social resiliency on Medium (link).

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Erik Olin Wright on real utopias


Erik Olin Wright is one of the genuinely important contributors to a progressive sociology in the United States. He was one of the first wave of social scientists and philosophers who created the movement of analytical Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s, and for more than thirty years he has organized much of his own thinking and the collaborations of a number of other scholars around the idea of a "real utopia." Essentially the idea is to make use of good social science research and theory to help to formulate visions of the future of society that incorporate an emancipatory vision of human community while imagining institutions and social arrangements that are feasible and attainable. Erik's book Envisioning Real Utopias provides a manifesto and extensive development of the ideas (link).

The general perspective that Wright has taken in the Real Utopias project is egalitarian and emancipatory. The project has focused on a number of key topics: universal basic income, market socialism, deliberative democracy, alternatives to capitalism, and gender equality, to name just a few. (Earlier posts on UnderstandingSociety have highlighted some of the goals of the real utopias project (link, link). Erik's webpage provides more details.)



Erik agreed to have a conversation with me about the rationale and central convictions that underlie the real utopias project, and the discussion is a valuable contribution to some of the hardest problems of social and political life that we now face -- rising inequalities of wellbeing and opportunity and the emergence of a politics of intolerance, division, and hate.

Thanks, Erik, for spending an afternoon with me thinking and talking about these important challenges. Progressives need new ideas and new imagination about what a future world can look like, and the real utopias project is succeeding in doing exactly that.

(I chose to illustrate this post with the cover of A. V. Chayanov's Theory of Peasant Economy because Chayanov too was a "real utopian," seeking to identify a feasible road to rural emancipation that was neither capitalist nor a version of centralized authoritarian communism. Chayanov was arrested and executed by the Stalinist Soviet secret police in 1937.)

Here is a link to the interview on YouTube (link). Readers who would like to view other interviews with innovative social scientists can click the "interview" page on the right (link).