Wednesday, May 16, 2012


 The short answer is "yes". In fact, given the lower "neighbourhood costs" of rail versus road traffic they will run even more frequently.This article is the first of what I hope will be a series on how things might be organized in an anarchist society. What follows is not some sort of program that is closed to change and learning from experience. It is merely musing and a demonstration that things can be organized quite diffrently than they way that they are.

     To begin with...what is a railroad.? It is an enterprise with fixed capital consisting of lines, rolling stock and facilities. It is also, however, a social enterprise wherein people cooperate in the doing of useful work. In other words it is a social system. Today it is assumed that a seperate caste of "managers" is necessaryfor the smooth functioning of this network. The idea that centralized control is "necessary" runs up against the reality that there are many different rail companies, all of which have agreed without central direction to use the lines cooperatively in many cases.

     Such cooperation is a mere shadow of the .cooperation that would be required to run the rails in a lbertarian fashion. It does, howevev show that such a thing is possible.In actual fact the role of management is quite minimal in the day to day operation of a railroad. To a large extent they are merely the "harassment team" whose goal is supposedly the direction of a system that basically runs itself by routine.

     All that is quite fine you may say, but what sort of structure could substitute for what little use management actually has ? Delving back in anarchist history we submit the union structure of the Spanish CNT as proof, a strucure that during the first years of the Spanish Civil War actually worked and, in fact increased production and efficiency in many enterprises.The CNT had a basic dual unionism.  On the one hand it favoured "industrial unions" that would represent all of the workers in a certain workplace and, beyond that, in the whole of an industry. This was balanced by the "geographic union" of all workers in a given community. This structure was not only useful for the day to day fight against the bosses. It also was capable of running production on its own in the abscence of  said bosses.

     What would a modern equivalent look like ? Well one thing is for sure. It would involve a lot of bargaining. The difference between this self management and the present managerial system would be that workers organized in a libertarian fashion would have every incentive to improve the overall functioning of the enterprise, as opposed to the present adversarial system of workers versus management. There would remain only the "personal" conflicts present in all human groups. There would not  be a zero sum game as it is today where the gain of one is the automatic loss of the other.

      What would be the best way to organize so that the libertarian way ends up better than our own class based system ?  Some might say that the traditional industrial/geograpic organization of the CNT is totally sufficient. Here in North America the most popular concept is the traditional IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) model whereby industrial unionism is sufficient in itself. Personaslly I favour a triad of organization: industrial/craft and geographic. I think that the geographic locals are the best body to make final decisions about such things as investment, compensation, etc. and to negotiate with other organizations in a libertarian society.

     I see the need for craft organization in order to identify specific "small" problems. The safety of a system is very much dpendant on the individual identification of problems by certain occupations. Improvements to a system are likewise most likely first noticed and put forward by the "specialists" in a given activity. Once a problem is identified it would first be presented to either the trade association or to the geographical union. Unless the problem was one that is necessarily wide in geographic scale there would hardly be any need to involve the larger industrial union at this point. The industrial union would, however, be able to consult to see if the problem was widespread, and it would make suggestions to other geographic or trade unions based on the one union's presentation.

      The industrial union, along with the parallel geographic general assembly of workers on the railroad would have to be involved if the correction of a situation required resources that would be held by either the local assembly or the industrial union. Sometimes the resources needed would be beyond those of either the local assembly(s) or even the industrial union. In this case it would require the assistance of larger federations of local citizens' groups. Depending upon the size of such organis of local democracy there would be either informal ties with cross membership of the workers and the citizens' assembly or more formal cross representation. This, of course, would also depend upon the occupational strucure of the organs of neighbourhood self management.

     In any case there would have to be bargaining involved amongst the various groups as to the best way to use available resources. This would be utterly different from the present labour/management bargaining for the simple reason that it would not be a zero sum game. There would be not be a situation where the gain of one was the loss of the other. This bargaining would be carried on amongst people looking for a cooperative solution that would benefit all. Not that there wouldn't be disagreements. Far from it. Neither would there cease to be self interest and the conflicts that arise from such. It is quite likely that people in one town would feel that resources should be used in completely different ways.

     That's all well and fine you may say, but how would the railway workers "earn a living" ? Vewry pointed question ! The traditional anarchocommunist view is that "social solidarity" would be strong enough in a stateless society so that one could depend on the "good will" (enforced by social pressure such a shaming) of members of society to volunteer their work in exchange for free access to community goods. Whjatever they may, housing, recreation, health services, etc..

      Myself I am a little more doubtful. Maybe the anarchocommunist vision is viable, but I for one worry that there will be too many "freeloaders" in the abscence of punishment. Dependence on "social shaming" for such punishment would assume a rather particularist community to a degree that I would find unacceptable.Not that anarchism doesn't involve a recreation of community, but should such community be inward looking and omnipotent ? I personally don't think so. This tension between community and individual initiative has been simulataneously discussed and ignored in the anarchist tradition (depending on who you read). It is the central point in Ursula LeGuin's. 'The Dispossed'.

      On the other hands there are those such as the American individualists/mutualists/left libertarians who believe that all (or the vast majority) of economic transactions should be governed by a "free market". I will not go deeply into their beliefs here except to note that they run up against multiple examples of "natural monopoly" such as the railroads discussed in this post.

     Personally I am wary of "absolute solutions". In the world of the ecomomy I think it is best to hold to a pluralism of systems or, putting it another way, a "mixed economy". In an anarchist society all of the present "socialized" ie free and "communistic" services and goods would remain free. In addition I think that other matters available only in the market economy should also become free ie "communistic". There is, however, a big gap between saying that the essentials of life should be free and available to all and saying that each person can take what he wants from common stores. Everybody should have shelter and beyond "shelter" a home.  Yet the demand for mansions cannot be accomodated by any foreseeable society. This is even including the general realization that they are an infinite amount of work in the abscence of paid labour.

      Similarily everyone in a society should have the right to season appropriate footware. This doesn't mean, however, that each and any demand for unique shoes such as green elf slippers with bells or the felt lined winter version of same should be a matter of "ask and get". Personally I think there should be a subsidiary market economy where such "luxuries" could be purchased in units of whatever "alternate currency" that might replace the present currency of states.Who knows what these alternative curriencies might be ? They may be "labour certificates" issued by the syndicates. They might be "local currency" of the community. They might be credit union backed transferable  (from place to place and industry to industry) funds. The important thing is that they would not be open for monetary speculation.

     So back to the railways and their everyday operation in the abscence of management. The first thing to note is that the railway workers would have equal access to any and all free services provided by the local community. Doubtless, however, this would not satisfy the railway workers' sense of justice. However they might like to pay themselves (equally, by family size, by difficulty of job, by seniority and so on) should be their choice alone. I'd suggest that a credit union of each railway centre organizeed in a federation of credit unions would be the best way for railway workers to approach negotiations with the wider community about the worth of their labour and the subsequent compensation. I can see the credit unions engaging in almost endless negotiations to not only determine what "luxuries" railway workers are entitles to locally but also how to make such credits transferable from locality to locality. Movement and vacations should, after all, continue to exist.

      Summing up it can be seen that a viable anarchist society at least in the case of this one public aminity is the furthest thing from the "chaos" that anarchism is often described as, and which is too often imitated and praised by fringe elements in anarchism. An anarchist society is actually a far more organized society than they we "enjoy" now. Yes, it would require more time devoted to decision making than is presently the case for most (all ?) workers, but one might hope that this would be balanced by a decrease in "busy work" mandated by management and compensated by the feeling of "real power"  and meaning of advancing ones' own interest under self management.

      God knows there is more than enough of specifics I have left out of this post. I am not wedded to the exact schemata presented here. The wisdom of crowds after all.... No doubt an anarchist society would be different in many points than what I have sketched above. I would hope that others might find organizational forms that were more democratic, more efficient and more productive of humam liberty.My whole pont, however, is that "YES" the trains will run on time under anarchism. The way  they will be organized will be far different from today, but each change will be an improvement on the present situation.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In an anarchist society where every one is free to do what they want, who will make the trains run on time?
The railroaders of course!