In her post “Organizing for Power: Stealing Fire From the Gods“, Amelia Davenport argued for leftist organizers to reclaim the ideas of Taylor’s Scientific Management, making a broader argument for the relevance of cybernetics, cultural revolution in the workers’ movement, and a Promethean vision of socialism.
“There are two things wrong with the role of science in our society. One is its use as a tool of power, wherever that is concentrated by economic forces. The other is its elite image.” (Stafford Beer, ‘Designing Freedom’)
Originally Marx and Engels called their systematic, knowledge-based vision of socialist theory “scientific socialism” because it took an understanding of the world, rather than ideal ends, as its basis. But, as Davenport points out, if Marx’s thesis that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point is to change it” is valid, then there is a need to transcend the reflective and abstract nature of scientific socialism and get to some concrete formulations as to what it might actually be like in contemporary contexts.
Although I’m not convinced by the universalizing (imperialism) suggested in the article, I find value in rethinking a constructionist politics that takes science seriously enough to venture possible re-engineering of large social milieus – especially in the context of potential Green New Deals.
Below are some of the most interesting passages from the article:
On the need for “practical science”:
Symptomatic of leftist theory is a tendency to look at the concrete situation, identify the problem, apply a Marxist (or other) analysis, and present a conclusion to the world. This tendency, however, represents a petty-bourgeois outlook where intellectuals present ideas that they expect workers to struggle toward on their own merits. It is a rationalistic method rather than a scientific approach to organizing. But, while abstract discussion has a role, organizing is a practical science. What is missing is how to get from here to there. While programmatic vision is important for giving direction to organizing, it is impossible to realize your goals without systemic analysis. If you aren’t concretely building towards your goals, everything you say is hot air.
Some pretty sobering comments on Leftist organizing, that hit way to close to home:
The “initiative and incentive” model of management is the standard method of leftist groups. “Organizers,” through their personal charisma and promise of winning immediate gains, incentivize people to use their initiative towards their campaigns. Group members receive general tasks and an expectation to complete them, either by themselves or with a few other people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the top-down orders of the leadership or democratic vote by the group; activists are tacitly encouraged to take on an unsustainable load, leading to burnout. Organizers don’t teach activists to draw healthy boundaries between their own needs and what is reasonable to contribute. If they don’t burn out, activists drop out as they lose interest in work that comes to seem increasingly futile. Motivating activists in leftist organizations is a mixture of generating enthusiasm through charismatic interventions by leaders (whether they consider themselves leaders or not) or through peer pressure and guilt which organizers leverage to build commitment. The routine “cancellation” of leftists by activists and policing of cultural consumption are examples of mechanisms for disciplining activists to the will of organizers. While leaders may participate in the work directly, in vanguardist sects their role is to focus on developing theory and broad strategy. In the case of horizontal sects, organizers perform the same work as other rank-and-file members to the same results…
For revolutionaries, the uneven distribution of skill is a challenge to overcome. The ability to conduct a meeting, do accounting, create propaganda, give a speech, take minutes, edit a publication, maintain a community garden, and so on are skills which it is necessary for as many members of the movement to possess as possible. Some people may have an inclination towards one area, but it is critical for organizers to move beyond their comfort zones and take on new expertise. Revolutionary organizations must not end up dependent on a few people.
And then there is this:
Action proves reliability. If someone shows they can handle smaller tasks with lower stakes, the movement can trust them with larger, complex tasks. But, failing to complete tasks isn’t an individual moral failing. Their comrades should apply themselves to solving the issue of reliability. We solve problems by identifying the concrete source of the issue and mitigating or solving it. When someone repeatedly fails to show up to actions because of parental responsibilities, providing childcare may be an appropriate solution. If a union committee member fails to do a one-on-one they signed up for out of nervousness, it is an opportunity to boost their morale and confidence. Increasing reliability has positive benefits for individuals just as much as for the group; it serves as a direct and immediate means to transformatively benefit those who participate in class struggle.
The need for adapting to revolutionary strategy to shifting conditions via scientific analysis:
Through the application of social scientific analysis, we may discover that in one set of conditions the development of localized food systems is part and parcel of the socialist transformation of society. On the other hand, it may be the case that centralized agriculture is the best way to sustainably feed the masses while using as little land as possible. More important than any given conclusion is how we reach those conclusions, because it means that as conditions change, so too can the strategies the revolutionary movement uses to meet those conditions.
There are methods to this madness viz. “practical education”:
In scientific management, the principal method of educating people in new methods is not just lecturing at them or using abstract arguments. Instead, managers use object-lessons that allow the worker to see firsthand why the new methods are superior and draw their own conclusions. Feedback and explanations are used to supplement the practical education.
Very nice distinction right here (for my neo-humanist homies):
Every advance in science serves as the catalyst for further development of the political currents in society. What distinguishes the revolutionary and emancipationist currents from reactionary currents is their commitment to using the new insights in science for undermining social hierarchies and increasing material freedoms.
Inclusivity for delusional classes:
All sections of the petty bourgeoisie are at constant risk of proletarianization as some big capitalist could automate their work, break their union, or introduce a new contracting system that disempowers them. Our movement has room for members of these layers, and we need their skills to construct the Co-operative Commonwealth, but only insofar as we win them to the proletarian camp.
On the necessity of preparatory class cultural warfare and capacity building:
A cultural revolution of the working-class movement is a continual process that must begin prior to the seizure of power by the class if something approaching the withering of the state is possible. Had the masses already possessed at least some of the tools of self-government, the balance of power between the organizing class and the proletariat might have been different. It will require the dictatorship of the proletariat to cement, but the cultural revolution cannot wait on the seizure of formal political power. “Knowledge is power” is the bedrock of the socialist transformation of production.
You could also go read the entire article: here – if you are so inclined.