Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Back in the Lion’s Den: Dieselpunk Politics Revisited

On March 3, 2011, the blogger A.E. Flint posted a powerful article concerning Steampunk titled Why Steam Needs Punk, which many prominent personalities in the Steampunk community endorsed and which sparked quite a few heated conversations on across the Internet. As the Steampunk community grapples with this issue, I thought it might be a good time to revisit a subject I addressed previously.

Many of my readers will recall that in the past I ran a series in which I proposed a working definition of Dieselpunk politics. In the previous articles I included three elements I felt necessary for defining a Dieselpunk politics: 1) contemporary, 2) having decodence in that we can identify it as existing in some form during the 20s through 40s, and 3) Punk in that it emphasizes independence and exists primarily outside the mainstream of politics of that time as well as today. In this posting, I’m going to explore a system called Economic Democracy.

I feel it’s important to note that while in the past the postings on possible Dieselpunks politics were not reflective of my views what follows are indeed my views and is a system that I personally advocate.

Economic Democracy
Because there have been various proposals of the years under the name of Economic Democracy for the purpose of this blog I’m going to give the version as I understand it:
  • An Economic Democracy would be a market economy,
  • The core economic unit would be based on autonomous, democratically-governed, worker-owned cooperatives,
  • In addition, there would be an increase in the number of family-owned enterprises and sole-proprietorships in comparison to the current capitalist system,
  • Both types of enterprises would be networked together by economic councils that would allow for mutual aid and input from the community,
  • There would also be the existence of non-profit and community-owned enterprises for services that cannot be provided by either co-ops or sole-proprietorships,
  • Investment would be provided by a mix of public sources in the form of governmental bodies and non-profit NGO’s rather than private capital, and
  • There would be extensive support to individuals and the various enterprises by local, state, and federal governments, such as universal health care and free education from pre-school through college.
I will begin with reviewing the diesel era connection, then review the contemporary element and end with why I consider this system Punk.

Toyohiko Kagawa

At the age of nine, Toyohiko Kagawa went to a Christian convent for his education where he converted to Christianity. After high school he entered a Christian college and later begun his ministry in Tokyo.

Eventually Kagawa traveled to America to attend Princeton University and returned to Japan to become a labor organizer in which he organized farmers into associations, student cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and credit unions in Japan.

In 1936, Kagawa wrote his landmark book Brotherhood Economics. In it, he laid out a proposed system that would consist of networks of cooperatives organized into federations. The cooperatives within the federations would provide for health care, production, marketing and transport, credit, education, utilities, and distribution. Funds for the creation of cooperatives would be provided by cooperative credit unions. In Kagawa's model, which he called a “Cooperative Commonwealth,” he also kept small family enterprises and other private enterprises with caps on the private enterprises to prevent them from growing large and becoming a threat to the cooperative economy.

Karl Polanyi

Karl Polanyi is known for providing some of the philosophical basis of economic democracy. He was the son of a Hungarian engineer and a Russian mother. When the Nazis invaded he had to flee to England. In 1940 he received a three-year grant to be a Resident Scholar at Bennington College, Vermont. While there, he wrote his most influential book, The Great Transformation.

According to Polanyi we are, above all else, social animals rather than rugged individualists. Polanyi also held that capitalism is unique among the historical modes of production in that the market in the prior modes was “embedded” within the social relations of their societies in which reciprocity, redistribution, and communal obligations dominated. Capitalism changed this by using the State to ascend the market to the position of being considered the sole relationship. He called this ascension the “great transformation.” Finally, he held that the “self-regulated market” (SRM) or free market is not natural but is actually an artificial creation.

Polanyi is known as an advocate for a “functional democracy.” According to Mendell, “Polanyi designed an institutional arrangement of associations of producers and consumers and an overarching “kommune”, a citizen’s assembly of sorts, to work in the collective interest.”

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York and eventually relocated to Chicago. In 1932 Peter Maurin, a Christian Brother, convinced her to publish a paper that promoted Catholic social teachings as well as a peaceful change to society. Day took to the idea and began publishing The Catholic Worker. According to Day, in her 1939 essay The Catholic Worker and Labor, “We pointed out again and again that the issue is not just one of wages and hours, but of ownership and of the dignity of man. It is not State ownership toward which we are working, although we believe that some industries should be run by the government for the common good, it is a more widespread ownership through cooperative ownership.”

Contemporary Advocates
Economic Democracy currently has a small but growing numbers of supporters. The most widely known is David Schweickart who is a Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and the author of several books on the subject such as After Capitalism. Another prominent Economic Democracy advocate is Gary Dorrien, who is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His recent book is Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice.

Economic Democracy as Punk
You, the reader, may be thinking that this is all fine but is Economic Democracy Punk? I say it is for two primary reasons.

Economic Democracy is about individual freedom, which rests at the heart of Punk, because its goal is to free the individual from corporate control while at the same time not allowing State control. In an Economic Democracy the individuals would own and control, either directly or through election of worker councils who would hire or appoint managers, their own economic enterprises without either corporate or State masters.

Another reason its Punk is that it has always been and still is outside the mainstream of the Right, Center or Left. The political Right opposes it because it would eliminate the existence of private capital and corporations. On the political Left, the Marxists oppose it because there would still be markets. Finally, the political Center of Social Democrats opposes it because it’s considered too radical for the same reason as the political Right in that it would eliminate private capital even though they would support giving workers more control over the economy, which the Left advocates. Economic Democracy advocates are outsiders from everyone in the political spectrum, which, in my opinion, is very Punk.

So there you have it, another proposed Dieselpunk political system. Unlike the previous proposals posted, this one isn’t a form of Anarchy for it maintains an important role of the State through investment, public services and at times community ownership of certain enterprises when necessary.

I would also like to state that, for me, Economic Democracy is an important aspect the Punk of Dieselpunk. It’s my opinion that Economic Democracy gives our genre a common political ground with Steampunk as presented by A.E. Flint in her blog. Our two genres not only share the practice of using source material from prior historical eras but also share a common political bond.

Even if you don’t agree me and with my support of an Economic Democracy, I hope you found it and the biographies of the diesel era advocates interesting.


Batou said...

Dear Mr. Amyett,

Hello! An excellent article, thank you yet again! I figured I'd add my own bit here... found a clever video, which though it has a psudo-"rap" theme to it, it covers the conventions between Keynes and Hayek economic theories... and has a nice Dieselpunk boxing scene in it as well! Its located here...

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thank you so much for the video. That was excellent!

And a special thank you for your kind words. Those are very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

The reason I given up on steampunk – goodbye, farewell, & good riddance – is this obsession with politics. Now, I guess, it's time to forget about dieselpunk as well.

I didn't like punk [rock] back in the dark ages (the 70s), neither the music nor the politics, and I still don't.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

I would think it's odd that a person would give up on anything because one blogger, such as I, expressed an opinion that differs from his or her own. Doing such surrenders yourself to the whims of others.

However, it's your life and you can do as you wish. I wish you luck.

Anonymous said...

If it had been only one rather then a screaming deluge … Pavlov's dog you know (or the Web as a Skinner box): after reading too many put-punk-pack-in-steampunk blogs and whatnots, when I see "steampunk", I feel sick & depressed.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Hmmm, I'm not sure where you hang out on the web. While I haven't participated in a while at Brass Goggles, when I was there, I found little or no political aspects to their discussions. I participate primarily in Dieselpunks Forum, which you'll find linked to from my blog. And we almost never discuss anything political. And when we do it's usually because I'm the one who instigated it. :) We're a friendly and very accepting group. You're welcomed to check us out.

I think the key is to remember that whether you're Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Cyberpunk or whatever never, ever, allow anyone, myself included, limit you.

Again, I wish you the best of luck.

Anonymous said...

Well, if a (sub)genre, say Steampunk, gets firmly associated with a certain political inclination and you either dislike politics altogether, or your politics are otherwise, you might be disinclined to label what you do "Steampunk" and instead prefer "Vernian retro-futuristic techno-fantasy" or some such.

(The Great Steampunk Debate was a rather unfriendly happening …)

/Another Anonymous Anybody

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

I recall the debate and I avoided it on purpose.

My opinion is still the same. No one tells me what to think. And that's my recommendation for anyone.