After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy

Seymour Melman, After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2001).

Seymour Melman is a remarkable man: a student in the New York Public School system, 1922-35, resident of an Israeli kibbutz, 1939-40, a professor of Industrial Engineering at Columbia University (now emeritus), a member of liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay’s “Commission on Air Pollution in New York,” co-chair for fifteen years of SANE (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), and the author of eleven books, editor of another six, and author of countless scholarly and popular articles. Melman has long been concerned with forms of workplace organization, but he is most widely known as a passionate critic of “pentagon capitalism” and passionate advocate of “economic conversion” from military to non-military production. The book under review brings together these two longstanding interests: the possibilities for disalienated work and a demilitarized economy.

Before commencing the review, let me confess a peculiar interest. I did a double-take on entering the University of Chicago bookstore in the spring of 2002, and seeing Melman’s book prominently displayed: After Capitalism-a book with the exact title of the one I had written, but which was not to appear until the following summer. (Melman’s book has a subtitle, mine does not, but the main title is the same.) I bought a copy at once, elated that someone else (a prominent someone at that) was thinking along lines similar to my own, but also (of course) worried that I’d been scooped.

In fact, Melman’s book and my own are very different works. Mine is a short book that lays out in detail a model of a post-capitalist economy, compares it with the dominant theoretical model of capitalism, then discusses the transition from capitalism to socialism. Melman’s is a long book that eschews any sort of modeling, analyzing instead the reality of the contemporary U.S. economy, while avoiding the “S-word” altogether.

This is not the place to compare our two books. Let me stick to Melman’s.

On the one hand, the book is a mess. The voluminous data are not well-organized. The basic thesis is not well defended. The book is repetitious.

On the other hand, the book is fascinating. One has the sense that Melman is trying to give the reader a sampling of everything he knows about our contemporary economy and those experiments that suggest a humane alternative. And he knows quite a lot: about our “permanent war economy,” deindustrialization, the rise of temporary work, the prison-industrial complex, the CEO scam of “deferred compensation,” poverty in America, the Joint Strike Fighter project (the most expensive single weapons system in history-unveiled in 1996), the pathetic state of New York City infrastructure, the Russian military-industrial complex, etc. etc. (I could continue this list with dozens of items more.) Melman draws on published and unpublished studies, published data, his re- working of published data, studies that he has overseen, and his own personal experience. (What the book provides is indeed but a sampling. Melman informs the reader that he has donated his research files for this book, organized by chapters, to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library of Columbia University, to be accessible to any interested scholar.)

Still, there are problems. The most serious concern the basic thesis. “It is the purpose of this book to demonstrate that the normal workings of corporate and government managerial control over workers have set in motion a chain reaction that has resulted in grave production weaknesses in the U.S. economy… Alongside these effects-unanticipated by conventional wisdom-a process of change has been set in motion that promises to supplant capitalism as we have known it” (8). This is a two-part thesis: (a) there are grave production weaknesses in the U.S. economy; (b) a process is underway that will lead to the supplanting of capitalism by workplace democracy.

Melman sees the principal culprit responsible for (a) to be the military-industrial complex. The Pentagon is by far the largest “corporation” in America, employing, directly and indirectly, some six million people and overseeing a budget of nearly $300 billion (now almost $400b). This “corporation” is hugely inefficient, and has distorted our economy hugely for the worse. It is nothing less than “a highly destructive, high-tech sewer” (420). The evidence Melman mounts for his case is substantial, worthy of careful attention.

One wishes, however, that he had addressed the major counterargument. If U.S capitalism has been so distorted by military spending as Melman claims, why does the U.S. economy still seem to be the envy of the world? A decade ago Japan and Germany, neither of which spends a fraction of what we spend on the military (a fact highlighted by Melman), were viewed as serious economic rivals. No more. The “American model” seems to have prevailed (at least for now). Is it true that a demilitarized capitalism would be more productive than a permanent war economy, or does a “healthy” capitalism require the demand stimulus that military spending provides? If the United States were to demilitarize, would we get a more efficient economy-or global depression? Melman should have addressed this issue. Why have the Japanese and German models lost their luster?

What about the transition out of capitalism-part (b) of the basic thesis? Melman points to some hopeful signs. He notes the existence of successful, more democratic arrangements: the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, various Israeli kibbutzim, co-determination in Germany, the producer networks in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. He writes approvingly of the Canadian labor-sponsored investment funds. Above all, he focuses on the U.S. labor movement, which, he thinks, will be the principal agent in getting us beyond capitalism. He analyzes recent labor contracts negotiated by the United Steelworkers of America, and the UAW contract governing the Saturn plant in Nashville, Tennessee. He sees organized labor as beginning to claim more decision-making rights for workers. Even more important, in his view, is the growing tendency of white-collar, professional employees to unionize: doctors, nurses, health care workers, graduate students, college and university faculty. The entry of more and more such people into the ranks of organized labor will change the character of the labor movement, both as it is perceived from the outside and as it operates internally.

Melman duly notes, in some detail, the counterforces: corporate America’s assault on the labor movement, deindustrialization, an immigration policy that keeps wage demands in check, the reinstitution of Taylorism with a vengeance. But he is confident that this heightening of workplace alienation will be followed by an even more powerful movement toward “disalienation.” Workers will fight back. They are already fighting back. Ultimately, they will win. We will win.

But will we? And what exactly will we win? Melman, no more than Marx, offers a blueprint for the future, not even a sketch. (In a footnote Melman pays tribute to Marx and claims allegiance to Marx’s “methodological framework” [132].) Will this new economy be recognizably socialist? Will it be a form of “market socialism”? Will we still rely on private savings for investment? Will investment be determined by market criteria? Will some form of centralized or decentralized planning supplant the market? Melman does not address any of these questions, not even perfunctorily. He voices his strong confidence that there is disalienated, demilitarized life after capitalism-but this confidence is based on faith. It is not an “unavoidable conclusion” (390), the “main finding of this investigation” (429). The evidence he presents, alas, is far more ambiguous.

In the final analysis, this criticism is a quibble. No informed, intelligent reader expects a book to demonstrate conclusively that the humane world so many of us believe to be possible will in fact come into being. It would be a grave mistake to discount Melman’s book because it can’t deliver on its grand claim. The book is a treasure-trove of information and a testimony of hope. There won’t be a reader who will fail to learn something important from it

Reviewed by David Schweickart
Loyola University, Chicago

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