Azure Three Bezants: Oligarchic Syndicalism

In which we meet the new boss, who may not be literally the same as the old boss but who bears him a strong family resemblance and has far fewer checks on his power.

Socialism is, in one common definition, a system of economic organisation in which the workers own the means of production. A short phrase! But one that hides a multitude of complexities; for it requires definition of ‘workers’, ‘own’, and ‘production’. The concept of ownership, in particular, is a complex one. To own an object means – stripped to essentials – that you claim the right to exclude others from using it, and that most of those others will recognise your claim and aid you in enforcing it. But if two people own something, so that neither can exclude the other – then which of them has the right to decide how the object shall be used?

The meaning of “means of production” is less fraught, but not without edge cases. A machine tool in a factory is a means of production; but what about the house that shelters the worker using it, or the streetcar that brings him from that house to the factory? And just who are these workers, anyway; the man carefully guiding the metal through the machine tool is one, no doubt, but what of the man who decides what to make, or where to deliver it? It is very well to declare a Revolution that will overturn all the old order and usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the proletariat is still going to have to decide these questions before it can dictate anything; and in the long term it is not very practical to do so by consensus of several million people.

In Egypt the proletariat decided in a straightforward, familiar way. Every physical object was a means of production, and thus owned by the workers (though retaining de facto individual ownership for minor personal chattels such as toothbrushes); and ownership by the workers was implemented through the Party. The Party had the right to decide what each of its factories, in principle each of its machine tools, should produce; it exercised this right through immense five-year plans, thousands of pages long, detailing what each province should build, import, produce, and export. In Egyptian communist theory, the five-year plans existed before they were written down, each one being merely a part of The Plan, the century-spanning Platonic document that detailed, down to individual marriages and timing of children, how socialism was to be achieved. The Plan, in its full glory, was inaccessible to mere humans; thus the five-year plans were approximations, the best that could be done with human intelligence and intuition.

The five-year plans were produced by the vast Ministry of Production, a huge concrete beehive – not a metaphor; in a grandiose attempt at inculcating the spirit of hard work, the building was actually shaped like a blunt striated cone – dominating the skyline of Sennar. The building housed over forty thousand workers, giving rise to the saying that it could produce a century of planning in a single day. Its organisational hierarchy mirrored the physical one, the lowest level being divided into departments that produced plans for single provinces, which were sent up a floor for reconciliation into plans for departments, then regions, and so on up the administrative subdivisions of Egypt until, at the very apex, the immense national plan covering all of Africa was approved by the Secretary-General himself, initially Ahmed al-Nasr. This was no formality; the archives of the Ministry contain many early drafts of five-year plans in which every page – thousands of them – have marginal annotations by al-Nasr, mostly revisions to the production quotas, but also orders for additional factories, new railroads, and in some cases, heads to be chopped off for incompetence. The immense capacity for work, and ability to juggle detail, of the man at the top was a strong contributing factor to the explosive growth in Egyptian industrial output during the first years of the Revolution. On the other hand, since al-Nasr had, in the final analysis, the power to order any physical object used in any way he chose, and the army and bureaucrats to see his decrees enforced, a cynical person might say that ownership by the workers had been implemented as ownership by al-Nasr, and that the whole African continent was in reality owned by a single man… just as it had been under the Pharaohs before Christ was born.

The Venetians, while employing essentially the same rhetoric about ownership of the means of production, dictatorship of the proletariat, and opposition to the dialectically inevitable imperialism of late-stage capitalism, arranged their affairs quite differently. Building on the pre-Revolutionary division of the workers into unions, guilds, and craftsmen’s committees, they gave each union local control of its own factory, then assigned the unions into nation-spanning Syndicates of different job classifications. Thus there was the Syndicate of Labour, the Syndicate of Clerks, the Syndicate of Seamen, and so on. Each Syndicate had one vote in the People’s Senate; the several million Labourers thus shared one vote at the highest level, while the Syndicate of Importers and Exporters (‘Merchants’ was considered too capitalistic for the new order), the Syndicate of Industrial Supply (or ‘capitalists’, in an older jargon) and the Syndicate of Landowners, which between them had perhaps a hundred thousand members, controlled three. The office of Doge was abolished, but it is worth noting that the ‘Duce’, the commander of the Popolo in Armi, had the same powers to declare war and make peace, and that no Duce was ever appointed without the support of the “Importers and Exporters” and the “Industrial Suppliers”.

Economically this was not all that different from the prewar situation; each factory decided for itself how much to produce, where to get supplies, and how much to pay the owners in dividends. The difference was that the owners were now the workers’ collectives; but in principle that could have been the case under laissez-faire capitalism as well, if the workers had pooled their resources to buy or build the factories. The principle of the joint-stock company is indifferent to who draws the dividends; that is the whole purpose of making shares transferable. But politically, things had changed. The inevitable postwar purge killed many of the old patrician families of Venice, especially among the Contarini and Dandolo; the Aiello lost most of their top leadership, the men who had sat in the Senate, but their younger rank-and-file largely escaped by means of joining the Revolution. After the war they dominated the Syndicates of Importers and Exporters, Industrial Supply, Landowners, and Shipowners, and thus directly controlled a voting bloc of one-third of the People’s Senate. In addition they placed some of their collateral branches in the Syndicates of Clerks, Military Experts (‘officers’ as they had once been known) and Sailors, and these well-funded men were often able to win election as Syndics, the representatives of their Syndicates on the People’s Senate. For the generation following the Revolution, in fact, a plain majority of the People’s Senate were Aiello, and they made sure to appoint one of their own as Duce. Since in the old Senate the Aiello had never been more than one-fourth of the members, and the People’s Senate had many powers that the Senate had delegated (not necessarily intentionally) to the less-well-known parts of Venice’s government such as the Committee on Zoning, the main political effect of the Revolution was to concentrate power in Aiello hands.

Azure three bezants surcharged a hammer and sickle crossed gules.

We had a fairly peaceful session except for the interpersonal drama. Fox and England began the session at war, as they had been for some time; the Foxy army had overrun the English and Danish colonies all over the Americas, and a large number of them were in South America completing the occupation. Precisely in this week, Bruce (playing England, also being GM and editor) managed to get around to the large edit of all his American colonies to Blayne’s new player slot, the United Colonies; which had the unfortunate side effect of stranding the Foxy troops in South America (due to the changed ownership of the bottleneck in Central America), unless they could get military access through the United Colonies. Blayne was gone for the session, the AI was uncooperative, and Bruce refused to edit in military access, though offering to remove his navy so the troops could be shipped north, and also to make peace on the then-current terms. Tazzzo, playing Fox, felt that this was abuse of the GM’s powers, and quit, leaving rather a large power vacuum.

Gollevainen, formerly playing Russia, kindly agreed to take over Fox; but I think there is a general consensus that he does not have quite the surety of touch, the ability to make armies and economies dance, that Tazzzo displayed. Fox has twice beaten England in wars in Victoria; I am now a bit doubtful that there will be a third time.

Meanwhile, all of Asia seems playerless – Russia moved to Fox, and the Japanese and Indian players have not been heard from for some time. Negotiations are underway to determine who will gain from this; the Great Powers have agreed in principle to stay out and allow their lesser alliance partners to scoop up the provinces, but have not reached a detailed arrangement of compensating concessions. If there isn’t an agreement by Sunday, we may get a no-holds-barred Scramble for Asia, or alternatively a World War in which Asia is ignored while we quarrel over who should get to partition it. But I have no concerns; this will be resolved in a civilised manner.

I spent the session building factories. It takes a lot of civilisation to produce machine guns.

World map, 1901

World map, 1901. Note the Foxy conquests in North America – the white man is on the verge of losing his last toehold there. Note also the unification of South America.

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1 Comment

Filed under Azure Three Bezants, Recessional, Reeking Tube and Iron Shard

One response to “Azure Three Bezants: Oligarchic Syndicalism

  1. Pingback: Azure Three Bezants: Hearts of Iron Begins | Ynglinga Saga

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