Seymour Melman and the New American Revolution: A Reconstructionist Alternative

By Jonathan Feldman


On December 30, 1917 Seymour Melman was born in New York City. The 100th anniversary of his birth helps bring his intellectual legacy into focus. Melman was the most significant reconstructionist thinker of the 20th Century, championing alternatives to militarism, capitalism, and social decay by advancing a systematic counter-planning program for disarmament and economic democracy. His legacy remains of critical importance because today the United States is currently a society in which the economic, political and cultural systems are spiraling into an abyss. Economic and social reconstruction is the idea that planned alternatives to the incumbent mechanisms for organizing economic, political and cultural power exist in alternative institutional designs and matching systems to extend these designs.

The economic realities are well-known, defined by an economic system in which the richest 1% of the population controlled 38.6% of the nation’s wealth in 2016 according to the Federal Reserve. The bottom 90% controlled only 22.8% of the wealth. This wealth concentration is well-known and is linked to financialization of the U.S. economy which is matched by deindustrialization and the decline of the “real economy.” Melman analyzed this problem tied to Wall Street hegemony and managerial attacks on worker’s power in his classic 1983 study Profits without Production. Here Melman illustrated how profits –and thus power—could be accumulated despite the decline of industrial work and manufacturing. In fact, the rise in administrative overheads associated with the over-extension of managerial power actually helped reduce both the competiveness and competence of U.S. firms.

In politics, the Republican Party has emerged as a Trojan Horse society, helping to defund the welfare state and advancing the aims of the predatory warfare state. The 2018 defense bill signed by President Trump allotted about $634 billion for core Pentagon operations and allotted an addition $66 billion for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. More money was available for troops, jet fighters, ships and other weapons, even though there are millions of U.S. citizens living in poverty (40.6 million in 2016). Melman addressed the problem of the enduring post-war militarism of the U.S. in perhaps his most famous book, The Permanent War Economy, first published in 1974. The subheading of that book was “American Capitalism in Decline.” This economy emerged as way to consolidate the military largess bestowed on aerospace, communications, electronics and other war-serving industries, not to mention universities, military bases and associated institutions serving the military economy. This corporatist system, linking the state, corporations, trade unions and other actors was described by Melman in Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War, a 1971 book which showed how the state was the top manager who used its procurement and managerial power to direct these various “sub-managements.”

In culture, we see the reign of post-truth politics, in which politicians knowingly lie in order to advance political objectives and ideology makes facts irrelevant. A report by David Leonhardt and colleagues in The New York Times found that “in his first 10 months, Trump told nearly six times as many falsehoods as Obama did during his entire presidency.” The problem, however, is that the underlying system of U.S. governance has been based on many bipartisan myths. Melman’s career was based on trying to uncover such myths.

One such myth embraced by both the Republican and Democratic Parties was the idea that military power can be used without any limits. In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. tried to defeat guerilla operations in which the opposing military was embedded in civilian zones. Attacking such areas deflated the U.S. military’s legitimacy with the projection of military power undermining U.S. political power in the region being attacked. In Vietnam, the U.S. lost politically and a backlash against that war triggered a domestic revolt. In Iraq, the toppling of Hussein pushed Iraq into the Iranian orbit, a country which is nominally a principal adversary of U.S. elites. In Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to fight its longest war with thousands dead and “no end in sight.” When it comes to terrorism, Melman saw terrorist actions as tied to alienation, individuals cut off and remote from social integration. Clearly social inclusion could remedy such a situation, but economic decline and an absence of solidarity simply compounded terrorist threats (whatever the diverse origins).

Another key myth was the ability to organize and sustain a “post-industrial society.” A report in Industry Week (August 21, 2014) noted that between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. economy shed 33% of its manufacturing jobs (about 5.8 million), which represented a 42% decline when controlling for the increase in the workforce. After controlling for increased in the working-age population during this period, Germany lost only 11% of its manufacturing jobs. While scholars debate whether trade or automation and productivity is more significant in causing such job loss, automation in a nation state serving to protect the domestic organization of work will clearly preserve more manufacturing jobs than others. In fact, the integration of automation and cooperative workforces can preserve jobs, a point made by Melman in his last great work, After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy. Melman’s support for the domestic anchoring of jobs through proactive investments in civilian infrastructure including sustainable forms of alternative energy and mass transportation also belied the associated myths of globalization and free markets—both of which failed to automatically yield a proactive welfare state responsive to maintaining full and sustainable employment.

Alternatives to a Society Spiraling into Abyss


Melman believe in a revolution in thinking and acting centered on the reorganization of economic life and the nation’s security system. He believed the core alternative to economic decline was the democratic organization of workplaces. He favored the Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain as the exemplary model for such an alternative. These cooperatives went beyond the small scale, and potentially vulnerable, stand-alone “socialism in one firm” model of local cooperative enterprise. Mondragon has networks diversified lines of businesses, not only creating a more resilient system in the face of reduced demand in particular sectors, but also promoting the potential for job ladders such that workers could be more easily transferred from one job to another when job loss struck. Mondragon combines a technical university, development bank and cooperatives in one integrated system.

Melman believed that both political and economic decline could be reversed by vastly scaling back the U.S. military budget which represented a gigantic opportunity cost to the national economy. The other side of the $1 trillion military budget was a vast development fund which Melman believed could be used to modernize the U.S.’s energy and transportation infrastructure and reinvest in other areas of economic decay self-evident in collapsing bridges, polluted waterways, and congested transit systems. He linked urban under-development and deficits in ecological remediation to wasteful military budgets.

The program for demilitarization required four key elements, outlined by Melman in The Demilitarized Society: Disarmament and Conversion. First, he championed a comprehensive program for general and complete disarmament (GCD) in multi-lateral disarmament treaties of the sort favored by President John F. Kennedy and described in his famous June 10, 1963 American University address. Rather than have so-called “rogue states” disarm, all nations would coordinate their military budget and military power projection systems. In contrast to proliferation reduction strategies which beg the question as to why countries like North Korea would pursue nuclear weapons (to defend against a U.S. military attack). This was a program for not only nuclear but also conventional weapons reductions.

Second, disarmament treaties would be linked to a program of military budget reductions and alternative civilian investments. These reductions could pay for needed infrastructure improvements, including the need to rebuild mass transit and energy systems, a theme taken up by Brian D’Agostino and Jon Rynn in a series of studies. Alternative government investments in needed civilian areas could provide the alternative markets needed to help transition military-serving investments into more useful civilian activity.

Third, the conversion of military factories, bases, laboratories and affiliated institutions like universities could provide a way to recoup wasted resources and provide a security system for those threatened by military budget reductions. Conversion involved advanced planning and reorganizing workers, engineers, managers and technology. For example, at one point in the post-Vietnam War era, the Boeing-Vertol company (which made helicopters used in the Vietnam War) successfully produced subway cars used by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Finally, disarmament would also have to provide for an alternative security system which would maintain security even during a period of declining global military spending. Melman supported a kind of international police force useful in peacekeeping and related missions. He recognized that the multi-year disarmament process would still leave in place defensive systems as more offensive systems were initially scaled back. Melman recognized that Britain’s unilateral disarmament campaigns were political fiascos which made the left an easy political prey to the political right. In contrast, the GCD approach still left room for comprehensive cutbacks without the political fallout associated with claims that states were left vulnerable to attack. Verification and inspection systems would insure that cuts could be made safety and any cheating could be detecting by states attempting to conceal weapons systems.

Ideology and the Power to Plan


Where did the power come from to demilitarize the economy and change the degenerate state? Melman believed that workers’ own self-organization through cooperatives provided an essential mechanism to create the primitive accumulation of economic power which would have a significant political spin-off effect. He believed that once cooperatives reached a certain scale they would act as a kind of lobbying system to redirect the political culture to more productive and sustainable pursuits as opposed to predatory, militaristic and ecocidal ones.

The biggest obstacle to economic and political democracy lay not in technical or economic barriers, however. In a series of studies published in the 1950s, like Dynamic Factors in Industrial Productivity and Decision-Making and Productivity, Melman showed how cooperative firms could actually be more productive and efficient than normal capitalist enterprises. One reason was that workers’ self-management lessened the need for costly managerial supervision. Another reason was that workers’ had direct knowledge of how to marshal and organize the shop floor, whereas managers’ knowledge was more remote and hence less operational. Workers learned by doing and had the knowledge to organize work, but an alienating system blocked such knowledge as workers were blocked from decision-making power even though workers was “responsible” for their work.

If workers could organize economic power on a grassroots level, so too could communities directly organize political power on a local level. Thus, Melman convened “The U.S. After the Cold War: Claiming the Peace Dividend,” a May 2, 1990 national town meeting in which dozens of cities rallied in face-to-face meetings to cut the military budget and invest in needed urban and ecological investments in a peace economy. Political democracy in this case was extended by a radio network broadcast over Pacifica and dozens of affiliated stations.

The key barrier to extending democracy lay in the educational system and social movements which had failed to embrace the legacy of self-management and economic democracy. Trade unions, while necessary for advancing workers’ interests, had become focused on narrow pay or social benefits schemes. They often divorced themselves from questions regarding how work was actually organized. Melman believed that peace movements, while opposing senseless wars, had “become safe for the Pentagon.” By being remote from the culture of production, they did not realize the simple fact that producing and selling weapons generates capital and power, thereby requiring more than a reactive protest system to Pentagon capital accumulation. In contrast, the founder of Mondragon, José María Arizmendiarrieta Madariaga, realized in the Nazi bombing campaign of the Spanish Republic that technology had become the source of ultimate power. The other side of Picasso’s Guernica was a system in which workers themselves could control technology for their own use, providing an alternative to capitalists and militarists monopoly over technological power.

Ultimately, through his prolific publishing career, activism with trade unions and the peace movement, and continuing dialogue with scholars and assorted intellectuals, Melman held out hope that critically informed knowledge could promote an alternative system for organizing power. Although he recognized how universities had become servants to both the Pentagon and Wall Street (and indulged in growing administrative overheads and extensions to their managerial control), Melman still clung to the belief in the power of the idea and alternative formulation to established wisdom. The Trump presidency has falsely marshalled the lessons of the U.S.’s economic and political decline. Today’s activists would be wise to embrace Melman’s ideas to fill the power vacuum in the wake of the administration’s legitimacy crisis and movement reactive malaise. “Resistance,” the movement’s hegemonic meme, is not reconstruction.


Jonathan Michael Feldman studied under Seymour Melman at Columbia University and worked with him to establish the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament in Washington, D.C. Feldman can be reached on Twitter @globalteachin.


Studiecirklar hösten 2016

Studiecirkel 1: The Crisis of Democracy and the Rise of the Far-Right

Datum: 19 september 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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This discussion begins with an overview on some of the ways that electoral democracies in the West have become hollowed out. This hollowing out is predicated in part on how intermediary institutions in the media, trade unions, the university and the arts have lost a lot of their critical content and ability to advance workers’ and middle class interests, substitutes to these being the politics of scarcity, identity politics and marginal symbolic improvements. The first essay examines the role of the electoral sphere and political parties. The second essay explores how the limits to globalization create a space for the far-right. While traditional anti-racist concerns are as important as ever, these have become encoded in the political ambitions of Neo-liberal politicians in the US, the UK, Sweden and elsewhere.

Peter Mair, “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy,” New Left Review, 42, November-December 2006: 25-51. PDF made available in Facebook Event. 

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Beyond Brexit and Lexit: Towards Social and Economic Reconstruction,” Global Teach-In, June 25, 2016, edited and updated June 27, 2016.

Studiecirkel 2: Alienation and De-Alienation

Datum: 3 oktober 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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Alienation is about the weakening of capacities through disenabling intermediaries. These include dysfunctional employers, landlords, mass media culture that creates what Stanley Aronowitz called “colonized leisure.” In contrast, de-alienation is about creating enabling intermediaries that broaden capacities and restore democratic and accountability controls. Alienation can be defined in three ways. First, as a psychological reaction to society, being cut off from others. Second, as an objective process in which the individual is separated from fellow community members, their labor power (creative capacities), the products of their labor (creative capacities) and their species (e.g. being subjugated to an ecosystem that even poisons the individual). Third, alienation is a kind of psychological/material state of separation marked by what Sartre called “serial groups.” This passage partially clarifies some of Sartre’s basic ideas:

Atomization forces acted constantly on the workers and serialized them. A group is said to be a serial group when each of its members, though he may be in circumstances as all the others, remains alone and defines himself and behaves like someone else, who in turn is other than himself. The workers articulated and confirmed serial thinking as though it were their own thinking, but it was actually the thinking of the ruling class, who imposed it on the workers from the outside. Not that they found it either accurate or clear, but it justified their passivity by its reference to larger conditions (Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Maoists in France,” in Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken, New York: Pantheon, 1977: 166-167).

The first reading builds on the previous discussion of the limits of Western democracy and relates it to this idea of serialization and alienation. The second article examines how to reverse the alienation process through what Lawrence Cohen and Seymour Melman called “de-alienation.” Melman also referred to the systematic accumulation of power as related to “extension systems.” Sartre ignored economic democracy but did show the limits to electoral political interventions.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Elections: Trap for Fools,” in Life/Situations, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977: 198-210. Accessible at:

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Social Inclusion, Capacities Development and the Principle of Extension,” in From Community Economic Development and Ethnic Entrepreneurship to Economic Democracy: The Cooperative Development, Norrköping: Partnership for Multi-Ethnic Inclusion, May 2002. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Studiecirkel 3: Power Elites

Datum: 17 oktober 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80 

Tid: 18.00

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There was a major investigation of the structure of power within Sweden that was completed in 1990. About 20 books and ninety reports were completed in service of this investigation. Two academic journal articles, published by one of the lead investigators, will be reviewed. Recently, Bo Rothstein called for a new investigation. He explained that the original investigation was rather influential, although associated with certain limitations which he explains.

We can view the original investigation in several ways. One way is to see this as a model for critical social science, where the absence of a power investigation is seen as a large step backwards. Another way to view this investigation is as an academic exercise by several elite academic institutions, one of them being Uppsala University (particularly their department of government), designed to investigate other elite institutions. The academic exercise had some useful observations, but we must analyze what was not done even in the original study.

While the two studies cited below increasingly conceive of the media’s growing power, they have no conception of militarism or the military’s claim on economic resources. Words like “cooperative,” “militarism,” and “alienation” are not part of the vocabulary used to understand power. The concept of “iron triangle,” a phrase used to indicate links between companies, government agencies and legislative bodies, is used in passing, this reference hardly constitutes an explanation of the Swedish military industrial complex or militarism. While the word “class” appears repeatedly, the idea of “capitalism” is missing. Much attention is paid to the policy structures of the existing state, but less so on the underlying logic of how capitalism, alienation, and the absence of economic democracy structures how power is deployed and how political parties react. The two studies do pay attention to social movements, particularly the labor movement, as a central actor. Yet, neither looks at the non-profit industrial complex or details the ways in which globalization may have influence splits within the labor movement, particularly evident given the rise of the Swedish Democrats. You won’t find the word “racism” in either study, which many today would regard as a limitation. Thus, these two report summaries are remarkable as discursive documents and framing systems, as interesting for what they don’t say as what they say. It is not clear whether the original investigation addressed how ideological frames help reproduce the power of elites, i.e. the creation of paradigmatic boundaries that reproduce power structures by killing off alternative, more critical ideas.

Olof Petersson, “The Study of Power and Democracy in Sweden,” Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1988: 145-158. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Olof Petersson, “Democracy and Power in Sweden,” Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1991: 173-191. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Bo Rothstein, ”Maktutredning behövs för att kartlägga det nya Sverige,” Dagens Nyheter, October 26, 2014.

Studiecirkel 4: A Theory of Political Commitment

Datum: 31 oktober 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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The de-alienation process can be assessed in various ways. One way is the commitment to a social cause, social movement or ethics in action. The other is as part of an effort to design and build alternative institutions. Knowledge and ethics are more in focus in the former, power accumulation systems in the latter. Yet, ethnics, knowledge and power are interlaced in each. The first of these readings speak again about how the PMC in the form of intellectuals uses its power in an inauthentic, non-committed way. In contrast, the second article, a profile of John Gerassi, gives us an example of authentic political commitment.

John Gerassi, “Sartre Accuses Intellectuals of Bad Faith,” The New York Times, October 17, 1971. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “En hyllning till John ’Tito’ Gerassi,” SCISER, September 12 2016.

Studiecirkel 5: The Politics of Design

Datum: 14 november 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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These two readings explain how we can design and build alternative institutions. The general principles are outlines in the first of these two readings, under the heading “The Politics of Design.” The idea is to rediscover a discourse associated with thinkers like Paul Goodman, Seymour Melman, Barry Commoner, Gar Alperovitz, Jessica Gordon Nembhard and others who have promoted a system to build de-alienating, capacity-enhancing spaces. The application of this idea, via reconstruction, is applied to technology and the ecological crisis in the second article.

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Some Notes on the Politics of Design,” Department of Economic History, Stockholm University, 2016. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Technology, Power and Social Change: Three Marx Inspired Views,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 30, No. 2: 28-72. PDF made available in Facebook event.