03 August 2018


So capitalism doesn't work.

This is pretty easy to demonstrate; we're in the middle of a mass extinction caused by capitalistic forms of social organization.  Present expectation is that the mass extinction is going to include us.  (The Involuntary Human Extinction Project has succeeded.)

Even theoretically, it's easy to demonstrate; capitalism seeks to increase profit. Value is the ratio of benefit to cost.  To increase profit, you need to either lower benefit or increase cost.  So capitalism is a mechanism to destroy value.  (As we do indeed see happening all over the place as the social barriers to treating profit as a goal, rather than a measure, collapse.)

Socialism also doesn't work.

This is a bit harder to demonstrate; you can start in on the linear optimization problem of a command economy, but someone can quite correctly point out that socialism doesn't necessarily imply a command economy.

The easiest way to grasp this (I think) is that any system has stocks, flows, feedback, and constraints.  (The mythological market is supposed to provide feedback, for example, in capitalist systems.)  The problem with socialism -- anything where you're taking "according to ability/according to need" or collective ownership of the means of production seriously -- is that you wind up with scale-invariant constraints.  That won't work.  It wouldn't work even if you could get the Angel of the Lord to quietly remove all the greedheads.

Consider -- In Soviet Russia, how many socks you are issued and when they are laundered (and where they are laundered...) is decided in Moscow.  You live in eastern Siberia and you herd horses.  This is very very bad; when you have socks, they neither fit nor have been washed.  In Soviet Russia, national emissions and atmospheric dumping policy is decided in Moscow.  That's pretty good, or at least it could be; that's the correct scale of collective to be addressing that problem.  The scale of the decision must be appropriate to the scale of the problem to have an effective solution. (And if you've got an intractable deadlock the issue is pretty much that you need to change the scale of the mechanism that's looking at the problem.)

Mixed economy?  It doesn't stay mixed, because the rich win the argument about the economy is for.

You can have something that exists to guarantee, defend, and extend existing wealth, or you can have something that exists to create a general prosperity.  You can't have both.  (The objectives are opposed!  "both?" is a bit like saying "hot AND cold".)

So what do you do?

No rich people.  If you want the general prosperity version, there have to be hard income and asset caps, and they have to be relatively low; around an order of magnitude more than the lower of the mean/median income as the income cap, for example.  (50 kCAD/annum median income, 500 kCAD/annum is the income cap.  The PM's salary is set a x8; I'd cap CEO salaries there, too.)

The limited liability corporation functions, effectively, as "you can't complain when I steal this".  Don't have those.  (Collectives, partnerships, and other forms of collective organization already work pretty well.  They'd work better if they were in an regulatory and legal environment where they were normalized rather than opposed.)

There's a really intractable fact that the solution has to be as complicated as the problem.  Social organization that forbids collective responses to problems is equivalent to an assertion that the problem must not be solved.  (Not that it can't be solved; that you're not allowed to solve it.)

So ... experiment.  Consider the possibilities of really full service credit unions.  (Housing is a way for capital to make everyone pay them to live.  The fix is to make housing something that's collectively arranged and managed.  And then you can diversify the investments, and start running a daycare, and then start buying things collectively.)

While you're experimenting, recognize that the purpose of the legal system is NOT to provide feedback; it's to set constraints.  ("Work or starve" is feedback.  "Everybody eats" is a constraint, at least if you attach legal liability to political units when that isn't factual there.  You need to pick your constraints carefully because lots of people prefer murdering the poor to providing them food.)

Also recognize that land is alive, and you make rules for it as though it is alive, and not dead.  (E.g., you own a Picasso.  (A painting by the famous painter of that name.)  You really own it; no liens, it's not loan collateral, you've got simple clear title.  You throw it through a wood chipper.  You have probably upset many people but you have not done wrong.  But throw a dog through a woodchipper and you have done wrong; the relative prices of the Picasso and the dog are not what's relevant, it's the categories.  The painting is dead and the dog is alive.  Pave over grassland and you have also done wrong.)

This is not actually difficult to do, it's giving up on the possibility of being king that's challenging.  (You can have success, or control.  (That is, be king; everybody has to do what you say.)  Trying for control precludes success.)


Larry Hamelin said...

You say, "Socialism also doesn't work," and then go on to give an outline of how it might work. I follow the second part, but I'm not getting the first part where socialism supposedly doesn't work. Why can't we take exactly what you described and call that "socialism"?

Daniel O'Neil said...

He's describing something closer to anarchism than socialism.

Larry Hamelin said...

I dunno. I think the socialist "left" (broadly conceived) are getting lost in a thicket of hair-splitting terminology.

As Graydon observes, there are some things that should be left to the individual, some things that a central national government should do, and a continuum of responses in between. And as Graydon also notes, "[S]ocialism doesn't necessarily imply a command economy." If, as he states, "Socialism also doesn't work," but socialism doesn't mean a command economy, then he must mean that socialism doesn't work for some reason other than that a command economy (especially for socks) doesn't work. However, Graydon also gives an example of socialism not working as a command economy for socks. (And I'm not sure if the example is real or just metaphorical; I'm not a scholar of USSR, but I'm skeptical that it's really true that "how many socks you are issued and when they are laundered (and where they are laundered...) is decided in Moscow." I don't think the Soviet economy actually worked that way.) Hence my confusion.

I think it's important to untangle ideological/moral distinctions on the one hand, and pragmatic/expedient distinctions on the other hand. Calling one set of (what looks to me like) pragmatic choices "socialism" and another set "anarchism" seems to confuse the ideological and pragmatic axes.

Graydon does draw an excellent distinction: "You can have something that exists to guarantee, defend, and extend existing wealth, or you can have something that exists to create a general prosperity. You can't have both." I think this distinction usefully captures the important ideological distinction: either one is ideologically/morally aligned with the latter, in which case they're a socialist, broadly defined, or they're in the latter, in which case they're definitely not a socialist.

I think it's important to make the question of how to actually operate a socialist society a pragmatic question rather than an ideological question. Unlikely as it seems, if we were to eventually find that the pragmatic result is that the national government should do everything or nothing, that would be a different story. However I think to say as a matter of principle that the national government should do everything is just as wrong as to say in principle that the national government should do nothing.

When I tell people on the "left" I'm a communist, they always ask, "What kind? Marxist/Leninist? Stalinist? Trotskyist? Maoist? Anarchist?" I decline these kinds of distinctions. I call myself a socialist precisely and only because ideologically, I want a society "that exists to create a general prosperity." Nothing more or less.

I call myself a communist because I've studied enough economics to have come to the pragmatic conclusion that the central national government should exercise not an exclusive but still an important role in the national economy and in the reproduction of society. I'm amenable to pragmatic arguments why I might be mistaken, but I'm not really open to ideological arguments why communism (as defined above) is mean and bad and wrong, mostly because my experience has shown that the specifically ideological arguments against communism are just disguised ideological arguments against socialism.

Unknown said...

Lot of good stuff here. Let's assume your definition of socialism as something that exists to create general prosperity is, across the left, dead on and widely embraced. I fervently hope it is so.

That leaves us with terms for praxis, and my use of "anarchism" versus "socialism" was intended to describe different emphases and different problem solving approaches.

Anarchistic seems to be structured to assign accountability for different tasks at many different levels of organization, while always defaulting to "the smallest level of organization possible". In Graydon's example above, a very very small number of rules - "constraints" - are applied at a global level, but most problem solving happens at more local levels, with many different systems or processes.

I know that some version of this structure exists in socialist thought (the very concept of the "soviet" embodies this before it's utterly transformed by the "supreme" modifier), but there is a sense of replication of a pretty specific model and less interest accommodating local variance the details. To put it another way, there's a lot of theory in many socialist models, but anarchists historically rolled up their sleeves and tried to make it work in the specific time and place.

(The fact that they never prevailed as the emerging socialist model across half a dozen historical examples is a discussion I'd love to have at some point. It's a serious bummer).

Anyway, I hope you forgive me for using labels to shorthand the praxis. It seemed a way to get at what Graydon was chewing on. I don't think he meant socialism per se as much as "Solution models that try to do too much at too high a level of organization".

I think that the kinds of problems and issues described in Scott's "Seeing Like a State" and Francis Spufford's "Red Plenty" (granted two very very different books) get at the core question of "where is a problem solved?" that must be answered, even if we all agree with your fine definition of socialism.

Graydon I apologize if I misrepresented you in this.

Larry Hamelin said...

That leaves us with terms for praxis, and my use of "anarchism" versus "socialism" was intended to describe different emphases and different problem solving approaches.

I hear you, and I think I understand what you mean, and you're closer to my opinion than I originally thought you were. But still I think there is a substantial distance between our opinions.

As a matter of principle, I try to be radically agnostic about praxis. Indeed, I dislike the word praxis itself as importing too much theory into action. The only ideology I want to import into action is precisely the ideology stated above: does it further "general prosperity" (and preserve and extend non-material human well-being and dignity)? I would not, for example endorse a policy that increased one person's prosperity $1,000,000 and decreased the prosperity of 999,999 people by $1 each, even though this policy is more efficient from a traditional economic perspective.

For example, I wouldn't default to "the smallest level of organization possible"; more precisely, I want to default as infrequently as possible. I would not endorse a policy that gave a million people each $1 organized at the local level compared to a policy that gave $10 each at the national level simply because it is "possible" to organize it at the local level.

I want to ask what is the best level of organization to solve this or that specific problem. It is simply tautological to say that upon careful analysis and reflection, we find that the optimum level of organization is X; therefore, X is the "smallest level of organization possible." To have any traction, differentiation of terms of praxis must refer to something more than just optimization. But why? I don't want to even bias, much less restrict, the answers other than towards the ideology listed above.

The fundamental problem of an advanced economy is social coordination the division of labor. In "a higher phase of communist society" this coordination problem goes away, as does, I think, the distinction between "anarchism", "socialism", etc.: absent resource constraints for all but the most exotic of human material wants, I don't see an argument on the left against "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." But we have to get there, and social coordination problems are social, not individual.

I would venture that the "praxis-socialist" theory is that we employ incentives regarding the division of labor to increase production past that where capitalism fails. Further, the "praxis-democratic-socialist" theory is that we choose and employ these incentives democratically and not, as in the case of the USSR or PRC, impose them from a ruling Communist Party. As prosperity increases, we decrease social coordination incentives until within reason and moderation, everyone is doing what they please and taking from the social product what they want.

The above is a pragmatic theory. I don't think it's the best theory on any sort of moral or ideological ground; it just seems like the most efficient way to transition from a capitalist economy to a communist economy.

Larry Hamelin said...

I must add, regarding the employment of incentives, that incentives are coercive by definition: they restrict individual freedom of action. As a "praxis-democratic-socialist" I'm OK with democratically imposed incentives as a temporary measure, so long as we're working towards eliminating these incentives.

The obvious counter-argument is that incentives tend to increase, regardless of the mode, intent, and process of imposition. I would be open to an alternative that wouldn't reasonably cause the loss of advanced technological production.

Graydon said...

+TUG Daniel O'Neil

I don't think he meant socialism per se as much as "Solution models that try to do too much at too high a level of organization".

Systems that don't have mechanisms to decide on -- set -- the level of organization at which a problem will be solved. This is very broadly the core problem with socialism as a means of economic organization. (This is a problem, if not the problem with capitalism; no collective but the corporation.) Anarchistic voluntary association fails here, too, because it's a replication contest; you want something that wins fights with other systems because otherwise it's pointless. Strictly voluntary association can't even make sure all the kids get vaccinated.