Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The politics of democratic communism: a theory of the state

The standard theory of the state — in Weber's definition the institution(s) that exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of violent coercion — has been that the state shapes its citizens. Even when the state is legitimized by more-or-less popular means (as in nominally "democratic" republics), the citizens legitimize the state to coercively shape the citizenry. We want the state to create good citizens. Democratic republics don't change this fundamental role of the state; they merely change how and to whom this fundamental role is given.

"Anarchism" (with scare quotes, very loosely defined, leaning far more towards Rothbard than Bakunin) takes almost completely the opposite view: no one should use coercion to shape anyone; the only legitimate use of coercion is in self-defense. However, coercion is not so easily dismissed, and "self-defense" (not to mention "coercion") is not so easily defined. It a depressingly obvious trope that so-called Libertarians just define whatever coercion they like (or coercion in the service of what they like) as "self-defense". Fundamentally, the only kinds of "anarchists" I've seen are those hopelessly naive, confused, deluded, or actively mendacious about their own political philosophy, or those who just label whatever kind of society they like as "anarchistic".

What is curious, though, is that there are situations where I personally want to be coerced, at least hypothetically, a notion that seems wildly counter-intuitive: if I want something, why should I want to be coerced into doing it? Why can't I just do it because I want to? The answer is signalling. I know what I want, but you cannot know directly, by observation, what I want, what's in my mind. (And, of course, vice versa.) The best you can do is draw conclusions about what is in my mind based on the evidence of my actions. But talk is cheap: even the most vicious serial killer can talk about the sanctity of life. If I want to convince you of my good intentions, I need to send you an expensive signal, one that convinces you that if I had bad intentions, the expense of the signal outweighs the satisfaction of my bad intentions. But expensive signals are expensive: what I'd like to do is send a signal that is cheap if I have good intentions, but expensive if I have bad intentions. Coercion works nicely: if I have good intentions, I do as I please, cheaply; if I fulfill bad intentions, I am subject to expensive penalties: fines, prison, ostracism, disgrace, etc.

As Hal Draper persuasively describes in Marx's Theory of Revolution*, Marx and Engels developed a theory of the state. In their theory, the conflict between individual interests and communitarian interests is the fundamental contradiction that eventually gives rise to the bourgeois state. All societies, even those before the invention and hegemony of the bourgeois state, use coercion to promulgate social norms, norms that encourage cooperation and discourage destructive kinds of competition and individual or small-group conflict. In pre-state societies, the coercion is diffused throughout the community, and largely internalized, because the benefits of cooperation in a subsistence economy are readily apparent. However, with the division of labor and increased economic productivity, the coercion necessary to maintain a more complex, interdependent society becomes concentrated in an identifiable organization, the "state", rather than being diffused through society.

*I'm about halfway through volume 1 of 3; expect more insights as I continue to read. My interpretation of Marx and Engels' theory is largely from Draper; where I mention Marx and Engels below, I am relying heavily on Draper's interpretation.

As the coercive apparatus necessary to maintain social cooperation becomes concentrated, the concentrated institution, like any other institution, naturally and inevitably develops its own interests, and uses coercion both materially and ideologically to promotes it's own interests, rather than the general interest of society. Furthermore, as the division of labor creates class differentiation, the economic ruling class, the bourgeoisie, captures considerable control over the formal state apparatus, and the bourgeoisie uses that power to maintain its rule, and maintain its domination over the working class.

It's important to note that Marx and Engels do not consider the development of the state or its capture by the bourgeoisie as some sort of conspiracy, and especially not an alien power imposed from outside society. The state in general (which precedes capitalism) and the bourgeoisie's capture of the state are the resolution of contradictions from within society, and are the result of real human beings trying to solve real problems, and keep a complex society from collapsing.

Economically, capitalism depends on diverting as much labor as practically possible to the accumulation of capital, which necessarily entails that capitalism must divert labor from consumption; given the size of the working class, even a small increase in per capita working class consumption entails a relatively large decrease in capital accumulation, it should be unsurprising that the focus of bourgeois ideological production entails (contradictorily, but ideological contradiction is much easier to swallow than material contradiction) both the valorization of work and the condemnation of poverty. Workers are good because they work, but they are bad because they are poor, and thus deserve poverty. And, furthermore, society must be organized in compliance with law, i.e. an ideal concept of justice, rather than organized by interest: the interest of the working class is fundamentally hostile to capitalism.

Except perhaps as a counter-apologetic, whether this historical course of events was good or bad (it was bad) is really immaterial. It is what happened. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we start to think about the role of coercion emerging from the concept of the bourgeois state?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A capitalist in socialist's clothing

The problem, I think, is that Miya Tokumitsu does everything she can to avoid criticizing capitalism (a charge I think the author would vehemently deny). Capitalism makes all virtues, however we loosely define "virtue", about profit (and if it can't make a virtue profitable, it makes it a vice). "Do what you love" (DWYL) is no exception. Instead of a criticism of how capitalism has corrupted what is arguably the defining virtue of humanity, the emotional and social power of labor, Tokumitsu sees DWYL as the defining characteristic of capitalism, and therefore not a human construct. Her interview, Why ‘Do What You Love’ Is Pernicious Advice, carries on this theme.

The fundamental point of the interview comes near the end: "[O]ne of the things I want to do is celebrate the job that just pays the rent." But just paying the rent, not DWYL, is the fundamental capitalist virtue. It is the essence of alienated labor, a concept Marx writes quite a bit about. When you work just to pay the rent (and notice "rent", paying the parasitic landlord class), your labor is literally alienated, cut off, detached, made external. Working just to pay the rent reduces our work to the "cash nexus". I see nothing at all wrong with Marx's goal, to make labor "not only a means of life but life's prime want." All of us should be doing what we love; the fact that we cannot is a failure of capitalism; it is not that doing what we love is itself disreputable.

Of course, capitalism does try to digest every virtue and make it about cash, and DWYL is no exception. Tokumitsu talks about how capitalism tries to corrupt DWYL: the corporate PR fakery, standards that employees should always look like they're happy, the want-ad insistence that candidates be "passionate" about janitorial work, the idea that if you're doing what you love, you should not expect to be paid in actual money. But Tokumitsu draws the wrong conclusion from these attempts: capitalism is trying to assimilate, corrupt, and ultimately destroy the fundamental virtue of socialism. Socialists can certainly resist the corruption of this virtue, and critics can certainly argue that corrupting the virtue of DWYL produces more, not fewer, contradictions, but arguing that we should do away with the virtue entirely, and accept absolutely alienated labor as the ultimate standard of good would do nothing but hand capitalism an unearned victory.

Socialist theoreticians should, of course, valorize the proletariat, whose labor is absolutely alienated. But we should valorize the proletariat and the alienation of their labor not because alienated labor is the best form of labor. Instead, we should valorize the proletariat because the absolute alienation of their labor is, as Marx argues, the fundamental contradiction the resolution (sublation, aufheben) of which produces revolutionary consciousness.

See also: In defense of "Do What You Love"

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The politics of democratic communism: the people and their delegates

The basic unit of popular democracy under democratic communism is the block*, comprising between 100-500 people, including adults and children, all of whom vote. (Those medically unable to vote, e.g. infants, toddlers, and those with sufficiently severe cognitive disabilities, will have a guardian exercise their vote.) A neighborhood comprises a compact region of blocks with a total of 10,000 people. A district comprises 100 neighborhoods, with a total of 1,000,000 people. Finally, a nation comprises all of the districts; the United States, for example, would have about 350 districts.

*I will use terminology appropriate to an urban context. The rough numbers matter; the actual physical arrangement will vary from hyper-dense (very large apartment buildings) to hyper-sparse (rural areas).

District Assemblies

The blocks in a neighborhood elect the neighborhood's delegate to the district. Each block "speaks as a whole"; the delegate the block chooses receives the votes of everyone in the block. The neighborhood's delegate must receive a majority (not a plurality) of the votes; neighborhoods must use Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV) or other forms of vote tranferability to choose a delegate with a majority. Blocks also meet periodically (e.g. monthly) for its neighborhood delegate to report on the business of the districts, and for the blocks to give advice to the delegate.

It is possible for a neighborhood to have "delegate churn," where two (or more) candidates are nearly equally matched, and individual blocks changing their votes may swing the majority back and forth between the candidates. However, because of transparency (I'll write on this later), churn should not have an enormous effect on the the business of the district.

Unlike republican systems, blocks may change their vote for a delegate at any time; if the formerly elected delegate loses her majority, she is replaced by a new delegate with the majority. Essentially, delegate voting is essentially continuous, rather than periodic. Furthermore, any vote made by the delegate in the affairs of the district may be reversed by a majority vote of the people in the blocks. Two-thirds of the people in the blocks may directly compel its delegate to introduce and endorse action at the district level. Finally, dependent on the policy of the district, neighborhoods may directly elect judges with original jurisdiction.

Delegates are paid 40 SVU per week. Once a person has served as a delegate for more than a certain period (e.g. two years), the delegate receives a pension, determined by years of service, and even if she later leaves the government, her total annual income (including the pension) may not exceed 2000 SVU. Finally, a delegate who serves less than the minimum may be sanctioned with the same (or more severe) income restriction for corruption, subject to due process.

Each delegate has three roles. First, a delegate is the head of the civil service in her neighborhood, with direct managerial responsibility over services provided at the neighborhood level. (Churn would more seriously hamper this management; but internal civil-service management structures can compensate.)

Second, the assembled delegates in the district conduct the business of the district by majority vote. First, they allocate the budget provided by the national government; the district can also borrow money by selling bonds. Since districts cannot create money, district-level bonds have default risk, and a district may choose to default on its bonds.

The district assembly also enacts legislation to determine how the judiciary is to resolve disputes between individuals and private organizations within the district. The district assembly also appoints appellate judges with district scope, and to appoint original-jurisdiction judges (unless the district has opted to have the people directly elect original-jurisdiction judges by neighborhood). The district assembly directly regulates areas of the district used preponderantly for commerce and industry. The district assembly also acts collectively as the head of the civil service for services provided at the district level.

Third, the assembled delegates elect delegates to the national assembly, again with the same requirement of IRV-enabled majoritarianism. As with neighborhoods, the assembled delegates of the district may replace their national delegate at any time, may reverse her vote by majority vote, and may, by two-thirds vote, compel the delegate to introduce and support action at the national level.

National Assembly

The national assembly has all of the corresponding duties of the district assemblies, applied to the nation as a whole: appointment and direction of delegates to international bodies, managing the affairs of the nation as a whole, acting collectively as the head of the civil service at the national level, and appointing judges with original and appellate jurisdiction for conflicts between districts.

The national government has the exclusive ability to create money, either directly or by delegating this authority to a central bank. The national government can also borrow money, but is forbidden from defaulting on any financial obligation denominated in the national currency: the national government must create money to satisfy its national-currency financial obligations. (How to implement this mandate is a challenging legal problem.) The national government may default on financial obligations denominated in anything other than its own national currency.

Note that unlike the US federal government, the national government may legislate in general (not just tax and spend) for the general welfare: the national assembly has, in bourgeois terminology, "police powers."

Other Assemblies

Districts may be subdivided into cities and towns. Districts can be aggregated into metropolitan areas (e.g. the San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes about 7.44 million people), regions (e.g. states), transportation areas (e.g. the New England passenger rail structure), natural resource areas (e.g. the Colorado river), and other ad hoc aggregates, created around infrastructure and natural resources. As with districts, neighborhoods included in the subdivision or aggregate elect delegates to these assemblies.


The default jurisdiction is the district. Districts may delegate business to cities and towns contained in the district; any money allocated to cities and towns must be allocated on an equal per-capita basis. Larger regions may assume superior jurisdiction if there is a reasonable basis for doing so, or if directed to assume superior jurisdiction by the appropriate court to protect the individual rights of citizens of an inferior jurisdiction. (For example, if it is found that a district is discriminating in elementary/secondary education against black people, a court could order a larger assembly, the metro area, region, or national government, to take over direct control of the district's school system.

Sorting Everything Out

It looks at first glance like we have a hodgepodge of overlapping responsibilities. However, the situation is not very different from what we currently have. Although I will later propose a unitary civil service, individual offices should have well-defined management chains. For example, regulation of an individual school will have a clear chain of responsibility from the neighborhood to the district to the region to the national government; it would not, be under the direction of a transportation or natural resource district.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Sexual assault and the legal system

In sexual assault accusations and the left, Fredrik deBoer cautions that we should not eliminate nor relax legal standards regarding the burden of proof and presumption of innocence in the prosecution of allegations of sexual abuse. deBoer notes that even with these standards, abuses of the legal process can, as in the satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s, result in verdicts that would be comical if not for their profound, tragic human toll. deBoer claims that some on the left are ignoring the value of these skeptical standards with regard to rape and sexual abuse allegations. While it's true that a certain degree of skepticism is always necessary, deBoer is mostly full of shit. All of the sources he actually cites: Late British Prime Minister Edward Heath Accused of Raping 12-Year-Old, Zerlina Maxwell's No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims, and Jessica Valenti's Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen, have nothing to do with the legal system. deBoer writes that "the conventional progressive wisdom has become that anything other thank [sic] blanket presumption of guilt is actively offensive and misogynist. You can read arguments from people like Zerlina Maxwell and Jessica Valenti if you think that’s an exaggeration." But, as noted above, none of the issues above have anything to do with legal standards. Indeed, Zerlina Maxwell explicitly states, "This is not a legal argument about what standards we should use in the courts; it’s a moral one, about what happens outside the legal system." To make his argument at all compelling, deBoer really needs to address this disclaimer, showing evidence it is disingenuous, or that the legal system's evidentiary standards really should prevail in general discourse. He does not do so, nor does he really show that the real miscarriages of justice he cites at the beginning really were due to abandonment of legal standards of burden of proof and presumption of innocence.

But I'm not really here to criticize deBoer's piece. deBoer is brilliant when he's right, a complete prick when he's wrong, and you just have to deal with that if you're going to read him. And I think he's worth reading: even when he's being a willfully obtuse prick, he's always interesting, and unlike a lot of writers, even his atrocious arguments are worth refuting.

Instead, I want to talk about what the legal system is and is not, and argue that it's a terrible idea to adopt legal thinking at any level about sexual assault and misogyny.

The capitalist legal system, consisting of legislatures, police, courts, jails, and prisons, exists to reproduce capitalism. The legal system's primary function is to create and maintain the criminal class that, apparently, capitalism desperately needs. (Why capitalism needs a criminal class is beyond the scope of this post, but if capitalism did not need a criminal class, we would not spend so much time and effort creating one.) The legal system both creates individual criminals, and forms those individuals into a social/economic class in the Marxist sense.

If we want to create and maintain a class of people who are criminal sex offenders, then yes, absolutely, that's what the legal system is for.

To a certain extent, yes, we want to "create" sex offenders, i.e. we want people who are treating women in a particular way that is presently considered normal and acceptable to become criminals. But that's not the kind of criminals the legal system creates. The legal system exists to take people who have done nothing morally wrong (besides being poor or black) and transform them from honest citizens to career criminals. I don't think that anyone (aside from a few lunatics) wants to turn honest men who want to treat women with respect into sex offenders.

The way that capitalism destroys something is not by making it illegal and putting people in jail. They way capitalism destroys something is by making it unprofitable. The issue is not whether Bill Cosby, for example, should or should not go to jail. The real issue is that Bill Cosby's career, enormously profitable to himself and many hangers-on, should absolutely have been nuked from orbit the minute we had reasonable suspicion — not legal proof — that he was a serial rapist.

We don't need to make sexual assault more criminal. We need to make not only sexual assault but mere misogyny unprofitable, even economically ruinous.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The political structure of democratic communism: Three branches

Under democratic communism (DC), the government is, like many bourgeois democratic republics (BDR), divided into three branches. However, under DC, the branches are not "competing", and I reject the BDR division of legislature (congress or parliament), executive (president/prime minister), and judicial. A better, division, I think, is between policy creation and execution (the people and their delegates), policy implementation (the civil service), and policy monitoring (the judiciary).

Before the specific structures, DC has constitutional supremacy, rather than parliamentary supremacy. There is a written constitution, which in addition to specifying the formal structure of the government, also establishes individual rights, which may not be compromised by ordinary majorities of either the people or any body of delegates.

Under democratic communism, policy creation and execution is held by the people and their delegates. I will talk about delegated as opposed to trustee democracy in more detail later, but the basic concept of delegated democracy is to get as close as possible to direct democracy in a society with the practical problems of tens or hundreds of millions of people.

Unlike legislatures in BDRs, the people and their delegates do not just pass legislation and thereby grant some other branch of government the power and duty (i.e. the authority) to implement it: delegated democracy under DC is not, like most BDRs, a "fire and forget" system. The people are in charge not only of creating policy, but supervising at the executive level the day to day implementation of that policy.

The actual implementation of public policy as determined by the people is in the hands of the civil service. Like most civil services in BDRs, the civil service under DC is organized along hierarchical bureaucratic lines, using the director-supervisor-employee organizational model, and where individuals are primarily charged with following specified procedures, regardless of outcome. However, unlike BDRs, the civil service is not directly responsible to a separate electoral body (e.g. a President or parliamentary ministers); the civil service is directly responsible to the people and their delegates. The people give direct orders to the civil service, and civil servants must — if they want to keep their jobs — follow those orders. The only legitimate objection a civil servant may have to the people is that some instruction is physically impossible to perform. (Civil servants may, of course, advise the people on the undesirability of some instruction, or consequences of an instruction that the people may be unaware of, but the judgment of the people prevails.)

By allocating the implementation of policy to the civil service, the government retains its technical knowledge, "how to turn the lights on." The civil service maintains its independence of the people by means of tenure: an established civil servant may not be fired or demoted except for insubordination, failure to follow procedure, or "corruption" (acting for personal gain contrary to the policy of the people).

Under DC, the independent judiciary is most like the judiciary under BDRs. We have independent judges deciding cases arising from disputes between individuals. Unlike BDRs, however, "the people" are never a party with standing on their own merit. In other words, contrary to the doctrine under BDRs, crimes under DC are never against "the people"; crimes and other injuries are only against other individuals. (The people may represent victims of crimes who cannot represent themselves, e.g. murder victims or those who have been endangered but not actually injured by risky behavior, but the people as a whole are ever themselves "victims" of a crime, because even the supposed criminal is part of the people as a whole. The difference is subtle, but, I think, important.)

Finally, there are special branches of the civil service: the military, the police, the press, primary/secondary education, post-secondary education, emergency public services (e.g. ambulances and firefighters), medicine, and the legal profession. More detailed analyses of these special institutions will follow.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The economics of democratic communism: financial crises and zombies

In "Zombies and cannibals: The horrors of China’s financial system, charted, Gwynn Guilford argues that China's financial system is becoming unbalanced because of (among other things) Chinese banks are preserving unprofitable companies rather than letting them fail. They do so because as long as the company doesn't default, even though they're borrowing money to pay back earlier loans (Minsky's definition of a bubble), bankers don't have to take the write-off of a bad loan against the bank's equity; the loan is still technically an asset. A company that is surviving only because of financial life support is labeled a "zombie."

Zombies are a real problem. One of the theoretical advantages of capitalism is that it lets failing companies fail: Schumpeter's "creative destruction." Note that capitalism too has a problem with banking and creative destruction; as capitalism's many financial crises have shown, capitalism too accumulates zombies until there's a general financial crisis. Worse yet, propping up zombies also tends to inflate the asset prices of viable companies, which causes later problems when asset prices fall to realistic levels: if we let too many zombies accumulate, real people get dragged down when the zombies finally die.

(Not all financial crises are strictly caused by accumulation of zombies, but the run-up to a financial crisis by any cause does cause zombies to accumulate.)

The system of democratic communism avoids financial crises by fundamentally changing the capitalist financial system. After considerable study, I've come to the conclusion that the capitalist financial system is one of the most important contradictions in capitalism: it tries to create a market in something that does not have immediate material feedback, and markets work only when there is immediate material feedback to regulate prices.

Democratic communism just smashes financial markets. Finance becomes instead just public policy. We track both nominal and real financial information because we want to know what's going on, but no one's life, wealth, or status depends on nominal asset prices. If nominal asset prices fall to match a new understanding of real value, well, nominal prices fall, no big deal. The only entity "hurt" is the government, but the government does not need money; the government can always print more.

We first care about whether we have enough to eat, stay warm, etc.. If we don't, the people will surely notice, and vote for more investment and employment in the production of food, housing, etc. If we do have enough to eat, then if we make bad investments in fun stuff, we write it off and try to do better tomorrow. The only people harmed by a write off are the workers producing stuff that no one wants, but they will at worst be inconvenienced; they will not be impoverished. The government will either employ them directly in something more socially useful, or pay them to learn to produce stuff that people do want. At worst, that we've lost X dollars in fake asset value (the nominal value of companies that were producing stuff we didn't want) will just cause a little inflation. And since no one lives on financial assets, that inflation has eroded their financial assets won't kill them.

But even if zombie companies won't cause financial crises, zombies are still a problem, at least aesthetically. It seems wasteful and ugly to artificially prop up companies producing stuff people don't actually want.

First, democratic communism makes a sharp distinction between profitability and social utility. There is sufficient institutional incentive under democratic communism to produce public goods, goods with high social utility but low (or negative) profitability. This distinction occurs because profit can come only from production of goods that are both exclusive and rival. Trying to force non-exclusive and/or non-rival goods into an exclusive/rival model is more trouble than it's worth (e.g. intellectual property laws). The problem is that unlike profitability, social utility cannot be objectively measured. Because democratic communism values social utility more than profitability, and does not consider profitability a proxy for social utility, investment decisions are moved from the private to the public, political realm.

Thus, a company that is not profitable has to convince the majority of a constituency, either that of a locale, region, or nation, that their unprofitable business offers social utility. And not just in a vague way, but convinces that constituency to allocate existing autonomous spending away from other projects, increase taxes to offset increased autonomous spending, or tolerate extra inflation. Note that under democratic communism, only the national government can raise income taxes; local and regional governments can spend only their per capita portion of autonomous national government spending and any capital taxes of profitable companies; people employed through the government as Employer of Last Resort are funded directly from the national government.

I'm going to have to create a model of this economy, and see what happens from various kinds of shocks and dynamics. Coming soon, with all good luck.

Monday, July 20, 2015


Timothy Kennett has an interesting article in 3AM Magazine: the utopia of rules. He reviews The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber (of Debt: The First 5000 Years fame).

I haven't read Graeber's book, but share Kennett's skepticism of Graeber's thesis.

I do not believe that individuals can sustain a complex society without social institutions that are, in some sense, coercive. Coercion goes far beyond pointing a gun at someone's head and making them obey: controlling access to the means of production, in terms of both production and consumption, is inherently coercive. Even with completely automated production, someone will have to build and maintain the machines, and until energy is unlimited, someone will have to decide what the machines build and who gets them.

We have to propagate and reproduce some sort of culture. Who gets to decide what does and does not get reproduced? In other words, who controls the schools? (This is the weakness, I think, of the utopian society in And Then There Were None: who maintains the anarchism of the population? How do they do so?)

I also do not entirely share Marx's absolute contempt for the division of labor. Maybe I can be a farmer in the morning and a critic in the afternoon, but I don't think I can be a physician in the morning and a computer systems engineer in the afternoon. As our technology grows more advanced, the sheer scale of just the technical knowledge necessary to maintain our civilization argues for more specialization.

One problem that I see on the left is a confusion between means and ends. We have all of these social and ideological tools, and the capitalist ruling class operates these tools for its own ends. But is the fault in the tool or the wielder? Sometimes the former is true: one tool, the democratic republic with its trustee representatives, seems fit directly to reproduce capitalist power. But others I am not so sure about. An independent judiciary, for example, seems to have potential to help a socialist society legitimize socialism just as it legitimized the Roman slave state, feudalism, and monarchism.

Indeed, I find the call to smash every institution that capitalism has ever employed to be egregious utopianism. Any socialist society will inherit capitalist institutions, and to smash them all and start at year zero seems a hubristic belief that we can transcend the dialectical development of society. By all means, examine the each institution carefully and critically. Subject every institution to a revolutionary dialectic. We must avoid simply replacing the name of the capitalist class while preserving its fundamental nature. But throw everything out, and start with the fantasies of an "ideal" society held by a handful of authorities? I think not. Such a fantasy is not only undesirable, but impossible.

Bureaucracy is unfortunately named, because it includes the "-cracy" suffix, meaning "rule of". Certainly, I think a bureaucracy should not rule. But can a democratic working class use a bureaucracy to rule more effectively? I see no reason why not. Bureaucracy is the tool that the capitalist class has used to subordinate the professional-managerial class to its will, and employ them effectively. There seems no particular reason why the working class cannot similarly employ the professional class, even as the professional class is proletarianized (in a good way).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The lesson of Greece

I won't go into the details: go read the alternative press's account of Greece's abject defeat at the hands of Germany the "troika" (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund). The upshot is that Germany has stripped Greece of its national sovereignty, and, after six years of poverty, unemployment, and general immiseration, has imposed even harsher poverty, unemployment, and immiseration.

Germany, France, and the rest of the Eurozone core countries, by destroying Greece's economy, have no chance of getting their money back. They know they'll never get their money back. They don't want their money back. What they want is what they have achieved: destroying social democracy, the social safety net, welfare capitalism, and what little democracy the democratic republican form of government provides. The European Union and Eurozone is and has always been anti-democratic, explicitly and intentionally. Indeed, neoliberalism itself is anti-democratic. Any suffering the Greek people go through is necessary to destroy its democracy, and make it explicitly a slave colony to the Eurozone core.

The lesson is that social democracy is doomed. I think social democracy is a Good Idea. I've never been against social democracy and welfare capitalism on its own terms. I just don't think it can work. Not, however, because because I think it's a bad system on its own terms. If we talk about overall standards of living, social democracy improves the lives of not just the working and middle classes, but also the capitalist class. The problem is that the capitalist class does not want to improve its own material standard of living. The very structure of capitalism entails that the majority of people who become very rich capitalists are power-hungry sociopaths. Even the relatively nice people who become very rich capitalists have to act sociopathically in self-defense. Power is a zero-sum game, and social democracy means stripping political power from the rich. Social democracy is possible only if workers and professionals have actual political and economic power either directly, through unions, or indirectly through elections and state power. The capitalist class, however, sees this loss as an intolerable loss of their core identity. The capitalist class would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

I don't fault the capitalists themselves. I have considerable sympathy for Milton's Satan. But, fundamentally, this kind of sociopathic struggle for absolute power is an inherent, ineluctable part of capitalism. No social institutions can for very long moderate this struggle. It might be the case that this sociopathic struggle for absolute power is inherent to humanity itself; if so, all of our political philosophy is not just an illusion but a lie; there is no other option but for each person to struggle for as much military power as possible, with the successful becoming the slave-owners and the rest becoming slaves. Perhaps Orwell is correct: the future of humanity is a boot smashing a face, forever, and the only struggle is who wears the boot.

I am not so pessimistic. I do not believe that sociopathy is the norm and empathy and cooperation is the delusional aberration. I'm not an objectivist: the universe forbids neither the tyranny of the individual nor the collective, nor peaceful cooperation and happiness. I simply believe that human beings can create any kind of society we choose, good or bad. Although we can create any kind of society, the actual implementation is constrained by reality, both objective reality and the historical, contingent social reality of a given time and place.

And it is crystal clear that if we want the things that social democracy provides, and I think we do, we cannot have them and have a capitalist class of any kind. The capitalist class will do anything, and struggle for as long as it takes, to destroy social democracy, to strip all power from any individual, class, or social group that the capitalists do not absolutely control. Not because capitalists are bad people, but capitalism is the struggle for absolute power, and this struggle constructs the social reality of people who become successful capitalists.

Germany The troika has revealed the true heart of capitalism: slavery or death. The only choice now is whether we will accept slavery or struggle for freedom, no matter what it takes.

([ETA] It occurs to me that the arguments against social democracy are almost identical to arguments against "moderate" religion.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The economics of democratic communism: housing

Both of the following statements are true:

  1. Under democratic communism, the government owns all housing
  2. Under democratic communism, each family owns their own housing

Wait, what?

The key is that "ownership" is complex, a "bundle of rights" in modern (capitalist) legal theory. A more accurate description is that under democratic communism, the government has some rights from ownership's bundle, and occupants have other rights from that bundle.

What absolutely goes away is private absentee ownership of real property (land and land-fixed property such as buildings). To the extent that we have absentee ownership rights (which is necessary for property that outlives any specific individual's use), the government has those rights; to the extent that individuals do in fact occupy and use property, they have the ownership rights that accrue from occupation and use.

Thus, the government pays for the creation of new residential and commercial buildings (although they're actually built by private firms). The government at least pays for and probably directly maintains existing buildings.

Individuals have the alienable and revocable-for-cause right to occupy and use property. This right is alienable: the occupants can sell their right to occupy and use property to others. This right is also revocable for cause, on due process of law: an occupant has certain obligations and restrictions on the occupancy and use of property. The occupants cannot, for example, allow the property to deteriorate or be a hazard to others.

Although the right to occupy is alienable, it is owned only by physical possession. The monetary value of this right can be realized only by a transfer of possession. It cannot be owned or attached by anyone other than the occupant. (The right of occupancy can be attached by the government; in some circumstances, the government will probably provide credit to individuals to purchase the right of occupancy, and can, with due process, evict occupants for non-payment.)

Occupants pay "rent", more properly considered property taxes. Non-payment of rent (difficult, but not impossible) is grounds for coercive collection or eviction. (Eviction will occur only for relatively expensive housing when the occupants have had a decline in income.) The purpose of rent is to drain approximately as much money as the government injects to build and maintain property. The exact amounts collected in rent and spent in building and maintenance is a matter of government fiscal policy, dependent on immediate circumstances.

As best I can tell, the United States spends about \$1 trillion per year on all construction (residential, commercial/industrial, and government). Even trebling that number, it looks like total rent should average about 15 percent of disposable income, which is considerably less than the more-or-less modern standard of 33 percent of total income.

Every family is entitled to housing with rent of 15 percent of the minimum standard week's disposable income, within a reasonable distance of the working adults' jobs. There is residential rent control: a family occupying a dwelling cannot have its rent raised more than twice the inflation rate. There's no commercial/industrial rent control; raising rent is one way for local governments to force less-profitable firms to make way for more profitable firms. (The other way is to starve less profitable firms of circulating capital.)

For example, given a 24 hour minimum work week at 1 SVU per hour and a 12 SVU per week income tax, a two-parent family with two children would have an minimum disposable income of 36 SVU per week: 12 SVU per week per parent and 6 SVU per week per child. They would be entitled to housing at a rent of 15 percent of 36 SVU, or 5.4 SVU per week, or \$648 per month. Note that because rents are generally lower under democratic communism (since there are no landlords to extract economic rent), this corresponds roughly to a capitalist rent of about \$1500 per month, which is about the monthly rent of a small two- or three-bedroom home in the suburbs in my community.

Of course, people may spend more than the minimum on rent. If the parents of our example family above were to work 35 hours per week at 1 SVU per hour, then they would have a total disposable income of 58 SVU per week; if they spent 25% of their disposable income on rent (possibly including a loan for right of occupancy), they could spend \$1,740 per month for rent, almost three times the minimum.

All rent goes to the local government; all maintenance and construction is administered by the local government. The national government can add additional funding (from income taxes) for construction; they must do so if the demand for minimum housing exceeds the ability of the local government (which must run a balanced budget) to provide. If the people so choose, local governments can collect more in rent than they pay in construction and housing, with the extra money spent on other public goods (infrastructure, transportation, amenities, etc.).

There are still market forces operating on dwellings, but unlike capitalism, they are no economic rent-seeking incentives. If, for example, a lot of people want to move to a city (e.g. New York City or San Francisco), then they will be willing to offer existing residents a lot of money to purchase the right to occupy, providing an incentive for people to move out. They will also be willing to pay extra rent, giving the local government an incentive to build more housing. (Similarly for commercial/industrial rent.) Also, local governments can petition the national government for extra construction money; since (presumably) new residents of a city are being lured there by higher wages, they will pay more taxes, and it is in the interest of the national government to afford more housing to collect those taxes.

Unlike under capitalism, the asset value of all real property is exclusively in its ability to generate rent; since the government owns all real property, and cannot sell it, real property has no sale value. The government, therefore, has no incentive to leave real property unoccupied. (Indeed, it should probably be legal for anyone to occupy property unoccupied for more than a period of time (90 days?) and pay the minimum rent.) And, since rent in excess of maintenance and construction costs must be spent (local governments cannot save money), there is less of an incentive to raise rents to collect as much surplus value as possible.