Friday, August 17, 2018

Tony Judt, What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?

Moral corruption

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages. — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments ch. III

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Historical materialism

The scenario imagined not only by the right but by some on the left starts with a good-enough society. There are real problems, some of them quite serious, but on the whole most people are working, eating, having fun, raising families, not rioting in the streets. But the socialists condemn this society as profoundly immoral. So they recruit a few hundred people, and get some guns. They storm the capital, arrest and imprison (or worse) the government, and install themselves as the new government. They then impose a more moral society on the recalcitrant population. Which, of course, completely fails, making society worse off than it was before.

The paradigmatic "real-world" narrative is, of course, the Russian Revolution. Russia has some real problems, some of them quite serious: notably, they are doing quite poorly in WW I under the Kerensky government. However, they are a functioning society. Lenin, however, after being infected by the Marxist brain worm, decides that he cannot tolerate the immorality of Russia's burgeoning capitalism. He assembles and arms a few hundred Bolsheviks, arrests the Kerensky government, and imposes Communism on the recalcitrant Russian people. A successful defense against a Western invasion, conquering an empire starting with only wood for fuel, becoming a nuclear power, developing a somewhat successful space program notwithstanding, Russia under Lenin and his successors starts off a complete failure and only deteriorates from there, proving that anything other than laissez-faire capitalism can do nothing but doom society to poverty and misery.

For those of you who unable to detect the creeping sarcasm, the above is complete and total bullshit. The first paragraph does not represent how any social change, much less a social change to socialism, actually happens. The second paragraph is not at all how the Russian Revolution happened.

There's another scenario: human society is making progress. Not any old progress (which is just the trivially true change over time), but a certain kind of progress. Our society today is better than it was 100 years ago, and that society was better than it was 500 years ago, which was it was a 1000 years ago, and so on. The progress has not been linear of course; there have been interregna and backsliding, but overall society has been progressing. We are not yet at an ideal society, but we are closer than we were. And progress towards an ideal society might be asymptotic, but we should be closer still in another century.

This scenario too is bullshit, albeit more subtle bullshit. There's no objective way to evaluate any society. Most of us like our own society because it's the society we were indoctrinated as children to like. And, of course, those of us with privilege like our society because we have privilege; therefore, we believe we deserve privilege, and it would be an injustice to lose that privilege to those less deserving. We see our society as closer to the ideal than any other kind of society just because it is what we actually have, not because it actually is closer to some mythic ideal.

Historical Materialism

Marx himself believed his great contribution to the world of ideas was not class struggle (Smith and Ricardo precede him) but the idea of historical materialism, which hardly anyone really understands or takes seriously. I take historical materialism seriously. I'm not sure I myself understand it, but I will share my thoughts anyway.

The "materialism" part means that human beings are constantly faced with material (concrete, real-world) problems presented by the environment Which berries are good to eat, and which will cause sickness or death? How can I kill this beast and eat its tasty flesh? What do we do about that asshole who hogs all the good food?

The "historical" part means that we reproduce these solutions in consecutive generations. Our children don't have to think too hard about the solutions their parents came up with, at least the solutions that work well enough. One specific part of these historical solutions are patterns of social relations. Hunter gatherers get used to one pattern of relating to each other, pastoral, horticultural, agricultural, and industrial societies get used to their own specific patterns.

Marx argues* that the material problems of the production (as well as distribution and consumption) of material stuff are of if not exclusive then at least primary importance and these problems "determine" (or at least strongly constrain) historically transmitted social relations. In other words, the means of production determine the social relations of production.

*Marx might not really argue what I say he argues. I put the arguments in his mouth not only to lend them additional authority but also because I present my understanding of Marx's arguments with considerable and possibly undeserved charity.

We have heritable variation and natural selection, so we expect that the "determinism" is in some sense evolutionary. Specifically, patterns of social relations that have relatively better (more or better distributed) material production will have a selective advantage over patterns with relative worse production.

Marx argues that "materialism" means that big changes in the means of production cause big changes in the patterns of social relations rather than the opposite. Marx further argues "historical" means that the the specific character of the pattern of social relations obtaining at any specific time and place as the means of production are undergoing a big change there cause the specific pattern of changes to the social relations of production in response to the changes in the means of production.

(Please remember social scientists look at causality very differently from physical scientists: societies have orders of magnitudes more moving parts than even the most complex engineering projects. I will try to be more precise in more detailed explanations, but for here, causality in the weak sociological sense, as opposed to the the physical or even economic sense, is sufficient.)

Although this basic description is good enough for now, we can improve this theory considerably (notably that social relations can also cause changes to the means of production, hence the alternative label of dialectical materialism). I will also discuss some good and bad criticisms of historical materialism elsewhere. Here, I want here to discuss some implications of Marx's theory assuming he's really on to something worthwhile.

One implication is the denial of idealistic progression as mentioned above. We do not, we cannot, improve society by coming up with radically new and better patterns of social relations. Instead, we change our patterns of social relations in response to changes in the means of production. Briefly, Adam Smith and capitalism did not cause industrialization; industrialization in the specific historical context of late 18th and 19th century Europe, especially Great Britain, caused capitalism and Adam Smith. Similarly, if we end up with something like "socialism", it will not be because we imposed a socialist pattern of social relations on a more-or-less working capitalist society, but because capitalist society has itself created the conditions for revolution.


Revolutions happen because of the specific way we create social systems. Human beings rarely think everything through from first principles: that's a prohibitively cognitively expensive way to solve most problems. Instead, we "reason" by habit, analogy, and tradition. If the means of production are relatively stable, then social relations will stabilize and reach a local maximum of productive efficiency. However, when big changes to the means of production happen (whether exogenously or endogenously), the regime of social relations of production are adapted to the old means of production. We retain this old regime out of habit and tradition.

Marx argues that new patterns social relations better adapted to the new means of production emerge within the old pattern. Because social relations generally entail power differentials, those with more power under the old regime are loathe to change it, protecting their power with even the most frightful violence. But because the new regime is more economically efficient, it has a real opportunity to successfully overthrow the old, but usually only after violent struggle.

Coda: The Bolshevik Revolution

In Russia in 1917, the Tsar lost legitimacy and abdicated, Kerensky's bourgeois "democratic republic" lost legitimacy, and everyone else, including the soviets, lacked the power or will to form a government. The Bolsheviks were not just a few (or even a few hundred) people: they had influence and popularity across Russia. Once literally everyone who might have had more power bowed out, only the Bolsheviks had sufficient legitimacy to form a government. So they did. And then they started solving Russia's considerable problems. From that effort arose Soviet communism, with all its pros and cons.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Intractable problems

In In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You, Cosma Shalizi makes a good case that the optimization problem for a national economy is more-or-less computationally intractable. This news does not come as any kind of a surprise to me.

But so what? Intractable problems are intractable. It doesn't matter if we call this or that heuristic "capitalism" or "socialism"; because we know that it is impossible to calculate what the "optimum" economy looks like, we know that neither capitalism nor central-planning communism (I refuse to call these synonyms) nor anything else is going to deliver an optimum economy.

It's worth repeating for emphasis: intractable problems are intractable: there is no way to find a solution even if it were known that a solution exists. If capitalism could solve the optimization problem, then the optimization problem would not be intractable. But it is intractable, so capitalism can't solve it any better than central-planning communism.

I really don't know much about the actually existing economies of the USSR or of the Maoist PRC. I have very little information: the East wasn't talking, and the West wasn't listening. What little information is available is so obviously biased I can't put together an historical narrative reliable enough to draw general conclusions.

But maybe we can draw some general conclusions from information theory. We can't solve the economy, but we can employ heuristics to make it good enough, and give directions for improvement. The key is, of course, feedback and a dynamic rather than a static view. We need to implement intentional inefficiency, i.e. redundancy and slack (unused capacity).

The Internet, for example, is "ideal" in a sense precisely because it is inefficient. It is inefficient, for example, to have multiple paths from Denver to San Francisco; it would be more efficient to have only one path, which was optimized to provide exactly the required throughput. Instead we have many paths, none of which operate at full capacity.

Capitalists argue that capitalism is such a feedback system, and the "anarchy of capitalism" affords precisely the required redundancy and slack. Partially granted. But capitalism is not the only possible feedback system, and the "anarchy of capitalism" is not the only way to afford redundancy and slack.

Worse yet, Marx and Lenin argue* that even in its ideal form, capitalism, while yes, a dynamic feedback-oriented system, and yes, far better than mercantilism or feudalism, is still a "bad" system, prone to destructive positive feedback (financial crises) and the tendency to monopolism, which destroys beneficial redundancy and slack. (Marx levels many other charges against capitalism, but the above are especially pertinent here.)

*You know what I mean.

I am generally agnostic at an ideological level about "mechanisms". The important differences between capitalism, socialism, and communism are not differences about methods, static or dynamic, feedback-oriented or command-oriented, etc. Static top-down methods are probably not particularly useful, since they are brittle: either exactly right or disastrously wrong. (In what little information I've seen about the economy of the USSR that I don't completely dismiss as hopelessly tendentious, Western economists argued that effective feedback systems did evolve in the supposedly rigid and inviolable Soviet central planning mechanism.)

Any time we're dealing with a heuristic, we have to ask, good enough for whom? Improving for whom? By what measures? What do we mean by "efficiency"? What are the numerator and denominator? The answers to these questions are more easily answered with algorithmic solutions: they're right there in the specification of the problem. They're harder to answer with dynamic feedback systems, because the answers often emerge from the feedback mechanism itself, and emerge in non-obvious ways. Moreover: how does the system provide enough positive feedback to grow, but enough negative feedback to not grow pathologically or self-destructively?

And I think the important differences between capitalism and socialism are that the former answers, good enough for the bourgeoisie, and the latter, good enough for the proletariat. The rest is implementation detail.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Don't be a d-ck

Brad DeLong gets it right: (Early) Monday Smackdown: Bard College Has a Quality Control Problem Here: Roger Berkowitz Needs to Learn to Quote Fairly and Accurately

I think that almost every discussion about "cultural appropriation" should be, instead, a discussion about: "don't be a d-ck". Clarifies matters immeasurably.

The brilliant national treasure Roxane Gay is, in my opinion, 100% correct when she writes: "stay in your lane.... The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and effort..." That is not "being a d-ck". But When I read these exchanges (and Jennifer Schuessler's piece), I think Jennifer, Nina, and Burleigh are all being d-cks—especially Roger Berkowitz, who I think is being a major a--hole here, and doing so while claiming to be the heir and channeler of Hannah Arendt. . . .

[I]t is distinctly odd that [Roxanne Gay] is being accused of being too confident about her opinions, and is being held up as some authority over what is and is not legitimate to publish. It is (still) a free country. People can do what they want. People need to understand how their work is going to be read, to be able to handle those readings and the responses they generate, and to think about whether all of that together is moving the ball downfield.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The base alloy of hypocrisy

"When it comes to [anti-immigration nativism,] I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. — Abraham Lincoln, qtd. by Manisha Sinha

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The superficial criticism of communism

Museum Pieces

focusing attention exclusively on the failings of "Communism" is a great way to allow people of a certain mindset to walk out thinking, "See? Communism sucked!" without prompting any kind of reflection about the system we live in now. Because aside from the obvious gap in ability to make cheap shit to fill store shelves, every criticism in the entire museum was as applicable to modern capitalism as to Soviet-style communism.

Oh, under communism lots of people were imprisoned? People didn't feel free? Government was corrupt and unresponsive? Wow interesting tell me more. Through that lens even the line of argument that capitalism is awesome for consumption looks a little wobbly; "Most people couldn't get the things they wanted or needed" sounds an awful lot like "Most people can't afford the things they want or need" and the difference is semantic [sic]. I guess if the reason people end up under-provided for is the most important thing to you, that argument is worth having. In practice it isn't.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If I had any money, I would donate to her campaign. But she is not, as Jacob Silverman claims, "an inflection point in Democratic politics."

She probably won't be elected, and if elected probably won't serve more than a term or two, but if she survives, she'll be corrupted by power. Everyone becomes corrupted, no matter how idealistic they start out.

I don't mean corruption in the legal sense; I'm not saying she'll eventually take bribes or something like that. But the Democratic party and the House of Representatives are institutions, and every institution exerts a powerful moral force on its members, and expel those who fundamentally resist its moral core. And the moral core of the HoR and Democratic party is to preserve corporate capitalism at any cost.

If elected, her choice will become plain: appease the corporations and retire to a cushy job on a few boards of directors or as a lobbyist, or oppose them, be buried, and go back to waiting tables for subsistence wages. Courage doesn't enter into it: it's not "courageous" in any sense, it's just pointless stupidity, to sacrifice oneself for no gain. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not going to drag the Democratic party one inch towards even New Deal social democracy, much less a socialist utopia.

I kinda hope she does sell out. She's not going to change anything, so she might as well cash in. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery a lot more comfortable.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Socialist economics part 3

part 1
part 2


A socialist economy is a temporary and unequal (but less unequal than capitalism) economic system where people receive not just their cost of living, but the more-or-less full value their labor. From this position, we can begin to work towards the precursors of a communist economy discussed in part 2.


We presently have a capitalist economy. We want to get to a communist economy, i.e. "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." How do we get from point A to point B? And how do we get there without just destroying everything and starting over from scratch, from an subsistence agrarian economy?

We have to start with a bit of theory: Marx's distinction between labor and labor power. Labor is the actual production* that a person performs; labor power is the ability to do that actual production. Labor power requires labor: a person must eat food, live in a house, wear clothes, drink water, dispose of their waste, etc., and people (usually other people) must use their time and effort to produce all of these requirements. Critically, an hour** of labor power takes less than an hour of labor to produce. Surplus labor, then, is the difference between the labor a person can perform and the labor required to generate the ability to perform that labor.

*There's considerably more theory underlying this paragraph, but I think we have a good enough starting point.

**I'm being deliberately vague about my units, but "hour" is sufficient to get the idea across.

The fundamental pillar of capitalism is that the capitalist pays "fair market value" for a worker's labor power, i.e. the social cost of the worker's ability to work, and receives all the labor thus created. The surplus labor is the ultimate source of the capitalist's profit.

Therefore, socialist economics must start by undermining this fundamental pillar of capitalism: a worker should receive, at a first approximation*, the value of their labor, not the cost of their labor power. If I work eight hours to produce stuff for other people, I should receive stuff — including the food, shelter, etc. that I need to generate tomorrow's labor power — that other people expended eight hours to produce.

*Marx offers a more detailed accounting in Gotha ch 1.

Marx claims (again in Gotha) that this change, from a worker receiving the cost of their labor power to receiving the value of their labor, is not enough. A worker who can worker longer with more intensity, or who is privileged to produce more desirable goods will receive more than a worker who cannot work as long, with as much intensity, or who is condemned to produce less desirable goods. Marx argues that this inequality is temporarily unavoidable, because we start with a capitalist economy. However, Marx argues we absolutely should not accept this temporary measure as our ultimate goal: it is just the platform to begin to dismantle "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor."