Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Communism 101: Overview

Communism 101 - or - A summary of what I've learned about economics and politics during a year of directed reading and thinking, and half a lifetime of moving around in the world.

Chapter 1: Overview

The Importance of Labor

We can usefully study how human beings relate to each other overall by recognizing the fundamental role played by economics, the use of human time and effort — i.e. labor — to produce "value". We have to work to live; the Randians and Libertarians are correct at least that if we don't stay alive, as a species, as cultures and nations, and as individuals, there is no one around to have any values at all. Historically, the vast majority of individuals' time has been used to produce the material necessities for individual survival and reproduction; this observation is true not only of humans, but of all life forms: modern scientific ecology shares many substantial features with economics.

Labor and Social Relations

A unique feature of human beings is that we can think about economics, and, more importantly, use that thinking directly to change our economic behavior much more quickly — by many orders of magnitude — than the slow accretion of instinctive behavior afforded by genetic, biological evolution. Furthermore by evolutionary heritage we focus on cooperative economic strategies. (It makes little difference whether this focus is a deep result of biological evolution — i.e. if only a cooperative species can evolve sapience — or an accident of evolutionary history — the fundamental economic strategies would probably be very different had an historically solitary species like tigers, or an historically "subordinationist" species like ants or bees, evolved sapience. Regardless of the causal reasons, we are where are.)

So, as a species, we create social relations that directly affect our cooperative economic activity. We also create social relations that do not directly affect our economic activity.

Given the above, we can separate our analysis of human social relations into three broad domains: the means of production, the economic relations, and the political superstructure.

The means of production consists of the physical tools we use to create the material necessities of life, the physical environment, e.g. soil, water, and air, the plants and animals we use, our own physical bodies; and most importantly our objective knowledge about the world: the knowledge of how to make tools, when to plant, what to weed, when to reap, how to convert plants into food, etc.

The economic relations consists of social constructs that groups of people follow in order to cooperate economically in the production of "value", including ideas about ownership, inheritance, the "work ethic", and division of labor by sex and caste.

The political superstructure consists of the social constructs that do not directly affect economic behavior (although they usually indirectly affect economic behavior) including manners, some political/legal ideals, principles, structures and practices, etc.

Dialectical Materialism

These domains interact according to the principles of dialectical materialism. I do not fully understand dialectical materialism, and I am not yet convinced that any canonical communist writers fully understand dialectical materialism. However, some broad, basic principles seem comprehensible.

The materialist paradigm rejects the idea that there is some sort of transcendent ideal to which our economic and political social relations hew closer and closer to over time, by some sort of direct interaction between those ideals and human thought (Platonic dualism) or by some properties of the ideas themselves somehow independent of the material world of rocks and trees (Hegelian dialectical idealism*). Therefore everything that happens in the world of politics and economics must somehow happen because of inherent properties of physical, material reality.

*As best I understand Hegel, i.e. poorly

There are two views within materialism: mechanical materialism and "progressive" materialism. Mechanical materialism holds that nothing substantively changes: everything that happens has always happened and always will happen; only the superficial and irrelevant appearances change. "Progressive" materialism holds that things really do change and evolve in a substantive way. Dialectical materialism is — as best I understand it — a specific paradigm about how and why things change.

As applied to economics and politics, dialectical materialism — as best I understand it — holds that the most fundamental change comes from "contradictions" — i.e. conflicts and tensions that are not superficially reconcilable — between the fundamental domains of social behavior, most especially contradictions between the means of production and economic relations.


  1. Dude, this shit is fucking great! I look forward to the rest of the series!

    Therefore everything that happens in the world of politics and economics must somehow happen because of inherent properties of physical, material reality.

    This is undoubtedly true as a matter of causality. As usual, I will take this oportunity to point out, however, that this basic fact concerning the material nature of reality does not entail that "everything that happens in the world of politics and economics" can be explained solely in terms of general physical laws. Rather, explaining and understanding biological, psychological, social, economic, and political reality requires--in addition to general physical laws--a detailed analysis of the contingencies of the history of life on the Earth.

  2. Indeed, Comrade. I was intentionally vague by invoking "inherent properties" rather than general physical laws for two reasons. One is, as you note, that those properties appear in some sense to include randomness and contingency. Second, "general physicals laws" as a causal mechanism uses idealistic language (i.e. speaking of those laws as independently existent); when I go deeper into dialectical materialism as a philosophical paradigm, I'll talk about about general physical laws as descriptions emergent from the inherent properties of the physical world and their "contradictory" interaction.

  3. The thing I've never quite understood about Marxism was the labor theory of value. It seems doubtful that labor per se has value unless it is desired. A person could do something incredibly labor intensive that, due to lack of demand, would have no economic value (e.g. the proverbial hole dug to China). It always seemed to me that demand, not labor, determined value, the value of work being dependent on the demand for said work.

  4. Adam Smith, a capitalist economist, invented the labor theory of value; it was elaborated by David Ricardo, also a capitalist economist.

    The labor theory of value does not state that all human effort is intrinsically valuable; it states the converse: that all value is created by human effort.

    Even the theory of surplus value (the difference between the cost and the productivity of labor) is, IIRC, invented by Ricardo.

  5. The next installment of this series will feature a more detailed analysis of economic relations in general and specifically capitalist economic relations.

  6. Marx himself takes credit only very specific findings, one of which appears to be false (or true only on an indefinite time-scale):

    And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with the particular, historical phases in the development of production (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. -

    V.I. Lenin, quoting Marx in The State and Revolution, chapter 2, section 3

  7. This series of vids might be of use I think.

    it states the converse: that all value is created by human effort.An objection here. The Labour theory of value cannot claim that, as there are undeniable valuable things that are not created by human labour. Rather, As far as I understand it, the LTV means that the exchange value of all human created items, is directly linked to the labour required to produce them.

  8. "The labor theory of value does not state that all human effort is intrinsically valuable; it states the converse: that all value is created by human effort."

    I was aware of the labor theory of value's origins in Smith, but my impression had been that most mainstream economists today has rejected it, at least in certain senses.

    It seems, still, that demand is the factor which makes certain kinds of labor valuable. It seems somewhat arbitrary to separate labor and demand in determining value. I don't see how labor can create value in something which was previously undesired. It might make something in order to fulfill a desire, but the labor itself does not seem to create value. Rather, it creates things for which there is a pre-existing demand.

  9. db0: Your formulation is somewhat more precise. To be even more precise, the LTV states that all economically relevant value is caused by human labor (even if the labor consists of picking fruit from a tree, chewing, swallowing and digesting it).

    The LTV entails that everything else being equal, exchange value at equilibrium of any commodities are equal to the socially necessary labor time necessary to produce those commodities.

  10. It seems, still, that demand is the factor which makes certain kinds of labor valuable. -

    Yes, this is correct, and Marx does not dispute this assertion. He phrases the assertion in a slightly different manner, defining "labor" as human effort that produces use value (i.e. demand); effort which does not produce use value is not "labor".

    I will go into these issues in more depth in the next installment of the series.


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