Sunday, February 03, 2013

Peter Dorman on the S-word

According to Peter Dorman's The S-word (Socialism), Capitalism suffers from four flaws. First, Dorman complains that capitalism emphasizes extrinsic motivation over intrinsic motivation; we cannot do without some extrinsic motivation (people need to do what needs to be done, regardless of what they want to do), but we should be moving towards increasing intrinsic motivation (people doing what they want to do). Second, Dorman asserts that capitalism entails a lack of equality. We are not, of course, all the same, and perfect equality is unobtainable (and undesirable), but we could be much more equal than we are today. Third, Dorman claims that capitalism seems to erode the sense of social control over our lives. Markets are one form of social control, and for some things, like making the right kinds and numbers of shoes, markets are probably the best form of social control. But there are a lot of things, such as global warming, that markets are failing badly to control. Finally, capitalism necessarily creates a small privileged class, the 0.01%, that command most of society's resources. Most reforms seem to founder on the opposition of this class. Dorman believes there are good arguments for both incremental reform and wholesale revolution to address these problems of capitalism. There is, he asserts, a continuum of levels of change; but there are qualitative as well as quantitative differences as we increase the scope of change. I concur mostly with Dorman's evaluation; I differ with him only in that I do not think capitalism can be reformed.

Of course, for those of us such as myself who have abandoned the idea that capitalism can substantively change, the argument for revolution looks a lot stronger. The top 10-20% or so control almost all of the social surplus. It is they who make the vast majority of decisions about what and how much we will produce; the bottom 80-90% are just trying to stay alive in the world the capitalist rule. No social reform will succeed that fails to offer one faction in the top 10-20% a substantial advantage over their intra-class rivals; a reform that threatens, even obliquely, the fundamental social authority of the capitalist class to rule absolutely, e.g. financial regulation, will be ruthlessly and violently suppressed. Our society will decline in liberty, well-being, autonomy, and dignity until we completely destroy the authority of those who own money. Indeed, to my mind, the question is not if we will smash their authority, but when.

But there's a more important question even than when: who will take power from the capitalist class? Bad as they are, the capitalists are not the worst class ever to rule the world. Those who protect the capitalists against their most obvious extra-class opponents, the socialists and communists, risk empowering the fascists and theocrats, who have power bases nearly immune to rational inquiry. The fascists and theocrats can be defeated, but only when the intelligentsia are united against them. If capitalism had a hope of surviving and not destroying itself, that would be a good argument for supporting capitalism despite its flaws, but when it is clearly degenerating, it is time to find and argue for a new system.

In the post, Dorman claims he is agnostic about specific social structures, but the character of social structures and institutions are precisely the sort of thing we need to be thinking about. It is all well and good to say that we want more intrinsic motivation, more equality, more social control, and a less differentiated class structure, but how can we construct our social structures and political-economic institutions to actually deliver those objectives? Fundamentally, I am trying to figure out how we can construct our social, political, and economic institutions to most effectively deliver what Dorman and I both want.

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