Monday, June 29, 2015

democratic communism: interlude

I want to take a break from all the concrete policy suggestions for democratic communism to make some general points.

Democratic communism is not really communism, at least not the "higher phase" of communism Marx talks about in Gotha. Democratic communism is much closer to Lenin's concept of socialism: to each according to his or her labor. I could just call it "socialism", but I don't like what most people who call themselves "socialist" propose. "Socialist" Bernie Sanders, for example, is a lot less bad than Clinton, and if I were still registered as a Democrat, I might vote for him in the primaries, but he's still just a welfare state capitalist. He does not want to resolve what I consider to be the underlying contradiction: the private ownership of the means of production. He wants to regulate the capitalists, but the capitalists are the rulers, by definition beyond ordinary regulation.

My goal in thinking about democratic communism is to think about political and economic institutions that try to undermine the hold on political and economic power enjoyed by the capitalist class, and to think about institutions that will facilitate and maintain the workers' hold on political and economic power.

I want to avoid "technocracy", the hold on political power by the professional-managerial class, which I'm convinced actually happened in the United States from 1929 to 1980, and which I'm convinced decisively failed due to its own internal contradictions. I strongly suspect that the various failures of communism in the Soviet Union (devolving into Russian authoritarian kleptocracy) and China (devolving into state capitalism) are also due to the contradictions of technocracy. (What is a Communist Party besides a technocratic elite?)

I also want to avoid having a large number of people die from starvation and exposure.

If there ever is some kind of revolution, velvet or violent, the new society will inherit, if not the institutions themselves, many of which should and must be simply smashed, the institutional underpinnings, especially in the political psychology of the population. So I'm trying to think about about how new institutions will serve as a transition between a republican capitalist political psychology and a lower phase communist (Leninist socialist) regime.

I also want to avoid "utopianism", in both the philosophical and Marxist senses.

I arbitrarily label philosophical utopianism as the specification of a completely morally ordered society. I basically mean More's Utopia, Butler's Erewhon, and perhaps Bellamy's Looking Backward. Similarly, although Engels takes a different tack (see below), I think the authors that Engels discusses in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, are also philosophical utopians.

To a certain extent, it's hard to judge works of fiction. Not every moral tenet described in a fictional society must necessarily constitute what the author thinks of as a good society. Some tenets may simply be the author's speculation on how, given the structure of a good society, people might choose to behave. An author of fiction must be specific, even when he or she must be specific about a matter of arbitrary choice. For example, in Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach writes about a kind of a war game with spears; his protagonist is seriously injured in one such game. Does Callenbach include the game because that's an integral part of his ecological utopia, or from reasons of fictional verisimilitude?

In any case, my work here admits more vagueness than does a work of fiction. All choices are moral, and I can simply leave a lot of the choices to the individuals and the people. I'm imposing only a few moral choices on my hypothetical institutions. First, when in doubt, let the people decide in a democratic way. Second, no private absentee ownership over the means of production, either directly or indirectly by private ownership of the financial system. Third, no one deserves to live in misery or poverty. The only other norms I'm embedding are well-accepted norms of modern bourgeois society that are not worth smashing, for the sake of transition, for example the 40 hour week and non-discrimination on race, sex, etc.

The Marxist sense of utopianism is more subtle and harder to avoid. Engels' critique of utopian socialism is not that these societies specify a complete moral order, but that they do not emerge dialectically from existing capitalist society. The entire thrust of both Marx's and Engels' work is to try to scientifically predict what sort of society will emerge from the contradictions of capitalism, not to specify an abstract, free-floating moral order to which they believe society "should" comply.

To a certain extent, then, this exercise is completely utopian in the Marxist sense. Nothing in my work is actually emerging dialectically from the contradictions in 21st century capitalism, and I'm not even trying to analyze contradictions and scientifically establish how they will be resolved, nor am I trying (or advocate that others try) to actually implement my suggestions to empirically test whether or not they really do resolve existing contradictions.

But my project is not, perhaps, so grandiose. I'm not even saying how society should be organized. My project is more modest. I'm responding to the naive and superficial criticisms that communism and socialism cannot possibly work, that they must necessarily devolve to tyranny and/or abject poverty. Capitalist apologists claim that, as bad as capitalism might be (and it's really not that bad), There Is No Alternative that is not far worse.

This criticism comes in two broad threads: deontic and pragmatic. The deontic thread is that only capitalism fulfills liberty, that a system that cuts off the freedom to exploit others necessarily cuts off all freedom. Slavery is inevitable; the only choice we have is who are the slave-owners, and capitalists are the best slave owners we can possibly have, much better than kings, feudal lords, egghead academics, tyrannical demagogues, or any other possible alternative.

There's not much I can do about the moral argument. I reject the central premise: I do not believe that slavery is inevitable. There's nothing more to say. Hence, I address the second thread: communism would be nice, but it cannot work out in practice. And so I reply: here's one possible way it really could work in practice. It could still fail — anything can fail, with enough bad luck or active opposition — but I think my ideas are solid enough so that failure is not, as the critics claim, absolutely guaranteed just by how everything is set up.

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